Archive for the ‘1930s’ Category


31 May

Serena – directed by Susanne Bier. Period Melodrama. 109 minutes Color 2015.

The Story: a young married couple in the early 1930’s Tennessee Smokeys strive to make their lumber business thrive against inexplicable odds.


A film virtually without merit, save for costumes, sets, locations.

The movie is a melodrama (which means a drama with music), because the music barges in wherever it must to supply the deficiency the actors are not providing. The direction is so stagnant one handily drives a 40-mule-team through the pauses. The director and writer fall into the fad that moving pictures demand mostly motion and little dialogue, and if movie reviews required the same I should leave off here. But humans talk. And they also respond. But here we have the two principal actors dead in one another’s water.

Bradley Cooper does not have enough personal interest to hold one’s attention on the screen as a leading man, along the lines of, say, Joel McCrea or John Wayne. As a leading man, he is empty. This might serve him well as an actor in another sort of role, but as a leading man he can do nothing more than look the part. He is the sort of hunk, such as Rory Calhoun, perfectly suited for the minor banalities of B-Westerns.

However, as a character actor, he might be something else besides, for his work in American Hustle is fun, original, quirky, and startlingly exact. As it is in Silver Linings Playbook. But not here. Not in American Sniper, either, where, maintaining groaning platitudes, he plays, as here, a vacuous man. His failure in Sniper’s failure as a film is partly due to a script which leaves unquestioned the lie of the brainwashing his character let himself in for. In and of himself, Cooper is a lead pencil. As an actor, it’s a good thing to be, but not in part such as this in Serena that needed Robert Preston. As a big lug, what he might thrive in is comedy of character. And I’d like to see him do it.

Jennifer Lawrence on her part falls into the same category of being miscast in a role that requires an actress of open sympathy, which Lawrence is not. She is entirely composed of mineral. This works well in Winter’s Bone and in American Hustle, and suggests she too is not the leading lady type. I don’t care how much “acting” she does, if you can’t care about her, she’s not right for the part. Here she plays the part of a young woman on the verge of being unhinged. Not our Jennifer. She’s not made of shale; she’s made of marble. Winter’s Bone is entirely about situation. Any actor, even one you don’t like, you’re going to root for in that situation.  But Serena is not situation tragedy, and Lawrence is ill-served by it.

Certainly as an actress she is treated badly by the director. She has two crying scenes; they are technically proficient, but she evokes no sympathy. She is obliged to play the big vacuities and improbabilities of the part which is without an arc, episode by episode, each with no relation to the next. In between them, the director has her staring blankly and asking us to fill in where the music does not. It’s hard to dwell upon her. She has a mean face. How much better it would be were she slotted into the Lizabeth Scott parts of noir villainesses. Or Mockingjay! Hey! She’d be real good there! Has anyone thought of her that way!

All of this might somehow have been pumped up into life had we understood why on earth all the villains in this melodrama were out to get these two. Don’t both leads have blue eyes?

As to the audience, you could have shot moose in there. You could also have shot Cooper and Lawrence and gotten away with it nicely.


Comments Off on Serena

Posted in 1930s, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, MELODRAMA


Three On A Match

18 Mar

Three On A Match – directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Drama. 63 minutes Black And White 1932.


The Story: Three grammar school girls stick together as grown women, even more so as one of them goes to the dogs.


What is important about this film is not Bette Davis’s cute figure in a bathing suit, nor her part, which is as peripheral to the story as is Humphrey Bogart’s and Glenda Farrell’s and Edward Arnold’s. All three of these make the same impression they were always to make: Bogart as a man to take into account, Farrell as a woman knowledgeable in her own sensuality, Arnold as Humpty-Dumpty pushing everyone off the wall.

Davis plays the least colorful of the three women and the one least connected to moving the plot forward. Joan Blondell plays the light-fingered jailbird who goes straight and marries the boss. We see Davis in the secretary pool at an Underwood, and she really looks like she knows how to type well, for she really did know. One can believe she is a secretary. Later she becomes an au- pair with Blondell in scenes at the beach with a tiresome tyke one wishes they would drown.

Ann Dvojak has the leading role, and Davis, aged 23, could probably have played it beautifully. The point is that Dvojak is excellent and that this is the sort of part that women were getting before 1934, not just wild-assed women who grab men into their beds impenitently and salt their lives with pleasure, but women’s issue parts. These were the pre-Code days of great parts for women which Mick LaSalle writes of in Complicated Women, his celebration of the actresses of this era, their talents, their roles, their films, before the Code put all such roles out into the woodshed for a whipping.

While they lasted, Davis never participated as a leading actress in these sorts of films, although she was of an age to. This is her twelfth film. She is not exactly starting out. Warners still did not know what to do with her. They threw her around like chicken feed. And she knew it.

The sort of parts she fought to play depicted just this sort of woman, women living their lives to the full. They didn’t have to be prostitutes to do it. They could be society women of the sort Norma Shearer played at MGM and Ann Dvojak plays here.

Davis fought for such roles, but Davis fought for what did not exist. Such parts were not mounted after 1934. After 1934, women must suffer for their pleasures or die. The closest Davis could come to such a part was the sexually predacious wife in Bordertown and Mildred Rodgers in Of Human Bondage, who is a tart. She had made 21 films by then, none of them giving her the meaty roles Ruth Chatterton, Constance Bennett, Mae West, Mae Clarke, Marlene Dietrich, Loretta Young, Ann Harding, Miriam Hopkins, and Barbara Stanwyck played. Davis was good friends with Jean Harlow, but she never got parts like Harlow got. The Code flattened them.

In Three On A Match, Davis is still a Harlow peroxide blonde. Her old chum, Joan Blondell, from New York acting school, has the second lead. Davis is on the sidelines where she doesn’t even look convincing smoking a cigarette.



04 Nov

Mame — directed by Gene Saks. Musical.  132 minutes Color 1974.


The Story: A free-thinking New York sophisticate suddenly becomes the guardian of her eight year old nephew.


This is the musical version of Auntie Mame, a play which Rosalind Russell made her own and which she was too ill to make the musical of. A shame. Because Lucille Ball plays it here, and she is importantly miscast. Rosalind Russell had hidden weapons. Lucy’s weapons are pasted all over her. Auntie Mame is a highball. Lucille Ball is beer.

Lucille Ball is in her early sixties when she does this, which would have been all right, but, because she desired not to look what she is, she is horrible to behold! The plastic surgeons have mummified her. The wigmakers have stretched her skull skin up into a ponytail. The spectacle of her face, a puss which we have all found endearing, and which has been the chief tool of her outer clown, has resulted in Lucille Ball playing the entire part in a Lucille Ball mask. It’s so sad. It’s so unnecessary. And it is unwatchable.

When you look away from the star, which is the only sane counsel, you may notice Bea Arthur playing a sort of Tallulah Bankhead, as Mame’s best friend. But she isn’t given enough camera time, and when she is, the writing is too broad and the direction broader. The last part of the story doesn’t work. It never did work. It was too bad mannered.

It is pleasant to see Bruce Davidson as the boy grown up, and John McGiver as the stuffy guardian (we actually tend to sympathize with). And eventually the proceedings are given a shot in the arm by the zest of Robert Preston who sings and dances and steals the show, right and left. What investment he had, what wit, what genuine virility. He departs midway.

The songs are good but they are laid waste by over production, as are the sets and costumes. Beekman Place apartments never looked anything like Mame’s. They are much more interesting, and, had one of them been approximated, its confines would have lent pressure and force to the songs, which are pretty good. Beekman Place had taste. And a certain kind of taste, for it was and is a co-op for millionaires. Built in 1929 Beekman Place refers to this structure, rather than the neighborhood around it. The Rockefellers, Aly Kahn, and Huntington Hartford lived there. And, it was built after The Crash which takes place in all versions of Mame, the first of many anomalies, good taste being the first, from which the sets are eon light years away.

But never mind that. Never mind the movie either. I wish its composer had been better served. I wish we all had been better served. With a Manhattan, which was what was on order, instead of Blatz.



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.




Sylvia Scarlett

16 Jul

Sylvia Scarlett – directed by George Cukor. Grifter Romance. Unruly disguises rule. 90 minutes Black and White 1935.


I like all grifter dramas, stories about people gulling other people out of their eyeteeth. Here Cary Grant is the principal con-man, and of course he is first-class at it, and has a lot of fun bringing his good old English carnival shill energy into it.

He is aided and abetted by the great Joe August who filmed it and by the brilliant trick-writer John Collier who was one of the three adapters of Compton MacKenzie’s novel, and it runs well as we hook into Edmund Gwenn and his daughter disguised as his son, as escapees from consequences in France to the luckier shores of England where they fall under the tricky Grant and the dubious spell of a musical hall chanteuse sexpot Dennie Moore. To earn a quick buck they become travelling vaudevillians. Then Brian Aherne turns up to derail the scams by becoming the object of the love interest of Katharine Hepburn, who up until this time is disguised as a boy. Her competition with Aherne is played by The Countess Natalia Pavlovna Von Hohenfelsen (whose biography would make your hair curl or uncurl, depending.)

Well!!! – as Jack Benny so eloquently put it.

The conglomeration travels on unexpected tracks at the start, and this is welcome – but, when romance insists on elbowing in, the movie looses it fascination, energy, imagination, and fun, and turns routine.

