Saturday, 25 December 2010

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)

I started Frank Tashlin's "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" hesitantly. I finished it bitterly disappointed. In between, I laughed a lot. So what went wrong? Well, my initial reaction is very easy to explain - Frank Tashlin. As a Looney Tunes' director he was never my favourite and I didn't care much for "The Girl Can't Help It" when I watched it a few years ago, albeit some good cartoony moments. I just never warmed to it. Since it starts the same leading lady (Jayne Mansfield) and a similar leading man (Tony Randall here; Tom Ewell in "The Girl...") I hope you can see where I was standing.
"Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" was a different kettle of fish. It was funny from the start, smart, mixing effortlessly George Axelrod witticism (the film is based on his play) with Tashlin's visual humour. A satire on television, celebrity and the film and advertising industries that hasn't lost its bite and gelled perfectly with my sense of humour. Of course some of the gags are better if you know the context - the intermission Tony Randall presents is a delight, but becomes extra caustic if you realise in 1957 film was loosing the war to television - plus is Rita Marlowe (Mansfield's character) that much different from the current flavour of the moment? True, some now need strange outfits instead of "oh so kissable lips", but it's the same thing.

The film benefits from the great cast: a perfectly cast Tony Randall (his career was mainly on US TV before I was born and therefore unknown to me); the ever magnificent Joan Blondell, who should have appeared more; Hitchcock's favourite John Williams as the stiff head of the advertising agency and Betsy Drake as the jilted (and jealous) girlfriend. I was less convinced by Jayne Mansfield. True, the part doesn't demand that much of her, but take Marilyn in "The Seven Year Itch" (adapted from another Axelrod play) and see what the part required. Both are blond objects of desire placed within reach of an average man. But Marilyn had a stupendous comic timing and Mansfield not so. The scenes with Randall when she aims to seduce him are too long and feel like a distraction from the really good bits of the film. Still, she manages not produce any major damage.

The great disappointment is the ending (Grouch Marx's cameo aside) or rather the long ellipse that omits how everyone ended as they did (the actual ending was fine). It thought it lazy and that Tashlin (who wrote the script) had finally ran out of ideas. I felt denied the climax the film had been building to, where all the pairs would be rearranged and the natural order of things would be restored. A real pity, considering how smoothly everything went till then.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Blake Edwards (1922 - 2010)

Blake Edwards will forever be the man who directed "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and the Pink Panther films, but my favourites are "The Days of Wine and Roses" with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, both superb; and the gorgeous, funny and I think, underrated, "Victor Victoria" (or maybe I just have a soft spot for it) with Julie Andrews. He was also married to the leading lady.

He got an honorary Academy Award a few years ago and got is sole nomination for the screenplay of "Victor, Victoria". As such, the trailer below for your pleasure - and mine too.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

When Frank met Barbara IV: The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

The final film in this series is, to me, the most interesting and arguably the best. In contemporary China, the fiancée of a missionary finds herself the houseguest of General Yen, a ruthless warlord who is in love with her. Despite herself (and more on this in a moment) she finds she is falling for him. As I mentioned here, this is a film that could not have been made two years later. A mixed race relationship, where one of the elements is a “decent white girl” was far more than the conservative audiences of the 1930s were willing to allow – and it became explicitly forbidden.

Capra directed the film with Oscar success in mind and to ensure recognition of quality by his peers. But it shouldn't have taken him much to realise that the film would not be a hit at the box-office. Despite appearances, the film is (for 1933) on General Yen’s side and quite unsympathetic of white people (Walter Connolly’s Jones, the general’s “financial adviser” comes as particularly unpleasant). The missionaries are presented as prejudiced creatures (not exactly very christian), unwilling to see China beyond their own preconceived ideas. Their lack of interest in the country is openly criticised by Yen, who despite being ruthless, is also a sophisticated character and a lover of fine things. In a sense, he is not quite a Bond villain in the making, like Fu Manchu – While we aren’t given any historical background to the civil unrest (probably audiences would be mildly aware) I strongly suspect that he is not just fighting for power and money; he is also fighting for his own survival - as indeed the film hints at. By the end, our sympathies lay with the character we are told from the start is the enemy.

Of course, not all is perfect – although most of the Chinese characters and extras are played by people of far eastern ancestry, the main part itself is played by Nils Ashter, a Swede. Interestingly, his overpowering presence works in favour of the character and probably made the film acceptable at the time of release (after all, under all the make-up there was a white actor).

Stanwyck’s character, a young American girl called Megan (pronounced Mee-gan, which I found quite strange) starts not terribly far from Alden Pyne in Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American” – dangerously idealist. Of course, she does not have his resources and, unlike him, she gives in. From the moment she sees General Yen, she’s fascinated, but feels rejected (metaphorically quite well represented by a handkerchief). Then despite herself she finds herself more and more attracted to him – although this time she’s the one rejecting his advances – and his handkerchief. In what is the best sequence in the film (and quite explicit too), in her dreams she admits the truth: as she is about to be raped by a Fu Manchu type when at last moment she is saved by a masked hero – however, when he takes off her mask, it’s not her fiancé…

In the end, we are treated to a speculative speech by Walter Connolly – and in Stawyck’s face (she doesn’t say a word, nor does she really need to) we know that his words are really the epilogue. It’s not Capra’s best film, it might not even be one of his most touching – but it is one that is worth looking beyond 1933 and 2010 prejudices.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

When Frank met Barbara III: Forbidden (1932)

When I saw “Forbidden” for the first time, I think in the London Film Festival a few years ago, I wasn’t particularly impressed. When I saw it there again, it was second time lucky. And probably would have like it better if I hadn’t spent half of the screening trying to remember which film it remind me of – in the end I realise it was Edmund Goulding’s “The Trespasser” (1929) with Gloria Swanson which he remade in 1937 with Bette Davis as “That Certain Woman”, two examples of heavy handed melodramas. Goulding would do much better for instance in “The Old Maid” or that supreme soap-opera that is “The Great Lie”. Capra’s straight storytelling skills and lack of tendency for melodrama actually suited the script well – it tones it down, creating some pathos to the characters that otherwise would have just been sinking in excess.

These same characters, while well handled, that are also the strangest element of the film. This is the story of a librarian (Stanwyck, of course) who spends her savings on a holiday cruise to Havana. On the boat she meets and falls in love with a man (Adolph Menjou), and they start a life long affair – you see, he’s married to an “invalid” (i.e. she wears a cane…) and worst, he has political ambitions. While I have no problem empathising with characters who repress themselves out of duty (e.g. “Brief Encounter”) there is something not quite right with the leading character’s obsessive love with Menjou’s. For him, she gives up everything despite the fact he does not give her anything in return and won’t let her go (she tries a few times). In fact, he goes further, taking things from her. In part this feels like 19th Century romanticism taken to extremes, but really is more like an essay on the effects of a sudden release of sexual and emotional repression exploding in the hands the first person who releases it.

More appealing is Ralph Bellamy’s workaholic news editor with a crush on Stanwyck. His is an ambiguous character that has a personal vendetta for Menjou’s which you aren’t entirely on what is really based on (for all intents Menjou is not a corrupt politician and Stanwyck is his only skeleton in the closet).

Capra’s work throughout is almost unnoticeable, thus showing off his skills to keep the pace and retain our attention, focusing on the key moments of the relationship. It’s the script that ends up being the most unsympathetic to its own characters. After torturing Stanwyck for 80 odd minutes, the film ends in the harshest of ways. I assume the idea was not to leave a dry eye in the house, but it’s too bleak for that – you just end engulfed in the black hole that her character’s emotions have become.

Friday, 3 December 2010

When Frank met Barbara II: The Miracle Woman (1931)

After “Ladies of Leisure”, the next Capra/Stanwyck was “The Miracle Woman”, the story of a minister’s daughter who, after her father’s death, becomes an evangelic preacher. With the help of a crook, she swindles her followers until she meets a blind veteran (David Manners) whose life she had unknowingly saved.

Clearly an attack on hypocritical evangelic preachers to whom money is the only religion, the film hasn’t had a very successful story. It’s easy to see why it was a flop at the time of release – for 1931 this is quite an attack on the moral hypocrisy, not only of those preaching, but also those seating in the benches (the opening sequence is quite a good example). However, modern audiences probably agree with me that the film doesn’t go far enough. Capra and the script probably toned down the original material as Stanwyck’s character is actually a profoundly religious person, with a deep faith, only going astray through a general disappointment with Mankind – in the end, she resumes the path of virtue and through fire, all is purified.

