A note on Michael Curtiz’ direction of ‘Irving Berlin’s This is the Army’ (1943)

 

According to Thomas Schatz in Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s, ‘While musicals made up a fairly limited proportion of Hollywood’s overall output, they generated a sizeable share of its income. Twenty-five of the Seventy wartime releases earning $3 million or more at the box office were musicals, including three of the top ten (This Is The Army, Meet Me in St. Louis and Yankee Doodle Dandy)’(p.225).
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Of these Michael Curtiz directed the first and the third. Indeed Curtiz directed many musicals,  several with Doris Day, including her first, Romance on the High Seas (1948), huge hits such as White Christmas (1954, and arguably Elvis Presley’s best film, King Creole (1958).  But he is not considered one of the great directors of the genre and seeing Irving Berlin’s This is the Army one easily understands why.
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Irving Berlin’s This is the Army (1943) was the highest-grossing musical of WWII. It was part of a cycle of all-star musicals — Thank Your Lucky Stars (David Butler, 1943); Hollywood Canteen (Delmer Daves, 1944) are other examples from Warner Brothers — designed to raise morale and aid the war effort. Seen today, its popularity is understandable: It’s propaganda everyone at the time must have supported and with a cause — propping-up the war effort –most everyone would have wanted to contribute to. But it’s a dreary musical. Even the hit numbers, such as Kate Smith singing ‘God Bless America,’ seem drab and insipid, particularly if one isn’t an American. The flag-waving fervour of others rarely comes across as anything but scary or dull and distancing. This falls into the latter category.

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My favourite number is Irving Berlin himself singing ‘Oh how I hate to get up in the morning’ with that weak but engaging voice of his. It’s supposed to be all-star but none of the stars are known to us today except Ronald Reagan and perhaps George Murphy. Certainly all the stage stars imitated in one of the drag number — Jane Cowl, Lynn Fontanne — will be remembered only by Broadway enthusiasts. There are in fact many numbers in drag which are meant to be funny but now come across as the equivalent of blackface, a combination of desire for and condescension to that which they are imitating. Straight drag — unlike most gay drag –seems to poke fun and laugh at femininity. The film does have a pleasing inclusiveness of ethnicity and race; the former one of the most recurrent and attractive traits of American cinema; the latter relatively rare, indeed almost a structuring absence,  a stain and limit to the much-vaunted claims of democracy in America.  I found it all a bore, underlining how emotionally crude Curtiz could be — note how mothers pack off their sons to war — but also once again demonstrating his eye for visuals and his skill with a camera.

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As you can see in the clip above in the short clip, which is just an announcement that the President and high officials are arriving to see the show. There are 19 shots, each with a different and striking composition, shot from a variety of angles but with a certain rhyming quality: if a the characters in a shot look to the right for example, in the next cut they will look to the left (the four images above after the clip are from consecutive shots). There are high angles looking down and low angles looking up. There are crowd shots and there’s individual inserts with bits of dialogue from the audience. The shots are put together rhythmically, in line with the music, but also with cuts on action. It all culminates with the camera dollying in to the character announcing the President’s in the audience. The technique on display is dazzling; the use it’s put to is not. This seems a recurring curse for Curtiz.

 

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 104 – Bad Times at the El Royale

 

We pick at flaw after flaw in a film we sincerely enjoyed! Drew Goddard’s post-noir, post-Tarantino, post-Hitchcock thriller is an oddball, a delightfully playful collection of stories about secrets and regrets and temptations and damage. A fabulous ensemble cast is split up and paired off in all sorts of ways, histories are exposed, deception is currency, violence is brutal and shocking. And it all happens on one rainy night in a broken old motel in 1969.

We have few issues with Goddard’s screenplay, which, but for the exception of one or two characters who we reckon could have been given a little more flesh, is creative, clever, witty, and energetic. But as a director, we find him lacking – as José phrases it, he has no instinct for cinema. It’s a significant problem in a film that’s building upon and pastiching entire genres and movements of cinema.

We go back and forth on some of the performances, though they’re primarily good, and Jeff Bridges and Lewis Pullman in particular are just perfect. Mike appreciates that the film understands when to pull the rug out from under you and when not to. We agree that it’s destined to become a cult success, the type of film you want to know if your friends have seen. And we like trifle.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

King Creole (Michael Curtiz,USA, 1958)

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I grew up in Montreal, where Elvis was King en français. The local commercial French station, TVA Canal Dix,  showed Elvis films regularly: the dialogue was in French but Elvis rocked in English. I must have seen all of them and had firm favourites: Viva Las Vegas (George Sidney, 1964) with Ann-Margaret,  Blue Hawaii (Norman Taurog, 1961), and this one, King Creole. I now see that it’s perhaps significant that these were all directed by old-timers of the studio system who knew their craft.