What is not routine is Katharine Hepburn as a hobbledehoy! For as a boy she is quite different than what she appears to be as a girl. As a boy she is quite convincing. As a girl she is quite unconvincing. As a boy she is swift, daring, direct, and true. And you really believe she is a boy. As a girl she is arch, sentimental, coy, extravagant, and meretriciously phony. You never believe in her at all. As a boy uninterested in romance, you swallow her whole. As a girl making goo-goo eyes she is a wretched fraud.

So when is she acting?

And when is she just playacting?

And why?

As a boy, Sylvester Scarlett, she delivers one of the greatest acting performances ever laid down on screen.

As a girl, Sylvia Scarlett, she gives one of the worst.

Don’t miss it. Hepburn was one of the great personalities of The Twentieth Century and one of the great things. The movie has a bunch of rewards and the biggest one is Hepburn acting more naturally as a male than any other male in the movie.


Lust, Caution

28 May

Lust, Caution – directed by Ang Lee. Spy Drama. In the Japanese occupation of Japan a group of students become resistance workers determined to assassinate a high ranking collaborator. 157 minutes Color 2007.
After making Brokeback Mountain, the angel director Ang Lee returned to China to film this account of the late 30s occupation of Hong Kong and Shanghai. He avows it was to honor the history of the period, which was his parents’ time, and which would he feared be lost if some record of it was not made. But the movie is far more than ancestor worship.

As with all his films (The Life of Pi, et al.), it is an exposure of human nature under huge pressure, danger, and duress. I am loath to recount even the beginning of this story, because each episode is precious and unusual.

Rather let me speak for a minute about the cast, which, along with Joan Chen, boasts the highest ranking Chinese actors of our day.

Wang Leehom, the international Asian singer superstar, plays the young leader of the troupe. A beautiful young man, he captures the intensity of the boy, including his fatal lack of humor linked to a sexual restraint such as to make of them a plot device in and of themselves.

The great Chinese superstar Tony Leung Chiu Wai plays the collaborationist magistrate who is the target of the troupe. You would suppose you would respond to him as a villain. But the intensity, pain, love, perspicacity, fear, cruelty, and desire he evinces forbids any such condemnation as the full human being arises before our eyes.

The power and delicacy and sensuality of his playing take the story to excruciations of lust and fear – to a point almost inhuman where neither of them obtain. And with him rides Wei Tang as the femme fatale of the troupe, out to seduce and betray him. She is an entrancing female, subtle, lovely to behold, true, believable, and interesting in and of herself.

I say no more. I have said too much.

It is beautifully filmed by Rodrigo Prieto and has an infallible sense of period.

I saw it on DVD, which offers an uncensored version, It seems to me that the film would make no sense without the full bore sex scenes. Or at least insufficient sense. After all, the film is not a candy apple.

Highly recommended for grown-up viewing.


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.


A Good Woman

08 Dec

A Good Woman – directed by Mike Barker. High Comedy. A woman of mystery turns up in Amalfi and immediately arouses gossip since it appears she is being kept by the recently married husband of a highly proper young woman. 83 minutes Color 2005.
Lady Windermere’s Fan was made famously by two famous directors, one with Ronald Coleman by Ernst Lubitsch in 1925, a silent film renowned for its mute success despite Wilde being the most verbally distinctive of writers; again in 1945 by Otto Preminger with Madeleine Carroll, George Sanders, and Jeanne Crain. The play was clearly ripe for a redo.

No, it wasn’t.

Although the play itself would be unworkable as a movie, the writers have kept Wilde’s structure, but lifted Wilde’s japes and jokes from other sources and flattened them to fit the lips of 1930’s socialites wintering on the Mediterranean, and the only actors who can get their mouths around them properly are the two old troupers who form a chorus of snipers and scandalmongers and tipplers, Roger Hammond and John Standing, and aren’t they fun!

The beautiful English actor Mark Umbers plays the now Americanized (the once Arthur and now Robert) Windermere (no longer a lord) and his wife (no longer Lady Windermere) is played by the seventeen year-old Scarlett Johansson. Johansson is a baffling presence in film, and although she comes to this one with a good deal of experience behind her, it does not show. Her voice is flat and badly placed and seems uninvested in meaning. Her heifer eyes register a wounded stupidity. She moves clumsily. She does not wear clothes well. Of course, her skin takes the camera so well, you think she must be God’s gift to the movies; I give her back unopened.

She is matched by Helen Hunt, who plays the intriguing adventuress, Mrs. Erlynne. Hunt is also American, and she too has the wrong voice for the part, oddly pitched, high, flat, and eggy. I like her face a lot, but, with its thin lips and sunken cheeks and hawk-like nose, it is likely to be miscast as that of a femme fatale. She has too much plea in her timbre. She does not have the inner puma, she’s not a wild animal in lamé, she does not have the sexual certainty to promise. She looks well in her clothes, with her beautifully proportioned, slender figure. And she is a good actress, so she makes the most of everything opposite Tom Wilkinson as Lord Augustus.

Wilkinson is the only real character we care about here. The part, a much-married playboy now in high middle age, is made much larger than in the play, in which he is presented as one of Wilde’s dear old fools. Wilkinson has several good scenes with Hunt, and with the two geezers, as they and the old trouts of leisure snipe at the scandal and inflate it by examining with vitriol eye that corpse, the institution of marriage.

But to really enjoy Lady Windermere’s Fan, one must read it. I do so in a first edition of it, old now, with its odd intestinal cover with three gold leaves, Elkin Matthew 1893: Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Play About A Good Woman. Indeed: a play about goodness of many and various stripes and kinds.


MARKED WOMAN — Bette Davis 5 of 5

26 Nov

Marked Woman – directed by Michael Curtiz and Lloyd Bacon. Crime Drama. A B-girl heads up the ladies to bring down a crime lord, with the help of a stalwart D.A. 96 minutes Black and White 1937.
Was ever such assurance!

For there she stands, defying Eduardo Ciannelli the most terrifying gangster ever to appear in film. Bette Davis is just 27 when she does this and her standing her ground opposite Ciannelli is astounding.

Granted it’s just a movie.

But is it? What you see in Davis is coming from a center of absolute strength of power, and it aint fake.

What you are also seeing is that Bette Davis is a woman. We who saw her during those years, and saw the other big female stars at that time, never suspected there was any other type of female. We never thought that their disappearance in film by the ‘60’s would be absolute. There is not a single female in American films today who is a woman, with the exception of Meryl Streep. Jessica Lang? She’s a seductress. Sally Field? Great as she is, and she is, there is still a little girl in all she does. Julia Robert, Reese Witherspon, Gwyneth Paltrow? Don’t be silly. But Bette Davis – ah – a woman. Not a gal, not a chick, not a broad. A woman! As such, she stands tall with ‘30s female stars as unforgettable types of Women’s Liberation. We were grateful to them at the time, and we still are.

Davis won the Volpi Award of the Venice Film Festival for the Best Actress for this performance. Her Oscar-winning years were over, but, with it, her heyday had begun.

What had not quite begun was Davis’ creation of a peculiar film persona. Her odd enunciation emphasizing certain words. Her bitter consonants. Her deadening the ends of lines. Her nutso phrasing. How may packs a day? Her throwing herself about like a bag of potatoes. Her semaphoring arms. Her sexual seething. The raising of her vocal range to a constant pitch of peevishness. The mouth drawn down in a bow of contempt and distaste. Perhaps a certain loss of humor as she took on the position of Queen Of The Lot.

Warners, where she worked, had ridden the social conscience, gangster, and lower class film nags until Zanuck left the studio in ‘33. When Hal Wallis took over, he kept making those films, and this is one of them, but he also began to make historical biography and grand romances. And Davis was to star in the latter. Wallis did not understand Bette Davis, but he knew her box office value, and he purchased for her the big novels and plays of the day, such as In This Our Life, The Letter, The Little Foxes, All This And Heaven Too, and The Man Who Came To Dinner. This particular story was a Warner’s specialty, hot from the headlines: Lucky Luciano that year was brought down by Thomas Dewey (Humphrey Bogart) with the help of Luciano’s prostitutes. And what became of those girls? Take a look at the end of Marked Woman, and see for yourself.


The Quiet Man

11 Nov

The Quiet Man –– directed by John Ford. Romantic Drama. An American returns to Ireland, falls for a beautiful woman and must fight to make her his own. 129 minutes. Color 1952.


We get three fairy tales for the price of one. To exploit them, John Ford loads us with his usual bunk. John Wayne plays the man Ford wished he were, and the movie gives us the Ireland Ford wished it were: instead of the starvation, dirt, and violence of it that drew his own forebears to Maine, we get The Emerald Isle and Ford’s St. Patrick’s Day parade of all its clichés before our eyes. Swathed in “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” “Danny Boy,” and “The Kerry Dancers,” we drown in the sentimental blarney of The Auld Sod – with one exception: the film was actually taken in Ireland itself and with actors who actually were Irish. For it is of such a green and such a melodiousness of tongue that one’s worst expectations are swerved by.

That’s the Ford’s first fairy tale, sentimental fantasy of Ireland that Shaw, Wilde, O’Casey, and Joyce deplored.

The second one is a real fairy tale, but one in modern dress, and that’s the one in which a wounded prince enters a kingdom and wins the heart of the princess. Naturally, the princess has a wild boar father-figure who won’t let her go. And the princess has a wound as well, which is that she is the immediate relation of that wild boar, and is one too. So it is a taming of the shrew story, to boot.

