I found Bridge of Spies masterfully well-made, with an interesting look — lots of high contrast greys filmed with fish-eyed lenses — a very good central performance from Tom Hanks and a great one from Mark Rylance. It was also good to see all the wonderful German actors one recognises from Sense8 (Maximilian Mauff) and Homeland (Sebastian Koch) in supporting roles.
The film is based on a true story set at the height of the Cold War in which James B. Donovan (Hanks), an American lawyer, puts himself forward to defend the rights of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Rylance) and in doing so is then able to facilitate an exchange not only for Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a captured American U2 spy plane pilot, but also for Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student arrested in East Berlin.
It looks like an expensive film, with dozens of extras and intricate sets, an achievement considering its reported $40 million budget. The reconstruction of post-war Berlin, with its detailed view of the extent of its destruction and at that very moment the divisive wall is going up, is particularly magnificent. However, the film also feels curiously old-fashioned and slightly smug.
The film is a guilty and anxious attempt to show America how to behave morally and well today by dramatising an incident of decency and humanity from its past achieved against the tide of public and institutional opinion. I thought of it in relation to Lincoln and I’m sure future scholars will group them as films of his maturity exploring similar concerns… and oh so responsibly. If you can ignore the preachy-ness of it’s tone, it’s enjoyable.
I had to force myself to see Bridge of Spies. How could one miss a film written by the Cohens and directed by Spielberg? And I’m glad I did. But it was a struggle. And in the light of that struggle and on the evidence not only of this film but of so many dull, worthy and well-made ones over the last decade or more (War Horse anyone?), one can’t help but ask ‘When did Spielberg cease to matter’
An obvious attempt to cash in on the enormous success of Smilin Thru (Sidney Franlin, USA, 1932) with Fredric March reprising a variant of the same role, the self-sacrificing ex-soldier, here called Alan Trent, who blinded in the service of his country, pretends to reject his true love, Kitty Vane (Merle Oberon), so that she need not sacrifice her life in his care, but to no avail. Thus proving that love is true, eternal, invariable, just like yours isn’t but would ideally like it to be. It’s hokey beyond belief but still works.
Herbert Marshall plays Gerald Shannon, the son of the family March is adopted into as a child, and is a bit stiff in the role of potential last-resort husband and not-quite-romantic rival: his idea of expressing anger is to clench his hands and stiffens his arms, like an amateur who feels but hasn’t yet learned how to convey so all that is communicated is the tension of the exercise. It doesn’t help that Gerald is idealized both as a brother and as the acme of impossible moral standards. I do, however, love the timbre of his voice.
Oberon is beautiful and can’t act but that didn’t seem to have mattered much as this film was a hit and is what made her a star in the US. Greg Toland’s cinematography is very beautiful and inventive: the scene where Alan and Kitty drive off after they fail to get married, and the superimposition of them in the back of the car with soldiers under fire as one scene transitions to another, is visually stunning, expressive and affecting. Narratively, it tugs at the heartstrings because it was important to them to be married before he set off to war; they then decide to have their ‘wedding night’ in spite of not being married, and war intercedes there too, though not before Alan is seen to be entertaining a woman. His protecting Kitty’s reputation whilst on the surface seeming to be betraying her is part of the way the film differentiates between what the audience know, what the characters understand, and how such misunderstandings are part of the injustices that make the protagonists suffer. Misunderstandings, unconsummated desires, mutual self-sacrifice for a nobler purpose, the punitiveness of socially proscribed modes of behaviour; all the forms and thematics of melodrama are on display, cynically deployed and very effective.
Fredric March is superb. It is totally his film, though he is always better when angry or troubled: his eyebrows furrow and he seems to conjure a cloud over his head, quite striking to see. Toland has to flash a small light at his lower lip to make him seem sexy and his ‘light’ scenes are not as effective. However, the quiet scene of self-abnegation at the end is superb and wouldn’t work without that which March brings to it: an ability to communicate different things to Kitty and to the audience and make those differences simultaneously understandable; it’s one of the ways the film creates pathos.