Some fans prefer Jailhouse Rock (Richard Thorpe, 1957), and certainly its famous and eponymous number is a delight. But King Creole is arguably Elvis’ best film. And it’s part of the tragedy of his film career that even his best film is but a derivative and pulpy melodrama. Themes of teenage rebellion, the relationships of fathers and sons, and children looking on pityingly at what they see as the emasculation of their fathers by society and societal institutions, are all themes that are better dealt with, in this very same period, by Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

As a teenager, I’d read and enjoyed the Harold Robbins novel  the film is based on, A Stone for Danny Fisher. And Curtiz’ film follows the plot quite closely, if exchanging Brooklyn for New Orleans, the boxing world for that of the nightclub scene on Bourbon Street and the 1930 Depression setting for the film’s present.

Presley’s Danny Fisher, a talented singer, is busing tables at a nightclub whilst trying to graduate from high school. The money he brings in is needed to keep the family afloat.  His father’s given up. He’s been a prominent pharmacist but lost it all when his wife’s death led to a spiral of depression and drink. They lost their house and now live in a slum tenement next to a brothel. Fisher keeps failing High School’s  cause he’s just got too much to do. In the meantime the streets offer lots of opportunity for easy money. Danny’s father is willing to lower himself so that his son can get a diploma but Danny can’t bear to see his father so bullied and humiliated. Also, he can make easy money singing. The tangles of family, show-business and the underworld lead to tragedy. King Creole is a mix of teen film, musical, and noir. There are few musical performers more exiting to watch in this period than Elvis. And almost no one in the Hollywood of this time is better at using the camera than Michael Curtiz. Elvis performing and how Michael Cutiz films him performing are what propel this otherwise pulpy melodrama into something great.

 

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King Creole is one of the few Presley films, the only one I remember, where he’s presented as a real film star. He gets a great star  entrance with the ‘Crawfish’ number, a duet with rhythm and blues singer Kitty White, written by songwriters Ben Weisman and Fred Wise as a street vendor’s cry, that starts off in the pre-credit sequence, continues on Kitty White post-credits, then cranes up and dissolves to introduce us to Elvis, who is framed behind lace curtains, in turn framed by the window, in turn framed by the shutters, in turn framed by balcony railings.

Elvis opens up the curtains, and comes out, to us, like a fancy chocolate in a box within a box within a box  and next to flowers.  As the song continues, Elvis is intercut with Kitty passing by on her cart, finally we get a reverse shot that shows us the other side of the street, with the ‘hostesses’ on the balcony on the nightclub next door soliciting Elvis. In the shot when he responds, ‘No you don’t, ya gotta pay me’, his sister appears on the right hand side to offer him breakfast. Curtiz masterfully presents what people have paid to see — Elvis — makes us wait for what he’s got to offer, frames him, teases us, and reveals his talent, desirability, family relations and a context in which the drama can unfold all in one scene. It’s a brilliant mise-en-scene of stardom. Something Curtiz is so expert at and that so few other directors ever offered to Elvis.

What Elvis was famous for in 1958 was conveying sex to teenagers. The Los Angeles Mirror-News entertainment editor wrote that  ‘what Elvis offers is not basically music but a sex show’ (cited on p. 438 in Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis (438).  Guralnick writes that Leber and Stoller’s ‘Trouble’, a Muddy Waters-styled blues was intended somewhat tongue in cheek but was delivered by Elvis with untempered ferocity. ‘It sounded sort of comical to us, but strangely enough to the mass market it wasn’t. It was somewhat generational and somewhat cultural, but they bought it’. (p.449).

In the film, Curtiz stages that sexy ferocity as a challenge to the gangster played by Walter Matthau, as something to entice the gangster’s moll played by Carolyn Jones, and as a source of conflict between the two nightclub owners. That talent, sex and ferocity are once more put in the scene in the context of different narrative threads where his very power and desirability originate the source of the tragedy to come. It’s a lesson in how to mobilise a star persona in narrative and how to narrativise stardom.

Julie Lobalzo-Wright in Crossover Stardom’ writes that there can be no doubt that Presley represented the rebellious image of the 1950s, both within America and worldwide, and his cultural impact cannot be overstated. (p.59)…Presley’s early live performances on The Milton Berle SowThe Steve Allen Sow, and The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956) created a stir displaying Presley’s overt sexuality that consistently presented his sexualized body as an object of desire. Thomas. C. Carlos has described his early television performances as ‘so sexy, not white sexy, not coy sexy, but so humping swaggering black r&b sexy” that they led to a national uproar’.

