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Archive for the ‘Minor Watson’ Category

That Certain Woman

07 Feb

That Certain Woman – directed by Edmund Goulding. Women’s Pulp. A widow raises her baby while men two-time their wives for her favors. 93 minutes Black and White 1937.
★★★★
Claptrap. Edmund Goulding wrote and directed it, and it shows. The plot is ruthlessly confined to coincidence. No sooner does one melodramatic catastrophe befall than the telephone rings to report another. No sooner does Henry Fonda resolve to run off with Bette Davis than Fonda’s wife appears in a wheelchair in Bette’s apartment. Get it?

Davis acknowledged this falseness, but she also liked Goulding’s treatment of her as a star, rather than a prominent member of a cast. She also liked the glamor close-ups of her, executed by the great Ernest Haller, who filmed her many times in the years to come.

Bette is in her late 20s when this film is made, and it did establish her as a star in the sense that her stories were now to be all about her: which means that when the camera was not on her, everyone was talking about her. She is also housed in an apartment and gowned by Orry-Kelly in clothes of a glory which as a private secretary she could never have afforded. Still, it is nice to see her in them, isn’t it? And all, and I do mean all, of the male sexual attention is directed at her, and the entire story hangs upon this supposition. Whether you find Bette Davis sexy is not the point; she is always, always highly sexual.

And she is for one of the few times in her life given a co-star, in Henry Fonda, equal to herself – for Bette Davis was the only female star of her era seldom to act opposite a man equal to herself in power. You could strike a match on George Bent, and he  wouldn’t notice it. Whether this was an economy on the part of Warners, or a recognition that she was making movies only for women, or whether it was thought she was masculine enough in her power already, she is asked from now on to carry virtually all of her films alone – a precarious burden for a female in those days. Nevertheless, from this point on until she left Warners, she made a fortune for them carrying it.

As usual she is given great support and a high class production. Max Steiner does an undistinguished score, but at least he does it. Donald Crisp plays the stiff-necked tycoon in his usual righteous manner, that is to say, in a manner fit to bore the toenails off of you. Henry Fonda, in an unusual display of aliveness for him, plays the playboy son like a happy monkey. It’s a great way to play it, and worth seeing, since Fonda’s usual manner as an actor is steady/withdrawn. Fonda’s character is a weakling, which is unavoidable, but at least Fonda is having fun being one. He is also heartbreakingly beautiful at this stage of his life. With Fonda as the volatile one, Davis plays the quiet one, and, actually, this suits her. Until the plot goes melodramatically berserk, her responsiveness, particularly to Ian Hunter, as her doting boss, is a model of fine, quiet, spontaneity. Hunter is really good in his role, and is perhaps the only one one cares about at all in all this.

Davis as an actress is an interesting presence and always entertaining, but, in a picture like this, which is over-written, which is plot-heavy, the space for the actors to react is reduced to a nubbin. Here we have The Noble Style Of The Thirties, which consists of the actors “giving speeches,” always in a high pitched voice, with a rapid delivery stained with the red, white, and blue of pained self-sacrifice. You will recognize the trick. It is no longer employed by actors. But that is because there are, thanks goodness, in movies now, no more Noble Roles.

 

Woman Of The Year

09 May

Woman Of The Year – directed by George Stevens. Romantic Comedy. A vibrant internationally renown newspaper female reporter and a writer on the sport page fall in love and sort it out. 114 minutes Black and White 1942.

★★★★★

Katharine Hepburn met Spencer Tracy making this comic masterpiece, the first and best of their films together. Why best? Because she is so sexy, never more so in any subsequent film with him or with anyone else, and he is in turn and at the same time is emotionally smart about her to protect his heart-on for her. They fall in love at first sight, in their editor’s office, and her face is something to behold as she grasps fully the sexual and romantic power she feels for him and wields over him. He stands back and is amazed by her sexiness, youth, and zest. He follows her from the office, she turns a corner and ambushes him on the stairs and seduces him. Tess Harding is her greatest performances. She and I corresponded briefly about this picture, which I saw when it came out and I was eight, for I understood immediately that this is the sort of marriage I would want for myself – a marriage in which the woman brought something vital from the outside into it from her professional life. This film is the greatest feminist tract ever filmed, the woman raised to the heights of competence, power, wit, kindness, sexuality, admirability, and self-awareness – and the male loving her for all of it. Sydney Guilaroff designed a perfect, sexy shoulder-length hairdo for her that does a lot for her character. That, in the press of her professional responsibilities, she falls short as a wife and mother gives us the foundation of a story which, in fact, ends stupidly. They had no ending when they started making it, and Stevens wrote an ending which proves her to be incompetent at homemaking, in which she is outwitted by three breakfast gadgets. It is a scene out of Stevens’ Laurel and Hardy days; it is a scene out of silent film, a scene based on gags. It is awful for it is a scene disconsonant with the character of Hepburn, who would have risen to the situation of the waffle iron just as she does when she catches the fourth piece of toast flying into the air. The fact is, yeast does not operate that way, toasters do not rocket launch toast, and coffee pots don’t percolate like that – and we already know from the scene in the baseball park that Hepburn was game for anything, and could have learned household chores as fast as she learned and rejoiced in, before her first game was over, the ground rules of a sport she had never witnessed before in her life. The finale is false, for the film is verbal, and their reconciliation needs to be verbal also, not a capitulation on her part, no matter how it is worked out in action. Setting this episode aside, the film depicts the triumph of the female at her best, her most characteristic and complete. She is never the victim, never the little housewife, never the doormat. And Tracy does not want her to be. He loves her even when she is brilliant and says so, and so do I, and so did I when twenty years later I married just such an accomplished female.

