Friday, 29 January 2010

It (1927)

Whatever "it" really is, I'm afraid "It" lacks it. Oh, I know a lot of people like the film, and I admit there are funny moments, but as a whole the film feels too much like an assembled piece. What's worst, it was! Paramount made this after writer Elinor Glyn said that Clara Bow had "it", a notion arguably best translated as sex-appeal. The studio was clearly trying to cash in on their increasingly popular star. Despite being obvious, in case you missed it not only the first title card reminds you of this, but the writer herself appears later on to explain the audience what "it" is. The problem is that sexiness, sex-appeal, "it" or whatever you prefer to call it, usually depends on the person's unawareness. This is actually mentioned by Glyn. The moment someone becomes conscious of it and try to recreate it, or even keep it, it's lost. Since this is the only film I have seen with Clara Bow, I can't say if she ever had "it", but in my opinion she doesn't have it here. Furthermore, she's not even a terribly good actress - when I look at other major female stars of the late 1920s, such as Gish, Garbo or Marion Davies she pales by comparison. She has a fun twinkle in her eyes and an engaging smile but you need more than that.

Of course it doesn't help that the film has a very thin plot. It's the story of a sales girl going after her boss, while keeping her good name despite appearances. If done five years later and by MGM this would be the typical Joan Crawford vehicle, the sort that almost killed Crawford's career. Because it was built around Bow's persona, the rest of the cast is almost as bland as it can be, just to make sure no one would steal the picture from her. I was expecting much more out of this, but considering the film's popularity then and even now, it might be that this is simply not tailored for my taste.

PS - It's worth keeping an eye open for a very young Gary Cooper as a reporter.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Spring Fever (1927)

Until about 20 minutes before it finished, "Spring Fever" was a disappointment and William Haines, the leading man, was really getting on my nerves. He was lacking that something special that made him so engaging in King Vidor's "Show People" the only other film of his I have seen. His character was arrogant and conceited and rather uninteresting really. As far as I found out, this was very much his screen persona. There were also some private jokes (possibly not that private) about his sexuality, including one in the very beginning which surely could not have gone unnoticed (it's mentioned in the IMDb forums for the film, if you're curious). However, I believe a comedy should be funny on its own merits and not because it winks at the audience or its camp value. There was also too much pantomime, not enough acting and certainly not enough wit.

The film is clearly a factory product to sell William Haines. Not a single risk is taken, not a tiny bit of imagination is allowed. It worked before, it will work again, seems to have been MGM's motto for this production. This affected the supporting cast. Lead by a rising Joan Crawford, all give quite good performances but none is on-screen long enough.

So what changed in the last 20 minutes? In fairness, not much. It's still predictable, still formulaic. It has a minor twist which even if it comes as a surprise, it will be a mild one. The difference is that it has charm. Joan Crawford has now a few key scenes and that counteracts Haines' excesses. And they act together. It's a joint effort, not a star-vehicle. Suddenly I stopped seeing the gay guy and his fag-hag (Haines and Crawford were very good friends off-screen) and actually saw a romantic couple. And for those last few scenes the film clicked into place. If you want proof, look at the titles in the hotel room - they're actually funny and witty.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Best Film Poster Ever?

Is this the best film poster ever? I just found it online and thought it irresistible.

Boy Meets Girl (1938)

A good comedy should look effortless. The dialogue and situations should come out as if such situations occurred daily in every day life, no matter how preposterous they are. That's essential. It's also elusive and bloody hard to achieve. To write good comedy is much harder than to write good drama. Then there is something as trying too hard. Writers and directors with no feel for it try to emulate successful films, often wasting good actors in the process. Of course, in such cases the material doesn't hold up. The dialogue is uninspired and forced; the situations are formulaic; the timing flops. All of these are present in the worst James Cagney film I have seen to date, Lloyd Bacon's "Boy Meets Girl" and serious contender to the worst comedy produced by Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s. I use the word "comedy" loosely...

Starring James Cagney and Pat O'Brien as two scheming screenwriters and Ralph Bellamy as their studio producer, this is an aimless film. When the two protagonists find out that a waitress at the studio is about to have a baby (she's a single mum, but there's Hays code justification for the unfortunate situation) they decide to show him growing on screen (reality TV before its time, this is actually one of the good ideas that the film had) in order to save their careers and to undermine that of an actor of westerns they despise. There are a few more twists and turns to the plot, which never slows down, with one chaotic moment after another. There are few films which can sustain this, such as Howard Hawks' "Bringing up Baby" and "His Girl Friday" or Billy Wilder's "One, Two, Three". As you might have figure it out, this one can't. I think this was meant to be a satire on Hollywood but it lacks the bite of "Show People" or "Sunset Blvd." and simply isn't funny. It also meant to be a screwball comedy but it's too chaotic in its own chaos. The screenwriters create havoc just for the fun of it. To be honest, those two characters should have been fired and blacklisted and never allowed to work in the industry again. It really surprised me to find out that the film was written by the same people responsible for "My Favorite Wife"!

