30th 07 - 2012 | 4 comments »

La belle équipe (1936)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Julien Duvivier

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I recently had a discussion with Jason Bellamy at his marvelous blog The Cooler about the relative merits of the 1942 biopic The Pride of the Yankees. I dislike that film intensely as a slapdash piece of hagiography, yet Jason argues persuasively that the film was an important morale booster for an American public suffering under the privations and fear that came with our involvement in World War II. Showing the courage with which Lou Gehrig faced his physical decline and death must have helped the millions of filmgoers who were facing death overseas or coming to terms with the loss of their loved ones.

In a similar vein, the 1930s saw a number of filmmakers around the world deal head on with the effects of the Great Depression and the threat of German aggression by making politically charged “popular front” movies, endorsed, but not sponsored, by the Communist Party. Popular front movies were characterized by a vigorously democratic approach, frequently dealing with the hardships of working-class life and the need to stand together to better our collective circumstances. Frank Borzage trained his camera on the unemployed in Man’s Castle (1933), and Leo McCarey combined the plight of unemployment and old age in the heartbreaking Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), while less serious-minded approaches to social problems could be found in Mervyn LeRoy’s Gold Diggers of 1933 and Louis Milestone’s Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933).

In France, filmmakers with socialist sensibilities attempted to stir the populace to fight both monied interests and fascism; the pinnacle of these films was, in my opinion, Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise (1938). Two years earlier, Renoir was mulling whether to direct La belle équipe, scripted by Charles Spaak, his collaborator on Grand Illusion (1937) and The Lower Depths (1936). In the end, Renoir’s friend Julien Duvivier took the reins. La belle équipe, which translates as the beautiful team, does indeed bring together a beautiful team of designers, cinematographer, and actors, led by the complex, charismatic performance of Jean Gabin, to tell a quintessential film of the popular front in Europe.

France’s revolutionary motto “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” finds its representatives in this film. Mario (Rafael Medina) represents the active revolutionary—a Spanish republican ejected from a number of countries who is one step ahead of the French authorities. He is in a serious relationship with Huguette (Micheline Cheirel), a piece worker in a dried flower factory whose name is redolent of religious persecution in France. Forced to abandon his hotel room to avoid the gendarmes who have been sniffing around, Mario arranges to meet Huguette at a bistro where their unemployed friends Jean (Jean Gabin), Raymond (Raymond Aimos), Charles (Charles Vanel), and Jacques (Charles Dorat) eat on the credit the proprietor (Charles Granvat) reluctantly extends. The friends sneak Mario into their one-room digs at the King of England, evading the badgering hotel manager (Jacques Baumer) for a time. Eventually, Mario is discovered, but as great luck would have it, the good news arrives that the men have won the national lottery and will split ₣100,000. The residents pour out of their rooms to celebrate and drink the cases of congratulatory wine Raymond has arranged.

Jacques talks of using his share to emigrate to Canada, Raymond wants to start a small machine shop in the country, but Jean suggests that if they pool their money, they could do more together than they could alone and still maintain their great camaraderie and friendship. He suggests they open a guinguette—an open-air café on a river to attract the boating crowd. The men row down a river a few miles outside of Paris, passing one grand home after another, as Raymond scoffs that such opulence is not fit for their proletarian spirit. Finally, they find a husk of a house, burned and for sale. Raymond imagines a castle tower, Jean sees an open-air dance floor, and before long, the men have purchased the derelict building and started working to transform it into “Chez Nous (Our Place),” a tribute to collective labor and shared rewards.

The lot of the working class and political progressive is aired, miraculously without making one feel terribly depressed. When Jacques falls for Huguette, he leaves for Canada rather than introduce disharmony into the enterprise. When the police catch up with Mario, the gendarme (Fernand Charpin) is a kind and sympathetic grandfather who gives Mario a day’s reprieve to attend the pre-opening party the men throw for all their friends from the old neighborhood, and even brings his grandchildren to enjoy the party. When Huguette decides to join Mario in exile, her sickly grandmother (Marcelle Géniat) offers her blessing and even finds the strength to waltz with Jean at the opening party. The generous esprit de corps of the working class that typifies popular front movies is well developed by the nuanced performances and warm and lively mise-en-scène Duvivier encourages.

The film is teeming with ingenious and pleasurable moments. Mario despairs of getting Huguette a gift for her birthday, but the friends have a solution. While one distracts the owner of the bistro, the others lift and tilt a skill claw crane machine to win items to give her. When she comes to the bistro, each holds out the prize they snagged—a clock, an eraser—with Mario presenting her with the present she hoped for, a make-up compact. The scene is innocent, funny, and perfectly timed to endear the audience to their attempts to please Huguette with a minor bit of larceny. Indeed, larceny is a fall-back position of the working class, but cheating a penny-arcade machine or avoiding the rent collector are seen as a way to balance the scale with the monied classes.

Another lovely scene involves the men rowing down the river and stopping at the burned property. Each of them gives himself over to Raymond’s reverie, walking through the shell and imagining what they could do with the place. It’s a leap-of-faith moment, as the building is in extremely rough condition, but each of the actors helps us see what he sees with enthusiasm and imagination. When the construction is threatened by a violent storm, and the roof starts to blow away, we are horror-stricken and then encouraging as the men climb up in the downpour and use their bodies to hold the tiles down through the night.

The most serious threat to the enterprise is femme fatale Gina (Viviane Romance), the estranged wife of Charles. Unlike the more vicious American femmes fatale, Gina is merely a greedy hedonist. She manipulates a still-smitten Charles into giving her part of his winnings—they are still married, she reminds him—and lures Jean into an affair when he goes to her Paris apartment to reclaim the money, needed to repair the damage done by the storm. Jealousy threatens to tear the comrades apart; both Charles and Jean find Gina irresistible, and she lies without compunction to get what she wants or to seek revenge. It is a bit disconcerting to hear Jean exclaim about fraternal friendship being the more noble and lasting bond, but there is something so quintessentially French about examining the folly of love that it’s hard to feel offended. It must also be acknowledged that the women in the film are not caricatures, with Huguette a real part of the team and Gina a strong, if negative, agent of her own life, refusing to let Jean shame her for posing for nude photographs.

My cousin, who has lived in Paris for many years, relayed some comments she heard about French detective films to me: “The difference between American films and French ones is that the American ones have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the end is usually happy. In the French film, things happen every which way, and we can’t really follow who’s doing what why. And someone almost always ends up dead.” While La belle équipe isn’t a detective film, someone does indeed end up dead. In fact, there is an alternate, tragic ending to the happy one of the print the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs delivered from France to the theater; reportedly, rather than having one or the other, French audiences usually see both endings in succession when the film is screened.

Remains of “Chez Nous” can still be found on the riverbank where it was constructed. Tourists occasionally visit it out of curiosity and to remind themselves of a traditional type of communal meeting place that has declined in France. For modern film audiences in any country, La belle équipe is a wonderful reminder that a popular front that offered courage and camaraderie to people bent by fear and poverty is part of our heritage, with pleasures and lessons for a new generation.


15th 07 - 2012 | 5 comments »

No Greater Glory (1934)

Director: Frank Borzage

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In the early decades of cinema, the line between family films and adult films was not as rigidly drawn as it is today. While filmmakers were as fond of sentimentalizing children then as we seem to be of marginalizing them now, the variety of roles children played was much more varied and nuanced. No Greater Glory, a true family film, delivers a potent message from one of the most antiwar filmmakers of all time, Frank Borzage.

Borzage was a genius at finding the humanity in any situation and rendering it as an eye-opening experience by burrowing into the effects of social forces on individuals. No Greater Glory has what seems to be a simple plot—two neighborhood clubs of boys, too innocent to call gangs, fighting over a vacant lot—but uses it to show us the warrior roles they have already internalized from their society and how playing soldier is preparing them for actual combat.

The Paul Street Boys and the rival Red Shirts both seek control of the only open lot, a lumberyard, in their part of bustling Budapest. The younger and smaller Paul Street Boys fear the Red Shirts, but after hearing their teacher give a gassy speech about what a great honor it is to fight and die for one’s country, the youngsters decide to organize to fight for their playground. The boys meet to elect a president: Boka (Jimmy Butler) wins easily over Gereb (Jackie Searl) and takes command of the clubhouse and its army of boys.

Ernö Nemecsek (George P. Breakston), because he is smaller than any of the other Paul Street Boys, is the only boy with the rank of private (“Every army has its privates, and you’re ours,” says Boka) and desperately wants to get a commission and wear an officer’s cap. When a small band of Red Shirts steals the club’s flag from atop their clubhouse, Boka agrees to take Nemecsek on a mission to retrieve it, which Nemecsek hopes will earn him a commission. Nemecsek braves every terror, including a fall into the river they must row down to reach the Red Shirts’ assembly and hiding in a freezing pond in the botanic garden where the Red Shirts hold their meetings, a frog croaking in his face. Failing to recapture their flag, they discover instead that Gereb has thrown in with the Red Shirts and bribed the lumberyard guard to eject the Paul Street Boys and let the Red Shirts take over.

Nemecsek catches a cold from the damp and defies his parents’ orders to stay home so that he can return to the garden and complete his mission to recapture the flag. He is discovered and repeatedly dunked in the river by the Red Shirts until their leader Feri Ats (Frankie Darro) calls his soldiers off. Feri Ats and Boka meet to discuss the rules of a war to decide the fate of the lot, while Nemecsek lies gravely ill with pneumonia. A feverish Nemecsek receives his captain’s commission and cap from Boka just before the grand battle, his only thought to get up and join his comrades in arms in defending their playground.

Borzage was one of the very few directors in Hollywood to deal with the plight of Jews in Europe in the lead-up to American involvement in World War II. No Greater Glory is based on the autobiographical book by Hungarian playwright and novelist Ferenc Molnár, a Jew who escaped Nazi persecution in the mid 1930s, and the screenplay was written by Jo Swerling, a Jew who fled persecution in Russia. While the religious affiliations of the characters in No Greater Glory are not revealed, it’s not hard to read between the lines: young Nemecsek’s father (Ralph Morgan) is an impoverished tailor who, in lieu of payment, offers to make a suit or topcoat for a dismissive physician who comes to examine his ailing son and writes him off as a goner. Nemecsek himself is the only private in the Paul Street Boys, that is, the only human private—the other is a dog—an allusion to the subhuman status of Jews among anti-Semites. His desperate need to belong is a typical desire for children, but the lowly rank he has been assigned emphasizes his outsider status in microcosm and poses a real danger to him on a macrocosmic level.

Nonetheless, the film doesn’t get carried away with its larger message. The boys retain their youthful attitudes and concerns as they enact their mock war with a thin veneer of solemnity, with boys missing drills because they have to go home for dinner and other real-world restraints on children. The boys’ war is ingeniously rendered, with the creation of sand bombs and traps to capture the invading Red Shirts offering full range to the children’s imagination and fun. Their martinet attitudes suggest those of the pre-World War I gentleman soldier (the book was published in 1908), defanging the war game just a bit and elevating it as a noble venture.

Of course, after the obscene slaughter of the Great War, it would be hard to ever again see militarism in the same rarified light. Borzage’s addition of elements that tout the evils of war is sometimes very clumsy; for example, he introduces an antiwar tone with a heavy-handed opening scene in which a wounded soldier cries out his anguish and opposition to fighting from a field hospital in World War I to contrast the immediate cut to the gung-ho schoolteacher indoctrinating his impressionable students on its virtues. Despite Borzage’s efforts, the trajectory of the film comes down harder on the side of noble sacrifice, as Nemecsek finds acceptance by lying to protect the traitor Gerek from his angry father, as well as putting his life in danger to help his comrades. Unavoidably, perhaps, the fallen soldier receives the kinds of honors he probably would not have achieved in life, perpetuating the idea that the least of us can attain glory by dying in a socially acceptable way.

Nonetheless, Borzage finds both ironic and emotionally powerful ways for us to understand the human costs of war. The title of the film comes from a quote that offers a full measure of irony to the film:

No greater glory can be handed down than to conquer the barbarian, to recall the savage and the pagan to civility, to draw the ignorant within the orbit of reason, and to fill with reverence for divinity the godless and the ungodly. —Richard Hakluyt, letter to Sir Walter Raleigh

Children are among those needing to be civilized, and the film shows that the barbarity of war is the instrument by which our supposedly civilized societies channel their reckless savagery. Yet the instinct of a parent’s love is brought forward as a truer expression of reverence. Both Ralph Morgan and Lois Wilson give very sensitive, heartfelt performances as Nemecsek’s parents, genuinely worried about their son, scolding him for his own good to stay in and nurse his cold. Morgan’s conflict between attending to a customer and staying with his sick boy is excruciatingly real, and Wilson’s tears strong enough to provoke unfettered grieving not only among the cast of boys, but also this audience member. Soldiers were all children once, and their loss in war is nothing to be proud of, but rather something to grieve as a waste of the tender care with which they were raised to do something wonderful in the world. It was a bitter pill for me to learn that Jimmy Butler, easily the best of the boy actors, would have his promising life cut short on a World War II battlefield in France two days shy of his 24th birthday.

The film has its flaws. Affecting camera work, such as an atmospheric nighttime scene of a marble game under a bridge and the truly interesting angles of the lumberyard action, mix with cheap back projection and a sped-up camera during the mock war, leading to an inconsistent look that tends to take one out of the picture. The mass scene of mourners at the end of the film seemed unnecessary and cheapened the genuine emotion of the previous scene for me. But the weakest link by far was George Breakston. He was, no doubt, told to act annoying to justify his second-class status with the Paul Street Boys, but Breakston just was not able to integrate his pleading dialogue and incessant attempts to whistle through his fingers as the natural actions of a fully developed character. I didn’t grieve for him because of intrinsic qualities Breakston brought out in Nemecsek, but rather because everyone around him was so good at eliciting emotions from me. Because Nemecsek is the main character, this flaw is not minor.

Nonetheless, No Greater Glory offers the kind of dignity to the plight of the young that makes it a stand-out family film. As our era offers little for children to consume but comic book and animated films that often seem more aimed toward the adults who must accompany their children to the movies, I unreservedly recommend No Greater Glory as a film truly fit for the whole family.


27th 06 - 2012 | 6 comments »

Counsellor at Law (1933)

Director: William Wyler

By Marilyn Ferdinand

This review is an entry in the William Wyler Blogathon, hosted by The Movie Projector.

“In the beginning was the Word.” Atheist Elmer Rice, author of the play Counsellor at Law as well as its screenplay, disagreed with what the Bible said that word was, choosing instead to make all words his god. He made a successful career as a playwright and screenwriter, and was lucky enough to find his perfect director in William Wyler. A rarity among Hollywood directors, Wyler respected the words on the page and did little to shape them into an auteuristic vision. His self-described mission was to entertain and make a lot of money, a stance to filmmaking that sent his star plummeting from the skies when the mid-century French critics anointed a canon of auteurs that expressly excluded him.

The fact that Wyler was content to be a showman did not preclude him from having a few expressive tics that show themselves in Counsellor at Law, a stagebound film that nonetheless allowed him to showcase some truly dazzling dialog. Further, sharing a Jewish background with Rice allowed Wyler to coach the badly miscast patrician John Barrymore to a halfway believable performance as a Jewish lawyer whose Lower East Side roots make his marriage to a blueblood with two children a decidely lopsided alliance.

In common with many films of the day, Counsellor at Law has the fast pace and snappy humor of a screwball comedy. Switchboard operator/receptionist Bessie Green (Isabel Jewell) adopts a rat-a-tat, sing-song style to answer phone calls and greet clients that might have been less grating and more funny if it had been played with more of a Jewish spin to it. A controlled chaos within the office, underlined by Jewell’s manic delivery, conveys the rapid-fire business of the successful law practice of George Simon (Barrymore) and John Tedesco (Onslow Stevens). Two Italian clients wait for Tedesco, peppering the dialog with their native language. Several people want to see Mr. Simon, including Zedorah Chapman (Mayo Methot), whom Simon has just defended successfully in a murder trial; Sarah Becker (Malka Kornstein), a friend from the old neighborhood who wants Simon to defend her son Harry (director-to-be Vincent Sherman), who has been roughed up and arrested by the cops for making pro-Communist speeches; and Charlie McFadden (John Hammond Daily), a process server and investigator Simon rescued from a life of crime.

In one of his characteristic flourishes, Wyler teases the audience like another client waiting in line by keeping Simon out of sight; our lead-up to the “reveal” is Barrymore’s hands working the phones on his desk. When Barrymore finally appears, it seems designed to encourage applause, a frequent occurrence in the theatre when the big-name star makes his or her first entrance and a nod to the stage origins of the film. Over-the-shoulder shots with delayed reaction shots, a Wyler staple, also dot Counsellor at Law. The most effective one shows Harry standing, his fist clenched, when he hears Cora’s children disparage the working class. When we finally do see his beaten face wild with anger, Wyler switches to the children and moves slowly in on their frightened faces.

Among the clichés of the script is Simon’s hard-working, ultra-efficient secretary “Rexy” Gordon (Bebe Daniels), a beautiful, young woman whose unrequited love for her boss plays out in painful expressions every time she must interact with his snobbish wife Cora (Doris Kenyon) and her repeated rebuffs of law clerk Herbert Wineberg’s (Marvin Kline) too-frequent attempts to ask her out. Wineberg’s persistence is deeply annoying, but Daniels’ beautifully modulated distress and growing agitation make these scenes a somewhat harrowing experience.

Another cliché is Simon’s mother Lena (Clara Langsner), a patient, self-effacing Yiddishe mama who repeatedly answers “I’ve got all the time in the world” when she is kept waiting to see her son. Nonetheless, Wyler keeps Langsner from overdoing it or tipping over into melodrama when she tries to guilt Simon into helping his wastrel brother David out of yet another jam or offering a hurt look when she speaks with Cora and it becomes clear that she has not seen Cora’s children in some time. I got a delightful jolt when Barrymore called his brother a gonif (crook), a beautifully integrated Yiddish expression that almost made me forget Barrymore’s perfect British profile.

The disconnect between Barrymore’s appearance and his character was a serious handicap for me; indeed, I could have seen Melvyn Douglas, who played a rival for Cora’s affection, as a better choice to play George. Yet, Barrymore offered a kind of intensity that stayed kosher, and suggested the avarice of his profession without making it a stereotype of the grasping Jew. When he lathers over a potential $100,000 payday that would compromise a friend of his wife’s, his eyes could light half of Manhattan; however, like the doting Jewish husband, he lets the suit go to please Cora.