I’d also like to comment on the quieter ‘Young Dreams’ number (see above). This is such a joyful performance, the dip in his shoulder, the shake of his head during ‘kiss you morning, noon and night’ then again dipping his shoulders and opening his mouth in the pause as if to say, “‘wow’ isn’t this naughty and marvellous’. Presley conveys the saucy and the tender filtered through a joyful amazement, sex combined with feeling in gleeful wonderment. No wonder his girlfriend in the audience is on the verge of tears with longing. Seeing him, we understand her, and understand why Elvis was so appealing to both men and women for so long. It’s a quiet number in the film, but powerful. And made more so by Presley being at the centre of a pool of light amidst the shadows and darkness of the nightclub, a light also highlighted by wearing a shirt that photographs white. Thus in a longer shot he’s the focus bathed in light, and then of course, there are the close-ups, when it’s his singing, his sensuality, and the effect that these things are  having on his girlfriend that Curtiz draws our attention to.

As we can see in King Creole Crutiz constructs  a mise-en-scene of and around Presley’s stardom, both as a musical performer, a sensation really, and as a movie star. I’ve commented on some of the numbers above. But let me just draw your eye to other aspects:

See, for example, how in the scene where he takes his girlfriend to see his old home, the focus is on him even when she’s doing all the talking; and note how he’s lit (see below):

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See also how Curtiz present Presley to us in and through through light. Lighting is accentuating his features, his feelings, his very presence. He’s often shown coming in and out of the light. See some of the pictures below but further down you can also see how he’s lit as a kind of noir hero/film star in the scene were he watches his father get attacked.

 

Ultimately, the story is hackneyed but professionally told. Curtiz knows how to make his stars shine and how to use what they represent to create context, plot and convey feeling. Elvis’ stardom is part of the mise-en-scene of King Creole. It’s the same kind of care others took to present Judy Garland, Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire; it’s the same kind of care Curtiz used in his musicals with James Cagney and Doris Day; it’s the kind of care Elvis rarely got from any of his other directors.

José Arroyo

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 103 – First Man

An interesting failure. We struggle a little bit to get a read on First Man, Damien Chazelle’s biopic of Neil Armstrong. Not content to adopt a mainstream tone, not willing to go full art movie, it gets lost in the middle somehow. Mike sees Armstrong as incongruously passive in his own story, his – and, for that matter, everyone else’s – drive for the Moon landing, not believable, ultimately making the landing scene feel cheated, the film trying to convince you of the incredible achievement of the mission only at the last minute.

José finds aspects of the film intriguing, particularly the portrayal of marriage, but finds the sub-pot with the daughter imbalances the film. Mike finds the film misunderstands Ryan Gosling’s style – his minimalism requires rich surroundings off which to reflect, and with so little here, Armstrong comes across blank. José disagrees with this but both of us appreciate the physicality of the space sequences, shot almost entirely with close ups on interiors, though the extension of the shaky cam to the rest of the film is irritating.

A confusing film that we find misguided, and a glance at its opening weekend box office doesn’t bode well. Claire Foy is very good though.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Butching up Fred

 

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There’s a lovely moment in Swing Time (George Stevens, USA, 1936) when Fred and Ginger finally kiss. She’s been after him for most of the movie by then. Bewildered by what she sees as a lack of response, she begins singing her reproach: ‘A fine romance, with no *kisses*’:

A fine romance, my friend this is
We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes
But you’re as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes
A fine romance, you won’t nestle
A fine romance, you won’t wrestle
I might as well play bridge
With my old maid aunt
I haven’t got a chance
This is a fine romance

When they finally do begin to kiss, a door closes so that we don’t see the kiss itself. We just know they have because when the door opens Fred’s face is smeared with lipstick, which I’m often tempted to colour in, badly, as above.

What compels me is not that I think that elegant symbol of love, romance and Hollywood cinema is gay or even ‘feminine’. Indeed the image above is a cut-out of the image below. I’ve removed and then restored Ginger from where she rightly belongs, figuring that dream of love and romance *with* Fred.

 

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The films, however,  in trying so hard to reassure the audience that Fred Astaire is *not* effeminate create so many spaces where other men can be: Fairies delightedly prance through the Astaire and Rogers series inciting dreams of being just as Fred and Ginger themselves incite dreams of love and romance.

