Watching Films in Montreal: Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For at the Scotiabank Cineplex

Bargain basement commodification.
Bargain basement commodification.

I’ve often felt depressed going to the cinema recently and never more so than when I went to see Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For in Montreal. I rather loved the film; the hushed heightened way the characters spoke seemed like a 40s movie — a kind of pulp poetry; the glossy black and white of the image which has the effect of turning adolescent comic-book yearnings into film noir dreams; the beautiful way the film turns images into metaphors (e.g. the moment Joseph Gordon-Leavitt shrinks at the card-table and gets diced up by the cards he’s lost at); how the sharp square lines of Josh Brolin’s mug seems made for a comic book tough guy; the luscious greens, blues and reds with which Eva Green is coloured as a femme fatale. The film worked. The problem was the cinema itself. I saw Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For at the Scotiabank Cineplex. Dames, killing, sin: that’s the stuff of movies and dreams; the S in the Scotiabank is pictured as a dollar sign enveloping the globe. It’s not that money is prosaic. Money is also the stuff that movie dreams are made of. But there was something that bothered me about the juxtaposition of Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For and Scotiabank Cineplex.

Plateau landmarks
Plateau landmarks

Earlier in the day I’d gone to an exhibit called ‘Vies de Plateau’ at Pointe à Callière, a cultural history of the Montreal neighbourhood I grew up in. As part of the exhibit, we were shown a map of the neighbourhood in grid form highlighting its landmarks. The map showed the big factories and train stations and churches. But half of the landmark buildings were cinemas. The Plateau in Montreal was were the first purpose-built cinema in the world was built, seating 1200 and already with air-conditioning in 1906, the Ouimetoscope,  on the corner of St. Catherine Street and Montcalm. Other landmark movie palaces from 1914-1921 included The Globe, The Regent, The Papineau and the Rialto, which was modeled on the Opera de Paris. Except for the Rialto, which is now a concert venue, all of these cinemas have disappeared.

Yoga at the old Loewe's
Yoga at the old Loewe’s

Returning to Montreal I often experience a sense of spectrality. Some of the buildings have changed, the skyline is not quite what it was but largely the geography of the place remains the same. One’s sense of walking through space is no different then when one was a child or a teenager. Looking at Jeanne Mance Park, one remembers spending one’s childhood there in the same swings, in the same wading pool, straddling the lions on the statue, picknicking. It was called Fletcher’s Field then but it still looks pretty much as it did. The same applies to St. Urbain, Pine Avenue, St . Laurent, Rachel, all those streets one grew up in.

The Imperial, now a listed building and venue for the World Film Festival
The Imperial, now a listed building and venue for the World Film Festival

The difference is that at one point one either knew or recognized everybody on those streets; that’s what happened when one walks through them every day of one’s life to get to either Jean-Jacques Ollier, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, McGill University or whatever school one happened to be going to when living on the Plateau. Now one walks through those streets and the streets themselves are the same, the geography of travelling through those spaces is unchanged, one turns at the same corners, but now one knows none of the faces that walk through them, and yet the ghosts of those loved ones from long ago appear in one’s memory, the street acting as its own form of urban madeleine, bidding hello to all those people you once knew and reminding you how much they once meant and how one treasures those memories still.

The L and the apostrophe used to be differently pictured
The L and the apostrophe used to be differently pictured

Because I’m of a generation that grew up with and at the movies, old cinemas have a particular resonance: A double bill of Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks at the Atwater was my first time at the movies in Montreal; seeing Saturday Night Fever at the old Palace, which was the size of a football stadium and packed with people itching to disco; watching Casablanca for the first time at the Seville, then a repertory cinema, and drinking hot apple juice spiced with cinnamon; queuing up around the block to see Aliens at the Imperial, working as an usher at Place du Canada and rushing in to the cinema every day I worked there so as not to miss the chainsaw scene in Scarface; going to see experimental cinema at the Méliès and nursing a coffee for hours reading a book and fervently wishing one of the many fascinating cinephiles seated around me would include me in their conversation; treating my brother and cousin, both six years old, to see Superman with the very first money I earned at the Loewe’s, a lifelong memory for both, but being annoyed with them because as soon as I finished taking one to the bathroom the other wanted to go and I ended up missing half the film; wearing huge platforms to make me seem taller and blowing smoke into the teller’s face so she wouldn’t ask me for ID and getting in to watch porn at the Beaver; coming out of the Parisien during the World Film Festival and unsure of what to make of Blue Velvet but knowing it was great; going on dates, holding hands surreptitiously, protesting in front of the old Pussycat theatre, maybe it was even called the cinema L’amour already with the L shaped like a woman’s open legs and the apostrophe shaped like a penis poised and pointing. Later on, already a confirmed cinephile, seeing Sirk for the first time at the Cinémathèque; or taking thermoses and sandwiches to the Buñuel retrospective at the Conservatoire so as not to miss any of the films one might never get a chance to see again. These are memories not only of one’s life but of what one hoped and longed for, who one dreamed of being, at each of those points in one life, a condensed madeleine of a moment before the narrative alters, moves onto different tangents, zigzags its way onto who and what one is now.

A reverse image of St. Catherine St. at night in the 1950s
A reverse image of St. Catherine St. at night in the 1950s

What remains of these cinemas are the material remnants of a spectral past that is still very vivid in me. They’re the memories of my life. And it’s interesting to me that they revolve around films and cinema because cinema is itself a spectral form. Historically it was the imprint light left on celluloid of that which was once but no longer is until it is revived by light once more. What you get is a kind of spectral presence, an appearance made of light and shadow that gives sound and movement to that which no longer is. And of course these shadows were brought to life in dream palaces with names like Seville, Elysée, Riviera, Globe, Regent, Palace, Paris or even Papineau. Exotic places, Elysian places, grand places, places of culture, of royalty, palatial, chic or even just the greatest of historical figures. Ghosts came alive to arouse and give shape to one’s dreams and desires in the grandest and most grandiose of places any working class person had ever been to; and you could go at any time and stay for as long as you wanted. These dreams of sex and sin and dames and a better life or even just a better hairdo and nicer living room furniture had names fit for purpose; they seemed to respect and even ennoble working people and their aspirations.

In repertory at The Seville
In repertory at The Seville

On my way to see Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For, I noticed that the old York had disappeared, the old Loewe’s is now a huge gym were you could get yoga classes, the old Palace is a Foot Locker, the old Parisienne is an empty space to let, though a remnant of its raked floor is still visible and has not been filled in. The Rialto is a protected building but now a venue for live music; only the old Imperial is still going, the central cinema for the World Film Festival but even the queues outside seemed to be just Golden Agers. It seemed fitness is now more of a vehicle for dreams and desires than movies.

Film Education at the Conservatoire.
Film Education at the Conservatoire.

I hated seeing Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For at a cinema called Scotiabank, with the S pictured as a dollar sign encircling the globe. And I’m a bit unreasonable about it. It’s never bothered me that Arsenal play at the Emirates or that Man City play at the Etihad so why can’t a cinema also benefit from that kind of sponsorship? For most of their history films have been a commercial proposition. They’ve been about making money. But films were never only about money. In fact films made money when the dreams and aspirations their stories conveyed connected socially with those of large sector of society. What was important was to give those dreams vivid expression, incur an intensity of feeling in the audience, make those spectres connect with the real in a social form. To have reduced all our dreams to dreams of money instead of money being a byproduct of the articulation of a great variety of different hopes, aspirations and nightmares — of a job in a certain way well done — is somehow to have diminished everything that films meant. At least to me. Maybe cinema was always about the commodification of dreams and maybe I only feel bad about it now because the commodification seems of the bargain basement variety. I’m not sure. But‘Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For at the Scotiabank seems to me a juxtaposition in terms wavering  between a comedown and a kind of barbarism.

The old Parisienne is up for rent.
The old Parisienne is up for rent.

José Arroyo

Female (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1933)

ruth chatterton female

 

The president of the Drake Motor Company — rich, smart, ruthless, successful – is female. But is she a woman? She acts like a man, ‘I treat men the same way they’ve always treated women. I’d rather have a canary.’ ‘Love takes too much time. A woman in love is a pathetic spectacle.’ But she does love men: ‘Lots of them’. She picks out her sexiest employees, asks them over for dinner, puts on a gorgeous gown, plumps up the pillow, and rings the butler to bring over the vodka to ’fortify their courage.’ When they get love-sick, sentimental and start demanding more, she buys them off; and if that doesn’t work, she ships them out to Montreal, which in this film is like outer Siberia. It’s all love ‘em and leave him with Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) so she can put her energies where they really count – business. We’re told she gets rid of tricks ‘Just as Napoleon would have dismissed a ballet girl. She’s never met a man worthy of her. She never will’. But of course, she does; unfortunately for us, it’s George Brent.

Curtiz makes every shot look interesting.
Curtiz makes every shot look interesting.

The film begins in that gloriously dynamic way typical of early 30s Warner Brothers: We see the entrance to the Drake Motor Company, and then it’s irises out, horizontal wipes, diagonal wipes and quick cuts to show us what they’re manufacturing and how. It’s barely a minute into the film and it’s already exciting. Two clerks gossiping tell us ‘The President’s blowing the roof off?’ ‘Who’s getting it this time?’ before we’re shown that this scary and powerful captain of industry is not a man; nor is she just any woman – she’s Ruth Chatterton, already of a certain age, clipped diction, soignée, a big star who was then also considered a great enough actress to warrant the billing of ‘Miss’ Ruth Chatterton — no more respectful accolade was then possible.

 

Ruth Chatterton shows George Brent who's the boss.
Ruth Chatterton shows George Brent who’s the boss.

Throughout the first half of the film, Chatterton is filmed either in her office, busily answering phones with a huge window as backdrop showing the factory buildings, or in her ultra-modern and glamorous home, wearing glorious gowns in the living room or lounging around the pool with her prey. Michael Curtiz, the director, makes every shot interesting and the film is a pleasure to look at. Sadly, she then meets George Brent at a shooting gallery. He’s a better shot, rebuffs her and of course she falls in love. When it turns out he works for her, she gets up to her old tricks but they predictably don’t work on him; too bad for us.

