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Archive for the ‘1940s’ Category

Son Of Saul

10 Jun

Son Of Saul – directed by László Nemes. WWII Tragedy. 1 hour 47 minutes. 2015.
★★★★★
The Story: A Jewish slave working in the gas chamber of Auschwitz goes to extremes to find a rabbi to say Kaddish over an adolescent boy whom he says is his son.
~
What makes a film great?

Ruthlessness is one quality. Ruthlessness of Carol Reed’s Outcast Of The Islands and Odd Man Out, Kazan’s East Of Eden, Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

Here, this high virtue is achieved by the camera never leaving the point of view of the main character; the refusal to let a music score dictate value; each actor must speak his native language; no detour of melodrama or comic relief allowed; no modern comment, religious bias, prepackaged pathos, straining for sympathy, and no irony; refusal to soften the color scheme; keep the viewer inside the prison; in the audience take no prisoners.

Audiences around the world have gone along with this masterpiece for this very ruthlessness. Without it, the film would into enter the category of grand Guignol or Horror and be therefore less horrible and therefore unwatchable.

As it is, it is difficult. But I trusted everything I saw. Even at its most grueling, I respected it, knew I must go through with it. Although I hated to see what it looked like there, still that’s the way it was, and it was important for me to know. For I lived through The War and well remember what we learned in Europe that spring of 1945, and what Life magazine then and George Stevens’ camera later showed.

For here I finally see what went on, how routine it was, and how clumsy. I believed every minute of the camp and the ovens and the behavior of the Jewish slaves who had to gas their co-religionists and clean up after them by burning them and by tossing their ashes by the shovelful into the river.

The main character is perfectly cast and acted, and so is everyone else. Both the main action of the story of finding a rabbi and the secondary action, having to do with the slave rebellion and escape, propel the main character towards our hopes. Direction, filming, sets, costumes – I praise every aspect of it without exception.

So does everyone else. For it won The Best Foreign Film in the Oscars, The Golden Globes, Palm d’Or at Cannes and prizes all around the globe in many other places and nations. Indeed, Son Of Saul is said to be the most awarded debut feature in the history of cinema.

In 2015 Birdman won best Oscar. Next to Son Of Saul, Birdman is nothing. Films forgotten tomorrow lie in heaps around the feet of this film. It stands next to those of Satyajit Rey, Kurosawa, Ophuls, Renoir. You owe it to yourself to see it, and, more, important, you owe it to the film.

 

Army Of Shadows

11 Jun

Army of Shadows – directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. Spy Drama. 2 hours 25 minutes Color 1970/2009.
★★★★★
The Story: Hairbreadth escapes dog the ground commanders of the Maquis, the French Resistance in WWII.
~
Impeccable.

As I left the theater I heard someone surprisedly say, “The picture never shows what those in The Resistance actually do.” What is also true, however, is that the result of whatever they did was of high danger to the occupying Germans who pursued them ruthlessly and to the death for it.

It is also surprisingly true that virtually all of those shown as leaders of the French Resistance are middle aged-people you would never take to be important spies and renegades at all. This inspires bafflement. Where is young Harrison Ford? Where is ever-young Tom Cruise?

And an additional advantage is that the actors who play them are unknown to one –at least to an ignoramus like me. I’d never seen Paul Meurisse, Lino Ventura, Claude Mann, Christian Barbier, Paul Crauchet. That means that one has no preconception as to how the story of their characters will develop or end and no idea what to expect from them as one watches. They are perfect strangers one experiences for the first time and finds one’s way into.

In France, each of them was a prized star, as was Simone Signoret (a German/Polish/Jewish/French actor who during The War took her mother’s name, Signoret, to survive deportation). Signoret plays Mathilde, the mastermind on the ground, a great woman, although in real life the wife of just some shopkeeper. Signoret’s visage with its huge, wide-spaced eyes and flexible mouth is one of the most striking of movie faces, and here it is used in various disguises – the rich widow, the head nurse, the dull housefrau, the blowsy tart, as Mathilde wends her way through enemy lines. Signoret often played grande or petite coccottes. Where are her grande amoreuses; where her Léa de Lonvals of yesteryear?

