Thursday, 29 November 2012

Dr Monica (1934)

A few years ago, I said that "I [couldn]'t point out exactly why, but [Kay Francis] doesn't interest me very much". Recently, I had a chance to see several of her Pre-code films and I changed my mind. Among them, was "Dr Monica", her last Pre-code and a woman's picture through and through, with a plot that reminded me of bits in "The Great Lie": Kay Francis is Dr Monica Braden, an obstetrician married to a writer (Warren William) who is having an affair with one of her friends (Jean Muir). They break it up, but the friend is pregnant while Monica is not able to have children herself.

The film is incredibly short, running at only 55 minutes. Running times quoted elsewhere, suggest that over ten minutes were cut - the Hays Office took issue with the film, with Joseph Breen objecting plot and characters (one of them was supposed to be a lesbian!). Whatever the cuts were, the film still flows quite well, with veiled references to abortion and a plot that hinges on adultery and illegitimate pregnancy. But, if one looks at the trailer, there are some scenes which are not in the film - a long sequence between Warren William and Jean Muir on doing the right thing, and a shorter bit of dialogue towards the end, when Monica and her husband watch a sunset together.

Personally, I think the film's pace works in its favour. A longer film would just have more time to be more sentimental - and it would harm it. The self-sacrifice at the end is a bit too much, as are some of the key telephone scenes, which are incredibly badly acted by Francis. The lack of chemistry between William and Francis and William and Muir is quite noticeable. To be fair only Francis and the actress playing her other friend (Verree Teasdale) seemed to do well.

The film has certainly its good moments - one of the best is the opening sequence, where the phone rings for Dr Braden, and it takes a few seconds to reveal that the doctor is a woman. Or the scenes with the three women, which show a deeper bond than usual at this time between women - sort of a 1930s "Sex and the City".

Kay Francis is the 1930s Pre-code successful professional woman who manages almost everything. She does it with charm, and many clothes' changes (as expected) but I sense in a rather routine fashion, and certainly with less spark than in some of her other films. Warren William is wasted in the sort of part that (and I mean this in the worst possible way) Herbert Marshall and George Brent made a career of (the latter better than the former). As for the other two main parts, Kay Francis' two friends, Jean Muir is quite weak, while Verree Teasdale shines as the bitchy best friend (in a sort of upper class Glenda Farrell), a successful, unmarried architect - I assume her character is the one Joseph Breen though was a lesbian (she does such lesbian things as being unmarried and successful...). I don't think I have seen that many films with her, and I never noticed her before in those I have. But will keep an eye open in the future.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Beggars of Life (1928)

From its start, "Beggars of Life" is infused with an incredible energy. The opening sequence is silent narrative at its best and even now, months after I saw the film, it has stayed with me (I made some notes at the time which only now I am translating into a post). Within a minute or so of the credits, we see a young man, clearly a beggar, arriving at someone's house. He lusts after the man's breakfast. He asks if it's possible to have some but the man doesn't reply. He has been shot. A girl (Louise Brooks) comes in, dressed in man's clothes and in a frenetic flashback we learn what happened.

And this is only an appetiser for a film which oozes sex, fear and danger, often at the same time: at some stage, there is real danger that Louise Brooks' character will be gang raped. William Wellman's pace is frenetic and his direction assured. Having seen recently "Wings", his most celebrated silent film with its amazing aerial sequences, I found it lacking in comparison to "Beggars of Life".

The film is, (and I won't make it justice), a romance road movie, where the Boy and the Girl (they don't have names) have to go through ordeals before they earn the right to Love. In a sense it reminded me of the Borzage at his best, but whereas he usually has an ethereal aspect to the romance, Wellman (clearly a more pragmatic man) keeps them feet on the ground. All in all, this is one the best silent movies I have seen - and I can't recommend it enough.

