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Archive for the ‘1920s’ Category

The Man Who Understood Infinity

15 May

The Man Who Understood Infinity – directed by Matthew Brown. BioPic. 1 hour 48 minutes Color 2016

★★★★

The Story: A mathematical genius from India is almost beaten to death by the math department of Cambridge University.

~

In the old MGM days biopics spelled out their story with great big letters, A B C. Their plots required neither understanding, thought, or interpretation. Only acceptance. We were supposed to swallow their regimen whole. We were supposed to digest their formula by rote, since that is how they were written and since no other option was available, save, in the end, skepticism that whoever made this film maybe didn’t get their facts straight.

The writing of such biopics prohibits those scenes of conflict known as drama. What they offer instead is tableaux. That is their narrative method. In these tableaux actors must paralyze their power to act in order to mime as best they can what is constant brass. For the emotion of these stories does not depend upon actions, actors, or even characters. In tableaux there is no emotion. Or whatever emotion the music can eke out of us. There is only the rigid formality of responsible biographical information. They are about big names and require great stars to stand there and just do them.

Such biopics constitute an actual form. Many biopics follow it. The pauper-genius makes his way into the chambers of power and is met with scorn, ridicule, banishment, deadening doubt, and so forth. But someone allies himself with him, and, against all obstacles, he wins out in the end. It is a victory scathed by bitterness because of the price required to achieve it, which sometimes almost includes his mate.

This form is called the story of the underdog. And two actors of great grace and fluidity, Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel, constrain their imaginations to fit into the corset of the form in this one.

Deadening doubt is what Irons is allowed to play against Patel’s Srinivasa Ramanujan, a young impoverished nonentity who arrives from Madras at Cambridge where Irons’ Harold Hardy is a don in higher mathematics. Hardy has invited him there from India. Ramanujan is a completely untrained, unschooled conceptual genius. His mathematical formulas envision the answers to problems no one has ever solved.

Ramanujan is thrown to the snobs.  Hardy demands proofs of Ramanujan’s routes to the formulas. Ramanujan resists. Toby Jones stands by. Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell gives droll advice. And Ramanujan’s luscious wife has to stay in India thinking herself forgotten because her mother-in-law never delivers Ramanujan’s letters to her.

Audiences are biddable. They paid their ticket; they don’t stalk out.

Because there are other benefits here besides dramatic or narrative ones.

One of these is the setting of Cambridge in the midlands and the quad and rooms of Trinity College.

Another is the presence of these two actors who are so vivid by nature.

Irons is not here in his virtuoso mode. He plays a character hoping to save himself from the peril of disgrace by forcing his doubt on a perfect flower. That, to Hardy, mathematics itself is a poppy makes doubt grate on his wonder.

Dev Patel – he of the Slumdog Millionaire, he of the Marigold Hotels – grips one, as he always does, by the honest vitality of his being. Nothing about this actor is forced, which is a wonderful thing to see in a human. So we sit in our seats and allow the ceremony of the plot to take place before us as it has so often done before.

Dev Patel’s existence as an international star makes this story possible. Ramanujan was a great man. But who would have heard of him had not Patel been alive just now?

It’s wonderful to hear about Ramanujan. To see his name for the first time.

To see Patel fortuitously frame and make his name a name. To type it out here, over and over as someone who is now never lost.

 

 

 

 

The Immigrant

02 Jun

The Immigrant – directed by James Gray. Tragedy. 117 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★

The Story: A young woman is snatched from Ellis Island and forced into prostitution by a man who competes with her favors with his ne’er do well cousin.

~

The Immigrant would be an important picture-going experience, except for one ingredient which cancels it out as such and leaves one merely shrugging.

It is beautifully produced. The costumes are apt and evocative. The filming and editing are tip-top. The direction of crowds, the engagement with real settings cannot be surpassed. The casting is…

Yes, the casting.

Setting aside the secondary roles of Polish immigrants and Irish cops which are perfectly cast, we must bow down as well before the casting of Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner. No two actors in the world are more suited to play opposite one another than these, because they are the two most rash actors on the planet at the present moment.