The Dark Angel does work. The question really is why? This is hokey, trite, a re-tread – and it was so even in 1935. The Dark Angel is all stiff upper lips and repressed emotion while Smiling Through is all angsty sobbing. The hokum is more effective in the earlier film and Norma Shearer is more interesting to look at and offers a lot more than Merle Oberon, despite the latter being more conventionally beautiful. Intriguingly the later film is very positive about disability; alarmingly, the scenes of young Merle warming her back and her front at the fireplace felt a bit kiddie porn though clearly meant to be cute.
It’s extraordinary to think that this very similar story, with the same director and leading man was made only three years after the original smash hit and proved almost as effective and almost as successful. Not quite a sequel, not quite a remake, not quite a reboot but somewhere there in the mix. Nothing is ever really new. However, the film was able to offer audiences the pleasures remembered from Smilin Through and cash registers throughout the nation rang with joy at the audience’s tears.
James Stewart is so great in It’s a Wonderful Life: the repressed fury, frustration, the dashed hopes sometimes relieved by an evident yearning, the bitterness, all dazzlingly displayed by the actor and sometimes captured by Capra in a sweeping extreme close-up that swoops up on that anguished face and confronts the audience with it. A marvel of a performance, beautifully directed.
The film’s a holiday staple, and everyone’s seen it several times, but it’s much darker than one remembers; George Bailey is after all a man driven to suicide at Christmas. The warm feelings the memory of the film gives rise to seem due to the beginning (the view of community communicated through the idealised Bedford Falls), and then the very last scene (the utopian view of friends and family at Christmas), and one forgets most of what leads up to it.
It is after all the story of a man whose every hope is thwarted: he doesn’t get to go to college, he doesn’t get to travel around the world, he doesn’t even get to go on a honeymoon. Duty, obligation, responsibility, the need and well-being of others, all take precedence over his own wishes and thwart him at every turn.
The only desire he manages to achieve is that for his wife, and even that seems to catch him by surprise (and Capra’s staging of this, in close-up, whilst they seem to be talking about everything else but, manages to somehow indicate that desire growing off-screen as a both a physical manifestation and as a dawning of feeling – a tour de force of staging). As my friend Nicky Smith observed, one is reminded of the episode of Friends where Phoebe says it ought to be called ‘It’s a Sucky Life’.
It’s a crime that the film has been colourised as the black and white cinematography by Joseph Walker in the original is so beautiful. It’s really shot as a noir and even Sunny Bedford Falls is enmeshed in shadows. But it’s no surprise that dramatically the film works even when in colour. It’s a marvel of story-telling: the prayers going up to the heavens, the Heavenly spirits being made aware of the happenings of those normally too insignificant to bother with; the setting forth of a life, the way the story arrests time, speeds it up; the creation of an alternate universe; the ability to identify with George even as he looks forth on his own life and on a world without him in it. In telling us the story, the film also seems to be saying, ‘this is what cinema can be. It can do anything. Isn’t it in itself heavenly’?
It’s a film full of delights: the set-piece of the opening dance where they all end up in the swimming pool; the scene where Donna Reed loses her robe; the run on the bank; the camera rushing alongside George running through Bedford Falls and through Pottersville; Thomas Mitchell’s wonderful characterization of George’s uncle; Gloria Grahame’s even more delightful characterization of the hottest girl in town (‘this ole thing. I only wear it when I don’t care what I look like’).
Seeing it recently on a big screen,I liked it more than I ever have and found it better than I remembered though one has to accept some things being what they are (bits of capracorn, the sexism, the tinge of racism — all no worse than in any other film of the period — but there nonetheless). There are problems with the film: Did Capra really believe that being an old maid librarian is the worst thing that could befall a woman outside of becoming a prostitute?; doesn’t Pottersville look a lot more fun than Bedford Falls? But what are these next to James Stewart’s towering performance, surely one of the very greatest in the history of cinema, and next to the dazzling display of filmic story-telling that Capra and Co put on display?