The fairy tale immediately before us, however, is the fairy tale of a Hollywood movie, which has its own regulations and sentimental holdovers, played out by actors of heroic mold and legendary beauty, force, and charm. And for this purpose Ford has placed his alumni before us. We have Barry Fitzgerald who takes us a long way into believing that alcoholism is cute. Mildred Natwick plays the spinster Goddess of the town. Ward Bond, as the local priest who actually narrates the fairy tale, and actually gives sporadic evidence of what a good actor he really was. George Ford plays the town sage. And Victor McGlaglen plays the dumb galoot Boar-King whom the prince must kill.

What draws us to this gallumfry? It is the fulfillment of the crazy idea that there actually could be before us a romance played by John Wayne in which, when he kissed the girl, we did not desire to crawl under our theatre seats in horror. He is never less masculine than when kissing. But, in fact, he and Maureen O’Hara seem to have something happening between them. He has wonderfully acted scene, for instance, in which a thunderstorm arises to symbolize the wild sexual passion of O’Hara – but instead of taking advantage of her, he takes responsibility for her. He’s just great. And their kisses are shameless and fun.

They are two handsome people to be sure. Maureen O’Hara, as usual, is called upon to play the fiery red-head, but she does not fall, as she often did, into the trap of being not just high spirited but bad tempered. This is partly due to the fact that anything you could scream at the moronic Victor McGlaglen sounds like a lullaby compared to what he really deserves.

She also comes up against and matches the force of John Wayne’s patience, which is a force of nature never to be overthrown. He also carries the fastest grin in the west. It’s fast because it’s perpetually internal. It presents him before us with a ready philosophy of life, one which is quizzical, kind, long suffering, and gentlemanly. His sense of humor and his patience are one single thing. He is sedate of movement and of speech, a peaceable person, slow to punch. He is an actor who does not fare well with longer than three sentences in a row. So he stands for a taciturnity and much else that we might admire in ourselves did we possess it to any degree worth taking credit for.

This grin and this patience and this deliberation of movement move this actor into scenes like a ploughshare – which is to say they give him genuine authority. And, while Wayne may be biased and stubborn, he is no fool. He weighs matters well. He was a quick study as an actor – and what did he do between takes? He played chess. From all this we made him a great movie star, and no one was more justified to be one.

So he and O’Hara well satisfy our curiosity and our desire for their romantic connection. They are neither of them in their first youth when they play this, but Wayne still has his fine figure and O’Hara is sufficiently messy to convince you that they are not too long in the tooth for such romance, but just at the right age after all.

The movie is less offensive than other Ford pieces. One looks for Ford’s famous eye, but that search is challenged by the brilliant green of the countryside and by the authenticity of the village itself, which was built on the Republic lot and the old Gene Autry ranch in the hills. You believe they are all in one place.

Ford blocks the movie like a musical without songs. His sense of comedy is from the silent film, and does not work in sound, for it is stagy, always forcing us to find it funny, but we never do. His notion that affection between males emerges only after fisticuffs is at once homoerotic and ridiculous. His sense of small group shots gives us his infallible tableaux, although his sense of crowds is non-existent, for he handles them as just a gaggle of people waiting to react when the stars ride by. And he uses eager Irish town folk as extras, a strategy by a director that invariably produces sudden shyness in them. But the narrative is brisk, and the fairy tale of the prince and princess moves along at a fine trot.

Wayne is set an impossible task –– to get the gold from the dragon, Victor McGlaglen. McGlaglen’s hold on it is as crazy as O’Hara’s refusal to relinquish her dream for it. So there are two crazinesses whose stories must be beaten to death here, since logic will not make them sound. It ends in a donnybrook, of course. Classically comedy ends with a marriage and a dance, but here the dance is between two males, which is odd, don’t you think?

Anyhow, as usual with Ford, whatever he does badly he does well, and we ourselves complete the film by putting down the greeting card it takes the form of as the expression of a black-hearted man pretending to a heart of gold, and our forgiveness that it is human after all for him to have wished that he had one.


Mildred Pierce — 2012 version — The Guy Pearce Papers — 3

13 Oct

Mildred Peirce – directed by Todd Haynes. Drama. A single mother in the Depression struggles to support herself, and turns to baking, which leads to great success with the business and great failure with her daughter and her lover. 5 part mini series. Color 2012.
He enters our field of vision with exactly the right hair, as a sort of male Veronica Lake. Peering from beneath the springy, pendulant twin locks his center-dividing part grants it, his hair is so much of the period of the ‘30s, that one is stunned to remember that that is so. Stunned also by this choice of hair, which is always a leading choice for an actor, and which supports what he makes of the character of this louche playboy: Dan Duryea and George Plimpton rolled up into one, with a dash of impatience and a soupcon of charm. He is fully embodied. Guy Pierce is so at ease inside this smarmy prince that one cannot but admire his style at the same time that one deplores its effects. He is an actor of great phsyical dispatch, with a neck feathered for mating dance at all times. The accent is perfect, as usual with this actor. It never gets misplaced; it never is exaggerated; he is never lost behind it. This is true of the accents of all the players in this perfectly cast piece. Morgan Turner as a young miss putting on airs makes her character so infuriating, one can only send her flowers of congratulations, since that is exactly what the character, and with no holds barred, should be. The range of casting is a cake rich throughout. Evan Rachel Wood is exactly right as the musician the young Veda Pierce grows into. Yes, one thinks, that unusual little girl could have become this raving beauty, and Wood must have copied the younger actor’s performance to get the character so right. Bryan F. O’Byme has this great moving mug; another face of the period; he keeps the story of Mildred’s husband covert and easy, until the very end. A wonderful actor, as, of course, is Melissa Leo as Mildred’s crony and another one, James Le Gros as Mildred’s aid and abettor. Mare Winningham, a waitress, is a creature entirely out of the ‘30s. She existed never after. Remarkable in this picture, in fact, are all the ‘30s production values – music by Carter Burwell, set and art decoration by Peter Rogness and Ellen Christiansen, and all the cars correct. I lived through that time, so I know. But what is most remarkable of all are the costumes by Ann Roth. They are exactly right at every turn. And they are particularly suited to our belovèd Kate Winslet who is not an elegant woman or a fashion plate like Evan Rachel Wood, and who is dressed perfectly for her type, in every scene, as is everyone else, male and female. Winslet brings to the character a determined mother-love, a love which hangs onto her daughter and blinds her to what she is. Winslet is earthy. You believe she can make pies and quarter fowl. Joan Crawford in the part you never believe could do either, but Crawford brought a trait inherent in her, the desire to pull herself up by her bootstraps (or ankle straps) and better herself. Crawford was like that in person, and you believed her drive towards that end. It worked for the role. What Winslet brings to the role is the temperament of a woman who is uneducated and ignorant, a woman who never had a single ambition; had many feelings but no thoughts; lived from day to day, pie to pie. Winslet is always lovable; Crawford never is. Crawford was always special; Winslet never is, and it serves her well. When you see her at the concert leaning forward to understand an aria, you see that, try as she might, she is aesthetically cut off from understanding or appreciation or even enjoyment. She tries too hard for her ever to get it – a human being like that. The director and his cronies give a silly, because unprepared commentary, unworthy of the film they have made. But one thing they do say is that, unlike the Crawford version, they have stayed close to James M. Caine’s novel. Of it they have made an interesting and commanding rendition. A remarkable achievement by all.



11 Dec

Hugo — Directed by Martin Scorsese. Drama. An orphaned boy winds the clocks of a huge Paris railway station as he seeks his true parentage. 127 minutes Color 2011.

* * * *

Asa Butterworth plays the 12 year-old and hits a homer. His performance is simple and ingratiating, for he lets his impression of his situation carry him, and Martin Scorsese lets Asa’s fine blue eyes carry him the rest. He is mated with another 12-year-old well played by Chloë Grace Moretz. The two of them take us along on their adventures in early 1930s Paris, adventures which are imperiled by the train station guard, a victim de la guerre, played with a crazy Martin Short accent which is supposed to be comic but is not, by Sacha Baron Cohen. The problem with the material lies not with them but with the special effects which clog and over-lengthen their tale. These effects which are 3-D and which at first impress and amaze, fade in power as they supplant the story and the human interest of it. For instance, two of the greatest actors alive, Richard Griffiths and Frances de La Tour (remember them in The History Boys), are sidelined, while the sequences in the towering stacks of a bookshop owned by Christopher Lee displace the narrative with a plot device that could have been handled more briskly another way. Virtuosoism will attack narration every time. For the entire film is manufactured by computer. All we see, save the actors themselves, is fabricated with the doomed magic of an application. It even opens the picture carrying a character moving through a maze, duplicating a famous opening sequence in another Scorsese film of years ago. But these elaborate and highly detailed fabrications steal breath. What first impressed now fails to. The forgotten passages of the huge old station bring us into the power of the secret mischief of the Hunchback Of Notre Dame and The Phantom Of The Opera, but with them the special effects of the station itself eventually cannot compete. The film almost loses heart – but not quite, for the heart is that of Martin Scorsese, and the story is that of the Ben Kingsley character, an old great silent film fantancist/magician/inventor, Georges Méliès, now superannuated and inutile and running a toy store in the train station. We hope our Master Scorsese does not fear to become like this director, outdated, his work lost and forgotten. The old director is restored to praise, and, when I saw it, the audience applauded Hugo, as I did myself. A good whole-family picture.



Swing Time

04 Oct

Swing Time – Directed by George Stevens. Musical. Two dancers and their lovers at cross purposes. 103 minutes Black and White 1936.

