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).