Other than Louise Brooks, who was a revelation, as I never really "got" her in the couple of films of hers I saw,  the film also stars Richard Arlen (who Wellman also used in "Wings") and an amazing, unforgeattable Wallace Beery, as the bastard with a heart (or whatever is the masculine equivalent of the tart with a heart) . 

I think a word needs to go to the musicians who provided the score: Neil Brand and The Dodge Brothers (film critic Mark Kermode's band) did a fantastic job, creating a fantastic viewing experience. I wouldn't hesitate twice in hearing them providing music for another film. In an ideal world, a home video release of this would have been done long ago, and they would provide the music.

Friday, 16 November 2012

On Raymond Macherot (1924-2008)

Sometimes I discover things in a very convoluted way. This is a story of one such discovery, so bear with me if you can.

I grew up in a house full of comic books. They were my father’s, who started collecting Disney comics sometime in the 1950s or 1960s and has an enviable collection. He also has a decent sized collection of French-Belgium Bande Dessinées (BD). They were ideally stored in my room, so I grew up reading and re-reading them. Fast-forward to last year, when Fantagraphics released two volumes of Belgian BDs: “Gil Jourdan” and “Sibylline” (as “Gil Jordan” and “Sibyl-Anne”). I had been vaguely aware of both and half-tempted to get “Gil Jourdan” in French. But most of all, I was puzzled with the fact that a major US publisher in the area was investing in these two series, of which I knew next to nothing.

So, tempted, I bought “Gil Jourdan” and loved it (in the French editions, as I prefer to read in the original, but believe me, I still support Fantagraphics in other ways). These had always been available, however “Sibylline” and the other works by Raymond Macherot (the creator) were extremely hard to find. But my timing could have not been better if I had planned it.

Within in a year or so, collections of some of his famous characters became available, with another soon to be published; an exhibition opened in Brussels and I manage to get the cult classic “Chaminou et le Khrompire” (1964) for a very reasonable price on ebay.

And I fell in love. Well not with all of it, but enough. His worlds are (usually) full of deceptively cute anthropomorphic animals, and in his best work, under that kids-friendly surface of pretty little animals there is real threat – if you take the Sibylline stories Fantagraphics has available (the stories were produced in the second half of the 1960s), it is hard not to see in Anathème (Ratticus in the English translation) a Hitler parody, with occasional serious undertones. These same undertones were actually more pronounced in an earlier series, “Chlorophylle”, with a more vicious rat (Anthracite) as the antagonist. If you can read French, the collected "Sibylline" is available in five volumes as is the first volume an integral “Chlorophylle”(with the second coming out next month – and I can’t wait). If not, you might want to grab this the English one, with a second volume expected to be available next May.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Love is a Racket (1932)

While some early pre-codes can seem a bit disjointed or clearly emphasising sex to attract audiences, William Wellman’s “Love is a Racket” doesn’t fall into either trapping. Instead, there is a closely-knit narrative full of interesting, albeit not the nicest characters.

Jimmy Russell (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) is a reporter in love with an ambitious young woman, Mary (Frances Dee). When she confesses she has debts she can’t repay, and he tries to help, he seems to have arrived too late. A local gangster (Lyle Talbot) got there first…
One of things I absolutely loved is that there aren’t any real heroes here. Jimmy can do the honourable thing or not, but his choice is based on what’s most advantageous to him. The same goes for Lee Tracy’s character – although, if you have seen him once (no matter which film), he does his usually routine here: drunk, loud, expedite but loyal when pressed. Mary is really not as nice as she is pretty, and she easily stoops to use her charms to achieve what she wants out of men. And a special mention to Cecil Cunningham as Mary’s aunt, who clearly never heard of scruples. In fact, the closest to a nice character the film comes is Ann Dvorak’s Sally, who is an honorary “one of the guys” (and very much in love with Jimmy) but has not much to do (niceness doesn't pay?)...

The plotting is solid, with a few minor twists in the tale which really grabbed my attention, particularly one great scene involving a newspaper left behind which would have made Hitchcock proud. And (spoiler alert), if you take the comedy and the innuendos, the film covers some real menace: Talbot’s character wants Mary and will stop at nothing to get her (he starts with blackmail...).