The film is also hampered by a weak ending that is in effect a huge ellipse: it’s too clean, avoiding any real answers – I mean, how did they all get out of that mess? Did the police never bothered to investigate anything?

On the plus side, despite some excesses in the opening sequence (and I think it may have been this, and not “Forgiven” I mentioned here) the performances are excellent, especially David Manners’. He’s extremely good as an unsentimentalised blind man: self-sufficient, resourceful and definitely not wallowing in self-pity. His suicidal tendencies are more the frustration of not being able to succeed at something (we are clearly told that money is not a problem). I am not sure what to think of the dummy though. The other highlight is Beryl Mercer, as the motherly landlady.

Overall, of all the four films, this is the one who disappointed me the most. It had enough to be an absolute classic, but instead, Capra’s lack of conviction on his attack deliver us a disappointment with some good moments and performances.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Missing, most wanted

Every (most?) classic film fans will, at some stage or another, find themselves wishing they could see a film considered lost. Common ones include Tod Browning's "London After Midnight" starring Lon Chaney or Murnau's "4 Devils", both available in reconstructed approximations using stills - most lost films don't even have that. Others like "Sadie Thompson" with Gloria Swanson survive in trucated forms, in this particular case nearly complete, but on the other hand only one reel has been found of "The Divine Woman" with Garbo (there are other instances where only small fragments survive). Occasionally, miracles happen - the Gloria Swanson/Valentino only pairing "Beyond the Rocks" was found in the early 2000s and more recently, the nearly complete director's cut of "Metropolis".

And of course there are versions of films which were never released, like Orson Welles' cut of "The Magnificient Ambersons" which I think would top anyone's most wanted list. Although even in this department miracles do happen, as the 2004 finding of the pre-release cut of "Baby Face" now available on the "Forbidden Hollywood vol 1" DVD set (not holding my breath for "Ambersons" though).

So, which one is mine? Well, it's an infamous WB Pre-code comedy called (yes, you've guessed it...) "Convention City" starring Joan Blondell, Mary Astor, Adolph Menjou and an array of other familiar faces of the studio. This is possibly the last major production of a Hollywood studio to be lost. After the Hays Code was fully enforced it remained mostly in the vaults (although it has been shown somewhere in the US in 1937). It has since gained a reputation of being too daring even within Pre-Code limits (I doubt it can be "worst" than "Baby Face"...). A full background can be found in this thread here. Because it did had a proper release there is hope it one day may resurface, even if it's in a truncated copy. My fingers are crossed. Yet, do I really believe that it will live to my expections? Honestly, no. It was probably as memorable or as forgetable as most of the comedies produced by WB between 1930 and 1934 - but I certainly wish I had the chance to see it.

Friday, 26 November 2010

When Frank met Barbara I: Ladies of Leisure (1930)

Once upon a time a young, fast rising director met a young actress from Brooklyn with only the smallest number of films under her belt. Four years, four films and a failed love affair later, they were both established names – Frank Capra and Barbara Stanwyck. The films were: “Ladies of Leisure” (1930), “The Miracle Woman” (1931), “Forbidden” (1932) and “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” (1933). A few years later, in the early 1940s they would collaborate for the final time, in “Meet John Doe”.

The current Frank Capra retrospective at the BFI has given the chance to watch these four films (I am excluding “Meet John Doe”) in a short period of time. I had seen all but “Ladies of Leisure” and own the UK R2 DVDs of both “The Miracle Woman” and “The Bitter Tea of General Yen”. I went through these with a fairly open mind and found myself re-evaluating them for the better (I had discussed some of them here and here). My only regret was not able to see them chronologically – although that’s how I will present them here, starting with the first, “Ladies of Leisure”.

The film tells the story of the relationship between a rich boy who wants to be an artist and party girl (an euphemism for something else) he chooses to be his model for a painting personifying “Hope”. This is clearly the moment in Stanwyck’s career where you can shout “a Star is born!” – have no doubt, it’s her film (aided by the fact that the rest of the cast has largely been forgotten). And it almost didn’t happen – the actress’ first meeting with the director didn’t go very well.

A Pre-code through and through, not much is left to the imagination. Stanwyck’s occupation and that of her flatmate are more than just hinted (actually almost stated), and her character seems at ease with it, at times being quite explicit she has no issues with what she does. It’s also clear that there is some off-screen fun without the blessing of holy matrimony. Despite this, the film is less sharp around the edges than the output of Warner Bros., where Stanwyck also spent some time during the early 1930s. The focus is more on the romance between the leads and less on the bleakness of life (e.g. “Baby Face” just to stick with another Stanwyck film). Interestingly, the leading man doesn’t seem to mind very much that the object of his affections has a past, something that Columbia would explore from a different angle in “Virtue”. Furthermore, the inevitable scene between the girl and the family doesn’t follow exactly the same template of such scenes where “good” families try to get rid of what they perceive as less “good” heroines (e.g. “Shopworn”).

There are two more moments in the film that I would like to point out. Unfortunately I can’t talk about them without revealing some of the plot. So consider this your spoiler warning. The first is the sequence in the artist’s studio, when she’s forced to spend the night in the couch. At some stage we see the door open. She hears it and knows he’s coming. We see him coming closer. We know she is in love with him, and as such she would like him to be different than the others (i.e. put a little ring around her finger). For a few seconds Capra teases us and makes us wonder what is going to happen. It’s a great sequence extremely well edited and a sort of rehearsal for the final sequence. Extremely well shot and edited, the final minutes of the film have a rhythm and suspense unusual in those very first years of sound. Plus, to be honest I wasn’t entirely sure how it was going to end, which is always a plus.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945)

After watching Robert Siodmark's "The Strange Afair of Uncle Harry" I looked around online - there seems to be a general consensus that this is a very good film with the most disappointing ending. I am not at all surprised, as I totally agree. However, I think that most people don't realise is that the original ending of the play would not be allowed. It's true that other options could have allowed some of the spirit of the source material, but this way we almost have it. And watching the film, you can certainly spot what has been added (so you can always stop the film a few minutes before the end card).
All that said, the film is definitely worth a look. George Sanders is the emasculated last heir of an old family that has lost all its money in the depression. He has been forced to work to support himself and two sisters, one a widow (played by Angela Lansbury's mother, Moyna MacGill) and the other, the youngest, an "invalid" (Geraldine Fitzgerald). When a NY company representative (Ella Rains) arrives in town he promptly falls for her and asks her to marry him. While one sister is happy, the other manages to undermine their relationship. When she succeeds in breaking the couple up, something Harry snaps.

The story is, until the very moment, exceptionally good, with good character characterization and the ability of draw you to it. And Siodmark (who following this would make "The Spiral Staircase", the exceptional "The Killers" and one my favourite Olivia de Havilland films' "The Dark Mirror") knows exactly how to create tension: the overbearingness of Geraldine Fitzgerald's conservatory; the release that Ella Rains represents; a wonderful shot of a fallen cup followed by a close-up of Fitzgerald's face. And he gets to take the best out of his cast. If we ignore Ella Rains entirely forgettable performance, the actors are astonishing. The three siblings and Sara Allgood as their maid are fantastic. George Sanders manages to go from meak to determined in a very subtle and believable way; and Moyna MacGill's confrontations with Geraldine Fitzgerald are full of sibling rivalry. But this is Fitzgerald's film. She's twisted, double faced, manipulative, hints at incestuous desires and she has fun with it. Her final scene with Sanders she proves him that whatever happened, she won.

I wish the original ending had been kept, or that the film might have been made in the UK where I suspect the censors might just about get things past (or maybe I am being optimistic). However, in the great world of messed-up Hollywood endings, it's neither alone, nor is it the worst one ever.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Turnabout (1940)

When I wrote about “Love Me Tonight” I mentioned how much better the film would be if only it had different leads. I now found a companion piece, Hal Roach’s “Turnabout”. This largely forgotten film, released in 1940, was shown as part of the London Film Festival’s “Treasures from the Archives” section. To be entirely honest, I had never heard of the film until I saw the programme. It caught my attention as it had Mary Astor in the cast, and that usually is rewarding (and was, but more of that in a moment).