Fred is usually surrounded by Eric Blore, or Edward Everett Horton or Franklin Pangborn or Erik Rhodes — all the lovely pansies of Thirties Hollywood — and often a combination of two or more in the same film — to shore up his masculinity. Sometimes as with Erik Rhodes, those characters are doubly othered by being shown as ‘effeminate’ AND foreign. It’ true that they’re there to be funny, to in some sense, be laughed at for their otherness. But they’re there. And they may be the butt of the joke but they’re also loveable and often elegant, witty, well-dressed and just as as at home in the Art Deco splendor of the world of the films as Fred and Ginger.

Thus, so often, butching up Fred results in gaying up the film and leads to moments like the lovely one below with Victor Moore (and let’s draw the veil over the blackface).

 

 

I wonder what those moments meant to a gay male audience, to a black audience, and to a black and gay audience in the 1930s?

 

Jose Arroyo

Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs

 

 

 

Since you are reading this, I assume you’re interested in movies; and if you’re interested in movies, you’ll be interested in the wonderful ‘Night & Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs’ exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, which runs until the 20th of January 2019.

The title of the exhibition, ‘Night and Day’ is taken from Cole Porter’s superb song which Fred Astaire introduced onstage in 1932’s The Gay Divorce and on film in 1934’s The Gay Divorcee. It is also the title of the famously terrible biopic of Cole Porter directed by Michael Curtiz for Warner Brothers (1946), in which Cary Grant plays Cole Porter. But it is Fred Astaire who the song is associated with.

‘Night and Day’ was written for Astaire. His recording was an enormous success which topped the charts for ten weeks in the early thirties; and indeed the spirit of Fred Astaire haunts this exhibit. Firstly because of the evening dress he so casually wore, the glamorous and glistening Art Deco which was the background to his dancing the final number in so many of his films with Ginger Rogers at RKO, and the beginnings of a sporty elegance he is associated with. Well-cut clothes that enhance and adorn the figure but also allow one to move in them well enough to burst into dance. Fred who from the twenties was a superstar of both Broadway and the West-End, embodied the mid-atlantic best of both worlds: He was always associated with ‘ Top Hat, White Tie & Tails’ but wasn’t limited to that look. His clothes and how he wore them is analogous to the sentiment behind Coco Chanel’s great contribution to fashion. She made the combination of casual and elegant possible for women in the way that it was for men like Astaire: American men who were as free in their movements as in their outlook but were dressed by Saville Row.

 

 

The Spirit of Fred Astaire

The movies in general and Fred Astaire in particular are everywhere evident in this exhibition. The sections are named after popular songs of the Thirties, which are either the names of movies or taken from movies of the period and which in turn evoke the period of The Great Depression (1929-1939): ‘Brother….can You Spare a Dime?’ (also written for the stage and made into a hit by Bing Crosby; ‘Whistle While You Work’ (taken from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, 1937); ‘I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams’ (Bing Crosby again from Sing You Sinners, 1938); ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’ (Astaire again, this time from Follow the Fleet, 1936: you can see the marvellous excerpt below); ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, eternally associated with Judy Garland and from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz;’Life is just a Bowl of Cherries’ ; ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’; ‘The Way You Wear Your Hat,’ which is a lyric from ‘They Can’t Take That Way From Me’ Astaire again, this time from Shall We Dance (1936). 

 

 

More Movies:

Along with the glorious clothes, the exhibit also features movies stars, and shows them to us in the very collectible cigarette cards so evocative of a way of life and a structure of feeling in the Thirties. We also see how Madeline Carroll and Ronald Colman are featured in the Miss Modern magazine below, demonstrating how interlinked movies were with other mass media and how fashion was a thread which knit them together. Movie stars wore the clothes ordinary people dreamed of wearing and and manufacturers made sure they could, as for example with Joan Crawford’s famous Letty Lynton dress. The movie popularised the dress, the magazines popularised the dress and movie, the availability of the dress sanctified the star and increased the fandom for both magazines and movies.

 

 

Cecil Beaton: Thirty from the 30s: Fashion, Film and Fantasy

The exhibit also features a mini-exhibition within it with Cecil Beaton’s photographs of the famous: royalty, writers, society people but more than anything film stars (see below)

 

 

This being a British exhibition, royalty of course features:

 

 

But Hollywood’s influence dominates:

 

 

Sonja Henie, to left; Ruby Keller, top right; Tallulah Bankead bottom: From Cecil Beaton’s Scrapbooks

The exhibition is very good at contextualising the developments in fashion. The guide, for example, tell us: ‘Women’s fashions, which had reached giddy heights of youthful freedom (and brevity) during the Roaring Twenties, reflected the more mature and sober decade that followed. By the end of the 1920s the styles had already begun to change as the flapper grew up. Waits returned to a normal, rather than dropped, position. Skirts, which had begun to dip in the back by 1927-1928, fully descended to the knees and mid-calf for suiting, and the ankle for the afternoon and evening dresses. Structure infiltrated the relaxed shapes of 1920’s dressing: ‘hard chic’ became a watchword as couture houses such as Schiaparelli introduced a stylised and emphatic shoulder line.

