Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Child of Manhattan (1933)

I watched "Child of Manhattan" yesterday. I had never heard of it until I saw the December programme for the Portuguese Cinematheque. Even the fact that it's based on a Preston Sturges' play wasn't enough. Since I am here for the holidays, of course I went to see it. I was pleasantly surprised. The more old films I see the more I am convinced that deep down in the archives lie some hidden gems. This is one of them.

This is a charming pre-code where a millionaire falls in love with a dancer and makes her his lover. When she gets pregnant he decides to secretly marry her. It's all about being a nice person and doing the right thing, and how two rights might almost do a wrong. If I say more I'll spoil it. Although it doesn't feel like a stage play, it has a coherence that sadly too often seems to be lacking in early 1930s films.

Nancy Carroll is the leading lady, playing it with touching sympathy. Until I saw "Hot Saturday" earlier this year I had never heard of her. Now I would like to see more of her films. The leading man was not as inspired, but I can live with that, especially as I could believe the two characters loved each other. Jane Darwell as the girl's mother in a couple of scenes and Jessie Ralph as her friend steal the show and got my biggest laughs.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Two-strip Technicolor and The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

On Saturday I watched my first two-strip Technicolor film, Michael Curtiz's "The Mystery of the Wax Museum" (1933), despite owning "Doctor X" on DVD since it came out. The film itself is a mix of pre-code dialogue and early talkie horror/mystery. It works much better on the pre-code side, mainly because of Glenda Farrell who despite third billing is the de facto lead of the film. She's funny, fast and naughty, and doesn't hurt that Frank McHugh is there to support her. As a horror/mystery it left me cold, probably because I knew the twist before I watched the film.

However, what fascinated me the most about the film was the fact that it was in colour (well, sort of...). This was the last major studio production of a two-strip Technicolor film, a process that only registered red and green (the three-strip would add blue). By 1933 Disney had successfully released "Flowers and Trees" and this one had to look bad. Because it actually does look bad. The colours are rather awkward to look at. It almost looks like it has been discoloured by the sun. The flesh tones are pink, but not the right sort; and there's way too much green for New York. Not too far away from colourization of a black and white film. Fair enough, this particular film also had the misfortune of being considered lost once and the copy that resurfaced was not in the best shape. I saw it projected rather than on a TV, in a dark cinema rather than a bright living room. Even that didn't help. Furthermore, the fact that this wasn't shot in black and white also takes out all atmospheric elements that a film like this needs - it just looks way too bright. Maybe in a comedy it would have worked better, but a horror film?! It flopped, I need not add, and I am not surprised.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

The Innocents (1961)

Don’t be fooled by all the gothic thriller trickery of it, this is a film about sex, although you may not notice it at first. To be more precise, it’s about the consequences of either repressing or following your urges.


Based on Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw”, the film follows the daughter of a vicar, Miss Giddens (Kerr), who is offered a position as governess of two children in an isolated country house. She takes the job half in love with an employer that she isn’t supposed to see again, someone who has a reputation as a charmer. Once in the house she becomes first disturbed and then obsessed with her predecessor, Miss Jessel, and her lover Quint. Both are now dead, and since they both had such strong influence over the children, she comes to believe that they are possessing them.

Kerr’s character is clearly someone whose prospects of marrying are nil, probably like those of her predecessor. Completely frustrated – and to be sure of that just look at her childish enthusiasm at the interview or at the mention of her employer – she becomes fascinated by the discoveries she makes about the lustful, obsessive and ultimately tragic sexual relation between the former governess and Quint. Here lies the wonderfulness of the film – is she imagining it, or is it actually happening? We are never given a clear answer (thankfully!). Her reactions are excessive, and go against her, but the other character’s reactions are vague enough to give us some reason to believe that it may not be her just imagination.

At the core is the issue of Victorian morals where all sex outside marriage and without the purpose of procreation is wrong. Me has a feeling that Henry James didn’t really agree with that. On the surface, the upright, repressed, virginal Miss Giddens seems to be what the children need as an example, but her actions and reactions to events undermine this, despite the fact that you know her heart is in the right place. On the other hand, while not be the best role models, the lustful, “sinning” Miss Jessel and Quint appear to be more satisfying parental figures, and haven’t harmed the children at all. I go as far as suggest that the evidence even suggests otherwise. Furthermore, Kerr’s need to “do good” to others, whether or not they want it, is also clearly under fire, as the audience perhaps goes with the housekeeper’s view that sometimes is worse to wake up a child from a dream.

Enhancing all this is the joint effect of sound, music, décor editing and cinematography. And this is where you get the more atmospheric elements, where these transgressions take more obvious gothic elements. The light as Deborah Kerr arrives at the house contrasting with the darkness of the final shots; that beautiful house that suddenly turns into a nightmare of secrets and the music that tells as much as the actors’ faces. Most of all I love the fact that is a black and white cinemascope film.

I think it was no accident that Deborah Kerr, an actress who had a gift for repressing (e.g. “Separate Tables”, “Black Narcissus”) or exposing sexual urges (e.g. “Tea and Sympathy” and rather more obviously, “From Here to Eternity”) according to the need of her part. She excels in the role, and I have stated here, this is one of my favourite performances of hers. I really can’t think of any other actress who could carry the film so well.

I don’t think either children were that good, but I think Martin Stephens who plays Miles, the young boy, needs a mention under trivia: he seems to have cornered the polite scary kid really well, since in the previous year he was in “The Village of the Damned”.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Show People (1928)

History is written by the victors. In cinema, it’s those who become more successfully, either critically or commercially. Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges demise of Mitchell Leisen meant that until recent he wasn’t held in much consideration. Yet, there is a more famous example. Citizen Kane as everyone knows was partly based on the life of Randolph Hearst; consequently Susan Alexander Kane, the character’s second wife and failed opera singer, must have been based on Marion Davies, Hearst’s mistress. This has lead to the myth that Davies was poor actress.

I have heard many arguments against this opinion, but had no opinion as I had never seen any of her films. Whatever the truth, the shadow of Susan Alexander Kane will forever fall over Davies and if nothing else because her films are quite hard to come by. This week I got a chance to see at the BFI one of her celebrated comedies “Show People” and now I am inclined to agree with those who think that Susan is not a fair portrait of Marion. She was hilarious.

King Vidor’s “Show People” is, after “Sunset Blvd.”, arguably the biggest satire Hollywood ever made of itself. It’s equally sharp, but the bitterness is not yet – sound has yet to come and erase the first generation of demigods. This is the story of an aspiring actress, Peggy Pepper, who becomes a hit in slapstick comedies and metamorphoses herself into Patricia Pepoire, the serious thespian she always wanted to be. It’s not too hard to fast forward twenty years to the late forties and see in Patricia, Norma Desmond. In fact, the film’s story is loosely based on Gloria Swanson’s path to stardom.
The screening I attended was introduced by Kevin Brownlow who pointed out several of the in-jokes that recur into the movie. Some are obvious like the John Gilbert character, some of the faces doing cameos (Chaplin, Gilbert himself, etc.), some not entirely obscure, such as the sets that resemble (or maybe are the same) as Vidor’s hit “The Big Parade”. Many, however, are lost to me, and I imagine to all but a very, very small minority of the audience. This is a tragedy, as it is obvious a contemporary audience would have got the jokes, thus making the film twice as funny. Kevin Brownlow told us he had one of the crew watching the film and telling many of these jokes. I would love to have been there. My favourite moment has to be when aspiring Peggy meets Marion Davies herself. She was not impressed.

Supporting Davies is another forgotten star of the late silent period – William Haines. Haines’ career was partly boycotted by Louis B. Mayer because the (fairly) openly gay actor didn’t want to have a fake marriage preferring to live with his partner. Like Davies he lasted a few years into sound and then bowed out and pursued an alternative career. In this film, despite his leading man status, and the obvious chemistry between the leads, he is really there to support the main star, to the point where nearly disappears for most of the second half of the film. But in his early scenes there is certainly an energy and a presence there that made me curious to see more of him. And I might have too much hindsight, but after his the way he moves onscreen during his first scene, wasn’t anyone suspicious of his bachelorhood?

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Virtue (1932)

There are a few Pre-code films that really pushed the envelope with either plot or characters, like "Men in White" or "Penthouse", but because of one thing or another are hardly seen or talked about today. "Virtue" is definitely one of them - Carole Lombard is a prostitute (you are left with no doubt about that, believe me) who meets a taxi driver (Pat O'Brien). They marry and on their wedding night he founds out about her past. After the initial shock, he decides to stay. And this only the first half an hour, and later of course he wonders if his wife is not back to her old ways. On top of this, there is great dialogue, particularly in the beginning, and a veiled reference to an abortion ("nervous breakdown") made by one of Lombard's former colleagues.