George has blinded himself to his real position in his family—Cora’s children from a previous marriage, Dorothy (Barbara Perry) and Richard Dwight (future director Richard Quine), disdain George and proudly declare their father is in Washington, DC, yet George persists in calling himself their father. When he learns that Cora is abandoning him, his despair goes a bit too big, but Wyler achieved the appropriate somberness by keeping Barrymore in the shadows and having Daniels interrupt his intended leap out a window in a very quick scene that doesn’t allow for too much mugging for the camera.

Many small comic moments brighten the film. For example, when the adults who see Dorothy and Richard unfailingly exclaim, “my, how you’ve grown,” or words to that effect, not only does young Richard predict their comments, but he also adds, “What do they expect us to do? Get smaller?” Wise-cracking Bessie insults an inattentive boyfriend with, “Sure I missed you—like Booth missed Lincoln.” Middle-aged, ample secretary Goldie Rindskopf (Angela Jacobs) moves languidly through the office, her broad beam a vision of delight for the two Italians and a thoroughly refreshing, if superficial look at the sex appeal of an older woman.

Rice studied and practiced law for a short while, and his jaundiced view of the profession, from the emotional tricks and fake alibis that help lawyers get criminals acquitted, to the lobbying on behalf of big business and the flexible fees to cover losses, gets a full airing in the actions of George Simon. Class conflict is also well represented in the scenario, but anti-Semitism is only vaguely alluded to. Rice had seen the rise of the Nazis during a trip to Germany in 1932, but with only a few exceptions—most notably, the films of Frank Borzage—the studios stayed far away from the impending calamity; Counsellor at Law is no exception. Nonetheless, George Simon remains a fairly sympathetic character, and the subtext of presumed Aryan superiority represented by Cora and her set gives this film the kind of meat a thorough professional like Wyler could sink his teeth into.


30th 05 - 2012 | 6 comments »

Hell’s Angels (1930)

Directors: Howard Hughes, James Whale, Edmund Goulding

By Roderick Heath

Few movie productions can be described as legendary events, but the making of Hell’s Angels has surely achieved that status. This mythologising reached its zenith with Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), which documented the extraordinary dash and cash expended on Howard Hughes’ would-be blockbuster. If one takes the modern concept of the blockbuster as a form that tries to dazzle an audience by constantly pushing its expectations for spectacle on screen, then Hell’s Angels is 1930’s equivalent of Star Wars (1977), Avatar (2009), and The Avengers (2012) wrapped up in one. Discounting early works like Intolerance (1916) where nobody really knew how much was spent on them, Hell’s Angels set a record for expense that took nearly 20 years to break, and it was released in the midst of the Great Depression, when Hollywood was starting to be more aware and wary of its profligate tendencies. Yet Hell’s Angels eventually piled up nearly $18 million at the box office and made Jean Harlow a movie star. All in all, not bad for an independent film. Hughes was, at the time, little more than a clever rich kid bedazzled by planes and movies, seeking to combine those two obsessions into one massive project. He poured his personal gusto and finances into a labour of love that took four years to complete, saw him wield the largest private air force in the world to make his vision come true, and resulted in the deaths of four airmen.

As that death toll alarmingly suggests, for anyone with admiration for the time when moviemaking meant really doing death-defying stuff, Hell’s Angels is still a rousing, hair-raising experience, yet the film itself has been largely neglected, even dismissed. Perhaps, such treatment suggests that’s one other thing it has in common with the modern blockbuster: grandiose spectacle allied to inconsequential drama. That’s not true, or at least not entirely. Yes, the basic plot of Hell’s Angels is pretty hackneyed: two brothers, one girl, war enough for all. As prejudicial as it sounds, Michael Bay’s awful Pearl Harbor (2001) can in some ways be described as its remake. But Hell’s Angels has, like many early talkies, an eccentric energy and an elastic and lawless sense of the new cinema on top of Hughes’ untrammelled creative vision that marks it as nearly sui generis, an exemplar from the time before Hollywood had firmly fashioned new templates and moulds for sound-era cinema.

The basic plot is just that, a framework around which the filmmakers weave a strangely antiheroic, erotically provocative, and morally open-ended drama, one that delves as insidiously and unremittingly into the notion of the Great War as a cultish auto-da-fé as many more self-consciously arty attempts. It definitely belongs in the front line, with The Big Parade (1926) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), of the era’s WWI dramas. Still, Hughes was no actor’s director, and to handle the dramatic portions of the film, he went through three directors, including two truly talented helmsmen on the rise in Hollywood. Edmund Goulding, who was to become MGM’s reputed lion tamer of star egos, moved in after Marshall Neilan took an early powder. When Hughes decided to reshoot most of the film as a talkie, and Goulding had moved on, he hired British war veteran James Whale, then still largely unknown except for having directed the stage play Journey’s End. Whale only finished up with a credit for having “staged” the dialogue by Joseph Moncure March, who retrofitted Harry Behn and Howard Estabrook’s original scenario. Whale’s touch is, however, apparent throughout Hell’s Angels, in the eccentric scene shaping, the increasingly neurotic mood that permeates the drama, a greater interest in character behaviour than dramatic beats, and an intuitively engaged attempt to reconcile the theatrical settings he was used to with new cinematic freedoms, an intuition that would reach florid heights in the likes of Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1932).

In the end, this was certainly Hughes’ baby, and it stands far above most of Hughes’ oeuvre: unlike The Outlaw (1943) and his big ’50s productions, Hell’s Angels isn’t chiefly a showman’s stunt, but a true attempt to make the biggest, boldest, and best movie he could. Scorsese wasn’t the only filmmaker impressed: Stanley Kubrick considered it one of his favourites, and elements of its ironic mix of antiwar saga and character drama with pervasive sexuality might have had an influence on Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), where, as in Hell’s Angels, that death-cult quality of war culminates in an act of self-sacrifice that result in mutual annihilation. The film also looks forward to attempts to paint war as a condition in which characters eddy in islets of frantic behaviour, like Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) or Phil Karlson’s Hell to Eternity (1960), in the face of impending death. Hughes’ film certainly displays a fascinating approach to the action-adventure tale that forms its heart in that he’s not out to simply wow the audience with bravura flimflam, but also to evoke a vision of warfare that is at once exhilarating and gruelling.

Hell’s Angels follows a familiar arc in tracing three young men, friends at Oxford, and their fates in the coming struggle. It opens in Germany just before the war, where German Karl Armstedt (John Darrow) is spending break with his English friends, brothers Monte (Ben Lyon) and Roy Rutledge (James Hall). Libidinous and variably honourable, the young men are up to the usual business of young men, and Monte passes on a German girl he’s picked up onto a bemused Karl so he can pursue classier game: Monte, the quintessential lover not a fighter, is caught in flagrante delicto with the Baroness Von Kranz (Jane Winton) by her husband the Baron (Lucien Prival), a peerless Prussian officer who, with coolly humorous dignity, presents Monte with his card to arrange the necessary satisfaction. Monte, having no intention of risking death in such a fashion, packs his bags and flees the country, but Roy, who trails clanging old-fashioned qualities like cans on string, poses as his brother for the Baron’s friends, fronts up to the dawn duel in a strikingly geometric, expressionistic scene, and cops a bullet in the arm. When the young trio are reunited at Oxford, news of the outbreak of the war on the continent sends Karl into an episode of anguish whilst Monte ignores it entirely. Karl leaves soon enough for his homeland. Roy quickly joins up, an act Monte, who maintains an ethical as well as personality-dictated pacifism, initially spurns. But he’s soon roped in by the promise of a kiss from a girl (rising starlet Marian Marsh) at a Royal Flying Corps recruiting station.

Undergraduate hijinks give way to the initially, collectively invigorating new reality, as Roy and Monte finish up as trainee pilots together, whilst society reorganises itself according to the new exigencies of war. Roy is head over heels in love with the upper-crust proto-flapper Helen (Harlow), the daughter of Lady Randolph (Evelyn Hall). Monte avoids meeting his brother’s object of fancy on the assumption she’ll be someone as drably upright as him. Roy is roped in to helping organise a ball Lady Randolph gives for departing servicemen and the girls, including Helen, who are joining the canteen service she’s sponsoring. The ball, filmed in a two-colour process, is an interlude of ebullient fin-de-siecle romanticism where Helen and her various boy-toys flit in and out of the shadowy garden like Shakespearean nymphs before a fall. Of course, the moment Monte claps eyes on Helen, sparks fly, to the point where they absent themselves from the party for a tryst in Helen’s apartment. Cue Harlow’s contribution to the language, “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?” as Monte is startled to find her someone who surpasses himself in libertine indulgence. An elided sex scene later, Monte is immediately stricken with self-disgust for betraying his brother, who idolises Helen: he sparks Helen’s catty wrath, and he tries to warn Roy that Helen isn’t the girl he’s romanticising, but Roy will need more direct evidence.

Helen embodies the shattering of apparent faiths that becomes the leitmotif of Hell’s Angels, as she refuses to play the beauteous embodiment of femininity to be defended, and rather treats the war as a smorgasbord of attractive masculinity just as the lads acted in peace time, an act that is consciously equated with the way the men use themselves up in the interests of systems that have no apparent interest in them. Early in the film, Monte watches as a radical preaches against the war, shouting “Down with capitalism! Down with war!”, only to be assaulted by the crowd; Monte’s bemused disquiet at the scene prefigures his own mounting misgivings about the great adventure. It’s fascinating to see Hughes, who finished up as the American Right’s ogrish caricature of its own paranoias, playing at radical chic in places throughout this film, which encompasses some of the popular anger of the postwar period against war profiteers and manipulative official rhetoric. Rather, war becomes a kind of heroic-sentimental religion of sacrifice, a note that reaches an apotheosis in one specific scene. Monte, as the only one who senses this and becomes almost schizoid in his simultaneous wish to prove his mettle whilst his good sense says run away, whittles him down, and he emerges a tragic antihero. Roy continues to live in a bubble of romantic certainties, whilst Monte, at once cynical and too aware of the underlying reality, is unable to maintain a stoic front and devolves into wild swings between tremulous anxiety and stony, maniacal bravado.

Made before the war film had become a programmatic genre, and indeed probably contributing many clichés-to-be to its lexicon, Hell’s Angels, like others from the spurt of WWI epics of its time, tries to encompass war as an entire social experience, not focusing merely on individuals in combat, but also on the jarring shift from civilian mores to military ones, and trying to summarise aspects of the milieu’s ethos and tragedy. To that end, Hughes and Whale offer a sprawl of discursive yet organic observation, in illustrative vignettes like the kiss that catches Monte in a moment of very Chaplinesque character comedy and the hectic group shots that punctuate it, from scenes of Germans eating and drinking and the giddy young Oxfordians, to the carousing soldiers that sprawl with Hogarthian humanity. Such shots, essayed with a technically impressive depth of field, try to give the film a constant, recurring contrast between the business of life in communities, endlessly rich, and the ruthlessness of the warfare.

There are almost essayistic excursions detailing the machinery of war—not just its technology, but its intricacies, from men receiving their uniforms to the arts of trying to catch zeppelins, parliamentarians announcing the war, power workers rushing to shut off the lights of London during a bombing raid, and shots exploring the workings of aircraft engines with a precise and fetishistic ebullience. Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive engineer’s sense of synergistic detail is here, albeit influenced thoroughly by the more sophisticated filmmakers of the ’20s, with hints of Vidor, Eisenstein, and Dziga Vertov evident. Hell’s Angels is technically superlative and brilliantly shot, the film’s one Oscar nomination having been for Tony Gaudio and Harry Perry’s cinematography and, as with many early sound films, the lack of nondiagetic music except at the credits is noticeable in the way one can sense the filmmakers not leaning on it to sustain and punctuate scenes. Instead, they unfold the story with a mixture of the theatrical and the naturalistic, which is perhaps one reason why I find a lot of movies from the period perversely more modern than much of what was made 10 or 20 years later. In a touch that notably captures the conventions of cinema changing from the silent to sound era, rather than subtitles or, as would usually be the practise until the ’70s, just having the German characters speak accented English to each other, silent-style title cards are used to translate their conversations. Hell’s Angels is also a quintessential pre-Code film, as good old-fashioned cursing and flickers of adult sexuality make it through where the later, much finer mesh of the Hays Office would have caught them—not that Hughes stopped trying to get one over on them.

Most importantly, it’s the lack of artifice Hughes wanted and achieved that makes Hell’s Angels a spellbinding show. Whilst one major set-piece involves model work, that work is remarkably good, the climax involves colossal acts of set destruction and dazzling aerial feats. Hughes shows his cast clearly braving the skies for stunts free of back projection and other tricks, heightening the sensation of real danger these sequences project. Whilst the drama of Hell’s Angels isn’t the peripheral distraction it’s often painted, this movie is, of course, chiefly an almighty action film, and it really catches fire in the first major set-piece action sequence, as a zeppelin mounts a bombing raid on London. Here, Hughes is attentive to a duel of war technique, as the airship lowers a man in a cockpit down through the clouds to spot where bombs should be dropped, whilst opponents on the ground listen with amplifying equipment for the sounds of the airship’s engines. Of course, the spotter for the zeppelin is Karl, turning his intimate knowledge of the city to use at the encouragement of the ship’s memorably intense, scar-faced Captain (Carl von Haartman), or at least he’s supposed to be. Queasy at the thought of bombing the city he loves, he instead misdirects the Captain to release his payload into a lake, the eruptions boiling and flashing under the water with a strange, alchemic beauty. News that an RFC squadron, including Roy and Monte, is chasing the zeppelin forces the Captain, in his need to gain altitude rapidly and desperation to keep the airship out of British hands, to lighten the ship by the most expeditious means available. His crew thus begin hurling themselves overboard in a consummation of perverse nationalistic liebestod. Not only that, but with Karl still dangling on his slowly lifting cockpit, the Captain orders the cable cut. The crewman who brings to bear a massive pair of chain cutters wimps out, so the Captain, declaring “Für Kaiser und Vaterland!”, does the job himself, and Karl plunges like a stone to his death. So much for him and the Fatherland.

As the RFC planes catch the zeppelin, Roy and Monte’s aircraft is damaged, forcing them to make a crash landing whilst the others continue the chase. The German gunners manage to beat off most of the attackers, the zeppelin’s titanic bulk gliding darkly through the eerily boiling nocturnal clouds, and the airplanes weave and dodge around it as they uselessly pepper it with bullets. But patriotic fanaticism meets its match as one of the British flyers, determined to bring the prey down, performs a suicidal dive from high above, and the exploding leviathan plunges to earth, nearly crushing Roy and Monte as they flee their plane’s wreckage. For most films, such a bravura sequence would be the climax, and the quality of special effects on display here is as high as anything Hollywood would see in the next 40 years. My earlier reference to Star Wars wasn’t entirely glib: it’s difficult to watch this scene and not recognise its conceptual influence, whether direct or as distant root, on the Death Star assault that climaxed Lucas’ film. Hell’s Angels shifts focus after an intermission to the Western Front, with the kind of stoic camaraderie that Hemingway was famous for projecting onto postwar civilian life, and which Whale’s stage work Journey’s End had also detailed is the norm. Monte, eaten up, unleashes his angry, sullen, hysterical feelings in a tirade against that code of grace under pressure, an explosion of rhetorical feeling that’s as excruciatingly exposed as a goldfish flapping on the carpet.

Harlow, still a teenager possessing a slightly baby-faced, but defined predatory power, became the star with her speciality for playing vixenish blondes, but she was obviously still learning, and some of the other performances, including the inert Darrow, are unspectacular. Lyons is very much the driving human element in a theatrical but often volubly urgent fashion: moving from the slightly flaky rake of the early scenes to his blistering tirade in the flyers’ mess, he pulls off the mad swings between cool determination, sozzled disinterest, and crumbling character. As stock as the situations are, Hughes and Whale let their actors play them out with a conscious resistance to melodramatic emphases: when Roy discovers that Helen isn’t the woman he thought she was, there’s no subsequent revelation why Monte already knew that. Monte simply drags his brother away and helps him drown his sorrows with clingy French courtesans.

Roy and Monte happen upon Helen making out with drunken abandon with a moustachioed officer in a moment of surprising carnality. When Monte subsequently wants to shirk their duty, his brother at first acquiesces, and finally drunkenly reminds Monte that they’ll be shot if they don’t turn up. They venture into battle sozzled and depressed, a vision of official heroism as adjunct to personal, existential crisis. The actual mission the brothers set off on is a virtual suicide jaunt to bomb a German arms depot as a prelude to a big push that might work with the ammunition supply suddenly curtailed. The duo are given a captured German Gotha bomber, with all the speed and manoeuvrability in the air of a flying whale, to penetrate enemy air space, and in an truly epic piece of bad luck, drop their bombs that destroy the enemy depot just as Von Richthofen (Wilhelm von Brincken) and his Flying Circus are flying by.

What follows is an amazing piece of cinema, both in concept and execution, as the German pilots circle the bomber tauntingly, a frantic Monte battling them off as Roy tries to drive the cumbersome machine toward their oncoming friends in their squadron: the fighters run interference as the bomber tries to make it to the end-zone, and Roy and Monte’s likably eccentric squadron pal Baldy Maloney (Roy Wilson) does desperate battle with a German lieutenant, Von Bruen (Frank Clarke), who fixes upon the bomber. When the two sides collide (some literally), all hell breaks loose in a sequence that resembles the eye-popping drive of modern special-effects cinema without special effects, but it still runs on the same sense of quicksilver, observant detail as other parts of the film: a pilot takes a quick nip of courage from a secreted bottle as he’s being chased down, another waves farewell to the man who just shot him, and shots that present with surgical detail bullets tearing motors and men apart. Hughes’ constant use of cameras mounted in the nose of the aircraft makes it a relentlessly experiential affair, as the dying pilots spit blood or cry in agony as their planes spiral madly to earth, sun and sky turning into abstract maelstroms. In cumulative effect, it’s less a standard action sequence than a scene squarely in a tradition of the opening of Saving Private Ryan (1998), trying to both thrill and horrify in accounting war as a fundamental process of intimate destruction. Hughes’ approach is made all the more intense by the lack of trick photography, and the obvious guts of the men doing this stuff. Pilots are riddled with bullets, roasted alive, and plunge pell-mell into the earth, including one jaw-dropping stunt Hughes finished up doing himself because none of the other pilots, many of whom were real veterans of the war’s aerial battles, would dare it; Hughes ended up crashing, receiving only minor injuries. Finally, Baldy manages to best the German pursuing his comrades, only for Von Richthofen, circling with Olympian interest in the contest, to swoop in and finish the bomber off.