All these unknowns add mystery, surprise, and wonder to watching this film, which depicts extreme actions but focusses on the responses of the characters to those actions and is executed with rare acuteness, economy, and choice.

Melville was a participator in The Resistance. It was a perilous calling. And his great first film, The Silence Of The Sea is a stunning account of the resistance on the ground. See it. See this too. Army Of Shadows is a rare treat. Miss it under peril of the scowl of the Cinema Gestapo!

 

Nobody Lives Forever

31 Oct

Nobody Lives Forever – directed by Jean Negulesco. Grifter Drama. 100 minutes Black And White 1946.

★★★★★

The Story: A G.I. comes home to his former crimes scene and heads for a multi-million dollar scam.

~

John Garfield, perfectly cast as both a G.I. and a criminal. It’s his way, which is always the same way: the sensitive tough-guy, Bronx marshmallow. Very lovable. Very understandable. These are qualities which come with some actors and don’t come with others, and they determine work. Work in two ways: casting, and the way he executes scenes. For out of these qualities spring choices in handling scenes. The acting craft holds outlets for these people. They are not ordinary, these people. They have vitality, presence, and looks. They have in them that which wants to be seen. So in discussing acting in relation to them, it is almost impossible to view them dispassionately. It is almost impossible to define the skill with which the tiger dismembers the faun. What is first, mainly, only possible, is to experience being impressed. That much is sure.

Like them or not, there they are up on the silver screen where they belong. With him and always opposite him are all the other members of the cast, all as vital. George Coulouris as the sleazy crumb horning in on Garfield’s grift. George Tobias, as always comical as the almost useless sidekick. Two comical thug fools, in James Flavin and Ralph Peters. His two-timing, slapable canary played by Faye Emerson at the peak of her beauteousness. And the astonishing Walter Brennan as the pickpocket guru. All these are contrasted in their comical or threatening positions to him and to the only one who is not threatening, but is lovely, Geraldine Fitzgerald playing the widow they mean to cheat. Fitzgerald’s performance makes the film work. She is smart but justifiably ignorant; she falls in love with Garfield and you believe it; she registers everything quietly and truly. Don’t miss her. She lets you perform the part with her. Garbo did the same.

The film’s finale is handled somewhat clumsily. But otherwise the film is beautifully directed, which is a question of values attended to in a way noir does not often offer. W.R. Burnett (author of Little Caesar, High Sierra, This Gun For Hire, The Whole Town’s Talking, Scarface, The Asphalt Jungle) wrote it.

Give it a viewing. Let me know how you liked it.

 

Fury

18 Oct

Fury – written and directed by David Ayer. War Story. 134 minutes Color 2014.

★★★

The Story: Tank warfare in World War II against Germany is the challenge which five tank members face.

~

The word cliché has become a cliché. For respect must be assigned to it as describing something importantly human. Important because humans use and become clichés so readily. For clichés are based on thoughtless, automatic repetition. Just as our heartbeats are. And so perhaps there is that in them which assures our safety and our immortality.

It is a case of a writer directing his own script – always a perilous thing to do – for a director cannot distinguish what should be cut, or what should be de-emphasized, or what is not so hot.

What’s not so hot in Fury is the power the director ascribed to what we have all heard and seen before, as though we could only entertain what reassured us. Fill in the cliché:

A: The stalwart leader of the troop, perfect in all his strategies.

B: The beardless recruit who will develop five o’clock shadow.

C: The beastly bully who turns into a cupcake.

D: The ethnic type, braver than Ajax

E: _________________________________________________

F: __________________________________________________

G: __________________________________________________

The result is that one feels nothing for this group of males. One feels everything for the situations in which they find themselves and the blistering, bewildering jump of war. But of the main characters? – nothing.

This is a shame for the subject is fascinating, and the workings of tank warfare a novelty. At least I had never seen a film devoted to a weapon so confined. All that is very good.

