Thursday 30 October 2008

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Back in 1933, what seems like everyone who would become anyone in English film appeared in this Alexander Korda production. Korda wasn't new to the business, as he'd been producing since 1923 and directing since 1914 back in his native land of Hungary (or Austria-Hungary as it was then), but he's known today as an English film magnate, one of the various Kordas who dominated English cinema for a while. This is an early one, the one that broke them to a wider audience, before Rembrandt, The Thief of Bagdad or The Four Feathers. Then again, how could they go wrong with a cast like this, especially with Charles Laughton in the Oscar winning title role, the first time the award travelled beyond American shores.

Henry VIII was a legendary king of England, whose legendary status extends well beyond his six legendary marriages, that form the focus of this film. We enter at the end of wife number two, wife number one being dismissed with a single title card: Catherine of Aragon 'was a respectable woman,' it tells us, 'So Henry divorced her.' We never meet her but we meet the succeeding five, played in succession by no lesser actors than Merle Oberon (later to become Mrs Alexander Korda), Wendy Barrie, Elsa Lanchester (Laughton's own wife), Binnie Barnes and Everley Gregg. That's not a bad run!

They're all excellent, though to inevitably different degrees given their variable amounts of screen time, but some are marvellous, not least Binnie Barnes as Catherine Howard, the ambitious young lady who throws herself at the king in order to gain the crown, even though she really loves one of his court. The real object of her affection is Thomas Culpeper, played by a young Robert Donat, looking at least fifty years younger than he soon would in Goodbye Mr Chips. I wonder how much he learned from Laughton's performance here. Catherine Howard gets her shot after a slew of others: Henry divorces 'the clever' Catherine of Aragon, then beheads 'the ambitious' Anne Boleyn and 'the stupid' Jane Seymour dies during childbirth.

In between Jane Seymour and Catherine Howard is Anne of Cleves, a German who Henry marries for political reasons. She's a joy to watch in the hands of Elsa Lanchester, an astounding actress who was never given the respect she deserved, probably because she had the audacity to appear in a horror movie of all things, and in the title role no less! Then again Bride of Frankenstein has been cited more than once as the best of the genre and I'm not going to argue too hard against that judgement. On the flipside her husband had already made two: The Old Dark House and Island of Lost Souls and he went from strength to strength for another decade at least.

Here Lanchester is a memorable queen with a gloriously malleable face underneath her bonnet and she's the only person in this film who really works on the same page as Henry and outplays him at his own games, literally. 'The things I've done for England!' he sighs as he enters the bedchamber on their wedding night, only to end up losing to her at cards, then organising their divorce and setting up the next marriage. Henry may let both his nurse (played by Lady Tree, who looks and acts remarkably like Monty Python's Terry Jones in a dress) and his final wife Catherine Parr boss him around but that's very much according to his whim. Anne of Cleves is the only one who could do it outside of his intention. A night of cards with her and he's bellowing for money to cover his losses.

And as much as you'd expect Laughton to bellow as the large and boisterous Henry VIII, which he does, this role provides far more than bellowing. It's a really great part for an actor: the entire film revolves around it and the rest of the cast are as deferential as you'd expect when interacting with a king who beheaded two wives. Laughton is superb and his Oscar was well deserved, even in the fascinating precode year of 1933. He runs through the gamut of emotion, depending on the scene and who he's acting with or against.

He stalks around exuding danger to all nearby; then struts with a different sense of danger in mind. He roars with laughter at his own jokes, breaks down in tears at news of his wife's adultery, tiptoes to find her suite for a rendezvous, combing his beard for her. He has his black moods though, when the world goes silent for fear of giving offense. He wrestles on the banquet hall floor to demonstrate his virility to his new wife, even with half a century behind him, and he rants about manners and lack of modern delicacy. 'Refinement's a thing of the past,' he says throwing hunks of chicken over his shoulder.

The film zips by so quickly that you hardly have time to note that it's a full 97 minutes in length. The script, by Lajos Biró, another Austro-Hungarian ex pat in London, is packed with choice little nuggets of dialogue. 'Elizabeth will never learn to rule a kitchen,' he cries, referring to the future Elizabeth I; the barber can't say anything right, whatever his intentions; French and English executioners bicker over who gets to take Anne Boleyn's head and why. Scripts like this one are to be treasured and Laughton obviously did so, taking full advantage of its opportunities to forge an international name for himself. Another treat from Korda, Laughton, Lanchester and the rest.

Tuesday 28 October 2008

Indiscreet (1958)

Noted stage actress Anna Kalman is back from a winter away in Majorca, but it obviously wasn't up to what she expected it to be because she only lasted ten days. The colonel she wrote so enthusiastically of to her sister Margaret only knows about ten words and not the right ones, so back comes Anna to London to bemoan the situation to the servants who keep her hotel suite. As Margaret tries to persuade her out to a banquet that evening to lift her spirits, in walks Cary Grant and the world turns upside down.

Anna Kalman is played by Ingrid Bergman and Grant is a diplomat called Philip Adams, and the entire film is carried by their performances. Adams is as suave and dignified as you'd expect anyone played by Cary Grant to be, and with as much of his patented charm, and he's in London to speak at a banquet. Margaret's husband wants to hook him for a job at NATO in Paris and he couldn't have found a better incentive than Anna who is immediately entranced. She not only attends the banquet but sits there rivetted as he prattles on about hard currencies. Soon they're romantically entangled, he takes the suite below hers and flies back every weekend to be with her.

However he's also open about the fact that he is married. He's separated from his wife and can't possibly get a divorce, and the fact that this is the fashionable line of the year doesn't stop him from telling her and politely taking his leave. He would appear to be chivalrous enough to be honest and not willing to exploit a lady, but there are a number of twists and turns here, as you may expect for what might appear otherwise only a slight story and for material that began as a play by Norman Krasna, called Kind Sir. Krasna also turned it into a screenplay for Stanley Donen to direct. The few veiled Garbo references would suggest a tragic story but that isn't the intention.

Indiscreet is a decent play adaptation, one that doesn't remain stagebound. The story is very focused with everything tied into this one relationship, the cast is very small and there are very few speaking roles with only Grant and Bergman getting any substantial screen time. This gives them plenty of opportunity to flesh out their characters and they both give decent performances. However the story never engaged for me. I enjoyed the romance and how clever little touches brought the characters to life. There's much that rings very true here. Yet the shenanigans at the end seem forced and out of character, not wrong per se but a little hopeful nonetheless. Many would buy the last five minutes happily; I felt them a stretch.

I also enjoyed the way the film was shot with a number of scenes raising a smile purely in the way the camera moves or the scene was set. However there's only one really innovative and clever setup, when Adams first rings Anna from Paris. This phone call has become a nightly ritual as Big Ben chimes midnight, but it becomes special because of a clever use of split screen. He's in bed in Paris and she's in bed in London, but they appear very much to be in the same bed next to each other, their movements seeming to interact. Separated physically, they're nonetheless very much in the same mental space. I've been there before and treasure both the feeling and this attempt to put something so insubstantial on screen. It's also certainly one innovative way to get round the Production Code.

Friday 24 October 2008

Mon Oncle (1958)

Much slower than 1953's Mr Hulot's Holiday, but just as subtle, this is Jacques Tati's attempt to look at the dehumanising aspect of technology in much the same way as Chaplin in Modern Times or his predecessor René Clair in À nous la liberté aka Freedom for Us. It follows Mr Hulot's fundamental incompatibility with the technology that his sister and her family have designed into their lives. It's far from a preachy film but the message it carries is even more applicable today than in 1958 when the film was released, to much acclaim including an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Hulot lives in a very organic part of the city, in a building that seems to have been a few buildings cobbled together into one. Everything here is decidedly low tech: children play with tyres and barrels, adults travel by bicycle or by horse and cart, street vendors cook at the side of the road. As you'd expect from the detail-oriented Tati, there are little touches everywhere here. Hulot can make a neighbouring bird sing just by angling his window just right; there's a street sweeper who is always about to sweep something but never does; a fruit and veg salesman who scams his customers through clever use of a flat tire.

Hulot's nephew, Gerard Arpel, is very much a part of this world too, playing cleverly timed pranks with the kids in Hulot's neighbourhood using nothing but water, dirt and their imagination. I'd love to be able to play that joyous whistling game, however twisted it is, but alas I can't whistle. Here's the incentive for me to learn! Gerard is as out of place in his parent's house as Hulot is. His parents obviously love him but they can't connect: the first time we hear him laugh is when Mr Hulot gives him a toy.

Mr and Mrs Arpel live in the world of technology. Their house is a joyous depiction of fifties futurism, where everything is stylised, artistic and mechanised. It's entirely free of such things as handles, because things open at the press of a button or the wave of a hand, whether it be a main gate, a kitchen cupboard or what might just be the ugliest garden fountain I've ever seen. 'It's modern,' they say. 'Everything's connected.' Needless to say Mr Hulot wreaks chaos whenever he connects with this technology: at a garden party thrown so Mrs Arpel attempts an insane matchmaking exercise, at the Plastec plant at which Mr Arpel gives him a job or in trying to get rid of the pipe that he created there back in his own world. And it's in this chaos that we find our film.