The finale offers one of those wickedly intense moral quandaries that often arise in the war movie, as Roy and Monte, taken captive by the Germans, are faced with being shot quickly unless they spill the beans about where the upcoming attack will fall: for a final fateful joke, their interrogator proves to be Baron Von Kranz, who suggests the far less romanticised, more serpentine and aggressively purposeful twin to the humane Prussian Junker Erich Von Stroheim would later play in La Grande Illusion (1937). Monte, unable to cope with the fear of death, wants to spill the beans, so Roy cleverly manipulates Von Kranz into giving him a gun to kill Monte to cover up his own intended treachery. Considering how much of the film has equated war with sex and fidelity, both adventure and trial by combat, it finally segues into equating it with acts of familial loyalty. The story resolves in the gruesome spectacle of Roy shooting his brother in the back in what is finally more a mercy killing—Monte is happy he’s been saved from his own worst impulse—than fratricide, and the act of brotherly love is equated with what the two finally extract from their sacrifice, the chance for their brothers in arms to avoid being slaughtered. A final glimpse of victory partly mediates the bleakly deadpan shot of a depressed and sourly acquiescent Von Kranz, in his office, listening as Roy is marched out to meet his own deliverance, having proven that his own values were worth something, at the highest possible personal price. Over 80 years later, Hell’s Angels remains visceral, thrilling, and damn entertaining.


24th 05 - 2012 | 6 comments »

The Captain Hates the Sea (1934)

Director: Lewis Milestone

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The last time I mentioned John Gilbert in a review, it led to a lively discussion about why I was cracked not to give The Artist (2011) my full endorsement. The argument was good-natured, but I was dead serious about my objection to the propagation of myths surrounding John Gilbert, who seemed to me to be the model for George Valentin. John Gilbert was a very good actor with an enormously likeable screen presence, and the tragedy of his ouster by the studio bosses during the beginning years of the sound era, his rampant alcoholism replacing his screen career, and his fatal heart attack in 1936 at the age of 36 is one many latter-day fans like me still mourn.

I recently had the opportunity to view Gilbert’s last film on the big screen, the little-seen, almost-forgotten The Captain Hates the Sea. In it, Gilbert plays Steve Bramley, a character uncomfortably close to himself: an alcoholic reporter/would-be writer who can’t seem to get down to working on his first novel. His Greek chorus of a role lends a haunted quality to the assemblage of comic and tragic characters who come together in a Grand Hotel on the high seas to live out their personal dramas on the decks of a cruise ship bound from Los Angeles to New York City.

We are introduced immediately to the godhead of the story, Captain Helquist (Walter Connolly), who talks with two reporters about why he hates his job. He can’t stand being in charge of a cruise ship filled with the hoi polloi carrying on their sordid, uninteresting affairs. When asked why he went to sea to begin with, he tells a story of his long-bearded father who used to slurp his soup while resting his head on his bent arm; one day, the temptation to knock his father’s arm out from under him proved too great, and as soon as the old man had picked his beard out of his meal, he flung his son out to make his fortune. Naturally, this wonderful tale with echoes to Synge’s Playboy of the Western World must be played out for us—a passenger (Donald Meek) with a similarly long beard and identical table habits is seated on his right at the captain’s table by Helquist’s buffoonish first mate Layton (Leon Errol). The film is loaded with character actors who are adept at playing small parts indelibly, and this triumvirate of great character actors provides a great number of comic bits that liven the proceedings.

So, too, does the rich widow Yolanda Magruder (Alison Skipworth), another of the captain’s tablemates. The imperious matron blows into the dining room like a nor’easter and clamps her amorous attentions onto young sharp Danny Checkett (Fred Keating), whom private dick Junius Schulte (Victor McLaglen) pays Layton to seat with the captain so that he can make time with a beautiful woman of interest to them both, librarian Janet Grayson (Helen Vinson). This trio brings criminal intrigue on board. Schulte, a former cop, tangled with robber Checkett often during his career. Now, Schulte is working for a client to find $250,000 in missing bonds he feels sure Checkett stole. Janet, Checkett’s accomplice and would-be wife, has them hidden from both men. Games of hide and seek, crosses and double-crosses abound, as the essential humanity of Schulte and Janet plays against Danny’s light-hearted avarice. Schulte’s rescue of a woman overboard thrills Janet and turns her false romance with Schulte into the real thing.

One of the dark edges of the film comes from Steve’s onboard friend General Salazaro (Akim Tamiroff). Steve watches Salazaro, a revolutionary well known to the newspaperman, bid a tearful farewell to his wife and young son as he makes his way to yet another revolutionary hot spot. The men talk about the numerous uprisings in which the general has played a part, and the general tells him the most dangerous ones are the ones that succeed. He proves it later in the film when he is escorted by a member of revolutionary forces he planned to join and is executed, the revolution having ended before the general’s arrival. The story alludes to the continuous upheavals in a revolutionary Mexico that were in the news even when this film came out, and parallels the shifting loyalties of the much lighter love triangle at the core of the film.

Another dark spot involves the Jeddocks (Wynne Gibson and John Wray), a mismatched couple if ever there was one. Goldie was a hooker whom her husband decided to rescue from the gutter. A social climber, Jeddock is always criticizing his wife for her downscale style—a simple stumble on the gangway to the ship earns Goldie a severe tongue-lashing, and when she orders a sloe gin fizz and Schulte remarks that only hookers drink them, Jeddock hits the roof. We can assume sexual desire caused the union, and fear keeps Goldie in it, but it has made her desperate enough to think of suicide. When Jeddock goes on another tear, the captain has him clapped in irons—this is no Royal Caribbean cruise! A well-deserved, if somewhat implausible, reversal sets this marriage to right, at least as far as the audience is concerned.

In 1934, Victor McLaglen was the biggest name in the cast, ranking top billing and earning it with his comic performance that keeps the crime story fast-paced and entertaining. His mismatched clothes, notably anchored by a tartan wool golfer’s cap, make him a walking sight gag, but he seems comfortable in a dumb-like-a fox façade. Helen Vinson slips between her high-class librarian and lowdown chisler without a seam showing, and Fred Keating is a mesmerizing bon vivant who rolls with the punches and doesn’t seem half as interested in the money as in the adventure. New Columbia contract players Moe and Curly Howard and Larry Fine stumble around as the ship’s band, with Larry being the only Stooge with lines. The stereotypically dotty Englishman played by Arthur Treacher is delightful in his short time on screen, and he and Curly pull off a wordless gag that had me in stitches.

Underscoring it all is John Gilbert’s rueful performance. In his first scene, he steps out of a car that has carried him and his lover Gert (Tala Birell) to the ship. Gert is loathe to let him go, and even has a steamer trunk complete with turntable sent onboard for him with a recording she made professing her undying love. Steve is determined to quit drinking and start writing, but Gilbert looks like he’s actually been on a three-day bender when he says good-bye to Gert. Reports are that Gilbert and other cast members were drunk during most of the location shooting at sea, bored by delays caused by bad weather. The many, many drinking scenes in the film may have been an attempt to compensate for their frequent incapacity. On the other hand, filming on a real ship allowed for some intriguing and thrilling scenes, including the rescue. Milestone’s camera made the most of the depths and angles the location afforded and his fluidity overcame some of the meandering moments this juiced-up slice of life fell into.

Regardless of the circumstances during filming, the what-the-hell disillusionment of an alcoholic soaks Gilbert’s performance, as he watches from the sidelines with his jovial pusher, bartender Joe Silvers (Walter Catlett), ready with a bottle and a sarcastic crack. Just like Gilbert, Steve never gets his ambitions in gear, never puts away his shot glass, and never stops making us care.


11th 11 - 2011 | 10 comments »

Here Comes the Navy (1934)

Director: Lloyd Bacon

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Well, I’m back in the saddle here at Ferdy on Films after a vacation to Paris, which included a visit to that temple of cinema, the Cinémathèque Française; I got a load of their fascinating Metropolis exhibit and viewed Fritz Lang’s Der Müde Tod (1921), with its German intertitles and French subtitles (!). Rod did an admirable job of paying homage to Halloween with his extraordinary run of horror film essays while I was away; I’m sure you’ll agree that no one writes about horror like Rod!

My return here today coincides with Veterans Day, a name change from Armistice Day that reflects the fact that World War I did not turn out to be the war to end war. It seems sadly naïve that the British believed they had reached such a pinnacle of civilization that they could fight one last war, triumph, and see the world attain the utopian harmony they believed the British Empire to be. In the spirit of both that naïveté and an event that would shatter it definitively, I have chosen to commemorate this holiday with a peacetime military film, Here Comes the Navy, the first of the nine pairings of James Cagney and Pat O’Brien and one set on the ill-fated USS Arizona. The last time I saw the Arizona, it was under the memorial in Pearl Harbor, still spewing oil 50 years after being sunk. Seeing its impressive profile on the water, its decks alive with swabbies and officers, hit me the same way viewing the Twin Towers in older films does—with a deep pain at the purposes and costs of war.

The need for discipline and unity is one thing that Biff Martin (O’Brien), an officer on the Arizona, tries to get through to Chesty O’Connor (Cagney), a seaman second class who only joined the Navy so he could square a beef with Martin that developed on shore. Chesty is sore that Martin cut in on his dance with his girl Gladys (Dorothy Tree) at a San Pedro nightclub and punched his lights out when Chesty was distracted by Gladys yelling from a window. Gladys takes up with Biff, whom she visits on the Arizona after Chesty loses the fight, sending Chesty to the nearest recruiting station. Rather than be sent directly to the Arizona, he’s surprised to learn he must go through 90 days of basic training, where he meets his comic sidekick Droopy Mullins (Frank McHugh). Both eventually are posted to the Arizona and the ongoing battle between Chesty and Biff moves into high gear as Chesty offers turnabout by “stealing” the girl Biff brings on board, actually Biff’s sister Dorothy (Gloria Stuart).

It is interesting to see the development of the personae Cagney and O’Brien will slip into in picture after picture. Unlike a film like Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), the men aren’t boyhood friends who tragically took opposite paths in life—Cagney plays an unforgiving, unrepentant sharp who hates not only Biff, but also naval discipline and the sheeplike obedience of his shipmates. Cagney assumes the hard, sarcastic look and attitude of Tom Powers, his ice-cold character in The Public Enemy (1931), mitigating it only when interacting with the buffoonish Droopy and the classy Dorothy. Still, he gets a chance to offer some comic lines from this film’s fine screwball script, and his flirtation with Dorothy as he walks her home is classic cocksure Cagney dripping with innuendo (slapped down rather seriously when Dorothy resists his seduction after he has misunderstood the intent of her invitation to dinner at her home). His vulnerability comes out ever so slightly when his shipmates shun him for mocking the Navy, and he even gets a chance to show off his eccentric dance technique in the opening nightclub scene.

O’Brien’s halo hadn’t been gilded yet, and he plays a naval officer who brawls when off-duty and ungentlemanly steals someone else’s girl and clocks an opponent when his back is turned. His insane attempt to hold down a dirigible by hanging onto one of its guide ropes sets up a thrilling finale for the film, as Chesty slides down the rope and parachutes the two of them to a hard landing. When Chesty is given rank above O’Brien for the rescue, it doesn’t come as a big surprise; O’Brien really comes off as inept and hard to respect, signaling perhaps the differences in the real O’Brien, the party animal, and Cagney, the withdrawn, teetotaling homebody.

For me, the fascinating aspects of life on board the Arizona trumped the predictable, if nicely executed story. I enjoyed seeing the men stringing up and sleeping in hammocks, and the naval costumes had a certain retro dapperness to them. During practice maneuvers, Chesty and other seamen practice loading the big guns that move in unison to fire on enemy ships and planes. We see real explosions and learn that Chesty and his shipmates are loading burlap bags of gunpowder into the cannons, setting up a fire scene in which Chesty is injured putting the fire out. If this practice actually was standard in the Navy, it certainly was mind-bogglingly reckless!

What also intrigues are preparations for the annual Navy Day show that caps the film, a type of event that still takes place in many places as air and water shows. The film shows biplanes taking off and a dirigible being moved out of its hangar and flying to the site of the event, a reminder that military air power in 1934 was hardly well developed. I was confused by the presence of African-American sailors on the Arizona, knowing that the period between the world wars marked one of the lowest for African-American participation in the armed forces. These characters were needed to forward a plan Chesty has to get off the ship to see Dorothy by buying a liberty pass from Cookie (Fred “Snowflake” Toones), an offensively stereotypical character, prompting the only occasion I can think of in which Cagney appeared in blackface. (UPDATE: Cagney also appeared in blackface in a Four Cohans act in Yankee Doodle Dandy.) It seems unlikely that the presence of black sailors reflected reality aboard the Arizona, but something about this fantasy integration pleased me quite a bit.

Gloria Stuart, known these days only for her appearance as an ancient survivor of the Titanic in Titanic (1997), was a first-rate love interest for Cagney, holding her own with his banter and bravado and generating some interesting chemistry. I particularly liked a scene where the pair argues about Biff reporting Chesty for going AWOL. Chesty resumes his tough-as-nails veneer as he breaks it off with Dorothy, but she stands firmly, if regretfully, by her belief in doing one’s duty.

Unlike a lot of films, I thought Here Comes the Navy wrapped up its story beautifully. A running gag about Droopy needing to buy his mother some false teeth so that she can keep her job in the church choir resolves as Mother Mullins (Maude Eburne) sings “Oh Promise Me” at Chesty and Dorothy’s wedding. Mother’s offkey sincerity provides the perfect counterpoint to the scrappy partnership that was first forged between James Cagney and Pat O’Brien in this muscular comedy.


11th 08 - 2011 | 16 comments »

A Show Girl in Hollywood (1930)

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Pity poor Alice White. With a face, a body, and a vivacious manner that make comparisons with Clara Bow easy and accurate, she was the ideal silent-film star. Sound destroyed all that. Suddenly, studios looking to duplicate the sensation generated by The Jazz Singer (1927) were filling their screens with musicals. White couldn’t sing and couldn’t dance. Even worse for her long-term prospects, she couldn’t act. She even took two years off to take acting lessons, but the ship had already sailed by the time she came back. Reduced by an industry that waits for no one and tarred by a sex scandal, White saw her screen credit sink to the bottom of the line and finally disappear altogether. So, while A Show Girl in Hollywood, White’s second talkie, predicts a happy ending for former silent stars, the more interesting and true story is watching White and company flail to the new demands of sound.

The film opens backstage at a New York theatre where the cast and crew of “Rainbow Girl” are lamenting the show’s closing after only two weeks. Jimmy Doyle (Jack Mulhall), the writer and producer of the show, comforts his girlfriend Dixie Dugan (White) by saying the show would have been a hit if she had been playing the lead. The pair goes to a nightclub where Dixie used to sing and dance to party their blues away. The nightclub owner prevails upon Dixie to sing, and she catches the eye of Hollywood director Frank Buelow (John Miljan). He offers her the lead in his next picture and lures her to Hollywood with promises of a studio contract.

Not only is there no contract waiting for her, but producer Sam Otis (Ford Sterling), tired of Buelow’s trips to New York to scavenge starlets (and, as it turns out, steal scripts), fires Buelow. A crestfallen Dixie sends a telegram to Jimmy to wire her money so she can return home, but Otis, feeling sorry for her, decides to cast her in the film Buelow was going to make: Rainbow Girl. When Otis learns that Doyle actually wrote the script, he buys the rights and brings Jimmy out to Hollywood to supervise the production. Jimmy and Dixie reunite, but a little more trouble with Buelow ensues—he gets Dixie to “go Hollywood” with script demands, thus fulfilling Buelow’s ulterior motive of having the film shut down, costing Otis a bundle of money. Dixie comes to her senses, the picture gets made, and she and Jimmy are destined for Hollywood success and matrimonial bliss.

It’s hard to get around the big lump of awful that is Alice White—the endless close-ups of her Kewpie-doll face in her odd cloche hats start to cloy as much as the very odd turns of phrase she uses—but there is actually quite a lot of great in A Show Girl in Hollywood. For starters, the rest of the cast is wonderful. For example, Ford Sterling makes the most of the snappy script, the delights of which I can barely scrape at here, and delivers large doses of perfectly timed comedy with a dash of realism. When Dixie storms Otis’s office to tell him she has come all the way from New York, he merely walks to a door and opens it, revealing a waiting room full of young women who have done exactly the same thing. When provoked, he very understatedly pulls out a piece of paper and pen to write the note informing Buelow, and then Dixie, that their services are no longer required (“it is as if you never existed”). Shortly thereafter, the only man (Billy Bletcher) whose job is assured at the studio—the man who paints on and removes employees’ names from their doors—comes by and makes the characteristic and humorous scraping noises that signal a change in the air.

The best performance by far is by Blanche Sweet as former movie star Donny Harris. Even as Buelow, an enormous heel who is revealed to be Donny’s husband, tells his assistant director (Herman Bing) to have her thrown out and kept out of the studio, Donny befriends Dixie, his latest object of desire. Dixie is a big fan of Donny’s and can’t fathom that the beautiful star has been tossed on the ash heap. Donny reveals the ugly side of Hollywood—she’s a has-been at the ripe old age of 32 and refuses to sell a mansion whose furniture she has sold bit by bit to pay her bills because that would really mean throwing in the towel. She sings “There’s a Tear for Every Smile in Hollywood” rather well and with a meaningful pathos, winning not only Dixie’s loyalty and friendship, but also ours.

Where this film is of particular interest to those with an interest in film history is in its depiction of the mechanics of filmmaking at the dawn of sound. A Show Girl in Hollywood was made using a Western Electric imbedded sound track, but it depicts the making of a film using the Vitaphone record-synching system (see the interview conducted by the Northwest Chicago Film Society, which arranged the screening of A Show Girl in Hollywood I attended), and since Vitaphone was a coproducer of this film, their product is advertised prominently. In one scene, Dixie stands in front of an early soundstage door that warns people not to go in when the red lights are on because they indicate that “Vitaphoning” is taking place. The Vitaphone process is further advertised on the theatre marquee at the premiere of Rainbow Girl with a shortened version of the famous “All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!” line that heralded MGM’s 1929 talkie The Broadway Melody to the world, and it is mentioned by the radio announcer interviewing the stars making their way into the theatre. (Fun cameos of Loretta Young, Al Jolson, Ruby Keeler, and Noah Beery Sr. and Jr. walking the red carpet are a bonus feature; also marvel at the sight of a very young Walter Pidgeon introducing Dixie for a curtain speech after the film.)