As a decade the 1930’s presented the extremes: from the depths of poverty for many to a sparkling party-filled escape for the wealthy and international set’.

The exhibition’s great care with contextualisation really does pay off, though it also gives rise to moments of amusement, such as in the timeline below where Hitler’s rise is juxtaposed on the timeline right in between the drop of a hemline and the rise of the neckline.

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The the main reason to see this exhibition is the clothes. No photos do them justice. You really need to see them in three-dimensions to see how they hang, to get a real sense of what the fabric is like, to walk around them and get the whole picture. I really recommend the exhibition. But for those of you who can’t go, here are some examples of what you are missing:

 

 

 

 

 

José Arroyo

 

José Arroyo in Conversation with Josh Schulze on ‘Alternate Takes’

Joshua Schulze is the new editor of Alternate Takes. James MacDowell one of the original founders of the digital site devoted to film and television criticism tells me that,

‘The aim of Alternate Takes is to provide analysis of cinema that is informed by academic debates, but also walks a line between the journalistic review and the critical essay. It publishes long-form essays that embody this ethos, but the most obvious way the site has achieved this compromise position between reviewing and scholarly criticism is by writing about new films twice. First there is a short, evaluative piece that ‘spoils’ as little as possible about a film, but still grants a sense of the sorts of experience it offers; the idea is that this is a review to read before you see a film. Then, after you’ve watched it, you can read our Alternate Take – a longer, more in-depth critical piece, which usually digs more deeply into a particular critical issue that the movie raises. While over the years this dual-review format has become less rigidly enforced, the overall approach it fostered has remained the same, and the site has continued to publish film criticism that is in-depth, critical, mindful of social and artistic contexts, but also accessible and enjoyable.’

 

The impetus for this conversation with Josh Schulze was merely to find out if there was a new direction he, along with co-editors Matt Denny, Patrick Pilkington and Leanne Weston, wanted for the now celebrated digital platform and what that might be.

In the podcast Josh and I discuss Pauline Kael, cinephilia, the pressures of writing quickly and its effects on film reviewing, the nuances of film criticism and how Alternate Takes is devoted at looking at films and television in depth. We also discuss our admiration for the video essays of Adrian Martin, Catherine Grant and Kogonada, and how contributing to Alternate Takes is a great way for early career people and students to explore their ideas and take new approaches to film.

You can find the website here: www.alternatetakes.co.uk/

James MacDowell’s thought provoking piece on the raison d’être and purpose of the platform can be found here: www.alternatetakes.co.uk/?2011,3,240

José Arroyo

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MUBI and Cinephilia

 

cinemaThere are broadly two large cinephiliac discourses on cinema currently, each with a multitude of sub-divisions: a global, festival-based one, with internationally shared points of reference, largely inaccessible in the UK outside London. And the other, a more populist but also more insular one, also with many sub-divisions, which surrounds Hollywood, commercial British cinema, and the odd Indie or foreign film that gets nationwide distribution in the UK. In this very interesting podcast the discussion focusses on how MUBI might help bridge that divide.

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/cinema-mondial-podcast/id1437047056?mt=2

 

José Arroyo

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 102 – A Star Is Born

 

 

Hyped up, already very successful, and widely well-received, A Star Is Born earns strong reactions from us. To Mike it’s at points truly reprehensible, to José simply a confused failure. Mike has never seen any of the previous versions – he tried and couldn’t make it – while José finds writer/director/star Bradley Cooper’s new remake unworthy to share their company. The novelty of seeing Lady Gaga unmasked soon wears off, her performance opaque and lacking in presence. We agree that Cooper is very good and truly a star, though with the opprobrium he receives from one half of us, he must have done something to Mike in a previous life.

We discuss and debate what we make of the film’s characters – Mike finds them deeply unlikeable, toxically compatible, which isn’t in itself a bad thing but for the fact that the film wants to render it romantic. (Cooper has a real problem with consent and personal space.) José finds their love difficult to believe in, particularly Gaga’s for Cooper. Quite why she’s so hot for him is barely even told, let alone shown.

Cooper’s take on the music industry is out of date and simplistic, which is more than disappointing considering he was working with one of the biggest pop stars of the last decade. We each have our reasons for finding the suicide scene nonsensical. And Mike describes his problem with the film’s ending.