On the one hand we have Phoenix’s construction of the pimp as a man of almost priestly quietude and intent – except when he is madly drunk. Phoenix gives but one indication of his extremes, until the big scenes at the end – exactly the way to strategize the role. His awkwardness as the m.c. in a girlie show is the perfect choice.

Opposite this is the extrovert Renner, who plays an illusionist who is a suave public performer. And what a beauty Renner is to look at! What eyes! What physicality! Where Phoenix offers you nothing to empathize with, you fall for Renner on the spot. He captures the Mercurial instability of the character in a snap. Phoenix’s instability as a character is of another flavor entirely. They are both masters of the extreme.

The fatal damage comes in the playing of Marion Cotillard whose performance clogs the piece to a standstill. What is she up to, you wonder? What is she shooting for? She plays “helplessness.” She plays “innocence.” She plays “placidity.” That is to say, she plays qualities – instead of playing actions. What is her character is doing is saving her sister and  is laid out by the dialogue, but you never see anything stir in Cotillard’s performance in that direction and in aid of it. She is inert.

Ever since playing Piaf, Cotillard has been doing this sort of dumbshow acting, as though, seeing the situation her character is in, the audience will “feel” her response to it. That the audience will fill in the blanks. That the audience will empathize the contents into being. They won’t. They’ll feel cheated. They won’t be fooled. They won’t care. They’ll suspect her of stinginess. They’ll suspect her of artistic stupidity. They’ll suspect her of vanity and self-indulgence. Opposite two such extreme actors, an actress cannot coast or play against the grain or abdicate. She cannot play a trick. If she does the result is narrative incoherence, which is what we have here.

Less is not always more, but less than less is a monstrosity. Cotillard in a film is a sabotage not waiting to happen. This film is demolished by her.

 

The Wind Rises

07 Apr

The Wind Rises – created by Hayao Miyazaki. Animated BioDrama. 126 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

The Story: From the time he was a boy, Jiro Horikoshi desired to design airplanes, and after a long apprentice and during a long romance, he eventually designed the Mitsubishi  A5M and then the Zero.

~

Well, this renowned animator takes us along by the allure of his cells and scenes, as we wait for the next and the next, each one as satisfying and striking and telling as the one we have just seen. What’s next? What’s to come?

It is the biography of a rather naïve male, who never gives up his quest, and in that quest has no obstacles except the material ones of an industry starting from nothing and with nothing. Cloth planes, no design foundation, the want of proper engineering.

Miyazaki show us is all the angles and the experiences of a young man who, like David Copperfield, is the blank outline in which we may place ourselves to endure the drama, the waiting, and the love affair.

He gives his Japanese hero and heroine curly hair and large round eyes, so they never quite look Japanese. They are faceless creatures, and we recognize Jiro mainly because his white suits are often tinted lavender. He would be vapid, save that he is defined by what he does, and so we enter into him, not as a character, but as a role enacting a story.

But the startling crowd scenes, the remarkable air shots, the crazy planes invented around him give me enough entertainment to beguile me along. I do not feel a thing is missing. Indeed, I have never seen such intricate splendor.

The vast politesse of the Japanese is demonstrated for me also. Because the film is animated, I can witness this aspect of Jiro and the Japanese character and cultural style. I can see the good of the bowing, the waiting, the respect, the formality. I can see the human usefulness of it.

I recommend this film as an uncommon pleasure.

 

 

 

The Temptress

25 Jan

The Temptress  — directed by Fred Niblo. Drama. 117 minutes Black and White 1926.

★★★★★

The Story: A gorgeous woman, married to a jerk, has an affair with a dam-builder from the Argentine, to which she follows him, to dam-busting seismic disturbance for all.

Greta Garbo is the most sexually voracious actress ever to have appeared in film.

Her films are all the same. She has been kept by older men or beset by unwanted suitors, too old, silly, callow, married, dense, young. They come upon her and desire her wantonly. They betray all their scruples for her. She laughs, treats them like children, and doesn’t let them off the hook because they pay for her fancy apartment. She keeps them dangling. Obviously no one is the right one. They appear in uniform, with medals, naked, clothed, in rags. They present her with diamonds, furs, and food. Nothing turns her head. They tire her. She makes her living on them. Until there swans into view some young man, so pure, so devoted, so delicious of aspect and potential, that Garbo, who has spurned Dukes, walks over to this young man, seizes him with one hand by the back of the head, grabs his chin with the other, drapes her body upon him, leans her face down over him, puts her mouth on his, and drinks and drinks and drinks.

