A prototypical screwball comedy, 1934’s Twentieth Century sees John Barrymore delightfully chewing the scenery as a pompous theatre impresario who discovers and makes a star of Carole Lombard’s lingerie model. Having separated after several successful years, the former power couple meet by chance on the luxury Twentieth Century train, and it all kicks off as schemes are put into action, conflict erupts, and some religious bloke keeps putting stickers that say “REPENT” on everything he sees.
Barrymore is sensational, sending theatrical types up and orating floridly and dramatically, while Lombard clashes with him spikily. We consider how well Twentieth Century fits into the screwball genre – the dialogue is snappy and witty, the situations farcical, the relationships barbed, although it’s less of an even two-hander than you might expect, the focus heavily on Barrymore. Mike argues that the chemistry between the couple doesn’t play as enjoyably as intended, and that the bits of business on the fringes, and the knowing weariness with which Barrymore’s two assistants handle their jobs, are where the real joy lies. And José effusively compares Barrymore’s ability to move between stage and screen to Laurence Olivier’s, another actor renowned as the greatest of his day, but who appeared fussy and busy on film.
While it’s no new discovery, Twentieth Century holding places in the National Film Registry and the history of film comedy, it’s a new one for us, and a corker.
I’d not seen Hawks’s Scarface for several decades and had forgotten the title cards that are placed between the opening credits and the beginning of the drama proper (and which you can see below). They rather shocked me. Has any government of the day and its citizenry ever been held to account for a social ill by a popular film as clearly and strongly as Scarface does? If so, I don’t remember it. And why don’t contemporary films do the same? Are media companies now run by Tony Camontes who have already made the world theirs?
The insolence with which Paul Muni as Tony Camonte lights his match on the policeman’s badge is more familiar to us today but it still succeeds in garnering the desired effect (see below).
The script is a marvel: Complex relationships, humour, a stance on society, a critique of capitalism, an attitude to crime, a complex interviewing of class and ethnicity, all are woven into a classic rise and fall structure in which everything has its place, and the place of everything is tight and has to move fast. It’s no surprise that the credits feature Ben Hetch, John Lee Mahin, W. R. Burnett and Seton I. Miller, all legendary writers with long careers in this type of material.
There are aspects of the film that still raise an eyebrow. I was surprised this time around at the overtness of the incestuous desire: Tony Camonte’s (Paul Muni) desire for his sister Cesca (Anne Dvorak), and her acknowledgment of it is expressed clearly at the beginning when she receives it with shock and disgust. Later, after he’s killed the man she married on the morning after their wedding, she flees from him. But she can’t bring herself to kill him and at the end there’s an acceptance ‘I am you and your are me.’ she says.
I was surprised as well at how beautifully lit the film is and how ingeniously the lighting is deployed. The first murder that we are shown Tony commit, we see him do it as a shadow through a screen (see fig A, below); the St. Valentine’s-type massacre we see later in the film is also rendered in shadows, this time on a wall (see fig B, below). The effect is poetic if brutal.
But I want to here note simply the beauty of the atmospheric and very expressive uses of light and the camerawork that captured it, credited to Lee Garmes and L. W. O’Connell. See for example how Tom Gaffney (Boris Karloff) is lit in his hideout below (fig C) or how Karen Morley is lit as Poppy when she decides to fully embrace the dark side and opt for Tony (fig D). Its very beautiful.
I had not remembered how modernity itself seems to be a theme in the film. I was first struck by this with the shot in which Cesca is upstairs eyeing Guino (George Raft) flicking his coin on the street and noticed that the time the film was set in and shot was still a time in which horses and buggies shared the street with cars (see fig E). The film depicts a world that is new and changing: it’s significant that the protagonist is an immigrant. The world is literally new to him, with codes (in dress, style, taste) that he continuously misreads; a world full of opportunity for those who dare, and full of new and marvellous tools with which to destroy the other and take over, as for example the moment when Tony discovers that there are now such things as automatic machine guns so that even murder can now be accelerated(see below — fig F), a moment of realisation that with such tools at his disposal the world really can be his.
Speed and the reduction of time in which various spaces can be crossed also embody modernity in the film. See for example, the montage below, so typical of Thirties American cinema and here showing gang warfare on a daily basis and through the months. It’s now a cliché of the period but still feels exhilarating to watch.
Seeing Scarface again also highlighted Hawks’ skill as a director. See, for example, the scene below. Tony has heard from his mom that his sister Cesca has moved out and is living with a man like a common trollop. We know she’s madly in love with Guino (George Raft). We’ve seen her dance a very suggestive Charleston to him in the nightclub (see a close-up of it below).