The film tells a story of a couple (a health-obsessed advertiser and his lady-who-lunches wife) who switch bodies when they agree that they would like to step into each other’s shoes – being the first time they agree on something the wish is granted. Both actors, Carole Landis and John Hubbard, were altogether unknown to me and going through their filmography I hardly recognised any title. And from what I saw, it came as no surprise.

The leads’ main problem is that they are, to put it mildly, extremely irritating. There is clearly no chemistry between them, and they just left me wonder what did each saw in the other. They’re also a source of uncomfortable humour when they switch bodies. Playing on easy laughs, John Hubbard is camper than a drag queen (and far more effeminate than his wife, if that makes sense) although he does imitate some of her facial expressions well – we are certainly miles away from Dustin Hoffman’s superb Tootsie. It also pushes credibility a bit too much: how many women, finding themselves in a man's body would go around carrying a handbag? Carole Landis is a bit better but not much more. Both characters behave as if oblivious to the fact they changed bodies. Script logic holes like this only sem to reinforce the film's sole point - don't try to change your life; be content - and if you're a woman, remember, you're frivolous and of no consequence and your real place is in the home.

On the other hand the film is filled of an amazing cast of supporting actors, all of them excellent. Adolph Menjou (who gets top billing although he’s the third lead) and Mary Astor, as Hubbard's main business partner and his bitchy wife steal the show, as you’d expect from actors of that quality. But you also have Donald Meek, Marjorie Main, Franklin Pangborn and a few others familiar faces who manage to salvage as much as possible of the film.

I was impressed with the ending of the film, which is a bit risqué (apparently it and some other scenes were controversial with the censors) and with the mention, during the film’s introduction, of a scene not in the film but in the novel – the rape of the husband in the wife’s body by the wife in the husband’s body. Wonder if they would touch that scene today…

Still the biggest laughs came, not from the film itself, but from something else. While restoring the film the archivists found the original introduction, interval and closing to film’s first TV presentation. Because these were shot on film, they decided to incorporate them into this screening, as it was shown in 1951 on American TV, sponsored by Schlitz, “the beer that made Milwaukee famous”. And since 1950s TV adverts have not aged very well, they are hilarious.

Friday, 5 November 2010

It Happened One Night (1934)

When I was much younger and getting into classic films I often fell in love with the Frank Capra’s films I had a chance to see, i.e. those from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s (roughly from “Lady for a Day” to “It’s a Wonderful Life”). As I grew older, and more cynical, I found that my taste changed, and I grew further apart from his films (I have changed my mind again on one or two). There were, however, some exceptions: “Mr Smith Goes to Washington”; “Arsenic and Old Lace” which has to be the less-Capraesque of all his films and, of course, “It Happened One Night”.

Like “Arsenic and Old Lace”, “It Happened One Night” seems to be far from his bolder social statements. Yes, there is some criticism of the upper classes, but nothing that is too distracting. Instead the focus is really in the war of the sexes love story between a spoiled heiress (Claudette Colbert) and a fast talking and recently unemployed reported (Clark Gable) while travelling from Miami to New York.

While this indeed one of the great romantic comedies ever made, after watching it I was able to put it in context in a way I hadn’t before. For the past few years I became more and more familiar with silent and Pre-code films, as this blog attests. So while before my film knowledge really started at around 1934, now it goes much further back. And this allowed me to see the film in an altogether different light.

Suddenly I fully understand why this is a cornerstone film. Perhaps its key achievement is how subtly different in construction is from its contemporary comedies. Unlike many other comedies from the early 1930s, for instance, the WB comedies with the likes of Joan Blondell or James Cagney or Lubitsch’s films at Paramount, this is a milder affair – both sexually and verbally. Yes, there are clear innuendos and dialogue flies, but comparing that with Howard Hawks’ “Twentieth Century” (along which is credited as the first important screwball comedy) it’s tame. But this apparent loss is actually to the film’s gain. The story is told in less fragmented manner, more coherently. This approach allowed the characters to develop, instead of being one or two dimensional creatures and would be the template on how Hollywood treated comedy until the end of WWII. And yes, for the following few years, spoiled heiresses would keep falling in love with wisecracks and witty dialogue would attempt to reveal the sexual tension that could not be properly shown, thus creating what is known as “screwball comedy”.

In case you haven’t seen the film, I think I should mention that Colbert and Gable are excellent, both giving career high performances and both, like Capra, collecting Oscars – making this the first of only three films to win the five main awards: film, director, actor, actress and screenplay. Gable’s performance is probably the most relaxed I have ever seen him on screen. Oh yes, and that end scene that brought the house down with laughter...

Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Match King (1932)

"The Match King" is possibly one of the best examples of WB's "torn from the headlines" film making policy and factory style production. It was based on the life of Ivan Kreuger, a Swedish industrialist who at some stage controlled most of the world's match production. Kreuger killed himself on 12 March 1932 after his financial empire collapsed. On 31 December 1932, the film opened. Just over 9 months - I was left wondering if it was a record...

In the film, Kreuger becomes Paul Kroll, a very unscrupulous business man and a swindler. Warren William is possibly the only actor in the 1930s who could do oily and charming at the same time, and here, like in earlier "Skyscrapers' Souls" and later "Employees' Entrance" (my favourite of the three, I should add), he excels. In fact, the three films seem to almost form a trilogy of Pre-code Great Business critique that resonates oh so well today. The film is very much centred around his leading man. William has most of the on-screen time and it is really his performance that carries the film through. These three films should have been released long ago as part of the "Forbidden Hollywood" DVD series which WB seems to have either killed or put on hold for the foreseable future (which is a pity since I absolutely loved it).

The women in Kroll's life are many but the actresses are not household names, and to be honest I didn't recognised any of their faces. Most of them weren't memorable or lasted particularly long onscreen. There were two exceptions. One was Glenda Farrell, in her bit part days, who I obviously recognised from her later films. The second was Lili Damita, a French actress who finished her film career by 1937, who managed to be the great love of the Match King. However, the performance was dull and uninspired, and I suspect I won't remember her face for long. The only other main cast members I recognised were Hardie Albright, who played the lemon faced boyfriend of Claudette Colbert in "Three-Cornered Moon" and Harold Huber, as Scarlatti, who appeared towards the end of the film. On a blink-and-you'll-miss-them note, Alan Hale appears in one scene.

The film's pace is fast, as you'd come to expect from a Pre-code WB film. This is a bit uneven, as the story unravels too quickly at times and too slow at others (the love story), focusing too much at some stage in the romantic aspect rather than the main story line. Of course, at speed these films were made, the scripts were seldom polished and here it clearly shows, which is a pity.

I was lucky enough to see the film in beautiful new print taken from the original negative by the Library of Congress during the London Film Festival. I sincerely hope more people get that chance soon.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Stanwyck in noir III: Double Indemnity (1944)

"Double Indemnity" was Billy Wilder's third American film and perhaps his most ambitious project of the 1940s. It's among his best and has endured critical and public acclaim since its release. It was adapted by Wilder himself and Raymond Chandler (rather than Wilder's usual collaborator Charles Brackett who decided he didn't like the subject matter) from James M. Cain's novella of the same title. It is also one of key film noir titles, from before the term was coined.

It tells the tale of Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) insurance salesman, who involved sexually (more than romantically) with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), is manipulated by her into murdering her husband so she claim an accident insurance on his death. Interestingly, I don't consider this a spoiler, as less than five minutes into the film we know that Neff has "killed a man for money - and a woman - and [he] didn't get the money and [he] didn't get the woman." The suspense comes from the "how did he end there", not from the ending itself. From the opening shot when you realise something is not quite right with Neff, to a car that doesn't start at a key point, all tension is very Hitchcockian - although I am not sure how much of an influence Hitchcock himself was, as this is still ahead of his great American films of the mid-1940s and 1950s. On the other hand, the film's voice over is decidedly not Hitchcockian and links very well to Wilder's own "Sunset Blvd." and anticipates a trademark feature of film noir.

The film is full of Wilder's touch - witty, quick dialogue; very close male relationships; and one of my favourites, pulling one on the censors. The film contains one of most obvious post-coital scenes produced under the Hays Code (MacMurray smoking, Stanwyck composing her lipstick). I have wondered how it passed, and the only thing I can think of is that the voice over reassures us that all they did was embrace (yeah, right...)