* * * * *

Swing Time is accompanied by a terrific commentary by John Mueller, who takes us through a good deal of what went on to make this piece the greatest of all Rogers/Astaire musicals — which has to do with Astaire’s grueling rehearsal work, freedom from chance in the dances, his staff Hermes Pan, and the nature of the picture itself. It is directed by George Stevens who was one day to direct The More The Merrier, Woman Of The Year, Shane, and A Place In The Sun and who brings to the picture an angle of vision which unifies it by personalizing the performances. Of course, it is a white telephone musical, which means that it is essentially a film in which only the dances are serious art: the rest is flip. This is as it should be, because Astaire is interested in discovering and firming up the essential musts of movie dance. His discoveries rule to this day. The film contains wonderful numbers of Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, and at one point Astaire applies blackface and does a shadow dance with 24 chorus girls, 12 in black 12 in white, and then dances to a black and white rear shadow projection of himself. Minstrel shows celebrate an exuberance which our negro entertainers alone possess: blackface gives performers unheard of freedom: that is what is being celebrated here, and, because it is respectful at heart, it would be offensive to be offended by it. “Never Gonna Dance” is considered to be the greatest dramatic-romantic dance ever filmed, and Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields won the Oscar for “The Way You Look Tonight,” and we are also treated to “A Fine Romance,” “Pick Yourself Up And Start All Over Again”. Rogers, beautifully dressed for all her numbers, is liquid itself in Astaire’s arms. She had a wonderful figure, graceful arms, strong square shoulders, a flexible back. And of course she could actually act, so she moves the spoken drama along while Astaire moves the dance drama along. Dancing he led her; not-dancing, she led him. The most valuable suggestion Mueller gives is to watch the dances in slow motion. What a treat! To actually see for oneself what actually went into these intricate, witty dances! Astaire’s body was a genius. That body made American movie musicals! Excellence upon excellence was his credo, never more so than here.

[ad#300×250] a




Lady Of Burlesque

27 Sep

Lady Of Burlesque – Directed by William Wellman. Murder Mystery. A burlesque queen and her colleagues are beset by a backstage slaying. 91 minutes Black and White 1943.

* * * * *

Every student of film and every person fascinated by its craft could not do better than to watch William Wellman’s management of crowd movement in this back-stage whodunit. The set is spectacularly real in terms of its seediness, dusty props, crumby dressing rooms, and crowdedness. The film is alive with imaginative motion. Which stops dead when the inspector calls to examine the personnel and everyone has to gather in a dressing room that allows of scarcely any motion at all. So the movie lurches effectively between the hurly burly and hustle of the shows and the standstill of these scenes. Michael O’Shea plays the two-bit fool who woes the heroine, and he is perfectly cast because he is lower-class, and so is Barbara Stanwyck, a Brooklyn girl from way back. She is not physically convincing as a Burlesque Queen; she is not voluptuous, she does not have the machine-gun heart or the powerful double-entendre of a Gypsy Rose Lee who wrote the story, but otherwise she is marvelous, for three reasons. She is a person of determination: her walk is like a destroyer surging across a duck pond. She had great humor, and she had the common touch. Iris Adrian adds her piquant lip to the burley-que life, which was coarser than what we see here, but the casting of the girls with their snappy slang brings out the necessary, as do the costumes organized around their bodies not to reveal their sexuality but to astound by exaggerating it symbolically. A G-string tells less than a three-foot hat! Highly entertaining, Wellman was a master of scene management — and rain, which occurs in many of his films. His scenic management alone, although one is not aware of it, is a treat, a delight, an encouragement, and a reassurance here. Check it out, It’s fun.




Love Is News

29 Jul

Love Is News – Directed by Tay Garnett. Screwball Comedy. An heiress double-crosses a feisty reporter who has double-crossed her. 77 minutes Black and white. 1937.

* * * * *

What fun! What fun to see Loretta Young and Tyrone Power in their early twenties at the peak of their skills and beauty. Of the various blooms in the Hollywood bouquet, the values expressed by this sort of film are one of the most alluring still. You want to look at these two. You want to admire them. You enjoy them, and you don’t want them ever to grow old. You praise all the artifice around them because you know that such a wonderful fuss is right for them. You cannot begrudge their smashing clothes. You’re glad they get the lighting they deserve, and you wish them entirely well in all things. For you want love to be beautiful and to prevail, and never has this last want been so perfectly realized on film as it was in the comedies of the 30s. The story is a combination of Front Page and It Happened One Night, and its first class farce script offers the platform for comic relations between these two stars that are a treat to behold, and must have been a treat to perform, for they move together beautifully. As actors they free one another, they dare one another, and, most important, they argue with one another with complete conviction. The chemistry is artistic, a rarer thing in film acting than buffalos on the moon. While so young, they both had lots of experience as teen-agers, he on the stage with Cornell and she, already a big star in movies. They are Loy and Powell ten years before. They’re just simply talented as all get out. I love ‘em. You will too. So just pick up your white telephone. Dial Love Is News.




25 Jul

Café Metropole – Directed by Edward H. Griffith. High Comedy. A Paris debt-ridden restaurateur strong-arms a dead-beat young man to romance a millionaire’s daughter. 83 minutes Black and White 1937

* * * * *

When an actress complained to the photographer Lucien Andriot that he didn’t photograph her as well as he did five years ago, he said, “Well, my dear, I am five years older now.” The wit of his filming of this masterpiece of 30s comedy immensely nourishes the vigor of what passes before our delighted eyes. This is one of the funniest films I have ever seen, Its plot is mobilized by the roguish mustaches of Adolphe Menjou who forces Tyrone Power to impersonate a Russian Duke to impress the family of an American millionaire, played by Charles Winninger, and by Helen Westley, who doesn’t miss a comic trick, and by Loretta Young who is one game gal as the rich man’s daughter, delighted to be taken in by the deception. You’ve got to see how well she looks in clothes. Remember? They are the most gorgeous rigs you have ever seen. No one ever dressed like that except in the movies – which is why we went to the movies, isn’t it? Gregory Ratoff, who also stars in this, also wrote the story, which is wonderful, but more wonderful still is the dialogue, written by Jacques Deval, who gives his characters some of the most mischievous lines ever heard in a motion picture. This is an essential film, perfectly executed to dispel dyspepsia, cancer, and war. Rely on it. It will also paint your house in an ideally brighter color and put all your dear children through Yale.



Second Honeymoon

18 Jul

Second Honeymoon – Directed by Walter Lang. High Comedy. An argumentative formerly married couple meets again and flirts. 84 minutes Black and White 1937

* * *

Tyrone Power is 23 when he makes this upper crust pastry. He’s so beatuiful that he is more attractive than Loretta Young. And, just as important, he has a wonderful comedic sense. He is charming, good-natured, fun, ready, and real in the quick-take wit of a comedy that might have been written by Noel Coward, and, indeed, once was written by Noel Coward under the assumed name of Private Lives. Looking at it one wonders how the Depression audiences could stand the goings-on of these spoiled folks; they indulge in a vicious deep sea fishing party at one point, which makes one’s hair curl. Anyhow, the film is a perfect example of costumes making the character, and Power and Young and Claire Trevor, who plays a funny married friend, wear their threads with a difference. The rube Stu Erwin plays a virginal nerd as Power’s valet, of all things, and introduces a lower-class invigoration as does Marjorie Weaver who is refreshing and altogether excellent as a voluble and principled cigarette girl. At one point Power asks to kiss her, is granted the privilege, and when she asks him why he wanted to, he says, “I just wanted to know what it felt like to kiss an honest woman.” So the script does have its pleasant byways. At this point in his career, which was to establish Power as the only major male star at Fox, Power was being groomed as a matinee idol, which he became. But there are two types of matinee idol. The first type, the one here, is the idol women are attracted to. That’s what he became at first, and women went to see him. The second type is the sort whom both women and men want to see, thus doubling his box office draw, and this came about when Power was put into a series of swashbuckling roles, starting with The Mark Of Zorro. Power was one of the few male Hollywood stars who could wear period clothes. Here the period is contemporary, and he looks smashing. All his films as Fox made lots of money. This one looks like it deserved it.



Pigskin Parade

08 Jul

Pigskin Parade – Directed by David Butler. Musical. A tiny rural Texas college takes on Yale in football and song. 93 minutes Black and White 1936.

* * * **

The two greatest musical comedy stars of the 20th Century appear for the first and only time together, Betty Grable and Judy Garland. Grable is mostly set decoration here; her sunny smile appears to be the same white as her hair; how fascinating. MGM lent out the 4’11” child Garland to Fox, to see what she could do. She’d made shorts from 1929 on, but this was her first real movie role. She sings three numbers and did just fine, and they never lent her out again. She plays the little sister of a rustic lummox, Stu Erwin, who is the star and who was awarded a leading Oscar nomination for this performance. He can hurl a football the length of a football field and land it on a dime. Everyone bursts into over-energetic song at the drop of a baton – which Tony Martin wavers about. He also sings, with his fine baritone, and otherwise is also set decoration. The raucous Patsy Kelly and the boneless Jack Haley bring their vaudeville funnypapers styles to the leads. They sing a little too. Who sings a lot are the Yacht Club Boys, a 40sh quartet, still in college, who brilliantly render a series of brilliant patter songs with which this zesty musical is laced. Dixie Dunbar does a dance. Even that wonderful actor, Elisha Cook Jr. does a dance; he plays a Communist student organizer, of course. The director had the wise idea to put the entire musical on locations, and it works like gangbusters. The finale takes place in a blizzard, and you wonder how the heck the game was staged, because it is clearly out of doors and it is clearly snowing like crazy. All this lends real interest and engagement to the proceedings, which are the usual adorable David and Goliath College Comedy hooey we’ve had in films for generations, ending with its grand finale in Good News.  The movie is like a swig of soda pop. You may burp once or twice at the goings on, but you’ll guzzle it down with pleasure. Good family fun.