A lot to talk about, most of it negative. See you again in between twenty and forty years for the next version.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

An excellent piece by Richard Dyer on the films can be accessed here: 

 

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 101 – The Little Stranger

You find us in contemplative mood, picking apart a film described by José as “genuinely puzzling” and Mike as “The House with a Doc in Its Walls”. The Little Stranger builds light gothic horror around class and ambition in 1940s Warwickshire, a stately home providing the setting of the action and focus of Domhnall Gleeson’s town doctor.

With some difficulty, we attempt to grasp the film’s themes and intentions, never quite feeling we get the full measure of it. It doesn’t help that it basks, to some extent, in ambiguity, and also that half the lines are mumbled so as to be rendered truly unintelligible. There are things we like, particularly its sure sense of era and class, and its rich production design, but we can’t overall say we recommend it.

What we can recommend, though, is a visit to Evesham’s Regal Cinema, where we saw the film. A multipurpose venue that hosts live shows as well as regular cinema screenings, it oozes charm and style. A leisurely Sunday drive amongst sunny A roads took us there, and what a lovely day was had by all. Even if the film was a bit disappointing.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 100th Anniversary Extra – Eavesdropping on Ourselves

With 99 podcasts under our belt at time of recording, we take the opportunity to look back and reflect. At Eavesdropping at the Movies we try to speak honestly about what we see and don’t attach too much of a formula to our discussions. Our philosophy – yes, philosophy! – is to try to see films as unmolested by hype and expectation as we can, and to consider questions of aesthetics and individual experience as well as the likes of plot and performance.

So what do feel we’ve done well, what have we done badly or too little of? And are there films that, with hindsight – given that the podcast records our first impressions, by and large – we’d reevaluate now?

A slightly self-indulgent but hopefully frank look at a podcast we’re ultimately very proud of but has room to improve. Happy 100th anniversary!

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies — 100 – Venom

Venom utterly charms the pants off us, its bizarre knockabout body horror surprising us with a great sense of humour and unexpected variations on the idea not so much Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as of masculinity at war with itself, inside and out.. From the trailer, Mike was worried about the broadness of Tom Hardy’s accent – actually, it’s tonally perfect as broadness is exactly what the film is going for in every respect, in the very best way.

Hardy is superb, giving his all to a role that demands physical dexterity and comic ability; the CGI bowls José over; the sense of Hardy’s body being shared by another physical entity, rather than being merged with it, is tactile and interesting. Mike’s also been watching the Sam Raimi Spider-Mantrilogy recently, in which Venom appears, and holds court on a trend in the villains he sees Venomas adhering to. And the dog is so funny.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film

The Charge of the Light Brigade (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1936)

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British Imperial jingoism from Hollywood directed by Michael Curtiz, a Hungarian. If you can ignore the Orientalism, Imperialism, and the rather offensive notion that Britons ruling the world is the natural order of things, it’s a rousing, visually exciting film, with fantastic action sequences.

Constantine Verevis writes that, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade is best known for its final sequence, the charge often cited as one of the most spectacular action sequences of the Hollywood studio period’ (p. 270). The compositions are dynamic and demonstrate how well Curtiz can handle crowds in action; the cutting moves from the Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem offering exposition, to the charge, to Flynn’s friends falling one by one, to Flynn rousing everyone to keep charging ahead. Flynn even picks up a British flag at one point and waves it proudly, and he finds the evil and traitorous Surat Kahn (C. Henry Gordon, in blackface) and manages to kill him at the end, getting personal revenge as well as facilitating British forces being redirected to fight and win The Battle of Sebastopol.

The Charge of the Light Brigade is notable for Olivia de Havilland turning down the Errol Flynn character, but perhaps only because, as the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem which the film is based on and actively cites in the extraordinary battle scene that brings us to the end of the film,  he is fated to die at the end.

In fact the film revolves around a triangle where Geoffrey Vickers (Flynn) is engaged to Elsa Campbell (de Havilland) who has, since the engagement with one brother,  fallen in love with the other, Perry Vickers (Patrick Knowles). This romantic triangle is alternated with scenes of the rigidity and nobility of the British army, which here go hand in hand and are in many ways personified by Elsa’s father (Donald Crisp) who asks her to remember her promise to Geoffrey and complicates rather than resolves the affairs of her daughter and those of the army. In the end, Geoffrey’s sacrifice is the permission Elsa and Perry need to marry.