As Phyllis, Barbara Stanwyck gives the screen one of the most poisonous characters it has ever seen. She's absolutely ruthless and manipulative, using sex to get what she wants (Neff, and later on I suspect another character was also seduced). Stanwyck's ability to pull it off is uncanny - she's a cheap and yet desirable black widow who hardly ever shows any emotion. Look at her eyes. The moment MacMurray turns away they harden. It's one of two true emotions we ever get from her - contempt. The other is the almost smile during the amazing murder scene (happening off stage) when Wilder has his camera stuck on her stony face.

Fred MacMurray was an interesting casting decision. A seriously underrated actor, as he occasionally showed us, up to that point he had only been a leading ladies' leading man, supporting the likes of Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Marlene Dietrich or even Stanwyck herself as required. Here Wilder gave him a character with few redeeming features that still charms the hell out of you. It's also one of MacMurray's best performances, along with "There's Always Tomorrow" (again with Stanwyck) and "The Apartment" (again with Wilder). He shines through the film - from his original lust (their first scene together is amazing), through the planning, till the final confrontation. Interestingly, Wilder would do a similar casting against type with Ray Milland, Paramount's other leading ladies' leading man, the following year which got him an Oscar.

The third character in this dark triangle is Edward G. Robinson's Keyes as Neff's office mentor and father figure who ends being the reason of their downfall. Robinson was undoubtably one of the most versatile actors at WB in the 1930s, a full leading man who was more of a character actor. Like MacMurray and Stanwyck he seems so at ease in his (almost supporting) part that you forget he's acting.

The film got seven Oscar nominations: best film, best director, best screenplay, best actress, best sound, best soundtrack (Miklós Rózsa) and John F. Seitz's highly influential cinematography (I think it's in Cameron Crowe's interview book with Wilder where he describes how Seitz would spread something to give that dust through venetian blinds look). It lost them all. Ingrid Bergman beat Stanwyck and Seitz lost to Joseph LaShelle's exquisite work in "Laura" ( who later became Wilder's collaborator). In one of those mysteries the Academy is so good at, "Going My Way" got all the important ones. And to add insult to injury, MacMurray, Robinson and the excellent art direction were completely ignored.

Monday, 13 September 2010

The Palm Beach Story (1942)

Much has been said on Preston Sturges’ amazing run of films at Paramount during the early 1940s. While I could not finish “Christmas in July” and “The Great Moment” is an awkward thing that was reassembled by the studio, the other six are astonishing satires (I am still in awe that “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” ever passed the censors), although I confess that I never have completely fallen for “Sullivan’s Travels”’.

“The Palm Beach Story” is the fifth in the run, and my second favourite after “The Lady Eve”. It stars Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea as a married couple. The film starts with their wedding over the opening credits and then forwards five years – by now they are flooded by debts. When by chance they clear them, Colbert decides to get a divorce to give her husband a chance in life and to find a millionaire than can take care of her. Of course, he doesn’t really agree with his plan, so she goes to Palm Beach meeting millionaire Rudy Vallee and his sister Mary Astor.

Colbert is a tour de force and it’s a pity that Sturges didn’t use her again. She was so at ease in the sophisticated romantic comedy Paramount made into an art form that she doesn’t get enough credit for it. What I hadn’t fully noticed before was Mary Astor’s exquisite performance as the man eater Princess Centimillia. Obsessed with men, and finding Joel McCrea ideally suitable to be her next husband, she desperately tries to get rid of her current “entertainment” who insists he should stick around. While McCrea and Vallee are good, they really can't compete.

An interesting aspect of the film is that Colbert and McCrea clearly have a healthy sex life. Since they are married and never actually divorce, Sturges got away with far more than he otherwise would. Although apparently he had to tone down Mary Astor’s character lust, reducing the number of her marriages from eight to three, plus two annulments. As if that would make that much difference.

The very end is a bit frustrating and feels a bit of an easy solution out – the opening sequence that helps explain is, probably purposely, not very clear. If had to point out a fault in the film, that would be my choice.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Stamboul Quest (1934)

For the first 20 minutes or so, “Stamboul Train” is quite a promising film. Myrna Loy is the Fräulein Doktor, the most important female spy working for Germany during World War I. And then George Brent appears – in fairness to him, it’s not (entirely) his fault; it’s his character and what he stands for. Falling in love at first sight with Loy, he proceeds to follow her across Europe to Istanbul and interfering with her mission simply because he’s “in love with her”. I really hate this ill-conceived idea that a man is all that is necessary for a woman to fulfil herself, even if that means putting her own country at risk – and recently several films I have seen emphasise this premise (“Lady in the Dark”, “More than a Secretary” also with Brent and “They All Kissed the Bride”). For contrast, having finished a short 19th Century Portuguese novel where the main character fulfils herself through work, refusing to get married, was somewhat refreshing.

But back to the film and what it is its main problem: the script. This looks the most routine of routine jobs – I’d go as far as wonder if this wasn’t conceived as a B picture and got changed as it developed. Or maybe it didn't change at all - this was release only a couple of months after "The Thin Man" and "Manhattan Melodrama". It’s not just Brent’s character that is a cardboard cutout, there’s also a badly explained ending, tying in with the first scene (the film is a shown to us in flashback, without no apparent reason). So what started so well, goes on, and on, constantly finding a new low until it hits rock bottom at the very end.

The film has an interesting connection with Mata Hari – and more the Garbo film than the actual story. It winks at the audience referring to the plot of the early film. The two films (both produced by MGM) would overlap in the “real” timescale. This, and Loy’s performance before Brent follows her to Istanbul, are two of the main interest points of the film. A third aspect of interest is the openness about Loy’s sexual behaviour which is surprisingly not toned down: if IMDb is correct the film was released two weeks after the enforcement of the Hays Code.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Metropolis (1927)

Where should I start on this one? Perhaps with my personal history with the film – I saw it around 2002 or 2003 in Bristol, at the Arnolfini. If you ever sat there before refurbishment (never went there afterwards) you’d probably remember how uncomfortable the seats were. Add to the mix that I wasn’t very versed in silent cinema and have an intense dislike of parables. So, despite its reputation, “Metropolis” then had little chances of engaging me. I think I saw the 2001 restoration, with photos and intertitles explaining the missing footage. This was the best approximation to Lang’s cut available then. Nevertheless, I was very excited when the news of the original cut being found reached me. Proof that miracles do happen.

So I went to UK premiere at the BFI – which is far less glamorous than it sounds, as it was just an ordinary screening at the NFT1. And if at first the cuts were minimal (they are easy to spot), suddenly whole sequences appeared out of nowhere, developing characters further and giving the film a rhythm that it I thought it lacked before. While the storyline is the same as the version I saw, the fact that I had images rather than text meant that the action made more sense. It also meant that the religiousness of it all become more diluted, which in turn highlighted the social aspect of it. The missing sequences also increase the story’s tension as the Thin Man, previously no more than a bit player, is now a menacing character pursuing Joh and Josaphat (another character who now appears much more developed). Josaphat also became an intriguing character, and some people might pick up on this as the cut becomes better known and studied, in that he seems to be infatuated by the hero (who seems to be oblivious). It still isn’t a complete print. There was too much damage in one or two sections which could not be restored, but I can live with it – I better do, miracles do not tend to strike the same place twice.

As for the film itself, my highlight is Brigitte Helm in her incarnation as the robot. Her body language, the way she moves, the way she almost winks at Fredersen, so different from her other character as the heroine. Plus her dancing routine as the the new Babylon is so weird and funny (and the faces of the men watching it) that is priceless.

So now I like “Metropolis”. I still cringe at moments – the banality of the philosophy in it and some of the silent film style of overacting – but I don’t think it matters. Even if I hated it, a near complete print of a film that is loved by millions and has influenced countless artists since, has been recovered to our common heritage. This is one the happiest endings in cinema history.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Lady in the Dark (1944)

The first word that comes to mind to describe "Lady in the Dark" is odd. So odd, that by the end of it I can't say if it's good, bad or more likely, something in between. It's the story of Liza Elliott (Ginger Rogers), a magazine editor, that suddenly feels so overwhelmed by everything that she is persuaded to see a psychologist. It's adapted from a Broadway musical by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, but it the adaptation reduces the musical numbers to three key dream sequences, playing much as a straight drama with musical moments. The film actually handles the psychology bit in a surprising modern way - and the whole process is far more believable than in "Spellbound" for instance - with the psychologist emphasing it's a slow process and showing some ethics, although there is still a lot of pop psychology (the "motive" behind all of Rogers' problems is a bit unintentionally funny).