Lombard is quite good throughout and Mayo Methot as her friend steals the show with her final scene. (On a point of trivia, she was to be the third Mrs Bogart). The first half is well done and well written. But the film has one flaw that was too much for me. The second half's plot line seems to be glued to rather than built from the beginning. In particular, the scene that starts it is so bad that I was in no doubt about what was really happening - something that the audience is told a few minutes later. To be honest, I almost gave up on the film at that moment. It was lazy writing and bad acting. It's a pity, as I think if someone had put a bit more effort into solving both problems, the film would be as talked about as some of Stanwyck's more notorious films.

EDIT: Having seen this again in May 2014, I think I was too harsh on the film. There's a smoother transition between the two halves and Pat O'Brien gives here one of his best performances.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Mitchell Leisen/Olivia de Havilland on DVD (R2)

I was quite pleased when I found out today that the nice people at Universal in Spain are releasing on DVD both collaborations of director Mitchell Leisen and actress Olivia de Havilland: "Hold Back the Dawn" and "To Each His Own".
Yes, it's a R2 release, but if by now you still not multiregion capable, shame on you.
It seems both titles and "Remember the Night" have been released a couple of months ago as exclusives to a very famous chain of department stores there. Fortunately it seems the two I don't own will be on general release as of Thursday. This certainly has put a smile on my face and I shall be buying them soon.

PS - Mine!

Friday, 27 November 2009

Three-Cornered Moon (1933)

My copy of the Claudette Colbert DVD collection arrived a few days ago, making me very happy. "Three-Cornered Moon" is earliest film in it, made in 1933 as Claudette Colbert was becoming an established star and is advertised as the first screwball comedy. Looking at the most relevant examples of the genre (such as "Twentieth Century", "My Man Godfrey", "Bringing up Baby") it certainly fits that bill. It has only one little flaw: it isn't funny.

In fairness, the last 20 minutes or so are an improvement, but I think it took me nearly an hour to sketch a smile (the film is around 80 minutes long). As a comparison, when I watched "I Met Him in Paris" a few days before, which is part of the same collection, I laughed beginning to end, despite its predictability. But back to "Moon" - a rich, silly family in NY finds out they're bankrupt and now they must go earn a living. It's the depression, so it isn't easy. Only the daughter (Colbert) seems to have some sense, except in her choice of man. You can fill the rest.

I can't recommend this one to anyone - it might put them off old films forever. But this box also has Lubitsch's "Bluebeard's Eight Wife", Leisen's "No Time for Love" and the above mentioned "I Met Him in Paris" with a wonderful performance from Melvyn Douglas. I haven't seen the other two films ("Maid of Salem" and "The Egg and I") but these three are great fun, with the first two somewhat neglected classics.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

7th Heaven (1927)

To describe the first 70 minutes of this love story between Diane, a prostitute, and Chico, a sewer cleaner, I truly can only use superlatives. It lives entirely to its reputation as a masterpiece, and probably doesn't do it justice. You can feel (rather than just see) these two beings falling in love with each other, complete with the little things, from absolute despair (they meet when he saves her from an abusing sister and later prevents her from committing suicide) to absolute faith in each other. The story is set just before and during WWI, and the long sequence that ends that first 70 minutes is of such intensity and intimacy even if a hardcore cynic like me was touched by it.

This part of the film is full of little gems: the pace of the story, told with great economy and not stopping at irrelevant moments; the beauty of the sets, in particular the stairs going up to the flat (they very much look like a single set which is amazing); the lighting which makes the film look gorgeous; the sister; Charles Farrell's facial expressions which reminded me of those of a friend and Janet Gaynor's wounded animal performance, something I quite liked in "Sunrise" but is so perfect for her character here - her best two moments being the sequence after Charles Farrell saves her and the sequence after the policeman leaves the flat.

And then the war comes, and while the action scenes aren't bad, they break the pace and change the atmosphere of the film. From a couple of intimate sets - we have spent most of the previous half an hour in the sewer cleaner's apartment - we are now in the open, in fields, in the trenches, in war rooms. Inevitably, the connection between the audience and the characters changes, and in my case the magic was gone, with the final sequence delivering a final blow in my interest. If you have seen the film, it's not the actual ending that I object to. It's the message that it conveys. Up to that point the cornerstone of the film had been a relation based on faith between two human beings, and suddenly God invades what it should never had invaded. Borzage did this later again in the ghastly "Strange Cargo" (which my flatmate loved, so "ghastly" is a very personal opinion). Yet, in his films I liked the most - "Mannequin", "The Mortal Storm", and to a slightly lesser extend "Three Comrades" and "The Shining Hour" (and I am excluding "Desire" since that one is more Lubitsch than Borzage) - he never crosses that barrier which is to me certain death. And I really regret that he crossed it here.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Test Pilot (1938)

Clark Gable. Myrna Loy. Spencer Tracy. And below the credits, Lionel Barrymore. Could this be one of the main MGM productions for 1938?! (yeah, I know, sarcasm doesn't translate very well into writing). Pity is that on occasion they went for the cheap solution and had back-projection instead of outdoor scenes. Which makes even less sense when considering that the shots before and after were outdoor ones. Little things like that bug me a lot - I mean, either do everything in a studio, or do it outside. Mix and match is not really the best option.

However, this is not the only problem in this story of a dare-devil pilot and the ones around him that love him. Clark Gable was not a great actor. He was very much a "personality" as they used to say. And in the previous year, in another film with Myrna Loy, his attempt to be serious bombed at the box-office (the film is called "Parnell" and I have yet to see it). So MGM did what MGM did so well and reverted back to type, and in 1938 two Gable films, with Gable parts opened. One was "Too Hot to Handle" and the other "Test Pilot". Both have Myrna Loy as the love interest. Neither excited me particularly. Gable's screen persona was the cad who reformed. On occasion he excelled ("Gone with the wind") but more often than not he was too unpleasant. And this belongs to the latter, to the point where I can't understand why anyone would stick around him.

Myrna Loy doesn't fare much better here. Except in her scenes with Tracy I failed to empathise with her - and you should, as she is supposed to be one of the emotional cores of the film. She looks pretty, oh so pretty, but inconsequential for most of the time. Perhaps is Gable, but with exception of "Manhattan Melodrama", all five pairings out of seven I have seen with the two of them left me cold. The exception is probably because of William Powell, with whom Loy had indeed great chemistry.

Then there's Spencer Tracy, who is the best thing in the whole film. His performance is subtle, discreet and more interestingly to a modern audience, somewhat of an oddity. You see, the film is built in such way that Tracy's character is in love with Gable's. The devotion, the looks, the tears (!). I never imagined Tracy playing gay, but he does it, and in a believable way. And by the way, this is past "male friendship" - just look at his last few lines in the film, his devotion, his jealousy of Myrna Loy, his scene in the fairground, his looks at Gable, and most of all, the way certain scenes are framed, with Tracy next to Loy when she's opening her heart to Gable. He's doing the same, except silently. Pity that Gable's character is so undeserving of the love the other two shower on him. I am wondering if this was Victor Fleming's intention. If it was, then my hat is off to him.

It is hard to tell if the script is at fault, or if it just fell flat in shooting and post-production. It doesn't seem to be any better or any worst than many others of the period. However, classic Hollywood was very similar at times to the modern one. It was a factory of films that believed that if you added all ingredients together you would make a great film. Then, as now, they forgot that a good film is more than the sum of its parts and its stars. And that's why "Test Pilot" fails. It has too many personalities and no personality.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Stanwyck in noir: The Two Mrs Carrolls (1947) and No Man of Her Own (1950)

When people think of a femme fatale in film noir, I am sure at least half of them think of Barbara Stanwyck in her dreadful blonde wig and anklet in "Double Indemnity". However, she spent a lot of time in the land of noir, in films like "Sorry, Wrong Number", "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers" and the two that I am about to talk in a bit more detail. Sometimes the deadliest character, more often as the 40s turned into the 50s, she became the victim, like in "The Two Mrs Carrolls", or at least a victim of fate and circumstances, as in "No Man of Her Own". Personally, I like her more when she's a manipulative bitch ("Double Indemnity", "The File on Thelma Jordan").

"The Two Mrs Carrolls" is the only pairing of Bogart and Stanwyck. While on holiday, Geoffrey Carroll (Bogart) meets and falls in love with Sally Morton (Stanwyck). When she finds out he's married to an invalid she leaves him. After the death of the first Mrs Carroll, they marry and she inspires him to do some of his best work. All goes well until neighbour Alexis Smith comes into the scene and suddenly Sally starts suspecting things, but is unsure if it's all her imagination.

