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.