Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #9-12)


In my first capsule review post for 1930, I covered Let Us Be Gay, Ladies of Leisure, Murder!, and Anybody’s Woman.
In my second capsule review post for 1930, I covered Liliom, King of Jazz, The Bat Whispers, and Paid.

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Follow Thru (US, Schwab) 
I just finished reading Richard Barrios’s A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film, and am steadily working through the musical subseries of my 1930 watchlist. The majority of the book details the initial explosive–>burnout wave of the movie musical, from 1928-1930. The ubiquitous popularity of musicals in 1928-1929 quickly gave way to oversaturation. By 1930, audiences and critics were outright disdainful of any musicals coming their way, their success and subsequent failure so instantaneous it left all studios in the lurch. Countless productions, both meager and grand, were destined to collect dust, be reworked, or suffer forgettable fates. There are a myriad of reasons for the early sound musical-as-poison revolt, both obvious and delicate. The clash of the national mood, severe oversaturation, lack of rural appeal, block-booking fatigue, copycat tactics of backstage tropes (the same movie was being made ad infinitum), quantity over quality, etc.

This drop-off also left swaths of performers (not to mention songwriters), whose careers were being built and cultivated within the once surefire cushion of the musical, hopelessly adrift (I’ll list some of those folks in my What I’ll Remember post). Often hailing from vaudeville and theater, their Hollywood fame came and fell in the spurt of a year or so. Baritone Lawrence Tibbett is a major example from 1930. Marilyn Miller is another. Follow Thru’s stars, Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers and Nancy Carroll, don’t quite fall into that category. These were major stars of their time (Carroll was arguably the most-loved star of the early 1930’s); stars who weren’t defined by appearing in musicals (Rogers’s most famous role was in 1927’s Wings), but both were invariably hurt by the sudden expiration date of film musical’s first wave.

All of this preamble is to say that Paramount released Follow Thru, like so many others, at the wrong time (in September 1930). It fared better than some others of its kind; reviews were fine, box office was fine; fine, fine, fine. It certainly had the well-established pull of its stars going for it. There was no revival of interest over the decades, and it was long believed to be a lost film. But a print was found in the 1990’s and restored by UCLA.

I’m going to try to explain the particulars of my immense like for Follow Thru. There’s that overused phrase ‘pure cinema’, and Follow Thru made me think of an entirely different and less dramatically applied use of the term. Follow Thru presents a bygone gateway into the early musicals potentiality for simple delights. There’s no sobriety here, but there’s also no extravagance. In Two-strip Technicolor, this is bright, effervescent, aggressively young stuff. Tons of films epitomize Hollywood’s specialization in escapism, but there’s something a little different about Follow Thru. It hits a hard-to-describe sweet spot. It’s the particular success of its commonplace nature. Here is a musical about girl golfers, a film of modest scale with gentle charms, filled with lots of striped sweaters and dimples. Its core strength is that it operates under the guise of crushing sweetness, while underneath its got all the naughtiness of a sex comedy.

Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers has All-American boyishness to spare. Nancy Carroll has a Kewpie doll face, all rosy cheeks and headbands. These aren’t great actors, but they are exactly what this film needs, and it’s easy to see why they were so major in their time.

Zelma O’Neal and Jack Haley are the sidekicks, reprising their roles from the Broadway show. O’Neal belongs to the aforementioned group of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Hollywood stints. She had a very successful Broadway career before and after her time in Hollywood. She’s such fun. Zippy with a no-bullshit hunch. And she gets the only major production number of the film, “I Want to Be Bad”. Jack Haley on the other hand, is death itself. When’s the last time I’ve hated someone onscreen this much? His defining character trait is that his eyebrows go nuts when he’s around girls. So basically, he gets a boner on his face. It’s Woody Woodpecker’s laugh as a facial tick. And it’s horrifying. He is horrifying.

The out-of-place nature of the wonderful “I Want to Be Bad” number aside, the songs are integrated quite smoothly throughout. They don’t advance plot or character, but most musicals didn’t at this time, and they’re more directly woven into the story than you’re likely to see in 1930. It’s all kept very simple, starting with a two shot and widening out at the end for some broad movements or dance step.