I was very happy to find that Tati continued to work in the style that he demonstrated so well in Mr Hulot's Holiday and which had its roots as far back as Jour de fête. It's a sound film but that doesn't mean it sounds like you'd expect. Much of the film is told in sound but that doesn't mean dialogue and we don't hear too much of that. I love this approach and could watch and listen for hours. On the face of it Mon Oncle doesn't appear to be as memorable or as subtly resonant as Mr Hulot's Holiday, but these films are deceptive. I'm going to be fascinated to see how these Jacques Tati films grow over viewings but I believe they're going to sink into the soul. Right now the difference is that I've seen Mr Hulot's Holiday three times but Mon Oncle only once.

I should add that I don't quite get the meaning of the dogs. They're everywhere in this film, as prominent as the children, and I'm not sure why. Some of them have very specific purposes at very specific points in the film, that's for sure, but there are far more of them around than that. Perhaps Dakky the dachsund is merely a canine equivalent to Gerard, choosing to leave his world of technology to chase around with the dogs who are still free. Oh well, let's see what sense it makes next time. It's a Jacques Tati: I'll return to it again and again.

No More Orchids (1932)

In many ways this is a role reversal version and pure opposite of Brief Moment, the last Carole Lombard film I watched, made a year later with Gene Raymond. In that film he was a spoiled and drunken millionaire's son living on his allowance and she was a nightclub singer that he fell for. This time out it's Carole Lombard who's a spoiled and drunken millionaire's daughter living on her allowance and her co-star Lyle Talbot plays a lawyer working for her grandfather who doesn't want anything to do with such a spoiled brat.

The big difference is that this one is full of the charm and affection that made films like this magnetic and seem to avoid films like Brief Moment entirely. Part of that is certainly because it's Lombard doing the pursuing and the changing. Partly though it's just written so much better, providing the characters with far more depth, likability and memorable lines. The writer here is Gertrude Purcell working from a novel by Grace Perkins, the writer of Brief Moment was Brian Marlow, working from S N Behrman's play. I know little about either of them, beyond noticing that both had decent careers in Hollywood without ever sparking a great classic. Marlow's was ended by the blacklist.

Lombard is Ann Holt, who is just as spoiled as Rodney Deane in Brief Moment, but she's far more likable and far more believably redeemable. She obviously handles plenty of excess, presumably because she can, but the excess doesn't seem to own her the way it owned Deane. Arriving at a cruise liner in Cherbourg late and drunk because her grandfather owns the line and it won't leave without her, Ann meets her grandmother and Tony Gage, who is a passenger on the same cruise back to New York. Perhaps because he wants nothing to do with a spoiled brat, she falls for him hard. He resists, not wanting to be a shipboard romance, but she continues to pursue him back in New York and eventually they become a great couple.

Needless to say, it isn't quite that simple. Ann's grandfather Cedrick, played by C Aubrey Smith, as deliciously curmudgeonly as he ever was, has a long-standing vision for her, given that she's the apple of his eye. He's the man with the money in the family and he's been carefully arranging things for decades the way he wants. In order to marry her into European royalty, he even organised a revolution to get the right man onto the throne, and now he's in the position to finish what he set in motion. Ann's father Bill is a kind father but he's not very good at running a bank and he's bungled it to the point of no return. Now Cedrick can blackmail Ann into marrying Prince Carlos, because if she doesn't, he'll refuse any help to her father causing the bank to fail and him to be locked up.

Beyond being far better than Brief Moment, this is what classic Hollywood should be. It's not really a great film, but it's full of those magic little touches that make it a delight to watch. There are quite a few main characters, all of whom have flaws but we can easily engage emotionally with all of them. Perhaps Gage is a little too perfect, only letting his knight in shining armour image down for a couple of scenes of jealousy. We can root for Ann and Tony though, without ever needing to despise his competition, the Prince. Lombard sparkles throughout here, hinting at how great she would be in screwball comedy. Talbot is solid too, as he generally was in literally hundreds of B movies.

We can also hiss at Cedrick's villainy, while never hating him as a monster. He has his reasons which we can respect even while disagreeing with him. C Aubrey Smith was great at this sort of character and he's aided here by some clever choices in how to pose and light him. We rarely see him anywhere but in his carved oaken chair, lit carefully and always dominating the other character in the scene, perfect for the master manipulator role. Ann's father Bill is a bungler but seemingly good at being a father, friend and a human being, Walter Connolly playing the part to jolly perfection.

Best of all is Ann's grandmother, who I don't believe was ever named. She's a riot, delightfully down to earth, drinking everyone under the table, testing them with tongue twisters and even sticking her tongue out at the prince. The actress doing the work is Louise Closser Hale who made all but one of her 30 films in a very short period of time, from 1929 to her death in 1933, thus restricting her almost entirely to the precode era. I've seen a number of her films and while she's always been a delight to watch, whether in Dinner at Eight, Rasputin and the Empress or as the English gentlewoman in Shanghai Express with her dog Waffles, this is still the best I've seen her.

The dialogue sparkles too, helping the actors no end in giving life to their characters. The best and most obvious has to be the scene where Tony Gage and Bill Holt discuss a lovely girl who's expensive to maintain. In another direct opposite to Brief Moment, the poor love interest gets on with the potential in-laws like a house on fire, but the joke is that they're discussing a yacht not little Annie. It's far from the only great line though, because they're littered throughout this film like Purcell had access to the memorable line box at Columbia and stole them all. I remember classic Hollywood being full of memorable witty repartee, but the more I work my way through it the more that memory gets battered. It's films like this that restore the memory.

Thursday 23 October 2008

Brief Moment (1933)

This time out Carole Lombard's on more familiar territory in light hearted melodrama and in the lead. This is obviously based on a play, given the way that we're literally introduced to everyone in a drawing room in the first few minutes. Officially this is for the benefit of Abby Fane, a singer at the Club Biarritz, who is going to marry Rodney Deane. He's throwing her to the lions, in the form of an introduction to his family, led by a millionaire father and a mother who thinks all about breeding and poise. Needless to say she's not up to snuff, given that Rodney's sister married a French count. 'Do you have to marry her to adore her?' they ask.

Even though his parents are quite obviously not thrilled, they marry anyway and head off for a long honeymoon in Europe, prompting plenty of press attention. Back in the States, that continues as the Deanes live a social life on his $4,000 monthly allowance, on the town every night, drinking, gambling, attending all the premieres, having a great time. Unfortunately that starts wearing Abby down because having a great time seems to be all that her husband lives for. 'You can't live your life having a good time', she suggests, but his only answer is that 'I can try' and he's as good as his word.

This is hardly a deep story but maybe it achieve a little beyond merely being there. Lombard is fine but there's nothing much for her to make something of: mostly she's a firm foundation to the movie and to the character she's playing opposite. While she's officially the lead, even in 1933 worthy of a higher credit than co-star Gene Raymond, his is really the main part because it's the only one that actually has any substance. That introductory scene in the drawing room does more than provide us with names, it gives us the characters of almost everyone in the story right then and there. The only one who has any need to change is Rodney Deane though it takes him a long while to find it out.

Gene Raymond is decent here, as he tended to be, but also not exactly spectacular, again as he tended to be. He's best known to me as the other guy in Red Dust, in which I can't fault him but also can't help but comment that he was completely outshone by Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Mary Astor. I've seen him elsewhere too and that trend seems to have been a regular one: he's outshone in Flying Down to Rio by Dolores del Rio and in Mr & Mrs Smith by Lombard and Robert Montgomery, but in both he gave a capable performance. There's not much opportunity for anyone to really outshine him here, though Arthur Hohl and Monroe Owsley do manage it on occasion, but once more he fails to light up the screen. I can't find a single think to dislike about his work but somehow he still disappoints.

What else disappoints is that this is 1933 but it doesn't play out like a precode at all. To anyone watching when it was released, it must have felt very tame indeed. The most outrageous thing in it is the suggestion that vice presidents of big companies, who hold their positions only through being the son of the boss, don't actually do any real work. In a year that brought us films like King Kong, Queen Christina, Ecstasy, Duck Soup, 42nd Street, Heroes for Sale, Employees' Entrance and more, this one fades in comparison.

The Eagle and the Hawk (1933)

I may be watching this for Carole Lombard, as part of the set of films screened by TCM in honour of the hundredth anniversary of her birth, but she's hardly in the picture at all. She turns up about halfway through, and her character doesn't even have a name: she's merely 'The Beautiful Lady' who provides some welcome escape for the lead character and some female presence for us, if only for a very short time. The leads are Fredric March and Cary Grant, but the primary focus is on aviation.

Back in the late twenties and thirties there were a slew of movies made about World War I pilots and what's most surprising is how solid they are, as single films and as a set. The best were written by John Monk Saunders, from the granddaddy of them all, Wings, which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture, through The Dawn Patrol and The Last Flight and on to others. I've been reading about another one, The Legion of the Condemned, the follow up to Wings, in a fascinating book called Lost Films and watching this one makes me want to see that one even more. As the book title would suggest though, I'm not likely to ever get that chance as no copies of the film are known to exist.

The Eagle and the Hawk certainly ranks up among them and while Saunders didn't write the screenplay, it was based on his short story, Death in the Morning and it has his touch all over it. In fact it reminds very much of The Dawn Patrol, to which it bears many similarities, which was also based on a Saunders story. The other chief asset here is March, who gives a blistering performance which becomes more so as the film runs on. He dominates here, partly because of that performance and partly because Cary Grant is uncharacteristically overblown in support.