I am surprised that this film is not better known. Wellman, is clearly in shape here and is celebrated enough to have had several of his films of the period released (Warner’s Forbidden Hollywood volume 3 includes only films of his).

Saturday, 1 September 2012

The Constant Nymph (1943)

“The Constant Nymph” was a major production in 1943. It starred Joan Fontaine (who got an Oscar nomination for it), Charles Boyer and Alexis Smith, with Charles Coburn, Peter Lorre and Brenda Marshall as support. Korngold wrote the score, and it was directed by Edmound Goulding, one of Warners’ directors responsible for a few women’s pictures of the period, including “Dark Victory” and “The Great Lie”.

Due to rights, the film lingered in the vaults of Warner Bros for about sixty years. This unavailability has, of course, raised its profile in some circles while ensuring the film faded out from the general public’s memory (“Letty Lynton”, a Joan Crawford 1932 film, is still to resurface). I am delighted it is finally available (it was screened in the US last year, and since made available by Warner Archives) and, of course, I was also looking forward to it – but it really did not live to my expectations (which weren’t much higher than those of, say, “The Gay Sisters”).
There are many ways to describe the story, but the simplest is to say it’s the obsession of one girl for a older composer who ends up marrying her cousin. This is a tale of obsession but packaged as a great love story. With some elements of "Lolita" added to the mix.

The problems of the film are the usual ones. They all start with a weak script. To me, obsession barely disguised as romantic heroism is a hard sell. Particularly when cliches are everywhere. From the idyllic childhood of a free spirit (ah, to be raised in Swiss Alps!), through the extreme unrealistic reaction of two teenage girls on the possibility of moving to London (and where did they learn English?) to the dreadful tear inducing end, complete with sacrifices from both women...

The second problem is the cast, or rather the mis-casting. Boyer was never good at anything, really (the closest I got to like a performance of his was “Madame de…”), so not much surprise there. He is also way too old for the part. He is supposed to be, as far as I could tell, a young composer. Funnily enough, someone who could have done really well with the part, was, I think, Ronald Reagan – who was about the right age, and I could see inspire such crush. As for Joan Fontaine, (who I usually like) let’s just say that she was not a teenager (in fact she was older than Alexis Smith). And it shows – the close-ups are of a woman in her mid-twenties, closing on thirty; not of a sixteen year old. But also, she’s all wrong – or directed all wrong. She’s unsubtle (you can tell how this going to end fairly early on), hysterical and manage to irritate the hell out of me. The remaining cast, except Alexis Smith (who is the best thing in it), play uninteresting versions of parts played elsewhere. 

But a lot of the blame has to go for the director, who clearly had no strength to keep his work (assignment?) together. He should have constrained Fontaine and try to keep the audience a bit more interested.

On the plus side, Korngold did a lovely score and Smith made the best out of the limitations of the bad script and managed to instill some heart into her performance. Although this is another problem: I was really rooting for her and I know I am not supposed to. 

On a footnote, spent a lot of the film trying to remember how many films I had seen the London house set in. From memory, "The Gay Sisters", "Now, Voyager" and I am pretty sure a couple of more Bette Davis films ("The Old Maid"?). I was trying to find out if it was still standing, but to no avail. 

Saturday, 4 August 2012

The Apartment (1960)

“The Apartment” is perhaps the apex of Wilder’s career, and arguably the best moment of everyone else involved. Not that it all went downhill from there, at least not for me (I count myself among the fans of “One, Two, Three”, “Irma La Douce” and “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes”). Having watched it again, and realising it hasn’t aged a bit, I am still in love with the film. I find it difficult to contain superlatives, so I am not even going to try.