I have to admit I was completely drawn into the film. It has a well built element in suspense, which mounts quite well as the film progresses. It's clever enough to keep you wondering for a bit what is fact and what is fantasy. When you're certain - and you'll be before Sally, then it becomes a good cat and mouse game. Because of the second banana (i.e. the second male love interest) being just that, it contributes to absence of certainty about the ending. But it's not hard to see Hitchcock's influence in the film, especially "Rebecca" (the title reminiscent of the two Mrs de Winter) and "Suspicion" (a glass of milk as a key prop here as well). But while a good studio product, this is not in that league. If anything, the director's mark pales to WB 1940's style. Bogart wouldn't be my choice for this, but I was never his greatest fan. Still he pulls it off ok. Stanwyck does a bit more than in the following year's "Sorry, Wrong Number" which is quite pleasing. Alexis Smith is Alexis Smith trying her hardest to be an Hitchcock blonde. It's not a failure, but is not a success either. But my favourite is Ann Carter as the very quiet daughter who knows far more than she thinks - and that's a lot.

Mitchell Leisen's "No Man of Her Own" has elements of noir, but I am not entirely sure if that it can be as easily classified as "The Two Mrs Carrolls". Stanwyck plays a pregnant woman jilted by her lover (he gives her a train ticket and $5). On the train to San Francisco she meets a young woman, also pregnant, whose husband is taking her to meet her in-laws for the first time. Then the train crashes and there is a case of mistaken identity - that is, until the ex-lover returns.

While the film flows really well and I was really into it, I think something failed a bit. Considering how several things are presented in shades of grey throughout the film (I was left wondering how much Mrs Harkness knew), the ending is a tad too clean - Paramount or Leisen didn't seem willing to try to bend the rules a bit and give the audience something more satisfying (the closing voice-over is terrible). This is a pity, especially considering the engaging material. On the positive, I really liked the opening narration, suggesting marital problems but that ends with something slightly unexpected. Stanwyck and the supporting cast are great, especially Lyle Bettger as the ex-lover and Jane Cowl as the old Mrs Harkness. I still don't like John Lund, and considering that three of his most celebrated films (including his début) are by Mitchell Leisen, I'm wondering what were the director's feelings for his star.

In all, both films keep your attention, and both show Stanwyck still at her prime, nearly 20 years after the start of her film career. True, neither part is Phyllis Dietrichson, but then neither film is "Double Indemnity".

Friday, 13 November 2009

To Each His Own (1946)

When she did “To Each His Own”, Olivia de Havilland was just under 30. Yet, for the first 15 minutes of the film what we see is a woman that is supposed, at worst, to be in her late 40s. What is interesting is how that make-up resembled Olivia, not aged 50, but aged 60. She beat her make-up artists’ worst predictions.

Of course what was at stake was not realism, but a quick way to let the audience know that this practical, pragmatic woman that spent her New Year’s Eve in a church rooftop during the Blitz, has given up the emotional part of her life. Then we have the start of a long flashback where all is explained to us. This is the story of a mother who gives away her love child after the father’s death in WWI, first forced, then nobly and then goes to the background and suffers in silence.

This is high quality melodrama, with full production values and acting to match. Mitchell Leisen delivers one fine film and more and more I believe he is an underrated director of post-Lubitsch comedies (not in the same league as Wilder or Sturges, but close) and romantic films (both comedies and dramas).

There’s some subtlety in the “villainess”, as you can sympathise with her, moreover, you are left wondering what you would do in her place. There’s also some ambiguity in Olivia’s character, as she becomes desperate to recover the child. Finally, there’s some realistic attitude towards sex, with Olivia knowingly seducing John Lund because he only has three hours before his license ends. Later we are presented with a positive example of women in business. Plus, I loved the ending. Interestingly, the film is scripted and produced by Charles Brackett, in one of his few non-Wilder collaborations of the 1940s. Brackett and Wilder reportedly started producing and directing their own scripts because of Leisen's treatment of their material, so I find it curious that suddenly the two are collaborating again. Its main flaw (only serious flaw?) is the casting of John Lund, who has systematically left me cold.

De Havilland, an actress that I like very much, won the first of her two Oscars for this. Partly, I suspect, it was a reward for her courage to fight the studio system. Partly because she suffers so much on screen, and the Academy loves that. I mean, how can they resist? Except that among the losers was Celia Johnson for “Brief Encounter” and that makes it one of the great injustices of the Oscars.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Thank you, I guess...

5 films will be competing for an Oscar for Best Animated Film because of this. I guess there had to be SOME redeeming feature to it. Click on it to see it in a normal size - it doesn't improve though...

Edit: The film was "THE DOLPHIN - Story of a Dreamer".

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Sunrise (1927) and how my taste has changed

A few years ago Murnau's "Sunrise" got an extended run in one of Lisbon's arty cinemas and I got a chance to see it. To say that it bored the hell out of me is an understatement. I found the story uninteresting and other than the technical side of it I could not understand why people were raving so much about it.

The film is a parable and that's part of the reason I didn't like it. The characters have no name, they are generic, a Man and his Wife and the Woman from the City that tempts him off the path of virtue (he didn't seem to mind that much).

Tonight I saw it again at the BFI. I was pleasantly surprised. Ok, it's unevenly paced, with the beginning and the ending moving much faster that the longer city section that at times seems to take forever. But I quite like the German Expressionism feel of it and the trick shots, especially one where George O'Brien is thinking of his seductress and superimposed images of her seem to kiss him and hug him. Janet Gaynor provoked mixed feelings, but I quite liked how she mimicked a wounded animal after her husband's attempt to kill her. George O'Brien too was great as the big beast that indulges in lustful and murderous thoughts, but the moment he shaves and becomes tamed he looses part of his appeal. Best of all is Margaret Livingston as the Woman from the city. She's so sexy and deadly, and I love her face in the end.

I still don't agree with all the superlatives people use to classify it, but I have mellowed substantially my dislike of the film. Moreover, I quite liked it at times. According to some quick online search, I must have seen the film around 4 years ago. So, have my tastes changed that much? Possibly - In those 4 years I got to see many more silents, including some of the most acclaimed such as "The Crowd", "Greed", "Birth of a Nation", "Intolerance" and "The Wind" among many others - and looking forward to "Show People" in December. So am I now fluent enough in a language I hated (a bit like English, but that's another story) and therefore can appreciate it better? Unlike English, I still don't like it a lot, but I am getting there. But tonight's screening had a side effect: I am now quite keen to watch the Borzage BFI DVDs that I got from Amazon not long ago and that are full of Janet Gaynor. As for "Sunrise" maybe there's hope - maybe third time's lucky.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Dracula (1931)

"Dracula" on Halloween - how unimaginative... In my defence I would like to add it was the first time I saw it. I read Bram Stoker's book when I was 13 or 14 and I still recall the excitement the book provoked on me (possibly wouldn't have the same effect today). The film resembles it in little more than the characters' names. And what's worst, it left me bored and thinking I might have watched something else instead. Time has not been kind to it.

I think I could find reasons why I almost hated it in every scene. Here are a few: Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" over the opening credits; the hero, who is a dreadful bore; the gaps in the plot that are not explained (Lucy's death which is mention in passage much later or Van Helsing's staying behind at the end) suggesting a lot was left in the editing room floor; the cheapness of it all - Warner made it look good, Universal... well, not so. And of course, the main reason, Count Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi. The man can't act. The man is not menacing. There is too much silent film pantomime from him, and certainly way too many close-ups of his eyes that no longer produce the desired effect. I know a lot of people still love this film, but I am not one of them.

Tod Browning was actually able to do much better such as "Freaks" or "The Unknown" (I would love to see more of his Lon Chaney stuff, but alas, no DVD edition) so it does seem a wasted opportunity. I've heard the Spanish language version is actually superior, so I'll try to keep an eye for it. The sole redeeming feature, is Dwight Frye's performance of Renfield, an amalgamation of two characters from the book (one being the romantic hero).

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

I need to start this by saying that I like this film very much. I like it because of its amazing Technicolor cinematography, because of its colour palette, because of how dark it gets (especially in a few key scenes) and of course, because of Gene Tierney's beauty. I like it despite Cornel Wilde and Jeanne Crain, despite Gene Tierney's limited acting ability, despite Vincent Price irritating me somewhat in his early Fox years and despite Alfred Newman's quite loud score. I can't define any better why I like it, but I do. Maybe because there are a few close-ups of Gene Tierney in this film which, should you get a chance to see it in the cinema, are worth the price of admission.

The story is intriguing and catches you - a woman so obsessed with her father marries a man who resembles him. Each time that someone gets between them, she doesn't react very well. Plus the ending is a bit rushed. It sounds bad. It isn't. It grabs you. It is also not a horror film. And you never lose your sympathy for this woman who isn't quite all there. On the contrary, you see things from her angle. In fairness, she does have a point. Her husband clearly pays no attention to her, and seems to be quite oblivious to the thought of spending time alone together.