 

Ruth at home.
Ruth at home.

At the beginning of the film, she tells her board they’ve got statistic poisoning. She’s fed up with statistics and she wants action and change. By the end of the film, she does what Katharine Hepburn will do in Woman of the Year (George Stevens, USA, 1942) to get Spencer Tracy almost ten years later — she diminishes herself to satisfy his idea of womanliness. At the end of the film, she endangers a business deal in New York to chase after him at a country fair. She gets him, promising to turn over the business to him to him and have nine children. The film ends with both of them on the way to make the business deal in New York. This viewer at least was left hoping that once they got there, got the deal, and she got her way with him, that she’d return to her factory and leave him with a bus ticket to Montreal under the pillow.

 

José Arroyo

 

Virtue (Edward Buzzell, USA, 1932)

virtue big

 

This is a film where characters have names like Mae, Gert, Lil and Toots O’Neill. The women are all hookers and waitresses; the men cab drivers and pimps. The film’s world is the New York of the Great Depression, a place where women have to do what they can to get by but once they do…. ‘You’d think there’d be some men you could tell that kind of thing to and they’d understand,’ says Mae (Carole Lombard), referring to her street-walking past. ‘There were some but they all died in the Civil War,’ says Lil.

The film begins with Mae being run out of town by the cops, placed on a bus and told to go home. She immediately gets off at the first stop, hails a cab and then stiffs the driver for the money. When she sees him later and tries to return the money she catches him in the middle of telling the story but with him getting the money back as no woman is going to get the best of him. It’s a meet cute where they end up arguing: ‘I don’t like your face’ My face is ok’, ‘Yeah it’s ok for you, you’re behind it’. The driver’s name is Jimmy (Pat O’Brien) and of course he helps get her a ‘decent’ job as a waitress, they fall in love, and he does what he’s said he’d never do, marry before he’s got enough money to set up his own business. Needless to say, the past comes back to haunt them. They overcome that but once he knows of her past, trust becomes an issue. It all gets resolved at the end but not without a bit of murder and lot of melodrama.

Poverty-row Columbia was where Carole Lombard went to in the early 30s for the meaty parts she wasn’t getting at Paramount, her home studio. On the evidence of Virtue, she was smart to. Robert Riskin, already contributing depth and crackle to Capra’s films (The Miracle Woman, Platinum Blonde, American Madness) and soon to be even more famous as the screenwriter of Capra’s most celebrated and successful films of the 1930s (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take it With You) also wrote the screenplay for Virtue. It has a hackneyed plot but it’s hard-boiled, tries hard to be unsentimental, and has crackling dialogue: ‘Ya ever been married’, ‘So many times I got rice marks all over me’.

Perhaps even more important than the film’s themes of acceptance and forgiveness are the ways the film first articulates misogyny (everything Pat O’Brien’s Jimmy thinks about women and spouts to the character of Frank played by Ward Bond) and then condemns it (all the plot points prove Jimmy wrong). The film also intelligently dramatises the importance of friendships between women (Mae’s relationship with Lil) without being blind about them (what Gert ends up doing). One gets a real sense of the precariousness of good people’s existence in a harsh economic climate, how humour ennobles, and the priggishness of people yet to understand that there are many types of virtue.

At the heart of the film is Carole Lombard who is the main reason for seeing it. How someone so beautiful can seem believable as a down-and-out streetwalker and so emotionally transparent whilst evoking a wide range of sometimes contradictory feeling and simultaneously cracking wise is one of the miracles of 1930s movies.

 

José Arroyo.

The Last Flight (William Dieterle, USA, 1931)

220px-The_Last_Flight_(poster)

Even devoted cinephiles might have trouble placing Richard Barthelmess today. Casual film fans might remember him as Rita Hayworth’s husband in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939); fans of silent cinema might remember the delicacy and longing he brought to his role of Chen Huang, the Chinese man who falls in love and tries to protect Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish) in D.W. Griffith’s sublime Broken Blossoms (1919). He was a great star of the 20s, nominated for the very first Academy Awards in 1927 for two roles, The Patent Leather Kid (1927) and The Noose (1928), and he ran his own production company, Inspiration Film Company with Charless Duell and director Henry King. In Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man, Mick Lasalle argues that ‘As talkies found their voice, Richard Barthelmess emerged as one of the most exciting figures of the era.[i]

Screen Shot 2014-08-16 at 11.44.16

Barthelmess had a clause in his contract allowing him to choose his own stories and LaSalle argues that Barthelmess ‘used his stardom to examine untraveled avenues of the American soul. From his first sound film, Weary River (1929), until the enforcement of the Code in July 1934, he created a body of work unique in its exploration of racism, corruption, the dark side of business and the effects of the war…No single American film star has ever created a talkie legacy anything like Barthelmess’s in its relentlessness of conscience or seriousness of purpose’[ii]. The Last Flight is part of that legacy.

Screen Shot 2014-08-17 at 11.07.43

In The Last Flight four wounded and damaged WWI pilots – Cary (Richard Barthelmess), Shep (David Manners) Bill (John Mack Brown) and Francis (Elliot Nugent) — unwilling to return home and all that it represents in terms of who they were, who they hoped to be and who they are now, attempt to drink away the trauma of WWI in the great capitals of Europe and fail. The wounds are physical, and though not without challenges, can be overcome; Cary, for example, needs both his burnt hands to hold his drink; awkward in company but it certainly no deterrent to getting high. The damage, however, is psychological, over-hanging and unshakeable. They’re each in their different way broken in body and are collectively part of a generation that as so beautifully evoked by F. Scott Fitzgerald was in all kinds of ways ‘lost’.

Screen Shot 2014-08-17 at 11.08.29

The film begins with an exciting areal sequence in which we’re shown Cary and Shep’s plane get hit. We then see how Cary brings the burning plane down 6000 feet at the expense of burning his hands and how both pilots are so wounded they’re in critical condition. They get through it and live but as the film goes on to dramatise, not really. As in many early 30’s films, the plot moves very quickly, and in a couple of minutes it’s already Armistice Day, Cary and Shep are discharged and Cary asks Shep, ‘The old guerre is finie. What are you going to do now?’

‘Get tight’

‘And then?’

‘Stay Tight!’

‘There they go’, says the Doctor as he discharges them, ‘Out to face life and their whole preparation was in training for death,’ thus neatly articulating the film’s overarching theme.

 

The Last Flight explores existential meaninglessness as a moveable feast in which being blotto is insufficient to render one oblivious to oblivion. Death is only an elegantly-lived step away. A bullfight becomes a metaphor for the condition these men suffer from and the viewpoint they share. What’s the point of living when death is galloping at you?; and if you choose life, how to deal with death – do you dance or flirt or fight with it before it eventually wins. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is an obvious influence.

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On their way out the military base, Cary and Shep hook up with Bill and Francis, who are in a similar situation to theirs and head on to Paris. On one of their drinking sprees there the four boys meet Nikki – ‘Her name is Nikki. She holds men’s teeth. She sits at the bar and drinks champagne,’ is how Cary describes her. Nikki’s rich, frail, brittle and – for reasons the film does not quite make clear – as damaged and as in need of saving as they are. It’s hard to tell whether Nikki is spouting Surrealist non-sequiteurs or whether she’s just a sweet drunk who’s seeing things from a skewed perspective and just doesn’t make sense: ‘I can walk faster in red shoes’.

 

The men, always tipsy, tumble at her feet on their way to her bed, which they never quite reach. Her innocence, the men’s competiveness and a distinct gallantry, learnt from despair, shared by the protagonists and beautifully evoked by the film, protects her. She becomes the object of their romantic longings, their mascot, winning her and protecting her from others, particularly Frank (Walter Byron) a nasty journalist they keep bumping into before eventually bumping off, lends a purpose to their wonderings. As Mick Lasalle notes in his wonderful book on men in pre-code Hollywood, ‘These men are past an interest in sex, too smashed up inside for small human things to make much difference. Their playful mooning over legs, feet, and back is ghostly, as if evoking some dim memory when such things were to live and die for.’[iii]

Screen Shot 2014-08-16 at 19.46.58

One by one the film knocks each of these men out of the picture. Bill jumps into a corrida to show the bullfighters how it’s done but gets gored: ‘that bull sure was hostile’. At a fair later on, nasty Frank pulls a gun on Nikki, is stopped by Cary but the gun accidentally goes off. Cary confronts him and just as Frank is about to shoot him, Francis fires several bullets at him and stops him cold. ‘That’s the last we’ll see of Francis. We’ll never see him again,’ says Cary as Francis disappears into the night. Nikki, awestruck, says, ‘did you look into his eyes (when he was shooting Frank). That’s the only time I’ve ever seen him really happy.’ Shep is the collateral damage of Frank’s fight with Cary. He experiences his expiration as the first descent of the burning plane, except that this time Cary’s not there to land it safely and save him. ‘You may not believe it’, says Shep but…’, this second crash, his second death, the first being the death of his spirit in the war is ‘the best thing that’s ever happened to me’. In the end Helen Chandler and Richard Barthelmess are left alone to save each other.

The film is beautifully directed by Dieterle. As we can see in the scene at the fair (above), we get the false official gaiety of the fair, with the undertow of seediness and danger and sadness. Dieterle makes intelligent choices, starting with a medium close-up of Francis with a beer in his hand looking purposefully as gunshots are heard on the soundtrack and the camera pulls back to reveal all of the characters at the shooting gallery, each with a drink, each with a gun. We will subsequently learn why the close-up has been on Francis. Every moment of the scene ties in to the overall theme. The men are all good at shooting, at killing. Nikki’s tipsy and can’t see straight. They protect her by doing what they were trained to do but in a world which no longer has a place for that training. Dieterle evokes this beautifully and every composition, every camera move, every cut counts. What’s evoked is the excitement that’s no longer possible; the destructiveness of the skills they have; the feeling that death and the void is the only place in which these men will find respite; Francis’ cool and deadly accuracy in shooting and the wonderful image of his disappearing into the night.