This skill as an actress she had when she was twenty, when she made The Temptress, her second film. The vamps, such as Nita Naldi and Gloria Swanson and Clara Bow, were all dark and tiny wild gypsy bitches. Garbo was a lanky blond, and she was not a bitch. She was a master flirt, but also second-by-second sensitive, open to the subtlest influence, inner or outer. She was simply a lone operative in the big-time world of men with nothing but her female wiles to survive on, and an acting instrument strung like an Aeolian harp.

She brought to MGM the caché of class. She was the top money maker there. As Louise Brooks said, as soon as Garbo appeared in films, every other Hollywood actress had to exist in relation to her. She was able to do on screen what no other actor was able to do before or since, and no one knew exactly what it was. When the war came, MGM did not know what to do with her. They had exalted her in their own eyes. This was stupid and unimaginative of them. It was quite simple, for Dietrich and Lamar and Bergman went on playing Europeans in war stories. Garbo was still a big money-maker – her last film, too. The war cut off her European audience, which was huge. And her American popularity in the sticks had waned, in part due to the number of fancy costume dramas she appeared in, and a certain distance she had created for herself on screen and which was created by her studio as well. She drew a circle around herself and acted inside it, as Brando was later to do. Who could imagine actually wooing her and marrying her? Adoring her, yes. Keeping her, or trying to, yes. But who could imagine actually settling down with her? Her eyes had gone private. So to stand next to her and do the dishes?

Stiller, her mentor from Sweden, began this film, was taken off it, and although it was reshot, he may have coached her here into the Garbo we came to know playing these parts. For it does not seem quite yet to exist in her first film, The Torrent. 

Anyhow here, in The Temptress, she is  young woman, not even of age, and already in full possession of her technique, which originated in her lower-middle back and travelled north. She made it up in the shower. She was already That Thing, Greta Garbo. Cary Grant did the same. They made something up and let it respond in accordance with the scene they were presented with. It was indissolubly manufactured and real at once. William Daniels said that Garbo made love only to the camera. True, and we wouldn’t have wanted her to do anything else. It means her real love-affair, her most intimate sexuality, is actually with us.

 

 

The Roaring Twenties

15 Mar

The Roaring Twenties — directed by Raoul Walsh. Gangster Drama. 106 minutes Black and White 1939.

★★★★★

~

The Story:A WW I vet can’t find work and so starts up a bootlegging business which gains control of him.

~

Warner Brothers laid on the A-team for this one. Milo Anderson did the clothes: the ladies’ song costumes place a premium on our tolerance for the tacky, but they are right on the money and the period. Ernest Haller shot it; the same year he shot Gone With The Wind for which he won an Oscar, most of Bette Davis’s big films, Mildred Pierce, and later Rebel Without A Cause. And that sweet toughie Raoul Walsh directed it. It was made the wonder year of 1939, and would have won the Oscar any other year, had Oscars ever been given out for gangster flicks.

The picture is set up as a March Of Time documentary of a period 15 years before it was made; it is a montage interspersed with montages – brilliantly shot by Don Siegel and organized by Byron Haskin. They are simply tremendous. Big male character talents fortify the story from the bottom up, topped off by Paul Kelly as the nasty ur-don, and Frank McHugh as the star’s pal played by James Cagney.

Walsh and Cagney loved working together, and this picture is Cagney’s supreme performance as a motion picture actor. Until I saw it I never thought Cagney could act at all. All I ever saw in him was a bully with a tommy gun for a heart. And for the most part in his career, that is what he is. I steered clear of him. But in this piece he is quite something else besides. One sees him as if for the first time. For here he is — with his dancer’s wrists and carriage. He is open, he waits, he responds, his feelings are hurt, he ponders before he speaks, he does not fall back on his rapid timing for every reaction, he wants something he can’t have and doesn’t know he can’t have it, that is to say, for once, he isn’t entirely smart, he is a mess. You can’t take your eyes off him – because he is so real and because his body is fully alert and engaged. It is a pity this side of him was not ever used elsewhere again.

