One a great masterpiece of cinema, the other a cultural icon of its day, we compare and contrast Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner with Nora Ephron’s technologically updated remake, You’ve Got Mail. We discuss how each film treats its conceit of two people who dislike each other unwittingly falling in love over anonymous correspondence, the former film’s couple hating each other less vitriolically, the latter giving us more insight into the details of their messages; the latter making their story the entire focus, the former handling it as the main part of a range of stories that take place amongst its characters.
We consider whether James Stewart’s Alfred and Tom Hanks’s Joe are nice people, and what the films’ endings have to say about them and the women they fall for. José focuses on the films’ approach to class and power, praising The Shop Around the Corner‘s portrayal of working people and decrying You’ve Got Mail for barely even seeming to notice its uncritical acceptance of corporate power. And we consider more besides, including how Lubitsch’s camera makes a static setting evocative and expressive, that Godfather bit, and the similarities and differences in Hanks and Stewart’s often-compared personas.
The Long Goodbyeis by now an acknowledged classic. It wasn’t always so. As Pauline Kael writes in her 1973 review, ‘It’s a knockout of a movie that has taken eight months to arrive in New York because after being badly reviewed in Los Angeles last March and after being badly received (perfect irony) it folded out of town. It’s probably the best American movie ever made that almost didn’t open in New York.’ Charles Champlin, one of the initial culprits, titled his review ‘A Private Eye’s Honour Blackened’. But as early as 1974, Stewart Garrett in Film Quarterly was already underlining its importance and influence: ‘‘the masterwork of America’s most interesting working director….In watching Chinatown, one can feel The Long Goodbye lurking behind it with the latent force of a foregone conclusion’. All I want to do here is add my praise, point to a couple of aspects of the film’s particular brilliance, and also indicate some problems with the film that its biggest fans have been too quick to gloss over.
The movie begins and ends with an extract from the song ‘Hooray for Hollywood’, a nod to dreamland and part of the film’s homage to noir and the detective genre. Elliot Gould is a different Marlowe than Humphrey Bogart, looser, gentler, even more addicted to tobacco, with cigarettes constantly dangling from his thick, sensuous lips. The car he drives, the apartment building he lives in, the bars he frequents, all conjure up the forties. But the LA he moves through, a character of its own in this film (the skyline, the highways, the all-night supermarkets, Malibu), with the women in the apartment next door making hash brownies, practicing yoga, and dancing topless, all point to the film’s present. And that interplay between past and present, figured through the casting of Elliot Gould as the central character, is one of joys of the film.
Gould’s Marlow, unkempt, seeming to offer a wry, disbelieving and humours look at everything he sees, is convincingly single, marginal, and over-reliant on his cat for company. He is the most unkempt and bedraggled of leading man: loose, irreverent but convincingly embodying someone who carries the night with him like a halo; a knight errant reeking of stale tobacco, too much booze and too little sleep. His friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouten) calls hims a born loser.
David Thomson writes of how Altman ‘spends the whole film concentrating on the way Elliott Gould moves, murmurs, sighs, and allows silence or stillness to prevail’. And this at a time when as Pauline Kael writes in her review of the film, by 1973 , ‘Audiences may have felt that they’d already had it with Elliot Gould; the young men who looked like him in 1971 have got cleaned up and barbered and turned into Mark Spitz. But it actually adds poignancy to the film that Gould himself is already an anachronism…Gould comes back with his best performance yet. It’s his movie.’ It certainly is. Next to M*A*S*H and Bob &Carol&Ted&Alice, it’s also become the one he’s most associated with.