I got the film in an Italian 6 film boxset dedicated to director Mitchell Leisen. While the other 5 were good black and white transfers, including "Remember the Night", this is an altogether different matter. It is presented in a faded Technicolor print with burnt in Italian subtitles - skin colours are a bit too greenish and several shades of dull brown and duller orange replace everything from red to yellow, including Ginger Rogers' blond hair. The reason for this, as far as I could tell from the cover, is that the film is in public domain in Italy (not sure how that works, as it's under copyright everywhere else). It's a pity as the film got an Oscar nomination for its colour cinematography.
The film's oddness comes from the fact that something (which I can't quite put my finger on) and some things don't quite work. One is the character and the casting of the leading man, in this case Ray Milland. Milland plays an advertising executive working for Rogers so unpleasantly and with such gusto that by the end I really couldn't stand him. Misogynists remarks about Rogers being a man (or eventually a lesbian, which amounts to same in 1940s cinema, but can be "cured"). It's a tough part which would need someone like Cary Grant, who could be unpleasant and appealing at the same time (e.g. "Notorious"). Of course, as much as I like him, Leisen was no Hitchcock. Ginger Rogers is ok, as is most of the cast (which includes Warner Baxter), but not memorable. Her best moment is when she realises she's not interested in the second banana. Hers is the face of someone to whom the obvious just became, well, obvious.

Another thing that didn't quite work for me were the musical numbers. They aren't bad, but they seem out-of-place and, and this may be entirely the copy I saw, they look cheap. Actually most of the sets suffered a similar fate.

Finally, this belongs to a line of films that I don't particularly like: the woman executive that all she really wants is a big strong man to take care of her and the soon she realises that the better for everyone (a particular bad example is "June Bride"). Rosalind Russell made career in the 1940s out of this, including in Leisen's own "Take a Letter, Darling". To a lesser extent, Leisen's "No Time for Love" with Claudette Colbert belongs to same strain, and perhaps its no coincidence that these were the two films preceding "Lady ..." - which to be honest is the weakest of the three. However, and this is where the "odd" comes in, the ending is not (at least to my eyes) as straightforward as it appears. (And now spoiler alert!) A few moments before the final shot, Milland's character seems to be taken control of everything much to the delight of his boss. This is even made clear as he sits on her chair and she falls into the floor. But then, he stands up (while talking) and they seem to be ending in collaboration, rather than competition, and both standing, suggesting that they both recognise each other's strengths while admitting they need the other. While for Milland's character this completely out of the blue, it still made it (for me, at least) a rewarding ending.

Despite all its shortfalls, the film held my attention, so it's obviously not all bad. Rogers's character is still a strong woman, who by the end has decided (in my eyes, anyway) she doesn't need to give up anything to have her man. And as an curious aside, it has one of the most obvious gay characters in 1940s who makes no apology for who he is. Leisen (himself gay) probably got away with this because a) it is set in a women's magazine and b) the character is a photographer.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

!!!... Pierrot by Carlos Bonvalot (1916)

I stumbled into this painting recently and loved it. I think I may actually have seen it (it's part of the collection of the Museu do Chiado in Lisbon) but as often in life, timing is all. More interestingly, was the fact that I never heard of the painter, Carlos Bonvalot.

Image taken from here.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Big Parade (1925)

I think it's near impossible to imagine the reaction of contemporary audiences to King Vidor's 1925 film "The Big Parade". WWI finished in 1918 and seven years later the events were very much alive in the memories of those who fought or lost loved ones. In the countries that were in the war, nearly everyone was affected one way or another. And here, at least in the war sequences, was a film that was as realistic as film could be on the subject. The camaraderie, the trenches, the fights for just a few metres of land. And young men who enlisted not realising what they were getting themselves into. From the moment the big parade starts (the parade of trucks taking soldiers to the front) till about ten minutes or so before the ending, including the famous walk though the woods sequence, this is one of the great silent films ever made. It was also one of the most sucessful.

The film follows three young men from different backgrounds from New York to the frontline. The spoiled rich kid is played by John Gilbert; the bartender by Tom O'Brien; and the construction worker by Karl Dane. The latter provides the film with one of his best moments during the trenches' sequences. Gilbert uses too much make-up, is overbearing when tries to moralise (oh, yes, there is one of those speeches) but while I didn't care for his character, or him for that matter, the change from brat to man is very well done.

However, the film has 70 minutes before the battle sequences and 10 minutes or so afterwards. The former are ok - we have been there before. Romantic war, the American soldier and the French peasant girl (played by Renée Adorée, and by the way, who thought of that name?), etc., etc., funny at times, and worth for character development. Note that a French peasant girl in 1917 is literate enough to use an English-French-English dictionary. Not quite at the level of Disney's Pocahontas magically being able to speak English but slightly amusing nevertheless. Depending on them, the film would be nice, but not memorable. On the other hand, the last 10 minutes - well most of them, and I will explain that in the moment - if cut would make this a much a better film.

So, spoiler alert! After the battle scenes, John Gilbert wakes in hospital and learns that the village where Renée Adorée lived was now a battlefield. And here the nonsense begins: he runs away from hospital, wounded in a leg, and goes to find her. The film's main selling point had been veracity - so why throw it out of the window for the sake of cheap melodrama? Of course he can't find her, is sent back to hospital and then home. At this stage, the film improves again - when we see him he has lost his leg. Not that my sympathy is with him, since he lost it because of the previous bout of nonsense. His family's awkward reaction is great cinema, and his mother's excellent. And a few minutes later, we are back to cheap melodrama, running with a wooden leg to the arms of the French love of his life. It really made me wonder if these had been later additions... After reading so much about it for so long, I really wanted this to be a better film than it is. But at least, for 40 minutes or so, it's really as good as it gets.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

La Doppia Ora (2009) French poster

Below is the French poster for an Italian film called La Doppia Ora. Is it just me, or does this remind you of Saul Bass?

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

I will start by stating the obvious, so there can be no mistake. “The Mask of Fu Manchu” is an incredibly racist film. It’s not just the imperialist mind set that European civilization is both the apex and the protector of the rest of mankind – although there is plenty of that. It’s not just the yellow menace frame, with an enemy that is menacing because he is highly intelligent, without scruples of any kind and avid for power, but most of all because he aims to destruct that same civilization that allowed him to improve himself by getting three PhDs – although, yes, there is a lot of this. The moment where penny drops on realising how racist this really is, is when you realise that evil and sexual predators as they are, Fu Manchu and his daughter are far from being the bottom of the race hierarchy. For that there are plenty of black men that will happily serve as set decoration until they almost willing become human guinea pigs for Dr Fu Manchu’s experiments. Interestingly, I think it is one of the most interesting points of situation of 1930s American society.
The film further suffers from a silly script and an uninspired cast: Lewis Stone personifies the worst of the stiff upper lip British colonialism, which made me dislike him more than root for him; Jean Hersholt is an actor that I am growing to dislike more and more; and the romantic leads are dull (he seemed to be chosen solely on how hunky he looked). There are some good thrills I concede – when the heroine’s father reappears. There are two sole redeeming things. Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu and Myrna Loy as Fah Lo See, his daughter, who turn this as into a camp romp – which I believe is the reason of the film’s continued popularity. When they are onscreen the film lightens and you can’t resist their charms.

Karloff, post-“Frankenstein”, being established as a horror king. I had the feeling at some points that he is here as a replacement to Lon Chaney – the make-up, the tone of terror, etc. – and since MGM could no longer have the late actor, they got the best next thing. Even better is Myrna Loy as his nymphomaniac, sadist daughter – she has the best moments of the film, among them a sexually charged torture scene. It is one of the pinnacles of Pre-Code cinema and it has to be seen to be believed. I only regret that they don’t appear enough.

Finally an interesting game you can play if you watch it on the WB R1 DVD. The film was cut at some stage to tone down the racism and the sexuality. The restored version has these scene reinstated (as they should) but the quality is considerably inferior – so you can amuse yourself trying to spot them.

