Month: May 2015

Hands Across the Table (Mitchell Liesen, USA, 1935)

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hands across the table

Carole Lombard is Regie Allen, a hard-boiled Hannah working as a manicurist in a posh hotel so she can nab herself a rich husband. She meets her match in Theodore ‘Ted’ Drew III (Fred McMurray), a loafer from a still distinguished but now poor family whose only concession to earning a living is to marry money. In true screwball fashion, they meet cute in a hotel lobby where she bumps into him playing hopscotch on the hallway tiles and spoils his game. He asks for a manicure in order to get to know her better and she’s so nervous she destroys each of his fingernails, a small price for what turns out to be a great date. They go out and fall for each other but neither wants to deviate from their goal of marrying money, until of course they do, but not until the end. Ralph Bellamy plays, well … the Ralph Bellamy role: the earnest, well-intentioned, but no fun guy who hangs around waiting to not get the girl. What distinguishes the character of Allen Macklyn from any of the countless others Bellamy was cast in is that Macklyn is a former pilot who had an accident and is now a paraplegic. His wheelchair is his character.

Hands Across the Table is sometimes flagged up as an undiscovered or under-rated screwball. I don’t agree. All the ‘madcap zanyness’ feels a bit forced and a bit mean to the other characters, like when Lombard and McMurray pretend to be married so she can stand up a previous date (William Demarest) and he can do him out of a box of chocolate mints. Ah-ha. Hilarious.

The film doesn’t work as a screwball because it’s constantly veering into melodrama and all the longing and desire and angst and abnegation takes all of the shine out of what is meant to be sparkly ‘zaniness’ and makes for a confusing inconsistency of tone. However, those moments of melodrama are some of the bits I liked best.

The clip below wonderfully illustrates the film’s weaknesses and strengths. Reggie and Ted have just come back from this wonderful expensive date. The camera dissolves from the nightclub into the back of the cab, from a kind of theatre of dreams, to a context for other kinds of possibilities. Lombard plays Reggie as slightly phony and still trying to impress when she says ‘I’ve really had a lovely time’; then the scene shifts onto McMurray. What’s called for is an actor with the skill to convey the debonair nonchalance of the stylised artificial situation – a rich guy with no money out to have a good time but who just might have gotten involved asking a girl who’s not to be his wife out for another date after his wedding — and also the ability to simultaneously convey a sense of loss and regret, all whilst playing drunk. McMurray is simply not skilled enough.

However, look at Lombard. The film does. He speaks but she communicates, and she doesn’t need lines to do it with. She’s got three close-ups after she’s just heard he’s getting married and he says, ‘they all want honeymoons,’ where she looks slightly down and manages to convey the sadness of all those girls who never get to go on honeymoons because rich guys like this Theodor the Third here think they can get them the day after their own wedding; then after the ‘slaves of fashion’ line, where she does a slight grimace indicating something like ‘I should be so lucky as to be a slave to fashion’; and then, after he tries to say ‘the whole business is a vicious scam’ but falters on ‘vicious’ and she moves her eyes smartly to the side as if to indicate ‘are you kidding me?’ and then sighs. Hard-boiled Hannah is back but the sadness cuts through the cynicism and she beautifully conveys the limited options, the drudge and unfairness of a million girls working too hard and not making enough. Lombard is true, beautiful and really great: so much meaning in such few gestures. The film is very much worth seeing if only for her.

But the direction and the editing help the film too, note how we now get another dissolve, this time onto the bleak and prosaic night-time street. This dissolve mirrors the one that introduced us to the scene of revelation in the cab, but if before we went from the dream date into intimate revelation, this one takes us back to the harsh reality of the street. It’s very well done.

But the film does offer more than Lombard or the skill and polish of the mise-en-scène. There’s McMurray too. He’s easy to ignore as, aside from his work for Billy Wilder in Double Indemnity and The Apartment, there’s not much people remember him for. However, it’s worth reminding ourselves that he was one of the most famous and likeable stars in American cinema and at the very forefront of celebrity culture in the US, first as a top film star from about 1935 and throughout the forties and fifties, then as a very successful star of Disney films such as The Shaggy Dog (1959) and The Absent Minded Professor (1961); then, even later, in one of the top-rated TV shows in the US in My Three Sons (1960-1972), first for ABC (1960-1965) and then for CBS (1965-1972). Aside from that, he’d recorded records, been on Broadway, starred on radio and even been the original model for Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel. He can’t simply be dismissed.