A tale of modern urban life, where connections are becoming increasingly hard to establish, it focuses on a few characters around a New York big insurance company (an accountant, an elevator girl, and a few others).  It starts with a nod to King Vidor’s “The Crowd”, courtesy of set designer Alexander Trauner, and a narration of facts and figures, quickly establishing the dehumanisation of the workplace, just before we focus on CC Baxter, a slightly ambitious average Joe (played by Jack Lemmon). Nothing would distinguish him from the rest of the office except for two things: one, he is single (i.e. lives alone) and two, he rents a very well located apartment. Combined, these means it’s easy for he to loan his apartment to his philandering bosses.

Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s script is a masterclass in scriptwriting. It’s economical, character driven, true to character and funny and heartbreaking. An all-in-one example is the Christmas party sequence. In just a few shots, Lemmon’s character learns the about the mysterious identity of his boss’ lover. There’s no exposition, no big drama, just a few shots, a clue given earlier and you end with a character completely heartbroken yet unable to give away his feelings. Deservedly, it got them an Oscar for best original screenplay, which Wilder also complemented with a best director and best film – the last competitive Oscars he would get (he only got another nomination, for “The Fortune Cookie”’s script).

Of course it helps that his three lead actors (Shirley MacLaine, Jack Lemmon and Fred MacMurray) are absolutely astonishing. MacMurray plays slimmy, arrogant and self-assured with perfection: just look at the perfection of his twin scenes, with MacLaine and Lemmon, seducing one and the other (in different ways, with different goals), by telling one how much he loves her and that he will divorce his wife, and to the other, by playing macho and saying how MacLaine is just only another fling and he has no intention of divorcing his wife after all. One of the most reliable leading ladies’ leading men of the 1930s and 1940s, I always feel he was treated unfairly (e.g. not getting an Oscar nomination for this), something he contributed to by stating that only Wilder made him act. I disagree: not only was he always good fun in his Paramount years (well, at least as far as I have experienced) but in Sirk’s “There’s Always Tomorrow” he is as good as in here or in “Double Indemnity”.

Lemmon – Wilder’s Everyman – is also spot on. Funny and hurt, Full of joy and heartbroken. He handles with the same grace the Christmas sequence I mentioned above, and for instance, the spaghetti/tennis racked scene later on. Or his reaction to TV advertising – looking forward to an ever delayed showing of “Grand Hotel”.

But it is MacLaine that wins my heart. With her face alone she tells all the layers that Wilder doesn’t put into words – her barely hidden contempt when presented with the $100 bill; her confused apologies when she figures out that it’s Lemmon’s apartment; and in the final sequences, from the bar up to that brilliant line which ends the film (and Wilder and/or Diamond were so good at those) and leaves open most things to come. As for the Oscars, well, she put it best herself: "I thought I would win for The Apartment, but then Elizabeth Taylor had a tracheotomy".  

The supporting cast is also brilliant, particularly the quartet of executives who use the apartment, the doctor’s wife and the telephone girl. I am less convinced by the blond girl and the doctor – although he was the one secured a nomination for best supporting actor.

I think I also need to put a word here for two of my favourite technicians in the cinema ever: set designer Alexander Trauner and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle. Both had a long career. Both became Wilder regulars afterwards (particularly Trauner, with both working in “Irma La Douce” and “Kiss me Stupid”) although Trauner had previously designed the sets for “Witness for the Prossecution”. Both have a body of work that puts them at the height of their professions, and both got Oscar nominations for this. If Trauner’s amazing apartment got him a just reward (Lemmon’s apartment is one of the most realistic sets I have ever seen, from the TV to the Ella Fitzgerald LPs), LaShelle got passed over. In a perfect world they both would have won.

As Wilder put elsewhere, nobody’s perfect. And I have a couple of issues with the film. The neighbours’ reactions being one of them – how can they be completely oblivious to the fact that Lemmon isn’t really having all those women? Nosy as they are, they should have found that out long ago. Another is the timeline of events prior to the film: MacLaine only joined the company a few months before, but there is the hint in some of the dialogue that she’s been there for years. Surely there are plenty of hints on that front. But these little quibbles don’t distract from near perfection.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Gay Sisters (1942)

When their mother dies in sinking of the “Lusitania” and their father soon follows while fighting in WWI, the three young Gaylord sisters are set to become rich heiresses. Alas, twenty odd years later, they still haven’t touched their inheritance and are living with few means, as the will has been contested several times since their father death. There is sibling rivalry, romantic entanglements and some skeletons hanging in the sisters' closets.