She’s at the piano playing him a song when the bell rings. Guino goes to answer it, eyes his gun but what the hell it’s his wedding day. He flips the coin — a gesture Raft would forever be associated with — and opens the door. Then note how Tony looks through Guino, eyes his sister, she screams, we hear the gunshot, and cut to Guino’s chest presumably receiving the bullet mid coin-flip, before another cut to a two-shot in which Guino eyes Tony, shakes his head as if to say ‘you got it wrong’ and collapses out of the lower part of the frame. Hawks has shifted the focus from Tony murdering his best friend, a dramatic highlight in any film, to the relationship between brother and sister through the way the murder is staged and cut with imaginative uses of composition, framing, staging and point-of-view. The direction still feels fresh. It’s amazingly fast as well, married and widowed in twenty-four hours. In thirties cinema, things move fast (and it’s just as well with performances like George Raft’s).
I should probably end with a note on performances. Muni is unquestionably a ham, but I find him a most effective one here. He overdoes it, lays on the ethnicity, the gestures, so thick that you see an actor thinking through what he’s doing at every step; yet the result is easily understood and vivid. In the extras for De Palma’s 80s remake, Al Pacino talks about how he found Muni’s performance ‘astounding and inspiring and I thought after that I just wanted to imitate him. I wanted to do something. I was inspired by that performance’. Ann Dvorak is also very vibrant and very beautiful though not always good; and Hawks gets good characterisations out of those who can act (Karen Morley, Osgood Perkins, Boris Karloff). Those who can’t, like Raft, he gives amusing business to.
It was thrilling to see again.
Is the hospital scene in The Godfather a reply to the hospital scene in Scarface: in the former Don Corleone is saved; in this one, he isn’t, and the gangsters have the insolence to throw in the flowers after the bullets.
Was Boris Karloff on Coppola’s mid when he cast Abe Vigoda, the former in The Godfather looks like an aged version of the latter in Scarface.
Is it possible for a film about drug smuggling, weapon dealing, CIA-sponsored militias and getting ludicrously rich to be in any way immoral? Tom Cruise helps destroy several Latin American governments and cultures, oblivious to everything except money and a sense of adventure. Do we empathise? Find out as we tolerate American Made so you don’t have to.
Today We Live is a curiosity: the only time Joan Crawford and Gary Cooper co-starred; the only time Faulkner wrote a script of one of his stories. It’s a handsome but lifeless film, redeemed only by some exciting areal sequences retooled from the footage in Hell’s Angels (Howard Hughes, USA, 1939).Crawford is arrestingly beautiful and very bad in the role of Diana ‘Ann’ Boyce-Smith: one can’t help but giggle when she remembers to put on her English accent, which luckily for us isn’t often.
Only the clothes Adrian designed for Crawford make an impression. Theirs is a famous partnership that endured for 28 films. He’s credited with the wide-shouldered look she made famous in the 30s.The year previously they’d made a hit with their collaboration for Letty Lynton (Clarence Bronw, USA, 1932), with the the famous dress being adapted in various patterns and flying off shelves and Sears’ catalogues and onto the shoulders of young women across America (see above). As Jessica Ellen writes in her blog:
‘(Adrian) designed a dress to reflect the 1930s eagerness to “get back to femininity” after the flapper years and thus yards and yards of fluffy organza was used to create an excessive ruffled effect. The waist was cinched to show off Crawford’s best attribute and the shoulders were emphasised, as Adrian desired. When the dress finally debuted in the film, it set of a nation-wide fashion craze as every woman decided she wanted to look like Joan Crawford! Thousands of more affordable copies were made for department store sales and allegedly every single one of them sold! Edith Head once said it was “the single most important influence on fashion in film history” and with it, the Crawford shoulders were born!’
In Deborah Nadoolman Landis’ Hollywood Sketchbook: A Century of Costume Illustration, she writes that Adrian was arguably the king of Hollywood Golden Age glamour,
‘ (he) didn’t confuse the art of costume design with fashion (and) embraced the inherent problems of creating costumes for black-and-white movies. Fahion designers, he explained, ‘have to please the human eye. I have to satisfy the discerning eye of the camera…in black, white and gray. For this reason, line is vastly important, and only the finest fabrics may be draped or cut in a satisfactory manner’ (p74).’
That he designed for the camera, and the way fabric looks in black and white is very clear in Today We Live. The issues of line and fabric are more questionable.What is immediately noticeable in Today We Live is that the dresses that look so beautiful in photographs begin to seem less so as soon as Crawford begins to move; how it’s almost as if the clothes were designed for stills rather than for motion pictures.
Contrast for example, the image above — an ideal of art deco elegance and geometry — to the way the dress looks in motion: uncomfortable, with additional purposeless pleating on the back, badly tailored so that the material scrunches up around Crawford’s waist, and with that ridiculous cardboard decoration which slashes diagonally way past the neck and threatens to decapitate Crawford should she try and look behind her shoulder.