Friday, 13 August 2010

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

“She Done Him Wrong” is arguably the best of Mae West’s vehicles – and I don’t think the word was ever better used. Have no doubt: from the poster (below) to the final shot, it’s all about Mae. It is also one of only two of films where she was the star to be released before the full enforcement of the Hays Code: in her first film “Night After Night” she had only a supporting role despite effortlessly stealing every scene from rather bland leads, including George Raft.

I truly enjoy this film and make no apologies for it. West is a pleasure to watch, dropping sex-filled innuendos and one-liners that have still the power to surprise a friend watching it for the first time, while being pursued (and managing) a whole army of men intent on enjoying her company (*). Among them, the very famous “Why don’t you come up some time and see me?”. Worth mentioning that among the many men that lust after her is a very young Cary Grant, still more his leading ladies’ crumpet than a leading man.

Adapted from West’s own play “Diamond Lil” the film had to fit the leading lady to a T. I suspect that although the film itself is a pre-Code it is a rather toned down adaptation of source material. West was notoriously daring for her time, spending a few days in jail for one her earlier plays, aptly named “Sex”. It is worth pointing out other than a strategically covered naked painting (and even that is briefly), you never see more than her shoulders and her low necklines. Proof, if necessary, that suggestion can be far more interesting that bearing it all. Interestingly enough, while the overt sexuality of the dialogue is the most obvious and preeminent of the film, something else caught my attention – and spoiler alert here – our leading lady literally gets away with murder.

Equally interesting, is placing West’s comedies in the context of Paramount’s output. Paramount clearly catered to a sophisticated audience – the Lubitsch/Hopkins comedies and the von Sternberg/Dietrich films are among the most remembered; and West fits in that. Moreover, she blends Dietrich’s carnal sexuality with Hopkins’ comedic one into something unique – even if she had invented herself on stage before either of those two.

(*) – Basically the same routine she kept doing until her last film, the infamous “Sextette”.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Yearling (1946)

As part of the Nitrate Screenings season at the BFI I recently watched "The Yearling". From the season's point of view, it was great. It was a beautiful print (the person who introduced it said it was one of the best in the archives). From the quality of the film itself... well... how much sugar can you hold? Shamelessly stealing from the friend I went to see it with, this is not recommended for diabetics.

"The Yearling" is one of MGM's key titles of the 1940s, when Mayer was sole master of the studio, between Thalberg (and others like Selznick and Mankiewicz) and his own downfall. It's a coming of age story of a boy living with his parents in an isolated farm in post-Civil War Florida. It stars Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman as his parents, Claude Jarman Jr as the boy, and in a very small supporting role, Margaret Wycherly, who a few years later had the part of a lifetime as James Cagney's mother in the masterpiece which is "White Heat".

Jane Wyman is not an actress for whom I have warm feelings. She's amazing in "All That Heaven Allows" but usually I'm pretty indifferent to her performances. They're not bad, but don't click with me. Yet, here she is pretty good, and I enjoyed her turn as woman who has learned how to repress love for a son she's only too afraid to loose, as she lost all the others. Her happy fury at a piece of black alpaca her husband brings her is extremely well played.

On the other hand, Peck was not particularly interesting, being too understanding and too sweet for a farmer in such conditions. I suspect the book had be a subjective, idealised view of the character which wasn't properly translated into the objective medium which is film. And for those who may wonder if that can ever be properly done, Peck's performance in "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a perfect example. The leading boy was even worst - irritatingly pretty as only film kids are, looking like no thought has ever entered his head. He was also a bit too old to make the character believable in his naivety. I own up to the fact that the character irritated beyond reason and my judgement may be a bit cloudy, but I was left wondering what someone like Mickey Rooney would have done with it just a few years before.

Finally, the script deserves serious criticisms. It's too long for a start. 45min could easily chopped without losing any integrity. But more importantly it takes over an hour to start the real story, the unhealthy obsession the lonely boy develops with the fawn. Why does it take so long is beyond me. As I said the film is pure sugar, and perhaps that's my main criticism. And while I like to eat sweet things (the blog's name is a give away), I rather prefer my films more savoury.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Skyscraper Souls (1932)

The first thing that came to mind while I was watching MGM's 1932 "Skyscraper Souls" was how much like a WB film it felt. From the choice of leading man (Warren William) to the main theme of ruthless capitalism, it brought memories of Roy del Ruth's 1933 "Employees Entrance". It is clearly a social message film more in tune what was being produced in Burbank than in Culver City. The criticism of manipulating and/or playing the stock market for easy gain must have been too raw for Depression audiences, but one that hasn't lost its relevance. However, I didn't enjoy it half as much as I did the later film. Not that this is a bad film - it just takes forever to get interesting.

The plot concerns the life of the owner, creditors and employees of the Dwight Building (might be Dwight Tower or something similar), the only true love of business man Dave Dwight (Williams). Among them are the young secretary (Maureen O'Sullivan) of his long term assistant and mistress; a jeweller (Jean Hersholt) in love with a call girl; a married investor looking for a new business opportunity and some fun away from his wife; a man (Wallace Ford) in love with a married woman and a few others.

On the positives, Warren William scores really high. He was arguably the king of Pre-code. He had a charming ruthlessness that made him perfect for this sort of parts. The party scene where he tries to seduce Maureen O'Sullivan by getting her drunk is often unconfortable to watch, not because it's bad, but because it's so well done. And yet, his final scenes show him being not entirely a monster, truly behaving like a gentleman. I also quite liked O'Sullivan's poor beau, in particular in a scene where he seems unable to forget or forgive what he so desperately wants to forget and forgive.

On the other hand, one of its problems is that wastes too much time with secondary plots that could have been easily cut (one assumes that MGM was trying to emulate star-filled films like "Dinner at Eight" and "Grand Hotel") and distract from the core: Warren William's unscrupulous businessman. The Jean Hersholt sub-plot serves no purpose: we are even denied an on-screen conclusion, merely being told what happened. Slightly more relevant but nevertheless taking too much space is the love affair between Wallace Ford's character (curiously enough, William's main antagonist in "Employees Entrance") and the married woman that seems to be in perpetual need of money.

Towards the end it also suffers from being a MGM film. While WB occasionally had the guts to put some really realistically uncomfortable endings in its Pre-code films (and go no further than "Employees Entrance"), here we have a complete cop-out, moralising ending, which in the last scene particularly made me cringe. And yet again things aren't necessarily that simple. O'Sullivan's change from the beginning of the scene (the look of contempt and envy when she sees William's wife) to the happiest of endings clearly allows for the possibility of that rather than repenting, she's resigning herself and that deep down she has been forever tainted.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Caravaggio, 400 years of his death

Caravaggio is my favourite painter and today marks the 400th anniversary of his death. I have had the chance to see many of his paintings in the last year or so, after completely falling in love with his work during a few days in Rome, where the best of his work is shown. Sadly timing was not on my side and this didn't happened him in time to go to the 2005 exhibition here in London, and went to Rome a year early so missed this year's exhibition there.
St John the Baptist

Death of the Virgin

The Entombment of Christ

The Conversion of St Paul (Cerasi Chapel)

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Thirteen Women (1932)

"Thirteen Women" is one of those films that should be better known. It's not brilliant, I am the first to acknowledge that. However, it has aspects that hold your attention, it's short, moves at good pace and for the first half has a really interesting story. It has also, and I feel a bit ashamed to say this, a camp side that makes it hard to resist, very much in the same vein of "The Mask of Fu Manchu" (which is much further over the top). As in that film, Myrna Loy plays a Machiavellian exotic type, in this case intent in revenge against her old schoolmates, the thirteen women of the title lead by Irene Dunne. She does this by sending them fake horoscopes that the poor silly things turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. I confess little empathy with people that stupid. But it is an original modus operandi for a killer.

There is a minor point as there aren't really 13 women, as we only see 6 plus Loy and in the yearbook she uses to mark her successes only appear 11 (plus a photo on top which could be a teacher). Maths apart, the concept of the film, that someone can suggest to others that they will do something against themselves without actually doing it is grasping. I know little of Law, but I wonder if this can be considered a crime. Sadly, the second half of the film turns into more traditional methods of eliminating people, and as a result the films suffers as it loses its originality. This is clearly one of those cases where a longer film, with an even longer build-up (i.e. more deaths) would benefit it tremendously. The film also suffers from the card that appears before the end, closing what would be an amazing open ending.