March is Jerry Young, an American flyer who volunteers for service in the 323rd Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps, coming into the game for the sport of it. He gets his opportunity over the countryside of occupied France, flying observers over enemy territory at low altitudes to take photographs of enemy positions, a dangerous job that gets him into plenty of dogfights. Of course it doesn't quite turn out how he expects. Shooting down Germans is a ride at first, providing him with the joy of the fight and the thrill of the kill, but they're quickly followed by the cold hard realisation that his own men are being killed too. Returning from his first flight he raves about his two kills until he finds that his own gunner is dead too.

Cary Grant is Henry Crocker, the best tailgunner in the business who becomes Young's gunner after five others are killed in action. Unfortunately they have a mutual dislike for each other dating back to England where Crocker was initially left behind because of his lack of flying ability. In fact to begin with Crocker only sticks with Young to see how long he could go on until his nerves go to pieces, and of course they do because that's what war does to people. Anyone who's seen a Saunders film knows that his stories aren't just about daring heroes but the reality of war.

The Eagle and the Hawk is a powerful film indeed, but I'm guessing it's going to be rated higher by those who haven't seen The Dawn Patrol because many of the most powerful components here are reruns from that film. Much of it has to do with how we mark the passage of time: not through any standard means, like clocks on the wall or fluttering calendars, but by through change in the environment. We see it through the wiping of names off the roster blackboard, the notably decreasing age of the new arrivals and the suffering on the face of Fredric March, which is vivid but cleverly increased as the film progresses.

March, who had won an Oscar the year before for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, deserves major credit here. Initially I couldn't help but compare his performance to what Richard Barthelmess would have done with it, but it didn't take too long to forget comparisons and relish March's work. Barthelmess often played airmen in the thirties, in The Dawn Patrol, Central Airport and Only Angels Have Wings, along with the achingly powerful The Last Flight, and he'd have been great here too, but that doesn't detract from March's work. He should have been Oscar nominated for this role too and not just for the haunting mess hall speech.

While The Dawn Patrol covered much of the same ground as this film and did it first, it suffered from a lack of consistency. Some actors failed to keep up with others in both the original and the remake. Here there's less opportunity for that given the short running time, but there aren't really any bad performances. Grant is annoying when he speaks because he tends to bellow theatrically, but there's plenty of subtlety on his face and the final silent scenes are excellently done. This one also has some new touching scenes too, such as the half written letter left behind by Young's first gunner; the forgetting of names in only a short time; or the scene in which a group of new recruits are taken out by an enemy bomb because they're green enough not to take cover.

Watching this one just made me want to watch the others again, which more than suggests a successful film. I ended up rating this one higher than both versions of The Dawn Patrol, though I'm feeling it's a slightly lesser film. I guess I'll have to rewatch them closer together to make a fair judgement on that score. It certainly isn't a match for Only Angels Have Wings or The Last Flight, but it's still a highly recommended gem from an era where this was apparently a genre all to itself. Now I need to get round to watching Wings, which is sitting on my DVR awaiting the time and opportunity.

Sunday 19 October 2008

Son of India (1931)

Half a century before Merchant Ivory turned tales of India into literary classics, Hollywood got up to all sorts of shenanigans with the subcontinent. Back in 1931, when this film was made India was still part of the British Empire and prey to any pulp writer who needed somewhere exotic to set an adventure. This is a rare exception, the source material being the debut novel by F Marion Crawford, an American who lived in Italy and had traveled to India back in 1879. He'd taken his travels seriously, studying Sanskrit in India and continuing that study back at Harvard. I haven't read Mr Isaacs, though I have read other work by Crawford, enough to guess that while this definitely received some of the Hollywood treatment, it holds up pretty well as a real attempt to show something of the real India. It's merely a product of its time.

Given that the time is 1931, the transition to sound was still ongoing and so our lead is one of the legends of the silent screen, whose star faded a little slower than many. He's Ramon Novarro, born in Mexico and right up there with idols like Rudolph Valentino at the top of the heartthrob list, playing romantic leads in films like Ben Hur and The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg or great villains like Rupert of Hentzau in The Prisoner of Zenda. His soft voice and obvious silent era mannerisms couldn't last though and he only had one really major part left: opposite Greta Garbo in Mata Hari.

Here he plays Karim, the son of a wealthy jewel merchant who is killed in a bandit attack on his camp. Karim escapes because a holy man he has been kind to buries him from sight inside his tent. He reaches Bombay in rags with one jewel left, a diamond that is by far the best and most valuable in his father's collection. He tries to sell it to a jewel merchant, who offers him next to nothing and then brands him a thief to the authorities. He's saved this time by an American, Bill Darsay, who happened to be in the shop at the time and in the court hearing the case.

Ten years later he's rich, powerful and well established, running a successful jewel business and captaining the Indian polo team. He meets Janice, a young American lady, who falls for him as fast as he falls for her. They flounce around jewel vaults and tiger hunts and fall deeper and deeper as time runs on, but there's tragedy in store. Janice is sister to Bill Darsay, the very man to whom Karim promised the world in gratitude, something he sees as sacred, and while Bill holds him great regard he can't permit them to marry, quoting all the standard reasons which are happily fading away today.

The story is a solid one, and it both suffers from the prejudices of the era and benefits from the freedoms of the precodes which allowed something like a multi-racial love affair to at least be explored. There are many high points: the story, the setting, the way in which India isn't shown in the expected way. Unfortunately there are many low points too, not least the acting which is overblown and wrought with silent era flamboyance. Novarro is fine whenever he doesn't go over the top, which he does far too often, so much so that Madge Evans, playing Janice, follows suit. The supporting cast have very little to do, with Conrad Nagel, Marjorie Rambeau and good old C Aubrey Smith (how could you have something set in India without him?) only gracing the screen rarely.

The director is Jacques Feyder, who probably brought a different approach to the film than would have been brought by a more traditional Hollywood director. Feyder was French and he made many innovative and influential films in his native country. I've seen a couple of his French silents, including the astounding Faces of Children, which I'd like to revisit. He was offered the chance to direct in Hollywood by MGM and spent a few years there, from Garbo's The Kiss in 1929 until this film in 1931. He returned to France in 1933.

One of his other American films in 1931 was Daybreak, a Viennese fancy with Ramon Novarro and C Aubrey Smith, both of whom also appear here. However the leading lady in that film was Helen Chandler, who I could see as a superb Janice Darsay. I wonder why she didn't play the part: presumably she was working on something else, and given that 1931 saw her in standout performances in Dracula and The Last Flight, I'm not going to lose too much sleep over it.

No Man of Her Own (1932)

Here's something of an iconic film, and one that it's taken me a long time to find: it contains the only substantial pairing of real life husband and wife Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. They'd actually appeared in three films together before this one, all silents, but only as extras and they probably didn't even share scenes together. I've only seen one thus far and couldn't even find either of them. Admittedly that was Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, which was made on such an epic scale that it contained what seemed like everyone in Hollywood and everyone who would be. They may be a little easier to find in The Johnstown Flood or The Plastic Age, and bizarrely the best scene here is a silent one that takes place in a church.

According to Robert Osbourne on TCM, they only appeared together in this film because of the usual studio shenanigans. Gable was under contract to MGM and Paramount obtained his services through a swap because MGM wanted their star Bing Crosby for a film of theirs. He was due to play opposite Miriam Hopkins, but she objected to his name being above hers so refused to play ball and so Lombard got the role. That decision may seem surprising now given that Hopkins is mostly forgotten today while Gable became the biggest name of them all, literally being crowned 'King of Hollywood' in 1938. However he wasn't quite there in 1932, though he'd made a solid start with key films like A Free Soul and Red Dust. He hadn't even grown his famous moustache yet.

Here he plays Babe Stewart, a New York City card sharp with a minor organisation behind him, but he has a cop after him too so he has to temporarily leave the Big Apple until the heat dies down. He sticks a pin in a map and ends up in Glendale, where he falls for the local librarian, Connie Randall. He pursues her with the usual early Gable charm, but in the end she bags him, gambling marriage on the toss of a coin. Stewart is an honest crook, and as he says, he 'never goes back on a coin'. He's proved that honesty earlier too: when Charlie Vane, one of his cohorts, suggests how easily he could elevate the amount on a cheque, he declines the offer.

Of course he's still a crook and he makes his money by cheating it out of others. He also can't tell his new wife what he is and what he does, so he takes up something approaching a real job at a brokerage firm to keep him busy from ten to three. Of course she finds out in the end and that shakes everything up, more than you'd imagine. Actually you might be able to imagine it, but only by considering what this film really is: a Hollywood precode romance.

Because it's a Hollywood romance, it bears about as much relation to reality as your average monster movie. However because it's a precode it's all about the grim reality. The two approaches are really polar opposites and that makes this one quite a strange film. We're dealing with professional gamblers, slick deception, pregnancy, jail, using the female form as a means to hook rich new suckers, all solid precode concepts. Yet they're the framework for a nice romance story where the good girl redeems the bad guy through her love. I actually liked this bizarre mix of approaches: grit and fluff all at once. It makes the grit less gritty and the fluff less fluffy but there are decent moments for each. 'Do you know any nice girls?' 'Certainly not!'