The first few scenes in the film dazzle. The whole sequence with the cat at the beginning where Marlowe gets up to feed it, the cat jumping from counter, to fridge, and onto Marlowe’s shoulder is disarming and rather wondrous. Even those who don’t love cats will be charmed. But the scene also conveys quite a bit about who Marlowe is: someone lonely, who relies on cats for company; someone responsible and loving who cares that the cat is well fed and willing to go out in the middle of the night to buy the cat’s preferred brand; a good neighbour too, prepared to get the brownie mix the women next door ask for and unwilling to charge them for it: a gent or a chump? The choices Altman makes to show and tell us the story are constantly surprising, witty and wondrous on their own. See above, a minor example, that begins inside the apartment, showing us the city’s skyline, then the women, then the women in the city, before dollying down, something that looks like a peek at a little leg action before showing us, perfectly framed, Marlowe arriving in his vintage car.
In The Long Goodbye much is filmed through windows, which sometimes look onto something else, allowing action to happen on at least two planes. However the dominant use of this is to show the play of what’s happening between foreground and background, with the pane of glass, allowing partial sight of what’s beyond the glass and the reflection itself only partially showing what’s in front of it; and both together still only adding up to two partial views that don’t make a whole but which suggest there’s a background to things, and things themselves are but pale reflections of a greater underlying reality. You can see an example of this in the still above, from the the interrogation scene at the police station with the two way mirror. It’s a beautiful, expressive composition. According to Richard K. Ferncase, ‘the photography by Vilmos Zsigmond is unlike the heavy chiaroscuro of traditional noir’. However, as evident in the still above, whilst it might be unlike, it certainly nods to and references it. In fact it’s part of a series of references: the gatekeeper who does imitations of James Stewart, Walter Brennan, Barbara Stanwyck etc; the way Marlowe lights matches a la Walter Neff, the hospital scene where it seems like the Invisible Man or Bogart before his plastic surgery in Dark Passage, etc.
This must be one of Vilmos Zsigmond’s greatest achievements as a cinematographer. Garret writes of how, ‘Altman accentuated the smog-drenched haze of his landscape by slightly overexposing, or ‘fogging’ the entire print.’ Ferncase admires the ‘diaphanous ozone of pastel hues, blue shadowns, and highlights of shimmering gossamer’ Zsigmond created by post-flashing the film. Zsigmond himself attributes this to a low budget: ‘We…flashed the film heavily, even more than we flashed it on McCabe. And the reason was basically because we didn’t have a big budget there for big lights and all that. So we were really very creative about how, with the little amount of equipment that we had, how we are going to do a movie in a professional way. A couple of things we invented on that movie — like flashing fifty per cent, which is way over the top. But by doing that we didn’t have to hardly use any lights when go from outside or inside and go outside again.’.
Robert Reed Altman notes how, ‘On Long Goodbye the camera never stopped moving. The minute the dolly stopped the camera started zooming. At the end of the zoom it would dolly and then it would zoom again, and it just kept moving. Why did he do it? Just to give the story a felling, a mood, to keep the audience an an edge’. Zsigmond describes how this came to be, ”On Images, when we wanted to have something strange going on, because the woman is crazy, we decided to do this thing — zooming and moving sideways. And zooming, and dollying sideways. Or zooming forward. What is missing? Up and down! So we had to be able to go up and down, dolly sideways, back and forth, and zoom in and out. Then we made The Long Goodbye and Robert said, ‘Remember that scene we shot in Images? Let’s shoot this movie all that way’.
They did. But it’s worth remarking that whilst Altman was happy to let actors improvise and to grab and use anything useful or interesting that happened to pass by the camera’s path (the funeral procession, the dogs fucking in Mexico, etc.), the use of the camera seems to me to be highly conscious and controlled. See the scene below when Marlowe brings Roger Wade (a magnificent Sterling Hayden, like wounded lion on its last legs) home to his wife.