So again, does this explain why I like this film so much? I really don't know, I simply do. There's some magic somewhere, which is interesting as I usually find Stahl uninspired.

Perhaps it's the crossing between melodrama and film noir. At moments you can't tell if it's one, the other, both or neither. I like that mix of genres, it appeals to me. The genre rules are simultaneously obeyed, bent and broken. And then there is the cinematography. While watching the film last night at the BFI I was impressed with how large it looked, especially the close-ups (and I have seen my fair share of classics at that particular screen, more or less in that row). And above all else, the colours. Browns, blues and greens are everywhere. Her white against the green and the blue in the scene at the lake (you'll know which one...) - and her close-up in that scene. The blue slipper in the stairs scene - you'd never thought a shoe other than Cinderella's could be so cinematic. Some colours are natural (the film has plenty of location shots), some not, together in a very engaging and disturbing colour study. And you know that when realise that the only real red in sight is in Gene Tierney's lips. As quoted on the blurb, they are "as red as a witch's apple" - and you better believe it.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

M. Poirot's residence

Because I absolutely love Agatha Christie and David Suchet's definitive portrait of Poirot, here's one of the main images of the series - the block of flats posing as "Whitehaven Mansions". A few years ago I bumped into it by accident. More of London should be like this, beautifully Art Deco.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

A quote by E. M. Forster

We do not see what we do not seek.
E. M. Forster, What does it matter? A Morality

The above has become a favourite quote of mine purely by accident. About 12 years ago I gave a friend, as Christmas or birthday present, E. M. Forster's posthumous collection of short stories, The Life to Come and other stories. Later he came up with that quote. I searched my copy in vain for it. Nothing.

Now, for some reason just thought of it again, and thanks to Amazon's search I managed to locate it at last. It's part of the short story mentioned above, and can be found on page 166 of Penguin's blue cover classics series.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Bette Davis, 1937

Bette Davis had four films opening in 1937. They are of unequal quality, contrasting massively with her consistent output over the next few years. In the first of these four, Michael Curtiz’s “Kid Galahad”, she is a fight promoter’s (Edward G. Robinson) girl l that falls for his latest boxing star. Second billed (for one of the last times), she delivers a good girl with a not-so-nice profession in a film that left me fairly indifferent either way. Robinson is the star and it shows - he’s given the grand finale in the tradition of the Warner school of Gangster films.
“Marked Woman” is the second, and her part and the film are slightly more interesting. She plays a club dancer (read prostitute) who rebels against someone who’s basically her pimp (who if I recall correctly has done something slightly naughty like murder). As retaliation he scars her. A prosecutor, played by up and coming Humphrey Bogart, persuades her to tell her tale. I quite like the ending, and Davis put up a fight for her make-up. By refusing to be as glamourised as the studio wanted, she probably made herself noticed to audiences as a brave performer. As much as I love her, and I do, I can’t help the feeling of calculated move. And somehow it makes me love her even more.

The third film is by far the weakest, “That Certain Woman”, a remake of a Gloria Swanson early talkie ("The Trespasser", 1929). Both films were written and directed by Edmund Goulding. I saw the original last year at the London Film Festival, and all I can say is that Goulding should take full responsibility for both. It’s melodramatic tripe of the worst kind. All sentiment and no substance. If I mentioned that the 1937 version also stars Henry Fonda, the full scale of the waste might be better felt. It has however two things I quite liked. One was Donald Crisp’s turn as the evil, remorseless father-in-law. Manipulative, imposing, full of self-importance, not used to lose, his is the sole redeeming performance, probably because is so brief. The second thing was Ernest Haller’s magnificent cinematography – that man did know a few things about his craft (as also seen in “Gone with the Wind”, “Jezebel”, “All this, and Heaven too” or “Mildred Pierce”).

Finally, there’s “It’s Love I’m After”, a screwball comedy with Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havilland, with Davis and Howard playing two over the top actors (Howard clearly taking inspiration from the John Barrymore school of actors). While is not one of the best, it’s a decent second-tier comedy, with a few scenes, in particular the beginning, where the two actors insult each other while performing “Romeo and Juliet”’s death scenes. Davis was not a great comedienne as Irene Dunne or Barbara Stanwyck, but she has a way with sarcastic dialogue that I find really, really funny. And that was perfect for screwball.

What all these four films show best is Davis’ versatility and ambition. She fought Warners for better parts and in the end she got “Jezebel” and the rest is history. However, what I find the most interesting about these films is that they suggest the possibility that without “Jezebel” and Wyler, Bette Davis might have been confined to footnotes in film books or to cult-ish status, like fellow Warner leading ladies of the 1930s Ann Dvorak, Kay Francis or Ruth Chatterton. Or maybe not. Maybe by 1937 her path to screen greatness was already inevitable.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Third Finger, Left Hand (1940)

If I say that “The Philadelphia Story”, “Double Indemnity”, “Tea and Sympathy” and “Old Acquaintance” have something in common with a slightly forgotten 1940 MGM comedy with Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas called “Third Finger, Left Hand” I doubt that anyone would guess – the reason is far too personal. At some stage or another each of them was the film I wanted to see the most. I now need to find a new one…

Margot Sherwood (Loy) is a magazine editor with a nice job and a mysterious husband she left soon after her impulse marriage while holidaying in Brazil. Everyone seems to win with this situation – her boss doesn’t see her as available, her boss’ wife doesn’t see her as threat and she doesn’t see herself as out of a job. Except for the fact that there is no husband and she was never married. And it all works well until she meets Jeff Thompson (Douglas) and he finds out about the charade. He then decides to pass as the long lost hubby, and complications ensue.

Although not perfect, the film is funny, entertaining and perhaps unjustly forgotten, especially considering the calibre of both leads. Douglas was at his best as a comedy leading man, having done “Ninotchka” the previous year, and Loy has here one of her best MGM vehicles without William Powell. In fact, it’s clearly her vehicle through and through and she knows it. But she never runs away with it. It’s a team effort, as usually was with her. But she does fill the screen – just look at her feline eyes after having just persuaded Felix Bressart to continue helping by writing fake love letters. For a few seconds she does look as the cat that got the cream. Or later, when she just called Douglas under a false pretext and he doesn’t get her true intentions. To me there was only one obvious false step: when turning the table on Douglas, Loy pretends to be a tough Brooklyn dame that just got herself a nice husband. Not sure who thought of that, but there is something in that scene that doesn’t quite work out, whether it is the accent, or how much un-Myrna she becomes. I laughed, but only partly with her.

Contrary to most films, I was slightly disappointed with the character actors – even with Felix Bressart, one of Lubitsch’s usual troupe and hilarious as one of the three comrades in the above mentioned “Ninotchka”. In particular, I now know for a fact that I absolutely can’t stand Bonita Granville and that she should have never been allowed to be in a film (she was also dreadful in a key role in “The Mortal Storm”). The rest is usual MGM post-Thalberg – bright lighting, beautiful sets, sofisticated costumes (thankfully not by Adrian), inconspicuous director (Robert Z. Leonard in this case).

Not that any of this diminished the pleasure I had in watching the film – it is a well built, funny comedy; and yes, it is a star vehicle, but one that works for both stars. In fact I was a bit sad that among all the films both of them did for MGM in their heyday, this was their only pairing (they would later work in other projects, including “Mr Blandings builds his dream house”).

The film also has an interesting historical footnote. It has a dignified, albeit small, part for a black actor and I am pretty sure Myrna and/or Douglas had something to do with it: a train porter who has taken a law degree by correspondence and turns out to be the vehicle for the inevitable happy ending.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Heartbreaking - Art theft in Lisbon and surroundings

I am sorry that this is Portuguese only, but I couldn't help posting it. It's a news piece (14min long) about the theft of Portuguese tiles (azulejos) and other art pieces, some from the middle of the street. Two have a personal significance as I passed by them many, many times as a kid; and one, a church, has been stripped bare from everything is heartbreaking.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Cumpleaños Mafalda!

(c) Quino

Mafalda, the masterful creation of Argentinean humourist Quino and a personal favourite is 45 today - although no new strips have appeared since 1973.

It's fascinating that something so full of references to The Beatles, Brigitte Bardot, U Thant, the Vietnam war, the Soviet Union and the red menace (let alone more local Argentinian politics) can still be so funny and so modern. It shows the true genius of Quino.

To me, without Mafalda there would never had been a Calvin, and all those who followed him, and a part of me would be missing today. So thank you Quino.

