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.

Friday, 17 July 2009

The Wind (1928)

Sometimes life is a series of coincidences with an unrelated starting point. When I found out that the BFI was going to show Victor Sjöstöm’s “The Wind” I decided to change my plans and take a holiday a week later than I originally intended. This turned out to be a very good decision not only because I loved the film, but also professionally due to circumstances no one could have guessed in late April/early May.

“The Wind” is one of the swansongs of silent cinema. It tells the story of Letty who goes west from Virginia to a desert area to live with her cousin. Perceived as a threat by his wife and pursued by a married man, she is forced into a loveless marriage. And all this with a constant desert wind which has a reputation to drive women mad. There is a strange happy ending to the whole thing, which doesn’t fit the film very well, but it does survive quite well despite it.

After “A Woman of Affairs”, this only the second silent film that I have seen, loved and gladly will see again – especially because I think there is so much in it. It is a truly disturbing film at parts. The wind imagery, aided by Carl Davis’ score, succeeded in producing in me a similar effect to what Gish’s character was going through. Its intensity, repetitiveness, the fact that everyone else seem to be perfectly accommodated to it, just highlight the isolation and the alienation that the combine effect of the wind, the desert and the loneliness produce in someone who seemed to have been sheltered from much hardness in life up to that point.

There are other amazing moments in the film – an extraordinary efficient and clear ellipse of an event that is crucial to the plot, so that no censor board could complain, and the final build-up of Gish’s madness, with the sand revealing way more than it should (if you watch the film you’ll know what I am talking about).

The screening I attended to was completely sold out, which I think is fairly impressive for a silent film. It was also introduced by Kevin Brownlow, which is one of the great champions of silent films and the main reason I am curious about so many of them, and by the leading actress herself in a recorded introduction from the 1980s – Gish died in 1993. I hope both the film and the intro will make it to DVD very soon.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

The Sisters (1938)

"The Sisters" is a few firsts in Bette Davis' filmography. It's her first film with Errol Flynn, her first film with director Anatole Litvak, and more significantly, is her first film after "Jezebel" and its director William Wyler, the man who, in my opinion, made her a great cinema actress. It's also a film where the productions values are the best Warner Bros. was willing to give their rising money maker.

It's also a first for me - it is her first 1938-1946 film which I didn't like. And the main fault lies in the script. I never read the book which the film is based, but I expect is a mamooth melodrama in three volumes (even if it's only 200 pages). It compares the parallel stories of three sisters during the years 1904 to 1908, from US election to US election and catching the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. And here lies one of the problems. Our interest lies solely in the Bette Davis/Errol Flynn story, and the rest is (bad) filler. Particularly bad are both actresses playing the other two sisters (one of them would play Bette's daughter in "The Old Maid") and the parents' reactions to their daughters lives, more appropriated to 1938 than mid 1900s - they seem to take very lightly the elopment of one (despite the fact she married the man in question) and the multiple marriages of another.

Davis and Flynn do their best with the script, but both were able to do so much better, and I think Davis' dislike of Flynn comes from this film rather than "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex". But there is one good thing that came out of the film. The outtake which comes up at around 1:50 in the video below.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

An Ideal Husband (1947)

I always thought of Oscar Wilde as director proof – meaning whoever adapted it, as much of a botch job as they did, his wit would survive and it would still be funny. I was wrong. Oh God, how was I wrong. Alexander Korda proved it with his flat 1947 adaptation of “An Ideal Husband”.

This is one of Wilde’s best works, it has a plot, and tension and can be incredibly funny. Lord Goring is one of his best superficial bachelors. If in doubt, look at the 1999 film with Rupert Everett, Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett. It’s great fun. It has the drama, and the comedy, and the tension and it works (at least to me). And yes, they have changed slightly the plot to make Mrs Cheveley a more romantic character.

But back to 1947. There are hardly any redeeming features in this – the acting is emotionless and the actors looked bored (I guess they were going for aloof); Diana Wynyard and Hugh Williams are plain uninteresting, and probably too old, as Lord and Lady Chiltern; the matte paintings of Hyde Park may (and I repeat, may) have been acceptable in a black and white film, they’re just plain ridiculous in colour; Cecil Beaton’s costumes look a tad too lavish. But even the rest of the cast, usually competent or good actors, is flat – this includes Paulette Goddard, C. Aubrey Smith and Constance Collier (see Hitchcock’s “Rope” where she is the best thing by far). Glynis Johnson is about the only good thing as a lovely, charming, and very Wildean Mabel. But worst of all, it just isn’t funny!

