17th 06 - 2017 | no comment »

T2 Trainspotting (2017)

Director: Danny Boyle

By Roderick Heath

Trainspotting was one of the signal cultural moments of the 1990s. After his helter-skelter debut, Shallow Grave (1994), Danny Boyle placed his name on the lips of the international caste of cineastes with his second work. Although set nearly a decade earlier, Trainspotting was the closest thing the decade’s cinema offered to a big screen avatar for the zeitgeist of the already waning grunge scene in music: grimy, blackly comic, pungent in its evocation of society’s margins and the up-yours attitude of its citizens. Adapting Irvine Welsh’s cult novel, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge depicted a landscape of scruffs and dropouts making do, without a countercultural era to lend them glamour, on heroin and dubious friendship, finally torn apart by money in an ultimate act of self-liberation that was also, in aptly sarcastic manner, an act of obeisance at last to an entirely commercialised world. Trainspotting’s antic sense of humour and its equally vital if sometimes exceedingly grim depiction of the junkie were visualised by Boyle in ebullient cinematic terms. I remember describing it to a friend a few years later as A Hard Day’s Night’s (1964) evil twin, a comparison the film readily courted in quoting the Abbey Road cover. This sort of touch also confirms Trainspotting’s complicity in the Cool Britannia moment of the mid-‘90s, when new pride in the nation’s post-war cultural accomplishments surged in time with the oncoming Tony Blair era. As for me, like many, the film was a galvanising moment in my teen years, when the indie film scene was roaring at full blast and interesting moviemaking could come from anywhere and still find an eager audience. Now, at a time when everything old is new again in the movie theatre, revisiting beloved movies from beyond the usual roster of multiplex fodder gains a certain attractiveness, particularly when pitched as an investigation into nostalgic as a contemporary state of mind.

T2 Trainspotting is officially spun out of Welsh’s follow-up novel, Porno, but is as much about the original film, its place in the lives of anyone who saw it and loved it, as well as its unmistakeable lexicon of images and, perhaps even more crucially, sounds. This self-reflexive urge is both the most interesting aspect of T2 (the title itself is an act of cheek, appropriating the carefully groomed marketing contraction of another ‘90s hit, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991) and its most irritating. Or to put it another way, it’s like having a friend rave on in your ear about how great the good old days were whilst occasionally stepping back and making fun of himself for his nostalgia: the cake is had and eaten too. Reacting to this sequel also means reckoning with passing time and shifting attitudes. Boyle, who seemed to me the coolest cat on the street back when I was a teen, has long since revealed himself as a creature of facetious cinematic energy whose work I soon started to dread more than anticipate. Boyle and favoured star Ewan McGregor followed their breakthrough hit with the now blessedly forgotten A Life Less Ordinary (1998), a raucous mess that fulfilled the threat of ‘90s alternative culture to turn into a caricature of itself in throwing out all narrative sense and instead linking a series of pop cultural pastiches, and then actor and director purportedly fell out acrimoniously over McGregor being displaced by Leonardo DiCaprio on Boyle’s next film, The Beach (2000). T2’s status as a reunion project adds a charge of subtext to the scenes of angry and recriminatory but ultimately forgiving confrontation between old friends. Steve Jobs, Boyle’s surprisingly measured if flagrantly theatrical 2015 release, suggested Boyle was capable of restraining himself still, and I hoped returning to this ground might provoke something latent in the director.

Boyle and Hodge here try to entwine the characters’ pining for a social past that was largely mythical with their own longing for their youth. The formerly dynamic duo of Mark Renton (McGregor) and Sick Boy, now going by his more mundane real name of Simon (Johnny Lee Miller), are now easily caught up in free-flowing rhapsodies about various national past touchstones in a way that feels less appropriate to these once-cynical drop-outs than to Boyle’s self-appointed status dating back to the London Olympics as the framer of the national psyche, proxies for an imagined audience of barroom mates for whom the original Trainspotting is a fixture along with George Best and James Bond instalments. The storyline here mimics the act of revisiting the past as Renton is driven back to Edinburgh after twenty years living in Amsterdam. The collapse of his childless marriage and impending joblessness, on top of a suddenly nascent heart problem, events he attempts at first to cover up, have compelled him to return home. Soon he’s walking along streets where wistful recall is forever accompanied by a low-key pang of anxiety, considering that he left Britain after ripping his mates off and absconding with the proceeds of a drug deal. Simon greets him by wrapping a pool cue around his ear, which is cute compared to what their vicious mate Francis ‘Franco’ Begbie (Robert Carlyle) will do when he meets up with Renton.