And the actors are very good too. Their regional accents are too thick, but who could surpass them? Michael Peña as the Mexican driver, Logan Lerman as the raw recruit, Shia LeBoeuf as the cannoneer, and especially Jon Bernthal as the bully. Brad Pitt at 51 is excellent as the sergeant in charge of them. It’s interesting to see him in a mentor role. He is so good a playing fools, that one hopes he does not have to abandon comedy for the gravitas of such parts – at which he is, here, nonetheless, excellent.

There is an interesting scene in the movie, in which he and the raw recruit intrude into the apartment of two young ladies. And into which the other men also intrude. The effect is overdone. But it’s too late now, isn’t it? War isn’t fought like that any more. It isn’t fought for love or for hatred. It’s valor wasted on oil. Monotony of emphasis is also a cliché. What we need is maybe this director. And maybe Leo Tolstoy to give truth and human humor and the particularity of actual war experience to the poor soldiers before us, instead of these holdovers from the days of Paramount Pictures of 1945.

 

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 Grandmaster

11 Sep

The Grandmaster – written and directed by Wong Kar-wai. Drama. Two master martial artists are drawn to one another, though they are both sworn to duel. 130 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

See it by all means in a theatre now. For is a film of such resplendent beauty, subtlety, and distinction that you must sit back in the dark of a vast hall and let it play itself out hugely before your amazed eyes. You mustn’t wait until it comes into your mere parlor.

It is not a story about athleticism or about martial art, but about character and martial artists. Their dances are performed to music, and are shown in flashes, not of bodies bashing one another, but of slices of hands, scraps of wrists, flourishes of robes and fur. You would not want to see the actual moves. What you do want to see is the result of them. A body crashing through a window. You do not want to see technique. What you do want to see is the half smile of the executant.

What you want to see is beauty, and this you see in every frame, every face, every costume, every setting, and in every delivery of them to your astonished and gratified eyes. Beauty stirs in the puddles and the reflections of the gates in the puddles, in the waiting snow on the bough in the battle in the blizzard. And why should you see this? Why is this being offered? Because inherent in it is the dignity and discipline inherent in life lived – not necessarily this Chinese way – but inherent in life lived in many ways.

To establish that dignity and that openness, we are given as The Grand Master the face of Tony Leung, one of the most beautiful faces ever to bless the screen. And the face of Zhang Ziyi, whose mouth enchants as once enchanted the mouth of Janice Rule. You cannot but be lost in the beauty of these two faces, for their beauty expands and vibrates into a latitude which only movie faces of this beauty can do, and we are given plenty of opportunity to dwell upon them, for they are filmed close-up, still, often, and well.

Beauty has no moral. It is an arena to itself. Go. Bathe in it. You owe it to yourself. I say you do. I say you deserve it and you have always deserved it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr. and Mrs Smith

01 Sep

Mr. And Mrs Smith – directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screwball Comedy. A young married couple find out they are not married at all, and all screwball breaks loose. 95 minutes Black and White 1941.

★★★★★

After Rear Window and for the next 20 years of his professional turnout, sad but true, Hitchcock grows incompetent as a director, but this film is his second Hollywood picture after Rebecca, and incompetency is nowhere visible.

He has a crackerjack script, and two of the most engaging and popular light comedians of the era in Robert Montgomery and Carol Lombard.

Montgomery is pure puff pastry. He is masculine, sexual, even lecherous, and keen. He maintains a demeanor of mischief  behind even his more earnest pleas for the hand of his erstwhile wife. You can always see him think, and he is always willing to be happy. So he combines intelligence and an easy-going nature. You can always see how smart he is, and therefore how dumb.

Opposite him is Lombard, who has a fine figure and who wears clothes beautifully and is perfectly willing to look foolish in them. She has a cold face and icy cheekbones – a fat woman’s face really – but she has such a big heart she carries all her contradictions before her like a prize bouquet. She can turn on a dime. She is a creature of many moods and sudden twists, not all of them wise. She is like a bird aflutter. Which suits this role perfectly, for she is determined to make her marriage fun.

