Friday, 31 May 2013

Daisy Kenyon (1947)

When I first saw "Daisy Kenyon" I was absolutely taken aback. I thought it was one of the most emotionally true and adult films Hollywood produced in the 1940s. On a second viewing, while I still agree with that, particularly during the film's second half, I was much less taken aback and start noticing things I missed or forgot from the first time around.

Otto Preminger's "Daisy Kenyon" is among many things a film about how good timing is an essential part of relationships. Daisy Kenyon (Joan Crawford) is a designer desiluded with her affair with a married man (Dana Andrews) when she meets war veteran (Henry Fonda) who proposes to her.

Among the things I liked about the film is Preminger usual pushing the envelope. The film touches subjects such as post-traumatic stress disorder; a mother using children at instruments to get back at their father; the plight of Japanese-Americans after World War II; and in a sense the maturity of the affair (Fonda's character acts like a normal human being). The cast is excellent. Joan Crawford gives one of her best performances, rid of some of her mannerisms, and Dana Andrews surprised  me tremendously. There a few moments who keep coming to mind, particularly his last scene. But the best, I think, is his reaction when Crawford tells him she has married Fonda. It is very subtle and really well done.

Yet, the film is unbalanced with something not quite right. Sometimes this is obvious: towards the end, Joan Crawford uses the most innapropriate shoes to get into the snow. Unrealistic touches like this are usually more evident in an otherwise realistic film. Sometimes it takes a bit of thinking to figure it out - while on the surface, the film seems to question till the end which man will end with Daisy, it's actually obvious, not just by the rules of the Hays Code but in more less obvious ways (there is a lot of rain whenever one of them is on screen).

Friday, 24 May 2013

No Time for Love (1943)

Mitchell Leisen's "No Time for Love", starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray is a slightly unusual romantic comedy of the 1940s. The key element that makes it different is its sexual politics, by how obviously it states that the attraction of its two leads is sexual, not romantic. This is highlighted by the fact that it is a socially unequal pairing (i.e. not a match of minds); he is a construction worker, she's a sophisticated photographer. This social inequality is a theme recurrent in Leisen's comedies of the early 40s, particularly "Take a Letter, Darling". Moreover, the audience's point of view (this being 1943 was expected to be mostly female) is Colbert's and Fred MacMurray is treated, from the first time we see him, as a sex object (shirtless and sweaty, see also his terrible portrait in a poster below).

In fact, the whole film works around this. Having seen him, and felt attracted to him, Colbert is unable to forget him (or stop lusting after him). When she inadvertently causes him to be suspended from his job; she offers him a temporary one, hoping (?) that spending time with him will cure her from her "problem". The film objectifies him as a masculine object of desire even further by pairing Colbert at the start with a man who isn't terribly different from her gay friends (something the film also doesn't shy from). And it is sexual jealousy they both feel, not a romantic one: she, when he has sex with the dancer; he, when feels less masculine than the model she's photographing.

(Slight spoilers ahead:) Perhaps feeling that all this was too overt, the characters' social differences are toned down slightly (turns out he's an engineer, not a worker - just doing the job of one for macguffin reasons), but by the time her most present (and hungry) gay friend joins them up, sex has resurfaced (their exit from scene and her last line should be enough). But, in difference to what would happen later in the decade, none conceded to the other. This is still a union of equals.

Both leads are great, Colbert exuding her usual charm and MacMurray giving one of his best comedic performances. It's also one of their best pairings. I also had a soft spot for Ilka Chase and Richard Haydn as Colbert's sister and aforementioned friend.

Claudette Colbert and Fred McMurray worked together in seven films. Six are available on DVD. The one missing is their second outing directed by Mitchell Leisen, "Practically Yours" which I would like very much to watch. Last screening I know of was in 2008, in Paris. But my bigger question is why was it missed from a boxset collecting some of their films?

Friday, 17 May 2013

The Show (1927)

The more I see of John Gilbert, the less I am convinced by him as an actor. In Tod Browning's "The Show" he plays an unsympathetic womaniser carnival player caught between a woman obsessed by him, her man seeking for revenge and an accusation of theft. If I admire the great leading man's choice of part, he chews way too much scenery to be credible or interesting to watch. His performance is one of the best examples of overacting of the late silent period.

The film itself also suffers from a lack of coherence in characterisation: Renée Adorée's Salomé changes (through no fault of her own) from a feisty man hunter to a devoted daughter simply by changing the sets: halfway through the film, we moved from the carnival (typical Browning) to melodrama within Salomé's appartment. This abrupt change in mood and the character's personality does no favours to the film, which works much better in the first half, despite the fact that, at times, it feels more like an amalgamation of ideas Tod Browning had used or would later use in his films. Nevertheless, Adorée was quite lovely and much better than Gilbert, her "The Big Parade" co-star.

The Browning touches in the carnival are wonderful: the strange creatures which antecipate "Freaks" and the atmosphere of, among others, "The Unknown"; and even the acts themselves. The woman-spider is just brilliant and the sword change is a really clever touch. Another positive was Lionel Barrymore's performance as "the Greek". He is truly the highlight of the film - sleazy, devious, and unlike Gilbert, subtle in his performance: no excesses, no hamming. I was just sorry he wasn't more in it.

On a final note, I felt sorry for the poor iguana in the film. To give the idea of a vicious attack, the poor animal was a few times put on a metal plate which was then electrified and I strongly suspect it might not have survived the film...