The three sisters are Barbara Stanwyck, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Nancy Coleman. The latter plays the goody good sister rather insipidly, but the other two are good. Stanwyck is a delight in her flashback (narration as well as acting) and Fitzgerald, as the man-eater sister, runs away with her scenes and almost the film. To support them, George Brent (acceptably bland) and Donald Crisp (not up to his best) are around, doing very little. Gig Young (changing his screen name to that of his character) also makes an appearance.

Directed by Irving Rapper, “The Gay Sisters” is hardly a classic. It is nevertheless entertaining, albeit it a slight camp way. There is some rhythm, and the plot is both slightly preposterous and amusing, thus the higher than usual camp value. The plot twists can be seen a mile ahead but still, there is something about it. I confess to have liked it – but would hardly feature it in a list of the great films of the 1940s although Rapper's other film of 1942 is a serious contender for that list: Bette Davis' "Now, Voyager".

From a plot construction point of view, and knowing nothing about inheritance laws, I was annoyed by the whole delay setting - it sounded completely preposterous. If the sisters were willing to make the allowance required, and their house (the main issue of contend) was not in their father's inheritance, why would the whole process drag for so long? The obvious answer is the house acted as MacGuffin - but that is from a scriptwriter's point of view, not the character's reality, and it did spoil a bit of the fun: but take it out and all crumbles.

The "almost was" casting is almost as interesting as the real one: the film was originally designed with Bette Davis in mind and Mary Astor was one of the possibilities for the Fitzgerald role, basically redoing their "The Great Lie" pairing. I wonder if it would have increased the camp factor. There almost was a sequel as well. That I think I would have enjoyed watching.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Celeste Holm (1917 - 2012)

Celeste Holm's presence in films is summarised by some random things from 1950 (of which the most famous is the unbearable "High Society") and her years in the late 1940s when she was a contract player at Fox. In five years (always as a supporting actress), she got an Oscar (for "Gentleman's Agreement"), two other nominations (one of which for "All About Eve") and appeared in films like "The Snake Pit". Then she went back to New York and work on stage and on TV.

Interestingly, her most delightful performance is one where she doesn't appear on screen - uncredited as the voice of Addie Ross, the husband stealer in "A Letter to Three Wives". Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell and Ann Sothern had nothing on her.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

An adaptation of H.G. Wells' "The Island of Dr Moreau", "Island of Lost Souls" stars Charles Laughton as Moreau, Richard Arlen, as the hero and Bela Lugosi as one of Moreau's creations.

Edward Parker (Arlen) was on his way to meet his fiancée when the ship he was in sank. The sole survivor, he is saved by a merchant ship on its way to Moreau's island, with a cargo of wild animals. However being a reckless hero he antagonises the captain who leaves him with the cargo in the hands of Moreau...

I never read the original novel (published in 1896), but it's obvious Darwin's theories were Wells' s inspiring source. The motif of playing god, of seeing how far you can tamper with Nature and get away with it, were a clear inspiration for late 19th century writers. Moreau, the god, keeps his beasts under strict control by forcing them a mantra of rules which they must obey, among them, "you must not kill ". His own downfall comes, unsurprisingly, when he breaks his own rules while trying to hold onto to power. The ending is something to behold, and probably the reason the film was banned in the UK on its original release (it was probably not an easy view in a colonial context) - it also shows what the ending of Tod Browning's "Freaks" could have been if MGM hadn't got cold feet. As for this film, it was finally allowed in the UK with cuts in 1958, and in 1996 without them. To illustrate how times have changed, the uncut version is now rated PG, the second lowest rating the BBFC issues - how times change.