Reaching For The Moon

19 Jun

Reaching For The Moon — Directed by Edmund Goulding. Musical. An inconsiderate tycoon looses it all in the crash as he falls for a millionairess. 71 minutes Black and White 1931.

* * * *

A musical curiously truncated by the removal of all the music. Irving Berlin’s pieces, too. But judging by what was left in, they must have been stinkersoos. Bing Crosby sings one of the remains. And a beautiful actress, Bebe Daniels, sings another. Even these we might have been spared. Except that Bebe Daniels, who made 230 movies in her lifetime, is an enchanting actress, I am riveted by her ease of attack, fluidity, musicality of delivery. If she appeared in films today she would be entirely acceptable and desirable. Wonderful eyes. I am in love. The script is raised above the floor by the presence of Edward Everett Horton who plays the mentor butler hilariously. Risque too in those pre-code days. His Mr. is Douglas Fairbanks playing a bumptious billionaire. Laughing perpetually, he races around after Daniels, crawls up the walls, slides down the flagpole and in general inspires her derision, until… until he speaks his true heart. Now never let two things be said again: 1] that he was not an actor; 2] that he avoided love-scenes. For he is superb in this scene, and no wonder it wins her. Fairbanks they say was at the end of his career and downcrest and frantic; they say he was not interested in talkies and grieved the loss of the acrobatic spectacles he made his name with, but…he was too old. He’s in his late 40s. He had only two films left in him. Fairbanks doesn’t sing, but the sets by William Cameron Menzies do. If you’ve never seen a White Telephone Movie this one will boggle your eyes. Check out that ocean liner, check out that nightclub. And check out those evening gowns, boys and girls. Wow, did they ever know how to drape a lady’s derriere. Sweet were the times. The film ends abruptly at its climax. Like this.








The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness

05 Jun

The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness – Directed by Mark Robson. Pious Drama. An English woman unqualified to be a missionary in China makes her way there and become a great one. 158 minutes Color 1958.

* * * *

The studio asked Mildred Dunnock to tutor Ingrid Bergman in the accents of the Great Women Of History, characters she was to play on a radio show, but when Bergman came to her, Bergman resisted learning them, and wouldn’t, saying that people liked her own accent, and she left. Bergman spoke Swedish and Summer Vacation German, and thought and spoke in English. Her Italian was highly inflected and her French was also. People said to her Roberto Rossellini ruined her career, but she always said, “No, I ruined his,” and she was right, that is to say she could never play an Italian. She was always the stalwart Swedish lass. In Jean Renoir’s film she is certainly not French. In Hollywood films she is certainly not American. Playing a Russian she is a Swede. In very few films did her accent suit her character; Casablanca is one of them. Of course, in one way she was right: her accent was always charming. She loved to act, because she said she liked to be other people, but it’s not quite true. What she liked to be was the other person inside herself that other people loved. That person was remarkably real, though – loving, happy, sensual, and kind – and also a person who could express her feelings freely, just as she had with her father who reared her and who died when she was young. She married three highly controlling men. Around them, she was permitted to be only partly natural, the part they liked. In ordinary life and on the set, everyone found her beautiful, light spirited, down to earth, and accessible. All this she also brought to the screen, along with a radiance which she was aware of and which made her the super-star saint of film of her era. There was a certain kind of actress she was, and there was a certain kind of actress she was not. She was as stubborn as Saint Joan, just as driven, just as martyred, and almost just as graced with the light of God. This is one of her saint roles, and no one else could have been so good in it. She plays a young woman; she is 41 and looks it; it doesn’t matter. She is both competent in the part and brings to it 25 years of stardom in just such roles, so we accept the tale and its outcome long before it is told. In it the German actor Kurt Jurgens plays a Chinese colonel; Robert Donat, in his last film role, plays a mandarin. And a wonderful actress named Althene Sayler plays the missionary Bergman replaces. The film is beautifully produced. The music is great and is by Malcolm Arnold. In it Ingrid Bergman speaks Chinese with a Swedish accent.





The Great Debaters

26 May

The Great Debaters – Directed by Denzel Washington. Winning-Through Docudrama. A small rural Negro college in Texas in 1935 gains national acknowledgement as an unbeaten debating team.  126 minutes Color 2007.

* * * *

The musical score of this film undermines by supplanting the drama and emotion of every scene it is heard in. And this is quite unnecessary, because Washington is a first class director of actors. They need no musical appurtenances. There are four debaters and their skin is beautiful, their faces are beautiful, their acting is beautiful. Denzel Washington plays Melvin Tolson, a brilliant professor among brilliant professors at Wiley College in Marshall Texas, and he coaches them ruthlessly to win, and win they do. This is like a Rocky film or a horse film. Since it is about a feat, you understand at the outset that you are to be faced with a foregone conclusion, and so we are presented here with the customary tropes of such stories. For me, the problem with this show was that these tropes galloped away with the film, and with it went all living peculiarity. We are left with nothing but the contraption of the tropes. Washington begins it with a brilliant display of character acting as he recites poetry in his classroom and scares and excites everyone therein. But his entire character is lost as the film goes on, and lost too is his particular story of his writing all the debates for the students, and lost too are the character pieces, the genre scenes, those little anteroom scenes necessary to put the film on a siding so that we may enjoy and get to know the characters. Forest Whitaker plays the chaplain of the college, and he is getting to be a better actor with time; it’s nice to see. Neither he nor Washington, though, has any temperamental or ego conflict to be resolved with one another or with anyone else in the picture. We have four lovely actors playing the four debaters: the 14 year old Denzel Whitake playing son to his father; Nate Parker as the brilliant and defiant ne’er-do-well; Jumee Smollett as the first female debater, and Jermaine Williams who must bow out. They are dear, but I wish the choochoo train the script thrust them on had, from time to time, stopped at a station not called Debate. Although it’s played well, the whole romance business could have been scrapped; it goes nowhere, and it routinizes the film. However I am grateful for the small mercies of it, an accounting, especially at the beginning, of how it all started. I wish Washington had not been forced by the script to forsake his character for his usual star stuff. Given the script, there was nothing else for him to do. I love these black actors, though, and I am grateful to see them in films where violence is not the main source of interest. The Extra Features are lovely, and in so many ways, so is the film.






One Hour WithYou

09 May

One Hour With You – directed by Ernst Lubitsch – Musical. Two ladies vie for the bedroom of M. Chevalier, one of them is married to him, one isn’t.  80 minutes Black and White 1932.

* * * * *

Lubitsch’s perpetual sense-of-humor-cigar is that sex is a jest that people inevitably loose their sense of humor over. The one who loses it here is Jeanette MacDonald just as Florence Vidor lost it in Lubitsch’s 19245 silent version The Marriage Circle. Now, I want you to listen very carefully to what I am about to say, for no matter what you may think of “old” films, especially this old, they possess a quickness of wit and heart to be found no place else. You may adore or despise the hairdos and the decor. You may find the music and the tone to be “Viennese” and dated. You may dismiss the frivolity, but you’d be a suicidal killjoy to miss any movie that begins with a line like this: “She was a brunette when I married her, and now I can’t believe a thing she says.” Again, in this piece we have the light-operetta style so suited to the non-singer. I speak of Maurice Chevalier. Chevalier appeared to sing. Of course he didn’t sing; he never sang a note his whole life long. He simply appeared to. So do we care whether he will jilt his wife and spend the night with that most forward of minxes, Genevieve Tobin? Perhaps not, but that is the entire point. Neither should his wife, Jeanette, care. Sex is a cocktail glass from which anyone may sip, provided there is fresh martini in it. Why not? If sex is not a cocktail, then how can you make a movie about the folly of sex? And what we mean by sex is sexual attraction. The act itself is best left to closed lids. Your drama could never entertain points about that attraction unless your setting was frivolous. For, when the frivolous becomes the essential, you have something worth looking at. And Lubitsch provides you with this. You, with him, have a way of seeing. You have a way of penetrating. With point of view, you have a chance of latitude of view. You have a fixed position around which you may gaze in all directions. With Lubitsch’s films one is complicit. Why in drama and in life does infidelity seem far more momentous than fidelity? It is because we have made what is unimportant important, and it is important to see that we have. Lubitsch gives us that permission. A respect. A distance. A stepping back. Provided, of course, that you are not actually experiencing sexual attraction at the moment. Otherwise you can relax. You can see that sexual attraction is droll and endearing and that infidelity is simply a beguiling possibility. You don’t have to worry about making the rent. You can laugh. And, best of all, you can breathe like a human being once again.



Water For Elephants

24 Apr

Water For Elephants — Directed by Frances Lawrence. Romantic Drama. A young man finds himself drawn to a female circus elephant and the elephant’s female mahout. 122 minutes Color 2011.

