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 d├ębut) 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.