Think hiring bankable actors to star in musicals and teaching them to sing and dance started with Baz Luhrmann and Rob Marshall? Think again. At the beginning of the 1930s, when motion pictures started to talk, dance, and sing with a vengeance, Hollywood studios scrambled to hire Broadway singers and dancers to meet popular demand for musicals like the ground-breaking The Jazz Singer (1927). The Fox Film Corporation, however, made the decidedly modern move of taking their most popular team, Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, and training them to be musical comedy stars. Their maiden voyage as a musical duo was 1929’s Sunny Side Up, and the great success of that picture almost guaranteed a repeat performance.
Delicious reteamed Gaynor and Farrell with David Butler, a director who has not been rediscovered by the cinephile community despite having a solid career that included helming several Shirley Temple pictures in the 1930s, the stellar Hope/Crosby/Lamour vehicle Road to Morocco in 1942, and a number of Doris Day films in the 1950s. Butler’s way with musicals offered audiences diversion, but he also brought an edge to Delicious that makes it of a piece with light entertainment of that decade that offered slices of reality from the Great Depression along with crowd-pleasing spectacle. Interestingly, Delicious is a film that must have had a direct influence on the ballet sequence in the classic Vincente Minnelli musical An American in Paris (1951) 20 years later. And why not—both films offer a magnificent suite by George Gershwin; indeed, Delicious boasts an entire score by George and his brother Ira, their first done especially for the movies.
The social issue discussed in Delicious is immigration. As economies collapsed around the world, hopeful immigrants set sail for the rumored gold-paved streets of the United States of America. Of course, with Americans falling out of work and into poverty in record numbers, too, immigrants had to prove they would not be a drain on the economy before they would be allowed through the gates of Ellis Island. Our heroine, Heather Gordon (Gaynor), is a Scottish lass who expects to live with her uncle in Idaho, which she imagines is close enough to visit her newfound friends in steerage, a musical troupe from Russia set to work at a nightclub in New York City. The composer of the troupe, Sascha (Raul Roulien), is in love with Heather, but once she meets Larry Beaumont (Farrell) in the onboard stable that holds his horse Poncho, there’s no doubt about who will be in the final clinch.
The film’s comedy is a little flaccid, relying heavily on the dubious skills of Swedish impersonator El Brendel, as Beaumont’s servant Chris Jansen, to bridge the complex plot. A little of El Brendel’s mugging goes a long way, and it is a small crime that he was allowed to introduce the wonderful Gershwin tune “Blah Blah Blah” to the world. He even gets an encore. The direction and editing are often sluggish. A scene of Detective O’Flynn (Lawrence O’Sullivan), an Irish immigration officer, chasing an escaped Heather around the ship after she is denied entry into the country, is interminable, neither funny nor suspenseful. O’Flynn pops up more often than Inspector Javert in Les Misérables to dog poor little Heather as she tries to prove she can pull her own weight in America as a member of the Russian troupe. Fortunately, as a consequence, we get treated to the delightful “Katinkitsha” at the Russian nightclub, which plays on the Gershwins’ own heritage as the children of Russian Jews and gives Gaynor a chance to show off her dancing skills while made up to look like a Russian nesting doll.
It’s interesting to see Virginia Cherrill, the sweet, blind girl in Chaplin’s miraculous City Lights (1931), as insincere socialite Diana Van Bergh. She toys with Larry’s affections, schemes with her granite-minded mother (Olive Tell) to keep Heather away from him, and even calls the cops on the lassie while pretending to help her, making her one of the more hissworthy villains I’ve seen in recent times. Hollywood always tended to side with virginal innocents, and despite the fact that Diana looks more Larry’s type and Gaynor plays Heather like a 12-year-old Kewpie doll with the worst Scottish accent I’ve ever heard (that is, when she even tries to put the accent on), there is no denying how magnetic Gaynor and Farrell are together.