It’s the Little Things:
That naughtiness! Characters talk of going “where the bushes are thickest”. Carroll says to Rogers “Talk rough to me Jerry. I love it”. There is a whole sequence with Jack Haley and Eugene Pallette sneaking into the girls locker room to steal back a ring. They come up with hand signals. They pretend to be plumbers. The girls are all in various stages of undress. It reaches a perfect note of anarchy so inspired I had to pause so I could work through my laughter.
– So, Thelma Todd’s rival character who happens to be a widow. How did her husband die? I want her backstory!
– This is the second film from 1930 that has featured a Vibrating Belt Machine. The first was Ladies of Leisure.

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Fast and Loose
(US, Newmeyer)

Fast and Loose is an early practice run for what would soon become the screwball comedy (thank you Miriam Bale for bringing this film to my attention!) (also note that Preston Sturges is given credit for dialogue). Its got spoiled characters, flirtatious spats and clashing courtship, a ruse, and class consciousness. In fact, it’s got a class-as-obstacle reversal. By the end it’s the working class romantic partners (Charles Starrett and Carole Lombard respectively) of the wealthy Lenox siblings Marion and Bertie (Miriam Hopkins and Henry Wadsworth) that can’t imagine lowering themselves to a lifetime with their spoiled mates. They are the ones with the objection, and furthermore, Rich Father Lenox (Frank Morgan) completely agrees that his children don’t deserve spouses this decent! This situation only comes up in the final ten minutes, but it’s a fun spin on the normal ‘my family doesn’t approve’ conflict (a la Ladies of Leisure).

Though we get the luxury of seeing Marion’s love interest in a bathing suit on multiple occasions (so much thigh), 75% of Henry Morgan’s (Starrett) dialogue is about how women are the absolute worst. Marion says she hates him, many times, many ways, but of course she’s falling hard for his misogynistic charms. Miriam Hopkins, and the film’s moderate pizzazz, makes this courtship undeniably fun. Fast and Loose is, among other things, the feature film debut of Miriam Hopkins. She already has an impressive handle on her particular screen persona. The best I can do to describe it is a clipped flightiness combined with a spoiled and fiery capricious nature. She sells her reluctant but overboard infatuation with Henry with a handful of amazing line deliveries. “I’m sorry”. Two simple words, but the distinct hilarity she wrings out of them represents the epitome of Vintage Hopkins.

Carole Lombard shows up in an early role but she’s suffocated by the propriety of the part. The first half, in which Marion and Henry flirt over stuck cars and nighttime swims, is considerably more enjoyable than the second half. All major players eventually merge at a nightclub under a potentially anarchic set of circumstances, but Fast and Loose doesn’t have the panache, or really the ambition, to make much of it.

It’s the Little Things:
– Paramount made Fast and Loose. Paramount also made Follow Thru. YOu can hear the latter film’s “We’d Make a Peach of a Pear” in the background of one scene.

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Romance (US, Brown) 
My least favorite of the 1930 films I’ve written about so far. In it, a bishop (Gavin Gordon) looks back on an early experience with love that goes nowhere. It isn’t tragic (though it’s treated as such), and it doesn’t even have the weight of feeling individually formative for the character. Gavin Gordon is downright laughable as a romantic co-lead for a woman as inscrutable as Garbo. Romance is the doldrums, folks. It’s a quintessential example of an early sound film that is all posturing, all talk. Oh, the talk. Its melodrama plays out through proclamations made with creaky archaic dialogue. Greta Garbo (who, with nothing to work with, is actually quite wooden here) spends all her time philosophizing about love. If you’re wondering what watching this movie feels like, take this piece of exchange and stretch it over ninety minutes:
“Well, do you see my flowers here?”
“You’re crushing them”
“Oh, what does it matter? They were born to die”

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The Big Trail (US, Walsh)
This is going to sound really hyperbolic and dramatic, but I’ve honestly never seen a film that looks quite like this. There’s a reason for this; it was the first major on-location outdoor sound film (the first sound film shot outside a studio was Walsh’s previous In Old Arizona) and was shot on a short-lived 70mm format developed by the Fox Film Corporation called Grandeur (aka Fox Grandeur). Films would have to wait over two decades for the promise of widescreen to come to fruition. The world wasn’t yet ready for Fox Grandeur. Theaters had just been converted for sound, and yet another conversion investment was nowhere near feasible nor desirable. So you see, the reason I’ve never seen anything quite like this is because, from this era of filmmaking, there is nothing else quite like this.