Begbie is currently incarcerated, serving a twenty-year stretch for his many crimes, but after he’s rejected yet again for parole, he contrives to have a fellow inmate stab him to get transferred to hospital, and then to escape. Meanwhile Simon has taken over his aunt’s old pub, but that building is a solitary monolith now amidst a bulldozed neighbourhood, leaving Simon trapped between a disappeared community and an oncoming wave of gentrification. To make extra cash, Simon sets up opportunities for blackmail, making clandestine recordings of his pseudo-girlfriend, Bulgarian prostitute Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), in her romps with respectable clients. Once the visceral business of dealing with old betrayal is done, Renton and Simon quickly fall back into matey ways, to the point where Veronika sarcastically tells them, under the cover of a language they don’t understand, that they actually love each-other. Veronika and Renton quickly become lovers regardless, whilst Renton eagerly joins Simon in an enterprise to transform the pub into a brothel, an enterprise that demands capital, so they set about fleecing suckers whilst also applying for a business loan from a government panel. Meanwhile Begbie returns to his terrified wife June (Pauline Turner) and now-grown son Frank Jnr (Scot Greenan), only to experience impotence in bed and frustration with his wannabe hotelier son, whom he drags along with him on robberies. When Begbie visits Simon, he fobs him off with suggestions Renton is still in Amsterdam, but the two foes are doomed to encounter each-other in a rave palace toilet.

Part of the original Trainspotting’s cunning lay in the way it mused with carbolic acidity on the then still-recent sting of insult so many felt from the ‘80s conservative reaction, but refracted through the cracked lens of a bunch of fuck-ups whose personal deficiencies only gained relevance through that context. The characters’ mordant pronouncements on modern life had their true side, but there was an irony involved, as their own lives were revealed to be littered with jagged shards of tragedy and violence and brushes with death, their rebellion a method of slow suicide. By comparison, T2 cannot commit to any new cultural thesis. There’s a gag early in the film when Renton is met by a flotilla of female greeters at the airport, all dressed up like stars in the first reel of a porn film, who turn out to be immigrants. As this joke evinces, T2 buys not so subtly into the logic of Brexit, that the present is a deracinated joke and Britain is now full of foreigners living out the dreams that were those of locals however many years ago; this idea is literally the underpinning of the plot, as Veronika reproduces Renton’s arc from the original. The film’s most political interlude is also one that takes aim not at contemporary malfeasance but at the habits of backward-looking pockets of the British Isles, particularly a social schism that’s long been niggling the Scottish community, as Renton and Simon infiltrate a club for right-wing Protestants who still celebrate ancient victories over Catholics. As Renton quips, “They have something we don’t – an identity,” for they retain a folksy brand of communality that just happens to be based in sleazy sectarian prejudices. Renton and Simon bluff their way out when they’re almost unmasked by improvising a song about killing Catholics, and then fleece many of their bank accounts simply by punching in the date of the Battle of the Boyne.