Addendum: In his recent How to Watch a Movie (London: Profile Books, 2015), David Thomson intriguingly writes that ‘in the decades since its first showing, it has grown easier for audiences to imagine a question mark in the title and to realize that the idyllic Bedford Falls of 1947 has turned into Pottersville, the drab plan of heartless capitalism pursued by the town’s tycoon (played by Lionel Barrymore)..think of that story shifted to the era of 2008 and the anxieties of middle-class existence. Once upon a time It’s a Wonderful Life was a Christmas staple, but try showing the picture to a modern young audience without rueful irony crushing nostalgia.’ I wonder if he’s right.
Addendum 2: According to Nicky Smith: ‘It’s a fascinating experience at the cinema. Middle aged blokes absolutely love it. And listen for the rustle around the auditorium as people gradually realise that George ‘s best friends are called Bert and Ernie’.
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.
According to Michelle Morgan in Carole Lombard: Twentieth-Century Star, the film was well-reviewed with the Motion Picture Herald addressing a serious issue: ‘Possessed of a certain dramatic effectiveness and succeeding in becoming reasonably entertaining, this picture nevertheless presents the exhibitor with something in the nature of a problem in selling. The reasons is that the theme is concerned primarily with the attempted and finally successful return to respectability of a girl of extremely easy virtue.
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]’
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.
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’.
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?’
‘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.
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]
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.
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.
[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
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’.
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.
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.
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).
Post Script: some of you might find this, which suggests how the film should be marketed, of interest:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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?
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.
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).”‘
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.
A legendary film, difficult to see until now, and worth watching for many reasons: it’s adapted from the 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 on 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)
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.
Charles Tranberg, Fredric March: A Consummate Actor Duncan, Oklahoma: BearManor Media, loc. 1020 in Kindle.
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.
Grace of Monaco is the kind of movie where the star wears a billowing ballgown, races frantically through endless palace corridors and jumps into a huge bed …. to weep. Life is so very difficile; even when Maria Callas (Paz Vega) — wearing a fabulous Jeanne Toussaint panther ring — is your bestie, warbles beautifully,and goes horseback riding with you as a show of support. Luckily there’s a ball at the end so that jewels, gowns and seating arrangements can play their role in simultaneously resolving affairs of state and of the heart.
Nicole Kidman gets an endless amount of close-ups, some so extreme that her earrings are out of focus. The whole film is designed so we can see her be beautiful and suffer nobly while she learns to say goodbye to Hollywood and all the fun of the movie star life and hello to politics, duty, and sacrifice in her new role as Princess of Monaco. Callas’ drive for artistic expression above all else is contrasted with Grace’s willingness to sacrifice art for family and country. Lubtisch was already sending up this type of material a hundred years ago. One looks on the screen in a daze that might might have been caused by the diamonds display but is more accurately attributed to the drivel that is the story and its treatment.
Derek Jacobi is the fey and worldly aristocrat who teaches Grace protocol. Frank Langella is, I kid you not, Father Tuck, guardian of Grace’s soul. Tim Roth is Prince Rainier, the unappreciative husband; and first glowers at Grace but then ends up giving her warm glow due to her great diplomatic skills and even greater love for the nuclear family. Grace learns how to act serenity whilst dealing with palace intrigue and other people’s selfishness. At the end Grace is so good at her new role that she gets a standing ovation for her efforts; even old grouch De Gaulle is moved to stand. It’s pure trash, very demodée but lovely to look at.
The film does have an interesting exploration on the nature of acting and performance, in life and in art. Some scenes of Nicole Kidman rehearsing her lines and her expressions would rival De Niro’s ‘Are You Looking At Me’ scene in Taxi Driver if only the film were better. As it is, I can’t in good faith recommend it to anyone except lovers of fine jewellery. However, I must say that if you put aside all considerations of film art and are happy to look at glossy layouts in fashion magazines, a boxed set with Madonna’s W.E., the Naomi Watts Diana and this Grace of Monaco would make for one glamorous binge.