Humphrey Bogart plays his crumby army pal, excellent especially in two execution scenes. And Jeffrey Lynn is the third musketeer, the one who gets the girl. She is played by Priscilla Lane, who has full lips and a sweet soft open look, rather like Betty Grable. She does her own singing, although the lip-sync is slightly off, as it is with Gladys George who plays Panama Smith, in a sketch of Texas Guinan. She is superb in the subtlety of her response in her every scene: she is an actress who can tell a story without spelling it out.

But it is the director, of course, whose triumph this is. Look at the way he sets up his shots for the crowd scenes, the saloons, the brawls. Look at the time he gives to the love scenes – as an action director Walsh is unique in taking his time for these and in giving equal range and ambiguity to all parties concerned. But what is especially powerful is his sparing use of close-ups and his refusal to do reaction shots. If two people are on camera, they are both always in frame, no matter which point of view is cut to. This means that you can always see the response of both actors at the same time and you never have a break in the animal energy between them. Kurosawa later used to do the same.

McHugh and Cagney improvised their scenes together and you can see the freshness of them. Cagney, Walsh, Bogart and especially Frank McHugh rewrote the script as they went along and had a grand old time, and you can enjoy it in the choices, large and small, that animate the scenes as they unfold. Snappy dialogue throughout. Walsh’s first film at Warner’s and first of four with Cagney. The film actually speaks for a moral rather than a chronological era, and the era is not over. It was a huge hit. It still is. Don’t miss it.

 

 

Suds

21 Sep

Suds – Directed by John Francis Dillon. Comic Melodrama. A scrubgirl rides a magic horse to true love and salvation. 65 minutes Black And White Silent 1920.

* * *

Pickford’s Amanda Afflick is a reprise of a character from Stella Maris, but without the deformed shoulder. The face is a grimace, the mouth flattened, the eyebrows thickened. You would not recognize her as Amanda until the princess scenes, where she appears as the Mary Pickford we know. The real difference, however, is in the interior of the Stella Maris character which is another person entirely from Stella Maris herself. Here, in Suds, the actress instead gives herself over to large gestures and cartoon faces, even broader in the princess scenes, which is strange because Pickford was renowned for inventing screen acting as we know it today, a craft of interior and subtle registration. She also miscalculates the performance by crying, weeping, bawling, wailing at every slight and abuse. She leaves no room for us to participate in her situation. (See Judy Garland make the same mistake in A Star Is Born.) What does work is her execution of the physical comedy, which is imaginative and robust. The Extras include the three endings the film had, and a documentary on Pickford’s immense film career.

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Easy Virtue

09 Sep

Easy Virtue – Directed by Stephen Elliott. High Comedy. The scion of an upper crust British family brings home his American wife. 96 minutes Color 2008.

* * * *

Noel Coward’s (aged 25) drama of class snobbery is updated in diction and tone to the present day, although still set in the 20s. All that works just fine. Colin Firth, not an actor I much admire although there is nothing not to like about him, plays the veteran of WWI who fiddles with a motorcycle and keeps mum while his highly controlling wife makes life miserable for one and all. Kristin Scott Thomas plays her brilliantly. It’s the Gladys Cooper part, you understand, and we are to learn rather late in the day that she objects to the young wife because she really wishes to keep her son home because the estate is failing and presumably he can save it. But it’s a phony excuse, for the reason she is a bitch is the same as any woman is, because she wishes to blanket all the sexual energy in her bailiwick.  Some of Thomas’ lines are lost in the rush of British, a common error of English actors when scurrying through the heady regions of contempt. But the real reason the piece doesn’t work is that the American is played by Jessica Biel who is neither attractive nor fascinating and plays the character with no sense of inner style, one way or another, whatsoever. You need a modern Claudette Colbert, Mary Astor, Loretta Young in the part, but, I guess there are none. The Extras are informative and fun. The direction is excellent. The costumes are tops. The fabulous houses in which it was shot are worth the visit, and so is a fox hunt and a great tango scene, in which Firth takes the floor. He is very fine in the dance and in the part, there and elsewhere, and I may start to warm up to him after all.