Renton himself can’t even bear to listen to Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life,” the original film’s thunderous theme, on his old turntable, as the emotions it stirs are too intense. Meanwhile Danny ‘Spud’ Murphy (Ewen Bremner), the fourth pillar of the surviving gang, has relapsed into addiction after trying to settle down with old girlfriend Gail (Shirley Henderson) and their young son. Spud’s attempt at suicide is narrowly averted by Renton’s arrival, and as well as coaching the two eager entrepreneurs, Veronika pushes along Spud’s attempt to supplant his mania for heroin with a mania for writing down his experiences. Following the lead of Porno, T2 substantiates Spud as Welsh’s stand-in in this, the most wretched of the group whose scrappy creative gifts will nonetheless finish up the most viable for any real survival and prosperity. By contrast Renton and Simon’s labours add up to nothing when they’re leaned on by a gangster who nixes their project and dumps them in the woods, whilst Begbie romps around the city, alienated from his family and with no object in mind more profound than to visit cruel revenge upon Renton. The other three make an excursion into the hills to pay tribute to the missing member of their old gang, Tommy, whose death, Simon reminds Renton, was partly his fault in introducing him to the junkie lifestyle. Whereupon Renton reminds Simon in turn about how his neglect when high also killed his infant child. When the business loan is approved unexpectedly, Renton and Simon find themselves each trying to work up the nerve, and self-justification, to rip off the other man and flee to A Better Life 2.0.

The major pleasure of T2 is seeing these actors snap so confidently back into their old roles, many relishing the new dimensions of the original’s rather Hogarthian sprawl of gangly, hyped-up caricatures. Miller’s performance here is a splendid roadmap of egotistical traits that have lost the sexy edge they had when he was a twenty-something and settled into mere scuzzy pathos: far from tongue-swapping Es with girlfriends, now he’s only gotten it up far enough to bang Veronika once, and prefers to get high and watch music videos on his big screen telly. Bremner, who has gained the charmed career natural character actors know, plays Spud with a blend of keen empathy for his flailing as he tackles the chance to regain control over his life, whilst retaining an edge of unhinged, almost alien attitude to his physical comedy, prancing like a denuded spider through some scenes, quivering like jelly in others, and sometimes finally locating the lode of character and creative zest under all his timorous, life-shy unease. Carlyle’s act as Begbie is just as uncanny as ever in describing the terrifying side of the Scots character, that inchoate berserker will, but it’s stretched here in some discomforting ways, as Begbie finally reveals a self-aware streak as he finally makes peace with his son. Welsh turns up playing the same part he did in the original, former small-time drug dealer-turned-fence Mikey Forrester.

McGregor is by comparison not so well served as the straight man to these freakazoids: Renton’s successful but only temporary integration into the world at large has left him bereft of the outsider cheek and verve that once served him well, and it’s not until half-way through the film that he’s allowed a glimmer of the bard-like state of cynical ferocity that so famously marked him in the original. This comes as he explains the meaning of his and his mates’ old, sarcastic “Choose Life” motto and updates it to take a poke at the bullshit of the present day. One problem here, however, is that the original Trainspotting was rooted securely in its portrayal of an era, an era that was already slightly antique when the film was made: by this logic, T2 should be set in the late Blair era. But the reference points here are much hazier and generally present-tense, and when Renton delivers an updated “Choose Life” rant, it’s a sprawl of whinges directly transcribed from a million Twitter accounts: “Choose rape jokes. Choose slut-shaming, revenge porn…Choose 9/11 never happened.” The angry thrill of rejecting officially sanctioned bromides has now become a SJW’s list of bugbears, as a vast slice of society at large has stolen Renton’s thunder but without the irony. In its best moments T2 coherently visualises the feeling of being plunged back into the past in the frame of the present, when that past was so much more vibrant if also often terribly ugly, as in a moment when Spud finds himself on a familiar street and remembers events that pierce him to the core – and the viewer, as those events are the iconic opening moments of the original.