Monday, 28 September 2009

(stupid) Swine Flu Panic

Today, in Lisbon, I had the dubious pleasure of being asked to clean my hands with an disinfectant gel before I could enter a public building (the National Library in Lisbon, should you care).

That, along with similar bottles I had seen and the many, many, many posters telling me how to wash my hands (it seems I might not know how) or how to sneeze to my sleeve (it captures the germs and doesn't allow the virus to rest on your hands - yes, I know... and moreover my mother always told me never to use my sleeves as a tissue) makes me think swine flu panic in Portugal is to stay...

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

The Corn is Green (1945)

For a period of eight years, from 1938 till 1946, Bette Davis had hardly any rival in Hollywood as a dramatic actress. Her films of the period showed an unprecedented investment from Warners to a leading actress, which was rewarded with a string of box-office hits, where she often playing ruthless or self-sacrificing women, with one or two in the middle. Among the latter, is “The Corn is Green”. This is the story of a middle-age spinster who upon inheriting a house in a Welsh mining town decides to become a schoolteacher and develops a fondness towards a bright young miner (John Dall) she tries to persuade to go to Oxford.

This isn’t one of Davis’ more familiar efforts, despite one or two scenes regularly appearing on documentaries about the actress. Never shy about dressing up to the part, she betters the principles she applied in “The Old Maid” to make herself look older. In my opinion is one of her best performances – she conveys the self-assurance and self-doubts of the character without her trademark mannerisms (she doesn’t smoke, her hands are generally quiet, even her eyes are controlled far more than usually); her love for the young man, and perhaps the associated regret of being too old, is never more than suggested at, and in reality it may just be maternal love.

John Dall, who got an Oscar nomination for his performance, left me pretty indifferent. In both “Rope” and “Gun Crazy” he gives far more interesting performances – but maybe the parts were also better. The rest of the supporting cast, on the other hand, was fine, with the exception of the maid’s daughter, played too much as caricature to be part of the same world as Davis’ more realistic performance.

I really liked the use of Welsh songs as leitmotiv for the time passing, and the songs then permeate through the film, with Max Steiner picking a few themes to include in his score. Irving Rapper, frequently dismissed as a studio craftsman, surprisingly had an interesting sense of direction. His sudden camera movements towards close-ups seem to be a trademark (something that also can be seen in his “Now, Voyager”) but were a tad too often and started to irritate me, but his camera shots were subtle, advancing our perception of the characters – take the two great confrontations scenes between Davis and Dall. In the first, half way through the film and its most famous scene, she is in command, standing; in the second, when so much has happened, is also his moment – he is the one dominating, and the one now standing, and with camera shots from above.

Warner has promised in a press-release of one of its Bette Davis collections that they were restoring the film, with the obvious assumption that it would come out at some stage. I really hope so – I really enjoyed it.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Front Page Woman (1935)

One of the best things of start digging into older films that are not part of the classic canon is that you never know exactly what to expect. These are films that very few people have seen them, or talk about, and they can turn into anything. Such is the case for “Front Page Woman”, a 1935 Bette Davis/George Brent comedy directed by Michael Curtiz. Both stars were on the way up, but they weren’t quite there yet – Davis had had a hit with “Of Human Bondage”, but not yet her first Oscar for “Dangerous” and arguably Brent never really got there. So I tossed the dice and it turned out to be good enough.

Two reporters in rival newspapers (Davis and Brent) are perpetually engaged and she will only accept marriage if he admits she’s as good a newspaperman as he is. Then a murder investigation triggers a series of double crossings as each tries to outdo the other – at stake, not their careers but an “I do”.

Fast dialogue, double crossings (mostly on the man’s part), attempts to outdo each other and journalists, and it is hard not to think of “His Girl Friday” which Hawks directed five years down the line. And there are similarities. But “Front Page Woman” holds on its own. Of course, it’s the weaker of the two, but it’s still very funny. I would venture that it has my favourite pre-“Jezebel” Bette Davis performance. And to my surprise, it has a really funny performance from George Brent, who I have mentioned not a few times before in this blog as a very, very limited actor, someone non-threatening enough to be paired with nearly all the leading ladies of the studio system – if the leading man is George Brent (or Herbert Marshall, for that matter) you can be sure the film is all about the leading lady.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Margaret Sullavan's voice


Has there ever been any sound in film history more beautiful and heart-breaking than Margaret Sullavan's voice? Right now, I don't think I'll ever believe otherwise. At any given moment in Borzage's "The Mortal Storm" (1940) she'll break your heart. There's something so unique, so radiant, so hurt, so courageous, so fragile and so inspiring in her husky voice that it can't help produce that effect. Maybe it's the sense of impending doom she projects. Whatever it is, she's spellbinding and I know I am not the first to fall under her spell.

I've only seen five films with her (she only did 17) - one was William Wyler's "The Good Fairy", so long ago that I have forgotten it; the second was Lubitsch's romantic comedy "The Shop around the Corner" and since July, three of her four Borzages - "Three Comrades", "The Shining Hour" and "The Mortal Storm". In each and every one of these three she left my heart in pieces - she truly had me at hello.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Errol Flynn's comedies: The Perfect Specimen (1937) and Four's a Crowd (1938)

Errol Flynn is probably known for his swashbucklers, for his westerns and for his war films. But he isn’t known for his comedies, despite some quite funny turns in some of his adventure films. After watching “The Perfect Specimen” (1937) and “Four’s a Crowd” (1938), both directed by Michael Curtiz, I think that is unfair.

I really can’t think of any actor other than Errol Flynn who could, with a straight face, carry a film with such a title as “The Perfect Specimen”. This applies to both actors from today and yesterday. It is such a ridiculous title that the lead would probably be crash underneath it. Yet Flynn succeeds. He is perfectly credible as physical perfection, and his charm is enough to carry us and entice us with his naivety as he does to Joan Blondell.

Somewhere between a screwball and a romantic comedy, the hero is the heir of a great fortune being groomed by his eccentric grandmother to become “the perfect specimen”, a role model to all his future employees. That is until Joan Blondell comes along, all energy and sexual assurance, and like a knight in shining armour barges in, (literally) destroys the prison and rescues the princess. Only the gender roles are inverted here. Blondell takes control and shows Flynn the world that he has been missing.

Despite being funny, and very often very funny, something disappoints slightly. It just misses being a classic comedy, and because of the near miss it is a bit frustrating. There were some reasons for this. Edward Everett Horton is rather boring, making a pantomime of the pantomime that is his screen persona (the silly, asexual and absent-minded middle aged man, who just possibly is a sissy – and he usually does it well), and May Robson, as the grandmother has a thankless part, which is so obviously built for the laughs that isn’t funny. Plus something else that I will mention below. On the plus side, there is one of the funniest character actors ever (Allen Jenkins) as the truck-driver boxer that Flynn knocks down. There is also great chemistry from both leads. So it is hard not to recommend it.

“Four’s a Crowd” is a love square. It’s also a weaker film. It’s still funny, just not as much as it could/should be. To start Olivia de Havilland, who I think is a wonderful actress has a thankless part of the irritating girl, obviously the second female lead. Her leading man, Patrick Knowles looks pretty and sulky and indecisive. The real joy is watching Rosalind Russell (in a near dress rehearsal for “His Girl Friday”) and Errol Flynn fight and play each other and the other two to get what they want. Flynn is a delight when he plays the unscrupulous cad (again, think of Cary Grant in “His Girl Friday”) but becomes far less interesting when he gains a heart. Russell has her best performance of the 1930s among those I have seen, more interesting that the respectable and dull second fiddle of some of her MGM fare (“China Seas” comes to mind).

But there are two things (other than Flynn) that both films have in common. One is the annoying presence of Hugh Herbert who plays the poet in “The Perfect Specimen” and the justice of peace in “Four’s a Crowd”. If you ever seen a Daffy Duck cartoon from when he was a crazy duck, that’s pretty much the nonsensical material you have here. You may like it, I don’t. It tainted my enjoyment of both films to not a small degree. The second thing is Curtiz, the man for all jobs at Warner during the 1930s and 1940s. Despite having done films in nearly every genre, there are some stylist traits of his that are present in nearly all his films – camera angles and contrasting lighting with shadows and lights. None of it exists here. Is it because they are comedies? Because they are routine jobs and he didn’t have much interest in the material? I don’t know – but as one of my favourite studio directors I was hoping for more of him here.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Los Abrazos Rotos (2009)

Three years after the acclaim of "Volver", Almodóvar's new film has had some mixed reviews. From what I read of the bad reviews, they partly they accused him of self-indulgence, partly of creating a convoluted story which is hard to follow. I strongly believe that those defending the second point should reassess their career of choice and limit themselves to watch something more appropriate to their intellectual abilities, like "Transformers" or "Meet the Spartans". Yes, the film has a flashback, and there are scenes from the film-within-the-film in that flashback, but you can easily tell them apart (either that or I am a genius).