I love this opening for so many reasons: the way it begins with the factory whistle, tilts and then cranes down to show the crowd of workers surging out of the factory, settles on the boyfriend (Wallace Ford), finds Joan Crawford, and tracks back with them as a couple. We see it’s a working couple, a make-do couple, a couple only because it’s the best available in a town without many options. I love the dissolve into the next shot and the way the camera then tracks along with the couple but with the background in focus so we can see the poverty, the drunkenness, a fight between a married couple where the woman is left at home, alone and distressed. We know that’s Crawford’s future if she stays there. I love the way Crawford shows her tiredness and dissatisfaction and the way that she says her only way out of this life and this place is her looks and whatever fellas like about her; we all know what it is, that she’s got it and that she’s willing to use it. I love the way Brown creates a dreamyness of tone when Crawford gazes in on the train from the outside and he frames the windows of the train carriage as a view into a different world, a better world, more glamorous, like film frames run through a sprocket, like cinema. It’s how Brown conveys that going to the movies is many factory workers’ way out of a repetitive, dehumanising, exploitative milieu of mindless labour and into another dimension, a marvellous one of glamorous possibilities. And an awestruck Crawford is our conduit into it. She’s us; us as we could be if we had her looks, her drive and her gumption. It’s a technically superb opening, beautiful to look at, expressive of social conditions and full of feeling.
According to Donald Spoto, in the book on Crawford he intriguingly entitled, Possessed, ‘the film struck a powerful responsive chord among Depression-era women of 1931, deprived of prospects and caught in frightening economic circumstances. In their neighbourhood screens was Joan Crawford — sensual yet strong-willed, vulnerable but determined, and willing, as Marian says, “to use whatever men find attractive about me” to succeed.
In a way Marian was Joan Crawford’ (p.87).
And according to Crawford Clarence Brown was ‘a genius’ (p.86). This is certainly a great and complex job of directing, a great performance from Crawford and a film that lays claim to being one of the land-mark films of the pre-Code era.
Coarse, vulgar, cheap, low: Neighbors is a very big hit and a very depressing sight. It’s as if the terrain mined by Porky’s in the early 80’s has now become the only vein American comedy excels at: tit jokes, pissing contests, cock measurements, passing out with drink, getting high on anything. You can’t blame the very attractive cast. Most of them are comedians; and who could blame a comedian for stooping to a laugh? Moreover it’s funny: the audience reaction is proof of it. It is in fact also very intelligent and has some good lines (‘He looks like something a gay guy designed’, say Seth Rogen’s character of Zac Affron’s). But there’s the rub for me: all that intelligence, all that comedic talent… for what? Tit jokes? Even ‘with a twist’? In the words of Jonathon Gatehouse, ‘Everywhere you look these days, America is in a race to embrace the stupid’. Neighbors is just one more example. A sad commentary on American Comedy and on America itself.
I thought Godzilla the dullest blockbuster of the season but then, after yawning for an hour and 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 jawdroppingly 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 maybe a monster movie SHOULD start with a monster rising out of the ocean and stomping on people. All that useless exposition…and to so little end: the background with the mother and father; the sentimental cringe of the father’s birthday greetings at the beginning and middle of the film; the son repeating the father’s cycle; the rescuing of someone else’s child paralleling the danger faced by his own — it all leaves one either cringing or yawning
Hollywood filmmakers should find something other than psychiatry to entertain them. It really seems to have reduced their understanding of people, of individual character and their motivation, and of the political and social contexts in which recognisable people might live in. Thus in Godzilla, the filmmakers’ control over the means of expression vastly exceeds an understanding that never seems to go beyond Pychology 101 and Intro to Film Studies 101 (there seemed to be a shot copying everything ever done here — The Birds, the Aliens films etc) with a dash of cod-Buddhist philosophy thrown in so that Godzilla can come and re-order the ‘natural balance’ of things. There’s a ‘feather-in-brain’ moment too where Ken Watanabe brings out his father’s watch to remind us of the Atomic Bomb (as if a film called Godzilla in which the monsters are powered by nuclear energy itself needed further reminders).