T2 locks itself into this pattern and can’t get out of it, reproducing the fault of its characters. These middle-aged goons are left looking back perpetually to a time when, however squalid they were, they were at least confident in their disasters. Building an entire film around this reflex is a dodgy move at best: long after the point where this film should have moved on to new business, the filmmakers are still busy rehashing the old. Almost everything that takes place in this entry is beholden in some way to the original, rather than presenting a new piece of art that properly creates an interesting present-tense. T2 reminded me of some other attempts to synthesise second acts for reasonably serious hits. One unfavourable comparison is Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986), which expertly crafted a mature continuation of a not-so-dissimilar character portrait whilst avoiding miring itself in retracing old steps. Trainspotting’s concentration on characters barely holding on to a place in society and thus moving from scam to scam might easily have loaned itself to such fresh contexts, but instead T2 takes the least adventurous course, never quite making truly effective drama and only occasionally wringing fresh and outrageous comedy out of the thin plot. Porno was more concerned with Spud’s reinvention as an artist and the other characters’ gleeful repetitions of the past. Boyle and Hodge make gestures towards rendering T2 as a kind of work-in-progress, post-modern depiction of its own creation as Veronika urges Spud to give us an ending to his tale. But to call these gestures hamfisted feels excessively kind. Teasing snatches of familiar music keep bobbing up on the soundtrack, calling back to the original’s anthemic use of “Lust for Life” and Underworld’s “Born Slippy,” but the new soundtrack is very forgettable, or littered with tracks straight out of Boyle’s iPod shuffle.

The female characters retained from the original are left holding the bag in a way that confirms how suffocating the portrait of male ageing angst has become. Henderson, who loaned mischievous humour to the original, is reduced to a barely-glimpsed walk-on, a forlorn martyr to Spud’s fecklessness. Sadly, Kelly Macdonald returns only very briefly as Diane, Renton’s one-time randy, underage party girl pick-up. Now she’s a besuited, coolly confident lawyer installed in bright and shiny offices, whom Renton and Veronika hire to spring Simon from prison after his blackmailing racket rebounds. The spark in Macdonald’s eye as she teases Renton about his latest too-young girlfriend gives the film a momentary spark of knowing, randy energy that Veronika can’t match in spite of Nedyalkova’s admirable poise even wearing cavorting in a strap-on dildo: the foreign hooker girlfriend looking for her chance is a little too cliché a figure. Indeed, too much of the film’s would-be biting commentary has shop-worn aspect, like the opening that finds Renton not running through the streets but on a treadmill, an arch way to tell us he’s devolved into just another yuppie, and the gangster’s punishment of Renton and Simon’s disrespect by leaving them naked and forcing them to venture their back home, a sequence that feels like it stumbled in out of another movie. A scene in which Begbie reconciles with his son feels entirely phony, a sop to the imperative in so many modern films to offer some kind of maudlin connection even as everything we know about Begbie shouts at us that he’s an insensate psychopath without such capacity for introspection. Now Begbie has traumatic memories of a drunken father and a streak of class rage. But in the very next scene he’s carrying around a bag fool of tools intending violation and dismemberment of Renton. So who cares what his issues are?

The original Trainspotting was a daft ode to its own bratty energy but it was in that way true to its characters and their smart-arse viewpoint on pop cultural mores. Boyle’s stylistic showiness was attuned to the frenetic highs of junkie life and to its wilful blindness and weak grasp on reality – moments of gouging tragedy passed by noted and then lost amongst oblivious recourse into more drugs, vignettes of fantasy and kitschy self-mockery coming at you with such fervour they coalesced into a kind of sense. Here, the mood demands something totally different, and if Boyle had been less concerned with re-establishing his hip bona fides he might have tethered this tale to an artistic palette rooted in the bleak feeling of being washed up after a shipwreck. Instead, Boyle’s style settles into weak self-imitation, replete with canted camera angles and freeze-frames of no function, and random film references – Spud imagining himself as the hero of Raging Bull (1980), and a finale that spoofs Blade Runner’s (1982) climax. Boyle pulls off one great shot when Renton first approaches Simon’s pub, a monolith in the midst of an apocalyptic landscape, remnant outpost of an age and a culture that has literally upped sticks and moved on. Indeed, Anthony Dod Mantle’s photography is perhaps the best thing about the film, even when Boyle makes him do nonsensical things. The film does still offer its occasional comedic coups, like the sequence with the Protestant clique, and the cleverly deadpan sequence in which Renton and Begbie finally encounter each-other, sharing cross words through a toilet stall without initially recognising the other’s voice, only then for the penny to slowly drop for both. And there are images that sharply capture the evanescent emotions Boyle is chasing, as when Renton watches Diane in her office from the street, the outsider looking in and pining for all lost time.