In the scene above Marlowe has just brought Wade back home to his wife Eileen (Nina van Pallandt), who’d hired Marlowe to do just that. As Marlowe heads to the beach, note how they’re both filmed outside a window, Wade cornered into the left side of the frame, his wife on the right; the palm trees reflected on the glass but outside. Inside the house is dark, the conversation pointed. In the next shot we get closer to Wade but stil framed within frames, encased in his situation, with window shades acting like bars behind him. In the third shot, we get closer to where the first shot was but Wade seems even murkier, hidden. When Eileen says ‘milk, is that what you really want,’ The camera zooms in, first on him, then her, then him, and as he walks over to her, we see Marlow behind a second window in the back. So we are seeing a domestic scene through a window, sunny California reflected in the palms in front, in the surf behind, something dark happening inside the house, and Marlow, pondering outside, for the moment their plaything, and playing on the surf behind, seen through two sets of glass. Much of the scene will be played like that until Wade goes to join Marlowe outside. Brilliantly evocative images, vey expressive of the characters, their situation and their dynamic, and they seem to me to be perfectly controlled to express just that. In fact that series of images evoke what the film’s about (see below)
The scene where the Wades and Marlowe are gathered together for the first time, rhymes with their last one. This time it’s Marlowe and Eileen who talk, and the discussion is about the husband, who as the camera zooms past Eileen and Marlowe’s conversation, and through the window, we see heading, fully dressed, into the ocean. The camera cuts to them from the outside, once more seeing through a window, but the darkness is on the outside now, and we don’t hear what they’re saying. What we hear now is the sounds of night on the beach — the waves, the surf — , and what we see, clearly and without mediation is Wade letting the surf engulf him. It’s a perfect riposte to the first scene, taking elements of the same style, but accentuating different ones — analogous to the way the film uses ‘The Long Goodbye’ song but in completely different arrangements as the film unfolds –, and creating a series of images that remain beautiful and startling in themselves but beautifully express what’s going on, what’s led to this. Had I extended the scene longer, you’d be able to see Eileen and Marlow also engulfed by the sea, the Doberman prancing by the shore, and that indelible image of the dog returning only with Wade’s walking stick. It’s great.
Schwarzenegger makes an uncredited appearance in The Long Goodbye, screaming for attention by flexing his tits, and looking considerably shorter than Elliot Gould. An interesting contrast between a characteristic leading man of the 70s and how what that represents gave way to Schwarzenegger’s dominance in the 80s and 90s, and what that in turn came to represent. But though this is a fun moment in the film, its also what I liked least about it: i.e. the stunt casting. Nina van Pallandt is beautiful and she’s ok. But think of what Faye Dunaway might have brought to the role. Director Mark Rydell as gangster Marty Augustine is also ok but imagine Joe Pesci. As to Jim Bouton, a former ballplayer and TV presenter as Terry Lennox, to say that he’s wooden is to praise too highly. There’s a place in in cinema for this type of casting– and a history of much success — but see what a talented pro like David Carradine brings to the prison scene — not to mention Sterling Hayden and Elliot Gould both so great — and imagine the dimensions skilled and talented actors might have brought to the movie The Long Goodbye is great in spite of, not because of, the casting of these small but important roles.
*The Vilmos Zsigmond and Robert Reed Altman quotes are taken from Mitchell Zuckoff’s great book on Altman, Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, New York, Knopg, 2009.
I’ve only just discovered Camera Over Hollywood: Photographs by John Swope 1936-1938, and a discovery it is. John Swope was a life-long friend of Henry Fonda, James Stewart and Josh Logan. They all met in their early twenties when they were part of the University Players theatre troupe in West Falmouth, Cape Code, Massachussetts; and they all found success: Josh Logan as a legendary writer and director in post-war Broadway (and a rather mediocre film director); Swope as a photographer and regular contributor to LIFE magazine; Fonda and Stewart need no introduction.
The book shows us photographs of Hollywood at work (extras waiting on sets, cinematographer James Wong Howe behind the camera, the building of entire cities on the lot) and at play (James Stewart on dates with Olivia de Havilland and Norma Shearer); in front of the camera (Anne Rutherford posing with her dog) and off-stage (Rosalind Russell reading the script for The Citadel in bed; Charles Boyer in his dressing room).