The actors are supremely bad: when one’s noticing that Bryan Cranston is wearing the same wig fifteen years later; or feeling cheated because Aaron Taylor-Johnson hasn’t taken his shirt off but isn’t doing much else; or longing for Mathew Broderick to appear from somewhere show his charismatic face and crack a few jokes, there’s a problem with the story-telling and acting. Ken Watanabe seems to have three expressions: one where he turns his mouth into an o; another, more expressive, where he turns his mouth into an oval; and then a grim and resolute downturn of the mouth. He does say Godzilla with a Japanese accent and with particular relish for which much can be forgiven; and to be fair, it’s is not as if he’s given a lot to do.
Except for Juliette Binoche, Godzilla does give a more compelling performance than the rest of the cast: the monster design and animatronics or whatever vfx skills brought the monster to life are indeed terrific and worthy of praise. The gradual introduction of the monster, the design and execution of the shots of destruction in the Hawaii and San Francisco sections of the film, the detail and amount that one can see going on inside each shot; all are thrilling. There are shots that truly do make one go ‘Wow’! However, even when the monsters do start stomping on cities or fighting each other, the story lacks tension and suspense. I was longing for them to stomp one someone we were meant to care about but didn’t really.
Godzilla is indeed spectacular. If your interest is in vfx and on the look of things, it may well surprise and delight. It’s certainly worth seeing on IMAX in order to enjoy those pleasures to the full. But the pleasures the film satisfies are those of spectacle rather than of narrative, and given that so much time was spent on narrative, this really counts as a failure in this film. Ultimately, Godzilla illustrates how empty and ultimately 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 allegorize with intelligence is not much of a monster movie at all.
I love documentaries on ballet. I like seeing the toil, the boredom, the grind of constant effort, the blistered feet, the pain, the process. I find it interesting that all of this is in the service of the unnatural, of getting one’s body to contort in ways it wasn’t designed to, and thus do things that we call ‘marvelous’ because they’re not natural, they’re not ordinary. I somehow find it moving that all these years of grinding out the practice, of sweat and hurt are mobilized into the creation of an ideal of beauty that is both precise and evanescent, that disappears the moment it’s achieved, so fleeting that if you blink you’ve missed it.
There’s something interesting too about the composition of the cast in these films. Ballet is international so ballet films always feature characters from different countries interacting with each other; yet the action or story tends to have particular settings, be it a ballet school in Paris or London, so these characters’ are often seen as adapting to the culture of their school or company.
This documentaries follows six young dancers of various ages as they prepare for the Youth America Grand Prix, a contest that could determine their future as dancers, thus the culture of home, of comfort and feeling, is usually placed in contrast with the culture of work and achievement. The stories I found most interesting were those of two mixed race siblings (mother Japanese, father Australian) whose mother is determined to have them realise her dream. The girl wants to be a dancer but does the boy? The mother has the potential to be the stage mother from hell but will she be?
The other story I found very moving was of Joan Sebastian Zamora, a 16 year old from Columbia training in NYC because Columbia has no ballet culture. He’s got a girlfriend. They eat with their legs stretched out in a semi-split, stretching each other’s legs as they do so and sometimes tapping endearments on each others’ toes with arched feet. His whole family’s well-being seems to be riding on his future as a dancer.
Lastly, there’s Michaela Deprince, a black girl from Sierra Leone adopted by a very loving and supportive white American couple. She saw her biological parents and teachers hacked to death before her eyes as a three-year old. She was almost not adopted because she had white skin blotches all over her neck. Seeing her, one senses a desperate striving to find in ballet the control and beauty not afforded by life. But ballet has historically not been very welcoming to black dancers. Will Michaela succeed? A lovely and moving film.
