Tuesday, 29 September 2009

CumpleaƱos 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.