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Slave Of Love

09 Aug

Slave Of Love – Written and Directed by Nikita Mikhailkov. High Farce. A silent film company in the 20s goes on location with a nitwit star and learns something from her. Color 1976.

* * * * *

Singing in Rain set in the Russian Revolution. A marvelous piece, acted and directed to perfection. It is not a propaganda, but quite the contrary, I wonder how they got it produced at all, it is so daring. It’s a sound picture in color set during the making of a schlock silent picture with an airhead superstar actress. If you are interested in acting styles, here is a perfect example of Russian character work for comedy, wrought to extremes of amusement for us — the sort of acting Chekov wrote for: the man who always has a crick in his neck, the actor who always giggles when he exits, the tubby who secretly tries pull-ups between desserts. You’ll see. The amazing finale is treated like an action sequence from a silent film, and it works like gangbusters. Real life is not so far from a picture show after all. Enjoy it.

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Roxie Hart

11 Jun

Roxie Hart – Directed by William Wellman. Comedy Satire. A gum snapping wannabe dancer is put on trial for murdering or not her wannabe producer in the 1920’s. 74 Minutes Black and White 1942

* * * * *

One of the funniest movies I have ever seen, and one of Ginger Rogers’ three great comedic film performances.  It’s an out-and-out American farce on American promotion, its relation to American justice, and the relation of both of them to American sex appeal. Adolph Menjou and Ginger Rogers head a cast of brilliant supporting performers, among whom we have Lynn Overman, Nigel Bruce, Spring Byington, Sarah Algood, William Frawley, Phill Silvers, and George Montgomery. The piece is so well-written, by Nunnally Johnson, that all Sarah Algood has to do is stare fixedly at a newspaper and say the word “Children” for me to fall off my chair laughing. William Wellman directed it, whom one does not mainly associate with comedy, but, boy, he didn’t miss a trick here. (He also, of course, begins it in the rain.) As to the actors, nobody misses a trick. Watch Ginger prepare to faint by hoisting up her skirt over her knees. It is based on a stage played called Chicago, and it eventually became the musical called Chicago, but the delights of this piece, which is actually filmed closer in time to the Roaring Twenties, bring forward all the gum-snapping smart-alecky attitude of that era and also of the times we live in now, with its easy remorselessness and eye-rolling acceptance of Madoff and The Money Boys. Wall Street today is so crass and unregenerate you gotta laugh – ‘cause they’re getting away with it — Civic Conscience reduced to a political cartoon. Here, even innocent clean cut George Montgomery ends up tossing them back and cynical. Rent it. Sit back in your seat. Ya gotta love it. Ya just gotta!

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Tess Of The Storm Country

10 Jun

Tess Of the Storm Country – Directed by John S. Robertson. Melodrama. Will the man in the mansion get rid of that bunch of smelly folks at the bottom of his hill? 118 minutes Black and White Silent 1922.

* * * * *

A full-blown melodrama, nothing omitted but a train wreck. I marvel at what silent film asks of one, for what it asks is one’s imagination. And the way it goes about that is to be mute. So one must interpret, lean forward to hear, pay attention, fill in the blanks. And one is given a lot to pay attention to, a lot to engage with. Mary Pickford is a dream actress, quick, imaginative, experienced beyond measure, and always willing to appear foolish. Here she’s a little hellcat of a fisher shack girl, whose hometown a rich nasty is trying to close down. I have nothing more to say, except watch her fight scenes, and there are a lot of them. And watch her business with the rake. She’s a master. A master actor and a master entertainer. She produced this film. She was the most powerful and capable woman Hollywood has ever known. She founded and personally ran Untied Artists, she wrote certain of her own films and produced a number of them, and some of those of her husband, Douglas Fairbanks. She founded the Academy. She founded the Actors Hospital and Home. She founded the School of the Cinema at UCLA. And she was the superstar female actor in the world in her day. Hooray for Mary! The picture is also accompanied by a first class modern score.