We also go inside the recording and filming booths during the filming of the wacky “I’ve Got My Eye on You” production number of Rainbow Girl and see the protective booths used on set to muffle the sound of the cameras and an operator watching the recording disks to ensure there are no skips. It seems fairly clear to me that tap dancing got a boost because it was needed to further drown out the sound of the multiple cameras used in these early musicals. The musical number itself is pretty interesting, as some dance characteristics that seem patented by Busby Berkeley, such as formation dancing and the use of three half-moon walkways seen to best effect in the “Remember My Forgotten Man” number in Gold Diggers of 1933, were commonly used by other choreographers, in this case, Jack Haskell. And while White’s difficulties can be seen on her unsmiling, concentrated face as she blunders her way through the choreography, her jazzy singing is rather enjoyable.

Sadly, the big splash LeRoy and company planned for the final reel—two-strip Technicolor for the “Hang onto a Rainbow” production number—is lost, though it’s not hard to imagine the impact it must have had on audiences of the time. Just think about the change from black and white to color in The Wizard of Oz, and the flowering of the new age of sound married with color, nicely mirrored by Dixie’s announcement of her impending marriage and two-week honeymoon (“Make it one week!” bellows Otis), becomes a wonder to behold.


3rd 03 - 2011 | 7 comments »

Cleopatra (1934)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It is unthinkable that a filmmaker with as much pomp and circumstance in his blood as Cecil B. DeMille would not tackle the irresistible story of Cleopatra. With a great beauty and queen endowed with divinity by her subjects bewitching two mighty Romans, hubristic overreaching for power, betrayal and murder, internecine warfare, and a double suicide, the story would have been fit for the Theatre of Dionysus had it not already fallen into disuse well before Cleopatra walked the earth. The story has been filmed several times for the big screen, most notably by Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1963—the bloated costs of that film made it a financial disaster of such epic proportions that it appears to have scared off other comers, though curiously, Hallmark Entertainment came up with a version in 1999, which is a strange project on its face from such a family-friendly company.

DeMille’s reputation rests mainly on his epic pageantry and action, which his Cleopatra contains, but in smaller doses than in his other historic and biblical films. He wasn’t known for being adept with actors, and accordingly, the emotional resonance of Cleopatra is weak. But he cut his teeth in the silent era making a variety of films, including such delightful domestic comedies as Don’t Change Your Husband (1919), so the intimacy of the film about larger-than-life historical figures, while perhaps not expected, is not entirely incongruous either. Importantly, this isn’t Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra or Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, but, as advertised, a vehicle that starts and ends with the queen herself. DeMille’s focus is not unlike that of Josef von Sternberg concentrating his gaze on his creation Marlene Dietrich, as cinematographer Victor Milner captures an uncharacteristically glamorous Claudette Colbert, ravishing her and managing to make even her unflattering right profile look pretty good (a feat that perhaps put him over the top to win his only Oscar of nine nominations).

DeMille immediately gets our adrenaline pumping by showing a bound and blindfolded Cleopatra being driven by chariot into the desert on orders of her brother, who wants sole control of the throne of Egypt. Quite gratuitously, she is bound to a stake, but even before her captors depart, Appollodorus (Irving Pichel), the schoolmaster and adviser taken with her as an aid to her survival, unties her. She makes her way back to Egypt to appeal for her life and place on the throne to Julius Caesar (William Warren), who is in Alexandria to manage Egypt’s affairs and receive financial tribute to Rome. She appears to him as a gift wrapped in a rug, spilling out seductively in a skimpy outfit and with appeals to his vanity. Eventually, she seduces him with visions of an vast empire in which he and she will rule side by side as Emperor and Empress, and returns to Rome with him to be his bride after he has cast aside his wife Calpurnia (Gertrude Michael). His tyrannical aims bring about his death at the hands of several Roman Senators, including his friend Brutus (Arthur Hohl), and Cleopatra flees back to Egypt.

Eventually, Rome ends up on Egypt’s doorstep again, this time in the person of Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon). Cleopatra forces Antony to come to her barge, where she has lain a silken trap—dancing girls, seashells filled with jewels, wine and food, and, of course, the pleasure of her company. Antony stays in Egypt to be with Cleopatra, angering Octavian (Ian Keith), the co-ruler with Antony of the empire, and forcing a war in which Antony commands the outmanned, outarmed Egyptian army against Rome. When the Egyptians are utterly defeated and his disgrace is complete, Antony plunges a dagger into his stomach. Rather than live without Antony as a slave to Rome, Cleopatra clutches a poisonous asp to her breast and takes its fatal bite. As the Romans enter her palace, we are left with a final long shot of the queen—dead but still seated on her magnificent, winged throne.

Of all the DeMille epics I have seen, Cleopatra strikes the best balance between action and intimacy, with a truly cinematic approach that mainly overcomes the director’s tendency to turn his epics into the Ziegfeld Follies. In the gaudiest scene in the film—Cleopatra’s seduction of Antony—some awkward fan dancing gives way to bright choreography and a titillating low-rent scene of women in leopard costumes having a cat fight for Antony’s amusement. Quick cuts between the women and a lustily laughing Wilcoxon add energy to the film and make us complicit in the delirium overtaking Antony through this lavish spectacle.

Milner and film editor Anne Bauchens are equally adept at amping the brutality of the war between Egypt and Rome and making it vibrant by cutting between the massing of the troops on both sides, the charge of the Egyptian chariots, and the close fighting between the soldiers, with close-ups of blood-smeared faces, fallen soldiers, and clashing swords against process shots that might have been recycled from other DeMille films. I was surprised at how the artificiality of the process shots actually added to the intensity of the battles, and use of the models Caesar examined during his first scene with Cleopatra were deployed during the war scenes as actual weapons, a great echoing of the fall of two Romans in thrall to the same woman.

Milner’s close-ups work extremely well during the assassination of Caesar, as we see the Senators from Caesar’s point of view closed around him with their daggers plunging. Although the scene is filled with movement, Hohl takes his time in approaching Caesar with a dread determination. Only when his face and drawn dagger fill the screen do we switch to Caesar and his famous last words, “You, too, Brutus?” as he succumbs.

Of the three lead actors, Warren William is the least interesting. He’s a cold bureaucrat with virtually no nuance; it’s hard to believe Cleopatra’s grief at hearing of his death, which seems emotional and not tied to her plans for empire. His polar opposite, Henry Wilcoxon is a handsome, vigorous man whose lusts and ardor are completely believable and extremely enjoyable to interact with. He’s incredibly magnetic, and one wonders why his talents could not have made him the equal of Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power on the big screen.

Finally, Colbert never looked more beautiful, with her perfect make-up, extravagant costumes, and smooth demeanor. She is perfect in the art of seduction, full of playfulness and vulnerability. I did not see the heart of ambition beating in her, however, but that may have been by design. When Herod, King of Judea (Joseph Schildkraut), comes to her suggesting that Octavian would be very grateful if she would poison Antony, she does not reject the plan—indeed, her testing of poison on a condemned prisoner seems the height of efficiency—but is regretful and enormously relieved when Octavian’s declaration of war allows her to abort the plan. Colbert’s Cleopatra seems completely the woman, not the queen, a relatable and sympathetic creature who seems only to have loved and lost. Absurd, of course, but romantic and beautiful to experience.


11th 12 - 2010 | 4 comments »

Lost Horizon (1937)/I’m Still Here (2010)

Director: Frank Capra/Casey Affleck

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In perhaps the strangest double bill I have ever conceived, I watched a very old favorite, Frank Capra’s lyrical, idealistic Lost Horizon, and I’m Still Here, a brand-new mockumentary featuring Joaquin Phoenix as a repulsive, lunatic version of himself. The two movies, made more than 70 years apart, could not be more different in construction, style, look, tone, and especially cast. Ronald Colman, playing war hero and internationally renowned diplomat Robert Conway, is debonair, brave, and soulful. Joaquin Phoenix, who cowrote the film, does his best to come off as repellent as possible, and would have had almost no dialogue at all if the word “fuck” had been stricken from the English language. Yet, there is something connecting these two films—the human desire to live an authentic life.

Capra, born in Sicily, and Phoenix, born in Puerto Rico, both ended up in Southern California and rose from their humble beginnings to make the American Dream their reality. However, the great gap not only in time, but also in attitude between these two films informs the varying outcomes of Conway’s and Phoenix’s individual quests for fulfillment. Whereas Capra believed in dreamers and their dreams, Affleck and Phoenix’s film makes it clear that change is for chumps and madmen who are doomed to failure.

Lost Horizon, a lavish production that inspired Capra to new heights of ingenuity, tells how Conway, whose philosophical writings reveal his hope for a world free of war and cruelty, his brother George (John Howard), and three others escaping by plane from a violent rebellion in the Chinese city of Baskul are hijacked and taken to Shangri-La, a lamasery that sits above the Valley of the Blue Moon. This temperate paradise hidden among the snow-swept mountains in an uncharted region of Tibet is watched over by Father Perrault (Sam Jaffe), a Belgian Catholic priest who was rescued from certain death and brought to the valley, where he eventually became the High Lama of the community. After meeting Conway and seeing into his heart, Father Perrault explains that the mission of Shangri-La is to preserve the world’s great wisdom and treasures from a coming worldwide conflagration to help humanity renew itself. He wants Conway to be his successor.

Conway feels as if he has arrived home and his previously prickly companions all fall for the harmony and enchantment of the place—all, that is, except George, who is filled with anger at his perceived captivity and demands that the porters who periodically bring Shangri-La’s treasures from outside in exchange for gold mined from a rich vein in the valley be summoned to take him back to civilization. “Are you so certain you are away from it?” Chang (H. B. Warner), the High Lama’s righthand man, muses. George manages to shake his brother’s belief in the High Lama’s tale of living at Shangri-La for more than 200 years and the perfection of their utopian existence, and prevails upon him to leave. Only Conway survives the journey, but spends the rest of the film relentlessly trying to make his way back to Shangri-La, where his happiness and destiny lie.

I’m Still Here begins by detailing Joaquin Phoenix’s similarly honored place in his society as a respected actor and Academy Award nominee for the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line (2005). Following a montage of TV appearances Phoenix has made, the scene shifts to nighttime in a backyard, presumably at Phoenix’s home, overlooking Los Angeles. Phoenix is ranting with his back to the handheld camera that his life up to that point has been fraudulent. He says he is making the documentary to chart his growth toward authenticity as he pursues a career as a hip-hop singer. Then we watch him trying to capture a bird trapped in his makeshift music studio and hear him say that only sometimes between “action” and “cut” does he feel alive; he catches the bird in a cloth and then lets it out, a convenient metaphor for freeing himself from the confines of his unfulfilling life. The rest of the film shows him announcing his retirement after his appearance in a play, trying to book singing gigs, writing rap lyrics, attempting to get Sean “P. Diddy” Combs to produce his album, and behaving badly with hookers, David Letterman, and hecklers at a Las Vegas gig.

What struck me after watching these two films, one after the other, was how staring into the blinding light of reality for too long has produced successively more disillusioned, impotent, and self-destructive generations, until we are left with a successful man who decries his own achievements and the world that made them possible, who mocks aspiration and the ascendancy of the dilettante to the very top of many fields. In a priceless scene, Combs listens to some tracks Phoenix has recorded, tells him he liked the first two, and then says, “You’re not ready to record with me,” to Phoenix’s incredulous shock. By contrast, Robert Conway is brought to Shangri-La after years of education and service that have helped him develop a coherent philosophy and strategy for world order and a belief that a better world for all, not just him, can be achieved.

In Lost Horizon, a young man, George, is the voice of the ambitious, self-interested, violent countries of the world getting ready in 1937 to blow each other’s brains out. George uses the testimony of Maria (Margo), a young-looking Russian woman who hates the High Lama and her confinement at Shangri-La and refutes his belief that she is really 70 years old to convince Conway that he’s been told a pack of lies; in fact, it is she who is lying about everything but her own unhappiness, a warning to beware those who would convince you that you don’t know what you know. Similarly, I’m Still Here is a pack of lies masquerading as a truthful documentary, but what are Affleck and Phoenix trying to tell us? Is it that the life of a movie star is better than either of them wants to let on, thus exploding the “myth” of the unhappy celebrity by mocking the stereotype, or perhaps, like Maria, that Phoenix’s unhappiness is real but that the world will ridicule his desire to make a change? Phoenix stacks the deck to elicit such ridicule, letting his hair mat like a balled-up rag, wearing ill-fitting clothes he might have salvaged from a dumpster, purposely sticking his fat, naked belly into Affleck’s camera lens while he lets loose a string of obscenities, and behaving like a schizophrenic on thorazine on The David Letterman Show.

Novelist James Hilton, who authored the 1933 book on which the film version of Lost Horizon is based, wrote a fairytale in an age of madness, predicting that the world would blow itself up and offering a real and metaphorical appreciation for the beautiful things in life that can make a paradise in a region sheltered from the cold winds without—the region of the spirit where the true Self rests. Capra, who found happiness without and within, brought this world to the screen with all the magic at his disposal. For his part, Colman is quite convincing as a heartsick man who is healed by seeing that the world he dreams of can come true and whose separation from that world is heartbreakingly communicated on a face full of longing, tears, and regret. Like pacifists of every age, Lost Horizon did little but offer a balm of gilead, and when the war actually came, title cards explaining the revolution in Baskul were rewritten to offer jingoistic propaganda against the Japanese. The outside world couldn’t even leave this small fantasy of hope alone.

I’m Still Here wallows in its abject degradation, enticing the starhounds who are curious about Phoenix’s abrupt and bizarre shift in direction and encouraging their sardonic laughter at the spectacle of his collapse. Made at the start of the Great Depression II, the film certainly captures the zeitgeist of the time; Phoenix is a symbol of the fall of the American empire, and specifically of a section of it that was used to distract the populace while the country was undone. Phoenix may be trying to get real by embracing the underground world of rap and hip hop—tellingly, about 20 years too late—and his failure is not only inevitable, but also a bit of poetic justice. His poetry isn’t bad and accurately tells his story, but a planted heckler Phoenix comes to blows with near the end of the film ensures that it will not be heard or taken seriously. In the end, Phoenix’s retreat to the jungle of Panama to see his dad is hardly the Eden Capra provides, nor a retreat with a purpose—it’s just a haven for burnouts.

I highly recommend getting the Columbia Classics DVD of Lost Horizon, which is as complete a restored and digitally remastered version of the film as is ever likely to be made. It contains superb extras, including the only remaining footage from the original nitrate negative—a mere minute or two of outtakes of the High Lama’s funeral procession—and a wonderful documentary on the making of the film.


24th 11 - 2010 | 6 comments »

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

Directors: Sergei Eisenstein and Dmitri Vasilyev

By Roderick Heath

In the decade after he reshaped cinema with his then-experimental technique in works like Strike (1924), Battleship Potemkin (1925), and October (1928), Sergei Eisenstein became a peripatetic semi-exile when Stalin’s rise made life uncomfortable for him at home, and the international film scene beckoned. And yet he became a world-famous artist without a friendly harbour to anchor in. A visit to Hollywood had seen him patronised by David Selznick when he handed in his screenplay adapted from Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy: “It was for me a most memorable experience,” Selznick wrote to RKO executive B. P. Schulberg, “The most moving script I have ever read…Is it too late to try to [dissuade] the enthusiasts of the picture from making it?” An attempt to make what Eisenstein described as “a shabby travelogue into a really major film,” Que Viva Mexico!, with the backing of leftist writer Upton Sinclair as his producer, resulted in an unfinished pile of beautiful fragments. Eisenstein slunk back to the USSR, fortunately missing the worst years of the Great Purge.

With geopolitics in an awful state—Soviet Russia was expecting conflict with Germany’s Nazi regime—Eisenstein’s return seemed well-timed as he commenced work on a film that would evoke historical parable for resistance against invasion. His credited codirector Vasilyev and coscreenwriter Pyotr Pavlenko were imposed collaborators, charged with the job of keeping the taint of “formalism” out of the project. When the movie had been completed and rushed into theatres, Hitler and Stalin signed their nonaggression pact, and Eisenstein found himself and his film embarrassedly stowed away, only to be rehabilitated when war between the two superstates finally did break out. In spite of all these weighty matters, Alexander Nevsky in many ways sits with some comfort amongst other historical adventure films in the late ’30s, particularly the Michael Curtiz-Errol Flynn films like The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and Cecil B. DeMille films like The Crusades (1935). Unlike those brash, breezy, technically more polished films, Eisenstein pares back as much drama as possible to concentrate on the synergistic flow of his shots and carefully built rhythmic intensity. The storyline operates on the most primal of levels.

Set against the macrocosmic drama facing the assailed city-states of the Rus, with oppression by the Mongol Golden Horde on one side and the advancing fanatical forces of the Teutonic knights on other, Eisenstein pits characters who might have stepped directly out of a folktale: warriors Vasily Buslai and Gavrilo Olexich (Nikolai Okhlopkov and Andrei Abrikosov), best of friends competing to win the hand of beautiful Novgorod maiden Olga (Vera Ivashova), who declares she will marry the man who proves himself bravest in battle; Vasilisa (Aleksandra Danilov), whose father is executed by the Germans when the city of Pskov is captured through treachery by the Knights, takes up a sword herself and joins the massing Russian resistance; Ignat (Dmitriy Orlov), an aged armourer who becomes embodiment of native pluck in venturing into battle; and Alexander himself (Nikolai Cherkasov), warrior chief of Vladimir who gained the sobriquet “Nevsky” for beating off a Swedish army on the banks of the Neva, the embodiment of sober, conscientious kingship.