Moreover, the film does everything in its power to make McMurray glamorous, sexy and desirable. He’s much more on display than Lombard is (see image capture below):

McMurray's lips, lit for Lombard's appreciation...and the audience's.
McMurray’s lips, lit for Lombard’s appreciation…and the audience’s.
Chiaroscuro lighting and coiffure combine for a brooding matinee idol look, something McMurray and his handlers would soon forsake. What he embodies was a wise-cracking regular joe. But that's not how Liesen saw him or at least not only how he showed McMurray to us here.
Chiaroscuro lighting and coiffure combine for a brooding matinee idol look, something McMurray and his handlers would soon forsake. What he embodied was a wise-cracking ‘regular Joe’. But that’s not, or better put, not only how Liesen saw him or at least  how he displayed  McMurray to us here.
He's on physical display, more undressed and in more and different states of undress than Lombard, and something relatively unusual for male stars of  this period.
He’s on physical display, more undressed and in more and different states of undress than Lombard, and something relatively unusual for male stars of this period.
McMurray and Lombard are equally glamourised, though she clearly gives the filmmakers more raw material to work with
McMurray and Lombard are equally glamourised, though she clearly gives the filmmakers more raw material to work with

Finally, another reason I find the film rather fascinating is due to something that used to be called ‘gay sensibility’. It was thought that if an artist was gay, an understanding of the world shaped by the artist’s social and historical circumstances as a homosexual person would somehow seep into the work and be magically conveyed to those who had access to those codes and conventions. Liesen was a film director in the 1930s with a primary sexual interest in men and thus the interest in surfaces, images, the conflict between idealised romance and harsh social realities; prescribed ways of being versus individual desires, all of that conflict of melodrama, but prettily and lightly put together would be ascribed to this ‘gay sensibility,’ even when the subject material of the work had nothing to do with homosexuality.

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One of the wonderful things about studying and thinking about film today is that we can look closely, as often as we want, stop and start the image, re-combine it. In Hands Across the Table, is the way that we’re shown McMurray to be delectable an articulation of Liesen’s desire or could it be something as banal as Paramount policy for one of their leading men? I don’t know. But what we can now see is that in this film he was lit, framed, made-up, clothed, unclothed and displayed to be glamorous, beautiful, fit, a romantic ideal with a raw sex appeal. Hands Across the Table is not just a fascinating film by a top director and yet another example of Lombard’s greatness as an actress, it might also be a key to understanding McMurray’s stardom at the height of the Studio Era.

José Arroyo

Easy Living (Mitchell Liesen, USA, 1937)

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A screwball not quite up to the heights of the very greatest but with moments as fine as in any. Edward Arnold plays J.B. Ball, the ‘Bull of Wall Street, a stockbroker so shocked by his wife’s spendthrift habits that he throws her latest sable out of their penthouse and onto the street, where it lands on Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) and changes her life. Ray Milland is J.B. Jr., the well-meaning but directionless son who goes to work at an automat to show his father he can make it on his own.

Soon everyone thinks Mary Smith is the mistress of one of the richest and most powerful men in the city and she’s showered with luxury hotels, couture and even money. However, it is JB Jr. who’s been staying in her hotel suite after having been fired for stealing a free meal for her and sparking a food fight at the automat. Yes, this is the kind of film where sables fall out of the sky and people wear gorgeous sparkly outfits, live in grand hotel suites, and can stand in their bathtubs amidst sculptures of Goddesses but can’t afford to eat at the automat.   Amidst all the farcical misunderstandings, the stock market goes up; it goes down; butlers have views on stocks; everyone’s on the make but everyone’s equally cynical except for Mary, who remains pure throughout, even when she’s furiously rampaging through stockbrokers’ offices with two huge and fluffy sheepdogs. Confusion ensues. Romance wins. Classes are reconciled; all with a gentle wit, much gentler than is usual for Sturges, who wrote the screenplay. Ralp Rainger and Leo Robin wrote the eponymous song, now a jazz standard thanks to immortal cover versions by Billie Holiday and Chet Baker, especially for the film. A mellow big-band version is the only soundtrack. It’s all pretty heaven jean-arthur   Easy Living is worth seeing for many reasons: Mitch Liesen sure knows how to film a glamorous image; and Jean Arthur, dressed by Travis Banton and photographed by Ted Tetzlaff, looks particularly lovely throughout — even her shoes sparkle and glow. The theme of appearances and advertising is one that Sturges would mine later, more thoroughly, and to slightly different effect in Christmas in July. Franklin Pangborn offers us Van Buren, an expert stylist of feminine couture, and really one of the loveliest of the famed Pangborn pansies. One can even begin to detect the formation of what would later become the Sturges stock company (Pangborn, William Demarest, Robert Greig as the butler).