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The Marriage Circle

09 May

The Marriage Circle  — Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Farce. Her husband doesn’t love her so she sets her sights on her best friend’s. 85 minutes Silent Black and White 1924.

* * * *

In 1931 Samson Raphaelson was to write the remake of this shaky farce into Lubitsch’s enchanting musical with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald , and in 1950 Max Ophuls was to perpetuate his Lubitsch style of Viennese sex farce in La Ronde. Here the style is not quite mature because the film is silent and silence lends seriousness in a sex comedy to what it is important to understand is meant to be silly. Or perhaps his leading lady, the beauteous Florence Vidor, had insufficient self-security to have room for a sense of humor. No, that’s not fair: she plays the part perfectly and is perfectly cast as a lady. Or perhaps his leading man Monte Blue was too much of a rube to be fooling around in a tuxedo among the haute bourgeoisie. Certainly Blue is an odd piece of casting for a leading man. He has a face like a ram’s bottom and a talent for falling into violent giggles which, while endearing, is always out of place, as though it were an acting trick ordered in like a performing seal dragged into a wedding. No, that’s not fair either. The part is that of a feckless jackass; you can’t blame him; that’s what it is, and that’s the way he plays it. For the real problem lies with the script, which does not hold the water of probability sufficiently to retain our patience through all the shenanigans. On the other hand we have Marie Prevost as the calculating hussy whose machinations are cause of all the plot, the sub plot, the counter plot, the family plot, and the burial plot. She twists her slinky lips so, that it is no wonder no one wants to kiss them. But she’s a good actress too. She brings a sexual daring to the part that drives the whole thing along right smartly. Her husband is, however, the only one of the principals who belongs in this sort of material and, unlike the others, in no place else, the great Adolph Menjou, an actor of rare sophistication and a talent for wearing evening clothes that is incomparable. He is the only actor of the bunch who survived into talking pictures, in which he played principal parts for years, consummated as his turn in Man On A Tightrope in which Elia Kazan causes this actor, many times voted The Best Dressed Man In America, to lie on a couch calculating destruction and covered with the ash of the cigarette he is smoking. Here his playing the confrontation scene with Blue is priceless. He works with a hat, a cigarette, gloves, and cane, and, aged 34, eyes that know everything. It’s worth the price of admission; it’s worth a lot more than that, in fact. It’s a scene which every young actor in the world might observe and learn from.

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The Cotton Club

18 Apr

The Cotton Club – Directed By Francis Ford Coppola. Musical. A jazz musician gets in Dutch with Dutch Schultz over his moll. 127 minutes Color 1984

* * * * *

Well, it’s terrific. It’s another Coppola masterpiece. What riches. What thoroughness. What a scene is Harlem in those bygone days. And the dancing Hines brothers are tops. Richard Gere is, as usual, cast as a badly spoken type and Diane Lane is perfectly cast as the moll – like Michelle Pfeiffer she only shines in lower class roles for some reason. They bring out the buzz in her.

And in me.

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The Rules Of The Game: Pirandello

13 Apr

The Rules Of The Game : Pirandello– Directed by Stephen Porter – Tragedy. A married woman prefers to live like a kept woman, and the consequences are dire. 87 minutes Color 1975.

* * * * *

The Nobel Prize winning Luigi Pirandello is my favorite playwright. And the reason for that is that his dramas hinge on the machinery of the human psyche and how its truth forces inner roles into becoming outer roles. Here we have a frivolous and capricious woman, a love-tease and a sex-tease, who can’t abide her husband and so lives away from him. She has a courter, well played by David Dukes, who may or may not be her lover, but who is devoted to his fascination with her, as is her husband, the lover’s close friend. One evening a trio of drunk playboys barges into her apartment thinking it is a bordello and molests her until her maid rouses the neighbors (among whom you will find Glenn Close). She then decides, as a dirty trick to play on him, that her husband must avenge her. What are the forces afield inside these individuals? What is really there? What makes all these plot developments inevitable? Why is the servant sure that his master will have breakfast at 7:30; is he a fool? Joan Van Ark misplays the wife as actressy, which throws the menge-a-trois-blanc into the realm of a shrug: how could anyone be attracted to this phony? But John McMartin plays the husband superbly. Mildred Dunnock once said to me that McMartin was an actor who played everything the same way. Which meant that he had a trick vocal lever he always pulled. Certain actors have such a lever: Sandy Dennis, for instance, Gloria Graham: they are always the same because they mechanize their voices. McMartin does not pull his usual lever here, and his remarkable voice and technique hold him in good stead. So as not to be confused with Jean Renoir’s film masterwork The Rules Of The Game, this translation might better have been titled The Rules Of Play. Still, beautifully directed by Stephen Porter and costumed by Nancy Potts, it’s a blessing to have rare, star, stage productions, such as this, preserved.