 

 

 

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I still don’t quite ‘get’ the Barthelmess of the sound era. As he aged and his face spread he lost the delicate features that in his youth had enabled him to depict poetry and fragility. Here he’s silent, squat, ready to throw a punch but suffering subsequently over the morality of doing so. He’s very good. But his presence doesn’t reverberate in the mind as it does when watching his earlier silent films. Still, he is the person to thank for this exciting mix of gallantry, flippant melancholy, a kind of despairing hopefulness. It’s a film that feels slow and odd for the first part and then all the elements coalesce and becomes moving and rather great.

 

LaSalle notes that, ‘It’s a strange film – indeed, it’s unique – and it excites every critic who sees it’[iv] (p.98). It’s true of my experience watching it; furthermore, it makes one positively long to see more Barthelmess films of this period.

 

José Arroyo

[i] Mick LaSalle, Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man, Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2002, p. 30.

[ii] LaSalle, ibid., pp. 30-31

[iii] Mick LaSalle, p. 100

[iv] LaSalle, ibid, p. 98

 

 

 

 

Hercules (Brett Ratner, USA, 2014)

hercules

 

What is the point of this Hercules movie? I suppose it offers scope for action, spectacle and lots of special effects. But special effects are no longer sufficient to make spectacle spectacular: in the first five minutes of this film, as we’re giving the back-story, we’re shown mythological beings, places and Gods that in a 1960s movie would each have constituted a thrilling climax but here seem rather a yawn: snakes coming out of Hera’s eyes, multi-headed water monsters; it’s like most of the twelve labours of Hercules are depicted in the introduction of the film and, whilst one finds them difficult to improve upon, one also remains unengaged.

This version of Hercules is based on the First Limited Edition Radical comics re-working of the story, The Thracian Wars. What we’re introduced to here is a human-scale Hercules who with a band of marauders pretends to have the power ascribed to him in order to help other soldiers find the strength they think they lack inside themselves, which is eventually what happens to Hercules in the rest of the film. The plot revolves around two narrative lines: as background we’re told that Hercules’ family is killed by a pack of wolves whilst he’s asleep and there’s some suspicion that he did it himself; in the forefront of the story a Princess convinces Hercules’  to help her father protect his kingdom; he outfits and trains the Thracian army and then has to deal with the consequences. Neither of these plot-lines is what it seems and the resolution to both dovetails nicely at the end.

The film seems bloodless to me. Part of the problem is Dwayne Johnson, who usually exudes warmth and humour; here he just seems a big hulking blank. His being surrounded by British actors who wring laughs and garner effects from the meager materials they’re given to work with (Ian McShane does wonders but Joseph Fiennes and John Hurt also deserve credit) does not help his case; neither I suppose does his being given little to express (strength and stoicism interspersed with pain and loss) whilst being given much to do: he’s basically required to carry the whole film on the basis of his body and what he can do with it. It’s a two-note performance and he never makes us care what happens to Hercules though it is also true that we’ve rarely cared much what happens to Hercules in the past as we always know he’ll win. This film tries to inject the possibility of a different outcome but does not succeed; one just ends up staring at Johnson and his big hulking biceps with the huge popping veins and instead of being wrapped up in a story and feeling that there’s something at stake in it, something meaningful to oneself, one’s eyes begin to wander and one starts  to notice that his veins have slight pops and then one asks  whether what one’s seeing is scar tissue from track marks and so on. The story doesn’t grip.

The actors sometimes do. I was quite taken with McShane as noted above but also with Joseph Fiennes who it now seems inconceivable was until so recently thought of as a leading man: here his form is meltingly crooked; his face first that of a mindless saint, then later something reptilian and deadly; throughout he reminds one of a leering El Greco figure. John Hurt is good too but we’ve seen him do this before and it lacks excitement. Rufus Sewell is fine and looks exceedingly handsome. The women are not given much to do except look pretty which they do. But in the middle of these bursts of pleasure there’s Dwayne Johnson, not particularly handsome, not particularly sexy and not at all exciting.

The special effects are excellent; the fictional world is well-visualised; the 3-D so good one can almost touch the spears jutting out at the audience; it’s even hard to fault (much) the action scenes. However, how does this character of Hercules relate to us? What is he fighting for that can act as a metaphor and imaginary resolution to our own struggles? Why should we care that he win? The film offers no answers to these fundamental questions; and without answers the film feels a ‘tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

 

Village Stories Overheard

 

  1. Niece by marriage, barely out of her teens, secretly marries her aging great-uncle, legless from the war, in order to continue receiving his pension after his death. Village gossip has it that this economic arrangement ruined any future chance at happiness, as previous marriage would have to be revealed before marrying any subsequent suitor.

 

  1. Neighbourhood children rescue abandoned donkey, feed him and tenderly nurture him back to health. Donkey disappears. Many years later town taxidermist dies and family donates same donkey, now stuffed, so that the village can perform its annual tableau of Mary and Joseph heading towards Bethlehem and remind everyone of the true meaning of Christmas (I wish someone would make a movie of this as ironies abound)

 

Gabriel Garcia Marquez couldn’t make these up…. And many more to come

 

José Arroyo

 

A thought on colour and medium in Elena et les hommes (Jean Renoir, France, 1956)

Elena_Y_Los_Hombres_(Edicion_Coleccionista)-Caratula

I saw Elena et les hommes last night but I couldn’t tell you what it was about, not really. It’s an elegant farce about a Polish Princess down to her last pearl who goes on a roundelay of possible husbands including Jean Marais and Mel Ferrer, all madly in love with her. She in turn is in love with making them live up to what she sees as their potential, helping to make them be the men she thinks they ought to be, which in the case of Jean Marais means becoming President of the Republic. It’s a charming film, funny, endearing; lots of people chase after each other in a small house whilst Ingrid Bergman, at her scattiest and blondest, looks impossibly beautiful in tight Belle Epoque corsets, figure-hugging skirts and hats large enough to hold a small meadow or a large aviary.

What prompted me to write a note here is that from the very beginning of the film one is dazzled by the beauty of the colour. The opening title seems encased in bright little bombons or be-ribboned jewels of glistening red, blue and yellow. Jean is Auguste Renoir’s son of course but the cinematographer here is the equally great Claude Renoir, newphew of the director, grandson of the painter. Uncle and newphew both knew something about colour, composition, perspective and this film is their evocation, their particular articulation of what they learned from Auguste.

I saw Elena et les hommes at the Cine Doré in what I thought was a 35 mm print and this is what I wrote when I returned to my hotel:

‘The only reason I’m writing a note on the film here is that from the first shot one is dazzled by the beauty of the colours. Claude Renoir did the cinematography. I saw it on a gorgeous 35 mm print where the brightness, density, luminosity, the texture, the fine grain of the celluloid brought out every delicate variation of light and texture in hats and feathers and gave one the impression of partaking in breathtaking beauty’.

I understand that this type of work with light and colour is now possible in digital, but if so, why don’t we see it? It saddens me that such beauty, simply in the hue, brightness and luminosity of the colours not to speak of their masterly arrangement as in this film may be lost to us.’

 

Needless to say, I’m an idiot, and upon looking at the program I realized that what I had in fact been seeing was not a 35mm print but a restored print digitally projected, one which hopefully will be with us for many generations to come.

The program also included a thought-provoking quote from Jean-Luc Godard: ‘If Elena et les hommes is ‘the’ French film par excellence, it’s because it’s the most intelligent film in the world: Art simultaneous with a theory of art; beauty simultaneously with the secret of beauty; Cinema simultaneous with an explanation of cinema

 

And here I was simply mourning, erroneoulsly, that future generations wouldn’t be able to see the glorious gradations of texture and colour in a hat.

 

José Arroyo

 

Watching Films in Burgos

der golem

 

 

I only made it to the movies once whilst in Burgos, to see Miele, the recent Italian film by Valeria Goliano on assisted suicides. What struck me first of all was the name of the cinema, Cine Golem, with all its connotations of dreams and nightmares, of magic and the other-worldly, of the like-human-yet-not-quite-human, of the inanimate, animated by magic; all of this without even considering the cinephiliac associations to the classic German Expressionist film directed by Paul Wegener and Carl Boese. What a wonderful name for a cinema, infinitely preferable to Cine-vue or Cineworld or even ‘electric’. Why isn’t it a more fashionable name for cinemas?

 

It turns out that the Golem is a regional chain with cinemas in the north of Spain: Pamplona, Estella, Logroño and Burgos. I wanted to write a little something on it here because the day I went to see Miele, along with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Sex Tape, the Jason Segel-Cameran Diaz film, posters for which one is bomarded with throughout Burgos, one is also able to see Corazón de León, an Argentinian-Brazilian co-production, Barbecue, the French comedy with Lambert Wilson, and The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, the wonderful dead-pan Swedish comedy directed by Felix Herngren. Provincial little Burgos with half the population of Coventry is being treated to a menu of European cinema that much bigger and more ‘cosmopolitan’ cities like Birmingham could only dream of. Why? I’d be curious to know.

 

Miele is a fine movie, not exceptional in its treatment of its admittedly difficult topic but intelligent and interesting. Valeria Goliano, probably best known to English-speaking audiences for her performances in Rain Man and other Hollywood films from two decades ago is perhaps overly symbolic in her direction but she’s wonderful with actors. Miele stars Jasmine Trinca as a young woman trafficking barbituates from Mexico so she can assist terminal cases in an easy death. The plot revolves around her messy personal life with the main conflict in the plot occurring when she provides the drugs to a person who is not suffering from a terminal disease. But all of that is almost beside the point.

