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”.