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Three Little Words

22 Mar

Three Little Words – directed by Richard Thorpe — a musical in which two songwriters meet and part and meet and part. 102 minutes technicolor 1950.

* * * * *

Vera Ellen maintains her nine-inch waist for us, which distracts from the fact she is taller than one would have thought, for she wears no heels with Astaire. She was not a graceful dancer, as were Rogers, Charisse, and Hayworth, but she was insanely accomplished. Her grace is always force-manufactured by her training, never inherent, for her dance category was the most vulgar of all dance modes, Acrobatic. She shines only in the comic dances, and fortunately there are three of them, and she does them beautifully. In her her romantic dances with Astaire, she is cold, even gelid. Of course, Astaire himself was cold, but he was also cool, so he carries himself enjoyably to himself and to us always, and his clothes, except for a certain hat, are a triumph of sartorial imagination. This is a bio-pic about Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, songwriters of “Nevertheless,” “Thinking of You,” and “Boop-boop-be-do,” all of which became re-hits when this film was released. This is Fred Astaire’s best acting job in a musical; he actually gets angry! Red Skelton plays Ruby as though he were a gem-stone, and the beauteous Arlene Dahl plays The Beauteous Arlene Dahl, and it is enough. Gale Robbins in Rita Hayworth figure and dresses has a number and so do Gloria DeHaven and Debbie Reynolds. The film never stalls with production numbers or plot because, mercifully, there are none. It’s a popcorn movie suitable for any occasion.

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Destiny

12 Mar

Destiny –– directed by Fritz Lang –– a drama of redemption –– 99 minutes Black and White 1921

* * * * *

A lavish silent picture. The story of a young woman given three chances to redeem her lover from death. She deals with Death himself –– that Mephistophelean figure which the Germans seem to love –– and the three trials send her to foreign lands with the most elaborate sets and costumes imaginable. A beautifully made picture. It’s acted in the style of the silents with broad narrative histrionical gestures, but they work, because they are designed to, and they are needed to tell such a story. Don’t be put off by the style. It’s not old fashioned; it’s just a style –– mimetic, gestural, broad. Enjoy it for what it is and for what it does. Respect it. Lang is working on a mythic level here, and no medium in the world does this better than film –– for film more than any other art medium resembles dream.

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Roxy Hart

04 Feb

Roxy Hart – Directed by WIlliamWellman – Comedy. A cunning, dim-brained doxy tries to get away with murder while everyone else in the country is getting away with murder. 75 minutes black and white 1942.

* * * * *

One of the funniest movies I have ever seen: an out-and-out American farce on American promotion, it’s relation to American justice, and the relation of both of them to American sex appeal. Adolph Menjou and Ginger Rogers head a cast of brilliant supporting performers, among whom we have Lynn Overman, Spring Byington, Sarah Algood, William Frawley, and George Montgomery. The piece is so well-written that all Sarah Algood has to do is stare fixedly at a newspaper and say the word “Children” for me to fall off my chair laughing. William Wellman directed it, whom one does not mainly associate with comedy, but, boy, he didn’t miss a trick here. He’s well aided in the editing to tell the story smartly. As to the actors, nobody misses a trick, either. Watch Ginger prepare to faint by hoisting up her skirt over her knees. It is based on a stage played called Chicago, and it eventually became a musical called Chicago, which can be credited for its big energy and color, plus the sacred bosom of Queen Latifa singing “You Gotta See Momma Every Night Or You Can’t See Momma At All”, but the delights of Roxy Hart itself, which is actually filmed closer in time to the Roaring Twenties, bring forward all the gum-snapping smart-alecky attitude of that era and also of the times we live in now, with its easy remorselessness and eye-rolling acceptance of Madoff and The Money Boys. Wall Street today is so crass and unregenerate you gotta laugh. They’re getting away with it — the Civic Conscience reduced to a political cartoon in the papers. So here — except the cartoon goes on for over an hour. Rent it. Sit back in your seat. Ya gotta love it. Ya just gotta!