David Niven has a lovely bit in an early role that helped push him on his way to stardom (see below). Curtiz stages it beautifully with rhyming scenes of the moon and the sun coming up, of Errol Flynn looking outside windows for the enemy, of dramatic lighting that helps arrange space within the composition and helps set a mood. The conversation between Flynn and Niven is a good example of the easy male camaraderie that is so characteristic of Flynn’s films; touching, emotional but jokey with it, yet the humour enhancing rather than undermining the feeling behind it all. According to Alex K. Rode , ‘David Niven appropriated a Curtiz utterance from the set of The Charge of the Light Brigade — ‘Bring on the empty horses’ — as the title of his best selling memoirs (pp.xv-xvi).

The film finally made me understand why Curtiz can’t be counted amongst the greatest. It’s not hard to make an audience cry. Show a child; show the child in danger; cut to a mother perhaps looking on; and then show something awful happening to the child: The audience is inevitably drawn to tears. Here, Curtiz not only does that in the Battle of Chukoti scenes (he would so again in Dodge City) but he does it over and over again within the film. He’s completely shameless when it comes to rousing emotion: mothers are killed in front of their children, children are massacred left and right. Even the bible and the flag is brought into play. As you can see in the flashback where all the horror of Chukoti is used as a rationale for Flynn to change the order of his superiors so that he may avenge it (whilst also permitting British forces to be better deployed). Curtiz is not above hitting you over the head to bring on some tears. It’s successful but crude.

 

Alex K. Rode writes that the ‘picture was designed as a follow-on vehicle for Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland and to emulate the success of Captain Blood and Paramount’s The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)’ p. 187. According Verevis, ‘Despite some controversy over its treatment of animals, The Charge of the Light Brigade became the studio’s most successful film of 1936, earning in excess of $1.5 million, confirming Flynn and de Havilland as stars, and further consolidating Curtiz’s position at Warner Bros’ (p.271).

Some of the compositions in the film are minimalist, modernist, striking to the eye, and particularly evocative in motion. I show some stills, which do not quite do them justice, below:

José Arroyo

Sources:’

Alex K. Rode, Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, University of Kentucky Press, 2017.

Constantine Verevis, ‘Devil May Care: Curtiz and Flynn in Hollywood’ in R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance eds. The Many Cinemas of Michael Curtiz, University of Texas Press, 2018, pp.265-277.

 

A note on Venom (Ruben Fleischer, USA, 2018)

Venom

Woke up thinking about Venom. It’s not been well-reviewed, and with reason. But we found it very entertaining. I particularly liked the look of it, the special effects, the use of San Francisco, the chase scenes. And Tom Hardy’s performance is so original and inventive. He starts as someone madly in love, content, socially engaged; then he does something unethical and is cast out. The rest of the film is him, suffering, shivering, longing, wanting, and then with a body that’s infected and out of his control, a body he’s at war with it and one that gets flayed, shocked, beaten, pierced. If this film had been made twenty years ago I would have taken it, lazily perhaps, as an AIDS metaphor; as is, it’s a most original representation of a masculinity at war with itself. Podcast will follow from Eavesdropping at the Movies.

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 99 – Climax

A group of dancers parties the night away, but someone has spiked the sangria with LSD. There are extraordinarily long takes, sex, drugs, violence, and horror. Yes, it’s a Gaspar Noé film.

Climax is a singular cinematic escape into a vision of Hell. Boy, there’s a lot going on. We grapple with the film’s themes of sex, violence, drugs, youth, dance, sexuality, nationality, culture, and whatever else we can remember of its insane 96 minutes. We discuss what we did and didn’t like about the dancing – the pros and cons of the way it’s shot – and what value there is in extraordinary cinematic violence in a world in which footage of horrific real-life violence is commonplace. We discuss the detail of Climax‘s cinematography and editing and the effects they have on our experiences, particularly shooting upside-down and inserting almost subconsciously brief flashes of black frames in otherwise normal cuts. We’re reminded of Do the Right ThingThe Exterminating Angel, and Salò, and indeed Climax wears its influences on its sleeve. José reads it allegorically, finding reference to Europe, cultural power, and race, though so far adding it all up remains beyond us.

It fired Mike up enough to have a go at a guy who’d had his phone on during the cinema, but it enveloped José so completely that he didn’t even notice the distraction. And Mike made a film like this once! As he puts it, “Not as good as this, probably, but a lot shorter.” You can see that here if you like:

In short, Climax is certainly worth your time. There’s so much going on and we’ll be seeing it again when the mac screens it in November.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

‘La vie en rose’: Some Thoughts on a Recurring Repertoire Amongst ‘Gay Divas’.