Another massive issue I had with the film was the casting and acting. Cagney and O'Brien are the stars and are clearly uninterested (or knew how weak the film was). They either look bored or try too hard, and their usual chemistry falls flat. However, bad as that is there is worst. Ralph Bellamy's character is too stupid (a not too subtle attack on film producers) but he does his best. He fails. The absolute low point is the romantic couple. She is Marie Wilson and her dizzy waitress got on my nerves. He is Bruce Lester and he was even more irritating (although much less screen time) than she was, playing the stiff upper lip Englishman who wants to break into the movies. Both also needed to rethink their careers, as neither could act.

There are two positives to the film. The first is the actor that plays the cowboy. He is actually playing a satire of himself and his screen persona and while his lack of acting ability is painfully obvious, he should get brownie points for fair play. The second is the best thing in the whole film: Ronald Reagan's few scenes as a radio announcer at a film première. He's funny, relaxed and natural. Everything the rest of the cast isn't!

Thursday, 14 January 2010

The Simpsons turn 20

The little yellow ones are 20 years old today. I still clearly remember when they arrived on Portuguese TV, a year or two later after the US premiere. I guess it's telling of my age - but the scary thought is this: those who were born on the same year as "The Simpsons" premiered, are halfway through their University degrees. Makes you feel old, doesn't it?

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

The Mad Miss Manton (1938)

A few years ago WB released a Barbara Stanwyck collection which included a few unknown and strange choices but did not include perhaps the best of her films in their library - "The Mad Miss Manton", a 1938 RKO comedy. They have since relegate it to their Archives where they charge films at $20 plus tax plus shipping. However, they don't ship outside the US (why?!) nor do they allow download if you're not in US soil (again, why?!) so fat chance of me ever getting it like that. Fortunately, the rights of RKO films have been licensed to a multitude of companies all over the world and, in France, Éditions Montparnasse has released a passable DVD release (to be honest, I wonder how much different it is from the WB Archive) at a much more agreeable €10 each. And it arrived today, providing me with a few good laughs and a smile throughout.

Barbara Stanwyck is Melsa Manton, a socialite who finds a dead body and calls the police, only to find out that said dead body had disappeared. Intent to make a point, she proceeds, along with a flock of socialite friends, to play detective. There is also a newspaper editor (Henry Fonda) that sets himself out to discredit her and proceeds to change his mind, deciding instead that she must marry him. Scripted by one of the Epstein brothers (who co-wrote, among others, "Casablanca") it's full of quick, witty dialogue - I suggest a visit to IMDb's page of memorable quotes at your own peril, as a couple may give away a bit of the plot. The film also works well as mystery, unlike "Footsteps in the Dark", in that you really can't guess who the murderer is until the very end. Not that matters; it's pure McGuffin.

Stanwyck and Fonda have great chemistry together, as anyone who has seen "The Lady Eve" knows. But the dynamic here is quite different, for two reasons. The obvious first is that he pursues her, rather than the opposite. The second is that none of the characters need to fall from their pedestal or let their hard façade drop in order to be happy, as they do in the Sturges' film. The characters' romance is far gentler in tone, perhaps less original than in the latter film, but still brought to life with charm by the leads. Hattie McDaniel delivers one of her best performances as the untamed, hilarious and scene-stealer maid. She has some of the best moments of the film including refusing to serve food to her employer's guests and throwing water on Henry Fonda face and then saying she was only obeying orders. I have always a soft heart for Hattie and it's a pity that she was hardly ever allowed to so something different. I know only of one exception, "In this our Life". Finally, I have to say I love the "character" of the flock of Melsa Manton's friends. There are quite a few of them, eight or so, but they do act as a single character. I didn't recognised any of the faces, but they were perhaps the most original screwball element of the film and for that they deserve some credit.

PS - Doesn't poster (above) have the most unflattering portrait of Barbara Stanwyck ever?

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Errol Flynn's comedies II: Footsteps in the Dark (1941)

After "Four's a Crowd", Errol Flynn's next comedy was Lloyd Bacon's "Footsteps in the Dark", a comedy-mystery where a gentleman leads a double life as a crime writer. Then someone dies and he is convinced that it was murder. By the time the police agrees with him, he is one of the main suspects and he has to clear his name.
By the early 1940s most comedies had a slight less madcap/screwball edge than they had had in the mid-1930s. Humour relies less on the mad antics of a few characters. Still there are a few scenes of chaos (when Flynn tries to persuade his family of his innocence when seen with another woman) and a police detective that is not too far removed from just a few years earlier, but it doesn't feel the same. Towards the end the film becomes less of a comedy a more of a mystery, but if you pay attention you can find the real culprit - this isn't really in Agatha Christie's league. The film's most obvious flaw is that Flynn's character starts knowing much more than the police. When he believes that dead man has been murdered, he knows of a motive (and so does the audience) that no one else does. Knowledge is power, but it doesn't always make good drama.

Errol Flynn is fun to watch and you wonder if he really took himself seriously at this stage of his life, but that never really gets in the way of his performance. On the contrary, he seems to make that a strength. He knew he could never be Sherlock Holmes, but he certainly did take a hint or two from William Powell's Nick Charles. Brenda Marshall was surprisingly good, much better than in "The Sea Hawk". She can be quite funny, in particular in the scene where she and her mother go to see her "rival" at the theatre. The rest of the film cast is top notch. Lucille Watson is hilarious as Flynn's suspicious mother in law; Alan Hale and Allen Jenkins are Flynn's sidekicks (well, Hale is the chief of police) and Ralph Bellamy does something other than his usual "second banana".