Nothing that survives anyways. The Big Trail stands alone. The Grandeur prints of Song O’ My Heart and Happy Days are lost. Other competing widescreen formats like MAGNAFILM and VITASCOPE existed for the same blink-and-you’ll-miss-it period of 1929-1930, but, again, almost all widescreen prints for these few films are gone (The Bat Whispers is the rare example of a 1929-1930 widescreen film that survives in both its 35mm and 65mm versions). Not only is The Big Trail an outlier in its format and survival, but it’s easily the most ambitious widescreen project of the time. The production was a costly behemoth; shot all over the American west (primarily Montana, California, Wyoming, Arizona, and Utah), with countless extras and animals, and for an inordinate length of time.

The overwhelming scale is constantly present. For one thing, the extras are everywhere at all times. Extras in the foreground. Extras in the background. In support of the film’s core, they are everywhere, in every scene. The Big Trail may be populated by stories of revenge, romance, and comedy, but none of them matter. They’re just the needle. But the thread, the thing that does matter, is the collective journey. The building of community doesn’t start when the settlers reach their destination; it starts en route. The omnipresence of the extras never lets you forget that. everyone you see walking in and out of the frame, everyone onscreen, character or not, has put everything on the line with this endeavor. They are traversing the Oregon Trail’s all-too-real hardships, and they are doing it together.

The photography by Arthur Edeson is decades ahead of its time. I sat and watched in a constant state of awe. The scope of the image is all-encompassing. You get a rare sense of the West’s staggering vastness. Most impressive is the painterly quality of the thoughtful framing, groundbreaking early use of deep focus, and the complex compositions which so often incorporate multiple planes of staging and movement.  The Big Trail looks far into the future with its frontier tale of the past.

On a final note, I remember Karina Longworth mentioning how drop-dead gorgeous John Wayne is in The Big Trail during an episode of her “You Must Remember This” podcast. I even googled it after listening and thought “damn“. But actually watching him in this? It was his first starring role, and he isn’t exactly good, but that wooden charm makes him rather endearing. And good or not, you cannot take your eyes off of him. Give it a try. You’ll fail.

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Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #5-9)


In my first capsule review post for 1930, I covered Let Us Be Gay, Ladies of Leisure, Murder!, and Anybody’s Woman. That post can be found here.

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Liliom (US, Borzage)
There are two kinds of spaces in Liliom. The first is inside the carnival. That mockup hallucinatory carnival made of miniatures, dazzling lights, and bustling sounds. It’s a magical space where anything can happen, but only if you keep up. The second is anything outside the carnival, most notably domestic spaces. The carnival is always visible from the outside but the outside is never visible from within. The interiors are spacious, barren, minimalist, surrounded by gaps of frustrated silence. There is a clear delineation between the two. All this to say that Frank Borzage and his collaborators at Fox go to great length to make theatricality modern, presenting a weird vision of fantastical artificiality that easily transitions into the equally weird metaphysical final act. (Let me also take this moment to say that I am a huge fan of early cinematic depictions of the afterlife. By far the most alluring period for this kind of story.)