 

What struck me was two things, first how the use of George Brassens, and other European songs in the sound-track made the film seem Italian but also European. I know I’m not being clear and that one needs to define what one means by those terms; and I don’t have the time to do so now; but if one thinks how, say, there’s a Welsh Identity and a British one each which has something in common and helps shape the other but which are nonetheless distinct you’ll get at what I’m trying to express here. The film is distinctly Italian AND distinctly European. The audience I was seeing it with was in tune with both of those aspects of the film.

 

When I was coming out of the theatre two elderly ladies speaking to each other about how much they’d appreciated the film commented on the beauty of Jasmine Trinca who plays Irene, the film’s protagonist. And it struck me that Jasmine Trinca can be seen as the idealization of the Burgos typical woman; dark, short, thin, wiry; not at all the blonde bombshell of Hollywood ‘It’ girls or even dark-haired stars such Sondra Bullock or Julia Roberts. A lack of variety in something as simple as a culture’s offer of projected ideal selves is one of the many things that our film diet of mostly American movies with the odd Brit film quickly thrown in for a short run at our local cinemas is depriving us of.

José Arroyo

La règle du jeu at the Cine Doré in Madrid

 

IMG_1473I had an exhilarating moment last night; no, not one of those; a movie moment, one cinephiles will recognise. I went to the Cine Doré my first evening in Madrid. It’s an iconic cinema that people who’ve never been there might nonetheless recognise from the movies; it’s where Javier Cámara goes to see ‘The Shrinking Lover’ in Talk to Her/ Hable con ella. I like going there because they take great care in what they show and how they show it and I don’t really care what’s on: I’m either discovering something new or seeing something again but often in a better condition than I’ve ever seen it before. It’s a neighbourhood repertory cinema. They charge two euros and you get to see treasures by the likes of Renoir, Kurosawa, Erice and many others. The cinema functions both institutionally as part of the Filmoteca in Madrid but it is also a local cinema, and because of the prices it means anyone can afford to be there. There’s a very mixed audience, young and old, couples out on a date, cinephiles eager to see La règle du jeu projected on 35mm or just people wanting to be out of the house.

The ceiling of the Cine Doré
The ceiling of the Cine Doré

The cinema itself is beautiful. A 1912 art nouveau fantasy of dark Arabian nights, gold gilt stars on a dark blue sky, public dreams next to private alcoves as in theatres of old where you can sit around a table with your loved one or guests to see the movie in front and be seen by the hoi polloi below. The cinema I suppose had its own class divisions, ones which no longer apply because of the fixed price but which were interesting to observe nonetheless because the display of such class divisions are at the core of what the film we were all watching was about.

La_Regla_Del_Juego_1.preview

The thrill of seeing La règle du jeu in such a place and with such an audience was to experience a film from another era and from another culture enthrall and captivate an audience as if it had just been made now, about the world we live in and especially for us. The audience responded to everything in the film and one moment in particular that simply rocked the house: it’s where, upon finding that his childhood friend, the Marquise de la Chenyest (Nora Grégor) is crushed that her husband has a mistress and has been lying to her for the past three years, Jean Renoir himself as Octave tells her ‘But Christine, we’re in an era where everybody lies, pharmacist’s prospectus, governments, radio, cinema, newspapers; so how could you possibly expect for us simple and ordinary people not to lie?” The sense that we expect so little of our rulers and our institutions and forgive so little in each other when really we should expect so much more of our governments and be so much kinder and forgiving about each other. It’s a moment with particular resonance in a Madrid still in the grip of an economic crisis and it felt like the film as a whole was carrying the audience on its wings. It felt like magic about what was real and true. At the end, there was wild and grateful applause, maybe for members of the audience to communicate joy and appreciation to each other, more like a needed release after a kind of exaltation. It was thrilling to be there, to experience, to share in that experience.

 

Worth noting that we saw a scratched, slightly muddy print, one where the clarity seemed to change from reel to reel and the projection ground to a halt three quarters of the way through, presumably for a change of reels. One could get too hung up on technical perfection. Here it really did not mater. Again, magical.

 

 

José Arroyo

 

Reflections on a Disappointing Summer at the Movies

edge of tomorrow

I’m trying to figure out why I’m so disheartened with the movies this Summer. It’s true that the Season began badly. Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a disappointment. The areal sequences at the beginning were thrilling. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have undeniable chemistry and seem on the surface perfectly cast. But as the film unfolded, Garfield’s neediness, couched in virtue, and spoken slowly, with each emotion separated from another by a pause in the dialogue and a shake of the head, ended up seeming rather twee and more than a bit tiresome. It was kind of enjoyable but a bit underwhelming and made one ask at what point special effects detract rather than enhance a production? Whatever that point is The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has reached it.

pompeii  I didn’t expect much from Pompeii, which was lucky as seeing it did make me wonder whether there was a worse director than Paul W. S. Anderson currently in work making big-budget action spectacle. It was so bad that it was an endless source of good jokes, all of them at the film’s expense. Trying to find good things to say about it, all one can dredge up is ‘Kit Hartington has the best abs of the season and is very beautiful’. But one can stay home, watch Game of Thrones, and get all of that plus so much more.

I thought Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla the dullest blockbuster of the season but then, after yawning for an hour and a half, the monsters finally arrived and woke me up. It’s a movie where everyone seems to have done an amazing job except director, writers and actors (Juliette Binoche excepted). Some of the shots are jaw-droppingly good – the vfx truly astonishing, with the scene on the bridge where the monster rises behind the hero and Godzilla’s arrival at the airport being particular delights. But ultimately, Godzilla illustrates how empty and unsatisfying spectacle on its own can be; that there’s a story-telling dimension to spectacle itself; and that a monster movie that doesn’t scare, doesn’t thrill and doesn’t allegorise with intelligence is not much of a monster movie at all.

Which of the Summer blockbusters have been good? Captain America: Winter Soldier (d: Anthony and Joe Russo) was better than the original but was released in March so probably shouldn’t figure in this account. X-Men: Days of Future Past was fun but all I can remember about it now is the sexual abuse lawsuit against director Bryan Singer that preceded the film’s release and the marvelous scenes of Quicksilver in motion. I loved the glossiness of Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent, the gorgeous design and look of the film as well as Anjelina Jolie’s magnificent performance in the title role. I also loved that it was a Summer blockbuster aimed at young girls and clearly succeeded in engaging them in the story. I was glad to also see that it was a hit. But good as they are, none of these movies have been good enough to get a general audience to line up to see them again.

maleficent

The best of the Summer blockbusters so far has been Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow and that in itself has proved depressing. Cruise is terrific in it; he and Emily Blunt have great chemistry together; the premise is excellent: like Bill Murray in Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day, Tom Cruise re-lives the same day over and over but the catch is that he’s got to be shot first. Thus, the audience gets to see Cruise save the world but not before enjoying the pleasure of seeing him killed over and over again as he tries to figure out how to do so. It’s intelligent, critical, imaginative and very handsome to look at. What depresses me about Edge of Tomorrow is that its American marketers haven’t been able to sell it in the States. Seeing Cruise giving a great performance whilst he dies over and over again has not proved sufficient to redeem him with audiences there, though clearly world-wide audiences have been much more forgiving of America’s biggest and most iconic star (the film grossed ‘only’ 95,000,000 in the States in contrast to 350,000,000 it made world-wide).

The most hateful blockbuster of the Summer so far has been Transformers: Age of Extinction: crude, ugly in spirit, a kind of barbarism in culture. It seemed to me an illustration of Adorno and Horkheimer’s argument regarding The Dialectic of Enlightenment: all that science, all that knowledge, all that artistry, dazzling shots; all now directed at destruction, and of ideals too not just of things. It’s a cynical exercise: the chasing of the Chinese market, product placement trying to sell things, sexism, all the crash and bang and explosions and metal twisting, a militarist gun-loving display on destruction: thousands of buildings get destroyed, loads of people die, nobody cares.

22 Jump Street

The Summer has not been without pleasures at the movies, pleasures often found around the edges of, but in the same cinemas as, the blockbusters. 22 Jump Street is very intelligent about the way it makes dumb funny – Channing Tatum dances and speaks up for gay rights and he an Jonah Hill bounce jokes off each other like seasoned music-hall stars of old. I also loved seeing Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises which is slow-paced, meditative, poetic, romantic, bittersweet — it had me on the verge of welling up for most of its length. I was also very intrigued by Amini Hossein’s The Two Faces of January, a glamorous, stylish, star-driven murder mystery set in the early sixties with Vigo Mortensen at his very best as Kirsten Dunst’s deceitful, dissolute, and murderous husband.

Two Faces of January

Even the best of these films however, did not provide the pleasures one usually expect from blockbusters at their best; which is that they dazzle your senses, give you the impression of being lifted from your seat by images and sounds; that the visual effects result in emotional affect; that the visceral kick in the body leave an afterglow in the heart and head; and, that you respond to all of this both individually and as part of a collective that is bigger than yourself; and that this results in such a satisfying experience that you’re willing to repeat it over and over again as the Summer unfolds. No blockbuster has succeeded in doing this so far. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, an indie just out, does in fact seem to be doing this at the moment but it is not big budget, it is not a blockbuster and will have to wait to be discussed in the next column.

 

José Arroyo

 

A version of this has been published in The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/this-is-a-summer-of-truly-awful-blockbusters-29287

Transformers: Age of Extinction (Michael Bay, USA, 2014)

tranformers

I have now seen Transformers: Age of Extinction which I find crude, ugly in spirit, a kind of barbarism in culture. In keeping with the rest, the ‘girl’ screamed a lot. The only thing barely human is Mark Wahlberg. The rests seem like an illustration of The Dialectic of Enlightenment: all that science, all that knowledge, all that artistry, marvellous shots; all now directed at destruction, and of ideals too not just of things

 

I went to see it hoping to understand why the franchise remains so popular. I do see that not all expensive movies that make a great big noise and that have shooting flames as a background to people leaping over things are alike; and some of them can be quite beautiful (though of this type of film, I’ve only liked Edge of Darkness so far this year). This is neither beautiful nor did I get any insight into what audiences are getting from it. Plus I mistrust criticism in the press to such an extent (and with excellent reasons) that I think I should check these things for myself and have my own views, which I now do. That’s what I expected and got from seeing the latest Transformers I suppose.

