Will be introducing a new add-on to my capsule reviews called It’s the Little Things. It’ll just be random standout moments/quotes/design elements/etc. that don’t fit into the fabric of the capsule, but that I find notable and worth remembering.
#74. The Man in Grey (1943, Arliss) (UK)
A deliciously nasty piece of work, setting the standard template for the Gainsborough melodrama, a subset of films wildly popular with British female audiences during WWII for their aggressively escapist lasciviousness. Trussed up trash if you will, a thing of glorious sinful abandon. Critically mauled and seen as cheap at the time of release, today the Gainsborough melodramas read as audaciousness in their censorship dodging escapades and wildly entertaining with their decorative cruelty. Let me be clear; a lot of the material here is far more than a Hollywood studio production could think of getting away with in 1943.
The Man in Grey made me realize something that I never fully articulated to myself, which is that I like my melodrama gnarled and perverse, and am generally less attracted to the strictly romantic kind where mostly decent people succumb to love and unlucky circumstance.
Period garb and the facade of distinction reveal an openly tawdry story of Clarissa (Phyllis Calvert) and Hesther (Margaret Lockwood) nestled comfortably in the Madonna/Whore binary, locked in destiny. The past and the present are linked by a framing device of second chances and seemingly meaningless trinkets. Good and bad and fate intertwined. It’s a special kind of joy seeing James Mason and Margaret Lockwood get their devilish on. The film put Mason on the map as the titular man in grey who nails the roguish and despondent aristocrat. Margaret Lockwood is in her element as Hesther, the soiled bad girl from the bottom of the social ladder. What’s striking about Hesther is her evil deeds coming from an apparent acceptance as schemer. She knows who she is, and it’s a self-honesty she twists into kismet, additionally manifesting in moments she tries to protect others from herself, hence her warnings to Clarissa. Hesther’s intentions are clear to everyone but Clarissa, and just as Hesther’s conniving does her in, Clarissa’s unyielding trust and inherent goodness do her in. The Man in Grey is an intermingling of good/bad and shared destinies.
The film was cut down to 93 minutes for US censors, and it’s easy to see why. It’s sexually open, with lust permeating everything. Clarissa’s nobility is no match for Hesther and Lord Rohan’s transgressions; their lifestyle drives the tone. The final reel features a couple of shocking demises (in fashion and action, not in their happening), by turns cruel and brutal, yet opposite in their mode of swiftness.
**Be warned, a major character, a child named Toby, is played in blackface. Even for the time’s standards of racism it stands out as particularly excruciating.
It’s the Little Things:
Stewart Granger’s introduction, as supposed road bandit, whose forthcoming nature ends in a kiss, is sexy times.
#75. “The Wise Quacking Duck” (1943, Clampett): ***/*****
#76. “The Aristo-Cat” (1943, Jones): ***1/2/*****
#77. “Jack-Wabbit and the Beanstalk” (1943, Freleng): */*****
#78. “Red Hot Riding Hood” (1943, Avery): ***1/2/*****
#79. “Who Killed Who?” (1943, Avery): ***1/2/*****
#80. “Pigs in a Polka” (1943, Freleng): ***1/2/*****
#81. Cabin in the Sky (1943, Minnelli) (USA)
Vincente Minnelli’s directorial debut reveals his theater background, and is unable to fully break free from the material’s stilted trappings, further inhibited by the musical’s focus on singing over dancing (but oh how quickly he would shake this). A moralistic religious fable, so naturally there’s only so much for me to takeaway. It’s no coincidence that the two 1943 productions with African American casts puts everyone in the then-more-accessible context of musical performer. Some of the character portrayals can be seen as reductive today, but the fact that much of the cast is treated as actual people (gasp!) with inner lives and struggles of their own is leaps and bounds over the uniformly grotesque stereotypes of the time (see above).
The first hour plays around with the living and spiritual realms sharing the same space. It’s pretty tedious stuff (but isn’t Edith Waters just the most comforting presence?), with dull songs and zero momentum keeping everything on an evenly low keel. But lo and behold, the sinful jubilee of the last half hour picks up proceedings considerably with dance and merriment, Edith Waters slinking it up and generally just being awesome, and Lena Horne stunning the pants of everybody.
It’s the Little Things:
The early shot in which the camera follows gossip and song as they simultaneously move backwards through the pews
#82. Lumière d’été (1943, Grémillon) (France)
We begin in a glass covered hotel, make our way to an outmoded castle, and end down in the mines with those who inhabit them. My knowledge of French cinema during the Occupation is limited, but Lumière d’eté demonstrates the common practice of secluded or rural settings in films from Vichy France. What wasn’t common practice, and what assumedly got the film banned, is its biting and considerably direct class critique. The romantic entanglements are all predicated on the loaded past or disappointment. The aristocratic characters are almost delusional and stuck in a toxic pattern. Michèle (Madeleine Robinson), the object of everyone’s affection, is a pleasant bore, someone who has ideals and desires projected onto her. That lack of interest in the central figure from which everything pivots is somewhat crucial, but the clinging broken souls, mature lyricism, and trajectory of descent are what make Lumière d’été.
It’s the Little Things:
– The drunken car trek through mountainous winding roads is one of the most effective of its kind; uncommonly ominous and doomed. Like a hearse unaware.
– That early mistaken kiss between Michèle and Julien.
#83. L’Éternel retour (The Eternal Return) (1943, Delannoy)
Directed by Jean Delannoy, but every inch the Cocteau (he wrote it). A romantic fantasy set largely in a secluded castle, a cavernous place where privacy is elusive thanks to meddlesome moocher relatives and their sadistic dwarf son. Starts out strong but once the love potion makes its entrance, the consequences never fully form. Despite a few nice moments, the couple (played by Jean Marais and Madeleine Sologne) feels more individualized before they drink. Afterwards there’s a fuzzy vagueness that never justifies us caring for a love borne out of a bottle. But perhaps that’s the point; that they almost become one entity and don’t need to justify themselves to each other or us. They just sort of are. It’s a beautiful film, dreamlike and hazy, taking on mythic everything-that-has-happened-before-will-happen-again tragedy. Everything feels slightly outlandish or out of reach. The third act love triangle doesn’t stand up with what came before, and the separation of Nathalie and Patrice isn’t impactful enough to get that pull from the viewer.
It’s the Little Things:
The Aryan quality of Marais and Sologne has been noted, and it’s impossible to shake once it’s been pointed out.
That adorable dog MouLou!
The moment/shot when Nathalie follows behind Patrice as he is carried out of the bar (screenshot above).
#84. La Main du Diable (aka Carnival of Sinners) (1943, Tourneur)
Papa Maurice tells a Faustian story framed by yet another isolated setting (a hotel with many nosy patrons this time) in a Vichy France film. Our protagonist painter gets fame, respect, talent and Irène (Josseline Gaël). Irène, with her below-the-belt put-downs, is crassly caricatured. I liked the way the past is tied into the present by the hand and its owner. A linear barrage of stories and misfortunes passed down through the ages. History repeating itself. But before those last act goodies, this is a standard be-careful-what-you-wish for-story, too unformed on the whole to convey the irreparable price paid for selling one’s soul.