Gable had an eagerness in his eyes back in his pre-moustache days. He looked like a well dressed and very charming ape, with his big ears and his lack of matinee idol looks. He was really the epitome of the shift away from those romantic leads to a tough and masculine man, where the focus shifted. Instead of being a lover who can fight, he's a fighter who can love. He was just right for the precodes and he was just right to continue on after them. This is not a key Gable precode, but it's another good example of who he was at that point and why his star rose quickly.

Lombard was also looking forward to great days ahead. Gable was the 'king of Hollywood' but she was the 'queen of screwball comedy' and those were still two years away, with Lombard's Twentieth Century overshadowed by Gable's It Happened One Night. She's confident here and while none of the roles in this film really call for great acting, she's able to throw little touches in there to help her character shine. She also works well with Gable, with the two apparently being very comfortable together. The legendary connection isn't there yet though: that would be a few years away yet.

Wicked, Wicked (1973)

You know when a film from 1973 opens with an introductory passage about how it is bringing in 'a new concept in motion picture technique' that it's going to be a failure. If it worked, everyone would be using that technique today and the original would likely look dated; if it didn't work, it would have been forgotten about. Duo-Vision is a great example of the latter: it uses the time honoured split screen technique but doesn't quit, leaving almost the entire film split between two different scenes. The catchphrase was: 'no glasses: all you need are your eyes'.

I guess even MGM, the biggest of the studios, got a little experimental on occasion and this one must have cost quite a bit. Thinking about it, this 95 minute film has about 190 minutes of footage in it, literally enough for two movies or one if you're aiming for an epic. 190 minutes puts it firmly into David Lean territory! There's definitely stock footage here. I'm sure the montage during the bedroom scene comes from the vaults and I did recognise one other bit of film: the Liz Taylor car crash from BUtterfield 8, here her red car is a red herrring.

Surprisingly, while Wicked, Wicked is certainly no classic of whichever genre you want to count it as (mystery, slasher, horror), it's actually not that bad and the duo-vision gimmick is surprisingly effective. I can see why it didn't last though: it's draining on the eyes because we're having to pay extra attention and consistently focus on two separate things at the same time. That's a lot easier to do for a short few clips here and there than a whole movie.

Also, the way it generally works is that one screen tells the main story and the other fills in the rest: whether that be detail shots, alternative perspectives, flashbacks, wish fulfilment scenes, the other side of the conversation and so on. Sometimes it even just provides mood music, with an organist playing excerpts from The Phantom of the Opera. The catch is that there's not always something interesting for the second half of the film to show, so every now and again we can happily ignore it. Amazingly the best shot in the film is one that looks like a split screen but isn't.

There is a story here. There's a psycho loose in the Grandview Hotel and he's killing cute blonde guests and using them to learn about embalming science. There's no real mystery about whodunit or even why he dunit, as they're well defined though the background scenes. Hotel detective Rick Stewart investigates the mysterious skipping out on their bills that these young ladies seem to be doing, only to start to piece together the puzzle. He also gets a personal stake in the matter when his ex-wife turns up to become the new lounge singer, puts on a blonde wig for her act and promptly becomes the next potential victim.

It seems strange to say that there's not a lot here, given that there's actually twice as much of everything, but that's how it feels. We get a lot of background stories, explaining who the characters are and why they are who they are, but the background stories overwhelm the main one to the degree that we really forget about it and concentrate instead on those details. I ended up not caring how Stewart caught the killer, I was more interested in what the killer's evil foster mum got up to when he was younger or how Mrs Karadyne had escaped from her past.

The cast are interesting in a minor way. David Bailey, who plays the detective, is a soap opera actor and looks and acts precisely like one. He was a regular on Another World, a daytime soap, and wouldn't appear in another film for seventeen more years, returning in a comedy short called In a Pig's Eye. Lounge singer and target Lisa James is Tiffany Bolling, who started a singing career for real around this time, which foundered pretty quickly. She did better in a collection of exploitation films, such as The Candy Snatchers and The Centerfold Girls. Mrs Karadyne is Madeleine Sherwood, best known as the Mother Superior in The Flying Nun TV series but who also appeared in earlier films like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth.

It's all definitely more interesting than good though. The gimmick is definitely worth watching once, but you'll probably not want to revisit it again. There's much here to enjoy but once it's done it's done and there's not much past the gimmick to remember.

Saturday 18 October 2008

The Stepford Wives (1975)

As the Eberhart's leave the Big Apple to move to the rural Stepford Village in Connecticut, Joanna sees a man carrying a mannequin. Her daughter tells her dad that she saw a man carrying a naked lady, to which he replies that that's why they're moving to Stepford. What they find is that this little slice of suburbia seems to contain nothing less perfect than a mannequin. While their new house is huge and the neighbours friendly and everything should be wonderful, somehow Joanna doesn't feel right at all. Something is wrong.

The other recent arrival, Bobbie Markowe, is full of life too and they become fast friends, but all the other women are traditional wives in every way, spending their entire time cooking, cleaning and taking care of their men. They even come round the next day to apologise when they get drunk at a party. Meanwhile these men run the show: there's a men's association, closed to women, that's an honour for any man to be invited into. Joanna and Bobbie try to set up a women's consciousness group to level the playing field but run into all sorts of problems.

For a start they only find one other wife who fits the bill. She's Charmaine Wimpiris, a fiery red head who spends her time playing tennis and is frank about how her husband doesn't love her. The rest don't even want to join: they're too busy with their housework and that's all they care about. When Joanna persuades a husband to talk the wives into coming, they all speak like they're hawking products on a commercial. Most obvious among them is Carol Van Sant and that raises all sorts of questions, none of which have to do with the fact that she's played by the real life wife of director Bryan Forbes, Nanette Newman.

In England at least, Nanette Newman isn't best known for being Bryan Forbes's wife or even for her acting. She's best known for being the face of Fairy Liquid on commercials, a washing up liquid. 'Hands that do dishes can be soft as your face with mild green Fairy Liquid': it's like something that Carol Van Sant could say. I don't know when she started that job, but they were well established when I first saw them in the early eighties and could well already have been showed by the time this film was made.

Carol is the beginning of the suspicion that grows in Joanna and Bobbie, but he's hardly the end of it. The biggest wake up call is when Charmaine suddenly changes personality entirely. Suddenly she's in love with her husband, suddenly she's happy that he brings in a bulldozer to break up the tennis court, suddenly she's content only to do what he wants. From the stereotypical Playboy male perspective, they're perfect women. From Joanna's perspective they're Disneyland robots and she becomes more and more scared that she'll become one: content only to cook and clean and not pursue her dream of being a memorable photographer.

William Goldman wrote the screenplay, from Ira Levin's novel, and they're hardly minor names in the business. Levin was a playwright and novelist who racked up a number of key titles. Best known for Rosemary's Baby, he also wrote this film and The Boys from Brazil, all three of which became major films. Also filmed were Sliver and A Kiss Before Dying, along with some of his plays: Deathtrap, which holds the record as the longest running comedy thriller on Broadway, and No Time for Sergeants, which was Andy Griffith's second film and the one that put him into uniform. It set the stage for much of that era's comedy as well as Griffith's career.

Goldman was a novelist too, of books that became moves like The Princess Bride and Marathon Man, but he's far better known as a screenwriter, winning Oscars for his work on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President's Men. He's written so many well regarded screenplays that his book about writing them became a standard: Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting. I've dipped into that one before but I think it should become my next reading material on bus rides to work. He also wrote a sequel and many other books on cinema, including editing a fascinating volume called The First Time I Got Paid for It: Writers' Tales from the Hollywood Trenches that saw many writers talk about how they got into the business.

I spend so much time here on the two writers because this is all about the story. There's talent involved at every step here and nobody lets the side down, but as great as Katharine Ross, Nanette Newman, Tina Louise and especially Paula Prentiss are as various Stepford wives and however solid the direction by Bryan Forbes, the music by Michael Small and Suzanne Ciani, the cinematography by Enrique Bravo and Owen Roizman or the editing by Timothy Gee, especially towards the end of the film, this is really a peach of a story and its the writers who deserve the biggest chunk of the credit.

Levin wrote The Stepford Wives in 1972 and it became a film in 1975. However it's as timely today as it was then, if not even more so and you know something's a success when it becomes more relevant over time not less. Think Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World. Like those, this is a science fiction story that doesn't even seem like a science fiction story. It really stands as a serious commentary on gated communities, the cultural impact of RealDolls, the Japanese approach to robotics, attempts to profile everyone based on accepted norms, social and cultural pruning, trophy wives, a whole host of concepts that were either non-existent or not widely known or considered in 1972.

Beyond being a prescient science fiction masterpiece, it's also many other things. It's a masterful monster movie where we don't see the monster until the end. It's a great example of a postcode, with certain elements (especially the end) that certainly couldn't be got away with a decade earlier under the Production Code. It's a feminist manifesto: we hardly ever see the men and when we do they're only used to prop up a society run by men for the purposes of men (the word 'archaic' is focused on). And while I can't really comment on this part, it appears to be a horror film for women. It's a lot of things, that's for sure. What it isn't is on any of the Top 100 lists I'm working through. That surprised me.