Lombard was not a particularly accomplished actor for most of her career, nor a particularly gifted one to begin with, but she learned how to place her voice, how to free up her body, how to throw caution to the wind and wax sentimental, how to display her wiles. So that by the time she is making this film, her craft is virtually inherent. She has, to start with, what all great comic actors must have: she is big hearted and forgiving. By this time, she has become what her reputation promised she was, an accomplished comedienne. Her performance in this picture is only exceeded in brilliancy by the one which followed, To Be Or Not To Be, her last film.

She is one of the most generous of all actors. And you can see this on display as she supports Gene Raymond’s prolonged drunk scene. Raymond has the Ralph Bellamy/Rudy Vallee role of the the thud, that is, the best friend who doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t curse, and has a mother. Lombard gets him squiffed. And Gene Raymond is hilarious as, rising to his great height, he seems about to topple over at any moment. He ventures one lickerish look at Lombard, and you will fall off your chair laughing.

Hitchcock keeps the silliness ripping along licketty split. The sets look real and appropriate. Indeed, the entire movie takes place in enclosures, cabs, cabins, apartments, offices, which present no escape route for anyone and promise civilized sex as the only denouement for all the comic confusion. Hollywood Golden Age comedy at its best.

 

Broadway Melody Of 1940

19 Jul

Broadway Melody Of 1940 –– directed by Norman Taurog. Backstage Musical. 102 minutes, Black and White, 1939.

★★★★★

What is the critic’s job? Praise or blame? Curse or bless? Give credit or give frowns?

What difference does all that make now?

Perhaps it’s just to notice what is there.

So, in the case of a critic really interested in the craft of acting, when looking at a performer such as Eleanor Powell, what does one do?

Watching her dance is like watching a songbird sing. She does it with a technical zest that has miles to spare. Nothing that even approaches difficulty is what we appreciate while watching her perform the impossible. She would rather dance than eat. She is dance compulsion.

As an actor, is she in line with her costars, George Murphy, Fred Astaire and Ian Hunter?

You bet she is. And she is always in the mode of performance which light musical comedy prescribes, particularly as she is involved with a master of it, director Norman Taurog.

A friend of mine said to me today that Fred Astaire was a terrible actor. So wooden. I suppose that’s a common view, I don’t know, but if you think so, then give yourself the chance to be disabused and watch him, not as he is “acting,” but as he listening to someone else. Watch him in the best-friend relations he creates with George Murphy. What I see in Astaire here is a man virile, alive, and full of fun. He also had the most beautiful eyes.

Astaire was Mr. Finesse. If you imagine he is a bad actor, that may be because there is hardly a moment when he is not dancing when acting, such that his animation might tend to side-line his words and make them, because they are irrelevant, sound forced. But just take a look at what he does after the fatal telephone call, when he blurts out something he ought not to have.

Was Frank Morgan a good actor?  Here he is a staple of the absent-minded old hoodwinker, such as we just saw him be in The Wizard Of Oz. Can you figure out exactly what he is doing? Without imitating him, which would perhaps not be hard, can you do your own version of what he is up to?

Well, perhaps I sound scolding. See it, for the fun of it, as I just did. Astaire has a phenomenal solo – imaginative, acute, down to earth.

Eleanor Powell – she of the pleated skirts and pneumatic smile – dances on point here in a hideously costumed ballet, and she is not at her best. Alas, she was also an acrobatic dancer, which is dance at its most foolish because most contorted to amaze. But, when she and Astaire dance, they have done the choreography together, and she is just grand – never more so than the finale of Begin The Beguine (the whole score is by Cole Porter) – in what is the most astonishing, fun, celebrated and electrifying tapdance duet ever filmed.

Don’t miss it.

 

Together Again

11 Feb

Together Again – directed by Charles Vidor. Romantic Comedy. The square mayor of a small town falls apart over the sculptor she hires to make a statue of her former husband. 93 minutes. Black and White. 1944.
★★★

Irene Dunne is 46 when she makes this, and Charles Boyer is 45. Those were the days! They had grown-ups in movies.

The title is a publicity scheme to announce the re-mating of the stars of the big women’s weeper Love Story. However, there is a curious lack of oomph between them here. Boyer looks middle-aged, but he is an actor who can rise to any occasion, and he is more acceptable than Dunne, who looks great but lacks the inner-madcap for the role. Charles Coburn is far sexier as the stout cupid leading them on. But then Coburn was one of the great film actors, a performer of admirable technical certainty, natural appeal, and lots of juice.