Myrna Loy's character is probably the most interesting of the film. She oozes sex, she's intelligent and mixed-race. Of course she has to be evil. But in the confrontation scene between the two leading ladies, she suddenly reveals her motives and there are far deeper than we thought - and apologies, spoilers coming. When she thought she's leaving her past behind (there's a not so subtle hint of having been rape by sailors) and hopes to be treated as white woman would, she's bullied by this women into leaving the school she sees as her sole opportunity. The sharp commentary of how whites treated others in the late 1910s/early 1920s (when I assume they would be in school) is unexpected. It's even more interesting as this is not that far removed from 1932, and therefore audiences knew the film would be talking about contemporary treatment of foreigners and non-whites. To be honest, I found it hard not to sympathise with her.

Irene Dunne, as our brave heroine, and Ricardo Cortez, as the heroic police officer held no interest to me.

Finally there's a fantastic Hitchcockesque sequence in the film involving Irene Dunne's kid that definitely is worth a look.

PS - The DVD is the French release by Montparnasse. It's much better than I thought, but not exactly brilliant.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Downstairs (1932)

Much has been said about John Gilbert's fall from grace in the early 1930s. His voice is often blamed, but anyone who has watched his most famous talkie, "Queen Christina", will know that there wasn't anything wrong per se. We know now that L. B. Mayer's own personal vendetta against him had something to do with it - as it did to another of MGM's late silent male stars, William Haines. However, after watching "Downstairs" I wonder how much of Gilbert's own career choices might have weighted in his demise.

"Downstairs" was a pet project of the actor and he is credited with the story. However, rather than playing the romantic hero, he plays the cad. The story itself is very good. The new chauffeur of noble household in post-WWI Austria blackmails the mistress, seduces an old cook for her savings and the new wife of the butler for sport. The character has no redeeming features and Gilbert doesn't quite achieve the level of charm to carry it through. I was left wondering what was the effect of that in Depression audiences.

But it's not just Gilbert that doesn't deliver the goods. His soon to be real-life wife, Virginia Bruce, plays the young bride. With a very limited range and a expressionless face she is a bore to watch, despite one good scene (more on that later) and a very good part. I can only remember her in "Kongo" where she was equally dull. Paul Lukas, as the butler, and Olga Baclanova ("Freaks"), as the baroness, are harmed severely by their accents, at times exceedingly hard to follow. The best element in the cast is the actress playing the cook, Bodil Rosing.

Despite the casting faults, the film has a few moments of pre-code glory. The honesty about sex is really refreshing in the film, in particular the issue of female satisfaction - the baroness has a lover because she's married to an older buffoon; the old (and ugly, we are told) cook is seduced by the first man who says a few nice things to her - and she knows it; and the young wife is carried away by desire, rather than duty. In the scene I mentioned above, she lashes out to her husband that his own distant manner is in part the reason she has given in to the passionate chauffer, who we are left in no wonder from his first appearance, has made a career out warming up his mistresses in cold rides in the country.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

L'Arnacoeur, or a tale of two trailers

L'Arnacoeur, is soon opening in the UK. I saw the British trailer and thought it stupid, idiotic and had no wish to see the film whatsoever. You can see why, surely.

Then yesterday, speaking to a French friend, she mentioned she was really keen to watch the film, so out of curiosity I looked for the French trailer and now I am quite curious to see it, as it sounds really clever. (Sorry, no subtitles)

So, my question - why dumb down the trailer to the point of idiocity?

Friday, 18 June 2010

José Saramago (1922-2010)

José Saramago, the only Portuguese Literature Nobel prize and indeed the only Portuguese-speaking Literature Nobel prize winner, died today. I still remember the joy of finding out he had won.

Controversial, praised, hated, communist, all these describe him, but ultimately he will remembered or not because of his work. I personally loved "Memorial do Convento" ("Balthasar and Blimunda" in English) which I read for school when I was 18. I read 2 more of his books which i liked much less and left a fourth unfinished, and have to admit that his personal style defeats me more than engages me - I can only read him in special moments. Still, I am curious about two of his later novels which I might pick at some stage.

The cover's design, recently replaced for something brighter, was one of the things I always admired in the edition of his books (well, the Portuguese ones, anyway). They were elegant and gave nothing away.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Nitrate screenings in London, July 2010

To celebrate its 75th anniversary, the BFI is going to screen here in London through July and August some of their nitrate prints. For those who don't know, nitrate prints are dangerous, are rarely projected these days but look differently to what we are used to see thanks to their silver content. This is probably the reason why the "silver screen" was named as such. I am not aware of ever seen a projection of a nitrated print for a full lenght feature, but from the combustion of a cartoon in Lisbon a few years ago (mentioned as #1 here) I assume I have seen at least a short.

My only (very minor issue) is with the selection of films - I would love to get a chance to see some of the B&W work of people like Ernest Haller, Gregg Toland or Joseph LaShelle in nitrate, but the emphasis is on British films. Makes sense, I know...

The selection of films for July can be found here, and you'll be able to see the August selection whenever they announce it.

Further discussion on this can be found here.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

The Shopworn Angel (1938)

Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, MGM in the late 1930s, produced by Joe Mankiewicz – you could be forgiven if you were to think that “The Shopworn Angel”’s director was Frank Borzage. It even has his themes of sacrifice and redemption through a spiritual love. Only it isn’t. The name on the credits is that of H.C. Potter, better known for “Mr Blandings builds his Dream House”.

At the beginning the film looks like it’s going to unfold like a very simple love triangle from the 1930s. Sullavan and Walter Pidgeon are romantically attached until she meets a young naïve soldier (Stewart). Trying desperately to impress his friends he tells them she is his girlfriend and out of sympathy she plays the game. What unfolds is a truly unusually love triangle – something that reminded me of “The Wings of Dove” (the film, as I never read the book).

I was pleasantly surprised by the film’s ending, and in retrospect I think it far more realistic than I would expect for the period. Frankly, I think had Borzage directed it he wouldn’t have made it the same. Another happy surprise was Walter Pidgeon’s performance. I am used to see him as either the flat second banana (e.g. “Too Hot to Handle”) or as Greer Garson’s husband in whatever thing MGM thought would sell tickets (“Mrs Miniver”, “Madame Curie”, etc., etc., etc.) and this happily falls in neither category. Margaret Sullavan and Hattie McDaniel (as her maid, as you might have guessed) are very good, although I prefer Sullavan in Borzage's hands, and James Stewart looks as naïve as only he can.

Despite all this the film doesn’t quite make it. I can’t exactly put my finger into it, but it lacks something – if I had to guess I’d say is Stewart’s saccharine naivety that doesn’t quite do it for me, it never did.

PS - I am left wondering if the artist who made the poster had ever seen a clear photo of Margaret Sullavan.

PPS - added a second and much better poster.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)

A while back I mentioned an example of a comedy that tried too hard to be funny. This time I will be talking about a film that tries to hard to be profound and have meaning. Needless to say, it fails. The film is opus 4 (of 6) in Albert Lewin's career as a director and is an updated/reinterpretation of the story of the Flying Dutchman, where the captain of the ship condemned to wonder alone through the seas unless he finds a woman to break his curse. It stars Ava Gardner and James Mason.

The film is highly regarded by some, in particular for Jack Cardiff's cinematography. This is indeed the most interesting point of the film, as Cardiff makes it look unlike any other Technicolor film - a talent I like, but sadly in this case from a purely intellectual point of view, as I didn't like the colour palette which looked too much like watercolour over a black and white image. There is a sequence towards the end, in James Mason's room that I quite liked, with the game of light and shadows. I also didn't entirely dislike James Mason's performance, although finding it amusing that he (as a Dutch character) has a flawless, perfect, posh English accent, which is Mason's own. By the way, I would like to know if it was just me, but does he get dubbed over his narration? I'd swear that at some point, the voice-over changes.

