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, d├ęcor 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.