Swope had unparalleled access to the studios, not only through his friendships with Fonda, Stewart and Logan but also via his enduring marriage to Dorothy McGuire as well as his own considerable credentials as a photographer and theatrical producer. And he doesn’t just show us the insides of the studios. I was particularly interested in his documenting of film-going, the continued emphasis on sex (see two images below), and the changes in the fortunes of particular stars that narratives of their careers signal but don’t well convey.
In the image above, note how the cinema’s main feature is Stage Door but how they’re also showing Ellis Island and a Mickey Mouse cartoon as part of the bill. Note also how over the box office Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn are both billed above the title, though Hepburn’s name is misspelled. In the film print I saw Hepburn was billed first, probably a contractual obligation. But the manager of this particular theatre clearly thought Rogers was more of a draw in 1937. Moreover, if you look closely at the lobby cards and posters roughly pasted together between the two men, you’ll note that Ginger Rogers gets much bigger billing and that Hepburn and Adolf Menjou — immediately underneath her name — are barely discernible. A much clearer sign of the descent of Hepburn’s stardom with the filmgoing audience, in what is historically seen as one of her few hits of this period, and before she is officially designated box office poison, than any account I’ve ever read.
It’s a marvellous book of insightful photographs at a key period in Hollywood’s history. The introduction is by Dennis Hopper who credits Swope with getting him into pictures,
It’s easy to make fun of C.B. De Mille films: they’re crass, melodramatic, too partial on the workings of society and extremely facile on the workings of the human heart. But by golly can he do narrative and spectacle.
The Greatest Show on Earth is widely considered the worst Oscar winner for Best Picture in history. But I found it moves along at a merry pace, managing a large cast of characters relationships and conflicts with ease – the viewer always knows where s/he’s at – and De Mille knows how to render the spectacle of the circus cinematically spectacular.
The colour is that candy-floss early fifties technicolour, on the garish side but intense and heart-lifting; the circus stunts are filmed so as to convey the wonder and danger: can it really be Cornel Wilde on the trapeze? Look, it’s Betty Hutton’s face that appears as the swing tilts towards the camera! It really is Gloria Graham riding that elephant!
Each star is given their moment in the narrative and the spectacle: Betty Hutton on the trapeze and singing with James Stewart on a trampoline; Stewart himself clowns around not too successfully whilst being chased by the police for the murder of his wife; Cornel Wilde showing off his body and overcoming a physical disability; Gloria Grahame riding her elephants and looking for love; Dorothy Lamour sings a song in a hula skirt under the big top, looks beautiful and moans a lot about everyone else; a very young and spectacularly handsome Charlton Heston is the boss man women fight over (see clip at the end).
The audience under the big top is always referred back to, sometimes jokily as when Hope and Crosby appear as part of it, and their wonder at what they are seeing becomes ours. De Mille’s camera rarely loses sight of the Circus in general and the big top in particular, and if he sentimentalises what it represents, he honours the mental and physical skills necessary to perform the quite extraordinary feats we see under the big top.
On top of that there are cars crashing into trains, lions and tigers on the loose, many of the great Ringling and Barnum & Bailey circus acts of the day, filmed at leisure and with the certainty that they will please — they do.
What doesn’t are the hokey narration by C.B. himself, the gender politics so typical of its day, Betty Hutton’s nervy performance and anything in the film to do with love and relationships. But it’s amazingly easy to draw the veil over all of that. A colourful and crude spectacle that still work on the level it originally intended.
A catty fight, a bit of a bitch-fest, sadly typical of the relationships between women in 1950s cinema ….and not uncamp.
There’s a lot of lore written about Doris Day, her presence and her performance in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. In Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, Patrick McGilligan writes that, ‘According to songwriter Jay Livingston, who wrote the theme song for The Man Who Knew Too Much, Day wouldn’t have appeared in the remake if not for the pressure from MCA, which represented Hitchcock and the actress. “His agent, MCA, said he couldn’t have [James] Stewart unless he took Doris Day,’ recalled Livingston. ” He told us he didn’t want Doris Day but he had to take her. He was very happy with her later’ (p. 517).