Thursday 16 October 2008

The Circus Queen Murder (1933)

I've seen so many detective movies that it's a rare joy to find a new detective, especially one that made more than one film appearance. This one features Adolphe Menjou as New York District Attorney Thatcher Colt, who for some reason keeps getting referred to as the police commissioner too. He's been busy in New York, so much so that he apparently hasn't had a day off in six years, so he heads out on a well earned holiday in which he wants precisely nothing to do with work. He doesn't care where he goes, so he throws a dagger at a map of the state and ends up in Gilead, with his trusty right hand man (who given that this is a precode, is a highly capable woman) in tow. Ruthelma Stevens is excellent.

Naturally Gilead doesn't work out quite how he expects. There's a circus rolling into town, the Greater John T Rainey Shows, with a friend on board who recognises him and asks for help. It would seem that strange things are afoot under the big top and they centre around the leading lady of the show: Josie La Tour, played by Norwegian actress Greta Nissen. There are death threats for all the stars, including her, but her estranged husband Flandrin is missing, her beloved dog is killed and a voodoo doll with a pin through it is thrown into her trailer. There are lions, cannibals and the inevitable gorilla, and it's Friday the 13th to boot.

Given that Flandrin is played by horror legend Dwight Frye, I'm sure it won't come as much of a surprise to find that he's playing an apparent lunatic whose wife doesn't just want to divorce him, she wants to commit him to an asylum. He's great to watch as he always was, though he never did find another role as joyous as Renfield. At least he has a much better costume than his rival, the Great Sebastian, who looks like a cross between Satan and Wonder Woman, hardly the manly look he was aiming for.

This is a colourful detective yarn but one that doesn't hold too many surprises. What's most surprising is the fact that DA Thatcher Colt really doesn't do much. He takes charge as requested but completely fails to prevent the murder of the title, which doesn't follow tradition by happening at the beginning, waiting for most of the way through. He does some decent detective work to unravel Flandrin's movements but there's never any doubt of what's going to happen and who's going to do it, and the last fifteen minutes is a huge disappointment except for Frye. I was more impressed with the highly capable lipreading assistant, who would certainly not have been a woman a couple of years later.

Wednesday 15 October 2008

The White Countess (2005)

Merchant Ivory is a film production company but it became almost a genre in itself. Founded to make English language period pieces set in colonial India for the international market, it became something a little more. As epitomised by such films as Howards End, The Remains of the Day and A Room with a View, they wandered further afield but mostly stayed within the same period: the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth. Many were based on award winning classic literature, by authors like E M Forster, Henry James or Kazuo Ishiguro, who adapted this film from his own novel.

Merchant Ivory films are often quintessentially English, which is somewhat bizarre given that all three of the key names are foreign. Most of their films were directed by James Ivory (an American), produced by Ismail Merchant (an Indian) and written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (a German Pole). Depending on how you count, this could easily be considered the last Merchant Ivory production, as Ismail Merchant died during production. This one has impeccable credentials: beyond Merchant, Ivory and Ishiguro, there's also the name I came for: cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Shooting in Shanghai and not hiring him would be lunacy. The cast are major names and constitute a first, given the unique combinations of real acting dynasties.

The White Countess of the title is a bar, the bar that lives inside the head of American diplomat Todd Jackson. He's an important man, it would seem, someone who was integral to the founding of the League of Nations and who is well respected by the various nationalities that populate the wildly multicultural city of 1936 Shanghai. However he is also blind and he's tired of the politics. He hides himself away in the seedier part of town where his colleagues won't go and plans his own place, which comes to life after a win on the horses. The last piece of the puzzle is the lady after whom he names the place.

She's Countess Sofia Belinskya, a member of the Russian nobility who has escaped the Bolshevik revolution to the slums of Shanghai. However here through necessity she has become a taxi dancer (and perhaps more) in a seedy club, similar to many of the lead characters in precodes, and she has a whole family to provide for: not just her daughter but elder relations too who do precisely nothing except look down on her. Jackson encounters her there and she helps him out of a jam that he can't even see. He can't see her either, though we see Natasha Richardson. What he sees in his mind is 'the allure, the tragedy, the weariness' that he wants for his bar, for which she is perfect.

The only thing left for his vision after that is political tension, which he slowly introduces with the assistance of Mr Matsuda who he knows only as a fellow visionary, someone that he once talked with at a bar, but whose discussions grow in importance as time goes by. He doesn't know that the Sino-Japanese War is coming and Mr Matsuda is someone very important back in Japan, someone whose presence generally foreshadows invasion. However their friendship and shared vision really epitomise what Jackson wants The White Countess to be.

Everything about this film should be awesome, but it isn't. It has a great historical sweep and plenty of little stories on the personal level. It's a Merchant Ivory production shooting on location in Shanghai with Christopher Doyle behind the lens. Ralph Fiennes is no minor name and neither is Natasha Richardson, whose relatives here are mostly played by her own relatives: her aunt, Lynn Redgrave and her mother, Vanessa Redgrave. Kazuo Ishiguro adapts his own novel.

Yet somehow it's lacking. Visually it looks great, and I can appreciate Doyle's use of faded colour to match Jackson's vision. The shots in the harbour are just gorgeous, vintage Doye. Fiennes does a great job of playing a blind man, though he's less successful as an American. Natasha Richardson is superb and so is Hiroyuki Sanada as Mr Matsuda. However there's very little life in the film, which just fails to ignite at more than a few points. Maybe it's just too polite, all the depth of feeling lost behind deliberately dispassionate faces. I've never read any of Ishiguro's books but I have read comments that suggests that he writes clever work about internal feelings. That would fit with what The White Countess seems to be about, but we don't see any of it. It's all hidden.

L'Eclisse (1962)

Between 1960 and 1962 Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni wrote and directed three films that have become known as his Incommunicability Trilogy. This is the last of them, the first being L'Avventura. They're not related in any way other than theme, but they do have that in common and they would seem to be summed up by one early scene here, which has Francisco Rabal sitting immobile in a chair while Monica Vitti, who was planning to leave, gets all flustered and doesn't, at least not initially. He's Riccardo, she's Vittoria and they used to be in love. Why they aren't any more, or at least why she isn't any more, doesn't seem to be definable. There's nobody else. Whatever questions he asks she can only answer with 'I don't know' and she appears to be being truthful.

So she leaves Riccardo to go talk to her mother, with whom she can't communicate either. Her mother is a stock market addict, spending all her time on the bourse floor to direct her trading, and it's there that Vittoria meets Piero, played by Alain Delon. He's a trader and is as materialistic and communicative as you' expect for a profession like that, but his communication is all materialistic. When Vittoria expects sensitive words, he tells her he's got a new car. When she asks about what he did last night, he tells her how much the meal cost. Then again, when he asks her questions, she either can't or won't answer at all.

There's a definite inability to communicate here: the characters seem to function on entirely different levels. Everyone wants to connect but they seem to have no way of doing so and on the odd occasions they do, it seems insubstantial and transitory. There's no depth anywhere. Piero can't stop moving and his world is filled with the modern, especially telephones, the tools of his trade, which call to him like lovers. One memorable scene has the bourse holding a minute's silence in memory of a dead colleague, but of course silence in a place like this is only for people. The phones keep calling. Vittoria has something of the primitive, as evidence in an attempt at native dance she does in the apartment of a friend born in Kenya.

Like the leads, their surroundings are beautiful but empty: we see a lot of buildings, streets, fields, but very few people in them. Often the only things alive in these vistas as the trees, which flutter as if to emphasise that they're still here. The only place that contains a throng is the bourse, where the only spirit is the spirit of materialism. It's all beautifully and impeccably done, but like with In Between Days, is that enough? That depends on the viewer. Like that film, the story here is also all within the spaces between what is said and done. Many scenes are entirely silent but they speak volumes. The most important scene is the one that doesn't happen.

Opening Night (1977)

Myrtle Gordon is a stage actress and it would seem a good one. She has talent, she has the lead and she has fans. People in bars ask her for autographs. She also appears to live for her art, as highlighted by the fact that her apartment is large with a sprung floor and sparse furniture that seems like a collection of props, suggesting that she literally lives on a stage. But one night, after a performance of The Second Woman in which she's starring, a fan is killed outside their theatre, one to whom Myrtle has just given an autograph. She's only seventeen, she's a little strange and she's hit by a car, standing in the rain silently blowing kisses through the window of Myrtle's car.

This becomes the catalyst for a breakdown, which actress Gena Rowlands explores throughout the rambling two and a half hours of this film by her husband John Cassavetes. He's here too, playing one of her co-stars but during that initial autograph session outside the play his character repeatedy tells a fan, 'Myrtle Gordon is the star of the show'. It's no difficulty to see this as Cassavetes pointing us towards Rowlands, not that this is needed given the dynamic performance that she gives. While there a number of powerful actors in this film, it's definitely her show.

Myrtle's breakdown is because she's getting old. She's never married, she has no children and she's getting old. Given that the play is about aging, the second woman of the title being the part of the self that takes over when youth dies, she quickly associates Nancy Stein, the dead fan, with her own youth and doesn't want to let go. When the writer of the play, Sarah Goode, asks her how old she is, she won't answer. With the play nearing the end of its rehearsal run in New Haven, she's running out of time to find a way to come to terms with her part and her self before they open on Broadway.