To play comedy you don’t have to do funny things – Betty Hutton had this. You don’t have to be inherently funny either – Rosalind Russell had this. Although both things are nice, what you have got to have is the inner permission for things to be funny around you – Claudette Colbert had this; so does Clint Eastwood. And Irene Dunne does not. Cary Grant said she was delightfully funny on the set, but on film she seems to be a prig who would really rather be a lady than a woman, a feature we see in Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr.

Irene Dunne (who added an “e” to her last name, perhaps as touch of antique Royalty) was a performer whom the studios thought added “tone” to a picture. But “tone” is at variance with Dunne’s role, which is that of a high profile politician longing to cut up. What you get instead is Helen Hokenson, so there is no possible way an actor opposite her could play sexual attraction in her direction.

She does sing a bit, and Dunne was a true singer and is best when singing, because most honest and simple, for she does care about music, and music is never respectable. Her “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” in Roberta is just lovely. See her in Anna And The King Of Siam. Or see her in George Stevens’ I Remember Mama or his Penny Serenade. In a certain kind of role, she is a seriously dedicated actress and very worthwhile.

The film is beautifully mounted and well constructed, and simply and clearly directed. If you like the old studio, A-movie production values, there is much to enjoy here, for they, more in black and white movies than in color movies, tell the story as much as the script tells it.

Why is that?

Because black and white engages one’s narrative imagination and color supplants it.

 

The Diary Of Anne Frank

28 Nov

The Diary Of Anne Frank – produced and directed by George Stevens. Tragedy. Eight people hide in an attic while vicious enemies roam the streets to find them. 180 minutes Black and White 1959.

★★★★

As a film it has lost nothing to time; indeed it takes on power by its set decoration and photography, for both of which it won Oscars. And these are the important Oscars for such a film, since they give to it the feel of documentary. Shelly Winters also won one, and Joseph Schildkraut, who had won one in 1937, who is marvelous, was not even nominated. Lou Jacobi and Gusti Huber, as Mrs Frank, had done it with him on Broadway, and their performances are fresh and strong. Diane Baker and Richard Beymer play modest characters with modesty; every moment tells; we never lose them; we never stop caring about them. With Winters, as an actress, her uncertainty tends to push her art. This makes her always intrusive, and so she is often cast as a pushy woman falling apart.

The use of the Cinemascope camera here in cooperation with a three-storey set, divided by verticals like bars, and the use of full eight-person ensemble scenes bring great strength to what is a director’s movie, which it had to be, since it had no stars and since the material is plotless and storyless, which it had to be, since it actually is a diary. So the direction is purely presentational and as such brilliant beyond expectation. We are never aware of “the direction;” nothing is showy; everything in honored that ought to be.

The difficulty is that one cannot identify with the actor playing Anne. She’s inhumanly pretty and she’s too old. She is never thirteen. In fact the actor was twenty, which is an entire time-zone away from thirteen. And there is something else wrong in that she looks like what she was, a young fashion model. Anne Frank was not a cover girl, but this young woman is a glamor-puss. (To see the part perfectly cast, see the television version.)

I don’t know what Stevens had in mind – a combination of Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn? Did Stevens think to draw focus to her because of her looks? Did he see her as a great new discovery? The problem is you don’t know what you’re getting when you hire an unknown inexperienced actor. Anyhow, the problem is not that she is a fashion model, but that that she relates to a camera in a fashion model way, a way quite different from a movie camera relationship. She knows exactly how to present herself “beautifully,” but that talent is irrelevant to Anne and disconsonnant with her as well. She is so pretty that she has long known how to use the charm of her looks to get what she wants and to get away with behaving as she wishes. Anne Frank was always “behaving” but to do so she had to summon something deep within her defiant nature quite different from the easy victories of a fashion model. Anne Frank was not “pretty,” and the scene where this beauty-actress has to fish for a compliment about her looks is preposterous.