* * *

The best English speaking circus film I know of is Elia Kazan’s Man On A Tightrope. I had hoped to find a better one here, but I didn’t. Kazan’s film focuses upon the circus world itself, its filth, its color, its performers, its hard work, its living conditions, its prejudices and superstitions, its meanness, its generosity, its equipment, its grandeur, and its magic. There we find a world exotic to us, a hell realm and an imagined paradise in one, and in Elephants whenever the camera shows this side of things our interest is piqued. But here the focus is on the Romance, but the Romance is pink cotton candy. Perhaps this is because the two romantic leads are miscast. They both lack the idiosyncrisity, strength, and energy of vulgarity. Reese Witherspoon’s hair is never out of incredible curl, and the young man is colorless. Both are good looking enough, and while one believes from their not unskillful playing that a mild attraction exists between them, it is never to the degree big enough for a big top. This is the fault of a story polluted by the effeminitization of Romance writing. Standing between these two dolls is Christoph Waltz; he plays her husband, the mad owner of the circus. His smile, full of saliva and not one drop of joy, occupies the entire cinemascope screen from one end to the other. Whenever he appears, this becomes the circus, and we have seen it before, in Inglorious Basterds, where its ivory munched all Europe. It seems less suitable here, an exaggeration vying with an exaggeration, the circus itself. It’s not fair to judge a picture because it’s not the same as another picture, for this is a Romance film and Tightrope isn’t. However, I did not care a fig whether the two of them got together or not. It is well directed and magnificently produced; Rodrigo Prieto filmed it beautifully. Jim Norton is excellent as the drunk foreman and Mark Povinelli as the dog trainer, but the only individual I really cared about in this film was Rosie the elephant. She was my darling. I’m not good at predicting what will happen in a film, but here I knew that Rosie would wipe that smile permanently off his face as soon as they met. Predictable is not what a circus should be.



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.



Evelyn Prentice

26 Mar

Evelyn Prentice. Directed by William K Howard. Pulp. She is the wife of a lawyer too busy to pay her much mind, so she commits an indiscretion. 78 minutes Black and White 1934.

* * * *

Myrna Loy is something to behold! Those huge wide-spaced eyes made up to a fair-thee-well. And those clothes! — wow! Such a lovely lady, already pretty much cast as the perennial devoted wife by now. A huge star, though, in the 30s. And here she has top billing. If you don’t expect a picture of this era to be a picture of our era, you won’t expect caviar to be cabbage. It’s an artifact of its time. Beautifully lit and filmed and costumed, and with William Powell nifty and droll in double breasted suits, the story is gripping — and it is a story — and it does wrap up after about an hour. This was Rosalind Russell’s first film, and you can see they did not know what to do with her yet. Everyone in it is good. It’s as smooth as whipped cream. Don’t expect shepherd’s pie.



Swing Time

22 Mar

Swing Time — Directed by George Stevens. Musical Comedy. A runaway-groom meets up with a dance instructor who wont give him a tumble. 104 minutes 1936.

* * * * *

Swing Time is accompanied by a terrific commentary by John Mueller, who takes us through a good deal of what went on to make this piece the greatest of all Rogers/Astaire musicals — which has to do with Astaire’s grueling rehearsal work, freedom from chance in the dances, his staff, and the nature of the picture itself. It is directed by George Stevens who was one day to direct Shane and A Place In The Sun and The More The Merrier and who brings to the picture an angle of vision and an allowance for acting excellence in the principals which unify it. Of course, it is a white telephone musical, which means that it is essentially a film in which only the dances are serious art: the rest is flip. This is as it should be, because Astaire is interested in discovering and firming up the musts of movie dance. His discoveries rule to this day. The film contains wonderful numbers of Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, including a most endearing version of “The Way You Look Tonight” which you will never forget. And at one point Astaire applies blackface and does a black and white shadow dance with 24 chorus girls 12 in black 12 in white, and then dances to a black and white rear shadow projection of himself 3 times. Minstrel shows project and celebrate an exuberance which our negro entertainers alone possess: blackface gives performers unheard of freedom: that is what is being celebrated here, and, because it is respectful at heart, it would be offensive to be offended by it.  Rogers, beautifully dressed for all her numbers is liquid itself in Astaire’s arms. She had a wonderful figure, graceful arms, strong square shoulders, a flexible back. And of course she could actually act, so she moves the spoken drama along while Astaire moves the dance drama along. Dancing he led her; not-dancing, she led him. — so to say. The most valuable suggestion Mueller gives is to watch the dances in slow motion.  What a treat! To actually see for oneself what actually went into these intricate, witty dances!  Astaire’s body was a genius. That body made American movie musicals!



Follow The Fleet

22 Mar

Follow The Fleet – directed by Mark Sandrich – musical comedy about a lower class gob who wants to pick up where he left off with his former romance. 110 minutes black and white 1936.

* * * * *

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire were often cast as sophisticates, but here, not so. Here he chews gum and is decidedly lower class, she’s just a goil in tap shoes. I liked that about this piece. Ginger Rogers won a Charleston contest at 14, and toured the country as a featured performer before ending up starring on Broadway before she was 19. She was a very experienced, hardworking, graceful, and talented musical performer. She had made 19 movies before, at 23, she made her first one with Astaire; he had made three. As an actress she had ease, wryness, and bite; as an actor he was shamefaced, but he was the favorite singer of all the songwriters he sang for, and she and he were in perfect agreement on the dance floor — so much so that in this picture they even do a parody of bad-dancing. Irving Berlin wrote the score and words here, so the standard is high. Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard (of Ozzie and Harriet fame) provide the glass in which this ice-cream sundae is served. Betty Grable is somewhere in the mix. And as everyone has said before me and as everyone will say after me, its finale, Let’s Face The Music And Dance — which has nothing to do with chewing gum and a goil — is one of the most beautiful dance sequences ever laid down on film.



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.



Charlie Chan In Egypt

20 Mar

Charlie Chan In Egypt — Directed by Louis King — Murder Mystery. The sage jade inspector journeys to a tomb whose buried treasure is being stolen, only to find much worse than that. 73 minutes Black And White 1935.

* * * * *

I watched this picture, from the teen-age beginning of her career, the same night I watched The Naked Zoo at the trash-crash end of it. Here she is before her hairline was raised. Here she is a black-haired beauty playing an Egyptian parlor-maid. She has very few lines. She mainly brings on tea and takes it off again. And her name was Rita Cansino then. Looking at her, there is perhaps no shot willing her into the fame of the most flamboyant sexual creature ever seen in film. At one point she eavesdrops between Venetian blinds, and, there, the remarkable symmetry of her face registers for a moment or two. Rita Hayworth. She began in pictures playing adult roles when she was thirteen, as did Betty Grable, Ann Miller. (Even her cousin Ginger Rogers was making films as a teenager.) All these ladies but Hayworth were charged by strong mothers, but Hayworth alone had no stage parent, and so she married a man much older than she when she was a teenager herself. The picture is an A-class B-picture, well produced and told, with tomb sets that are convincing enough for all normal purposes and a story line that holds one’s attention till the denouement. Our Charlie Chan’s Warner Oland was, of course, not Chinese but Swedish. But then, of course, Rita Hayworth was not Egyptian. I give it five stars. I rate all films not in relation or comparison or contrast to some ideal film or other or some ideal experience I have had in my life seeing a film. I rate pictures by other standards, and one of those is: Did the picture accomplish what in my judgment it seems to have set out to accomplish? This one, I should say, did so. It is a picture with an Oriental hero; it would be a mistake to expect Kurosawa.



The Man Who Cried

18 Feb

The Man Who Cried – directed by Michael Whyte – a man leaves a vicious wife and takes his son to seek his fortune. He finds love on the way. 2 hours and 31 minutes color 1993.

* * * * *

We ask for a movie to adhere to our moral biases in peril of bigotry. The man shown here is perfectly understandable. He is of a high moral character, for he knows that the effect his nature and appearance has on women may lead them to wish he was theirs, and he reserves himself. Ciaran Hinds is perfectly cast in the part, therefore. His masculinity lies deep, and so does the character’s. For his character, Abel, it is like a doom. Abel is honest and modest and true to himself; his beauty has not made him cold. He loves as deep as tears. Honoring the depth a male can love tells  the story. And it is a most human story, not the story of a philanderer or a bigamist, but the story of fidelity to love. This love is for his son as for a woman, and his tragedy is that he trades one for the other. This is a beautifully directed picture, in that its pace is at one with its narrative needs, clear, simple, and true. Kate Buffery is tops as one of the women. And as her sister we have Amanda Root, an actor of the first rank, here committed to all the harpy, Hilda Maxwell, is. It is a brave performance. Hinds and Root costarred in Persuasion, in a very different relation and as quite differently played characters.  The dvd is in two full-length parts and is well worth your patience.



Dancing Lady

18 Jan

Dancing Lady — directed by Robert Z. Leonard — a backstage musical in which a hodgepodge  vaudeville company is drawn into feasability. 92 minutes black and white 1933.