Everyone else involved has to deal with her too, but they don't have the same connections that she has, leaving them floundering in their ability to help. Given the level of quality of the cast (mostly Cassavetes regulars, of course) and the amount of time they're given to build their characters, they're formidable support. The director is Ben Gazzara, the writer Joan Blondell, the producer Paul Stewart, her co-star Cassavetes himself. All of them have their own reasons to ensure that she gets through her problems.

What I'm learning most about John Cassavetes is that I'm still learning about John Cassavetes. He's an amazing filmmaker, that's obvious, but he's not an easy one to approach. He made very personal films that sprawl and improvise and deal with complex issues. They delight and infuriate at the same time. They refuse to focus on anything in particular, choosing instead to rack up impressions that coalesce into the film's message or theme. They require that the actors pour themselves into their roles because it's their nuances that comprise the stories. Luckily he had a dedicated band of regulars who understood what he wanted and appreciated what he did. They shared his vision and were willing to have these films wash over them.

We as viewers have to do the same thing and if we can do that, we're treated to insights that never fall prey to cliche. Opening Night is another powerful Cassevetes film with a powerful lead performance by his wife Gena Rowlands. However it's also an insight into the mind of an actor, framed by the collective mind of the performance itself. The questions about age are only the most obvious questions. There's so much here that talks about how actors find their characters and so much that underlines how whole productions are families that have to look out for each other, not in some sappy Disney way but in order to survive. Without Myrtle Gordon there is no production, but without the rest of the cast and crew there's no Myrtle Gordon.

Tuesday 14 October 2008

In Between Days (2006)

Anyone reading my reviews here can't fail to notice that I've become enamoured of Korean cinema. Some of it's truly great but somehow I love it even when it isn't. I mentioned that to Ric Meyers, noted kung fu film scholar, at a recent appearance he gave at Chandler Cinemas, and he told me that Korean film is dying. I'm not going to argue with someone who knows a lot more about this stuff than I do, but I'm a few years away from seeing the dying edge, so can happily enjoy the good stuff while it lasts.

This is another award-winning Korean movie (it won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance 'for independent vision'), but it's a little different from the norm, being a Canadian Korean film. It was made by a So Yong Kim, a Korean lady who grew up in California, with a presumably amateur Korean cast. She co-wrote it with Bradley Rust Gray who looks decidedly not Korean, and shot it in Toronto with American, Korean and Canadian money. The Canadian connection bodes well given that another winner at Sundance in 2006 was the Canadian Chinese film Eve and the Fire Horse, and that film was a subtle gem.

This one's subtle too, but less focused. It has virtually no plot to speak of, we really don't care about the details and the story mostly happens in the spaces between where you'd normally expect to find a story. I don't think we're ever told that we're in Toronto: it's just a north American city. Similarly I don't think we're actually told that our central character Aimie is a recent immigrant from Korea, but it's pretty obvious that she speaks Korean fluently and is failing English. If we are told these details, then I blinked and missed them: certainly they're not dwelled on.

What matters is that Aimie spends the film wanting her best friend Tran to be more than her best friend, but he gradually drifts away into the company of other ethnic characters a little more overtly western than she is. And that's it. That's not a lot to go on and depending what you're actually looking for in a movie that may well not be anywhere near enough. It's a love story of sorts and I'm sure Aimie's name isn't accidental, but it's a really one sided love story. Aimie loves Tran, in that teenager sort of way that at once is everything and nothing, but all she gets back is someone to hang with, plus odd requests for money or somewhere to stay.

What's most surprising and most indicative of that 'independent vision' that Sundance rewarded is that Tran isn't cheating on her with anyone; there are no fistfights with cops being called; and certainly no overt scenes of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. There are nods to American culture in the direction that Tran moves towards, but they're subtle ones because we don't really get any details there either. We just see that his other female friends like Michelle speak English, follow American fashions and wear makeup. We see that she can let people sleepover without worrying about what her parents might think. There's nothing specific but the overall tone is unmistakable and it leaves us with what is effectively a ninety minute heartbreak scene.

On that front it's amazingly constructed, subtle to an almost unparalleled level. All the dialogue that matters is what isn't spoken rather than what is. The most telling scenes are the ones where precisely nothing happens, except for the anguish or regret or longing in the eyes of the characters, especially Aimie's through an excellent performance by Jiseon Kim in what appears to be her only film. There aren't a lot of films like that and there aren't a lot of lead characters like that. It's about as anti-Hollywood as you can get. At the end of the day, if this is likely to be something you'll enjoy, you may well find it to be truly awesome and worthy of regular revisits. If it isn't, it could easily feel like the worst film you ever saw.

Twentieth Century (1934)

It's been far too long since I've seen a Carole Lombard film, but Turner Classic Movies, in celebration of the hundredth anniversary of her birth, has made her their Star of the Month. In fact it's been far too long since I've seen a screwball comedy, because it would seem that I've worked through all the easy ones to get and the hard ones to get don't come around too often. This one, hugely regarded wherever and whenever it is regarded, directed by Howard Hawks, starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, sitting happily in exalted company among the Home Theater Forum's list of the 100 Great Films of the 1930s, made as far back as 1934, is being shown on TCM for the very first time. Go figure.

Barrymore is Oscar Jaffe, a Broadway impresario. He's a wild character, so full of himself that the title of the play on his billboards is almost an afterthought, right under: 'Mr Oscar Jaffe announces a new play. Personally supervised by Mr Jaffe. With a typical Jaffe Cast. To be presented at the Jaffe Theatre.' He knows his stuff though, enough to see the potential in an underwear model called Mildred Plotka. He renames her Lily Garland and turns her into an actress using every method possible: literally chalking her movements onto the stage and getting her to scream by stabbing her in the backside with a pin.

Needless to say Plotka/Garland is Carole Lombard and needless to say she becomes a success as wild as the temperament of her boss. She also knows that he owes plenty of that success to him: on her first successful opening night she's not even sure of herself. 'Was I alright?' she asks him. 'Was I what you wanted?' As he manipulates her into whatever else he wants, she even tells him that 'I'm nothing without you and I never will be.' Of course, Jaffe and Garland rack up success after success, but once a success she becomes as fiery as he is, a prima donna with a gondola for a bed and chinchilla coats with silver linings to flaunt at people. And inevitably she leaves for Hollywood.

Our real story kicks in in Chicago, from which Jaffe is escaping, having produced flop after flop and descended to the depths with Garland's name absent from his billboards. Meanwhile Garland, because however much of a start Jaffe gave her her talent is her own, has become a Hollywood star plastered across the covers of all the film magazines. And they find themselves on the same train, the Twentieth Century of the title, hurtling from Chicago to New York, where Jaffe and his cohorts can do what they can to win her back. Anyone who's ever seen a screwball comedy can imagine roughly what that means.

It is a peach of a film, as short on reality as it blessed with laughter. Screwball comedies aren't supposed to make sense: they're supposed to be things that make us laugh, pure and simple, their zany characters, rapid fire dialogue and frenetic pace not giving the viewers a chance to stop and think about anything, especially real life. Twentieth Century is one of the earliest examples of screwball comedy, though It Happened One Night, released the same year, overshadowed it through the unprecedented feat of winning all four of the main Oscars that year. The pair of them and other screwball comedies to follow, gave people an opportunity to forget, at least for an hour and a half, the Great Depression that surrounded them and which had reached its depths in 1933.

However this one has much more than just laughter, because the performances are fascinating. Carole Lombard in some ways mirrors her character. She'd made a number of films and was progressing up the ranks but this is the film that broke her as a star. She was overwhelmed by being able to work opposite such a legend as John Barrymore and it took threats by director Howard Hawks to fire her before she could engage her real power as an actress. Three years later, when they worked together again in True Confession, it was a Lombard picture, with Barrymore playing support behind her and frequent co-star Fred MacMurray. She was the star then and he was a legend in decline due to his alcoholism.

The early scenes with Mildred Plotka being taught by Jaffe how to be Lily Garland would therefore seem to have at least some similarities to how Lombard was taught by Hawks to be a star. I wonder how else Hawks equates to Jaffe: there are so many deliberate digs at theatre, film and even the actors themselves that it would hardly be surprising to have some accidental ones in there too. My favourite came when Jaffe has to disguise himself in order to get past a detective and board the train in Chicago. 'I never thought I'd sink so low as to become an actor', says Barrymore, one of the greatest of them all.

And as much as Lombard is great as Lily Garland, hardy surprising given that she would become perhaps the preeminent screwball comedienne of them all, it's Barrymore's show through and through. He plays Jaffe as an unashamed ham, with talent for sure, but a ham nonetheless. His approach to the character is by proxy: we rarely ever see Jaffe at all, we see the characters that Jaffe plays in order to get what he wants and there are many of them. Everything is manoeuvre, subterfuge, flimflam: he leaves Chicago in disguise to avoid debts, pretends a broken arm to gain sympathy from Lily, fakes religion to get financing when he's broke, threatens suicide at the drop of a hat, fires people repeatedly with extreme prejudice but never actually lets them go, tells his star that he trusts her implicitly then taps her phone.

It's impossible not to watch Barrymore here: blink for but a moment and your eyes will open to find him in a new pose, a new look on his face and a new purpose in his step. Everything is theatrical, of course, with three real points of articulation constantly in motion: his eyes, his body and his words. All are used flamboyantly, with wild gestures, postures and histrionics, and sometimes, every once in a while, the three actually seem to agree. It's those points that we see Jaffe not what part Jaffe is playing at the time. That Barrymore can talk to one character, act at another with body language and tell we the viewers through his eyes that he's lying through his teeth to both of them, is testament to his talent. I may just have to adopt his closing the iron door on people.