Alexander is first glimpsed when a train of Mongols dragging captive Russians off for forced labour pass by a fishing party, and the peasants and Mongol soldiers begin to clash. Alexander shouts from the water, “Quiet! The fish will take fright!” Striding ashore, he exchanges loaded words with the smiling, autocratic Golden Horde khan (Lyan-Kun). Apart from his cutting, commanding voice and bright, challenging, innately intelligent eyes, Alexander is indistinguishable in his manner and dress from the men he leads, and his casual willingness to get his feet dirty in leading the fishing party contrasts the Mongol, who has a soldier prostrate himself to make a step for him to get into his litter. This scene serves a double purpose: it helps the film overcome the inevitable problem in a Soviet work of the era of how to make a hero of a king, and, more pertinently, establishes Alexander’s character: making no more fuss than necessary and with a goal in mind, he’s receptive to any incidental intuition. Later, he gets the inspiration for his battle strategy from a bawdy joke. In my favourite moment of Cherkasov’s in the film, Alexander paces in distraction and quiet agony around his palace where two of his liegemen mend their fishing net, anticipating the call to fight the Germans and wondering how to beat this formidable enemy. Alexander contemplates the strands of the net, and then tears them apart in frustration: “This is delicate work…not like fighting Swedes…”

When the delegates do arrive to beg his aid, he declares with new life: “I know nothing of defence! We attack!” Alexander becoming captain to the Rus is preceded by a fierce communal argument in which the citizens of Novgorod, closest to the onward sweep of the Germans, listen to the testimony of those who have escaped from Pskov. Rich merchants and paid agents argue to make a deal with the knights, but the evidence of mangled survivors and treachery infuriates the patriots who shout down the rich men and demand competent leadership: Domash (Nikolai Arsky), a warrior of standing who is their initial choice, turns down the job, insisting that only Alexander can win for them. Alexander replies that the warrior elite of Rus can’t win, and calls for a national uprising; the very earth itself disgorges streams of peasants used to hiding from marauders converging on Novgorod for an exultant expression of fighting spirit.

Through his montage theory, probably no other director has had such a consequential impact on the development of cinema in general as Eisenstein, but Alexander Nevsky is the film of his that’s had a more particular influence. It’s the perfect model of the few-against-many, good-against-evil epic. Laurence Olivier pillaged it for his Henry V (1945), and it’s hard to imagine movies as popular and diverse as fantasies such as The Lord of the Rings series and Conan the Barbarian (1982), scifi works like the Star Wars saga, and a raft of historical action dramas (David Lean’s films, Spartacus [1960], Braveheart [1995], King Arthur [2004]), without Eisenstein’s model. They quote his optical and editorial tricks, and replicate the dramatic dynamics of his Battle on the Ice sequence. A significant difference between Nevsky and most of the films it influenced, however, is not merely its immediate consequence as a tool for rousing the audience and telling a good yarn, but that it’s a work that channels anthropological and folk-art influences in an attempt to conjure a sense of the past as living tradition, not mere escapism. Nevsky takes the rules of Norse sagas and iconic art seriously to reproduce in part their aesthetics in the context of realistic ’30s cinema.

Sergei Prokofiev’s score, with its chorale commentaries on the action, entwines with recurring visual motifs that evoke that state of Rus in the mid 1200s—a land of bleaching bones after decades of massacres by the Mongols and stranded longboats redolent of the Viking founders of Vladimir and Novgorod—in painting a cultural context, and a harmonious concept of the drama about to unfold as part of Russia’s past and present. Prokofiev’s work on the film was and is one of the signal collaborations between a great cinema artist and a highly regarded classical composer, and it’s still certainly one of the greatest film scores ever recorded, especially if sheer dramatic necessity is a yardstick—the score is so deeply woven into the film it wouldn’t exist in the same way without it, making Nevsky a true pan-cultural creation. Eisenstein and Prokofiev used all available means of achieving that linked effect, composer writing music to the script and director cutting scenes to match material already written. Nevsky is negligibly lessened by a few overly arch moments of propaganda, but moreso by its technical problems. The film was made with an experimental sound system that had a muffling effect on much of the dialogue and especially on the score, and the rush to get the film in theatres forestalled any tweaking.

Eisenstein had one of cinema’s most perfect eyes for composing elements within a frame (think of a shot from a Michael Bay film, and then think of the exact opposite), and his efforts here both extend the high modernism of early Soviet cinema, evident in occasional semi-abstract arrangements, and enrich his visuals with the squared-off perspective of Byzantine-influenced Russian art. In the first half, his compositions are studiously geometric, his actors carefully posing in declarative attitudes: Alexander surveying the expanse of the green Russian dales with an old peasant at his side, or Buslai and Olexich assuming poses in contending for Olga, who constantly stands with back to the two hovering, towering men. This might sound flat and pompous, and yet it’s anything but. What’s remarkable is how Eisenstein uses these qualities to suggest powerful, composing forces, building tension through alternations of hypnotic quiet and tersely delivered dialogue, and violent communal arguments and celebrations on the path from panic and questioning on behalf of the frightened Rus folk to the moment of fearless readiness for the eruptive chaos of battle.

Just as deliberately flat, and yet still lovably vibrant, are the characterisations. On an almost pantomime level, good and evil are chiefly a matter of expression and dress. The Teutonic villains are so stylised in their evil they barely seem like part of the same species, which is very much the point. In their warrior regalia they seem less like an army of God, though they wrap themselves in religious paraphernalia and espouse Roman Catholicism as a totalitarian ideology, than stygian beasts: Ignat describes one as a witch after besting him. Even when they take off their helmets, they’re a mob of lean, grim, self-satisfied-looking bastards, the Grand Master (Vladimir Yershov) coldly declaring that anyone who resists them will be slaughtered, whilst handing out stolen principalities casually to his followers. The traitors who have delivered Pskov into their hands through connivance and rumour-mongering are shifty-eyed and dour, in contrast to the beaming, sunny Russians.

The contrast between Buslai and Olexich is one of two variations on the basic Russian character, made most amusingly clear when they court Olga: apple-cheeked, boisterous Buslai declares, “If you want a fun-loving man, marry me!” To which more somber Olexich retorts, “If want to be beaten with a birch stick every night, choose him indeed.” Olga and Vasilisa, too, form a diptych in thrilling at the great action unfolding before them, but each takes a different path: demure Olga makes her pledge to the two warriors, whilst Vasilisa dons a helmet and chain mail and go to war. It’s Vasilisa versus the Germans, and this time, it’s personal: her father, an elder of Pskov, has been executed before her eyes for denouncing the German invaders—hung from a belltower.

The sequence in Pskov, portraying the evil knights relishing having bound prisoners executed en masse with pikes and screaming children cast into bonfires with the blessing of pet churchmen, is extreme warning and spur to action (one of history’s saddest ironies is that Eisenstein’s apocalyptic manipulation here would soon come to appear too tame). And, of course, in movie language, we know these creeps are ripe to get their asses royally booted. After his advance guard is wiped up thanks to further treachery by the two traitors who are moving back and forth between the lines, Alexander, against the nervous objections of Buslai, decides to make his stand on Lake Chudskoye, on the boundary between Novgorod and Pskov. There’s actually a lot of historical confusion about just how big (and where) a battle took place on April 5, 1242, with probably far fewer warriors (some place the number at less than a thousand) taking part than is portrayed in the film, but of course, everyone wishes it happened the way this film tells it. The Battle of the Ice sees Eisenstein’s camera, as well as the heroes, let loose with symphonic ferocity, and it’s one of those few film sequences that can tear an almost physical reaction from me.

The vignettes of the battle are more memorable than most entire films: the early shots of the ranked Russians, Vasilisa and Ignat amongst them, waiting anxiously under stormy clouds on the great white nothing of the lake, peering into the distance as they try to make out the slowly emerging mass of German cavalry; Buslai and Olexich, after days of resenting each other, embracing before taking their posts; the Teutonic knights riding in with their encasing helmets looking like aliens, robots, steampunk tanks; Prokofiev’s music rising to its most menacing and tremendous swells, low chugging horns and high shrieking string, until the two armies crash into each other in whirls of steel and limbs; Olexich and Alexander’s charge to close the trap; Olexich hurling himself in front of Alexander to save his life and getting a chest full of spear points; the horrified expressions of the traitors in watching the knights lose; Vasilisa working up the courage to come out of her hiding place on a wagon, braver and braver in striking out at the Germans.

Particularly riveting is how Eisenstein switches from occasional long shots, in which the formations of the armies and tussling, fragmented gangs, form almost abstract patterns, to handheld shots within the melee, concussive in their immersive, you-are-there vigour. One moment, when Eisenstein cuts from Alexander’s victories over an opponent to the laughing faces of onlookers and the exultation of musicians cheering on the team, makes the battle reminiscent of a sports film. My favourite moment is when Buslai, losing his sword, is tossed a wooden spar by Vasilisa, with which he joyfully bashes in the stout helmets of the knights, releasing a whoop of exultation as he bounces the spar from hand to hand like a hot potato, high on his own conquering strength; later, when Buslai dresses in a fallen German’s uniform, he clobbers his way out from inside their ranks. Alexander’s final duel with the Grand Master sees him finally topple the villain before the Germans take flight and are swallowed in the Biblical moment when the lake’s ice gives way and plunges them into the frigid brine.

Fittingly, Eisenstein intended this sequence in part as a tribute to the other great progenitor of cinema language, D. W. Griffith—specifically, the ice-floe scenes in Way Down East (1920). Even greater than the battle, in a more subtle way, is the aftermath, the lake ice a charnel house of broken bodies, wounded and dying men calling for their loved ones, both Olexich and Buslai lying crippled as night falls. The women of Novgorod, including Olga, come out on the ice bearing torches to search for their loved ones, a female voice on the soundtrack voicing the sentiments of the scene in desolate fashion. Rarely has a film of this sort paid such attention to the cost of even heroic triumph. The final scene is, however, one of victory and resolution, as the traitors and captive Germans haul sled-loads of the wounded, and Buslai declares, in defiance of his mother, that neither he nor Olexich were as brave as Vasilisa, allowing Olexich and Olga to marry because he’s found his girl in Vasilisa, a delightfully neat clincher to the quandary. The result is one of those few films that makes the boundary between high art and blissful entertainment melt away. l


13th 01 - 2010 | 6 comments »

Rose Hobart (1936)

Director: Joseph Cornell

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Ever since I first laid eyes on them, I’ve been enamored of the boxes of Joseph Cornell. These assemblages of found objects, neatly arranged in glass-fronted or interactive boxes, create a wonderful feeling of nostalgia, fun, and creative surprise in me the way an absurd joke can make any of us break out in a laugh of recognition. Cornell extended his assemblages to film, buying boxes of films that were languishing in New Jersey warehouses, cutting and cataloging them according to his interests, and eventually splicing them into a number of short films.

The most famous of these films is Rose Hobart, a 19-minute assemblage of footage taken from the 1931 Universal Pictures film East of Borneo and what looks like a motion study that depicts the circular ripples of water after a large rock is thrown into a pond. On the rare occasions when he exhibited the silent film, he accompanied it with a recording of Holiday in Brazil (1957) by Brazilian composer Nestor Amaral, who contributed a couple of uncredited songs to The Gang’s All Here (1943) costarring fellow Brazilian Carmen Miranda. Cornell would project the film at a slowed-down speed through a blue filter, though in later years, he took to using a rose filter.

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For those familiar with silent films and their use of color tints to suggest lighting, blue is the color of night, a perfect complement to the dreamscape Cornell conjures from the remnants of East of Borneo and an evocation of the feminine. Together with images of an eclipse blotting out the masculine sun and an erupting volcano, evoking the feminine Pele, he pays homage to the Goddess. Here the Goddess is given form by the star of East of Borneo, Rose Hobart. Cornell’s editing allows for intense observation of the Goddess, who, like the eclipse suggests, is sensed, even desired, but never really known. Our world, he suggests, may be the conjuring of Her own dreams, as She is shown in the beginning of the film reclining behind a mist of mosquito netting.

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The Goddess inhabits an exotic land of palm trees, servants in sarongs, and luxurious surroundings. Sitting females praise her with clapping and singing. She is entreated by two men, one of the East and one of the West, but neither finds favor. Her most meaningful interaction is with a wild creature—a monkey delivered to Her by a servant that She talks to and pets until it, too, lays down to slumber.

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Alone, She is most Herself, gathering together Her bag of tricks that includes both a lace handkerchief and a pistol, a reminder that the Goddess responds as often with natural violence as with delicate beauty. The image of the concentric rings of displaced water fascinate Her—the pool of the unconscious and its perfect, circular form. Cornell invites us to enter this pool several times in the film; only the most hard-headed observer will resist.

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It’s interesting to consider Cornell’s reluctance to share his film creations, the perhaps apocryphal story of Salvador Dali’s anger that Cornell had stolen his dreams, the rather corny music Cornell used to suggest a tropical setting. We are dealing here with the deep and vulnerable unconscious of a single man, the collective unconscious for which Dali spoke, and the simple tunes that keep observers anchored in a homey familiarity (this is very reminiscent of the silly tune that recurs in Bruno Dumont’s nightmare film Twentynine Palms). Cornell doesn’t dwell in the lasciviousness of many dream films, for example, those of Luis Buñuel, declaring as he once did that he did not identify with the dark magic of the surrealists. He preferred the white magic, and that is very plain in his gentle art and films, and the care with which he treated his found objects and reassembled them into works of wonder and delight.

Cornell was a pioneer who worked with and influenced such avant-garde filmmakers as Stan Brakhage and Rudy Burckhardt. His films and those of his colleagues in the avant garde are among those most in danger of being lost. Get your hands on this jewel of a film and think about the delights this rich and under-explored corner of cinema offers.

Anthology Film Archives preserved the only print of Rose Hobart, which was personally given to them by Joseph Cornell. The film is also a part of the National Film Preservation Foundation’s first Treasures from American Film Archives DVD set.


29th 11 - 2009 | 10 comments »

The Threepenny Opera (Die 3 Groschen-Oper, 1931)

Director: G. W. Pabst

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Among the giants of theatre, I have always considered Bertolt Brecht to be at the top of the heap. A gifted poet, Brecht created a new theatre for a new, more threatening time, one that refused to allow audiences to melt into a naturalistic setting and identify sympathetically with the lives and morals of the play’s immoral characters. In the Germany that would soon succumb to blind devotion to the myth of the Übermensch peddled by a genocidal dictator, Brecht’s unreal realism and his and music collaborator Kurt Weill’s most successful drama, the cabaret-style musical The Threepenny Opera, would be banned.

Before that happened, director G. W. Pabst and producer Seymour Nebenzal attempted to capitalize on the phenomenal success of the musical by contracting with Brecht to film it. Brecht, moving even more radically to the left than he had been as a bohemian artist of the intelligensia, turned in a treatment oozing with communist ideology. Pabst and Nebenzal mainly discarded the transformed material and created still another, completely different work—a fully cinematic drama in the Expressionist mode that eliminated half of Kurt Weill’s songs, most of Brecht’s biting, poetic lyrics, and very nearly the one actor who breathes authenticity into the work, Lotte Lenya. We are left with a somewhat tepid tale of corruption, with evocative images and a searing, but too-brief performance by Lenya that isn’t all that different from the more bourgeois Marlene Dietrich vehicle of the same period, The Blue Angel (1930).

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Rudolf Forster as Macheath, aka “Mackie Messer” (Mack the Knife), emerges from a brothel, with Jenny (Lenya), a whore he had once been close to, hanging on him lovingly. He shakes her off brusquely when two attractive women pass by, then disappears into a crowd that has gathered at the London dockside to hear a street singer (Ernst Busch) who will be our narrative guide through the film sing “Mack the Knife” and put up illustrations of the murderous deeds attributed to—but never pinned on— Mackie. Mackie sees a young lady (Carola Neher) and her friend admiring a wedding dress in a shop window. He engages them to have a drink with him. He stares at a pair of men sitting at his usual booth until they leave, orders a waiter to clean the table, and signals one of his burglary gang to come take the lady’s friend off his hands. Before they finish their drinks, Mackie and the woman are engaged. Mackie sends his gang scrambling to procure food, wine, and furnishings (“Don’t forget the grandfather clock”) for their wedding reception and love nest—an empty dockside warehouse—and a preacher (Hermann Thimig) to marry them. One of the gang steals the brocade wedding gown from the shop window for the occasion. Another hand-delivers an invitation to the police chief Tiger Brown (Reinhold Schünzel), who keeps Mackie out of jail for a small fee.

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Mackie’s new bride is none other than Polly Peachum, daughter of the powerful beggar king (Fritz Rasp). Peachum and his wife (Valeska Gert) vow to see Mackie hanged rather than be husband to their daughter. Threatening to force Brown’s dismissal by unleashing an army of beggars to confront the queen during her pending coronation parade, Peachum convinces the police chief to arrest and hang Mackie. After a long chase, the police finally apprehend him with the help of Jenny, who is jealous that Mackie has married. But all turns out for the “best,” as Mackie, having escaped from jail, learns he needn’t have bothered. Polly has purchased a prestigious bank in Piccadilly and made him the bank president, whom no one would dare execute. All of their thieving will be done on the up and up from now on.

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Much as my colleague, Rod Heath, commented in his review of Public Enemies (2009) about the odds against the lone outlaw battling corrupt overlords, Mackie, an unorganized, violent thug, is coopted—though not at all to his distress—by the organizational skills of Polly, learned from a father who created a empire of beggars forced to march to his commands. Yet, both he and Mackie learn a lesson—while both count on the cooperation of confederates who are personally loyal to them, when Peachum cannot stop the mob he organized to disrupt the parade, he learns the power of the people. Together, they come to understand that a marriage between corrupt overlords and dependent masses can move mountains. In a nutshell, Pabst has given us a picture of the evolution of National Socialism.

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Yet far from horrifying us, we come to admire these genial rogues. Mackie, in his Brecht-prescribed stage make-up, casts a threatening gaze that Pabst’s camera sometimes captures. But more often, he is surrounded by adoring women and eager-to-please, cartoonish lackeys who are used by Pabst almost exclusively for laughs. Mackie dresses smartly, with a jaunty bowler hat and a cane whose hidden sword is never unsheathed after its first reveal in the opening minutes of the film. When I saw the full stage production of the original The Threepenny Opera, Mackie’s deep kiss and stabbing of his betrayer, Jenny Towler (it’s unclear whether Lenya’s Jenny is this murdered Jenny or destined to share her fate), brought the lyrics “Jenny Towler turned up lately / With a knife stuck through her breast / While Macheath, he walks the embankment, / Nonchalantly unimpressed” horribly to life. Despite Busch’s effective rendering of the song, the timid use of illustrations of Mackie’s crimes have no power to convey just what an animal we’re dealing with. It certainly can’t help that this dark song is known to contemporary audiences mainly as a tune popularized by a mainstream singer, Bobby Darin, who doesn’t seem to know what the words mean.