 

Another reason I go is because when I was young I remember critics saying those Schwarzenegger and other action/spectacle films of the 80s were the way I now see the Transformer films and I think some of the Schwarzenegger films are some of the great masterpieces of the cinema so I keep thinking maybe I’m missing something:

Terminator, Total Recall etc. are now recognised as classics of the genre (and this applies to the Robocop, Aliens, Batman etc. as well); so I’m just curious to see if younger people have reasons for loving these films that I’m not getting (I think most people would now agree with me about the aforementioned Schwarzenegger and so on; and I think the older people who dismissed them in the 80s just didn’t bother to look, or look carefully, it was partly not seeing, partly not knowing how to see). So I go to these to find out if I need to learn a new or different way of seeing or whether there’s simply not much to see beyond what I already do.

 

What I do see is a chasing of the Chinese market, product placement trying to sell us things, sexism, all the crash and bang and explosions and metal twisting, a militarist, gun-loving play on destruction: thousand of buildings get destroyed, loads of people die, nobody cares. I thought this of a show the Black Eyed peas did in the middle of the Super Bowl a few years ago: all military outfits, regimented movement, thousands of dancers, like soulless robots out for the kill; and one begins to see that these are signs of empire in decline; all the filmmakers cannibalise Arthurian legends without understanding what was at stake in them. The Transfomers  talk of freedom without taking into account everything they’re destroying to achieve it. It’s like the collective, the common good, a sense of common humanity and individual rights have no place in this vision of the world.

 

 

The movie is making money and that is receiving substantial coverage. But there are more important things than money. If what movies say and how they make us feel don’t matter, then movies don’t matter; and if movies do matter, we should care more; and if movies matter as much as I think they do, the filmmakers should be ashamed to put such shit out into the universe. Hardened whores have more of a conscience than is evident in this type of cynical filmmaking.

 

 

José Arroyo

My Sin (George Abbot, USA, 1931)

Poster - My Sin (1931)_01

Early ‘30s drivel. Tallulah Bankhead is Carlotta, a loose woman getting by singing badly and blowing on dice in cheap Panamanian dives. Fredric March is Dick Grady, an alkie bum crawling through the same low joints begging for a chance to kiss the bottle. We’re told he’s beyond redemption but we know it’s not true because we’re also told he’s got a law degree. When Tallu accidentally kills a man who’s trying to kill her, he gets her off even though everyone thinks she’s guilty. The trial wins him a new job and a new lease on life. She in turn changes her identity to Ann Trevor (she lets him choose the name), returns to America and becomes a famous interior decorator. One can see the rest of the plot coming a mile away; in fact, if one cared, one could have figured it out in the first two minutes.

Tallulah’s entrance, false through and through and not un-camp.

This is a lazy treatment of trite material, clearly derivative of Somerset Maugham’s Rain, visually uninteresting and worth seeing only for Tallulah Bankhead, whose career in Hollywood this film helped to ruin. It’s not that she’s good. In fact, she’s rather awful, not for one moment believable as either of the characters she plays in the film, and she’s not even believable in the emotions she’s meant to be feeling. She makes big theatrical gestures, or raises the pitch of her voice for emphasis like she’s batting the point over to the last row, vividly outlining an emotion so that the audience knows exactly what she’s meant to be feeling , doing and why; but the gestures are so broad and sketchy, the line readings so over-emphatic; she’s like vivid cartoon sketch indicating the outlines but burlesquing the interior and performing the dialogue as if it were variety for radio. She’s a star doing a caricature of a person, a High Definition simulation sparking an idea, false through and through and yet riveting to watch. I can’t remember who said of Cagney that he seemed to displace air but Bankhead does it here. Mind you Cagney was honest and true and he incited identification and feeling; Bankhead is completely unbelievable, fake to her last eyelash, but nonetheless inciting admiration and applause. They both have presence and they both have energy.

A star entrance, finely acted

Fredric March is an interesting contrast to Tallulah. He’s given a real star entrance appearing through swinging saloon doors whilst characters talk about him: ‘what would you say he was?’ asks an onlooker. The camera glances at him once more: ‘oh a beggar, a tramp; ‘a beggar, a tramp and a university graduate’. After we’re told who he is, after the build-up where the supporting actors get to do the thankless work of conveying plot, the scene is set for the star to be this new person we’re told about and to shine, to dazzle us with his being and performing. It’s classic build-up to a star entrance and March gives a lovely performance: restrained, worked-through; there are so many things to admire: the way he raises his voice on ‘just one little scotch’, the way he pushes shoulders back and chest out whilst giving the ‘Oh Mr. James Bradford’ line enough irony make the very name a put-down; or the croak he gives to the Met in Metcalfe; or the way he lifts himself on his toes as he stops himself from saying ‘Hell’. It’s the work of a really intelligent actor with gifts to match. And yet….his eyes never really catch the light. As becomes clear later in the film, he’s a performer who needs to act to be great; he can’t simply satisfy an audience with his being

Freddy disappears from view in a dull scene

When Fredric March isn’t given something to do, he becomes dull, fades from the screen. A good example of this is the scene where, after he’s saved her and after she’s built a new identity and career in New York, they meet by chance at a pool party (see clip above). The dialogue is trite. It’s shot by a stage director who clearly doesn’t know how to stage a scene for the camera so we end up with most of it in a static medium shot. Once again, you never see his eyes, and I do think it’s partly do with their being deep-set and partly to do with him maybe not knowing enough about the camera to move them in the direction of the light; but worse actors than he are more watchable when they have nothing to do (think not only of stars like Cooper but even ‘charm’ actors like Robert Wagner). Then look at Tallulah, who is better here than she is when she’s given lines and situations of greater importance but still not good: her speaking wobbles between her rich native Alabaman Southern and the 1920s English upper-class miaul we now associate with the Mitfords, she over-emphasises her speech and her gestures yet…she looks lovely in profile, her eyes catch the light and she keeps the audience’s eyes constantly on her; and if the film is worth watching at all, it’s because of her though she never once matches the fineness, the trueness or even arguably the beauty of March’s first entrance — something to think about.

 

Tallulah looking great in Travis Banton
Tallulah looking great in Travis Banton

George Abbott directed one more film, The Cheat, once again with Tallulah Bankhead, before returning back to Broadway, where he belonged, to resume his legendary stage career; he would  yet find a way to delight film audiences, a way that involve the services of Stanley Donen as co-director, in the much under-valued The Pajama Gama (1957).

 

José Arroyo

Laughter (Harry D’Abbadie d’Arrast, USA, 1930)

laughter-movie-poster-1930-1010689919

Laughter is a sophisticated comedy that is also a serious work dramatising the conflict between the pursuit of money and the pursuit of happiness. It’s a vehicle for Nancy Carroll, one of the biggest stars of the 1930s, now somewhat forgotten.

It’s a film that offers many pleasures: the gruff and scatty teddy-bearishness of Frank Morgan; gorgeous Art Deco settings; magnificent Cartier jewels; the kewpie-doll loveliness of Nancy Carrol herself, most beautifully dressed in late ’20s/early ’30s chic; a young and handsome Fredric March ably conveying the weightier aspects of the drama; a soundtrack by the great Vernon Duke that features jazz and classical music, placing both on an equal footing; and even a brief appearance by that film buff’s delight, Eric Blore, here bubbly and lovely, wearing an angel costume and exuding all kinds of gayness. If it weren’t for an undertow of sadness that seeps right through all levels of the film, Laughter could almost be a screwball. Certainly it’s of historical interest as at least an early precursor to the genre.

Penthouse gardens in New York
Penthouse gardens in New York

The received wisdom regarding early talkies is that sound recording was then so cumbersome and primitive that it restricted camera movement and diminished cinema, rendering films static and stagey. This is patently untrue of Laughter.

 

The first shot (see below) is a long take that begins with a fade-in on a man inside a phone booth filmed from the outside so that he’s framed by the window, saying bitterly, ‘so I can call back tomorrow, eh?’, then the camera tracks to the right following his movements but from outside a corner-shop – he’s inside, the camera is outside, the shop window is the barrier that allows us to see in. The camera then goes past a lamppost to create a sense of perspective on the New York street, keeps the character in the centre of the frame as passersby walk around him and tracks in almost imperceptibly as the character goes into the door of a building door.

In the meantime, St. James Infirmary one of the great jazz songs of the period starts playing extra-diegetically and the camera tilts up to a window as the shot dissolves into the next one and we see the same man entering his apartment and unwrapping a gun. It’s a great shot and a great opening to the film: dramatic, visually arresting, dynamic in movement, exciting to hear. The first shot was enough to make me sit up, pay attention and ask ‘who directed this?’

 

The answer is Harry D’Abbadie d’Arrast. I’d come across the name before and remembered it for its effrontery but I knew nothing of the man or the artist. A little research reveals that he was a French aristocrat born in Argentina – thus the name — who served in WWI, was introduced to the movies by George Fitzmaurice (director of Lilac Time and Son of the Sheik), went to work for Chaplin, first as a researcher (Women of Paris) then as assistant director (Gold Rush), before directing his own highly acclaimed films, of which Laughter is the best remembered. James Harvey calls his early comedie like Dry Martini and A Gentleman of Paris ‘Lubitsch-like’ (p. 78). D’Abbadie d’Arrast married Silent Film Star Eleanor Bordman, stopped directing films in Hollywood in 1933 (Topaze, with John Barrymore and Myrna Loy, is the last Hollywood film credited to him) and died in Monte Carlo where he’d been working as a croupier. There’s an interesting biography to be written about him and I hope someday someone does.
Like with Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle, Laughter is structured around five central characters: ex Ziegfield chorus girl Peggy gave up pennyless musician Paul Lockridge (Fredric March) for rich industrialist C. Mortimer Gibson (Frank Morgan) but is finding the marriage so unsatisfying she’s having an affair with a sculptor, Ralph Le Sainte (Glenn Anders), who’s so crazy for Peggy he first threatens suicide over her and later tries to emulate her by also marrying for money with Mortimer Gibson’s daughter, Marjorie (Diane Ellis). Five characters, six potential couples, one dilemma: to choose laughter and love or to go for the cash and all that goes with it?