The bathtubs are gorgeous
The bathtubs are gorgeous

Sturges blamed Liesen for ‘ruining’ his screenplay, which he thought a masterpiece, with bad pacing; and there is something to that: the food fight at the automat is beautifully filmed but the slapstick lacks snap. There are other niggles as well: the character of Mr. Louis Louis, the great Italian chef turned lousy America hotelier, is so caricatured it borders on the offensive; the last line about Jean Arthur finding her true calling in life cooking Ray Milland breakfast….well, it almost ruins the film. However, this has moments that are at least the equal of anything Stuges ever filmed himself (though more glamorous, less cutting and abrasive; the satire is sharper in Sturges’ own films): the interplay between Edward Arnold and his secretary, the firing of Jean Arthur, the beginning of the automat scene, the sable landing on Jean Arthur —  a moment that Rashna Wadia Richards says evokes the spectral eeriness of a surrealist nightmare and that James Harvey believes is the moment everyone remembers from the film — the song; and above all Jean Arthur herself.

Even the shoes sparkle
Even the shoes sparkle

Has Jean Arthur ever looked lovelier? It’s hard to think of another film in which she’s so carefully photographed and to such glamorous effect. Also, in relation to the classic period, we often talk about faces. ‘We had faces then’ says Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. But we rarely talk about voices. Yet think of how distinctive the voices were also: Bette Davis’ quick clipped pronunciation, Rosalind Russell’s foghorn, Katharine Hepburn’s grating Bryn Mar voice. Personally I prefer the low throaty ones that sound like an intimate whisper. I adore Margaret Sullivan’s, for example. But none affords me as much pleasure as Jean Arthur’s, surely one of the most expressive and distinctive voices of the period: low, soft, with a throaty crack and a squeaky end-note, a hushed sound full of a kind of feeling that first reverberates and then evaporates into a kind of sigh, particularly when it’s uttered in excitement. It, she and the film are a delight.

José Arroyo

MGM’s Idea of Stardom in 1933: The Opening Montage of Bombshell (Victor Fleming, USA, 1933)

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Bombshell has an opening montage that is very instructive in how studios and audiences perceived the life and function of a film star. We see Jean Harlow as Lola Burns in film magazines, in newspapers, awarding prizes, being the subject of scandal, in advertisements selling hosiery, and on film-screens — bigger than life — with an audience enraptured as she’s embraced by Gable; celebrity, scandal, glamour, the personal and the social, significance and signification, already all rolled into one. One of the many interesting things about the montage is that we see men reading Modern Screen, Photoplay, Silver Screen and other movie magazines as avidly as women, which, even whilst keeping in mind that Lola Burns/Jean Harlow is meant to be a sex-symbol, is not exactly what one expects. We see audiences enraptured by the image, copying Lola’s stockings and perfumes, her name in lights and finally a hypnotic reunion in the dark where audiences identify, desire and long to that image provided by Burns/Harlow; and of course Harlow does seem to burn up the screen with joy, and wit and life as it all unfolds: A glorious beginning to an entertaining film.

José Arroyo

Go!: Film Spectatorship in 1935 According to The Good Fairy

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A lovely illustration of how Hollywood conceptualised, represented and satirised film spectatorship in 1935. Margaret Sullavan, just out of the orphanage, already enveloped in a cloud  of romantic longings formed by fairy tales, is an usherette at Budapest’s Dream Palace, her first job. Reginald Owen is a viewer who will turn out to be her ‘good fairy’. Both are enraptured by the mannered, melodramatic and repetitive drivel they see onscreen. We understand why they are so involved. We also understand why others are not, and why they leave at a moment in the narrative before they arrive, i.e. why they might want to leave before seeing the whole thing. Fredric Molnar, who wrote the original play, and Preston Sturges, who adapted it, make for a lovely sweet and sour combination, all directed by William Wyler with great delicacy and respect for both his subjects and his audience.