The immigrant experience is treated both realistically and somewhat offensively. On the boat, each ethnic group gets a short vignette singing and dancing in their native garb, a caricature that telegraphs the setting to the audience with ease, but also one that reinforces stereotypes. The humorous, hopeful dream Heather has early in the film, “Welcome to the Melting Pot,” offers an equally unrealistic image held of America, as a cohort of Uncle Sams shake her hand, an imagined Mr. Ellis steps into the ocean from Ellis Island and emerges dripping wet to welcome her, and the Statue of Liberty boogies on her pedestal and rains money on her.
However, the chain blocking the stairs between steerage and the higher classes brings it home that the divisions in American society are not easily breached, and that guardians of the ruling order like O’Flynn, though they be immigrants themselves, are always available. The spacious, luxurious Beaumont estate and the one-room flat that houses the Russians contrast realistically, and the furtiveness of being an illegal immigrant is more than well documented. The best scene in the film, which clearly presages Gene Kelly’s dance through Paris, comes near the end, when Heather is on the run in the streets of New York, facing the rush of the crowds from the subway and seeing the skyscrapers loom and turn into the long-nailed hands of ghouls swallowing her up while Gershwin’s “New York Rhapsody” scores her journey. The special effects may be a little old-fashioned even for 1931, but the expressionistic horror remains shocking nonetheless.
Delicious isn’t the greatest musical to come out of the 1930s, but it’s a fascinating look at how marketing mechanisms Hollywood still employs today meshed with the social consciousness of the time. Further, it shows how the Gershwins told their own story on the silver screen through song. Although it is not any more fleshed than the Gershwin film biographies that came later, it does offer their unfiltered wit and vision in a vehicle that was truly a part of their own time.
According to Lana Wilson in her excellent précis of the cinema of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki in Senses of Cinema, “The protagonist of a Kaurismäki film is almost always the same character: a lonely, working-class underdog of few words in search of love and a steady job.” While Kaurismäki is still interested in such characters, with Le Havre, the first in a projected three-film series on port cities and Finland’s entry in this year’s Oscar’s race, he is definitely moving his concerns in a different direction.
Although much of its subject matter—smuggling illegal immigrants, late-stage cancer, police surveillance—is pretty serious, Le Havre, named for the French city in which it is set, is actually one seriously feel-good film. Kaurismäki has decided to give his sad-sack protagonist, an unambitious shoeshine named Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a break. Although he thieves food from Claire the baker (Elina Salo) and the greengrocer (François Monnié) because he can’t pay for it, the storekeepers are fairly laissez-faire about it, and Marcel has a wonderful wife, Arletty (Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen), who cares for his every need and knows how to save the money that runs like quicksilver through Marcel’s fingers. As a result, Marcel has a nice roof over his head, as does his dog Laïka, and always a few Euros generously proferred by Arletty to spend at the local tavern before dinner is served.
Dark clouds are coming Marcel’s way, however. Arletty has a sudden pain in her stomach; the doctor (Pierre Étaix) at the hospital tells her she’s a goner. Characteristically, Arletty is more worried about what will become of Marcel. She asks the doctor whether there is any hope, to which he replies that miracles do happen. “Not in my neighborhood,” is Arletty’s rueful reply. Marcel is told nothing about the seriousness of her condition, only that she will be in the hospital for a while for treatments and to stay away. The neighborhood people, knowing more about Arletty’s condition than Marcel does, sympathize with him. Claire comes by with home-cooked meals, and the barkeep Yvette (Evelyne Didi) gives him drinks on the house.
Soon, Marcel sees an African boy (Blondin Miguel) hiding in the water under a pier. The boy, Idrissa, is the only one of a group of refugees hiding in a container bound for England to escape police capture, and his case has been headline news in Le Havre ever since. Marcel buys a sandwich and bottled water and leaves them on the wooden steps of the pier for the fugitive. Soon he finds the boy hiding in Laïka’s doghouse. Marcel tries to find Idrissa’s parents and finds he can again rely on the kindness of his neighbors to help him hide the boy. He locates and visits Idrissa’s grandfather, locked up in deportation center, and learns that Idrissa’s father has been killed and his mother is established in London. Marcel determines to get Idrissa to his mother, but he will have to pay a hefty fee to the smuggler and evade the police, led by Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), who has been tipped by a nosy neighbor (Jean-Pierre Léaud) where Idrissa is hiding.