This is about a Hollywood film star, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), kind of lost, marriage failed, all his wishes are met but they’re not really desires because all he’s got to do is look and he gets offered it. He doesn’t even need to ask. Girls flash their tits at him everywhere he turns and, tired though he is, he’s eager to please and be pleased, though sometimes he’s so tired he falls asleep doing it. Once in a while he returns home with his daughter to find random women in his bed and has to shoo them away, but always with a wistful regret that charms and seduces even at the moment of rejection. He’s so agreeable he can’t understand why they keep getting pissed off at him when he can’t give them more. He’s professional in his job and nice to everyone but detached.
The film begins with a beautiful sequence, a long take of a black Ferrari racing around an empty road in the desert. The Ferrari races in and out of the frame whilst the camera maintains its ground gazing emptily at the beautiful but parched scenery until the Ferrari once again drives into frame. A person we will later find out is Johnny gets out of the car. We’re allowed to see the emptiness of the landscape and the car becomes a metaphor for the film and the person: sleek, desirable, celebrated…but driving aimlessly and in a desert. The Ferrari and the Chateau Marmont, the shabby chic hotel where all the cool celebrities in LA stay, are recurring tropes in the film, evoking the luxury and comfort made available by celebrity. The Chateau is contrasted later with the chic, elegant and formal hotel in Italy. Coppola depicts luxury next to, sometimes even as, anomie — the plenitude and glitz of things but always on the verge of the void.
The film, and Johnny, sparks to life when his daughter Cleo (Ellie Fanning) arrives. I can’t think of a better representation of a father-daughter relationship ever depicted on film: sweet, complex, reciprocal, full of feeling but always constrained by external forces partly of their making and partly outside their control. Johnny and Cleo communicate simply, through looks, clearly love each other, each want to spend more time with the other. I love how at the end of the beautiful scene extracted above she tells him about the book she’s reading. clearly referring to Twilight, and how he listens; the film and he both making room for and basking in the girlyness.
She makes him eggs benedict; he loves her eggs benedict. She seems to know all his faults, questions him glancingly on them, sometimes implying ‘really?’ as she sees the next girl he’s bringing over for breakfast. But though she seems to question his actions, she accepts him for who he is and never judges him as a person. He’s clearly crazy about her. She’s what really brings joy to his life and makes it meaningful. When they part, the anomie and the desert kind of re-engulfs him without quite extinguishing him. He gets back on an expensive car and back into an emotional desert. She goes to her mother; he returns to the walking dead. It’s a beautiful and rare relationship on film and it’s a beautiful and rare film.
In a thoughtful piece on Somewhere and how it currently circulates called Searching for Somewhere ‘ (Film Quarterly, vol 64, No. 4), J. M. Tyree writes, ‘Somewhere is a remarkably divisive film that provokes genuine arguments amongst friends — plus it’s actively despised by some reviewers, denizens of the Twitterverse, and members of various online user communities…Searching through Twitter for references to Somewhere reveals a buzzing cloud of haters (not all of them clearly male)’. But I bet most are; and in any case screw ’em: they’re missing out on something rare and beautiful.
The Robocop remake is a mixed bag. I think Joel Kinnaman is a brand new star. In the original, Paul Weller seemed a little robotic and inhuman even before he became a cyborg. Here, Kinneman runs the whole gamut from romantic longing to mechanical catatonia but lets the audience into every aspect of it. The rest of the cast is a treat too. I’ve not seen Michael Keaton better since Beetlejuice. He’s lithe, charismatic and oozes the kind of menacing and sleazy charm that can bribe politicians with one hand and pick your pocket with the other. He’s like a Mafia Don of robocops but one who’ll bring out the jazz hands if needed to seal the sale. His scenes with Gary Oldman — as a scientist emollient to the point of weakness and ambitious past the point of ethics — have a real snap.