José Arroyo

Anfibio/ Amphibian (Héctor Silva Núñez, Venezuela/Cuba, 2014)

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anfibio

In Anfibio, the approach is neo-realist; the actors, non-professional; the social problems, real; and the backdrop, a tropical paradise whose beauty is not quite hampered by poverty and lack of opportunity. It’s a beautiful film, rendered with a poet’s touch.

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In the film, two brothers, two motherless boys, José (Franklin González) and Jesús (Jesús Manuel García), clearly very close to each other, suffer the demands of a patriarchal father in a rural village that subsists on fishing. But is the father harsh or is he simply making a mistake in how he’s going about trying to do right by his two boys in difficult circumstances? It’s a question the film leaves open.

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What we find out is that José, the eldest, has recently returned home – prison’s unspecified but something shady is hinted at –and doesn’t want to earn a living fishing with his father; that he’s also not doing anything else; that even his considerably younger brother Jesús can’t find him the work he needs to continue living at home and that the place doesn’t offer him many other options on the right side of the law. His father tells him that if he doesn’t bring home money, he’ll have to unburden the house of another mouth to feed and make his own way in the world. We’ve already seen José been turned down for work and it’s been suggested that he’s perhaps not a good bet as an employee; that employers don’t want to risk a job on someone who’s perhaps been trouble or been in trouble before. The boy ends up stealing some money, presumably to give his father but ends up leaving home anyway, which is probably not as his father intended.

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Amphibian is a short film but intense and packing the kind of power often provided by the poetic. The story is about a family living on the outskirts of Maracaibo, off the coast of Venezuela, on a shore where the houses practically seem to be built above the sea, on stilts. But the film’s imagery condenses meanings that reverberate and echo on as hints and suggestions through the film. Fishing seems to be the main way of life; but it’s subsistence fishing; and the young boy wants more; but in leaving to get more; he leaves a way of life and a brother at the mercy of the father and the sea. A considerably younger brother, Jesús, who he’s close to and who’s angry enough at him to reject his ill-gotten bounty, offered as a gesture of love and rejected in anger and in hurt. A small and helpless turtle and a fancy mobile phone are the oppositional symbols around which the film is structured. Anfibio shows us a world, its inhabitants, their relationships, the various connections between these people, the landscape they inhabit and live off and their way of life; all on the cusp of change. An evocative, richly suggestive work that is gorgeous to look at, lovely to experience and rewarding to think about.

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José Arroyo

Robert Benchley Steals a Movie in Five Minutes

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           China Seas is big-budget, all-star orientalist tosh with exciting action sequences, well-directed by Tay Garnett. I don’t know that it’s much worth seeing today unless you love Jean Harlow (which I do) or want to see how movie star like Gable can sleepwalk through a performance and still be appealing or are curious as to just how bad Rosalind Russell was at playing English aristocrats early in her career. What I most loved about the movie was the way Robert Benchley was deployed as a kind of punctuation mark in the narrative. He’s got no role really. He’s just brought in to punch up the tired narrative, lift the tenor and add a laugh, all of which he succeeds magnificently in doing. It’s a lesson to performers in how to steal a movie in five minutes and to screenwriters in how a movie is not all story and meaning and how in the words of the immortal Lubitsch, one shouldn’t ‘sneeze at a laugh’; though one is at all times willing to drink to it.

The clip below is the entirety of his role, a collection of all his scenes in the film in chronological order; bits, lines and gags; all totalling just over five minutes; and, aside from a few cracks between Jean Harlow and Hattie McDaniel, the only scenes from the movie one is tempted to see again.

José Arroyo

L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1960)

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l'avventura

The day after I first saw L’Avventura, I woke up thinking of art, complexity, ambiguity, the iconicity of a face and the complexity of a touch. As the film starts, two women – Anna (Lea Massari) and Claudia (Monica Vitti) are setting off on a café society cruise around the coast of Sicily with a group of the louche and the bored, including Anna’s boyfriend, a flash society architect called Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). Anna’s father, an elegant slightly weary former ambassador (Renzo Riccci), urges her not to go; Sandro is unworthy and is never going to marry her, he tells her. She, however, insists. He seems accepting of the fact that they might be sleeping together but is sad about it, as if he both mourns and is resigned to the degradation of the daughter he loves.