He's not the only name though, merely the biggest and the most obvious. The other two names on the title screen belong to Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karns. Karns I've seen many times, often in a very similar role to this one as a drunken newsman whose constant wisecracks betray deep understanding and truth. He was usually a journalist or a cab driver or a manager, but whatever he was he always seemed to get a fast-talking role. Given that the first 30 or so of his 150 or so movies were silent, I wonder what they could have done with him given the lack of a voice. Connolly I don't know as well, but I've been impressed with him when I've seen him, usually in a solid supporting role in a screwball comedy, such as those in Nothing Sacred, Libeled Lady or It Happened One Night. He was great in Washington Merry-Go-Round too and I wonder how he could carry a film on his own. Maybe Father Brown, Detective is the one to tell me: among a few detective roles, he plays the title character in that one.

I was delighted to see Etienne Girardot, one of the tiniest supporting actors in Hollywood who wasn't a midget or a dwarf. He's a lunatic here, though a mild mannered one. As an escapee from a lunatic asylum, he causes chaos on the Twentieth Century, not that there wasn't enough of that already, by slapping stickers on everything and everyone reading: 'Repent for the time is at hand.' I know Girardot best from his performances as Dr Doremus, the wonderfully sarcastic coroner in the early Philo Vance films, especially The Kennel Murder Case, but I've seen him elsewhere too and he's always a joy to watch. He's the only actor here to reprise his role from the stage. There are also smaller roles for people as capable as Dale Fuller, Charles Lane and Edgar Kennedy, none of whom disappoint.

The story doesn't belong to Hawks. Though he often contributed to the writing on his films, he doesn't seem to have done so here. If I've unravelled the levels here, it originated as an unproduced play, Napoleon of Broadway, by Charles Bruce Millholland, which presumably means that it was never staged. It was then turned into a play that was staged, by long term collaborators Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who co-wrote many great plays and screenplays. Given that perhaps their crowning achievement was The Front Page, it can't be too surprising that they were both legendary newsmen themselves. No wonder Roscoe Karns's character was so vibrant. Hecht and MacArthur turned their version of the play into a screenplay, with uncredited assistance from Gene Fowler, and somewhere Preston Sturges had an uncredited finger in the writing pie too. Whoever really wrote the thing, it's clever, witty and very quick. And now I want to watch it again.

Sunday 12 October 2008

Mr Hulot's Holiday (1953)

After Jour de fête, it took Jacques Tati another four years to release a film, and it was a peach. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed Jour de fête but it didn't seem to be as effortless and magical as this one, the first Tati I ever saw and for which I'm now back for my third viewing. Even more so than Jour de fête, it fits my ideal of great sound but little dialogue. In fact it runs that way for quite some time as watch everyone chase out for their holidays. We see a great mass of people shuffling platforms in response to an unintelligible blabber coming from the station's loudspeaker. We see people driving or riding bicycles, but they're all heading out to the beach. Last but certainly not least is the Mr Hulot of the title, in his nigh on broken down car that provides most of the sound for the first ten minutes.

Everything here is set up for comedy and it's very carefully done indeed. Tati wrings cleverly envisioned and masterfully executed gags out a lazy dog, the wind, a swing door, you name it. He even makes stunning use of the tide. Almost everything is without dialogue (but with sound) and even when there is dialogue it often tends to come in a babble, used as much for how it sounds as what it said. Almost everything and everyone has comedic value. In fact I ended up looking at each scene to see if there's something that could be used that wasn't, and I definitely saw things here that I didn't see on previous viewings. Purely from a a physical standpoint, while Jour de fête was obviously the work of a very talented man, Mr Hulot's Holiday is just as obviously the work of a comedic genius.

What makes this even more genius is the realisation that there's so much here than just comedy. All of human nature is here if only you look beyond the gags. These characters, fleshed out by choreography and circumstance far more than they could be with dialogue, given how many of them there are, really define all the different people you've probably ever met on holiday. If Hulot is us, these are all the people we probably met every year and got to know without ever getting to know. We don't know their names or what they do: if they ever told us we'll have forgotten. Yet we'll have fun with them and be back to meet them all again next year.

There's more and more accurate nostalgia here than probably anywhere else in film. What's most amazing, and most to be treasured, is that this is all innocent and shared humour: we're not poking fun at anyone. Mr Bean, the most obvious modern successor, was never that clearcut. Hulot and Bean are frequently both the object of our laughter, but we laugh with Hulot but often just at Bean. There's a world of difference between those two attitudes.

A number of scenes say so much, if you pay attention. There are a couple of static long shots of the Beach Hotel at night with precisely nobody in the picture, the stories being told entirely through sounds and lights. There were many points where I saw as much in the smiles or glances of passers by. There's a scene where the introduction of a simple feather turns a funeral into laughter, without it ever seeming inappropriate. Another has a friendly card game turn into a riot, but the entire transition happens in silent body language. I don't believe the beautiful Nathalie Pascaud ever says a word but she remains utterly charming nonetheless. We especially look forward to seeing her next year.

Jour de fête (1949)

The more I talk with people who actually make movies instead of just watching and reviewing them, the more I want to make something myself, not that I'm likely to ever find the time and not that I'm likely to have a clue how to do it. Some filmmakers want to make it big and achieve great commercial success. Others want to make a point, to prove for instance that epic films can be made cheaply and effectively without a $300 million budget. Some want to be Steven Spielberg, some want to be Robert Rodriguez. I'd just like to make something that I want to watch and nobody seems to make any more, regardless of any of the other details.

In particular I'd make something that tells a story like a silent film, using lighting and gesture and imagery, but incorporates the sort of clever use of sound that Fritz Lang used in M. I don't believe that we always need to tell stories with dialogue, even if we do have the technology to do it, just as I don't believe we need CGI or colour or anything digital. I'd love to make a surreal fantasy film noir on German expressionist sets with sound but no dialogue. I don't care that nobody else would want to see it: I would and that's enough for me.

I've seen hardly anything like that in my explorations of cinema but there are films out there that attempt this sort of storytelling without dialogue. One of the most notable that I've found thus far is Mr Hulot's Holiday, a 1953 French comedy starring Jacques Tati that really hearkened back to the silent days of the great slapstick comedians while foreshadowing modern equivalents like Mr Bean. Eager for more Tati, I've kept my eyes open and leapt at the four film mini-festival that Turner Classic Movies put on for what would have been his 101st birthday. It begin with this one: a feature length 1949 version of a short he made a couple of years earlier called School for Postmen.

Tati is François, the postman of a small town called Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre, though we don't meet him for a little while. Initially we're watching the town set up for the annual fair, the big day of the title, which they seem unable to do until François comes along. There's plenty of of sight gags and physical stunts and we're introduced to what seems like the whole town through the comments of an old hunchbacked woman, wandering around the town square with her goat. The most obvious thing is that Tati is realy tall but the other is that he's perfectly capable of the sort of antics that Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd got up to.

The real story here though begins halfway through. The fair shows movies in the town square, and a drunken François, along with many of the townsfolk, gets to see a documentary of the Pathe style explaining how American postmen do their job: with the aid of helicopters, planes and ruthless mechanical efficiency. Soon François, fed up with the constant jibes from his customers, takes it upon himself to implement a similar speedy and efficient approach. Beyond expounding a uniquely French take on things like speed and efficiency, this leads to many opportunities for sight gags, slapstick and physical humour.

Tati also wrote and directed, and shot his film in a unique way: both in colour and in black and white. However the form of colour he used, Thomson-Color, became obsolete and unprocessable before he could release the film, so he resorted to the black and white backup. It's still pretty colourful though, as there are plenty of odd little instances of what is presumably colorisation, with French flags and roundabout horses and little pennants coloured in basic shades. The Thomson-Color version is now available, apparently, though this isn't the version I've just seen. It became processable in 1995 and Tati's daughter completed the work.

Julius Caesar (1953)

It's been said, of course, that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In 44 BC when we begin this Hollywood adaptation of Shakespeare's story, Julius Caesar returns to Rome victorious over Pompey in a civil war and the city and its senate wants to make him ultimate ruler, which would seem to his friends to fit his ambition. Such power is palpable: as he leaves the stadium where it's offered to him, the world appears to stop at his word. He pauses and the whole procession pauses; whatever he asks for is granted. Yet Brutus and his colleagues, people who know Caesar well, decide to kill him for his and Rome's own good.

This was a huge production that ran against many time honoured trends. It sprang out of Hollywood, from the mightiest of the studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but it doesn't feel like such. MGM obviously poured money into it and threw major names at it, but these names are good ones, even when they wouldn't appear to be like top billed Marlon Brando, who in hindsight looked the part magnificently; and if he couldn't match some of his colleagues here on the acting front, it can be said that he doesn't mumble in the slightest and surpassed expectations. The biggest Hollywood bias is not in his casting, but in the fact that he got the Oscar nomination instead of the stunning James Mason, who as Brutus was undoubtedly the lead if not the owner of the highest credit. It's amazing how much he can emote with a mostly still face and a mostly calm voice.