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Nonetheless, the film passes muster on the strength of strongly impressionistic sets strongly lit and photographed and Lotte Lenya’s savage delivery of “Pirate Jenny,” a tune originally sung by Polly. In this context, of Jenny having been betrayed by Mackie and about to return the favor, the apocalyptic vision of an armada of pirate ships gunning down all but the brothel where Jenny lives and works is extremely effective. Once heard, Lenya’s voice and interpretation become unforgettable and definitive. And to think Lenya almost didn’t play this part because Pabst thought she was too ugly for movies. Indeed, this film could have used a lot more ugly and a little less art.


7th 07 - 2009 | 28 comments »

The Spirit of Ed Wood Blogathon: Babes in Arms (1939)

Director: Busby Berkeley

The Spirit of Ed Wood Blogathon

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Hey, kids, let’s read a review!

When Greg at Cinema Styles decided to throw a Spirit of Ed Wood blogathon, I had to do a lot of thinking. I tried to distill the essence of Wood in my mind to try to find a kindred spirit out there who displays those characteristics that make Ed Wood Ed Wood, who might even have been an inspiration to the indomitable Eddie. You know what I’m talking about—production values that are so dazzlingly bad they’re good, a script only a mother could love, and a dogged determination to look at the whole sow’s ear and proclaim it the finest, pearl-beaded silk purse ever to have been Made in Japan. And, although I admit that he doesn’t spring immediately to mind, I finally resolved that were Ed Wood alive today, he’d have evolved his movie-making to emulate perhaps the greatest purveyor of fantasmagoria ever to haunt a sound stage, Busby Berkeley.

Berkeley is best known today for his kaleidoscopic dance numbers of gargantuan proportions, true mutants that push the movie musical into the scifi country where Ed Wood hung his hat. When Berkeley worked his impossible-dream magic, his penchant for cheesy-looking floating heads, bubble-blowing mermaids, and deconstructed musical instruments swelled to accommodate a recital by King Kong made for a bit of hair-raising suspense. Was the Big Monkey going to show up and pull a few bananas out of Carmen Miranda’s 40-foot-wide fruit tiara?

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The Berkeley film that screams Ed Wood to me is Babes in Arms, a 1939 Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musical that captures all the enthusiasm of those crazy kids—Berkeley and Wood—who just wanted to make good in show business. I think Henry Hill as a Broadway producer named Maddox and Rooney as Mickey Moran, a young ham suffocating in greasepaint, said it best:

Moran: We’re going to make good for him, too.
Maddox: Yes, and you’re going to make good for a lot of other people.
Moran: Who?
Maddox: For the millions of kids who never had a chance. For the millions of kids without a wiseacre who’s telling them there’s no such thing as an American dream. Well, those kids have got their eyes on you because you’re being given your chance. And, by the Bones of Bacchus, you’d better make good.
Moran: Gee, it’s bigger than just a show. Say, it’s everybody in the country.

And everybody in the country was looking forward to beating up Hitler and Mussolini for destroying the economy, which “God’s Country,” the closing number of this musical, reveals to be Berkeley’s purpose all along.

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At first, the film looks like the usual younger vs. older generation story, pitting established vaudevillians against the swinging new guard who just happen to be their children. Mickey and Patsy Barton (Garland) are sweethearts who are trying to break into show biz to help their parents, whose prosperity in vaudeville has vanished with the defection of their audiences to talking pictures. While the old timers, led by Mickey’s pop Joe Moran (Charles Winninger), try to revive vaudeville with a tour, Mickey decides to write and produce his kind of show. He fires up all the other vaudeville kids who live in his town—a haven for show people thanks to Judge Black (Guy Kibbee), who fends off Elmira Gulch, I mean, Martha Steele (Margaret Hamilton) from placing the kids in a home—and they march around the crummy-looking set to the rocket-launching “Babes in Arms,” gather wood, and build a bonfire.

Rehearsals hit a snag when Don Brice (Douglas McPhail) and Moran’s sister Molly (Betty Jaynes, McPhail’s wife) don’t put enough feeling into their love duet “Where or When.” Brice blames the suspended canoe Mickey’s put them in, but when they get out of it, it’s plain that this operatic duo can’t loosen up. It’s actually painful to watch Jaynes form her tones with a mouth so tight she looks about ready to pop. Berkeley, in his wisdom, sees no reason to do anything but shoot her close-up, full face—no flattering angles for him, no sir. A pint-sized orchestra provides scratchy-toned comedy for this touching scene.

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Patsy and Mickey’s love is tested when an angel for the show comes to the rescue—on condition she gets to play the lead reserved for Patsy. Baby Rosalie Essex (June Preisser) is looking for a comeback project and thinks this is it. Preisser is really quite funny as a Shirley Temple knockoff, pampered but not spoiled the way the script seems to suggest she should be. Mickey’s all business, but a stage kiss he gives Baby sends Patsy packing to see her mother on the road; at least, we get to hear Garland sing the beautiful “I Cried for You” in compensation for this lame lover’s quarrel.

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Mickey’s show goes on as scheduled (with an adult orchestra; I guess the munchkins had a shooting conflict on The Wizard of Oz set) and a Broadway producer shows up to see what the young turks of entertainment have to offer. He gets a minstrel show. I simply have no comment about that, but then, I don’t need one. The script offers up a hurricane to stop the show. I can see Berkeley putting on his angora sweater and spinning the over-the-top opera La Gioconda in his trailer right about now.

After his reverie, Berkeley remembers he has to tie up the loose ends. Of course, the Broadway producer wants to put the show on, and Patsy gets to play the lead after all. The vaudevillians give up the ghost to the future and everyone feels good about America. The end.

I think Berkeley was watching Oz being filmed while he tinkered with the script. Garland has that same scream of concern (“oOH! oOH!”) when Mickey faints that she has numerous times when her companions on the Yellow Brick Road run into difficulties. She picks flowers just like Dorothy Gale picked poppies. There are munchkins, a wicked “witch” played by Margaret Hamilton, and a hurricane in place of a twister. And all the money that was poured into Oz meant there was nothing left for Berkeley. This is the cheapest-looking MGM musical I’ve ever seen, making it impossible for Berkeley to fully realize his dreams, which I’m sure included making the bonfire outshine the burning of Atlanta and a minstrel show that would have had 1,000 pickaninnies in a vast field of cotton and Judy Garland singing atop a cotton gin.

But in the true spirit of Ed Wood, Berkeley works with what he has (including deadly lyrics by Arthur Freed) and creates something so offensively bad, it’s compulsively watchable. Hi dee ho!

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27th 03 - 2009 | 17 comments »

Things to Come (1936)

Director: William Cameron Menzies

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Last night, Turner Classic Movies dedicated their programming to the work of the Korda clan—Alexander, Vincent, and Zoltán—the founders of London Films. The evening started with one of my favorites, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), with Alexander’s future wife Merle Oberon looking more lovely than in any film of hers I’ve seen. I fully intended to watch one of the hubby’s new acquisitions afterward, but then I saw that the next film up was an adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come with Ralph Richardson. Scifi films of the 1930s are generally cheesy affairs, but we both love the genre, so that’s what we watched.

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The film, which spans 100 years, begins Christmas 1940. The residents of Everytown (which resembles London) exhibit all the holiday excitement one would expect—children gazing covetously at toys in shop windows, adults making their way home, cars moving through the city center. All around are blaring signs and screaming headlines about the possibility of war, cut as a semi-montage of jingoistic propaganda.

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Gathering for Christmas dinner are engineer John Cabal (Raymond Massey), his wife (Sophie Stewart), and his friends Harding (Maurice Braddell), and “Pippa” Passworthy (Edward Chapman). Cabal rails against the foolishness of the human race, young Harding worries about what war will do to his science studies, Passworthy remains upbeat that war is unlikely and that even if it does come, it will bring innovation with it. Mrs. Cabal thinks she hears something, and the assembled go out of the Cabal mansion and view searchlights in the city center. “They wouldn’t attack on Christmas,” Mrs. Cabal questions incredulously, but that’s exactly what the unnamed enemy does. An emergency radio broadcast informs the horrified friends that the nation is mobilizing for war.

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The scene shifts to soldiers climbing onto transport trucks and riding through the city center on motorcycles. Passworthy talks to his young son about doing his part in the civil defense, as the admiring lad imitates the soldiers in their pith helmets. Soon, residents are warned to go home, go down into subway tunnels, collect gas masks from the supply trucks entering the square. Anti-aircraft cannons are brought to the ready. Finally, Menzies gives us a scene of great violence that foreshadows what London will experience during the Blitz—crumbled walls, dazed victims, dead bodies, all ending with a tragic shot of Passworthy’s child half-buried in the rubble, the former glory of the city now a broken skyline. For all its low-tech cheapness, it’s a sobering scene very well shot.

The immediate world plunges into a modern version of the 100 Years War, with Everytown reduced to medieval squalor, as destruction of industry has meant a complete breakdown of modern civilization. No more petrol, no more electricity, and residents largely wear skins instead of cloth. Their warlord, The Boss (Ralph Richardson), is a hothead who thinks only of getting his broken and fuelless air armada of 10 planes off the ground to crush the hill dwellers. Harding, now an old man, is bullied to serve The Boss and his queen, played brilliantly as a restless exotic by Margaretta Scott. But The Boss is no match for a visitor from the air—a very space-age-looking Cabal, who has returned to Everytown to “clean things up” on behalf of a group of scientists who call themselves Wings Over the World (WOW!). They bombard Everytown with the “gas of peace,” which puts the populace to sleep (and I suppose washes their brains of any hostile impulses), but kills the untameable Boss.

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The last act of the film takes place in 2036. The world has been engulfed by progress—multilevel, automated cities enclosed from the sun, residents dressed like Greek gods, and a splinter group led by Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke) who say “enough” to progress once a “villainous” plan to send humans into outer space nears fruition. Menzies stages a thrilling attack on the space cannon as the new boss, Cabal’s grandson, also played by Massey, rushes to shoot his daughter Catherine (Pearl Argyle) and Maurice Passworthy (Kenneth Villiers), great-grandson of Pippa, off to orbit the moon.

The production values of this film are strictly bargain basement, and the sound quality is terrible. Nonetheless, director Menzies, cinematographer Georges Perinal, and film editors Charles Crichton and Francis Lyon spin a lot of gold out of straw. The camera angles are ingenious and well lit, creating some beautiful visuals that had me rather breathless at times. The models mainly look odd and flimsy, and the modern Everytown looks amazingly like a Hyatt Hotel, but the strange airplanes sent by Wings Over the World to rescue Cabal are pleasingly reminiscent of pterosaurs.

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As one would expect, the film is at its best in both look and coherence during the first act. The bombed-back-to-the-Stone-Age second act is the most enjoyable part of the film, as Ralph Richardson tears the screen to pieces as the blustering Boss. He is clearly having a gas playing this part, rising through the ranks as a tough who shoots on sight Everytowners afflicted with the deadly, highly contagious “wandering sickness,” which appears to be a silly-looking form of zombie-ism.

Come%202.jpgIf someone can explain to me the career of Raymond Massey, I’m all ears. He has all the subtlety of a drag queen, and in the third act, he gets to dress like one, too. At least in this film, it makes a bit of sense for everyone to dress in short skirts, seeing as the entire environment is climate-controlled. What a nuisance sunshine and fresh air are! I’m with the Luddites in this film, as the idea of sending people into space has no logic behind it except that Man must keep pushing the envelope if it kills Him. And this muddles the philosophy of the film for me: Do Wells, who wrote the screenplay, and the filmmakers think that unfettered progress is good? Was killing all the protesters who got too close to the space cannon (“Watch out for the concussion!”) at firing all right? Frankly, the fascistic images, from a gigantic, Art Nouveau sculpture to a gigantic, heroically lit close-up of Massey’s skeletal head spouting platitudes give me the willies. I was also highly encouraged that this was a dystopia by the fact that the huge council of the Brave New World of Things to Come was composed entirely of white men.

Give me Margaretta Scott and her gypsy attire any day!


19th 02 - 2009 | 5 comments »

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

Director: William Dieterle
Screenwriters: Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg, and Norman Reilly Raine

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

As part of its 31 Days of Oscar series, Turner Classic Movies aired the Best Picture winner for 1937 last night: The Life of Emile Zola. Not only was the film honored as the Outstanding Production, as the award was called in 1937, but it beat out eight other films for the award. If I had read the nominees before seeing the picture, I might have wondered whether the Academy was again looking to be high-minded in its choice—after all, the incredible The Awful Truth and the noteworthy A Star Is Born and The Good Earth were also in contention, plus a couple of my personal favorites, Lost Horizon and Stage Door. Now, having seen Zola, I must agree that it was a very worthy winner for its year—or any year.

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Like any self-respecting biopic, Zola creates fictions from real details, such as the friendship between Zola and Paul Cezanne, and spins them to dramatic purpose. The film opens with the impoverished Zola (Paul Muni) and Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff) sharing a drafty Paris garret. To keep warm, Zola tears apart the bourgeois novels lining a shelf and burns the pages in their potbelly stove; what they were doing in the home of such a literary purist as Zola is never explored, nor need it be. This act of destruction and the presence of Cezanne are devices used to establish Zola’s young idealism and link him back to it after he becomes rich and famous.

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Zola’s mother (Florence Roberts) and his fiancee Alexandrine (Gloria Holden) come to the flat and inform Zola that he has been offered a job as a clerk in a publishing company. He now feels able to marry Alexandrine and establish a home for them, but he still barely pays the bills on his meager earnings. One night, as Zola and Cezanne share a dinner out, a prostitute seeks shelter at their table from the police, who are making one of their periodic sweeps of the Pigalle district. Zola hears Nana’s (Erin O’Brien-Moore) sad story and turns it into his first bestseller, Nana, a racy but sympathetic look at the problems of the poor and outcast. He brings a copy of the book to her stuffed with a share of his royalties and his profuse thanks.

His accounts of social injustice continue for a time, but eventually cease. Zola produces one hit after another, shorthanded in the film by showing the covers of each book in succession, and segueing into a visit from Cezanne to Zola’s mansion. Zola is eager to show off his expensive objets d’art to Cezanne, who merely announces that he is leaving Paris and does not intend to write. “Artists should remain poor,” he says in quiet admonishment to the complacent Zola. Again, we are made to feel the prick of conscience that the fictional Cezanne represents.

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At about this time, career soldier Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) is accused of treason for smuggling Army secrets to the Prussians. He maintains his innocence but is convicted and transported to Devil’s Island for life. Several years of fruitless attempts to exonerate her husband have Dreyfus’ wife (Gale Sondergaard) appeal to Zola to intercede. Now a respected man of letters soon to be elected to membership in the Académie Française, Zola rejects her petition by saying that his rabble-rousing days are over. Yet he finds himself pouring over the documents that she says prove her husband’s innocence and the guilt of another officer, Major Walsin-Esterhazy (Robert Barrat). Zola looks at the letter about the Académie Française and predictably tears it in half.

Zola begins a campaign to exonerate Dreyfus and bring the real spy and the conspirators in the cover-up to justice when he goes to the newspapers and reads his famous tract J’Accuse, which is quoted in part in the film. He courts a slander trial, which eventuates, in hopes of bringing the case back into the public consciousness, but the court will not allow Dreyfus’ court martial to be mentioned. Zola loses the trial, which was heavily slanted by the Army and the courts to go against him, but escapes to England to avoid prison and continues to write articles critical of the Army and the courts. A new French government brings in reforms and reopens the Dreyfus case. Eventually, Dreyfus’ conviction is overturned, and he returns to Paris, where he is restored to his family and military career. Zola never meets Dreyfus, because the writer dies of carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty heating stove in his study the night before they were to meet.

All of the dramatic conventions of a biopic can be found in The Life of Emile Zola, and normally that would be enough for me to pick to pieces any day of the week. So why do I stand in such admiration of this film? Again, The Word. The screenwriters have done a superlative job of creating dialogue (though cribbing some from Zola, of course) and situations that crackle with drama, yes, but also truth.

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I’d go so far as to say that Zola’s slander trial is the best courtroom scene ever filmed. The entire proceeding teems with the active participation of the entire courtroom and the throngs of Parisians out in the streets. A much looser affair than Americans are used to seeing in any of our courtroom dramas, witnesses take the stand and replace each other almost at will. Swearing in seems optional. The defense calls Mme. Dreyfus, but the chief justice refuses to allow her to answer a single question. Indeed, he plays favorites with alacrity, a believable face of bias and government corruption acting believably, repeating “The question cannot be put,” in a successful effort to prevent Zola’s defense attorney Labori (Donald Crisp) from building a case. According to newspaper reports of the time, accuracy was a watchword in building this scene, save for the fact that the impassioned defense summation to the jury was made by Labori, not Zola. This is an inaccuracy that works brilliantly, however, and puts the capper on a lively and varied performance by Paul Muni, though one not without its hammy moments.

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The humiliation of Dreyfus—stripped of the signs of his military rank and paraded in front of the regiment and the public at large—was horrifying to watch. Dreyfus maintained his strict military discipline even in this dark hour, and the perfunctory behavior of the soldiers during his incarceration and then at his release seems otherworldly. By contrast, when Dreyfus’ cell is unlocked for the last time, he walks out, then back in, out and back in—a truly human, wonderfully acted and directed moment that could have been dispensed with in a film more interested in bones than flesh. It is fitting to me that Schildkraut won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, whereas Muni was denied a golden boy.

The final eulogy, delivered by Cezanne, is perhaps the work of the Oscar-winning screenwriters (I can’t find evidence to the contrary):

Let us not mourn him. Let us rather salute that bright spirit of his which will live forever, and like a torch, enlighten a younger generation inspired to follow him.

You who are enjoying today’s freedom, take to your hearts the words of Zola. Do not forget those who fought the battles for you and bought your liberty with their genius and their blood. Do not forget them and applaud the lies of fanatical intolerance.

Be human. For no man in all the breadth of our land more fervently loved humanity than Zola.

He had the simplicity of a great soul.

He was enjoying the fruits of his labor—fame, wealth, security—when suddenly, out of his own free will, he tore himself from all the peaceful pleasures of his life, from the work he loved so much because he knew that their is no serenity, save in justice; no repose—save in truth.

At the sound of his brave words, France wakened from her sleep. How admirable is the genius of our country. How beautiful the soul of France which for centuries taught right and justice to Europe and the world.

France is once again today the land of reason and benevolence because one of her sons, through an immense work and a great action, gave rise to a new order of things based on justice and the rights common to all men.