At the end of Liliom, the Chief Magistrate (H.B. Warner) says this of what he has witnessed: “It’s touching. It’s mysterious”. Simply and succinctly, that’s also Liliom. Think Peter Ibbetson mixed with more overt expressionism. But this is a story about two people who should not be together, but can’t not be together. This is a film that ends with a speech about, to put it bluntly and without context, domestic abuse being okay if it comes from the person you love. But the tragedy of that, and it, are so genuinely and oddly moving. Because this decree of sorts is true for Julie. Liliom is told through a romantically fatalistic lens. Fatalism in the apparent wrongness of the couple. Julie’s (Rose Hobart) only other romantic option is a carpenter named Carpenter who speaks in monosyllabic monotone. He is seemingly alive for the sole purpose of asking Julie (for years and years mind you) if she is free and interested (“No, Carpenter”). This is also a film that resolves with this statement; “The memory of you makes them much happier than you ever could”. Talk about brutal. But Liliom is about the messy complexities of individual truths. The unchangable and unswayable.

Rose Hobart is perfect for the part of Julie, though the film swallows her whole by the second half (standout deathbed scene not withstanding). Her eyes have a sharp directness as she communicates her undying love for Liliom through that tunnel vision stare. Her unshakable need to stay by this whiny asshole is seen with a kind of nobility. At the very least it’s seen without judgment. As for Charles Farrell, well… From what I’ve read, audiences apparently adjusted fine to hearing his voice, but let me be the first to tell you it is rough. He sounds like one of the kids on Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island. Close your eyes and you’re back in the schoolyard with the head bully. His Liliom also walks like Popeye, though that bluster is a pronounced character trademark.

The technical achievement and formal ambition of Liliom are two of its defining characteristics. This was the first film to use rear projection, and its use of miniatures is woozily magical. Borzage uses space so well, in part by utilizing blocking and emphasizing body language. The camera has the mobility of a sophisticated silent. Take the feverish moment where Julie and Marie (Mildred Van Dorn) first enter the carnival. The camera actually deserts them, so eager it is to explore the place itself. (I’ve been, and will keep, mentioning camera mobility in these 1930 films. I don’t mean to suggest that camera movement equals higher quality filmmaking, but in 1930 it is a clear and easy sign of formal ambition as studios, technicians, and creative personalities attempt to establish a visual language for talking pictures)

Notes:
– So this is where “Carousel” comes from! I’d eventually like to see that and other adaptations of this Hungarian play (most notably the 1934 Fritz Lang version), not least because it will be sure to illuminate this one.

– Liliom is so quick to kill himself. It’s kind of absurd. Equally absurd? The notion that Liliom is the first person to be given a second chance. Really? This moron?

– The “Look out, look out the dumb police are on your trail” song is now something I sing to myself.

– Of course this movie was a financial (and somewhat critical) failure. How could it not be? How do you even market something like this? It doesn’t fit into any box.

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King of Jazz (1930, Anderson)
King of Jazz was the first of the revue craze of 1929-mid 1930 to enter the planning stage, and the last of the major efforts to be released. It went hugely over-budget (which is abundantly clear while watching), and was released at the wrong time. By the time it finally hit theaters, audiences were thoroughly ‘revued’ out. I hardly have anything to compare it to, but it is said that King of Jazz stands out from others of its kind in every way. Paul Whiteman and his orchestra are the center from which a series of musical numbers and skits revolve. His nickname, the title of the film, seems ridiculous because it is, but also keep in mind that jazz in this time period has a much broader implication. Think of how ‘pop’ is applied today.

Universal threw everything, and I mean everything, into this project. And it’s kind of a must-see. Surely one of the weirdest movies to come out of the Golden Age of Hollywood, it’s also the most elaborate and audacious spectacle film I’ve seen from the early 30’s. It features the first Technicolor cartoon, a shrunken orchestra marching out of a box, a giant larger-than-life scrapbook, ghost brides, the world’s longest bridal veil, extravagant mobile sets, superimposed images and related special effects, and, in what must be the scariest image in 1930’s cinema, Paul Whiteman as a winking moon in the sky. And the whole thing’s in Two-Strip Technicolor to boot.