Laughton is a pleasure to watch. He plays Moreau with a camp delight which surpasses even his Nero in DeMille's "The Sign of the Cross". In a sense, in 1932 Hollywood and in Laughton's hands, the film becomes a duel between the evil gay man and the straigh hero, played rather blandly by Arlen (who I saw to much better effect recently in "Beggars of Life"). Arlen's character recklessness is just a way to assert his macho heterosexuality, as his is "must get to my fiancée" constant speech. Unsuprisingly, the hero's victory is more due to the intervention of others (the Panther Woman) than his own, as he can't stop and think (as it probably affect his street cred). Moreau's demise reminded me of that of another gay man in cinema, the ever faceless Sebastian Venable in "Suddenly, Last Summer". I wonder if Tennessee Williams got inspiration here for his play (or for that matter, Gore Vidal, who co-wrote the script with Williams).

Arthur Hohl held his strong against Laughton and Kathleen Burke was allowed to show some female sexuality (with the pale excuse of being not exactly human), while the rest of the cast (Lugosi included) is pretty indifferent.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Government Girl (1943)

According to IMDb's trivia section on this film, Olivia de Havilland, its star, hated the film. Whether this is true or not, I can't say. But I certainly wouldn't blame her. This is a poorly scripted, poorly cast, poorly directed romantic comedy. If she didn't boycott her own performance on purpose (as suggested) then this is even worst that I thought.

A bit of context here - de Havilland in the early 1940s was still under contract to Warner Bros. Her star had been rising since 1935 and "Captain Blood",  but with "Gone with the Wind" in 1939 and "Hold Back the Dawn" in 1941, both loans elsewhere, she finally got some respect from the studio. So she got better parts, for instance in "The Strawberry Blond" and the good sister in "In This Our Life". Then they loaned her to Selznick, who in turn loaned her to RKO for this tripe. It must clearly have felt as demotion/punishment and probably weighted heavily in her landmark decision to sue the studio the following year.

The film basically concerns a secretary falling in love with her boss. This has been done before many times over, and sometimes well. This is clearly not one of them - the characters are one dimensional, and there are way too many plot lines that either get nowhere or are just filling (the first act of the film is completely filling, concerning the lack of a room for de Havilland's roommate to consummate her wedding). Of course it doesn't help that the whole cast is not bothered (de Havilland), has underwritten parts (Agnes Moorehead), or is just terrible (pretty much everyone else, except Harry Davenport doing one of his wise old men which he did with his eyes closed). The leading man (Sonny Tufts) and the second banana (Jess Barker) are particularly dull. As all this suggests, the film isn't funny. (What was it with the shoes?!) It also managed to produce in me a complete indifference to the fate of all characters, despite the extremely predictability of the ending.

The only interesting points were the opening details where we can see all the women pursuing the (very few) available men and the gimmick with "Heloise and Abelard" showing both characters had a romantic side. This would have been much better though had they been properly presented as having "efficient" and workahoolic facade.

All in all, this is a good example of how routine Hollywood studios could be, even to the war effort message: boy meets girl, girl thinks she's in love with second banana; boy is ideallistic but has excellent idea to help the war effort; girl helps him; second banana turns out to be not as nice as we thought, etc, etc. You get the picture. I think today people forget that they really were assembly lines and/or don't realise the true meaning of B-film (or in this case a few letters down the alphabet, even if it's meant, I assume an A one...). In case they need to be reminded, this a good example: flat, dull and uninspired, and a waste of a excellent actress.

PS - the Hitler and Hirohito caricatures on Ed Browne's office are supposed to be his? Cause if they are they should have told the (excellent) artist not to sign it...

PPS - Some of the other posters for this film are worth looking at for the crass, tasteless and misogynistic taglines: "Manpower shortage? Not for this girl friday"; "When the men are ONE to TEN... a gal's gotta be good" - oh, and neither reflect the film...