Samuel L. Jackson, hair high, almost but not quite straightened and set with enough hairspray to stop any onslaught is a delight as a manipulative Fox-style news presenter: reasonable in a speaking-from-the-pulpit kind of way when setting out a case, impatient when he’s not, and bombastic when speaking directly to the audience. It was lovely to see Jennifer Ehle as well wearing clothes as dark as her morals and with elegant features arranged into a poker face until called to action. I also liked Abbie Cornish as Murphy’s wife though the spectre of Nancy Allen – curvy, saucy, crisp and acid – like biting into a tart apple — is bound to haunt anything ever connected with her.
The film is set in 2028; in a Detroit that seems prosperously reconstructed but still crime-ridden and corrupt; thus is license afforded to critique present-day America. But Robocop doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know: corporations rule above governments unimpeded by checks and balances; we live in a surveillance culture that surveys and manipulates the weak and powerless; the media is brutally manipulative and mendacious; life is cheap. The original told us all of that and with a lot more wit, in a setting that seemed more spectacular, and with dialogue that was spare but with enough cutting lines to pack a punch: they relied on irony, conveyed satire, and earned belly-laughs from the audience – who can forget ‘you’re fired!’?
This Robocop doesn’t really overcome the failings that plague cinema in the digital age: the image still seems too thin to me, Padilha hasn’t learned how to make action exciting, lots of people get killed but there’s nothing at stake in their death – or indeed in Alex Murphy/Robocop avoiding his own — and the narrative still hasn’t figured out how to make use of all of story-telling possibilities new technology both diegetically and extra-diegetically make possible. I think what’s really missing is thought on how the new possibilities of dealing with time and the new challenges posed by changing standards of what is believable can result in different ways of communicating meanings and conveying pleasures.
If one could stop thinking about the original however, the film is very enjoyable and worth seeing for the actors alone.
Joel McCrea is John Lloyd Sullivan, the very successful director of Hey, Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Pants of 1939 who has decided that he cannot continue making frivolous, light films in a world where Europe’s at war and where there’s so much unemployment and misery in America, not when he’s got the greatest educational tool ever invented by man at his disposal: movies!
He convinces his studio bosses to let him make ‘O Brother, Where Art Though?’, a film about the plight of the common people; realistic, pedagogical, depressing. ‘I want this picture to be a document! I want to hold a mirror up to life! I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!’ Nothing could terrify the movie moguls more, but Sullivan is so successful that they have no choice but to agree to let him make it, though he in turn concedes to put ‘a little sex in it’.
When the studio bosses point out that the reason he makes such light, optimistic and successful films is that he’s had a privileged life –what does he know about misery? — Sullivan decides to dress as a tramp, go on the road, and find out. At first everything conspires to bring him back to Hollywood, but then, just as he feels he’s done enough research and he’s out handing out dollar bills to those less fortunate than he who helped him on his quest, events conspire to send him to jail, put him in a prison chain-gang and teach him what real misery is really like. As he learns that, he also learns the value of the light, the frivolous – what joy, laughter and entertainment can bring to a world full of misery — i.e. he learns the value of his own work.
In many ways Sullivan’s Travels is a self-serving and self-affirming film, with Sturges and Hollywood patting themselves on the back for doing exactly what they’ve always done. But it’s also a marvelously entertaining film that shoots the audience with such a quick, smart, and witty spray of jokes that you might miss out if you’re not quick on the uptake. It’s great to see a film that assumes each individual member of the audience is the smartest and brightest person in any room.
Sullivan’s Travels successfully satirises Hollywood and the audience’s own trivial sentimentalising of the poor whilst offering quite a critique of: Hollywood’s pretensions; the issue of class in America; the inadequate system of poor relief, with prayer often being the price – non-negotiable – of a floor to sleep in and a bite to eat; and the brutality of prison chain-gangs. It might even have tried to critique race, certainly the NAACP commended it in 1942; though what the film does on this score now sits a bit uncomfortably.