However, those who accuse him of self-indulgence have a case. There are many moments throughout Almodóvar's new opus that brought to my mind scenes of past films (and not only his own - Penélope Cruz as Audrey Hepburn?!). Not only "Women on a Verge of a Nervous Breakdown", which seems to be revamped into the film they are shooting - the gazpacho full of sleeping pills, the leading lady throwing her ex's things from her apartment to the street, the insane second wife, the nosy downstairs neighbour, and I am sure I could go on if I recalled "Women..." better. It also mimics the plot structure of "Bad Education" - a film within the film and flashbacks. And there is even a voice-over/dubbing moment, which is ever present in so many of his films with Carmen Maura and Victoria Abril. And like "Bad Education" and "Law of Desire" one of the lead characters is a film director. Clearly the director/screenwriter is repeating his motifs a bit more frequently than he should - or maybe this is a general wink to an audience which by now has a good grasp of his film career, and most of us are missing the point.

This is a tamed film compared to his previous works. I am not sure if it's aimed to be a crowd pleaser, but it might just be. There are no transvestites, drag-queens, transsexuals or bizarre events. It's a much simpler story of obsessions and things untold, clearly taking inspiration from the "women's pictures" of the 1940s. I should point out by now that I actually liked the film. It's nostalgic for a cinema that I love - there are some crucial stairs taken directly from old Hollywood sets. But it has some wonderful moments which are Almodóvar's own. His colour palette. The scene I mentioned above with voice-over/dubbing and that can be seen out-of-context in the trailer. Put it in context and it has an unsuspecting emotional power, albeit an "artificial" one.

Afterwards I was wondering what will follow from here and I suspect that in a few years time we'll realise that the director has started a new phase in his career.

PS - This review is especially dedicated to a homonym.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Suddenly, Last Summer (1993)

Half a lifetime ago, I was mesmerised by the BBC production of Tennessee Williams' "Suddenly, Last Summer". It starred Maggie Smith, Natasha Richardson and Rob Lowe, and to be honest I have no idea why I watched it. It is quite likely that I already had seen the film version with Katharine Hepburn. I loved the suffocating atmosphere, the faded sunset orange range of colours that inhabit it and the clash between the two actresses. It was a found memory.

Last night I watched it again, projected at the BFI. I can't say this showed it at its best light. Television from the early 1990s doesn't look very well project into a screen, even if the screen is not terribly big (and the NFT2 isn't). It highlights the technical differences between the two mediums (film and TV) simply by showing the amount of detail lost. Nevertheless, all I said above holds. It is still a fantastic version of the play. I have now seen the film a few times, saw a stage version not terribly long ago and have become fairly familiar with Williams' universe.

Last summer (ok, it should be the previous summer, but it doesn't sound as appropriate), Sebastian Venable broke with tradition and instead of going abroad with his mother, took his cousin Cathy instead. By the end of the summer he was dead. These are the facts. The play shows the clash between the two women - each wanting to tell her truth, and although we end believing in Cathy, truth is on the eye of the beholder. Cathy suggests that Sebastian was a predatory gay man, Mrs Venable says he was a chaste, asexual being. The stakes are high - if she loses, Cathy will be lobotomised.

Natasha Richardson gives Cathy a sexual presence of a woman who, as she says herself, had her coming out (as in a débutante's coming out) in the Latin Quarter of New Orleans before she came out to the city's society. She yarns for a freedom that has been denied, but Richardson leaves us wondering if she really is all there (something Elizabeth Taylor couldn't show in 1959 or even wasn't able to do as actress). On the other side of the ring is Maggie Smith. She is the only actress (or actor) that I have seen eclipse Judi Dench. To say that she is one of the great living actresses is an understatement, and she proves it here. Imposing, aristocratic and sure of the power of her money to buy and manipulate all other, her Mrs Venable is a poised tower of strength. But suddenly, you see the cracks - during Cathy's telling of her version, her face, and her eyes, scream with horror, a silent horror, of someone being confronted with facts they have chosen to ignore. Which made me wonder if this particular text doesn't work better in mediums where you can have close-ups.

In the middle of the two women, there's Dr Cukrowicz. It's a thankless part. He doesn't do anything throughout, just bridge between one or the other of the leading ladies. But Rob Lowe really stinks. Maybe because Smith and Richardson are so good, he comes out even worse. He really just looks pretty...

I really would like to see more plays adapted to TV (and the key word is adapted). There was such a good tradition in British television, and it seems to have died out. But I guess I am in a minority, and that times have changed, etc. Oh well...

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

June Bride (1948)

After WWII, with the return of the men to civil life, film audiences changed. Suddenly strong women were no longer in demand, nor were they palatable. This hit comedies in particular, a genre when if there was gender inequality it was against men. Take a look at the great number of actresses that excelled at it up to 1945 – among others Barbara Stanwyck, Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Myrna Loy, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, Rosalind Russell and Jean Arthur. From the men's side, the only true leading men were Cary Grant and William Powell, Robert Montgomery to a lesser extend. The likes of Melvyn Douglas, Fred MacMurray and Ray Milland were there to support their female counterparts (and I think Douglas is much underrated) or worst, they would play the guy who had no chances at all, like Ralph Bellamy.

The Bette Davis’ vehicle “June Bride” is perhaps the best (worst?) example I have seen of the need to overpower women and keep them in the kitchen, their proper place. It’s the battle of wits between an ex-foreign correspondent (Robert Montgomery) and his new boss, the editor of housewife magazine who happens to also be his ex-something (Davis, obviously). The first half is ok – it plays it as it should, balanced, funny. It’s not exceptional, but Montgomery had a talent for comedy and Davis was great at delivering sarcastic lines: the scene in her apartment is brilliant, with the switching on and off of the lamps broken only by the great dialogue. It’s actually a pity she didn’t do more good comedy. It’s the second half, when the audience starts to feel sorry for Montgomery’s character that lacks sparkle – Davis’ character becomes increasingly unsympathetic. She never gives him any chances; she seems to hold the absolute truth. Per se, this is not the crime. The happy ending should have come when he forgives her and they both find a common ground – but there’s no forgiveness in store when she realises the error of her ways. The script suddenly demands her head, pride, dignity – her absolute and unconditional surrender. I have grown up watching these films as a prime example of the sort of parts women have never manage to get hold again, and seeing in Bette Davis one of strongest female presences in cinema ever. This is a woman that opens one of her films by shooting a man till the gun is empty. To me, who strongly believe in the equality of sexes, the ending was a punch in the stomach. I was horrified.

I know Warner Bros. was trying to get rid of Davis by 1948, and that films were about to change forever for a multitude of reasons such as television, the end of the studio system and method acting. But in my view, nothing can justify something as humiliating as trying to pass the ending of this film as a happy ending.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Pre-code Myrna Loy: Men in White (1934) and Penthouse (1933)

Myrna Loy had been around for a while when in 1934 she sky rocketed to popularity as Nora Charles in "The Thin Man". It was her last film to open before the Hays code was fully enforced and it completely changed her career. It showed how gifted she was as a comedian, but also limited her career a bit, as MGM made her play Nora Charles five more times (I managed to watch the first two sequels and they aren't terribly interesting really) or clone parts that weren't worthy of her talent (there are exceptions, like "Libeled Lady"). Before that, in early sound films, she was often the vamp or something of the kind. No one knew what to do with her. In "The Mask of Fu Manchu" she plays the predatory sadistic nymphomaniac daughter of Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff). Barely keeping a straight face, the two of them make the film a gem.

The man who "discovered" and gave her a chance was director W.S. Van Dyke. He paired her with William Powell (and Clark Gable) in 1934's "Manhattan Melodrama" and then again in "The Thin Man", and of course the rest is history. But between the vamp and the comedian, she did a few films, two of which I got a chance to see recently. One was "Men in White" (1934) and the other "Penthouse" (1933). Both are full on pre-codes. One is a dud, the other is a delight.

I'll start with the dud: "Men in White". On paper this has a lot of potencial. A young promising doctor (Clark Gable) is having relationship problems, torn between his fiancee (Loy) and his career and a great opportunity to work with a great doctor. After a fight, he has a one night stand with a nurse. She gets pregnant but doesn't tell him. Later she tries to have an abortion, but things don't go according to plan. The way the story is dealt with is surprisingly modern. The problem is it's a flat film. Everyone's heart isn't there. Well, the script didn't help... Gable is too noble and too bloody irritating. Loy's character is a spolied brat in need of a slap. Worst of all, Jean Hersholt's great doctor is the most selfish of all the selfish characters in the film. The film is streched to some very long 74min (according to imdb). If not for the stars, and its theme, this one could easily (and deservedly) be one of those that Time forgot.