The conceptual center of the impressive “Melting Pot” finale is what you might guess; promoting diversity while completely whitewashing a convoluted ‘history of jazz’. The pointed absence of African Americans is unsurprisingly everywhere. The one time African culture makes any kind of appearance is the prologue bit to the “Rhapsody in Blue” number, at once breathtaking and troubling. Dressed in Zulu chief garb, dancer Jacques Cartier stands on an oversized drum for a stage. His projected silhouette is made giant on the wall behind him. He begins to dance with direct ferocity. The eroticism of it is hypnotic, but the sexual nature of the thing reeks of the blanket exoticism so often depicted through ‘Otherness’.

King of Jazz works because the Universal team and director John Murray Anderson (Paul Fejos also contributed at some point before leaving) understand that there are different kinds of spectacle. There’s the special effects spectacle, which comes in all forms throughout here. There is also the music-centric spectacle. An early scene features copious close-ups of — not even musicians playing their instruments but something even more up close and personal; instruments being played. Another scene takes a different approach by capturing the interplay between a band and its components. Without cutting, the camera keeps up with the music by quickly panning over to each soloist. Finally, there is the grand scale production spectacle, and boy does it deliver on that front.

Though his rotund self has a welcoming energy, Paul Whiteman seems quite the random figure to construct a film around. But it falls in line with the early sound period trend of bringing in band leaders as well as talent from vaudeville and theater in order to give them film vehicles. I loved this movie. Even when it’s boring, it’s not, if that makes sense (I realize it doesn’t. Maybe one day I can describe this sedate sensation). It moves along at such a clip, and its sheer audaciousness coupled with genuine spark makes this a “seen to be believed” kind of film. It’s also beautifully, and I mean beautifully, photographed (Ray Rennahan, one of the film’s three cinematographers, was an innovator in the development of three-strip Technicolor). King of Jazz also reminds me that I have a substantial hard-on for Two-Strip Technicolor.

Notes:
– Bing Crosby’s first screen appearance! He shows up as one of the Rhythm Boys. He was originally slated for a solo number but an arrest after drunkenly crashing his car prevented that from happening.

– There are really lame 30 second skits by Universal contract players sprinkled throughout (some of which feature explicitly sexual punchlines). Though I loved the one set at an all-ladies newspaper.

– “Rhapsody in Blue”: First of all, according to author Richard Barrios, Universal may have paid upwards of $50,000 for the use of this piece. Also, the number is an all-blue one, though I’m not sure how it got like this because Two-Strip can’t pick up blue.

– Universal was also on the cusp of another colossal, and much more successful, effort; All Quiet on the Western Front. It even gets a shout-out here!

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The Bat Whispers (US, West)
What an exceptional experience seeing a 1930 film in 65mm (The Big Trail, which I haven’t watched yet, also falls under this category). The Bat Whispers is a mystery, yes, but the air here is ripe with two other genres; horror and comedy. Something that struck me about this is the way it successfully balances some tricky tones. There is a slight threatening undercurrent coursing through the film. It mostly takes place in one location, but the house is cast in shadows, and there’s a nice depth of setting that hints at what’s hidden. A masked intruder named The Bat, an entity that famously served as one of Bob Kane’s inspirations for Batman, is known to be lurking around the house for most of the film. Disguising his voice, he omits a wholly unnerving shadowy scrawl. A late scene featuring Una Merkel stuck in a hidden room with the Bat quite honestly gave me the willies.

And then the comedy of the thing! As characters tiptoe around in the dark, carefully treading with their different agendas, The Bat Whispers also proves to be light on its feet. It has a gentle comedic air, often aiming for soft laughs (can’t win them all though; a perpetually frightened character named Lizzie grates very quickly). All the tropes you can imagine are here and then some, contained by surprising energy and foreboding.

The Bat Whispers stays put once we get to Cornelia’s estate. So it uses the largely silent first ten minutes for striking formal ambition, particularly in the creative ways it introduces key locations. It also features a very early twist ending! After the film ends, Chester Morris comes out and pleads that the audience not spoil the ending for others. And in such a tongue-and-cheek way too. An eccentric note on which to end an eccentric film.

Notes:
– I really enjoyed Chester Morris doing a weird mix of dapper and dastardly. I so prefer this Chester Morris over the Chester Morris of The Divorcee.