I am going to quote from a fine review of an Indian film, Aadaminte Makan Abu, because it says beautifully much of what I want to say about Le Havre:
The protagonist of Aadaminte Makan Abu (Abu, the son of Adam) is, likewise, not a great soul – he does not go around committing noble deeds or inspiring people – but he’s a good soul, and that is quite enough: doors open welcomingly to him, and he never runs into a wall. Even his enemy admires him. What sort of a script is this, one may ask, that has no real conflict or resolution? It is one that demonstrates that the good are blessed with goodness.
Marcel is like this protagonist. In these “kill the poor and infirm” times, Marcel would be the butt of hostility, and the illegal immigrant he helps would be tossed to the wolves. Indeed, when Idrissa runs from the container, one of the policemen raises his rifle; he is quickly warned off this unnecessary act by a fellow officer. But Inspector Monet doesn’t care about Marcel or Idrissa facing “justice”; he wants to pursue real criminals, not people who are just trying to get by, and only intensifies his search for Idrissa under orders from the chief of police. Even then, he listens to his conscience and tells a life-giving lie.
The businesspeople in Marcel’s neighborhood don’t want a pound of Marcel’s flesh for every loaf of bread he’s stolen or cans of beans he didn’t pay for. When it comes down to it, they care more about Marcel and his cause than money—they haven’t forgotten how to be human. In contrast, Jean-Pierre Léaud looks and acts like a caricature, the real embodiment of a being who has lost his humanity and has started to look like something other than human.
In a terrific set piece, Marcel decides to hold a fundraising concert to raise the money he needs to pay the English smuggler (the Le Havre boatman only wants the price of gas). He persuades real-life singing star Little Bob (a cross between Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, and Billy Barty) to perform by getting Mimie (Myriam ‘Mimie’ Piazza), Little Bob’s girlfriend and muse, to make up a quarrel they had. The concert footage is very entertaining, and sent me and the hubby off to look up Little Bob’s work.
While the actors mainly maintain the sort of deadpan look and clipped line delivery characteristic of Kaurismäki’s work, the French setting seems to have warmed everyone up. The French love of love is apparent throughout the film, Blondin Miguel offers a sly performance of careless youth and a pathetic deadpan that softens all hearts toward him. He visits Arletty in the hospital and tells her she must get well because Marcel can’t manage without her. He has come to care about Marcel’s fate every bit as much as Marcel cares about his.
I don’t know if films like Le Havre are wishful thinking or a plea from filmmakers like Kaurismäki for all of us to remember our soft and generous side. Whatever the reason, a humorous but unsentimental look at goodness is something we all need more of.
Le Havre will screen Saturday, October 8, 5:30 p.m., and Sunday, October 9, 3:30 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
King of Devil’s Island: Naturalistic and suspenseful look at life in an island detention center for boys and their rebellion against their harsh treatment. (Norway/France)
Cinema Komunisto: This entertaining and eye-opening documentary provides a loving look at the little-known national cinema of Yugoslavia and the film fanatic who made it happen: Marshall Josif Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s president for life. (Serbia)
Inshallah, Football: One young man’s struggle to get a passport to play soccer in Brazil is the lens through which this documentary examines the Indian oppression of Muslims in the occupied region of Kashmir. (India)
George the Hedgehog: Irreverent and adult, this comic-book-based animated film pits George, a pleasure-loving hedgehog, against his clone, a stupid, vulgar internet superstar. (Poland)
The Kid with a Bike: What makes some people give unselfishly of themselves is the question examined in this intense tale by the Dardenne brothers of a boy abandoned by his father and the single woman who takes him in. (Belgium)
Without: A suspenseful story of guilt and loss slowly unfurls as a young woman acts as a temporary caregiver to a helpless elderly man in an isolated island home. (USA)
Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)
Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)
On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)
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