And then there's "Penthouse". Her first film with W.S. Van Dyke, and I think he probably spot something immediately. She has great, funny lines and her timing is impecable. You can see the begining of Nora. As you already could in "Love me Tonight". The film is a simple crime mystery where a lawyer tries to prove the guy who's going to marry is ex is innocent of murder. It's an engaging film, fun and with a good pace. The pre-code side of it is visible in Loy's character, a call-girl - despite such a word, or any synonime, ever being used, there is no room for doubt. She's sexy and seductive, in a "been there, done that" sort of way. She definitely has been in that world for quite a while. "Yours or mine" she asks when Warner Baxter tells her they should go home and she gets really disappointed when there's no sex. A few other lines could have been taken from any of the Loy/Powell films. And then there's the ending. This needs some context: for someone not used to classic films, the ending is predictable, because that's how a modern film would end; but if you are used to them then I think it is a bit surprising. And laudable. And I feel extremely happy that I got a chance to see this, it put a smile on my face.

Ritter no more?

Why are these lovely chocolates disappearing from London shops? Suddenly I realised that most of the places that I knew that sell them are no longer doing it - that includes a local shop which had the most amazing variety. Life is definitely NOT fair.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

My Sister Eileen (1942)

Last night another film from the “Icons of Screwball Comedy”. This is the story of two sisters’ misadventures of in New York, one very pretty and blonde, and very successful with men, the other not so much. Only “My Sister Eileen” is not really a screwball comedy, despite being a very funny comedy in parts and despite Rosalind Russell's presence. But that isn’t the film worst fault – it has been adapted from a stage play and it shows. You can even see where the acts would break. Ok, in the beginning, they do open the story, but soon you’re nearly always in the same set. And no, I’ve never seen or read the play. The second fault of the film is the casting and performance of the actress playing the sister Eileen. I supposed she’s meant to be a sweet ingénue, but at moments she comes out rather unpleasant and calculating.

Now, let’s talk about what makes the film worth watching (other than it is actually funny) – two words: Rosalind Russell. She’s fantastic. Her expressions priceless, her timing almost as good as in “His Girl Friday”, but definitely suffering for not having Cary Grant as a counterpart. In a fair world, the only reason I can think she might not have won the Oscar she so deserved here, is because that same year Bette Davis gave one of her seminal performances in “Now, Voyager”. The Academy being the Academy gave it to Greer Garson for Mrs Miniver. Let’s blame that one on WWII and leave it at that.

Answer to a silly question

The silly question is as follows - was there a leading man that had acted with Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford?

It is a stupid question, but I have been thinking about this for weeks. The usual suspects only had, to the best of my knowledge, played against only two of them: George Brent, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Robert Montgomery, Franchot Tone, Herbert Marshall, Errol Flynn. It didn't help that Davis was WB and Crawford MGM, and each studio had their own leading men. And then the answer just occurred to me - Henry Fonda! With Davis he did Jezebel and That Certain Woman, with Crawford the magnificent Daisy Kenyon and with Stanwyck The Mad Miss Manton, You Belong to me, and of course, The Lady Eve.

In addition, he played with some other favourites of mine: Olivia de Havilland, Gene Tierney and as an old man, with Katharine Hepburn and Myrna Loy (in a TV movie).

If anyone can find any other leading man that has acted with all three ladies please let me know.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Too Many Husbands (1940)

When I found out that Jean Arthur, Melvyn Douglas and Fred MacMurray had worked in an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s “Home and Beauty” (or in its American and film title “Too Many Husbands” - comments about the play can be found here) I was quite excited with the prospect of one day having the chance of seeing this. When Sony announced its two DVD sets of four screwball comedies each and it decided to include it, I was delighted. After all, hardly anyone knows who any of these three actors are, despite the fact that once upon a time they were extremely popular. (Still waiting for the other volume to arrive so I can watch “Theodora goes Wild” – more Melvyn Douglas, this time with Irene Dunne).

If you are bothered by spoilers, I would suggest you should stop reading here. For once, I intend to discuss plot into some detail, and wouldn’t like to spoil anyone’s pleasure.

The first thing that caught my attention was the changes in the plot line. When they said “based on” they should have said “loosely inspired by” – not that is a capital sin, it’s just doesn’t bare any resemblance to the play. Ok, it does in the following – a woman finds out that her dead first husband isn’t dead after all, and that she finds quite difficult to choose between old and new. The similarities end there. In the play, set at the end of WWI, Victoria is a truly unpleasant character and the husbands (both soldiers, who were friends before the war) find themselves trying to push her to the other. In the end, she divorces both, marries a rich man, and the two men probably live happily ever after (I don’t mean as a couple, but rather because they just got rid of that horrid woman). In the film, pushed forward to 1940, Vicky is quite a sweet girl, neglected by both husbands (one has a travelling bug, the other is married to the business) who now takes advantage of the situation to put herself centre stage. So does it work?

Well, yes and no – no, because it loses the well-built Maugham plot, as well as his razor sharp wit. No, because the script is never brilliant, the secretary was a pointless addition, Fred MacMurray isn’t as likeable as he should have been (I spent my time rooting for Melvyn Douglas). Yes, because it’s actually funny at times, because Melvyn Douglas and Harry Davenport are very good, and Jean Arthur pulls it most of the time. Yes, because you can never guess which one she is going to choose – i.e. there is no obvious ending, unlike “My Favourite Wife” (same year, very similar premise) where Gail Patrick just begs to be abandoned. Actually, the ending is quite astonishing by itself – despite the fact that her marriage to Melvyn Douglas being declared void (because MacMurray was alive), the film seems to suggest a ménage a trois – think Coward’s “Design for Living” but without the gay component. I was left wondering how it survived the Hays Office – adultery was not meant to be fun.

It’s not a masterpiece, but I am quite happy that films like this are still put on the market, despite the economic downturn, despite a slowdown in DVD sales and releases, despite a growing lack of interest for films not produced in the last 10 years. It made me laugh, and reminded me why I love comedies of the period so much.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

10 films from the last decade

That my film preferences lie with older stuff is not a surprise to anyone reading this blog. But people get annoyed when I can’t list a recent film which isn’t animated among my favourites. Even here, I think there have been only a handful of comments or posts about more recent films. So in order to dismiss the idea that I only watch or like old films, I went through my voting history at IMDb and selected a few from the top rated ones.

I have chosen the titles from films I have rated 8 or more and had a release date of 2000 or later. I have deliberately excluded animation, as otherwise Pixar would rule with Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles and Ratatouille making the cut. This also means that there’s no “Persepolis”. It is not the list of my highest rated films – my criteria change through time, and unless I watch the film again, I won’t revise my vote. Instead, I chose films that I thought were something different or left a mark on me for positive reasons – several are European, which is a change from what would have been a similar list 10 years ago. So, are you ready? Here it goes in chronological order:

Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001) – I think Altman described this as a Who-cares-Whodunit. It’s a very accurate description insomuch as the mystery goes. It is far more an account of the upstairs, downstairs lives of English aristocracy in 1932. The cast is nearly a who’s who of the great living British actors (Judi Dench, Miranda Richardson and a few others come to mind as missing) and the film is worth seeing for Maggie Smith’s scene stealing Countess alone.

Le Fate Ignoranti (Ferzan Ozpetek, 2001) – I can’t remember why I went to see this. I think someone recommend it. I also can’t remember if I saw it in the Watershed or (more likely) the Arnolfini in Bristol. But I was won over and Ozpetek has since become one of my favourite directors. A potential soap-opera (a woman finding out her recently deceased husband was having an affair with a man), it turns into a study of grief, survival, family and as in all Ozpetek films – food. And as ironies go, the two leads (playing opposite ends of the “love triangle”) end up playing husband and wife in Ozpetek’s later “Saturno Contro”.

À la folie... pas du tout (Laetitia Colombani, 2002) – Despite a 2002 release data I have only watched it a few months ago. It has Audrey Tautou and a fantastic script that kept surprising me, without being implausible. It uses a fantastic, old story device – different accounts of the same story. And, as always, the versions don’t necessarily match.

Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002) – If I had to venture a favourite in this list this is probably it. When I saw it last (and I have seen it three times, I think) I had yet to see Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows” from which it borrows massively. Maybe it will change my perception of it, maybe not. It still has a fantastic script, Julianne Moore’s best performance ever (and that's a difficult choice), Elmer Bernstein’s beautiful score which was sadly his last, and Haynes endless love for the material is paying homage to.