Let us not pity him because he suffered and endured. Let us envy him. Let us envy him because his great heart won him the proudest of destinies: He was a moment of the conscience of man.

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The only serious fault I can find with this film is that it neglects to mention that Dreyfus was a Jew and that Zola spoke out against the anti-Semitism behind the Dreyfus Affair. At a time when the Nazis were already killing Jews, this film could have—and should have—been more frank.


4th 02 - 2009 | 14 comments »

Gabriel Over the White House (1933)

Director: Gregory La Cava

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

There are many classic film buffs out there for whom the Pre-Code era of 1930-1933 is the source of their greatest viewing pleasure. It’s easy to understand why—it’s a momentous time in film and world history. Sound trickled in, flowed steadily, and quickly inundated motion picture production. With that sound, it was possible to hear the songs and seductions that brought musicals and sex vividly to life—and scared the hell out of the Hays Office. It was also the time when the Great Depression grabbed onto the world economy and plunged it as low as it had ever been experienced in the United States. All types of films explored the plight of the unemployed, from Busby Berkeley musicals to gangster flicks to comedies about slumming socialites.

One type of film that wasn’t particularly common in the United States at that time, but was in its ascendancy in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, was the propaganda film. Hollywood moguls interested in churning out mind-distracting entertainment certainly weren’t interested in it. In fact, there’s only one well-known propaganda film from that era done by the only movie mogul who not only had the interest, but also the experience to pull it off—Gabriel Over the White House, a production of William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures.

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Hearst, of course, was the notorious newspaper baron whose politics and personal preferences trumped truth and impartiality in the heyday of yellow journalism and beyond. In the early 1930s, Hearst used his various bully pulpits to tout what would become Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal administration.

Gabriel Over the White House, a truly bizarre film on first viewing, centers on the Hoover/Hardingesque political hack, Judson “Judd” Hammond (Walter Huston), who we first see taking the presidential oath of office, change his evil ways, baby, after a coma-inducing car accident puts him in touch with an unseen presence. His mistress, Pendie Molloy (Karen Morley), who also mends her fornicating, father-fixated ways to embrace the more age-appropriate marriage-minded presidential press secretary Hartley “Beek”’ Beekman (Franchot Tone), senses the presence and identifies it as the angel Gabriel.

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Hammond is shown before the conversion hobnobbing with his party cronies, all of whom hold cabinet seats, carelessly discarding the problems of massive unemployment and rampant crime as “local matters.” Hammond, the rare bachelor in the White House, is a real bad boy. After installing Molloy as his “private secretary,” and putting off all serious questions at his first press conference with jovial dismissal—and the announcement that all future press conferences will require questions submitted in writing beforehand—he decides to take a joy ride in his limo with several of his staff. He floors it, pushing past 110 mph so as to shake both his security escort and trailing reporters. The car blows a tire and careens off the road. The condition of the passengers in the ill-fated car is never revealed, but the comatose president is not expected to live.

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As divine presences always seem to do in movies, the unseen messenger arrives on a gust of wind that ruffles the curtains covering the president’s open bedroom window and fills the room momentarily with light. The doctor, Beek, and Pendie are hurriedly called in from their death watch in an adjacent room by Judd’s nurse. Judd has regained consciousness. He’s alert, but distracted, as though he were listening to a voice beyond the wall. His coldness toward Pendie announces his renunciation of the immoral pleasures of the flesh, and with a vigor and seriousness of purpose never seen in him before, sets about mending the ills of the country. He fires all of his sleazy cabinet members, encourages labor leader John Bronson (David Landau) and his million unemployed men to come to Washington to talk about stimulating the economy, and sends tanks against notorious bootlegger and criminal Nick Diamond (C. Henry Gordon). When the political hacks in Congress rebel against Judd’s sweeping social-welfare proposals, he declares martial law.

In his zeal to fill up the nation’s depleted coffers, he decides to collect the debts the nations of the world owe the United States for supplies and assistance it provided during and after World War I. He deploys the Navy to prevent any interference with his grand plan—to gather all of the leaders of the world on a naval vessel and watch American bombers destroy two American battleships. These planes, rather than some antiquated battleships, represent the military force of the future, and he will not hesitate to use them if the debts are not paid and a new understanding of peace is not reached that very day. The leaders of the world line up to sign and stamp their seal on a peace accord. Hammond enters the room last. Looking not at all well, he stumbles to the table on which rests the document and, with a shaky hand, signs it. Then he collapses and dies, his brief resurrection rescinded now that his divine work has been completed.

gabriel%202.jpgIt would have to take someone with the enormous ego Hearst had (or the absurb humor of the Blues Brothers) to promote his politics as a mission from God. The authoritarian way Hammond goes about doing good reminded me of another film that most people see quite benignly, but that I have always contended was rather fascistic—The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Gort and the bombers are much the same, as are Klaatu’s and Hammond’s ultimatums. The difficulty in seeing Hammond’s actions in a completely sympathetic light have to do with our understanding of and revulsion against martial law. Doing right by assuming absolute control just doesn’t taste right. Nonetheless, there’s no mistaking the appeal of Hearst’s agenda to a country bent by the Depression, from the proposal for a federal works program Hammond promises to the throngs of jobless men chanting, “We want work,” thrusting their shovels into the air, to the war on crime, with Nick Diamond unmistakably modeled on the real gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond, whose death in 1931 precluded him from suing Cosmopolitan for defamation of character. Many of the programs Hammond outlines actually formed part of the New Deal; indeed, Hearst sent the script to his candidate, FDR, for suggestions and revisions and worked them into the screenplay.

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Despite Hearst’s adulterous, live-in relationship with Marion Davies, he preferred to project a moral protagonist in Hammond. Pendie comes off a bit like Mary Magdelan crossed with Jean Arthur’s Clarissa Saunders in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The very presence of women seems to be undesirable, and there are only four in the entire picture: Pendie, Hammond’s nurse, Hammond’s sister, and Bronson’s wife—a reformed sinner, a traditional helper, a relation with a walk-on who looks after Hammond’s beloved nephew Jimmy (Dickie Moore), and the wife of a labor martyr. Not a substantial woman in the bunch. And Pendie’s romance with Beek is one of the most bloodless I’ve seen, that is, until Pendie is felled in a hail of machine-gun fire from the Diamond gang, but miraculously lives to tell the tale and trot off into marriage.

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Gregory La Cava is a skilled director with such classics as My Man Godfrey (1936) and Stage Door (1937) to his credit. I believe it is his skill in bringing this film to life that disguises its true nature as a propaganda picture. Huston plays the sinner quite realistically, as do all of the crooked pols who surround him. His saint is forceful and rather wooden, appropriately a vessel rather than a man. Franchot Tone, who always seems a bit precious to me, really nails this character, a 1930s version of Tony Snow before Hammond’s transformation, revealed to be a really likeable guy. Karen Morley is better in this film than in most of her output, putting more feeling into her unfortunate, flat voice.

Gabriel Over the White House was an eerie film for me to watch again. Yesterday’s corrupt prosperity, today’s economic collapse, and a president from one of the most corrupt states in the union offering change we can believe in—including a return to some New Deal measures—parallel the world of this ancient Hollywood oddity. This is a timely film to ponder.


20th 01 - 2009 | 18 comments »

Early Hawks Blog-A-Thon: Ceiling Zero (1936)

Director: Howard Hawks

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This is part of the Early Hawks’ Blog-A-Thon hosted by Ed Howard at Only the Cinema.

Richard Schickel reports in his book, James Cagney: A Celebration, that he was lolling around the set of Ragtime helping Pat O’Brien and Cagney pass the time between calls. Idly, Schickel asked them what they thought was the best of the nine pictures they did together. “O’Brien unhesitatingly named Angels with Dirty Faces, a logical choice, given the intensity and range of emotions it offered them, and the brooding quality of director Michael Curtiz’s striking mise en scène. Cagney, surprisingly, named Ceiling Zero, which I have always thought of as one of Howard Hawks’ lesser works, stagebound and talky. But, as it turned out, that is precisely what Cagney liked about it.”

It was based on a hit Broadway play penned by Frank “Spig” Wead, a crippled flyer who became a beloved writer of authentically detailed aviation screenplays in Hollywood. Cagney admired the writer, the play’s success, and Osgood Perkins, the actor who originated the part he was to play in the film. It was Howard Hawks’ idea for Cosmopolitan/Warner Bros to acquire the script for Cagney. As a story of the friendship between two pilots whose lives are heading in divergent paths, it was a natural for Hawks and for the team of Cagney and O’Brien. It would form something of a template for the acting pair’s future collaborations that would cast O’Brien as the angel and Cagney as the angel with a dirty face. Ceiling Zero also proved to be a warm-up for Hawks’ similarly plotted triumph, Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Indeed, Hawks learned to fly in the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I and could identify with his leading characters, Dizzy Davis (Cagney), Jake Lee (O’Brien), and Texas Clark (Stuart Erwin)—three war veterans who flew together, by the seat of their pants, when flying was still relatively new.

Jake is the head of the Newark branch of Federal Airlines. Dizzy and Texas work for him as pilots, forming a sort of Three Musketeers, as does Mike Owens (Garry Owen), another war buddy who has been mentally disabled by a plane crash and who works as a janitor around the airport offices. Aside from Davis, all three men are married, though we never meet Mike’s wife. Jake’s wife Mary (Martha Tibbetts) was in love with Dizzy before he threw her over. Texas’ wife Lou (Isabel Jewell) henpecks her husband in part to domesticate him and also out of worry for his safety.

The district manager of Federal is constantly on Jake’s back to play by corporate rules. One rule Jake refuses to heed is to keep Dizzy Davis off the Federal Airlines payroll. Despite Dizzy’s lack of discipline, his lies, his inveterate womanizing, and his risky flying, friendship and history count more for Jake than anything the front office has to say. Dizzy makes his entrance into the film in his usual fashion—stunt flying upside down.

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Impressed by Dizzy is Tommy Thomas (June Travis) a 19-year-old novice flyer who has just completed her first solo flight. Although she is seeing a young pilot, Tay Lawson (Henry Wadsworth), she is bowled over by the 34-year-old Dizzy, who dodges a call from one of his seemingly endless stream of women to be free to put the moves on Tommy.

The pair goes out for drinks, and the following day, Dizzy decides to spend some quality time with Tommy by taking her out for a private flying lesson. To ditch his mail run to Cleveland he feigns heart trouble to Texas, who volunteers to take his place. On his way back to Newark, a ceiling zero fog and a faulty radio make it impossible for Texas to see the runway to land or use his instruments to navigate using instructions from the ground crew. He flies into electric wires and crashes into a hangar in a burning ball of steel. Dizzy not only has to deal with the guilt he feels, but also has his license to fly revoked because of repeated complaints.

Although he and Tommy have fallen for each other, Dizzy feels he has little to offer her, having lost his identity as a pilot and feeling “over the hill.” The weather worsens, but Lawson is scheduled to fly a mail run to Cleveland and plans to check out a new deicing system on the plane. Dizzy punches his lights out and takes over the run, a suicide mission if the deicer fails to work. He radios back to a furious Jake how the deicer is functioning—not well—takes on an inch of ice and crashes. In symbolic fashion, the disembodied voice of radio operator in Cleveland says that the weather is improving, and signs off with his standard, “That is all.”

Ceiling Zero is as typical a Hawks film as any he ever made—a buddy film with unusual depth. Despite its studio sets, intercut briefly with stock footage of stunt flying, that make the film feel stagy, the performances of Cagney and O’Brien are the most personal and natural I have ever seen them turn in as a team. Hawks manages to tame O’Brien’s blustery shouting about 80 percent of the time, allowing Jake’s thoughtfulness and quiet affection for his comrades, especially Dizzy, to balance with his more rigid, duty-bound, mature self.

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Stuart Erwin is winning as a drawling man who fears his wife but is in complete command when he’s in the air. The lengthy middle of the film in which we experience every stage of Texas’ plight is a real nail biter, hearing the Newark ground crew trying desperately to get through to Texas, marshalling airports along his route to track his progress and make their own attempts to contact him. Dramatically, though somewhat implausibly, Texas’ radio messages start to come through even as Newark ground remains mute. Texas’ final moments in the air are sadly reminiscent of many final moments to come with the advent of cellphones.

Cagney’s performance as Dizzy is nothing less than amazing. His silly pencil moustache makes him look like a kid trying to play dashing flying ace. He rambles through the world picking up nothing that would weigh him down, knowing he will always be able to go back to Jake, who will enable his failure to launch, and throw a mischievous monkey wrench into Texas’ domestic life in Dizzy’s attempts to lure him back into their men-only club. In a scene that could have come from the Andy Hardy series, Jake says that although he knows Dizzy lies to other, he always thought Dizzy would be on the level with him. He asks Dizzy point blank if there was anything serious between Dizzy and Mary. Like a son, Dizzy lies to Jake, embellishing the lie with a half-truth, “I’d cut my heart out for you” and finishing it with a child’s plea, “Please don’t be mad at me.” Dizzy is not exactly sparing Jake’s feelings, or even Mary’s, but rather is making an attempt to stay in his “father’s” good graces.

There’s another telling scene that shows Dizzy just doesn’t quite get it. At the hospital where Texas has been rushed, Lou confronts Dizzy. Lou understands that Dizzy didn’t mean any harm—his deception to get out of the Cleveland run having been confessed—but that “you’re no good. You’ll never be any good.” Cagney assumes a sheepish look, but he seems not to hear the words completely. He’s basically a narcissist who can see what havoc he wrecks, but generally delights in it. Even though he does the noble thing by giving Tommy up—much as John Barrymore’s Larry Renault sends Madge Evan’s Paula Jordan away in Dinner at Eight, and with much the same results—we get the sense that he is still acting in his own self-interest so that his suicide will be seen heroically by Tommy, instead of cowardly.

Like many of Hawks’ films, Ceiling Zero romanticizes the rebel, the elemental man. The business of flying is shown to be corrupt and petty—how could the government and Federal Airlines ground a daring and skilled flyer like Dizzy; how could a businessman try to sell Jake some second-rate airplanes? It is the experience of really being alive—being the flyer instead of the front man—that has Hawks’ sympathy, even though the impulse can cause so much unhappiness for other people just trying to live the way they want or know how.

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The character of Tommy is an interesting one. I remember telling my ex that a cycling buddy of his would fall for a female cyclist who was starting to ride with his club. Of course, I was right. Rather than having to join her world and compromise his male pursuits, he found a woman whom he could consider an honorary man. Tommy, in becoming a flyer, in espousing the joy she feels in flying (being alive by being free), has earned her male nickname. Like Wendy, she has been invited to join Dizzy’s Neverland as the only kind of woman he could really fall for—an honorary man. Lou, by contrast, is almost a copy of Tom Powers’ mother in The Public Enemy, her “you’re no good” as scornful as Ma Powers’ “Murderer!” Dizzy is not as willfully malevolent nor as unrepentant as Tom, but he’s just as self-centered and looking to his “family” time and again to bail him out.

In the end, Jake gives Lawson a dressing down to remember the guy who made flying safer for him and enters, once and for all, the adult world. The film aims for a sense of loss over the innocence of youth and adventure, which Jake will have to endure alone.


1st 12 - 2008 | 12 comments »

Famous Firsts: Only Yesterday (1933)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Director: John M. Stahl
Debut film of: Margaret Sullavan, actress

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

According to actress Louise Brooks, Margaret Sullavan remains “mysterious… like a voice singing in the snow.” While this description may itself seem a bit inscrutable, if you think about how snow refracts and muffles sound, then there certainly is something to this comparison. Margaret Sullavan was an actress who made only 16 films, almost all of them hard to find and view. She might be entirely forgotten today if not for her starring role in the only recognized classic she made, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940). Yet it wasn’t really the paucity of performances and the obscurity into which most of them fell that made Margaret Sullavan an actress who was hard to pin down. She had a presence that seemed to hold dark, tragic secrets, an old soul who seemed mature beyond her years, even in her screen debut. Indeed, Only Yesterday began a string of screen deaths to which Margaret Sullavan would bring her special brand of stoic poignancy.

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The story begins on October 29, 1929—the day that marked the end of the Roaring 20s and the beginning of the Great Depression. Frantic traders milling at the New York Stock Exchange share their collective misery as their fortunes crumble around them. One dejected man moves as though bent by a strong wind; he is persuaded by an eager worker to climb up on his shoeshine stand. Before his shine is finished, the man rises, gives the fellow some money, goes into a nearby men’s room, and blows his brains out.

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In the next scene, we see a gay couple under a shop sign, the slyly named Deux Freres (Two Brothers), catching a taxi to attend one of the nearly daily soirees held at the home of society doyenne Phyllis Emerson (Benita Hume). The stock market crash is the talk of the evening, but it doesn’t supplant the usual intrigues. Phyllis cozies up to her lover, who wants her to leave her husband Jim (John Boles); Phyllis would rather play games with Jim’s latest lover Letitia (Noel Francis), who has just arrived at the party and is flashing the “famous” pearls Jim has not so discreetly bestowed upon her. Phyllis admires the pearls and then tells Letitia to be sure to pay for them—a great line that leaves Letitia nonplussed.

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Jim arrives home and puts off the guests who seek his financial help. The Emersons are wiped out, too, and Jim sneaks off to his study, where he prepares to end it all as well. He sits down at his desk, pulls a gun out of one of its drawers, lights a cigarette, and goes through his mail. One letter catches his eye, and he opens it. Inside is the story of a woman who knew Jim long ago. The film moves into full flashback as we follow the story told by the letter writer, Mary Lane (Sullavan).

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The flashback takes us from the Emersons’ sophisticated New York party to a much more quaint affair—a ball given by a good Virginia family for soldiers about to muster out to fight in the First World War. Mary Lane, just 18, flirts outrageously with Captain James Stanton Emerson, flippantly remarking that she has been in love with him for years. When he asks her to dance, we see from her looks and the way she holds him that this flip remark is absolutely true. The pair leaves the ballroom and goes for a walk in the formal garden. They disappear under a leafy canopy; when they return, Jim is helping Mary refasten her sash. The party’s over, not only for the guests at the ball, but also for Jim. Mary is the last thing on his mind when he musters out a couple of days later. Soon, Mary learns she is pregnant and elects to move in with her suffragette Aunt Julia (Billie Burke) in New York to spare her family embarrassment. She eagerly awaits the end of the war, when Jim will return to her and little Jimmy, the son she bears in his absence.