Thursday, 2 July 2009

The Oscars, or I don't care anymore

Recently the Academy has decided to increase the number of nominees in the best film category from 5 to 10, something they haven’t done since the early 1940s. This is part of a set of moves to increase the audience of the Oscar telecast, along with reforms on the Best Song category and the honorary awards, with the latter no longer part of the main telecast. A friend asked me for my reaction – which is, I couldn’t care less. This wasn’t as a pointless question as it sounds – I am a bit of an Oscar buff, and from 1991 till about five years ago I was quite keen on the Oscars (some people are still surprised at my growing indifference). Something has changed recently – I am finding the films chosen too predictable, too dull, too much Oscar-by-numbers. I think the first time I fully felt this was after watching “Mystic River” and thinking Tim Robbins would get an Oscar for a part that wasn’t necessarily his best but because he played a “challenging” part, four months before the fact. It was a predictable, “tick the boxes and get an award” affair that has only got worst.

Over the last few years, few interesting things were nominated at all, but even the potential nominees list wasn't that much better. Ratatouille and Marion Cotillard were exceptions, Ben Affleck's directorial debut “Gone Baby, Gone” was another – despite only getting a single nomination. The first third of Wall-E was one of the most beautiful films I've seen (but I wouldn't give it an award, because the rest is way too silly). I still haven't seen “Slumdog Millionaire”, but I have my doubts that it will be my choice of best film of the year. And then there are films like “Doubt”, “Frost/Nixon” and the likes, who have the pretence of a pedigree and are just DULL. “Doubt” irritated me because an actress got a nomination because she read her lines – her performance is indifferent, brief, but her speech is amazing (*) – and very much reveals the theatrical origins of the play. “Frost/Nixon” was even worst – there is no point to the film, no tension, nothing. Everyone knows how it’ll end. Surely people should be aware of that tension is an essential part of engaging an audience. Others are just overrated and no one will watch them in 15 years, despite the fact they aren't half bad, just not as good as the press made them (“Juno” comes to mind). It’s what I call the “Dances with Wolves” syndrome.

My problem, I think, is that I have seen too many films, which make me incredibly critical of sub par stuff. Last week I went to see “Last Chance Harvey”, and suddenly I realised that (for a few scenes only, to be fair) I was watching a third rate version of "An Affair to Remember" (itself a remake). Only Somerset House ain't the Empire State Building. Last night, while watching De Palma’s “The Black Dahlia”, I encountered quite obvious references to “Double Indemnity”, “Body Heat” and the 1970s version of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (which I never even saw) – and I am not even a film noir connoisseur.

The problem is that the Oscars no longer make sense in today's movie industry. They were created at a time where a handful of studios produced the vast majority of American films, and the goal was to reward that same industry. This means that most voters would watch most films or be aware of them. A look back at the nominations between 1927 and say 1960 will reveal most of relevant A-productions of American films of the period in there, even if didn’t win, even if they only have a single nomination for sound or best assistant director or whatever. (Please note I am not discussing winners, and looking at the list of films nominated, regardless of how many nominations they got). There are of course, exceptions. Hardly any B-stuff, which means that except for A-titles like Double Indemnity or The Maltese Falcon, film noir is absent. The same goes for gangster films or westerns (except those by Mr Ford) although comedies were deemed good enough to get nominations in the 1930s and 1940s. This insularity is why very few non-American films were rewarded in the first years – a notable exception is Charles Laughton’s performance in “The Private Life of Henry VIII”.

Nowadays the Academy wants the Oscar to be an international award, to reflect a global market, yet only a handful of films not in English language are distributed in LA (the necessary criterion to be eligible). Moreover, even those need a marketing powerhouse behind them, like Miramax was in the 1990s, otherwise they won't go anywhere. But here lies the problem: as you expand your pool of films and attempt to become universal, it must become painfully obvious the impossibility of the task and you are forced to recognise you can’t be exhaustive. On the other hand, the criteria for a foreign language film, the category created to recognise that there are other markets out there, are archaic, complicated and extremely political, as each country submits a single film for the category.