La Mala Educación (Pedro Almodóvar, 2004) – In the mid-1990s, before he skyrocketed in the English-speaking world, I had passed through a mini love affair with Almodóvar. Then “Kika” came along (I saw it on the first TV screening in Portugal, so I guess around 1996-1997) and the affair was broken. “La Mala Educación” was the film that reconciled me with the Spanish director’s oeuvre. It probably isn’t my favourite Almodóvar, but I couldn’t resist all the “Double Indemnity” quotes, and Gael García Bernal is certainly one of cinema's deadliest “femmes fatales”.

Sommersturm (Marco Kreuzpaintner, 2004) – This is one of those films where a good script and confident acting and direction do combine quite well to produce something that is better than the sum of the parts. It’s a coming of age, coming out tale. Two teenager best friends are part of a rowing team, until one of them starts going out with a girl in the team and the other gets jealous.

Un long dimanche de fiançailles (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2004) – Audrey Tautou again… A woman believes beyond all reason that her lover is still alive despite being given for dead in WWI. I didn’t think too much of “Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain”, although I know I am in the minority. However there was something about this next Jeunet/Tautou collaboration that touched me and makes me want to go back to it. But this time I want to see the film without the aid of English subtitles (French ones are allowed though).

Startdust (Matthew Vaughn, 2007) – This one appeals to the child, the romantic and the fan of swashbucklers in me. I watched it on the edge of my seat, something very rare, and with a smile on my face throughout. To make it perfect, I would take Rickie Gervais and Sienna Miller out of it. And then there’s Michelle Pfeiffer’s perfect, inspired casting – the scene when she admires herself in the mirror is my favourite. ‘Nouf said.

Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, 2007) – I wasn’t expecting much, and certainly not the punch in the stomach that is this film. Discussing it with a friend a few days ago, he said the film was worth because of the ending. I think it is the most uncompromising ending I have seen in a film since “I am a fugitive from a Chain Gang” (and I mean that chronologically, so it's 1933) – but the film is more than that. It demands your attention and keeps you focus on it. Casey Affleck is great, and so is the actress who got the Best Supporting Actress nomination. Pity that life occasionally imitates art, and the film never got the attention it deserved.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton, 2007) – A cinematographic adaptation of a Broadway musical is not the easiest thing to do. An adaptation of a Sondheim musical is even less, because of his music and his themes – this is not a musical for the masses, nor are the themes of Sweeney Todd for the fainted hearted. However, Tim Burton managed to do it successfully, helped by Johnny Deep and Helena Bonham-Carter, the latter massively overlooked. My favourite moment of hers is towards the end when she closes a door behind her. Her face shows how much heart broken she is for what she has done, which she knows it’s the only thing she could have done.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Some really good news

A few months ago I mentioned the trailer for a friend's film. There have been some good news, which hopefully will be even better in a few months.

Yet another thing that shouldn't happen in a cinema

The film starts and instead of the opening credits, it starts with a scene about an hour and half into the film, and no one seems to notice... ("Once upon a time in the West", yesterday at the BFI)

Monday, 3 August 2009

Catching other people's expressions

I have long noticed that I am very quick at picking up other people’s expressions. Something quite common if you spend a lot of time with someone. What perhaps is less common is the fact that I can still use some those expressions for quite a while afterwards. Two examples come to mind – one from V when we were in high school, and that I have noticed she hasn’t used in years (and I still use it); the other was something quite irritating that RB picked from her then boyfriend, and that I started making fun of and ended up adopting it for a while against my better judgement (dropped that one now, thankfully).

However, the opposite isn’t true – I’m not as catchy… So, I was a tiny bit surprised and amused when my flatmate yesterday repeated something I say quite often while speaking to someone else.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Westward the Women (1951)

I think I mentioned somewhere else my general dislike of conventional westerns and my love for those who break the mould of the genre. So a western about women should fit that, no? Enter William Wellman, a man who could who seemed to have been born to break barriers in his films, and the result is “Westward the Women”.

It’s the story of a group of around 150 who depart from Chicago to California in 1851 to marry men they never seen before. This is before trains, a time when, as they put it, a third of them will die during the journey. And boy, you understand it. This is not your usual MGM film where you leave feeling good. Not at all. You really can feel their discomfort, their fears, the accidents, the deaths. And that’s even with two or three of the most crucial moments in the film happening offscreen. And by not showing the obvious, by letting your imagination run, you get much more powerful reactions.

The film has only one big name in its cast, a no-longer-as-young Robert Taylor (and I had seen him a few days before in his matinee idol’s peak – Borzage’s “Three Comrades). The only other face I recognised was Hope Emerson’s (playing Prudence, the no-nonsense widow). Still, it proves that if you have a good story and a good head at the helm, a quality cast of mostly unknowns can still produce something exceptional. Pity that no one sees this nowadays, and less and less imagination goes into casting.

Also, a bit of trivia from IMDb which I thought delicious – and I can confirm it because I did find it a bit strange although I didn’t think too much of it at the time: "Denise Darcel's French-language dialog includes a few words which prove that no one in the 1950's version of the Hays Office understood French. Some of the terms she used while angry at "Buck Wyatt" [Taylor's character] would never have gotten past the censors in English."

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Two-Faced Woman (1941)

How do you start a post on one of the most criticised films from Hollywood's golden years? By saying that isn't as bad as most people think it is? By pointing out that Garbo's swan song is actually a quite competent screwball comedy? I can try...

The film had a complication production history, it was recut after the original release (it seems there is a copy of the original cut, which I would like to see, and I might have missed in the 2004 Cukor retrospective at the BFI) and is far from perfect. Garbo isn't Irene Dunne, nor is the script in the same league as "Ninotchka". And here lies the problem - there is a conscient attempt to emulate the Lubistch film (same leading man, a druken Garbo scene, Constance Bennett replacing Ina Clair as the bitchy rival, etc.).

But the story isn't as bad as it is often painted. Frustrated by finding that her recently wed husband is courting his old flame, Karin pretends to be her twin sister to recover or punish her husband. Only unknown to her, he figures out her plan. Garbo isn't as good as under Lubitsch, but she isn't half bad. Only she's not as unreachable as say in "Anna Karenina" or "Camille". Quite the opposite. And I think this is what people hate about the film. It destroys their fantasies about Garbo. As for Melvyn Douglas, he can do better, but again, he's not as bad as people think he is here. There is chemistry, and there is good comedy in his performance - just look at the scene in his hotel room. And then there's Constance Bennett - bitchy perfect, and reminding me why I thought she was SO good in two early Cukor films ("Our Betters" and "What Price Hollywood?").

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Frenchman's Creek (1944)

Still on coincidences, a couple of last minute changes to the Portuguese Cinemateque's programme allowed me to watch Mitchell Leisen's "Frenchman's Creek". It seems it was the most expensive picture at Paramount up to that stage, at $3m and it starred Joan Fontaine. She plays Donna St. Columb a bored noblewoman who decides to leave London for Cornwall and falls in love with a pirate. Not sure how faithfull the whole thing is to Daphne du Maurier's novel but it doesn't really bother me, as it is a rather interesting crossroad of genres - it's part romantic film, part comedy, half heartly disguised as a swashbuckler. I mean disguised because despite that 1) the baddy is Basil Rathbone (the second best baddy ever, after Conrad Veit); 2) there is a pirate and; 3) there is a poor excuse of a sword fight at some stage, our focus is never on the hero, but on the heroine. Arturo de Córdova's pirate is never more than the love interest. And he's less than say, Olivia de Havilland in the Flynn pictures or Maureen O'Hara with Tyrone Power in "The Black Swan", both of which are more interesting characters.

So back to our centre of focus - Joan Fontaine. There's something different here, and she's also neither Maureen nor Olivia. She's openly sexy and certainly not a virgin anymore. She shows her shoulders and clivage, her dresses are very flattering, and she toys with men as she never accustomed me before. Her dialogue and playfullness made me wonder how she passed censor boards - and despite the fact there is a line of dialogue reassuring us that nothing was tainted, I think there are clear indications that the relationship was, well, consumated. (Which would make her an adulteress, something punishable under the Hays code). In summary, Joan Fontaine is not the Joan Fontaine Hitchcock and Ophüls showed the world, is something else. Something much, much sexier.

The film has many flaws - the script goes weak at times, Leisen was probably not the best action sequence director, the leading man was uninspired and Basil Rathbone is not enough on screen. Also Cecil Kellway's wonderful servant of two masters hardly appears during the second half. But it is fun, and not unpleasurable to watch.

As a footnote, my only regret is that for a film celebrated for its Technicolor cinematography I saw a faded 16mm print. Very faded - a lot of salmon going on. And fat chance of watching a better copy in London, as this is the National Film and Television Archive's copy (i.e. the BFI)... Oh well, I hope there is a better preserved copy somewhere.