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Maria Keil (1914-2012)

Maria Keil was a Portuguese artist, whose most visible works are seen by millions every day although most people don't glance at it twice: from the 1950s to the 1970s she did the original tile decorations for Lisbon's underground network, except for one station, where it still stands today (*). With this work, she helps modernise a traditional art form in Portugal, reinventing it to the 20th Century - something so many others continue to do to this day. She wasn't allowed to use any figures as that was seen as distracting. So she used geometric/abstract patterns.

She also did a lot of more traditional graphic work, particularly book covers and illustrations. The photos below were taken by yours truly - if I had more talent and material adjusted to take photos inside underground stations they would have out come much better. Alas, it should give some idea.

(*) In two stations (Saldanha and São Sebastião) the original tiles got removed for some reason, and in Restauradores, some of it was also lost during renovation works. Everything else is still there, and the new decoration in São Sebastião is also hers (last photo). It seems it was her last work.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Robert B. Sherman (1925-2012)

Robert B. Sherman, one of the Sherman Brothers, died today. The songs he co-wrote with his brother are part of the common reference of pretty much everyone who was ever exposed to a Disney film (i.e. the whole of the Western world and most of the rest): the music of "Mary Poppins", "The Jungle Book", "The Parent Trap", "Bedknobs and Broomsticks", etc. and the extremely catchy "It's a Small world".

There's really one word to say - Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Magnificient, Marvellous Meryl

And at long last, she got her third Oscar, 29 years after the last... An excellent performance in a ok, occasionally mediocre, occasionally good film with too much kindness for its subject matter has finally given her her just reward. She's finally in the pantheon of actors with three or more awards(*) - a fair prize of one of the best living actresses.

Of course I could argue she should have won it before, particularly with "Out of Africa" (too soon after "Sophie's Choice", I know), "The Bridges of Madison County" and "The Hours" (she didn't even get a nomination and she was by far the best thing in the film). As a guilty pleasure, I would even add "The Devil Wears Prada" to that list. Now, can she do a play in London? Please, please, please...
My only regret? That Glenn Close couldn't get the Oscar she long deserves.

As for the rest? Well, I pass...

(*) - just in case you're wondering, they others are: Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Walter Brennan and Jack Nicholson. Hepburn had four, the others three. Brennan was a wonderful actor, but three Oscars in five years was a bit too much.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Beauty and the Boss (1932)

Roy del Ruth’s “Beauty and the Boss” starts off as your usual Warren Williams WB fare: a powerful businessman seduces his secretary – or in this case, he is being seduced by her. And to be honest, that was what I was expecting: another Pre-code seedy office melodrama (nothing against those, as seen here and here). Instead, it suddenly turned lighter, and I was presented with quite a good comedy.

While this may not be Williams’ best performance (I would elect “Employees’ Entrance”), it is one of his best and allows him to show his talent for comedy, something you can also see in the much vilified “Satan met a Lady”. Here he is clearly a star on the ascent: he is the lead despite being third billed, after David Manners, who clearly has a supporting part. Later that year (1932), he would be top billed in “The Match King” and “Skyscraper Souls” and with that unique and still unmatched balance of sleaze and seduction, he would become the ultimate Pre-code leading man.

Also extremely good are the two actresses, Marian Marsh and Mary Doran, as Williams’ current and former secretary (and current something else). I don’t think I ever had come across either of them. Marsh in particular shows some promise that, as far as her filmography allows me to assess, she never delivered – there is only one film she did after this whose title I recognised, "Crime and Punishment" with Peter Lorre.

Finally, I would like to say that this should have belonged in the Forbidden Hollywood collection series (rather than the Warner Archives), possibly in a volume dedicated to Warren Williams along with other Roy del Ruth titles such as “Upperworld”, “Employees’ Entrance” and “The Mind Reader” (the one I haven’t seen and would like to). Or, let’s even be original and add "Blessed Event” and two Cagneys (“Taxi!” and “Blonde Crazy”) and have an del Ruth Collection. A boy can dream, no?