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Anna is in love. But it’s a long distance relationship. She’s not getting enough attention from Sandro when they are together and the lack of attention makes her doubt his love. Once on the yacht, she first jumps in the ocean — which leads him to jump in after her — and then lies about being in danger from sharks, which gets everyone’s attention. However, when she actually does disappear on the island it takes her friends a while to discover it.

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The people on the cruise are jaded aristocrats for whom the superficial is a shield from oblivion. They’re attentive to spaces in which to quote Oscar Wilde quips, busy only with trying to fend off boredom, and clutching at sensation as a means of keeping being in constant tension with nothingness. Even the possible death of one of them doesn’t really exercise them. They’re afraid of wasting time but what have they to do? After tired and half-hearted attempts to search for Anna, they all go back to more exciting places to be bored. Only Sandro and Claudia persist in their search. In so doing, they’re thrown together and begin to fall for each other. There’s a wonderful moment in the train where Claudia, who has already begged him to leave her alone, emotionally articulates the moral morass of their engaging in a relationship when Ana’s only been missing for a few days and whilst her whereabouts remain unknown, no matter that they’re each now in love with the other. He, however, can’t resist following her onto the train to continue with the chase. Why should he sacrifice himself? He thinks it an idiocy. Why? And for whom? He doesn’t meant to sound cynical but isn’t it better that they face things as they are, i.e. Ana’s no longer there, he no longer cares for his previous love. He’s only interested in his new one. He wants his pleasure. It’s all he can ever think of. Now. Why doesn’t she?

As she flees Sandro, the camera cuts to a the waves crashing onto the shore, the camera indicating the inevitability of Claudia’s involvement with Sandro by panning through the relentless waves and settling onto Anna’s face (see clip below). On the soundtrack we then hear a young man courting a young woman in a compartment as Sandro re-enters the shot and gets close to Claudia. Clearly this young working class couple is being aligned and juxtaposed to Claudia and Sandro. The young man knows somebody that works with the young girl and has heard she’s sensible. He has a Chinese transistor radio. Does she like music? She does? And what does she think is more important music or love? She thinks music; he opts for love first.

Claudia’s involvement with Sandro is now inevitable. Our new couple is surrounded by extra-diegetic music, soft but dissonant and adding to the alienation evident even in their moment of connection. She soon begins to act as needy as her friend. Anna’s absence is a structuring one. Claudia and Sandro might momentarily forget that their love is founded on a disappearance, an absence, possibly a death. When the absence becomes felt — which it does, first intermittently, then more insistently — this new adventure, so full of promise, is already over. Or is it? The one human moment of connection comes in the very last shot. She’s caught him cheating, he cries, he can’t help himself; dissolute, unfocussed, undisciplined, he’s no more able to be faithful than he was to choose art over a house in Milan AND one in Rome. But does she accept this?

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L’Avventura has to have some of the most beautiful compositions in the history of cinema. The seas are raging but the compositions are elegant, classic, balanced; the images they contain are also extraordinary; modernity in the foreground with Balenciaga dresses and sixties kitten heels, Roman ruins and imposing palaces and churches, or simply the natural sublime as background. The images in motion evoke process, tension, a spark of contradiction, which the beauty of the compositions then contains, fixes, naturalises. When Monica Vitti runs in search of her lover, the echoing click of her heels alone evokes a displacement, an alienation, a longing for which the virgin in the background is no help and one that dissipates into solitude even as her heels clack their presence onto parquet.

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There are niggles: the scene with men chasing after Gloria Perkins (Gloria de Poliolo), the celebrity with the torn dress working publicly in journalism but privately whoring herself to whomever can pay. The threat of the old, the poor, the male and the South as presented by the men gather around Monica Vitti in the extraordinary scene in Palermo. Is the North being patronising to the South? Are the filmmakers crudely commodifying the working class, peasants, Southerners? Is Antonioni being critical or making a crude self-serving nod to neo-realist traditions. I don’t know. What I am sure of is that L’Avventura is very great film by a truly great filmmaker.

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Days after I saw it I kept thinking about the beauty of its images and of how mesmeric and impactful Vitti’s final strokes of Ferzetti’s head are. I can’t imagine what its effects would be like on a small screen, though the Criterion transfer is a gorgeous one indeed. See it on as big a screen as you can; it’s worth it even if only for the added pleasure of seeing Monica Vitti’s unforgettable face in as large as size as possible.

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José Arroyo