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The Smiling Lieutenant

31 Dec

The Smiling Lieutenant — directed by Ernst Lubitsch — a musical triangle with M. Chevalier at the center, set in some Grausarkian mitteleuropean utopia where such a thing is conceivable. A candy box plot of who shall eat the bonbon. Black and white [1931

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What a madness! There stands Maurice Chevalier desired by Claudette Colbert on the one side and Miriam Hopkins on the other. It’s the same plot situation in One Hour With You — a Chevalier standard. He was touted as having irresistible charm, I expect, because there was so much in it to resist. That chimpanzee mouth. Those rollicking eyes. Those giddy shoulders. What he does have is a beautifully shaped patent leather head, broad shoulders, physical speed. What he has is accessibility to the scene and to the other actors, and this makes him flexible and responsive. He also had an insuperable confidence in his sexual attractability. Like everybody else, he adored working with Lubitsch — Garbo said Lubitsch was the only director of talent she ever worked with. The performance here is Colbert’s. She was French but did not speak with Chevalier’s gruesome French accent. But I shouldn’t say that, for it was part of his Gallic allure, supposedly, for indeed he spoke perfect unaccented English in everyday life, and his accent was purely for performances purposes. Anyhow, Colbert is so loving, so susceptible, so much fun, so kind, so pretty that one roots for her over and against the poisonous and spoiled Hopkins. During a parade, Chevalier has smiled across the street to his girlfriend, Colbert, but Hopkins, a princess passing in a barouche, believes him to be smiling at her. Trouble, my friends, ensues. The songs are minor and easy and work well with Chevalier’s song-speak style. The production is stupendous, the lighting velvety. Old George Barbier is marvelous as the king. Lubitsch is ruthless about the ruthlessness of sex. That is his great joke. That was God’s great joke upon us. That is why all actors thought Lubitsch was God — and maybe he was.

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The Oyster King — I Don’t Want To Be A Man

31 Dec

The Oyster King  [1919] & I Don’t Want To Be A Man [1921] — directed by Ernst Lubitsch — Two comedy black and white silent features by the great master of film comedy. In the first, a tycoon’s spoiled daughter makes her father find her a prince for a husband. In the second a spoiled young lady dresses in men’s evening clothes and ends up having an adventure with her guardian.

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The Oyster King is radiantly funny. Lubitsch calls it a grotesque farce, which it is, in the Ionesco sense of farce. The story moves along lickety-split from one spectacularly funny development to the next. Ossi Oswald is the young lady in both films. She’s a comedienne from the Betty Hutton School Of Acting — but then, in those days, they all were, weren’t they? She’s a stocky little soubrette and fully engaged in all and everything, so the film is carried forward by her and by Lubitsch’s master hand at movie-making. He has the ability to engage the audience in the scene and participate as a teller of the story. That is, Lubitsch gives the audience full credit for intelligence and willingness for fun. I, for one, delight in his confidence in me. The Oyster Princess was a famously successful picture in its day, and, seeing it now, I do not wonder why. I laughed myself silly. I Don’t Want To Be A man is played by the same actress, Ossi Oswald (who is called that in both films). Once again she plays the spoiled society girl. Whereas the first film is a satire on American money, this one is more European in the aim of its comedy, with considerable footage given over to a man kissing another man — who is actually a woman in disguise. Well, you see what you are in for here. The astonishing sets by Richter spell vulgar luxe in hilariously large letters. The music accompanying the films is very deft and funny as well and so are the titles. They are both a great lesson in visual comedy, not pantomime, as in Chaplin, but something else. Later he was to direct Trouble In Paradise, Ninotchka, and To Be Or Not To Be — two of the funniest films of the prewar era. End that old depression: rent ’em and rent this.

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