Indeed he was, and with reason: Doris gives a great performance in the film. She’s particularly wonderful in the scenes where she’s most hysterical, suppressing and on the verge of failing to contain emotion, the ones that demand most of her as an actress: when Stewart sedates her in Marrakesh, the Albert Hall scene, the scene where she sings Que sera sera again at the embassy knowing her son is upstairs. It’s a Doris Day audiences had barely had a glimpse of to then, though Hitchcock himself saw something of this in Day’s performance in Storm Warning, a KKK drama where she’d co-starred opposite Ginger Rogers and Ronald Reagan.
What caught my eye in the scene above is the tension between narrative and spectacle, between Doris Day as a singer/performer and as an actress, between what I take to be Hitchcock’s awareness of pleasing the audience, of film as a commercial enterprise, and his attempts at depth, of film as art. When I first saw this scene I thought Day was not good, that she was too much, that she was exceeding the bounds of her character in order to entertain the audience.
Hitchcock does odd and interesting things in this scene. The scene is prefaced by an image of a Crescent moon over over the minarets of Marrakesh, evoking strangeness, exoticism, a dash of danger. The film then dissolves into an image of Benjamin McKenna (James Stewart) looking in the mirror and dressing for dinner whilst Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin), the man Jo (Doris Day) is so suspicious of, smokes by the balcony. We hear Jo beginning to sing ‘Que Sera Sera’ on the soundtrack. The camera then kind of creeps into the room, evoking a sense of portent. Then just as the camera crosses the threshold, it pans onto a mid-shot of Jo, also dressing for dinner and as the image of Doris Day appears, the son joins her in her singing. It’s a domestic scene but with an undertow of, not quite danger, more like potential disturbance. Everything is not quite right, and it’s not just because Louis Bernard is there.
On the word mother, as the boy sings, ‘I asked my mother, what will I be?’ Jo glances at Ben, who looks back, knowingly and lovingly before saying, ‘he’ll make a fine doctor’. Jo was a star of song and stage. Does she regret giving it up? Has it been an issue? Again, the choices in the mise-en-scène present but also raise questions doing so. And yet the focus remains on the boy and his future, particularly pertinent to the tension that is yet to reach its peak in the film but of which the mise-en-scène already makes us feel.
The next shot picks up on Jo, where the cut-reverse-cut with her husband started. She admires herself in the mirror, likes what she sees. As she enters the boy’s room to put him to bed, she swings her hips as if she’s on stage, and when she sings ‘Que Sera, Sera’ she sings ‘out’ as if to an audience, rather than to her son. Doris was never quite a belter. She’s one of the Twentieth Century’s great vocalists, a nuanced singer, with exquisite phrasing, and a tone that could seem hushed, caressing. She’s a singer who learned her trade on radio. But she’s singing ‘out’, as if to us in the audience rather than to her her child in the story, and she does this throughout the rest of the scene. She gives big broad smiles, make big broad gestures, sings the song as if she were in front of a band. It’s true that there are two men in the other room and that perhaps she’s singing to them as well as to her son. Certainly, Hitchcock always makes a point of returning to the child and the story. But the gestures are as broad as the singing. Doris is ostensibly putting her child to bed but she’s acting, and she’s being filmed, as if she’s performing at the Albert Hall. It’s a scene that feels disjunctive, where the spectacle of Doris Day singing seem to exceed the narrative of Jo putting her son to bed.
One of the beautiful aspects of Hitchcock’s filmmaking is how this will all make sense the next time Jo sings ‘Que Sera Sera’, when in fact she is ostensibly singing to an audience but really singing to her son, almost the obverse of the scene here.
Moments of ‘excess’ in Hitchock rarely are; here what may be initially observed as a moment of spectacle becomes the conveyor of a particular kind of feeling and meaning as well as the basis of later narrative cohesion, what’s planted at the beginning is brought marvellously to harvest at the end, including the guest in the room and the significance of the knock on the door that ends this little scene. It’s very beautifully done. And Doris is a joy to behold.
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’.