 

Gentleman Jim

03 May

Gentleman Jim — directed by Raoul Walsh. Sports Drama. An Irish roughneck boxes his way to the world championship opposite Francis L. Sullivan. 104 minutes Black and White 1942.

★★★★

“What am I watching this thing for?” I ask myself, for I am full face with a type of picture I am familiar with and which thank goodness is no longer made. The over-the-top smiles and paste-thick Irish accent of Alan Hale cues the question. Oh, yes, I remember now: it’s a movie made in a period when immigrants from Europe were more recent than they are today, a period when we didn’t have the word “ethnicities,” but the word “nationalities.” We didn’t have the word “media,” but in those days there were German language newspapers, and Yiddish and Chinese newspapers, and “Abie’s Irish Rose” was the popular radio show. People were just over from the old country and felt their security depended upon living near one another and loudly holding onto the mores of their motherland. I am first generation myself. John Ford’s films were slathered with an Irishness that no longer exists, and this of Raoul Walsh is also. In the mid 1950s “nationality” dissolved, replaced by the sectionalization of popular music, but until ten years after The War, everyone listened to Bing Crosby, who no longer exists either, although Frank Sinatra does, whose popular territory is certainly bounded with a frontier of nationality. Such nationalist immigrant films as Gentleman Jim are long gone. Barry Fitzgerald is unthinkable today. But I stuck with the film, which is remarkable in several ways. Low-life, high-life, comedy, family drama, action, romance, farce commingle with Shakespearean ease. The huge fight crowds in pre-Boxing Commission days are fabulously unruly, for no one could direct films of mass mayhem like Raoul Walsh. They lend enormous excitement to the fights. The bouts themselves are brilliantly filmed, and it is clear that Errol Flynn is performing them, no easy feat, since Corbett, the father of modern defensive and strategic boxing, had easy feet himself and danced his partners into exhaustion. It is one of the best fight films ever made in terms of the events themselves. Outside that everything is hearty – a blarney shattered by such films as Raging Bull, Someone Up There Likes Me, The Set-Up, and especially The Fighter which put pat to the notion of good healthy family support for their darling of the ring which Gentleman Jim promulgates like a jig. Flynn is perfectly cast in this part, one of many he would play in Walsh’s films. He is highly energized, impenitently boastful, lithe, strong, and Irish as Paddy’s pig, although actually came from Tasmania.  He is very good, and well supported by Minor Watson, Jack Carson, Arthur Shields, Rhys Williams, and William Frawley. As with all Walsh’s films the foundation of the action is romance, but Alexis Smith is incapable of suggesting the sexuality underlying the lady’s interest in Corbett. She is always the lady, never Judy O’Grady. Walsh wanted Rita Hayworth or Ann Sheridan, either of whom would have been better at it. But the key player in this is Ward Bond — so loud and clear for John Ford so long that we never knew what a fine actor he was. The key scene of the film is his reconciliation with Flynn; his sweet shyness is riveting. Going from the brash slugger, Francis L. Sullivan, to the beaten world heavyweight champion, he makes Sullivan into the foolish titan he was. Flynn’s lines about Sullivan’s lying in bed that night, lost, is marvelous piece of film writing. I was born the year Corbett died in the town he lived in, Bayside, Long Island. Corbett Road, I was familiar with. His fights took place in the 1890s, but everyone in the country knew who he was. This was Errol Flynn’s favorite film, enormously popular in its day.  You might check it out to see why.

 
 
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