Director Joseph L Mankiewicz, hardy a minor name himself with four Oscars and films like All About Eve behind him, went to Stratford-upon-Avon to see a production in Shakespeare's own town and consequently cast John Gielgud as Cassius. This isn't the sort of casting you'd expect from Hollywood, but it's as right as it is surprising. Gielgud is superb, full of envy, conspiracy and frustration, and it's a genuine pleasure to see one of those performances that would, for Mankiewicz's casting, be yet another that we can only read about in the words of those who saw it on stage. Film acting used to be seen as second class to stage acting, and maybe still does to those who matter, but it certainly has a far greater tendency to be seen.

The choice of actors is only one surprise for a Hollywood production, but I'm glad to see people like Gielgud, Deborah Kerr, Greer Garson and especially James Mason do their work. Brando is not the only Hollywood name here and he's not the only surprise. Louis Calhern switches appropriately between joviality and seriousness as Julius Caesar himself and Edmond O'Brien is worthily fearful as Casca. Many of these names also have little screen time to make their impact but use it well. Kerr in particular must have about a minute of screen time and Garson not much more.

Needless to say, beyond the names already mentioned and those of many others languishing in the bit parts, along with Miklos Rozsa who composed a magnificent score, there's one standing so far above them all that his name stands defiantly above the title: William Shakespeare. Now I'm no Shakespeare nut, though I've seen a number of film adaptations of his work and even a couple on the stage, but his talent is unmissable here. The most surprising thing of all is that Hollywood chose to script this straight, so much so that nobody gets a writing credit.

It's told in its original language and while this language is so removed in time and style from our own version of it and so full of vocabulary that it sometimes flows over us so quickly that we can't follow, it's truly stunning how much of it is still current. So much of this play has entered popular culture that there's impact in realising it. I don't believe I've ever read or seen Julius Caesar before, but I was surprised to find that I knew so much of it, as quotes, references or even just as words or concepts that it introduced to us. In an era when Shakespeare tends to be given to us in translation to modern settings and language, it's almost shocking to be effortlessly drawn right into a version that is as traditional as they get.

And so this is a huge success, even though that everything I've learned about the Hollywood studio system would tell me that there's no way such a thing could be possible. Hollywood doesn't respect tradition and it pays fast and loose with material to suit its own ends. Hollywood casts according to box office expectation not talent, or more accurately in this era according to its own internal politics. Whatever caused it to break all its rules and make a Shakespearean film that appears right, at least to my admittedly highly untrained eyes and ears when it comes to Shakespeare, I really don't know, but I'm happy for it. The only flaw I found was in the way every stabbing came across as unrealistic in the extreme, even if taken from the perspective that this was originally a stage play. On the epic scale of the film though, that's about as insignificant as it gets.

The Beast Within (1982)

It's surprising that I haven't seen this one before, being both a horror movie fan who really started watching them in the early to mid eighties and a fan of the source novel. It was released in England by Hamlyn and Hamlyn Horror was where you went for the best in pulp horror at the time. Many of their titles were so called 'nasty novels', presumably the literary equivalent to the video nasties that the BBFC were so gleefully banning at the time, and they had many of the best pulp names: Guy N Smith, Gary Brandner, Mark Ronson, John Halkin, Richard Lewis, Nick Sharman, even Shaun Hutson's debut. They also published Edward Levy's The Beast Within in 1981.

A year later, Philippe Mora, a French/Australian director best known for Communion and a couple of sequels to The Howling (a series also published by Hamlyn, incidentally), turned it into a film. It also has a reputation of being something of a nasty, and it certainly begins that way. In 1964 in Nioba, Mississippi (the 'Heart of Dixie'), a woman is raped in the woods by some sort of beast man. She lives through the attack and her husband rescues her, only to find seventeen years later that the offspring of the attack, their 'son' Michael, is dying and the only hope is to find out something about the medical history of the real father.

They're in Jackson by this time, the big city, so they head on out to Nioba to poke around. Needless to say Nioba is a small town with a secret that they've kept well hidden for a long time and they're not planning on letting anyone know about it any time soon. Unknown to them, at least initially, Michael leaves his hospital bed and follows them, driven by some sort of race memory, reincarnation, telepathy or some such. He seems to know somehow who is who, where they are and what they are too. And if he knows that, he knows what he's becoming.

Director Philippe Mora isn't just a director. He made well regarded documentaries (such as Swastika and Brother, Can You Spare a Dime); he founded the magazine Cinema Papers, the Australian one that ran for decades; and he's an exhibited painter. All this can't help but make me wonder how he ended up making films as decried as Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf, Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills and Art Deco Detective. I have a weak spot for Howling III: The Marsupials, though I'm not sure why. It's a terrible film, just like the others.

This one is better than them, but that doesn't mean it's a great film, even with some experienced actors lending their considerable talents. The leads, playing Michael's parents are Ronny Cox (from Deliverance, Beverly Hills Cop and Total Recall) and Bibi Besch (from Tremors and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). Michael himself is played by Paul Clemens, the son of Eleanor Parker. She got to be nominated for three Oscars and appear in films like The Sound of Music, but her son only got to play in things like this and a 2008 comedy horror short with the intriguing title of The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon.

Backing them up are reliable names like L Q Jones, John Dennis Johnston and R G Armstrong, all names you probably won't recognise behind faces that you probably will. In fact these are the people who really end up being the best reason for watching the film. Clemens tries, that's for certain, but he's just not really horrific, sympathetic or scary in the slightest. Cox and Besch are good, I guess, but they have almost nothing to do. Katherine Moffat fits into the same category, playing the closest thing there is to a love interest, and so does most of the rest of the cast.

Much of the fault has to lie with Mora but not all of it. There's a long transformation scene in which everyone just stands there and watches, even the guy with a shotgun who just broke in specifically to kill Michael. This scene is nothing but an elongated commercial for the special effects guy and it isn't even great work, considering that this was a year after An American Werewolf in London. There are lots of scenes that prompt the same sort of reaction: disbelief.

There are many parts of this movie that make no sense at all, not least the ending which would appear to be a cool cyclic thing but actually has no point whatsoever. I'm guessing the writer should bear a good deal of the blame, but that writer isn't Edward Levy. It's been a long while since I've read the book but I remember it being a lot better than this and somewhat different.

Saturday 11 October 2008

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)

Whenever popular culture generates new words or terms of reference, we should pay a little notice, at least those whose new words weren't invented purely for a publicity campaign. Walter Mitty's name still gets mentioned today, usually when talking about someone real and generally with pleasant intent, but I've never seen the Danny Kaye film that most people are probably referencing. I have read at least some of the original material by James Thurber, probably the short story rather than the novel, but the movie has more than Thurber, it has Danny Kaye too.

Kaye is Mitty of course. He's a proofreader, working at the Pierce Publishing Company, purveyors of pulp material: Racy Detective Stories, Sensational Murder, Wild Confessions, that sort of thing. Their motto may be 'Good Taste and Good Reading for Thirty Years' but their new title is Hospital Love Stories. He's a mild mannered chap from Greater Perth Amboy who feeds the pigeons from his window with an overbearing mother (Fay Bainter), an annoying fiancee (Ann Rutherford) and a mother-in-law (Florence Bates) with airs above her station.

Small wonder then that he spends his time dreaming about being a hero. Depending on what sparks his imagination, he quickly becomes Dr Walter Mitty or Wing Commander Mitty or Gaylord Mitty, riverboat gambler: always someone heroic. Then chance brings a beautiful young lady into his life who is full of mystery and danger. She's Rosalind van Hoorn, played with the perfect balance of girl next door and exotic secret agent by Virginia Mayo. Her uncle was director of a Dutch museum whose treasures were carefully and cunningly dispersed before the Nazis could get their hands on them, and while nobody knows where they all went, all their locations were written down in a little black book.

Needless to say the race is on to find it and the good guys and the bad guys are hot on its trail. The bad guys murder the good guys but the good guys slip it into Mitty's pocket. Suddenly he's stuck right in the middle of the sort of adventure he usually dreams of, but in real life though he finds being a hero nowhere near as easy as it seems in his imagination. Then again, how would you manage when Boris Karloff enters your office with the words 'I know a way to kill a man and leave no trace'?

Kaye is excellent here and he gets plenty of opportunity to shine, not just as Walter Mitty but as Walter Mitty in his various dream guises, even an imaginary Walter Mitty doing impersonations of other people. It's quite obvious that this material was made for him or he was made for it, just as Karloff's part as psychiatrist/assassin is hardly a stretch and something that he could do with panache even if he was asleep. Then again, James Thurber hated the film and saw this version of Mitty as nothing like he had intended: he apparently offered Samuel Goldwyn $10,000 to not make the film. Mayo is excellent and in their own ways, so are everyone else in the cast. They're all one dimensional characters, of course, because this is all about Mitty and there's depth galore in his character.

In fact there are many ways you could read the entire film. Obviously it could be read straight: he's the daydream hero caught up in a real situation that calls for heroism. It could be seen how it's suggested at one point: that he's gradually going insane, perhaps by the stress of his future marriage, and his work in pulp fantasy gives him the means. Given the connections to psychiatry, it could even be read as what comes out of a long session on the couch to find the roots of his issues. Whichever way you read it, it works, and while Mike Myers, who is remaking this film in 2010, would seem to be a viable successor to Danny Kaye, I bet the film won't be anywhere near as good as this one.