Friday, 10 May 2013

Davis vs Hopkins, round one: The Old Maid (1939)

They were two of the most famous actresses of the 1930s - one achieve stardom before the other, who ended having a longer career. Both had a reputation of being difficult. One made a career and won an Oscar out of the other's Broadway flop. They hated each other's guts. And they were paired by Warner Bros. in two films. Edmound Goulding directed the first and was meant to direct the second but decided he couldn't face the two again, and Vincent Sherman directed it instead. And from this rivalry, two of the great melodramas of the war period were born: "The Old Maid" (1939) and "Old Acquaintance" (1943). They are, of course, Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins.

The two films hinge on a similar topic, the rivalry between two women who share a strong bond. The first film, "The Old Maid" is the darker of the two. Adapted from an Edith Wharton novella, it starts as the story of two cousins in love with the same man. On the day of Delia's (Hopkins) wedding, her former fiancé (George Brent) comes back to see her. Distraught, he founds consolation in Charlotte's (Davis) arms. When Delia finds out about this, and that a child was born, she acts out of spite, setting a chain of events which will bound the two women with an ever tighter knot. They themselves summarise it best, when after finding out Delia's machinations, Charlotte tells her that she hates her - to which Delia, horrified, replies "Hate, such word between us" and Charlotte tells her there was never another word. The ending, as Delia herself admits, is bleak. The two women will end alone, in a house, until one of them dies.

Although our sympathies are supposed to lie with Davis, the film becomes increasingly ambiguous as it progresses. Hopkins' character, is a clear bitch at the beginning of the film. She's a monster under fine lace, who destroys bit by bit her cousin's life. But, as she ages (looking increasingly younger) she becomes fully aware of the consequences of what she has done, and what that entails for both of them and seeks to atone for her actions. Davis' character, on the other hand, becomes harder and harsher, increasing less forgiving, after losing in sequence, the man she loves, the man she hoped to marry and her daughter. Davis avoids asking for our sympathy becoming nearly odious at times - although there is the wonderful scene, where alone she practices her voice to take all tenderness out.

The film (and "Old Acquaintance" as well) says a lot about women's position: you make a mistake (sex before marriage), and you're expected to pay for it for the rest of your life, even if only one (or two) other person knows. Or worse, if you try to show some independence (her orphanage) and you get crushed. You must always conform. This is, almost like Cukor's "The Women", a film about men, where although hardly visible, their presence or absence is overwhelming felt.

Other than the two leading actresses, the other highlight of the film for me was Donald Crisp, as the all sage Greek chorus. George Brent is hardly on the screen (he can't have more than three or four scenes) although that was enough to give him third billing. On the other hand, Jane Bryan as Tina just managed to irritate me, and to be fair, I couldn't care whether she got the boy or not.

On a final note, I watched the trailer immediate after the film, and you can actually see a couple of bits that didn't make the final cut, particularly a visit alluded to of Charlotte's fiancee to her orphanage.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Kitty (1945)

Mitchell Leisen's "Kitty" is the story of a woman from the London slums in the 18th Century who, with the guidance of an unscrupulous and bankrupt nobleman, raises to the top of society. Think of an amoral "Pygmalion" and you won't be too far off. Paulette Goddard is the Galatea, Ray Milland is Pygmalion.

Mitchell Leisen's work has, I think, long be neglected for reasons which I have discussed before. I personally think that this is unfair, and he is actually a good director, whose work might even satisfy some aspects of the auteur (the theme of masquarades, of people pretending they are who they're not). His  comedies of the late 1930s and early 1940s owe a lot to its writers (Wilder and Sturges) it is obvious, but what about the others they didn't write (e.g. "No Time for Love")? In a sense, he is as much as Wilder and Sturges, one of the heirs of Lubitsch. And his melodramas are equally fine. "Kitty" is somewhere between the two groups, more dramatic than comedy, but with good comic relief by Constance Collier and Reginald Owen.

This is not a perfect film (and spoilers ahead). One main issue is that Ray Milland's character is too base and devoided of any good quality to justify Kitty's love or for me to believe in his redemption. Although I did buy his arrogance really well. Furthermore, attempting to put her down before her fiancé as a way of earning her heart is really not a good idea: either dramatically or in real life. This is exactly the same problem I had in Leisen's "Lady in the Dark" and it is a pity he didn't address it any better here (sometimes I wonder if someone at Paramount simply gave Fred McMurray all nice leading man and Ray Milland all the unpleasant ones). Another major flaw in the film the time scale: Kitty's education seems to last longer than her first marriage, and in a time where appearances were all, she has no morning period - I could just about buy this when she marries the duke because his social standing would just about allow it, but not the second time. Both these problems are in part the way Leisen deals with them, but also easy wait out for lazy writers.

On the other hand, Paulette Goddard is really good as the social climber with a heart. Her characterisation is really well done, with incremental steps up the social ladder. And then there's the brilliant moment when her beads (pearls?) fall over the floor. And so is most of the cast. I particularly liked Constance Collier as Milland's drunken aunt, Eric Blore as her servant and particularly, Cecil Kellaway as Thomas Gainsborough. The film seems to have more respect for historical authenticity than most at the time. More important, it is an entertaining film, even if it is one I shan't remember terribly well in a few months.