But here finish the points of interest... and at 2h what remains is a very long, over baked, flavourless film. The problems start with cast. James Mason aside, it was a bore to watch. Ava Gardner seldom could act and she didn't here, failing to give the character the heart she conquers by the end of the film. Also her voice got on my nerves, silky sexy but so hollow. The rest of the cast is as forgetful as is dull, but I got the impression that Lewin wanted to cast George Sanders as the archaeologist and failing to do so got a look-a-like. Also, Spain seems to be full of gypsies rather than Spaniards. Is this to add to the mystic element? Several key moments have Spanish only dialogue (the reading the cards scene in particular), not subtitled, which I could understand enough to follow, but is frustrating if you can't at least follow some of it. Also, I was left wondering which language were the fishermen speaking in the first scene, as it didn't sound like Spanish to me. Galician? My guess, as the pronunciation of words was very similar to Portuguese.

Worst of all is the dialogue - it's so stylised and artificial it pained me. Full of quotes and self-references, aided by visual metaphors (Ava Garner's almost sexual reaction after the car is thrown off the cliff), in case you missed the point, it hasn't dated very well. The whole story is moved forward by characters who have forebodings, predictions, read cards, quote ancient Greeks and live in a world of perpetual coincidences (or fate aligning, whichever you prefer). That was the intention, but the result is that it becomes unintentionally funny. You would have to be a genius to pull it off. Watching it at the BFI, several people were giggling or laughing in the silliest moments (and they all looked like respectable film fans by the way) and so did I.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

The Bride Wore Boots (1946)

In Barbara Stanwyck's filmography, "The Bride Wore Boots" stands as the last comedy in the career of an actress whose comic talent brought us among others "The Mad Miss Manton", "The Lady Eve" and "Ball of Fire". While uneven and competent for most of is duration, it ends being no more than a footnote. It also suffers from a good ten year delay; in 1937 was called "The Awful Truth" and in 1940 "My Favorite Wife" and in both occasions starred Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. So you've guessed - a married couple gets divorced and... you know the rest.

The film isn't bad, it's just not good either. Barbara Stanwyck's energy and Robert Cummings' charm manage to keep it afloat most of the time. But even they fail occasionally. She is too clumsy in the scenes where she's ruthless towards her husband, often being too aggressive and exploding quite quickly. Patrick Knowles as the second banana is limited by the script to a caricature. However, the biggest disappoint with the film was Diana Lynn. When I saw the opening credits I was quite excited with her third billing. The know-it-all sister in Wilder's "The Major and the Minor" and in Sturges' "The Miracle of Morgan Creek", it's evident here that she was being groomed by Paramount for something bigger - the second female lead. The problem is that her part failed her and she comes up so unsympathetic and irritating that makes Gail Patrick in "My Favourite Wife" someone you want as your best friend.

On the plus side, I quite like the way they showed the children being manipulated by Stanwyck's character to make her ex-husband's life pure hell. The opening sequence is brilliant telling you all you needed to know about all those involved. The whole subplot with the horse is quite well done, albeit a bit saccharine. And best of all, Peggy Wood as Stanwyck's mother, one of those know-it-all characters that dished sarcasm so well (reminding me of Lynn's work in the aforementioned films).

All in all, there's no genius in this. It'll make you laugh and occasionally cringe. Oh, and keep an eye for a very young Natalie Wood as the little girl.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Lucky Night (1939)

If you ever want to put someone off classic films forever, just show them "Lucky Night". It is a strong contender to one of the worst A-pictures of the 1930s - other than Robert Taylor's astonishing good looks (he is one of the prettiest men ever captured on film, if not the the prettiest) nothing works. In fact the film is so bad, it should be used as an example of how not to do.

Let's start with the main problem - the script, and look away cause there will be spoilers. It looks like it has been glued together, and badly, from separate stories, something typical of the early talkies (as I mentioned here, for example). A rich heiress (Myrna Loy) is bored so decides to go and find a job and the meaning of life. She fails and that night, on a park bench, she meets a fellow unemployed (Taylor) and they embark on a night of drink and gambling where nothing goes wrong. They wake up married and because her father disapproves, they decide to take a go at it. It doesn't go very well. He wants fun and she wants a home (this is after all an MGM film) so they part ways. Then there's a happy ending which is parachuted two minutes before the ending.

I assume the intention was to show the compromises that make up relationships. Instead, we have the opposite. Magic will solve everything. At the end, neither has surrendered and consequentially all is bound to happen again. The characters are also so sketchy that one doesn't really empathise with them, or even side with them. They're both idiotically naïve and Taylor's character in particular has very peculiar notions of how to survive. Loy's father describes him as "a poet who doesn't write", which pretty much summarises him. All this is exacerbated by a director (Norman Taurog) who fails to direct, guide or even try to savage the film.

The cast is not much better. Douglas Fowley as George, the friend who supports them through the mad night is the only good thing in that department. Robert Taylor and Myrna Loy suffer from the bad script but they are also to blame. In the pre-war dramas she made at MGM she looks too noble and suffering and looks stale and uninteresting as a consequence - she doesn't appear to be the same woman who did "The Thin Man", "Libeled Lady" or "Third Finger, Left Hand". Maybe she was only at ease in comedies, or may those were just better scripts, better directed. Robert Taylor on the other hand was never a great actor and that shows. Good looking, yes, charming, yes, but of limited talent. But funnily enough, he survives the crash better that Loy.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Lena Horne (1917-2010)

Lena Horne had probably one of the most frustrating careers in Hollywood - just because she wasn't white. She talked quite candidly about this in "That's Entertainment III". She was a singer whose numbers could be easily taken out of the film, especially in the South of the USA. Yet, among those numbers are one of the best renditions of "Stormy Weather" ever (although I prefer Judy Garland's). One of the few starring roles was in Vincente Minnelli's "Cabin in the Sky", an all-black musical, but even there one of her numbers ("Ain't it the Truth") was cut because she sang it while in the bath, i.e. too sexy (and it is...). MGM released it later in one of their shorts and you can see it as an extra on DVD. Go, watch it, do it, pay homage to a great singer who never got the chances she deserved as an actress.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Black Narcissus (1947)

Along with "Brief Encounter" and "Kind Heart and Coronets", "Black Narcissus" is my favourite British classic film. Like those two it's uniquely British in feel and subject matter (emotional repression, like "Brief Encounter"). It also has that magnificent cold Technicolor palette so characteristic of this side of the Atlantic which I never could account for (probably the natural light, so different from the Californian sun). A Powell and Pressburger collaboration, beautifully shot by Jack Cardiff and starring Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron, it follows a group of nuns settling a convent in a Himalayan hill top, in what used to a harem. The atmosphere of the building, the pure air and the constant wind tear down the nuns' defences and leave them prey of their own desires.
This is a film about repressed desires and dreams and what happens when your present is faced again with past desires. Several times through the film one or the other of nuns mention that they have been thinking of something they had forgotten. In the case of Deborah Kerr's Sister Clodagh we even see that past in flashbacks. She's the young mother superior of the group, the youngest ever. When she is assigned the task of leading this group of nuns at the beginning of the film her face betrays her pride, a rare crack in her perfect façade. Among the nuns under her supervision is Kathleen Byron's Sister Ruth (the de facto second lead despite her 6th or 7th billing). As the film starts she's described as "ill". The two women are the two sides of the same coin - one so repressed that she's almost not human, the other equally repressed but about to explode. The two women actually resemble each other when they are in their habits, and I couldn't left wondering if that was just a coincidence.

Sister Ruth finally explodes when the only white man in sight appears. Clearly treated as a sex-object (he wears shorts that almost look like hot pants and gratuitously exhibits his bare chest to the nuns) he is the catalyst of Sister Ruth's rebellion - giving in to her desires. At this stage we realise that her "illness" has been sexual frustration and now she's ready to give in. And her most daring weapon is lipstick, in one of the best sequences of the film. They reminded of Gene Tierney's red lips in "Leave Her to Heaven".
Key in showing all this is Jack Cardiff's cinematography. With light and colour he manages to show the beauty and remoteness of the hill top and most important the emotions of nuns. In particular, he transfigures Kathleen Byron's face to reveal the beast that possesses her - a quasi-madness in the first great confrontation with Kerr; the black and white contrast in the second and that amazing final sequence. He won a well deserved Oscar, as did Alfred Junge for the amazing art direction. The film was mostly shot at Pinewood but you'd never know, and it's through the work of those two men, along that of matte painter Walter Percy Day, that it doesn't occur to you that you never left the studio set.