– Features the Laganja Estranga of movie detectives.

paid 4

Paid (US, Wood)
Paid is a touchstone in Joan Crawford’s career. This was a part for Queen of MGM Norma Shearer but Joan, the ultimate self-promoter, rallied hard for this once Norma discovered she was pregnant before filming began. She long ached to move beyond lighter fare of the Our Dancing Daughters variety and establish herself as a heavy dramatic actress. Starting with Paid, Crawford gradually moved away from her flapper persona and into more refined and challenging work. And it’s a good thing she started a career evolution when she did. Between changing times and the enforcement of the Production Code, the flapper persona would soon be outdated, and actresses primarily known for those kinds of roles would have nowhere to go.

Paid has a promising premise. It’s got a prison film crammed into its first ten minutes. It then sets itself up as 80 minutes of Joan Crawford slapping everyone in the face with the law and getting sweet sweet revenge on her former boss by wooing his son. And all that happens. But the second half insists itself into empty melodrama by focusing on the aftermath of a deadly crime, imploding its premise instead of exploring it.

Notes:
– Marie Prevost!!! I’ve noticed that both of the 1930 films I’ve seen featuring her contain scenes where her body jiggles for the camera. I wonder if War Nurse will also have something of the sort.

Paid has lots of zingers:
“Wise as a tree full of owls, that’s me”
“Oh Mary, don’t be so 1890”
“It’s that coin that makes them so sassy Cassidy”
My favorite is “Four years ago you took my name and replaced with with a number. Now I’ve taken that number and replaced it with your name”.

– There are moments in Paid where Joan looks eerily like Sigourney Weaver. I never noticed it before but the proto Sigourney vibes here are off-the-charts.

 

Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #1-4)


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Let Us Be Gay (US, Leonard)
“I know how men feel about these things now”

It’s par for the course that if you’re watching Pre-Code Norma Shearer, at some point she’ll say something explicit about her newly transgressive way of life. I love Norma. I really do. But not for her depth of presence. Her Pre-Code persona brings a very specific brand to the table, and it’s made up of two parts. The first is permanent coy. She talks as if putting on a show; the woman’s got a secret and she’s the only one in the room who knows it. The second is prideful speechifying, daring proclamations that temporarily air out the collective frustrations of many women, calling out double standards and announcing sexual freedom (eventually of course, the film will hit the reset button in its last 30 seconds).

Shearer’s transformation from devoted wife to the ultimate sampler of sex is never more extreme than it is here, and that’s all due to how her character (Kitty) is introduced. For the first act of Let Us Be Gay, Norma Shearer goes full-dowdy. I’m not talking about movie dowdy. I’m talking about actually dowdy. It’s as plain and homely and normal as I’ve ever seen a golden age star allow themselves to look onscreen. The sheer jolt of this easily makes for the film’s high point, because let’s face it; despite the promise of an ensemble cast crossing paths during a weekend in Long Island,  Let Us Be Gay never picks up anything resembling momentum, a critical trait for a film at that one point suggests it is nearing French farce.

Some Notes:
– This was shot in 26 days because Norma Shearer was pregnant. It’s an adaptation of a play. The Shearer role was originated by Tallulah Bankhead.

– Between my previous experiences with 1930 films and the ones I’ve watched for this project so far, I know that many of the films will have moved passed the potential and often found awkwardness of early talkies. But this one does not. But there were admittedly times during this where the strange pacing, pausing, lingering were hypnotic to me. There is a shot of Norma Shearer on a couch. She moves, and the camera lingers for several second on said  couch as the scene continues. I really loved this unintentional moment.

Something else I fully expect to run into with 1930 are dull-as-fuck leading men. For every one of them I’m sure there will be a leading man I love and cherish (Robert Montgomery owns part of my heart, didn’t you know that?) But Holy Mother of God: Rod La Rocque. Worst actor ever? I mean ever? As in, of all-time? See, he’s not just bad in the sense that he’s stilted and lacks charisma. He goes the extra mile by being that special brand of bad: the silent actor who has no idea how to adjust his acting in the advent of talkies. He makes Chester Morris look like Gary Cooper.