Monday, 6 February 2012

The Letter (1940)

More than any other, "The Letter" is the quintessential Bette Davis film. It is one of the best examples of the studio system's star vehicles, where an actor carried the weight of a film. Davis is (nearly) the whole film from the audience's point of view, and without her the whole thing would collapse. Of course, the play on which it was based was in itself a star vehicle (Maugham wrote it for Gladys Cooper, if I recall correctly) so the whole thing is already centred in the leading lady. Having seen it on stage a few years back, however, I recall it as a much more balanced affair.

In a plantation in Malaysia, Leslie (Davis) shoots a man outside her house. The man, was one of her neighbours, and when the police comes, she tells them that she killed him after he tried to rape her. All seems pretty clear until a letter surfaces. I have to be admit, this is one of my favourite Bette Davis' performances. She's perfectly glacial, composed and her eyes, often about to explode, are a focus point for the audience (I think William Wyler, the director, knew this). As I once said to a friend, you can't take your eyes off her. Her character's obsession with detail and self-imposed discipline, her efforts never to give away anything away, so cleverly represented by the lace, appeals to me to no end. However, having recently seen the film recently for the umpteenth time, some of the flaws are becoming more and more evident.

The first, and most obvious, is the most unfortunate casting of Herbert Marshall. In one sense, he is perfectly pathetic, and therefore should have been perfect as the husband. The problem is that he can't act. And this is a film where all the action occurs in the amazing opening sequence, so it would have helped to have an actor who could actually act.

The second fault is the opening-up of the source material. Maugham based his play on a short story (also by him). It is of the nature of theatre that all action is moved forward by words. In cinema, that is a disaster, so often writers open the play up, show different locations, add characters, etc., to make it feel less closed. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I'm starting to think it doesn't always work here. By breaking the long scenes of the play into tiny bits, you also loose the effect. You loose tension and structure and adding or extending things like the sequence in Chinatown serve no purpose other than make the film longer. Although it also leads us to the next point: the portrait of the Asian characters, either as greasy, devious, over-polite plotters or as greasy, devious, opium addicts. Played for laughs and the security of the White audience of the period, they are a hindrance to modern audiences, add nothing, and to be frank, are quite distracting.

Finally, there's the ending (and yes, spoiler alert). The original, bitter ending of the play, with Leslie not only admitting that she still loves the man she killed, but also that she will have to live a long, boring life concious of it is gone. This, I am sure is what attracted Maugham. So why does it have to go? Well, the Hays Code. As a murderess, Leslie must be punished. But this empties the film of its impact. So, to be fair, every time I watch it, I pretend the last few minutes aren't really there - the film ends when she utters the infamous line, "with all my heart I still love the man I killed".

Having spent so much denigrating what is one of my favourite films, and clearly not expressing how big is my emotional reaction to this film, I will try to get back on track and focus on three of my favourite things. The first, is obviously Davis (yeah, sorry, couldn't help it). The scene in the prison is still my favourite of all her performances: trying unsuccessfully to keep cool as her perfectly composed starts crumbling and you can feel her trying (and failing) to hold on. She got an Oscar nomination, and I probably would have given it to her, had I had a chance... Another highlight are the final scenes, when safe and sound, all is revealed. I have mentioned above that you can't take your eyes off her. I really believe this. The second highlight is the underrated James Stephenson as the lawyer, a character actor who would die the following year, just as his career seemed to take a more promising turn (he got an Oscar nomination for this film). Here he is a fallen angel, truly broken down by his actions to protect the wife of a good friend (the stage production I saw suggested that his actions might be motivated by something more than friendship towards Leslie's husband). It's really a pity that they didn't keep the dynamics of the play, as he could have been an even better match to Davis. Finally, the gorgeous, at times almost noir-ish Oscar nominated cinematography by Tony Gaudio: Bette Davis never looked as beautiful as all covered in Orry-Kelly's virginal white lace.