Next, look at the elegance of the outfit above; the beret at a jaunty angle, the metal buttons catching and reflecting the light, and cascading symmetrically way from the neck. But then see below as Crawford takes off her coat. The top is very badly taylored: look at the creases it makes from her breasts, the way the material gathers into unflattering folds along the sleeve, the ugly fold as she lifts her arm, which creates an unflattering line from the arm past the shoulder. Lastly, see how all of the front of the dress seems to scrunch up into folds as Crawford goes to comfort the made. It’s almost like motion transforms what is beautiful in stills into unflattering uncomfortable uglyness in motion, the costumes more architecture than clothes.
Lastly compare the still to the clip. It’s one of Crawford’s most famous looks, one we’ve seen illustrating book covers (see below for all)
Now, look at the clip above. The closeup with Crawford framed by the candles is gorgeous. But as soon as she stands up all the ruffles and bows are too much, too impractical, too creased. Then when she turns around, turns her back to the camera, and moves away from the table, the back of the dress is ridiculous, with those extraneous, useless, bits of material riding up around her waist, making her bum look bigger. It’s completely impractical. The pleats on the flounce need ironing. Yet, they are constantly going to be sat on. A ridiculous and gloriously impractical dress. It’s no wonder that upon the film’s release, Variety panned the outfits : ‘…”Gowns by Adrian” were extreme and annoying’.
They are extreme and would look extremely beautiful if Crawford had sat for some stills from Hurrell (see above). But for Hawks in Today We Live — i.e. in motion and in character — it’s one more element that takes you out of the story and helps sink this particular ship.
It was only upon reading Howard Gutner’s marvellous Gowns by Adrian, the MGM Years 1928-1941, that I discovered the reason for that discrepancy between the way Crawford’s clothes look and the way they move. Prior to the beginning of Today We Live, Crawford had gone with her then husband, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., to Paris and discovered Schiaparelli’s couture. She asked Adrian to copy some of those lines for her. He made up a trio of dresses that were designed purely for publicity purposes. Crawford was a late addition to the cast of Today We Live and she insisted on wearing the dresses in the film, which Hawks hated, because he quickly realised they did not move well. But in those days, Crawford was billed as ‘the most copied girl in the world’ for her wardrobe and she won, to the detriment of the film.
A Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1942) knock-off, with a poor imitation of an Ilsa and Victor Lazlo sub-plot that threatens to drag the film down in the last half, and still one of the most entertaining films of all time. Once, To Have and Have Not being very loosely based on an Ernest Hemingway novel with a script worked on by William Faulkner brought it a certain cachet: two Nobel-prize winners for literature on the credits of one film. It also created a certain notoriety; that Hollywood could treat such literary giants so cavalierly was proof of its philistinism. But for cinephiles, it’s Jules Furthman’s name on the screenplay that generates excitement. He wrote Shanghai Express (Josef Von Sternberg, USA, 1932), Bombshell (Victor Fleming, 1933), China Seas (Tay Garnett, USA, 1935), and for Hawks alone, The Big Sleep (1946) and Rio Bravo (1959); which is to say, he wrote some of the most memorable female characters in the history of cinema and dialogue that is still indelible today.
In To Have and Have Not we get to hear Bacall say, ‘It’s better when you help’, ‘You know how to whisle don’t you Steve: just put your lips together… and blow’, ‘this money is mine and so are my lips. What’s the difference?’, and so many other great lines. Of course, the way Bogart and Bacall says them helps. To Have and Have Not is Bacall’s first film (she was 19) and it made her one of the greatest stars of the post-war period and a cinematic immortal. In her autobiography, By Myself, she recounts how the famous ‘look,’ which she created and was to be publicised as, was simply due to nerves: She was shaking so much that she tried to hold her chin in to prevent it from showing. You can see the stiffness in the performance. But one can’t deny the power of her presence. She’s beautiful, insolent, free: like Dietrich in Shanghai Express but slangier, rangier, home-grown American. With the possible exception of The Big Sleep, also for Hawks, Bacall was never to be better on-screen.
To Have Have Not offer many pleasures. Bogart and Bacall of course; action in exotic locations; the witty way it’s imagined and executed. Some think Walter Brennan’s performance as Eddie, Harry Morgan’s (Humphrey Bogart) alcoholic sidekick, cutesy and overblown. I love it. His double-takes are still a source of wonder and enjoyment to me. I also admire how the depiction of the relationship between Eddie and Harry, which could just have remained at the level of cartoon, is lovingly built up as a loving relationship between men. The legendary Marcel Dalio also sparks up every scene he’s in as Frenchy, the nightclub owner. As if all this weren’t enough, there’s Hoagy Carmichael, one of the greatest American songwriters, playing piano for Bacall (ostensibly voiced voiced by Andy Williams though there’s some controversy about this) on some classic songs: his own (‘How Little We Know’) and those of others (‘Am I Blue?’ Music by Harry Akst and lyrics by Greg Clarke). I have a particular love for this one, which it seems to me would be better known but for its choice of language: ‘this is a story about a very unfortunate coloured man…’