Le Sante sets the scene
Le Sante sets the scene

I was surprised to see how much Pauline Kael loved Laughter, calling  it ‘an ode to impracticality.’ She didn’t usually have much patience for the type of movie that starts with a poor artist in a garrett speaking poetically to a statue of his beloved about the depth of his love for her and the hopelessness of life whilst feeding us all the background we need to follow the story that unfolds, even if it is as beautifully shot as it is here. Glen Anders is almost as expressive as the piece of marble he’s speaking to and luckily for us the picture doesn’t stay on him for very long.

C. Mortimer Gibson ( Frank Morgan) walks in Art Deco splendour but does not find his wife
C. Mortimer Gibson ( Frank Morgan) walks in Art Deco splendour but does not find his wife

From the beginning we know Peggy and the poor sap of a Saint are having an affair. Clearly the Cartier jewelery her husband is giving her is not enough to keep her happy. C. Mortimer Gibson can’t give Peggy what she wants; and Peggy can’t give Ralph La Sainte what he wants either — everyone’s unhappy. It’s at that moment that Paul Lockridge arrives from Paris to turn everything upside down; he’s the catalyst for change and he’s given an entrance worthy of the conflict he’ll cause.

Two jazz babies smoking and being modern; the older-looking one on the left is the step-daughter.
Two jazz babies smoking and being modern; the older-looking one on the left is the step-daughter.

Paul is Peggy’s ex, a musician, and only recently returned from Paris. The pace at which March makes his first appearance, walking briskly through the New York penthouse, is a pace then much admired by Europeans who found its energy unusual and energizing. Noel Coward returned to England from New York in the early 20s insisting that his plays be spoken faster and that the actors move more briskly, at a New York pace, at the pace of the jazz era if not of jazz itself. Speed, energy, New York as a metonym for America, modernity, democracy, potentiality: there’s something in March’s walk, the sunny transparency of his face and the intensity with which he speaks in his first entrance in that early scene that evokes all of that.

An unconventional calling card
An unconventional calling card

When Peggy’s butler insists on a calling card, Paul writes his name on the Butler’s starched shirtfront. When the butler presents this greeting to Peggy, she writes that she’s out on the same same shirtfront, letting Paul know that she’s in but doesn’t want to see him. Whilst she goes for her assignation with Le Sap, I mean Le Sainte, Fredric March shows he’s a democrat and oblivious to her wealth by going into the kitchen, speaking on familiar terms with Pearl, Peggy’s maid, who he clearly knows from before, grabbing a chicken leg and going to play classical music duets with the butler whilst having a beer, which is where Peggy’s husband finds him.

 

Paul’s breezyness is visualised for us by the nonchalant yet well-aimed throw of his hat onto a deco sculpture of frolicking nymphs, an image that recurs often in the Laughter. Much is made too of C. Mortimer Gibson trying to remove the hat from such placements, of his awareness of appearances, surfaces, place and position and his sensitivity to the restrictions imposed by correct adherence to convention.

The film rather exhibits a rich person’s idealization of the pleasures of third class travel and all that it connotes. Laughter is a film for the ‘common man’ but is not against the rich. And perhaps the latter has something to do with the film’s conceptualisation of average people as ‘poor’ artists who can afford to live in Paris working at their love, art and drinking without having to be stuck washing dishes at the Ritz like Orwell’s down and outers.

playing piano with the butler, beer on the left, fried chicken on the right.
playing piano with the butler, beer on the left, fried chicken on the right.

There are two scenes that are meant to evoke the price Peggy is paying for the penthouse and the Cartier bracelets. The famous one is the scene where Peggy and Paul break into someone’s house, frolic under bearskins and get arrested for breaking and entering.

 

Before that, however, there’s the marvelous scene after Peggy’s picked up her step-daughter Marjorie from the Ocean liner after returning from her Paris sojourn and we see the customs people confiscating all the liquor Marjorie’s tried to smuggle in. Marjorie and Peggy are both the same age, two jazz babies with cropped hair who like to smoke, drink and dance. One of them still can.

 

When they return to the penthouse, they find Paul at the piano and Marjorie asks him, ‘do you know “Raring to Go”’? He sure does. As the stuffy millionaire looks on bewildered, the three young ones let themselves go to the beat and the rhythm of the jazz, Paul playing, Peggy and Marjorie dancing with abandon, letting go of place and position in a moment that Pauline Kael has called ‘one of the loveliest, happiest moments in the movies of this period (see clip below).’ It’s a moment of joy, a moment of sensuality and of youth, the likes of which Peggy doesn’t get to experience much anymore.

These two moments of escape can be interestingly considered alongside the two speeches that put across the film’s meaning. In the first of those, after the bear-skin frolic, as they are taken home via police escort, sirens blaring, March says, ‘You can’t go on with this, with everything that it stands for, that noise, that, money that power….I want to tell you that you’re dying…You’re having a ghastly time, you’re whole life is false. Nothing you do is really you. God didn’t want you to live like this. You’re dying from want of nourishment, from want of laughter. You were born for laughter. Nothing in your life is as important as that. Laughter could take that whole life of yours — that house, those jewels — and blow them to pieces. You’re rich. You’re dirty rich. Nothing but laughter can make you clean.’

A moment of escape under a bear rug but within the social bounds permitted by tea
A moment of escape under a bear rug but within the social bounds permitted by tea

Fredric March is magnificent saying this. He doesn’t make a meal of it. In fact he underplays it. It’s a long soliloquy but filmed as a two-shot with Nancy Carroll as Peggy listening in so we’re permitted to see her reaction to what he’s saying. But March is the one who has to deliver, sustain and holds the quite long shot, and stay in character whilst giving meaning to the lines and putting across all the metaphors and symbolism whilst conveying the sense of a person speaking rather than an author dramatising the play’s central theme (and I use the word ‘play’ advisedly) in a speech rather weighted down by poetry, .

 

March is rather brilliant with it. As he’s had to be in the film as a whole because what he represents, and what he’s convincingly conveyed, is a combined alternative to both a man who can make $8,450,000 in one afternoon AND another artist at least as talented as he who, on top of that, is willing to top himself for love of Peggy. But this moment, this speech on how the lack of laughter is causing Peggy to die inside, is also the moment the film loses its audience. Can you imagine audiences in 1930, a year after the crash, pre-New Deal, no social security to speak of, Hoovervilles sprouting everywhere, apple-sellers appearing out of the wood-work, trains full of vagrants criss-crossing the country in search of work…and here are these rich people living in Art Deco penthouses above the clouds and wearing Cartier jewels moaning about how terrible their life is because they don’t have laughter?

A Cartier watch, a Deco set and lovely clothes.
Frank Morgan offers Cartier jewels at the beginning but no laughter

Later, when Carroll is given a similar speech to say to her husband as reasons for leaving him, ‘laughter’ has been replaced with ‘love’. The film treats them as two sides of the same coin, different but inseparable. By then love has become a matter of life and death. St. Sculptor who speaks to statures and can’t quite bring himself to marry for money, has killed himself for love of Peggy, removing him from the picture, removing the threat to the Gibson name his marriage to Mortimer’s daughter would have represented, and removing the only other obstacle, aside from her husband, to Peggy’s getting together with Paul.

The price of laughter
The price of laughter

It’s worth mentioning that the film was written by Donald Ogden Stewart, an East Coast Main Liner, a liberal later to be blacklisted in the McCarthy era for his politics, a writer famous for the breezy elegance he brought to Philip Barry film adaptations such as Holiday, The Philadephia Story, andWithout Love but also famous in his own right as a writer of sophisticated comedy prized by collaborators such as Lubitsch (That Uncertain Feeling), Leo McCarey (Love Affair) and especially Cukor (Dinner at Eight, Keeper of the Flame plus all the Barry adaptations). It’s worth mentioning because some of themes seen here rhyme with those of Holiday especially but also those in Without Love and one even finds an echo of March’s ‘Laughter’ speech in the ‘Fires Banked Down’ speech that James Stewart speaks to Katharine Hepburn in The Philadephia Story. The writers involved may be one reason why Kael saw a connection to later screwballs.

There’s a wonderful coda at the end of Laughter: Paul and Peggy are snuggling in a sidewalk café in Paris and basking in the glow of being called ‘les amoreux’ . In fact they’re now married, blissfully planning on making love and music together, when Nancy’s eyes suddenly alight on a woman’s wrist. We see what she sees in a close-up: row upon row of glistening diamond bracelets. She can’t keep her eyes off of them until she notices Paul looking at her, ‘I didn’t say anything’ she says giggles before they laugh and kiss. But love and laughter aside, the audience senses that Paul better find a way of getting her a penthouse and some bracelets pronto. It’s no surprise that Herman Mankiewicz, co-writer of Citizen Kane and producer of this one, late in his life remembered Laughter as his favourite film. It’s a pretty dazzling one.