– Shout-out to Marie Dressler for being Marie Dressler and playing to the back row and to Sally Eilers for playing a great sloppy drunk.

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Ladies of Leisure (US, Capra)
There’s a lot about Ladies of Leisure I shouldn’t like. Let’s face it, who wants to see Barbara Stanwyck as a brassy ‘party girl’ who gradually disintegrates into desperate martyr-driven love with a rich and oblivious painter who treats her like nothing? This is not why we watch Barbara Stanwyck!

But this star-making role, the first of several collaborations with Frank Capra, is some of her best work and in one of her best films. I’m not used to seeing her this vulnerable, yet this is how the country at large became acquainted with her. Barbara Stanwyck is down-to-earth glamour. Relatable glamour. Even at this very early stage it’s impossible to miss that she is in stark contrast with other actors from her time. This is a woman performing in the ‘now’. Her body language isn’t practiced. She breaks through the conventional with seeming spontaneity. She’s the perfect person for Frank Capra to direct, because in Ladies of Leisure he not only gives her plenty of backlit close-ups defying audiences not to fall in love with her, but devotes an uncommon (for 1930) length of time lingering on confidential and intimate moments that map out Kay’s internal longing.

Frank Capra doesn’t trip into that oft-fallen pit known as the Early Talkie Trap. That assumed pull of talk-talk-talk, aimlessly throwing more dialogue at the screen. Why? Because they can! Despite being based on a play, Frank Capra already shows an adept hand at visual storytelling in addition to fluid pacing, foundational building blocks everybody had to learn and relearn  to some degree when sound came along. Bypassing sluggishness, even as the film nosedives into the saccharine, there is a clarity and distinct visual perspective supporting Kay’s story.

Take the erotically charged rainy night sleepover that comes mid-film. It’s erotically charged in the silences, in what isn’t happening, in what Kay wants to happen, in what could happen. The pace of this sequence is different than the rest. The situation slowly develops, as Kay gradually allows herself to believe in the possible. It builds to a simple act of kindness that produces the film’s most telling and heartfelt moment. A lone doorknob turns. Footsteps reveal that Jerry the painter (Ralph Graves) has left his room in the middle of the night. He slowly approaches Kay’s bed. In another film the scene would be eerie, bad intentions assumed. Kay is sleeping. Jerry lays a blanket over her and heads back to bed. Close-up on Kay. She wasn’t asleep at all. The camera lingers on her face and closes in further, tears glistening. She pulls the blanket to her mouth. Everything we need to know about Kay occurs in this moment. This simple act of kindness means the world to her, and it has left her shaking and crying with joy.

Critically, Capra foregrounds Kay’s (Stanwyck) love as a character-driven arc rooted in class, lifelong struggle, and hope. You don’t have to buy into Kay and Jerry (and you won’t) to buy into the film. Forget the lame egg basket in whom Kay places said hopes and dreams. Just focus on witnessing a downtrodden woman who, for the first time in her life, experiences what happiness is, what it can mean, and its potential in her own life. The fortuitous union of Barbara Stanwyck’s startling modernism (I still can’t imagine how jarring her vivid physicality must have played for 1930 audiences) and Frank Capra’s intuitive prioritization of the inner life.

Some Notes:
– We’re back to the Dull As Fuck Leading Man syndrome. I’ve seen quite a few reviews of the film that cite Ralph Graves as a deal-breaker. But I’ve made a vow to myself to put the quality of the leading man aside as best I can while watching these films. Would I like the leading man to have chemistry with his leading lady in a film that qualifies as a romance? Well, of course. Will there be films I watch where the leading man really is a deal-breaker? Probably. But this whole leading man snag is an unavoidable evil from this period. I’d like to be surprised; I’d like the chemistry between leads to elevate whatever 1930 film I’m watching, but I also won’t let the common failures on this front decide whether or not a film works for me. Part of what I love in writing about older films (I’m talking as recent as, say, ten years old) is that time allows the mode of assessment to be so different. New films are often reviewed as A + B + C = great film but it’s missing D so merely good. Time allows us to connect or not connect in ways that feel more organic, less scientific. If the lead in a rom-com from 2015 was bland it’d likely feel impossible to ignore. But in Ladies of Leisure, who cares, this movie is great with or without Ralph Graves. More critically, as I’ve stated earlier, Kay’s love for him is grounded in individual longing. Our investment doesn’t hinge on Jerry as a character.