After moving in circles for what seems like an eternity, T2 finally starts barrelling towards a climax as Begbie finally encounters Renton, and he leaves his quarry with a gashed arm as Renton flees him. Soon Begbie tracks down Spud and is momentarily stalled in his quest when he starts making Spud read his written anecdotes to him, taking great pleasure in hearing his old sadisms mythologised, only then to find the same way that Renton cut Spud in on the money he stole. At Veronika’s behest, Spud aids her in filching the money the lads got off the government, before trying to warn them about Begbie’s murderous intentions. But he arrives too late, as Begbie has already entered Simon’s pub, forcing his former friends to try and battle him. The trouble is that once the actual story pace of T2 picks up (as opposed to its shot pace, which remains stroboscopic), it stops making sense, and resolutions to the various plot lines carry unusually little weight. That’s in part because unlike his younger self, Boyle, like many a recovering cynic, has become an indulgent and syrupy filmmaker, loathe to drag any of his characters too deep off into the woods. Unsurprisingly for the guy who made me sit through Slumdog Millionaire (2008), far from revisiting this material to shock current cinema out of its lethargic state, Boyle instead has, in spite of the occasional bit of male nudity and his empty showiness as director, removed the fangs from his creation. T2 isn’t a bad film by any stretch, and yet I found it a profoundly disappointing, even dispiriting one on many levels. Not because of its melancholic streak, but because it doesn’t know how to frame that melancholia. Something I’ve long suspected is now hatching out in movie land: after decades whining about Boomer nostalgia, the Generation X equivalent threatens to be utterly insufferable. Where are the worst toilets in Scotland of yesteryear?

17th 04 - 2011 | 12 comments »

Our Backstreets #29: Sundays Were the Best Days

By Marilyn Ferdinand

As I move into the downside of my 50s, a sometimes overwhelming nostalgia sweeps over me. I’m luckier that most people who are fond of their past to live only six miles from where I grew up in Morton Grove. A short drive west on Morton Grove’s main drag, Dempster St., will bring me into familiar surroundings. Some of the landmarks of my childhood—Lochner’s garden center, the Dairy Queen, Par-King miniature golf park, the Ground Round—have been converted into other eateries or vacant lots. Nobody today will ever know what was there before—not the way I do. But, miraculously, less than a mile farther west, the house with the double lot and garden right on Dempster, hasn’t been sold, torn down, or built upon. Another summer will see another crop of corn, cabbages, and tall blossoms. The condos that were the first in town are still there and still looking very kept up. Littman Lighting long ago replaced Dolmar Pharmacy, which my uncles owned and where my mom worked and I walked from the grade school four blocks away to have lunch in the back room with her, and still sells its chandeliers and ceiling fans.

A phantom feeling of warmth always comes over me on Sundays. Sundays were the best days of all. We got to hang out in our pajamas all morning, and Dad would cook a cholesterol-soaked breakfast of bacon, sausage, and eggs on the middle griddle that occupied the center spot on our kitchen stove, its spotless chrome cover coming off only for this special occasion. Since my mother was an indifferent cook whose best friend was the TV dinner, we looked forward to this handmade breakfast as the best meal of the week. While breakfast was on, my brother and I laid on the living room floor and read the comics; I frequently pressed my favorite images with a flattened piece of Silly Putty stored in its moisture-saving plastic egg for just this opportunity. I’d pull the flexible Silly Putty to distort the transferred image, and then ball it up and start over. My flesh-colored wad of magic turned dark from its mix of inks in no time flat.