Here Crawford is  27 and already too old for the part of a naive beginner. Her makeup is a mask over her red-head’s freckles and her eyelashes are hugely destructive to her character. But boy, was she gifted. Not as a dancer, of course, for her dancing is gauche. She flings herself about with no mercy for any of us, always looking at her feet. Nonetheless she holds the screen like nobody’s business. She had this great face, with enormous eyes, strong nose, and broad, flexible mouth with a stunner smile. She is a tower of human will in a part that requires exactly that quality. And you cannot take your eyes off her. And you root for her. And she is a very talented actress, to boot. Gable is another matter entirely. Like her, he was born exquisitely gifted to be photographed. The beautiful shape of his head is a treat to see, the way his face moves, the way his dimples operate, how the mustache gives him an upper lip, his long neck and broad sloping shoulders and slim physique, his deep gnarled voice — all these are gifts of god. But, boy could he act! He’s so skilled that it’s easy to overlook his superb ability for honest forthright acting choices which animate the house he is. Unlike Crawford whose acting choices are always noticeable, Gable’s choice are more inherent and so less noticeable. Unlike Crawford, he could actually play comedy; he could actually play parts that made a fool of himself. The picture here is one of many these two made together. In real life they had a long affair. And on the screen it shows and shows well.  He is all impatient resistance; she is all desperate eagerness. What a perfect match. The film is a backstage musical with huge incoherent production numbers of the Busby Berkeley stripe, and, mercifully, very little of Joan’s “dancing” — certainly not with Fred Astaire who appears with her in a couple of numbers well organized to disguise her limitations. The songs are by Burton Lane, so that’s nice. And Franchot Tone (one of Crawford’s real-life husbands) does his insouciant sophisticate on one side of the stage while the Three Stooges cavort and bonk one another on the other. (There’s a Three Stooges extra, too, if you like them, and I don’t.) Robert Benchley brings his fumbling into several scenes and the deco settings are grand, though Crawford’s costumes are overdone. This is not high art. It fact it is not art at all. So, from the title, don’t expect Cyd Charisse to round the bend and astound us with her gams and class and talent. You don’t expect great art from a supermarket generic brand. That’s not what you go for. You expect something that is filling without being in any way nourishing. Such is the experience of Dancing Lady. And. by the way, she aint no lady.



Idiot’s Delight

18 Jan

Idiot’s Delight — directed by   Clarence Brown — a comedy about a pack of vaudeville players and assorted types trapped in a European mountain resort as WWII breaks out around them.  107 minutes  black and white 1939.

* * * *

Clark Gable. He had a foundation of great masculinity, great presence, and great authority. So we who grew up with him in his heyday overlooked what a superb and various actor in the technical sense he always was. He loved being an actor. He trained hard for it. He made sacrifices to learn it. He took it seriously. We who saw him in his film heyday did not know that. What we knew was his extraordinary natural foundation of masculinity, presence, and authority. But here one would have to say that Gable really carries the picture on his acting alone, because, while Norma Shearer is rather good in the Garbo take-off, which dominates the central portion of the story, the scenes which frame her impersonation are not properly prepared and played. Nor do the supporting parts, as cut from Robert E. Sherwood’s play, work well, although they are played by masters of their craft, the great Charles Coburn and the ingenious Burgess Meredith, both in thankless roles. Edward Arnold’s part is as baffling in its story line as is Joseph Shildkraut’s. Their roles lack narrative completion; that is to say, they have not been properly honored by the writers, editors or producers. Lynn Fontanne played it originally with Alfred Lunt in the Gable role, but Gable is much better cast, for he makes a marvelous rogue. And no one could brush off a needy female like Gable. But what is really present — and watch for it — are the moments when the camera is on him alone. Behind that handsome mug and that masculinity and presence and authority is an actor in full operation on all burners, responding with exactly the right feeling for the situation at hand. Watch the variety of incredulities with which he receives Shearer’s tall tales. Watch his eyes. And sit for a moment and consider how convincing a motive is his scepticism as a driving force to uncover her ruse; it fuels his sexuality and it fuels his love for her. And yet he holds it very lightly, as lightly as the straw hat and cane with which he performs a creditable song-and-dance vaudeville routine, backed by six blonds, one of them the lovely Virginia Grey. Gable carries the film, and it’s worth watching to see how he does it.



The King’s Speech

06 Jan

The King’s Speech – directed by Tom Hooper – drama about a man who needs to speak properly and his conflict with the man who is hired to help him. Color 2010.

* * * * *

I wept. Helena Bonham Carter, playing the Duchess Elizabeth of Kent, a lady of high good spirits, deep wifely devotion, and a taste for sweets, Geoffrey Rush playing the Australian speech therapist, who without leaving his chair, wrestles her husband to the ground, and Colin Firth playing the to-be and then King George VI of England, who can’t address his people without a stammer, make this a splendid pudding of a picture. The long road to partial mastery of his life-long impediment brought tears to my eyes, and when he finally gives his speech I wept again. The picture is like a horse-picture in which the unlikely mare wins through. And it’s true to life, just as horses are true to life. It takes great heart to overcome a genetic defect or to win a race; both are temporary triumphs and all the more poignant for that. But like horse-pictures, this film bids to be inspiring to us all. I don’t like Colin Firth; I find him technically immature as an actor; I don’t like to look at him; and I don’t think he has much to offer to his roles. Maybe he has always been miscast as leading man, but I sat through this film and watched him here, and he was bearable. Geoffrey Rush is exquisitely funny as the pirate therapist, and Helena Bonham Carter won my heart as the witty dear lady helping her husband to freedom. The great Guy Pearce is probably miscast in the role of King Edward, for he plays it with an intensity incongruent with the louche, diffident, spoiled, pretty, sensual, and stupid David. People like the Prince of Wales who have been given everything do not need to be intense about anything. They are waited upon hand and foot, and all other protuberances besides. He has the right suits, though, and they are a pleasure to see, for The Duke Of Windsor was always spiffy, and Pearce has the part in his hair exactly perfect. But this is a small matter in a small role. You will love it. It’s a picture for hopeless and debauched teenagers. And for folks like me. For anyone who wants a lift in the limousine of  the hopes of couple of odd role models. See it and weep too.



The Overture

04 Jan

The Overture – directed by Itthi-sunthorn Wichailak – a drama recounting the career of a fable Thai musician, through the conflicts caused by him radical style and his fears of public competition — 103 minutes color 2005.

* * * * *

Rocky with xylophones!  The film is set in Thailand, where the playing of the rand-ek rises to national bouts, along the lines of the Rose Bowl. In this case, the Rose bowl is the imperial court, where the most accomplished players come to fence. They are the pets and patronees of the princes of the realm, much as our football games are the patronees of brewers. I only realized at the end that the old man was the same person as the child, the boy, and the young man, and that there were two parallel stories afoot. But this was probably due to me, rather than to the director who tells the story carefully and honorably and entertainingly. Apart from the tension of the competitions, the picture shows a world of Thai life, the homes, canals, slums, farms, palaces, and people. I loved seeing all this. It also does depict, loosely it admits, the story of the Babe Ruth of rand-ek xylophone players, the Lionel Hampton of his day, Luang Prodit Pairoh who was a daring innovator on the rand-ek, and whose daring we see still in place when the Japanese interlope Thailand in the 30s. Be careful watching this: you may come to love the rand-ek. This is a film the family will enjoy together –– at least those old enough to read the subtitles, which are as excellent as the film itself.



Trouble In Paradise

31 Dec

Trouble In Paradise – directed by Ernst Lubitsch — High comedy involving two international con artists who meet and match.  Black and white [1932]

* * * * *

Mind you, Lubitsch’s comedies don’t bring you the steak and kidney pie of realism. But if you can endure the faint afterglow brought on by the finest hock accompanied by the most exquisite of Viennese pastry, then you are invited to the party. Lubitsch had a directorial technique that engages the audience as accomplices in the narrative itself.  Watching Lubitsch one congratulates everyone including oneself. Billy Wilder who trained himself under Lubitsch said: “The key is to make it effective, but don’t make it obvious. Make it clear to them, but don’t spell it out like the audience are just a bunch of idiots. Just aim it slightly above their station and they’re going to get it. This is what I learned from Ernst Lubitsch. He had a real touch, a gift of involving the audience into writing the script with him as it was unfolding on the screen. In other words, he was not the kind of a director who kind of hammered it down and said, ‘Now listen to me, you idiots. There now, put down the popcorn bag, I’m going to tell you something. Two and two is four.’ He said, ‘No, just give them two and two and let them add it up. They’re going to do it for you. And they’re going to have fun with it. They’re going to play the game with you.'”  Here the game is the contest between the attraction existing between society thieves Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall conflicted by the moolah they separately might seize upon. Even the customarily nasty Miriam Hopkins is likable here, and Kay Francis, she of the beautiful arms and eyebrows, well, she’s elegant and generous, and perfectly matched with Marshall, who strikes just the right note as the suave amorous cat burglar. What is funny here cannot and must not be described here, since it must come upon you as a surprise. But let us say, the director masters the material by letting the audience master it too, that is by letting us in on the telling of the tale, and we dive in head first. There is no other choice. Trouble In Paradise is a seminal cinema work. It is thought of as the greatest high comedy ever put down on film. All writing and directing for the screen since its time flowers around it — if, that is to say, the comedy is humorous, the comedy of humans rather than the comedy of clowns. We are not talking about situation comedy here or cartoon. Because we are not talking about directing for broad effects. No – funny as that may be – this is tastier. It is not in the line of screen pantomime as in Chaplin or in screen acrobatics as in Keaton, either. Here’s what I mean: Lubitsch once directed a silent version of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan without using a single caption of Wilde, and yet Lubitsch created exactly the Wildean style on screen. Now I ask you. So, sit back with your better bottle of wine, and prepare to smile and, not just to be flattered but to join in the flattery yourself.