 

The film got good reviews but was not a popular success. According to James Harvey in Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, ‘Six years later, during the heyday of screwball comedy, Herman Maniewicz recalled Laughter to an interviewer – ruefully. Reflecting on the success of such later films as It Happened One Night and My Man Godfrey, Maniewicz told the press: “we” did it firs, Laughter was “the original of this madcap type of screen story (pp.78-79).”‘

José Arroyo

The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone, USA, 2014)

The Fault in Our Stars
The Fault in Our Stars is not as retchingly bad as I expected it to be. Beautiful young people do die of cancer of course; and not before they LOVE and suffer tremblingly to an exquisite soundtrack full of the very saddest songs. However, Wilhelm Defoe appears as the emotionally closed-off, selfish artist who listens to Swedish rap and represents everything that’s horrible, which is to to go such lengths to avoid pain that one ends up not feeling at all. He hasn’t quite lost his Green Goblin attitude and is great fun to watch. Shailene Woodley is brave yet vulnerable, all through a constant trickle of tears. Luckily she also manages to be spiky enough to avoid being cloying; it’s a difficult part and she’s wonderful in it. Laura Dern and Sam Trammell are perfect parents and thus annoying but much less so than they could have been. My eyes did well up a little and I did find it manipulative but that’s what goes to one of these movies for – to cry; which is not to say that the filmmakers couldn’t have earned those tears more honestly and more imaginatively. What I liked best was the witty visualizing and pacing of the text and e-mail messages – a delight. As for the rest … Seeing it as a treatise on the true meaning of life will result in inevitable disappointment. However, as emotion porn for the stony-hearted, it offers its share of interest and pleasures. Going to see this type of movie does require a ‘love-means-never-to-have-to-say-you’re-sorry’ attitude. I didn’t love it. But I’m not sorry I saw it either.

José Arroyo

The Royal Family of Broadway (George Cukor/Cyril Gardner, USA, 1930)

A legendary film, difficult to see until now, and worth watching for many reasons: it’s based on a Kaufman and Ferber Broadway hit from 1927 and is based on the Barrymores; it makes one understand why Ina Claire was a Broadway superstar and then considered without equal in light comedy, something heretofore hard for me to grasp having seen her only in supporting parts, even when she’s been very good in them, like in Ninotchka; it’s one of the films directed by George Cukor in his first year as a film director, was a hit, and paved the way for the type of brilliant career he would go on to have, often mining a similar vein of sophisticated comedy, themes of the relation between theatre and life, women’s struggles with being and doing; it’s a pre-code film with quite daring moments (March undressing, March playful with sexual orientation, March patting a man in the bum); the film skews the traditional placement of gender in film where men do and women are there to be looked at; here women do and feel; March in the Barrymore role is put in all kinds of display, including sexually; the film is enveloped in an oblique but nonetheless evident haze of aspects of gay culture: camp, innuendo, the theatrical, the performative, the excessive (and this includes the male flesh on display)

March on the right in 1930; Barrymore on the left in 1929.
March on the right in 1930; Barrymore on the left in 1929.

The most famous scene in the film is March’s entrance (see clip below), which begins as a coup-de-théâtre, where everyone’s looking in his direction, we see someone swathed in fur and then March-as-Barrymore is revealed, and is revealed to be as theatrical as the famous profile he is impersonating. It’s the entrance usually afforded stars, and the role, a handsome bigger-than-life rake of a film star, attracted all kinds of theatre actors who looked down on cinema, weren’t afraid to be theatrical and weren’t yet top-ranking stars themselves (Laurence Olivier played the part in the West End). March’s success in it won him a Paramount contract.

The scene is also famous because of the crane shot that follows March after his entrance from the stairs and into the bathroom as he undresses. According to Arthur Jacobson, ‘We didn’t have such things as camera cranes in 1930, so we had to figure out how to do it’ (loc 1020). They did it with a forklift and moved the camera backward and forward by having about twenty men pushing it. It’s worth it. The scene dazzles technically — appealing to those interested in the development of film as an art form in the era of sound – and for rather more base motives, as March does a little strip-tease throughout the scene, including a little flash of bum, and then quite a tease of the opening and closing of the shower door, a tease at the audience with perhaps an attempt to mask the suggestiveness of the scene, whilst having the peekaboo take place during a conversation with his mother and his sister, which of course is also motivated via the representation of the particular, and particularly titillating, mores of theatre and bohemia. Very much worth a look.

José Arroyo

Charles Tranberg, Fredric March: A Consummate Actor Duncan, Oklahoma: BearManor Media, loc. 1020 in Kindle.

Lubitsch at his worst?

Is this the worst scene of a film signed Lubitsch? Lubitsch shot only 8 days of footage before he died. Otto Preminger then took over and finished what Lubitsch had left fully prepped: blame is hard to apportion. The songs are by the great Hollander and Robin but not their best moment. The choreography is like an improvised barn-dance in a palace and stompingly inelegant. Even the costumes must be amongst the most shapeless, garish and excessive the 40s have to offer; Fox, however, was also the home of Carmen Miranda so  there might yet be worse (or better!).

 The colour is that  brightly saturated and garishly hued Technicolor that became the signature look of Fox musicals, one that audiences remembered fondly years after it disappeared.  Betty Grable is still bright and bubly but as far from mittel-Europe, Operetta and Lubitsch as you can possibly get. At the beginning of the film, when she and Cesar Romero avow their love and part, you imagine Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall saying those lines, savour what might have been; and look on harshly at what one’s left. The Lady in Ermine is part of Grable’s downward slide as a box-office star.

Lubtisch was a director of  taste who taylored  his films with great care to a achieve a distinctive style through texture, the particular arrangement of elements of mise-en-scene to create a conceptual bubble, an invisible force-field around this fictional world so that these particular types of characters could exist and act, some have called it Lubitschland. Had he survived the shoot and seen what we now do,  the result might have killed him. One can’t watch The Lady in Ermine ‘straight’ but does it lend itself to camp? Is it so bad it’s good or is it merely bad and unbearable? Worth a look and worth a think.
  Jose Arroyo

The Lego Movie (Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, USA, 2014)

lego-movie-posters-lead-photo

 

In The Lego Movie, ‘the story of a nobody who saved everybody’, the villain is President Business aka The Lord of Business; everyone has to do exactly the same thing whilst asserting their uniqueness; and all sing ‘Everything is Awesome’ whilst applying themselves to each daily routine like blissed-out Moonies.

It’s a kid film but so knowing parents will find plenty to delight them:Judy Garland is heard singing ‘How you going to keep them down in the farm after they’ve seen Paree'; Batman, Wonder Woman and Han Solo are some of the guest-stars; All of the Lego worlds, some of which kids might already own and play with, appear as alternate dimensions that the protagonists zap through. Glue is the deadly enemy. The whole film is super smart, razor sharp and very funny until the icky Will Ferrell appears and the film turns compromising, sentimental and appeasing, almost ruining everything.

 

It’s great to see a film for kids that’s brilliant as well as bright; you’ve got to be quick on your feet with it; until 3/4’s of the way through I thought it the most critical, intelligent and inventive film of the year but then it got sentimental, message-y and the whole Farrell episode was like watching an Andy Hardy movie from 1938 where the Judge and his son sermonize each other into an understanding that nobody believed then and nobody believes now.

The message in this one is that the invisible person is the chosen one, everyone is special, and if business works with rather than against the average person, we’d find utopia. You can see why I preferred the first 3/4 when it was all anti-business and anti-dumbness. Urgh!

I had successfully avoided The Lego Movie until friends went on and on …. and on about its many virtues. I’m glad I saw it and  mostly agree. On the evidence of their work here, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are pretty dazzling directors of comedy; and it’s refreshing to see an American comedy where what’s funny is not just the situation, or the lines but the style of showing itself: the play with images, narrative, point of view. It’s great to see how wit of approach makes a marvel of the banal, even basic dialogue is transformed into dazzling wit via a shift of accent and intonation: ‘He is about to be erased by the poh-leesh of nah-eel’

 The Lego Movie nonetheless performs a primary ideological function which is to first articulate a dissatisfaction with what is – in this case a corporate dictatorship parents of kids might be all too familiar with — and then construct an imaginary resolution at the end to help audiences not only reconcile with the devil they know but learn to love him. As soon as Will Farrell appeared the whole message changes from ‘business is evil’ to ‘ordinary people could work together with business and  wage-slaves might develop into entrepreneurs — or at least really happy workers —  in order to create more business! Everyone wins and everyone is happy! We are business, business is the world, isn’t it lovely, let’s sing our love of Legoland, our land’. It’s as if someone dropped an e into the filmmakers’ kool-aid 3/4 of the way through and they started exclaiming ‘I love you’ and offering drunken hugs to that which they had previously most hated.

 

Fundamentally the film is just one long advertisement for Lego of course but it is also more than that…but then again, it is very much limited by what it sets out as its primary raison d’être. Anything whose primary goal is to sell you something can’t be art partly because it doesn’t want to deal with truth, even as a partial personal expression of it. It’s out for the sell..and the sell is always some kind of con. What’s interesting about The Lego Movie is that it so  fervently makes one wish this weren’t inevitably and always the case.

 

José Arroyo

Gossips at a ball in Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan

In this clip, Mrs. Erlynne (Irene Rich) has inveigled her way into a balls he’s been actively forbidden. What drives her? First, her selfish desire to gets re-integrated into society; or is her desire to see a daughter  she abandoned many years before  more important? Here Irene Rich communicates a motherly yearning but also a little shrug when she sees how aghast the daughter, Lady Windermere (May MacAvoy), is at her presence, as if her main purpose is  neither to communicate not to please but to achieve and attain. One remains unsure.

What Lubitsch communicates clearly, however is how restrictive this society is. Those huge dwarfing door, those large forbidding spaces, all to be walked through slowly so others may judge at leisure. Her look at Lord Windermere, his walk towards her and the formal greeting: the niceties must be observed. But the shock of the wife at the sight of such a couple is palpable; as is the titillation with which those dowagers, previously sat on benches like mummies ready for the embalmer suddenly come alive, though their interest must be measured, sideways, on edge, underneath the radar. The images Lubitsch composes, that old master drawing that occupies the frame, and these titillated gossips entering the frame from below, allowing their gazes to glance, judge, hide-away below the frame, protected by the ancientness of their protocols, their wealth, their closed-off homes, and their priceless art, all property, all markers of manners, all hiding a civilisation not far and not above cut-throat. The clucking will begin later, in private. This is what Lubitsch’s extraordinarily imaginative and beautiful staging, framing and composition suggests so vividly.

