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.