Besides, Anne Frank was a truly funny person; this actress is not. Mind you, the young woman who plays Anne does everything well; she has a right to be proud of her contribution and her work, but, through no real fault of her own, the result of having her in it at all, is that, instead of what we do with the Anne Frank of the book, we have no one to get behind as a human, no one to identify with.

Tremendous vitality pressing outward from inside a difficult girl is the inner truth of the outer truth of the vitality of these eight people caged just because they are Jews inside that loft. Inside a tiny diary is hidden away, as are hidden these eight, the right to live! The injustice of the closet is the mark of this story’s greatness; the movie captures it and us. It is the greatest movie about being closeted ever made. It has not dated. It will never date.

 

In This Our Life

18 Nov

In This Our Life –– directed by John Huston. Drama. A young Southern woman runs over the lives and loves of everyone in town. 97 minutes Black and White 1942.

★★★★★

I saw it when it came out and remember it well –– because of its closing scene in which Bette tells off Charles Coburn and then drives her convertible over a cliff. The scene was actually directed by Raoul Walsh, but what was impressive about it was the intensity and rashness of Davis’s ability to tell the truth. The question is not whether she is mean, selfish, immoral, or even sociopathic, but her daring to find in her guts and let loose the emotional truth. I never forgot it, and neither did anyone else who saw it. It was what I could not do at the time, nor for years to come. There was no major film star of Bette Davis’ era who was not a full embodiment of Women’s Liberation. This was Davis’ version.

Davis deplored the picture, which is incorrect, for she chews scenery already there for her digestion. She is never bigger than the part. And she is certainly never smaller than the part. Her costumes, by Orry-Kelly, are superb in their careful want of subtlety: she is always tricked out for game. Perc Westmore executed the makeup, which gives her a bee-stung upper lip and mascara flounces at the outside corners of her eyes. Her hair is free curling just above the shoulder with a disgraceful bang on her brow.

Bette Davis is the most kinetic of all major female stars. Her body is always engaged or about to spring. More than any other actress of her time, she brings to the screen the quality of someone no one has ever loved, and this gives her sexual seething. One way or another she is hot.

This picture is made in her heyday, between The Man Who Came To Dinner, which is her best screen performance, and Now Voyager, which is one of her most iconic. Once again she plays the brat. She had played it for years. And she played it successfully until All About Eve, after which she played it unsuccessfully, because, once over forty, it became barbaric, immature, and neurotic. After Eve, Bette Davis ceased to be an actress and became a persona, which is to say she became a statue in a public park forty years premature to her death.

But here she is giving vent to what all of us, males and females, only wish we could give vent to –– the suppressed life we’ve had to sit on, now released, fuelled, nasty or not, with the rage of our resentment at having had to sit on it so long.

This is John Huston’s second picture, and it is very well told. Ernest Haller who filmed Gone With The Wind makes beautiful light arrangements, and Ed Koch who will write Casablanca does a sound and economical script, particularly since the Pulitzer Prize- winning novel by Ellen Glasgow it comes from hinges on the Davis character’s attempt to incriminate a negro boy for a crime she herself committed. In a memorable jailhouse scene, Davis attempts to cajole and manipulate this boy to confess to it – a scene she plays well, as does the boy. Davis had found the actor, Ernest Anderson, as a waiter in the Warner’s commissary, saw his quality, and got Huston to use him; Anderson went on to have a long acting career. The handling of the negro truth has a moving first-time ever quality that rings true still.

His mother is played by Hattie McDaniel, and it is interesting to see her well-matched in a key scene opposite Olivia de Havilland. Both women were up for supporting Oscars for Gone With The Wind, and when McDaniel won it, de Havilland fled to the ladies’ room in a weeping rage. A friend shook her and said to her that McDaniel would never have another chance to win an Oscar and that de Havilland would, and it brought her to her senses. And here the two women are, face to face, filmed by Ernest Haller once again, while a score by that same Max Steiner strums by.