‘La vie en rose’, the classic written and made famous by Edith Piaf, is the opening musical number in Noches de Casablanca (Henri Decoin, Spain/France, 1964). Sara Montiel sings it in her leisurely suggestive way (see clip below), so easily imitable by drag queens across the Spanish speaking world, in a camp staging that’s a low-budget hodge-podge of the ‘Stairway to Paradise’ number in An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951) and every MGM musical that had any staircases, candelabras and semi-clad women, which is to say quite a few, many by Minnelli, and sometimes even surrealistically deployed by him like in The Band Wagon so that the semi-clad women *are* the candelabras.

The number led me to wonder if there is an international repertoire that ‘Gay Divas’ share. And I write this both as a statement and as a question. Do you know of any more? Off the top of my head, aside from Sara Montiel, La vie en rose is sung by Piaf, Marlene Dietrich, the superb version by Grace Jones. Eartha Kitt covered it. Donna Summer, who was one, was bumped off her throne by the time she  made her version, which is not particularly good, due to homophobia. Peggy Lee does a lovely duet with Aznavour. Madonna and Bette Midler have  performed it in concert. I’m not sure if Celine Dion qualifies as a gay diva but she sang it also..and well. Audrey Hepburn who is everybody’s icon, sang it in Sabrina (Billy Wilder, USA, 1954). It’s a staple of cabaret and theatre divas such as Ute Lemper. And in the forthcoming A Star is Born Bradley Cooper finds Lady Gaga singing ‘La vie en rose’ in a drag bar. See how a case builds?

 

‘La vie en rose’ was a big hit then and now. Marion Cotillard won the Oscar for playing Piaf in the film of her life called La vie en rose (Olivier Dahan, France, 2007). Ostensibly, according to wiki, there were seven versions of the song that made the 1950 Billboard charts. Now neither Bing Crosby, Tony Martin, Paul Weston, Louis Armstrong etc. are gay divas. So we can’t say everyone who sings this song is one. And likewise, we can’t say that if it’s not in their repertoires they’re not gay divas as lots of other gay divas have, as far as I know, not done a version: Garland, Minnelli, Cher, Diana Ross, Beyoncé, Britney. Niente!

Andy Medhurst told me that ‘Some landmark diva-songs seem welded very strongly to me to one particular diva (‘The Man That Got Away for Garland’, ‘People’ for Streisand etc etc) so much that other versions are overshadowed. Even though your ‘Vie En Rose’ list shows the opposite, for me it will always belong to Piaf.’ To this Kevin Stenson has also added Doris Day and ‘Secret Love’ also seem welded whilst noting that songs like ‘I’m Still Here’ and ‘Broadway Baby, both by Sondheim, are part of a shared repertoire amongst the ‘more mature divas’.’

All this I agree with, so we’re talking about intersections rather than absolutes. But isn’t it interesting that whilst each diva has songs that are entirely associated with them, and that are part of an appeal/address to a gay audience, so many also tend to add to their own unique repertoire by gravitating to particular songs that help constitute a shared one? Can you think of other covers of this song by gay divas.  Are there other songs that seem a particular magnet to gay divas and and whose performance might constitute part of their appeal and address to a gay male audience, in turn helping consolidate the place these performers occupy in gay male cultures?

Is there a  shared or intersecting repertoire? Do please let me know your thoughts.

Enquiring minds want to know.

 

You can look at some of the versions below:

 

Marlene Dietrich sang it in Hitchcock’s ‘Stage Fright’ (and I’ll post a clip from the film in due time):

Audrey Hepburn:

Eartha Kitt did a growly cover:

Grace Jones classic dance version was the closing song of the first gay bar I went to.

Donna Summer in Tribute to Edith Piaf album:

Chrstos Tsirbas directed me to this lovely version by Bette Midler:

Adrian Garvey directed me to this version by Madonna in concert:

 

Peggy Lee with Charles Aznavour:

Celine Dion. Is she really a gay diva. Qua importa? She sings it well.

Matthew Motyka has pointed out to me that ‘Iggy Pop’s also covered it, and his sexually subversive persona I would argue, makes him qualify for queer cult if not full fledged icon status’. In my view he’s got a greater claim than Celine. But what do I know.

K.D. Lang duets with Tony Bennett on it here:

It’s a staple for Cabaret and Theatre divas like Ute Lemper:

.and, Kevin Stenson tells me that  calling Gracie Fields a ‘Gay icon is pushing it but her records especially the comic ones were used by drag queens and played by DJ in gay pubs in lighter moments’.

Other versions include:

Martha Wainwright:

 

(Thanks, thus far, to Adrian Garvey, Andy Medhurst, Gary Needham, Kevin Stenson,  Christos Tsirbas , and Phil Ulyatt for their input)

José Arroyo