The Love Parade

31 Dec

The Love Parade  — directed by Ernst Lubitsch –A musical comedy in which The Queen of Sylvania is pestered by her people to wed. She’s fed up with the idea. Suddenly in walks The Count, sent home from Paris for his shenanigans. She no sooner claps eyes on him than she marries him. Then, of course, the trouble starts. black and white sound [1929]

* * * * *

Maurice Chevalier could not say two lines together. But he could say one line together. Each time he is given a second line a pause falls between them and with that pause worlds come to an end. So every two-line speech sounds like a recitation. From the beginning to the end of his performing life, which was long, this was so. But even so, he is delightful. He really likes women as they are. He really likes himself as he is. He really is pleased how much women like him. He is full of good will and kindness towards everyone. And he is a really responsive actor. And occasionally, as here, he will even sing, and we will have to listen to it. However, what we have here, amid stupendously luxurious sets, polished floors, ceiling to floor swags, and scads of servants, is the sexuality of Jeanette MacDonald, who physically resembles no other actress so much as Geraldine Page: the same long graceful arms and hands, the same beautiful legs, the lanky torso, the shape of her head, her rich smile and lickerous eye. But the main resemblance is her sexuality. No, she was not sexy, she was something more profound and rare in women: she was visibly sexual. This is the telling quality against which her domineering behavior over her new husband comes a cropper. This is the, but never stated, visual adventure of this film for us: the comedy between MacDonald’s female sexuality on the one hand and Chevalier’s male sensuality on the other. Will they survive? Will they mesh? Will they last? Is there a plot? Does there need to be? Do you really need to know where the bucket came from in which that champagne bottle was nestled? You’d better say no.



BlueBeard’s Eight Wife — I Met Him In Paris

31 Dec

Bluebeard’s Seventh Wife — directed by Ernst Lubitsch —  I Met Him In Paris — directed by Charlie Ruggles — black and white — 1937

* * * * *

Charlie Ruggles directs Paris and Ernst Lubitsch directs Bluebeard, and the difference is startling. Both directors have amusingly improbable scripts, both have big stars talents, but Ruggle’s film isn’t funny where it ought to be, and Lubitsch’s film is funny even where it ought not to be. Lubitsch is a realm unto itself. Somehow he could create a context where comedy — or rather humor — could flourish. The long astonishing opening sequence of Bluebeard is a case in point. You must remember that Gary Cooper was one of the world’s best-dressed men, tutored in it by the much older woman who kept him, the Countess De Frassio. So Gary Cooper enters a posh Riviera haberdashery and is accosted by a silly salesman to whom he pays no attention. What we notice is that Cooper, the least responsive of actors, is on the uptake right from the start and through the whole long sequence, which includes more parts that I have space to tell you of here, and ends with Cooper meeting Claudette Colbert and both of them throwing one another away. But my question is: how can Lubitsch get this usually unfocussed and self-indulgent actor Gary Cooper to bowl in the money alley? (He even used Cooper in, of all things, Design For Living!) Lubitsch was a kind of soufflé in which comedy could take place, and anyone who appeared in a film of his found comic grace awaiting them. Colbert is an expert high comedienne but even she, in the second feature, I Met Him In Paris, even Melvyn Douglas who is a deft comedian, and even Robert Young who has his own neat gifts in the craft, cannot make anything but a dull dish out of Paris. In it, though, we have a charming scene of Douglas and Colbert ice-skating, and I want your opinion: does Douglas look ridiculous in knickers, or am I mistaken and does he really bring it off? Lubitsch on the other hand somehow makes one complicit in the fun. He credits your intelligence and willingness to participate in the story as he tells it, so you become part of the telling. He lets you do your job as an audience. How satisfying! How rewarding! How hand-rubbingly droll!




31 Dec

Ninotchka – directed by Ernst Lubitsch – light comedy about a schoolmarmish Russian bureaucrat who come to Paris to straighten out three crooked countrymen and falls in love with a hat. I hour 50 minutes black and white 1939.

* * * * *

Garbo laughs, yes, but before that she brings onto the scene her basso profundo gloom, and it’s a smart move because of the big silly she finds herself eventually preferring to become. She said Lubitsch was the only director of talent she ever worked with, which is odd because she worked with Mamoulian and Boleslavsky and Stiller and Sjostrom. If she meant the result she was allowed to arrive at here, her remark is understandable. Garbo never did anything symmetrical with her body; she always chose to be at an angle. William Daniels who lit her understood she was better in three quarter or close up and not moving. All this works in her favor here, as she drops her famed droop and opens up into  the rich sense of humor and fun everyone who knew her said she had. If she wanted to be left alone, it was probably because she wanted to have a good time, and that is certainly what she does here in the company of Ina Claire, in a rare screen performance, which nonetheless does not make plain why she was and really must have been Broadway’s great light comedienne of her era. Melvyn Douglas brings his boulevardier humor and easy masculinity into Garbo’s view, and teaches her the inner virtues of champagne. This is Lubitsch’s home territory: gladsome Paris, Europe in a tuxedo. In fact it is his only territory. Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, and Alexander Granach play the naughty trio, and watch Garbo’s shift into friendship with them as she treats with them. Simple. But what an actress! There is a lot to be said about Garbo in films: how she had to be imitated and could not be imitated and what she understood about film acting that nobody has ever understood so well since, but here, just sit back and take pleasure in the pleasure of another time, another genius caught in flight by another genius for us forever.



Lady Of Burlesque

17 Dec

Lady Of Burlesque – directed by William Wellman – a backstage mystery comedy about a hooch dancer and a couple of murdered canaries. 91 minutes black and white 1943.

* * * * *

Every student of film and every person fascinated by its craft could not do better than to watch William Wellman’s management of crowd movement in this back-stage whodunit. The set is spectacularly real in terms of its seediness, dusty props, crumby dressing rooms, and crowdedness. The film is alive with imaginative motion. Which stops dead when the inspector calls to examine the personnel and everyone has to gather in a dressing room that allows of scarcely any motion at all. So the movie lurches effectively between the hurly burly and hustle of the shows and the standstill of these scenes. Michael O’Shea plays the two-bit fool who woes the heroine and he is perfectly cast because he is lower-class at heart and so is Barbara Stanwyck, a Brooklyn girl from way back. She is not physically convincing as a Burlesque Queen; she does not have the aplomb or the powerful double-entendre of a Gypsy Rose Lee who wrote the story, but otherwise she is marvelous, for two reasons. She is a person of determination: her walk is like a naval destroyer moving across a duck pond. And she had the common touch. The burley-que life on stage was coarser than what we see here, but the casting of the girls with their snappy slang brings out the necessary, as do the costumes organized around their bodies not to reveal their sexuality but to astound by exaggerating it symbolically. A g-string tells less than a three foot hat!




24 Oct

Harlow –– directed by Gordon Douglas –– a bio-pic about the lingerie blond from the 30s. 125 minutes Technicolor 1965.

* *

I spent an evening talking with Carroll Baker in the late 50s after she had just had her first successes in Baby Doll and Giant. She was pretty and sweet and simple. She had a little wen under her chin which gave her face a certain unexpected character. She had that money-voice. More than six years go by before this picture is made, where she is playing a teenager. Her own story in her own autobiography is far more compelling than the one cooked up for this curious actress, Harlow, and far more shocking. As a performer, Jean Harlow is an actor I tend to avoid. She had a square hard face, thin lips, a voice like fingernails on a blackboard, and, except for wearing no underwear or wearing only underwear, no talent. Except for Hell’s Angels, in which she seems to be quite another person. Anyhow, Baker is right for this role and is a much better actress than Harlow. English actors are infirmly cast in parts around her, Peter Lawford who looks like he has been stung by thirty infected wasps, and Angela Lansbury, ordinarily wonderful, who is quite bad, gravely miscast, for some mad reason, as Harlow’s mother. The whole production is swamped somewhat by the Technicolor process, which is really something to behold in its heyday. Just take a look at the opening scenes where the extras enter the studio, go into Costume, and start filming. Edith Head did the things, which are wonderful, but have not much to do with the 30s; nor does the music. Martin Balsam has a nice turn as a vulgarian producer. Ten years after this film was made, I was in love with a woman who looked like Carroll Baker. She had the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen. She’s gone. But I look at Carroll Baker’s films now, because Baker, retired to Palm Springs and no longer acting, was a very good natural method actress and because we had such a nice talk so many years ago and because of that.



Miss Pettigrew Lives ForA Day

15 Oct

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day — directed by Bharat Nalluri  Period romantic comedy in which a ditzy 1930s chanteuse is rounded by up an imposter housekeeper who heads them both for romance. 92 minutes color 2008.

* * * * *

Yes, for the presence of the great Lee Pace. He seems to be unrecognizable from role to role — from the transgender Calpurnia in Soldier’s Girl, to Dick Hickock the Clutter murderer in Infamous, to this forthright male in love with a woman he will sacrifice not one iota of his lyrical being to gain. At 22 as Calpurnia, the arch-archer of feminity, to the male of males now, here at 28, and at the peak of his masculinity. Pettigrew was the first picture I noticed him in, and now I make a rewarding investigation of his contributions to the art. What a great actor! As to the picture itself, I liked it. It’s poorly directed visually and narratively, but there are wonderful actors in it, among whom is the manly Ciaran Hinds and that devious little minx Shirley Henderson, and they are tip top. Our beloved Frances McDormand as the housekeeper whacked-out on ethics, and Amy Adams as the Spring Byington-in-the-making, scatter-brained object of Pace’s perfect love. Pace and Adams play a night club duo, and both sing superbly. I saw it with an older crowd in the theatre, and they applauded, and I can understand why. I applaud here. It’s not for the puerile.


Rss Feed Tweeter button Facebook button Technorati button Reddit button Myspace button Linkedin button Webonews button Delicious button Digg button Flickr button Stumbleupon button Newsvine button