And there's all the fuss in 2008 because none of the actors who won is American (despite the fact that Tilda Swanson and Daniel Day-Lewis are English speaking performers in American films, and Javier Barden was acting in English in an American movie). If an Oscar nomination is any measurement of quality, there are only a handful of non-English speaking actors who were good enough to be nominated. Must be that acting is really bad outside the English speaking world. For instance, Carmen Maura which is an actress that I like very much is not "good enough". (She's was Penelope Cruz' mother in Volver). If you compare two films, whatever their origin or language, the criteria should be the same. In a sense, Cannes, Venice or Berlin are fairer competitions - you're either in the short list or not, but at least they don't claim to cover the world.

The core problem is this: the Oscars are now plainly about the money (although there’s still the pretence of quality). The money at the box-office, the home video sales and the revenue from the telecast. The Academy also wants to get audiences inside the US and outside the US, and the more they want both, in the end they'll end with neither. The films they're rewarding now are pale imitations of the films they should have recognised about 5, 10, 15 years ago. It's Sundance as a brand.

Ultimately, what they expect is that if the next “Ratatouille” or the next “The Dark Knight” gets nominated it will boost audiences. It won’t for two reasons. First because everyone knows they won’t win – a “serious” film will. Second, what everyone forgets is that “The Dark Knight”, good as it was, was mostly hyped because a fantastic and disturbing performance by an excellent actor who had recently died. Take that out, and it will deflate.

(*) – A brief performance is not necessarily unworthy of an Oscar. Judi Dench steals “Shakespeare in Love” with 8 minutes of screen time, and Anthony Hopkins only appears for about half an hour in “The Silence of the Lambs”.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Karl Malden (1912-2009)

Never a classic leading man, but nevertheless one of the great actors of the 1950s, an Oscar-winner for "A Streetcar named Desire", a fantastic voice and greatly underrated. A few favourites include Streetcar, Hitchcock's "I Confess", "Baby Doll", "Pollyanna" (nostalgia central, I'm afraid) and "Dead Ringer" with Bette Davis.

The Lady Eve (1941)

I wonder if Preston Sturges thought of Congreve’s line “Heav'n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn'd, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn'd” [or in a more familiar version “Hell hath no fury like a scorned woman”] when he came up with the idea for “The Lady Eve” (and yes, I cheated and looked for the correct quote and author online). Alternatively, the film can be most synthetically described as woman’s quest to prove to the man she loves that some bad women aren’t as bad as they look, and that good women often aren’t as good as he’d think. Of course the film is so much more that that. It’s a hilarious mix between screwball and romantic comedy, aided by Sturges’ immense gift for words, well illustrated by Barbara Stanwyck vindictively uttering “I need him like the axe needs the turkey”.

The plot is simple – while returning to the US on a ship (from an expedition in South America), the awkward heir to an ale fortune (Henry Fonda) falls victim of a group of professional card players (including Charles Coburn and Stanwyck as his daughter Jean). However, things don’t go according to plan to the troupe of crooks as Jean falls in love with their prey. When he founds out romance is off, and she starts a long process of proving what I mentioned above, i.e. she isn’t really as bad as she looks. On a personal note, I am not sure if the way she proceeds to do it is really the best way to prove that… anyway…

As I mentioned in a previous post, “The Lady Eve” was the beginning of my love affair with Stanwyck’s acting. With the possible exception of her deadly performance in “Double Indemnity”, I think she’s at her best here – and frankly should have won an Oscar for it! Her two great sequences with Fonda are priceless. In the first, at the very beginning of the film, she tricks him and seduces him, leaving him in a completely state of disarray. Later, she does it again, while on the train – but to say more is would be to spoil it. The chemistry between the performers is amazing, and this is possibly Fonda at his romantic leading man best (something he stopped doing after the war). But it also highlights his talent as a comic actor, in particular as someone comfortable with slapstick, when he performs a series of falls (and destroys a few suits) in one of the funniest sequences in the film. There is also incredible support from Eugene Pallette, William Demarest and, especially, Charles Coburn.

“The Lady Eve” is the third of a string of comedies that Sturges directed for Paramount in the first years of the 1940s (although some were distributed with 1-2 years delay). It showcases his confidence as a director and his craft as a screenwriter. It also surprises me in how much it stretches the Hays code, bending it without breaking it, especially in the seduction scenes I mentioned above, where Fonda ends sitting on the floor, rather than on the chaise longue (which wouldn’t be allowed) – not that makes much difference, really. But this bending of rules is also present in the ending – although I assume that’s because the viewer knows more than one of the characters by then.