After breakfast, I had my television routine. I liked Saturday morning cartoons, but I LOVED the Sunday morning line-up on the CBS affiliate. They ran the Flash Gordon serial my parents used to watch at the movies when they were kids, and the battles this venerable character and his cohorts, Dr. Zarkov, Dale Arden, and Prince Baron, had with Ming the Merciless, Princess Aura, and the Clay People always had me on the edge of my seat. After that, there was a rotating group of regular series, including Sky King and The Lone Ranger. I was not a fan of the masked man, but Sky King had Penny, an adventurous girl whom I dreamed I could be like; I’ve probably spent more time in an airplane since then than Penny ever did, so I guess I kind of got my wish. Always, however, was The Cisco Kid (“Hey Pancho!” Hey Cisco!”) that I suppose would be terribly un-PC today, but that I found much more fun than the humorless Lone Ranger and Tonto. At noon, a Charlie Chan movie would be shown. Warner Oland was my favorite Charlie Chan, and I had a mild crush on Keye Luke as No. 1 Son. Again, the Chinese characters were caricatures, but the Chans were mighty smart, too, and always solved their mystery. Revisiting Charlie Chan in Meeting at Midnight with the less-beloved Sidney Toler, I saw how bad some of these films really were. I’m not sorry my tastes have improved, but the perfection of watching those movies as a child was a bit tarnished by this reality check in adulthood.

During the summer, we spent nearly every sunny Sunday with my mother’s sister and her family picnicking and swimming at one of the many nearly beachless lakes in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. In the days before water parks with mechanical wave makers, fountains, and giant buckets that fill with water and tip on the kids below, we made do with the waves the wind generated, an anchored raft to swim to, a pier to dive off of, and a simple water slide that was the special attraction at Lake Wauconda, distinguished only by being higher than a playground slide and slicked with cold water to make the ride down faster. Occasionally, I’d get my foot mired in some silt at the bottom of the lake, a slimy, faux-scary experience. My brother and I would swim just under the surface with one hand at a right angle to the back of our heads, pretending we were sharks.

We also spent Sundays visiting my parents’ friends and family. I didn’t like these outings as much because we kids were always shunted to the kiddie table at dinner, particularly when we went to my Auntie Ida’s house. But as long as I could keep away from my uncle’s blood-drawing pinches, I loved to explore their old Chicago bungalow, with its low-ceilinged attic apartment just the right size for a little girl to walk through; I’d sit at the window seat of the house’s “third eye” to look out on the old streets that were so different from our modern subdivision in the suburbs. Everything looked so old and mysterious to me then.

Now I’m the old one and wonder what the world will think of my memories. Already, many of the markers of my youth are gone or have been so changed by the culture of the people who inhabit them now that I no longer am connected to them by my cultural DNA. And yet, Sundays are still the best days because of all the best Sundays that went before.


18th 01 - 2006 | 1 comment »

The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

Director: Raoul Walsh


By Marilyn Ferdinand

It is such a pleasure to talk about one of the most charming films ever made, The Strawberry Blonde. The deliriously happy marriage of a cast oozing with chemistry and giving pitch-perfect performances, delicate direction even during the more melodramatic moments, a mise en scene that is at once nostalgic and riotously lively, and some home truths in a smart script make for a very uncomplicated good time that lingers and begs to be repeated.

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched this film. It used to be a staple on broadcast television, and as a young girl with a big crush on James Cagney, I’d set my alarm clock to wake me in the wee hours of the morning if it was being broadcast. (Those were the days before home video, if you younger readers can imagine that, and a film buff had to be more persistent.) It has become one of my all-time favorites, a feel-good film with staying power.

Cagney is at his affectionate best playing Biff Grimes, a scrappy young man trying to find his way in the world at the turn of the 20th century. He spends time taking correspondence course after correspondence course, landing and losing jobs in a single day, and mooning along with half the town’s eligible young men after the lovely Virginia Brush, the strawberry blonde of the title. Rita Hayworth is as dishy and adorable in her puffy-sleeved crinoline as she was heart-poundingly sexy in her “Put the Blame on Mame” production number in Gilda. She knows just how to flash her smile, tilt her chin, and swing her skirts to get all heads turning.