The end of the war and return of the troops have all of New York out in the streets to welcome them home. Mary works through the crowds, trying to catch sight of Jim, and then running the gantlet of well wishers to reach him as he leaves the parade to join Phyllis and some friends. The series of screen caps below wordlessly tell the story as Sullavan embodies Mary’s quiet excitement, and even quieter disappointment and hurt, as Jim looks her square in the face and fails to recognize her. Once at home, she yields to her broken heart and dreams, then forthrightly faces the reality of her life now as an single mother with little hope of uniting with her baby’s father.

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The director, continuing to use devices like the calendar to place the characters in time, shows Julia perusing a newspaper whose headline indicates that the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) has been passed. That makes the year 1919, only a few months after the troops returned following the 1918 Armistice, and in that time, Mary has made no attempt to contact Jim. That day, however, Mary tells Julia she intends to end her torment and tell Jim who she is. Too late. The newspaper serves a plot-related purpose as well—Aunt Julia shows Mary the Emersons’ wedding announcement in that same paper. (It would have been fitting to have another newspaper announce the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the vote, because Mary becomes the epitome of the modern woman—an unwed mother supporting her child by becoming a success in business. Alas, the film’s greater interest in Mary’s private life counts as a missed opportunity, even though forward-thinking Julia and a suitor of Mary’s look at her unwed motherhood as something that “just happened.”)

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The final meeting between Mary and Jim occurs again at a party—New Year’s Eve at the St. Regis Hotel. Mary and her date are out with Julia and her younger husband. Jim passes behind them and joins his party at a nearby table. Mary is happy and carefree until she notices Jim. He mistakes her stares for flirtation—it’s clear to the audience in this scene and the one that follows in which Jim and Mary take a taxi to his bachelor pad that Mary is very angry. Her every word is a veiled recrimination against a man too superficial and careless with the feelings of an 18 year old—a time when first love can mean everlasting love—to remember a night that meant the world to her. Again, Sullavan’s understated emotions simmering with indignation allow us to understand her as Jim never could have and make her obsessiveness through the years—a telegram every December 31 to Jim from “One Who Does Not Forget”—a bit easier to take.

This ability to act both text and subtext believably would serve Sullavan extremely well in The Shop Around the Corner, where her Miss Novak maintains a prickly, insulting demeanor with her coworker Mr. Kralik (James Stewart) while melting with genuine admiration and affection at the letters this same coworker—obviously a completely different man to her—sends her pseudononymously. However, in playing Miss Novak, it is Sullavan this time who is blind, who reacts to circumstances as they occur, just as Jim Emerson had. Yet, Sullavan’s ability to suggest emotion with the slightest of gestures—for example, the sight of her hand (shot from the rear of a bank of mailboxes) reaching into her mailbox, feeling around her cubbyhole thoroughly for an expected letter from “Dear Friend,” and then shrinking slightly and slowly sinking in disappointment to the bottom of the cubby—always allows audiences to identify with the woman beneath the prickly or stoic exterior.

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Sullavan’s first performance is slightly mannered; even though she really was a Virginia belle, her giggly girlishness at the beginning of the film seems somewhat put on. Her deathbed scene in Only Yesterday is a bit of a wallowfest, but she’d soon learn to tame that tendency. In two other films of hers I’ve seen, The Mortal Storm (1940) and Cry Havoc (1943), she uses her emotional containment to embody bravery during wartime; she goes to her death in each of these films with the same clear-eyed realism tinged with emotional idealism with which she started her film career. Thus, remarkably, Sullavan’s screen persona seems pretty close to fully formed in Only Yesterday, elevating what could have been an ordinary melodrama (reproduced by Max Ophüls in his more sudsy 1946 film Letter from an Unknown Woman) to a memorable debut picture.

Dan Callahan provides an excellent review of Margaret Sullavan’s career in the August 2005 edition of Bright Lights Film Journal.

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20th 09 - 2008 | no comment »

The Plainsman (1936)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

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By Roderick Heath

The Plainsman is bunkum. But it’s entertaining bunkum and one of Cecil B. DeMille’s best films. The Plainsman, fairly well-written, and punctuated by neat verbal byplay reflecting DeMille’s recently abandoned interest in racy screwball comedy after the failure of Madame Satan in 1930, is given special force by two grand performances, from Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, as an incredibly romanticized Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. It’s also a veritable Super Western, beating How the West Was Won (1962) to the punch by nearly 30 years in trying make a vast historical saga out of sprawling, disconnected events and gilded genre clichés. DeMille stretches truth and credibility to near-ridiculous lengths to provide a streamlined narrative leading from Abraham Lincoln’s (Frank McGlynn Sr.) plans for postwar America, outlined just before he goes to a performance at Ford’s Theatre, to Hickok’s being shot in the back in a card game. At least the movie is honest enough in its credits to admit to compressing events for the sake a dramatic narrative, whilst also being vague enough in its changes to disguise the timeline of events.

The oft-recycled, epic plot, follows the efforts of dastardly financiers with investments in repeating rifles who are unlikely to be paid back after the Civil War’s end deciding to sell them to Indians, hiring seedy trader John Lattimer (Charles Bickford) to do so. The Indians, unhappy at the large number of young men following the advice to “go West,” start agitating more aggressively than expected. Hickok, returning from war service, runs into old pal Buffalo Bill Cody (James Ellison), newly married to a dainty, peace-abiding Eastern miss (Helen Burgess) and fretting irritably over ex-flame Jane, who’s working as a stagecoach driver. They’re all soon embroiled in frontier skirmishes, and both Bills are sent off on disparate missions by General Custer (John Miljan) in an attempt to head off a war. But war comes anywhere. At one point, renegade Cheyenne chief Yellow Hair (Paul Harvey!), tortures his captive, Will Bill, to loosen Jane’s tongue about where Buffalo Bill is leading a relief column. Because she’s a girl, she spills the beans, and the two Bills end up holding off a massive assault on the train whilst Jane tries to alert Custer.

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Needless to say, they get out of that scrape. When Hickok attempts to bring in Lattimer, he instead has to gunfight with three soldiers who are his partners, killing them all but suffering wounds himself. Custer, believing Hickok to be a murderer, wants him arrested and sends Cody after him. Both men soon find out that Custer and his men have been killed at the Little Bighorn with guns sold by Lattimer to Sitting Bull. Hickok tracks Lattimer down to Deadwood, takes out the nefarious villain, and decides to wait out Cody’s return with the cavalry to round up the rest of them. He plays a game poker with them, where he draws a hand of aces and eights.

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It’s balderdash, of course, but not quite as big a load of it as I first assumed. Jane, prone to romancing, did claim to have worked as a scout for Custer at the frontier Fort Russell, but was all of 13 when the Civil War started, possibly lending a weird subtext to Hickok’s prewar affection for her. The two Bills were indeed acquainted, having met before the war when Hickok was 18 and Cody 12. But Hickok didn’t meet Jane until a couple of years before his death in 1876. Hickok’s assassin, mining roughneck Jack McCall (Porter Hall), is reinvented as a dapper, craven associate of Lattimer’s. The screenplay is, nonetheless, amusing and clever in how it weaves together vignettes in the legends of all four into a tight story that rockets along. Arthur’s wondrous Jane ought to be more famous than it is as a landmark screen heroine who, in one particularly delightful scene, strips off the sable dress she’s wearing to reveal britches, wields a Winchester, and rides off with rare zest to fetch Custer. The problem is she’s undercut by DeMille; he was fond of willful, rule-breaking heroines but always made sure they were taken down a peg for it, becoming overwrought and eventually either deliberately or inadvertently treacherous (see also Paulette Goddard in North West Mounted Police [1940] and Reap the Wild Wind [1942]; Delilah; Nefertiri). Jane is properly disgraced for being weak enough to spill the beans to Yellow Hair, but it does give Arthur a marvelous moment, when Jane lolls in pure, self-loathing despair.

DeMille was the most famously and proudly chauvinistic of filmmakers, yet also a man of curious contradictions—the devoutly religious, intensely patriotic patriarch whose sex-and-drug orgies were famous in Tinseltown, and with a biting cynicism about the expectations of the American public he went to such great effort to entertain. When they rejected Madame Satan and jazz-age raciness, he turned to religious subjects; when they rejected The Crusades (1934), he abandoned world history for a time, and did it always with a smirk. Despite his strictly conservative bent, sympathy for the oppressed and degraded is a theme in his work: he reassures us of Lattimer’s total villainy when he kicks a black porter in the head for dropping a crate of rifles.

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Despite that, it’s not exactly PC in terms of its portrayal of Native American interests. Like many films of the period (They Died with Their Boots On [1941]; She Wore A Yellow Ribbon [1948], etc.), the blame for the Indian Wars is put more on irresponsible arms dealers, sharklike profiteers both individual and corporate, and renegade bigots of both races, clearing guilt away from government policies, callous military ventures, and endemic racism. As in They Died with Their Boots On, Custer is the perfect cavalier forced into a war and final destruction by forces beyond the ken of both him and the Indians, rather than the crazed, messianic butcher we’d be getting by the time of Little Big Man (1970). Far more so than John Ford’s films, which, even when portraying Native Americans at their most villainous, bestowed a certain dignity on them, DeMille is happy shopping out patronizing attitudes, for example, showing them behaving with childish fascination when Jane distracts a war party by interesting them in Mrs. Cody’s hat collection, and then moving to destructive tantrums and grotesque torture sessions. You can see variations on the same plot, each time tweaked a little further around the dial in meaning, through Rio Grande (1949) to Major Dundee (1965) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972). Whereas Ford found the theme of former enemies of the Civil War fighting together on the plains intriguing and volatile enough to generate several movies, for DeMille’s it’s a throwaway comedy touch, as if the war was an automatically healed wound in the great march of American history.

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But The Plainsman feels like a generic textbook for other reasons. DeMille had the classical director’s understanding of how audiences respond to detailed flourishes of action, and Cooper, at his youthful best, is the catalyst. His Hickok is a study in rest and motion, situating himself in easy poses with an unassuming expression, tersely measured motions, and reactions until driven to action. He becomes a blur of brilliance—riding between two horses through a battle, picking off pursuers with a one-handed Winchester shot, spinning his pistols on his fingers and slipping them back in their holsters without taking his steely gaze off the men he’s challenging. Cooper’s Hickok is the perfect Western hero, and perhaps better than any other film, this one shows off Cooper, the lean, sexy, innately physical actor, supremely confident in controlling a scene. One throwaway gesture exemplifies Cooper’s style—trying to avoid discussing Jane’s betrayal with Cody, he ends with a slight move of his head, a momentary parting of his lips, as if to say something more, but then demurs, clamming up, ending the scene with an unspoken tension. It’s the sort of telling, barely noticeable flourish that affirms Cooper as both an intelligent actor and a fascinating star.

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Cooper’s innate sense of subtlety is particularly cool when contrasted with DeMille’s complete disinterest in it. He pursued a kind of illustrative ideal to the point his final—and greatest—film, The Ten Commandments (1956), achieved a kind of perfection in its total, depthless stylization. The themes and characterizations in The Plainsman practically stand on a table and shout, and his schoolbook sense of pictorial history results in some hilariously museum-diorama scenes of Lincoln and Custer’s Last Stand. Yet DeMille warrants more respect as a filmmaker than he generally gets today. Like a relative handful of Hollywood directors of the time—Ford, Hawks, Walsh, Wellman, Dieterle, Capra—he had a recognizably individual style of framing shots, more vivid than the standard, dull, medium group shots of the average studio hand and usually handled with the care of a Victorian academic painter. He specialized in finely detailed and composed tableaux vivant, such as those of the battered soldiers hunkered down, but never let such fussiness spoil his sense of high action.

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Moreover, though intended as thundering entertainment, The Plainsman is not stupid. It’s a film that actually manages to be about ethical growth. Hickok, so Buffalo Bill assures his wife pleasantly, has no rival as a “corpse-maker.” He’s the distillation of the violent West’s quick-draw wits and an angry misogynist. He even considers killing Cody when he comes to arrest him. But Hickok’s also decent man, who had taken Lincoln’s utterance about the need to bring order to the West to heart. Hickok eventually comes to the realization that a life of casual extermination is getting old, and begins learning to forgive Jane her failure of nerve and Jack McCall for their sins. The irony being, of course, that McCall will shoot him in the back for his newfound pacifism.

(Trivia note: A very young Anthony Quinn [above], in his fourth movie appearance, plays a Cheyenne warrior who tells Hickok and Cody about the Little Bighorn battle. He bluffed his way into the role by pretending to speak authentic Cheyenne, whilst speaking pure gibberish. Quinn would later marry DeMille’s daughter Katherine and continue a long association with him, directing a remake of his The Buccaneer in 1959. )


8th 07 - 2008 | 7 comments »

Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933)

Mary%20Stevens%202.jpgDirector: Lloyd Bacon

By Marilyn Ferdinand

“Men trusted her with their loves, but not with their lives…”

In my travels around the classic film blogosphere, the name “Kay Francis” makes a mighty roar. It comes up so frequently among classic film buffs that I had to wonder what was wrong with me that I had never heard of her or even seen one of her pictures. Delving a little deeper, I found out that she was in Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise. As a big Lubitsch fan, I wondered why I hadn’t seen that film or registered her connection with him. I should have made Trouble in Paradise my introduction to Kay Francis, but instead, the first film I laid my hands on was a lesser work, Mary Stevens, M.D. Serendipity, I suppose, that this late pre-Code film also costars Greg Ferrara’s fave rave Glenda Farrell. He’s got a picture of Farrell holding a cat at the top of the right rail on his blog and greatly admires (as do I) her performance in another 1933 film, Mystery of the Wax Museum. So this one’s for all the legions of Kay Francis fans and for you, Greg.

The film opens to immediate action. A medical dispatcher takes an emergency call and hops in the ambulance with the doctor on call. When they arrive, an Italian immigrant named (whatta ya know?) Tony (Harold Huber) is hysterical with worry. When he sees that the doctor answering the call is a woman—our girl Mary Stevens (Kay Francis)—he refuses to let her near his wife. She asks him what’s wrong with his wife, and he says she’s going to have a baby. “Is that all?” she replies. He becomes incensed, saying that they lost another baby during delivery. He pulls out a cheese knife that looks more like a machete and tells her he will kill her if anything goes wrong. Her assistant Pete (George Cooper), worried about Tony, calls the police. By the time the baby arrives, the entire neighborhood is roused and the stairwell to Tony’s apartment filled with cops. Just another day in Little Italy. Just the kind of thing you’d expect to happen around a lady doctor.

Mary%20Stevens%201.jpgDespite this first taste of prejudice, Mary graduates medical school with her childhood friend Don Andrews (Lyle Talbot), whom Mary considers her boyfriend. They open a practice together, he as a GP and she as a pediatrician. Glenda Carroll (Glenda Farrell) becomes their wise-to-the-world nurse. Business is slow for Don and slower for Mary. One night, Don breaks a date with Mary, making some poor excuse. He has met a glamour girl, the symbolically named Lois Rising (Thelma Todd), and falls in love with her and her well-connected father (Charles Wilson). Mary is downcast to hear that Don is going to marry Lois, but wishes him well. When Don’s father-in-law gets him a patronage job as head of the workers compensation office, Don invites Mary to take an office across from his in a location where she can get more than charity cases. She accepts and brings Glenda along.

Mary’s practice grows, but she still pines for Don, who has begun drinking because he is dissatisfied with both his phone-in job and his marriage. Mary, struggling to forget Don, takes off for a vacation. Don, who, with his political sponsors in government, is under suspicion for fraud, is told to leave town for a while. He and Mary end up going to the same place and eventually confessing their love for each other. Don says Lois wants a divorce as much as he does; Mary, reassured, spends the night with Don and makes plans for a future with him. In the morning, Don learns that he’s in the clear and feels free to quit his job and go back to practicing medicine the way he intended to.

Lois’ father gets wind of the pending divorce and forbids Lois to go to Reno, saying it will look suspicious if Don suddenly quits the Rising operation. Lois feigns pregnancy. Meanwhile, Mary really is pregnant. She arranges to go to Europe, where she will adopt her own baby, and then there will be no scandal. On her return with Glenda and baby Don, an outbreak of infantile paralysis (polio) is detected on board their ship. A race to get serum to the afflicted children in time gets underway, but tragedy waits in the wings.

This film may sound a bit melodramatic—and the trailer won’t disabuse anyone of that impression—but it actually deals with social problems in a fairly realistic way. Like all women’s films, Mary Stevens, M.D. has a heroine facing challenges in her life. The unwillingness of patients to accept her as their doctor, the scourge of polio and infant mortality among the immigrant classes, the difficulties faced by unwed mothers, and the perception that professional women are dowdy and masculine (helped along by the very unglamorous look Francis is given in the beginning of the film) were real obstacles.

On the other hand, the film’s indulgence in ethnic stereotypes, from Tony to a Jewish mother and her nebbish son, are a bit hard on the nerves. Mary transforms from ugly duckling to swan when she is with Don in their little hideaway, and her clothes conveniently start to fall dangerously low on her shoulders. Indeed, in the scene before Mary goes to Don’s room for their night of love—and there is no mistake about what they are up to—Francis has a top of some kind under her robe. When she shows up in Don’s room, the top is conspicuously missing.

Kay Francis is not only a beautiful and charismatic actress, but also a very good one. She brings so much nuance to her characterization of Mary, a woman trying to have it all in 1933! The pre-Code aspects of this film are important to that characterization, because we can see Mary as a sexual being without the lurid attractions of other pre-Code films. While her unwed mother isn’t quite as realistic as Margaret Sullavan’s in another 1933 film, Only Yesterday, it does show that audiences didn’t used to be cowards about the facts of life.

Mary%20Stevens%203.bmpLyle Talbot isn’t bad as Francis’ love interest, but he’s less able to make hay out of a somewhat sketchy role. Glenda Farrell is a little too wisecracking in this film for my tastes—an annoying characteristic of sidekicks through the ages—but she shows herself to be a solid friend and warms her Glenda up very nicely as the film progresses. In general, she’s a delight to watch. I also liked Thelma Todd in a small, but snappy role. Lloyd Bacon, the director of such fine films as Footlight Parade, Larceny, Inc., and Brother Orchid, kept a firm grip on the more hammy portions of the script and somehow made this 72-minute film seem very full.

Mary Stevens, M.D. is a solid women’s film from an era in which women were allowed to be real human beings on the silver screen. I hope we can see a resurgence of great leading ladies who, in their prime career years, are allowed to be mature women as well.


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