Olivia de Havilland gives a subtle, strong reading of Davis’ sister. Never in competition with Davis, because her instrument is essentially lyrical, the small telling registrations of her face bring this good woman to life fully. She’s wonderful to watch. She presents a formidable antagonist to Davis. It is one of de Havilland’s most fully realized characterizations.

But it is Davis’s film. Her leading men, Dennis Morgan and the penguin actor George Brent form part of a strong supporting cast which includes Lee Patrick as the care-free friend, and Frank Craven and Billie Burke as the parents. But it is Davis’ scenes with Charles Coburn that are exemplary of Davis acting at her best. Davis had more brass than a doorknocker and she and Coburn come alive to one another whenever they are together, because Coburn has brass too. Their incest scene on the couch is one for the books.

Bette Davis played The Brat for years: Jezebel, Of Human Bondage, The Letter, Dark Victory, Mr. Skeffingon, Elizabeth And Essex, The Little Foxes, and this is her quintessential take on it, and not to be missed. The title comes from the last line of a poem of George Meredith from Modern Love, a book inspired by his wife’s running off with another man. In In This Our Life, Bette runs off with another man. She also runs off with the picture.

 

The State Of The Union

18 Jul

The State Of The Union – directed by Frank Capra. Political Drama. A self-made millionaire runs for president and ruins himself morally. 124 minutes Black and White 1948.

★★★★

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. She was a remarkable personality. He was an unremarkable one. She was a thoroughbred racing down the track with the blinders on. He was a garden variety Joe shambling along taking it all in. She was quick thinking and controlling. He was withdrawn and deliberating. Energetically they made a perfect couple because they could see into one another and you could see them do it and you could see that they didn’t mind being seen doing it. Theirs is a transparent cocktail. So a film with them presents, before one looks at it, the promise of a union that puts pat to one of the great American hatreds, snobbism. She was upper class, he was lower. They are equal opposite parts, and there is a democracy to them as a given. Knowing they are together in a film means we are to be presented with that common vision of fairness which is at the heart of the American character and vitality. Their popularity is the popularity of the audience themselves. The homogeneity of the heterodox, they are the melting pot itself. They are one from many. Claudette Colbert was slated to play the wife here as she was also slated to play Margo Channing in All About Eve, and, while she is a marvelous film actor, it is impossible to imagine these parts being played by anyone but the actors who did play them. Katharine Hepburn is particularly suited to this part if you consider her from the point of the enneagram, for her point is One, the one who is born right, and Hepburn’s is a woman who never veers from her sense of what is right, This sense drives the entire plot of the film, and without it the film would lack the foundation it possesses. Hepburn’s playing is superb – light, quick, agile, responsive, and natural. She is right without being righteous. She is most profound when funny, as Ones are, which makes her being right digestible, and she is most untrue when emotional which Ones also are, which makes her weeping scenes merely lachrymose. Hepburn seems to think that weeping is the Great Thing That Acting Requires, but when Hepburn tears up, her character goes out the window. Otherwise everything she does is on the money, down to the smallest detail. Just beware the trembling lip, folks. When she starts getting noble, head for the exits. Spenser Tracy, who plays the husband two-timing her, commands his part like a skipper; virtually every detail is believable. He’s funny and true, convinced and convincing, and it’s largely his film. The script from a Broadway success, feels jammed with repartee and wisecracks, overwritten and forced. Capra is a great director of crowd mayhem, but everybody yells a lot and delivers noble orations. It’s a bit thick, with a thickness made viscous by Victor Young’s taffy score. Angela Lansbury is but 22 when she plays the hardheaded, lascivious newspaper magnate who is having an affaire with Tracy and who instruments his presidential bid. The maturity of her bearing is almost sufficient, but she is helped by her costumes by Irene, and particularly by her hairdos by Sydney Guilaroff, who also does Hepburn’s hair and does it brilliantly, for this is not one of Hepburn’s slacks roles. Adolphe Menjou plays the campaign manager tellingly and Van Johnson, in one of his great sardonic roles, plays the press agent. Capra made few films after the war, for after the war America was no longer corn-fed. But if you like the writing of Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, A Few Good Men, The Newsroom, The Social Network), as I do, you will be very happy watching The State Of The Union.

 

 
 
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