 

José Arroyo

A note on a wipe/fade in Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan

Perhaps the most beautiful combination of horizontal wipe and fade; and an example of Lubitsch inventiveness with film form and the depth of expressiveness he was able to extract from it. Just before this sequence, Mrs. Erlynne (Irene Rich), a fallen woman, has arrived at the races, shocking everyone with her presence, her too chic moderne dress, and luxuriant feather hairdress. She turns  back to look intently at Lady Windermere. We know she’s her mother because she’s been blackmailing Lord Windermere with the threat of making that knowledge public. It would ruin the daughter who thinks her mother’s dead; and it would not be without cost to Lord Windermere’s own reputation. That threat of blackmail is  how she has the money for the races and for the clothes.

She looks at her daughter with a mother’s longing but the gentleman behind her thinks that look is for him. As Mrs. Erlynne leaves, he follows her, a woman of easy virtue who likes being chased and enjoys being caught. We see first Mrs. Erlynne walking through the frame. Then her suitor does the same. Then we cut to Mrs. Erlynne walking but now near the left of the frame as the suitor enters from the right. They’re now both in the picture, as he walks faster and catches up with her the wiping fade moves to the right until the wipe/fade snaps to a close and completely to black as a metaphor that itself becomes an act of consummation. Simple, beautiful, full of feeling, danger, and fun.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

The Merry Jail/ Das Fidele Gefängnis (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1917)

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 13.00.22A charming three-reel comedy, in a lovely-to-look-at transfer, and very instructive on Lubitsch’s development as a filmmaker. Lubitsch was only twenty-five when he made this loose adaptation of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. Germany was still fighting WWI but now beginning to lose it; Lubitsch was still performing on-stage for Reinhardt in supporting parts but was also already a top-billed film star.

Cinema offered brighter prospects in directing as well. Lubitsch’s delight in the medium and its possibilities is everywhere evident in The Merry Jail/ Das Fidele Gefängnis: he puts the camera on the floor (fig. A), on balconies (fig. B), on the street (fig. C1 and C2), outside doors (fig. D) and experiments by filming that already filmed to get a frame within a frame to seem a reflection on a mirror (see fig. E). Lubitsch’s goal is to please and who can but delight at all this imagination and inventiveness mobilized to fulfill that one overarching purpose?

fig a
fig A

 

from a balcony, and pre-figuring Busby Berkeley
Fig. B: from a balcony, and pre-figuring Busby Berkeley
Fig Ca: on the street though notice the character exits frame right
Fig C-a: on the street though notice the character exits frame right
fig 3.B: but enters frame also from the right. Not yet following continuity editing
fig C-b: but enters frame also from the right. Not yet following continuity editing
Outside doors
Fig D. Outside doors
Fig E. Experimenting with frames within frames and reflections
Fig E: xxperimenting with frames within frames and reflections

The Merry Jail is a farce on marriage, desire and social and sexual role-play; one that presages the later, more sophisticated comedies of manners such as The Marriage Circle (1924) and Trouble in Paradise (1932). The film begins with Alice von Reizentein (Kitty Dewall) asking her maid Mizi (Agda Neilson) to call her husband Alex (Harry Liedtke) to breakfast. They search high and low but can’t find him. She goes to call the police but, as she’s about to do so, the postman interrupts with a warrant of arrest for her husband due to disorderly behavior: he is to present himself to the jail at 8:00. Alex is in fact at home, still in white tie from the night before and still so hung-over he falls face first on the warrant.

A farce on marriage
A farce on marriage

 

Alice and Alec each get an invitation to the same ball: the wife via a letter from her sister reminding her ‘if anyone tries to kiss you, don’t giggle: it’s not chic’; the husband via a telegram from a friend promising that the party will be ‘colossal’. Lubitsch stages one of the mini fashion shows in a shop that are common in his films of this period (see also Shoe Salon Pinkus), this time inciting audience desires for the various delectable hats Alice can’t choose amongst.

At the shop, Alice is noticed by a stranger, Egon (Erich Schönfelder), who finds her so attractive he proceeds to importune her all the way home and into her very living room. ‘If you don’t go away, I’ll teach you a lesson you won’t forget’, she tells him on the way. ‘That’s what I want’ he says. This might seem creepy to modern eyes were it not for the lack of real threat, the gentleness of the innuendo, the fact that she always seems to have the upper-hand, and that the whole thing is played in a heightened humorous tone.

 

When the Police representative arrives to pick up her husband for his night in jail and catches them together, Alice asks Egon to ‘play’ her husband so as not to ruin her reputation. He agrees but not before kissing her several times; after all, he remarks delightedly, he’s got a right to; she’s his ‘wife’. In the meantime, Alex, unaware of any of this, decides to chuck jail for the ball. ‘My wife has no idea. That shows how stupid women are’, he tells his friend as they head off. But actually, one of the delights of Lubitsch’s films is in showing how smart women are; it will be the wife who teaches the husband a lesson or two at the end.

In the first act, Lubitsch sets up the situation for the comedy, which he will exploit to the maximum. He also puts into play some of the elements of farce: the physical comedy, the asides to the audience (in this case, visually rendered, with the characters sometimes performing directly to us), the paralleling of situations and their effects on people of different social stations (the maid also goes to the ball), the role-playing and mistaken identity, as well as a humorous reflection on sex roles. This is traditional farce with elements not dissimilar from, say, Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.

 

In The Merry Jail, the situation, the structuring of the basic story and its resolution are really no different than what one would expect on-stage. What is remarkable is how Lubitsch attempts to deploy all of these elements of farce into a visual medium so that editing, rhythm, camera set-ups and composition all contribute to the farce. For example, at the end of the first act when, the wife decides to go to the party, Mizi the maid jumps for joy saying ‘now the coast is clear’. She puts on one of her mistresses’ dresses and then what Lubitsch shows us is a shot of the husband going to the ball with friend in a car, then Egon, pretending to be the husband, going to jail in a carriage accompanied by the warden, then the wife alone in a car, and finally the maid, in evening dress, running after the streetcar and jumping onto it as a kind of visual punchline to the situation comedy and as a gag in itself. There’s a play on the rhyming of the shots in terms of content (two men, two men, one woman, one woman); a careful sequencing of forms of transport to maximize a gag; care taken with how type of shot and timing can incite laughter. The goal is first to delight; secondly, but just as important, to create a series of connections that will be pursued later, in this case that which happens at the ball and that which happens in the jail.

Maurice Chevalier sings about Mitzi in One Hour With You

Lubtisch has the greatest respect for a laugh and he’s not above stooping low (Countess Titti Tutti). There are lovely visual bits such as Mizi smoking and hiding her cigarette from her mistress; or her dancing on the table at the ball; or the way she orders three extra helpings of goose livers. In fact, Lubitsch must have a fondness for the very name because a generation later and in another country he’d have Maurice Chevalier sing a paean to her in One Hour With You (Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor, USA, 1932): ‘Oh that Mitzi!’ (see clip above).

 

Mizi
Mizi

There are visual jokes such as the custom of kissing in Prince Zbrschowsky’s country and how each of the main characters is given a gag at the entrance (the best is again Mizi’s, who ends up kissing the hand of her escort), or how Alex only recognizes Mizi as his own maid when he steals a kiss (‘It IS Mizi!) or how he disparages marriage to his own wife (Are you married? Do I look that dumb?). Lubitsch even makes a joke out of the numbers of footmen who rush to get people’s coats. Comedy directors who don’t already study Lubitsch should: there’s a lot to learn from even the Lubitsch who was only twenty-five

 

 

Pierrots at the ball
Pierrots at the ball

 

The scene at the ball  is less accomplished than what he’d do later in The Oyster Princess but is nonetheless flowing, rhythmic, another musical sequence without music. The handling of the crowds in the sequence, overflowing with black and white Pierrots, the lounging around doorways and ogling: all are purposefully delightful. There’s even a guiding intelligence behind the editing so that Mizi’s final shot is  continuously cut onto scenes at the jail.

 

low-key lighting for Quabbe in jail
low-key lighting for Quabbe in jail

In the jail we get an articulation of themes Lubitsch would go on to develop for the rest of his career: the man with the heart stuck to his arse; or when Egon arrives in the jail, one of the downtrodden prisoners says ‘He seems to be a big shot. He probably is a con artist.’ Things are not what they seem, people are not who they say, appearances are important and attention should be paid, pleasure can ethics, and sex can be morality. The viewer, always assumed to have a great intelligence and a good though weary heart in Lubitsch, is trusted to make sense of what is not explicitly rendered.

More is made explicit in The Merry Jail, however, than would be the case in Lubitsch’s American films. The innuendo is much more varied and covers a lot more of the spectrum of desire in these early German films than in the later American ones. There’s the carnivalesque scene of couples dancing in the Second Act where you see that the men are really women in costume so that it is women dancing with each other; and of course there is also the to me quite fantastic sight of Emil Jannings as the homosexual jail guard Quabbe, first making a pass at Egon, and then kissing the jail warden and expressing his love for him. It’s played for laughs but there is also real feeling and sympathy. I was quite shocked and delighted to see such a representation, so worked through, in such an early film, and particularly one of Lubitsch’s: we will not see this in his American films.

Punishment
Punishment

 

At the end, there’s a general unmasking, an expression of homosexual love, a formation of a couple cutting across class lines with Egon and Mizi, the re-affirmation of the marriage of Alex and Alice through the recovery of the wedding ring, and finally a kiss and a restoration of order – but not before the wife turns the table on her husband and puts him in his place: a delightful three-reeler.

 

Final clinch
Final clinch

The Merry Jail appears in the Criterion DVD of Trouble in Paradise with a score recorded exclusively for the Criterion Collection in 2002 by Aljoscha Zinmerman.

 

 

 

José Arroyo