David Thomson has written that ‘Sullivan’s Travels falls flat when it tries to move from comedy to pathos.’I’m not sure I agree with him. Firstly, I don’t think the film sets out for pathos. It tries to reveal poverty and injustice, to make the audience aware of it, but not to induce pathos, or at least not until Sullivan himself is imprisoned and seems to have no way out. Until then, we see the misery from the outside; from Sullivan’s eyes, but the eyes of an outsider whose experiences are purely optional; and the jokes, the winks, the acknowledgment that even your brothers in the soup-kitchen can steal the very shoes from your feet unless you have eyes in the back of your head and can see whilst sleeping, all take priority over the arousal of emotion.
Pathos has no bigger enemy than laughter. But it’s Sturges choice not his lack. Personally, I rejoice in that choice. When McCrea, feverish and trembly from illness, reiterates his convictions as if a spirit of daffy do-gooding giddiness has taken hold of him in Church — ‘nothing is going to stop me. I’m going to find out how it feels to be in trouble. Without friends, without credit, without checkbook, without name. Alone’ — he’s irresistible; as close to reaching the endearingly irrational heights of the great screwball dames (Colbert, Hepburn, Lombard) as any male actor except for Cary Grant.
Andrew Sarris indirectly touches on this and attributes it not only to McCrea but also to Sturges. In fact he sees it as a characteristic of Sturges’ work: ‘It is as if his characters were capable of being lit from within by the cartoonist’s device of the instantly ignited light-bulb in the hero’s skull. Joel McCrea’s movie director in Sullivan’s Travels experiences and expresses such a flash of practical creativity at the stirring moment in the film when he proclaims himself to be his own murderer’. Although I don’t quite agree with Thomson that the film falls flat when it moves from comedy to pathos, the film’s various changes in tone and register, seem to catch the audience by surprise.
There are those who delight in the surprise. Steven J. Schneider in his appreciation of the film in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die has written that the script is a tour de force and ‘brings together a remarkable range of genres, including slapstick, action, melodrama, social documentary, romance, musical and prison movie.’ But there are also others who have found in these shifts, a loose and shambly shapelessness. Manny Farber called Sullivan’s Travels ‘immature in its philosophy, formless and without a single discernible characterization; but it had an astonishing display of film technique.’
We can agree on the philosophy and on the astonishing technique; but as to the rest, I’ve already mentioned McCrea and his performance as Sullivan and I find the film formally clever too, beginning at the end of an ‘entertainment’ with a fight scene on a train that’s still thrilling, and later, near the end, signaling clearly to the audience that the film is at a turning point and that it needs to unravel the tangle of plot its gotten itself into before the closing credits. The montage with which it does so is a marvel of narrative economy that can still thrill those who are interested in visual story-telling.
Veronica Lake is ‘The Girl’. She’s given no name. And this might have been part of why Farber accuses the film of ‘lacking characterization’. However, ‘The Girl’ is a function rather than a character and thus needs no name and no characterization, though Veronica Lake is a very memorable look and presence in it. Moreover, she matches up with McCrea beautifully, the disparity in their height alone creating an element of comedy that doesn’t intrude on the romance needed to put ‘a little sex in it’. It’s also joy to see all the Sturges stalwarts: William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Eric Blore and other wonderful comic actors who would have been just as famous to audiences of the period as the stars.
There are scenes that still linger in the mind: the opening sequence, the sex-starved sister locking McCrea in his room, the first real experience of a Hooverville, the black parishioners singing ‘Let My People Go’, the pettiness of the bureaucrat in the train station, the injustice of the court, the brutality of the chief of the chaing-gang.
Sturges achieves what the film says on one level isn’t possible; a film that both documents and critique its time — brimming with social relevance — that teaches us a lesson on the social conditions of the Depression, the filmmaking practices of the Hollywood of the period and on how brilliant and bright American comedy once was – directed by one of its greatest practitioners — but with some feeling, thrills, chills, lots of laughs ‘and a little sex in it’.
*** Film buffs might be interested in knowing that, according to Pauline Kael, ‘Sturges himself can be glimpsed behind Veronica Lake on a set inside the movie studio’.