Biff’s friend Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson) has his eye on Virginia, too, but he’s too much a man of the world to pant at her heels. He’s brash enough to speak to her and set up a date in the park. Virginia insists on bringing a friend to keep the meeting on the up-and-up, and Hugo drags Biff along to play nice with Virginia’s friend, falsely luring Biff with the promise that Virginia is to be his date. This will not be the last or most serious lie Hugo tells Biff, but in a way, it is one of the luckiest lies Biff will ever hear.

Hugo and Biff set out for the park in their hired buggy, where they “happen” to run into Virginia and her friend Amy Lind (Olivia de Havilland). Hugo and Virginia go dancing about politely, “Aren’t you the girl I saw in town today?” “Why I believe I am,” until Amy cuts in with “Let’s stop all this nonsense. This is a prearranged date, and we all know it. I have to be back at work in an hour, so let’s get on with it.” Biff leans over to Hugo and whispers, “She’s fast.” An awkward moment occurs, the horse tries to eat the fake flowers on Virginia’s hat, and Hugo spirits Virginia away, much to Biff’s consternation. He doesn’t like the forward, women’s rights advocate that Amy presents herself to be. She implies that her grandmother was one of the original Bloomer Girls and that premarital sex is really no big deal. Thoroughly frightened, Biff runs off, shouting, “Oh, Hugo. HUGO!”


Biff continues his pursuit of Virginia who, to get him off her back, promises him a date in six weeks’ time. When Biff arrives punctually for that date, Virginia, of course, has completely forgotten and tells him she must tend to her sick aunt. He is disappointed, planning as he has an evening of vaudeville and dinner at Tony Pastor’s. Enticed by the lavish evening, Virginia boldly declares that she made a promise and will keep her word. Biff is on cloud nine as he escorts the beautiful Virginia all over town. Parting with all his money is painful, but then he has her in his arms as they dance to “And The Band Played On.” A wink to the conductor changes the lyrics to “Biff Grimes would waltz with the strawberry blonde, and the band played on.” Impressed by Biff’s being “well-known,” Virginia gives him a peck on the cheek. Biff falls head over heels in love on the spot.


Of course, Biff never had a chance. When he waits for Virginia at a prearranged location a short time later, Amy shows up instead. He’s annoyed to see her, but crestfallen when he learns that Virginia has eloped with Hugo that afternoon. In an earlier meeting, Biff had tried to take advantage of Amy’s professed easy morals by trying to kiss her. Amy was shocked and insulted, revealing her bold act to be a fraud. This revelation softened Biff toward her. When she tries to console Biff over the loss of Virginia, he asks if he might call on her sometime. Thus begins a genuine relationship between the two.


Hugo and Biff go into a construction business together, and Biff’s sole job is to sign papers for a lot of shady dealings he knows nothing about. When inferior materials Hugo has been buying cause a building collapse, the law comes down hard on the business. Biff, who signed all the contracts, takes the fall and goes to prison. While in prison, he studies—by correspondence—to become a dentist and sets up a practice when he is released. Coincidentally, one Hugo Barnstead, suffering with a horrible toothache, interrupts his former partner on a Sunday for emergency dental work, not knowing it is Biff he is to see. The temptation to pay back his betrayer with a lethal dose of anesthetic faces Biff when they meet again.

The film is told in flashback, with the phone call to Biff’s dental practice beginning the film. It is then we get to see all of the events I have described that lead up to this fateful meeting. Hugo and Virginia, greedy social climbers, were made for each other and play out their transaction of a relationship throughout the film, as Hugo becomes more whiny, pretentious, and ineffectual, and Virginia becomes more demanding, bitter, and shrewish. Amy’s veneer of the independent woman melts swiftly, which always saddened me a bit, but she learns to become as genuine as Biff always has been through her love for him. As he is taken to jail in a gentlemanly fashion by his policeman friends, one look to her and a “Wait for me,” communicates the world about what a touching and carefully modulated film this is. It goes from comedy to tragedy almost in the blink of an eye, but never without proper motivation having been built in beforehand. Great supporting performances by Alan Hale as Biff’s father and George Tobias as Biff’s friend Nick provide strong timber to a structurally tight and true film.

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