– Capra already taking on the disparity between the classes. But it’s surprisingly complicated. Ralph’s mother is supportive of her son and empathetic. Her actions are driven by love and a knowing selfishness for the sacrifice she asks of Kay that she cannot ask of herself. Even Jerry’s father isn’t a terrible guy. Just very set in his ways.

– Some other incredible moments of Stanwyck’s spontaneity: “Goody goody goody let’s fight”; Kay throwing food in the air and trying to catch it as an impromptu effort to distract from her tears.

– Such a bizarre party at the beginning! Capra immediately visually distinguishes that class disparity with a shot of a street getting plummeted with smashed bottles as innocent bystanders dodge the wreckage as best they can. We are brought, with an impressive crane shot using models, to the top of a building where upper class debauchery is taking place. Two women carelessly drop the liquor from above. Elsewhere, a man paints a lady’s back. Elsewhere still, ladies pray water at a painting. A woman weaves through the crowd saying “Call for Jerry Strong! Call for Jerry Strong!”

– Marie Prevost = new hero? She was relegated to best friend parts by this time in her troubled life and career. She gets the best lines of the movie and her delivery is hysterical:

“Listen Eleanor Glynn. You can’t–weigh–sex appeal.”

Prevost: “Oh, and a cup of coffee”
Waiter: “Large or small?”
Prevost: “Do I look like a small cup of coffee?”

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Murder! (UK, Hitchcock)
While the result may be weirdly effective and ineffective in equal measure, this is Alfred Hitchcock experimenting perhaps more essentially than ever before or since. Hitchcock, that savior of UK cinema, takes sound and uses it to make every scene its own playful gambit. Murder! is so well known for its use of sound that it’s easy to overlook the essential application of image. Every step of the way Hitchcock shows a critical understanding of how sound can be applied in new ways when married to the image. Seems obvious, but at the time it wasn’t. He brings image and sound together by constantly separating them.

For the first time in film (at least it’s credited as such), we hear a character’s thoughts in voice-over, bridging the internal (sound) and external (image). Stage manager Ted (Edward Chapman) and his wife (Phyllis Constam) frantically ready themselves to see Sir John (Herbert Marshall in his first speaking role), their preparations shown in a succession of rapid close-ups coupled with far-off dialogue; sound and image used to compress time. Sir John wakes up for a comic scene of loud chaos with Una O’Connor (in her 2nd screen appearance!) involving a wailing baby, a clingy child, overflowing coffee, and a cute kitten. There’s more too; Hitchcock plays with the rhythm of dialogue in a sequence that plays like a one-act 12 Angry Men. The jury members start as separate entities only to evolve into some sort of theatrical sing-song chorus, like something out of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Hitchcock also finds ways to keep things moving in his typically droll fashion. An early scene in which two women talk about the murders is turned into a three-minute uncut visual running joke that completely eclipses whatever is being said. Throughout the scene, the older woman moves between two rooms to make tea. Every time the younger woman sits down, the older woman needs to move the other room. The camera dutifully follows back and forth from Room A to Room B. The punchline? Turns out that the policeman doesn’t even want tea.

The fun of Murder! is discovering the tricks that stick versus the ones that turn out just plain awkward. That this consummately strange film is made up of pieces means it never comes together as a unified whole. Scenes don’t unfold in any kind of conventional way, and never has Hitchcock’s indifference towards plot been more apparent. And since this is a whodunit, a genre he spent his career purposely avoiding, plot is the name of the game. The experimentation often has a slightly surreal and dislodged effect, both intentional and unintentional. All the parts line up but they don’t lock in. And for all its inventions, not even Hitchcock can outwit Herbert Marshall’s Sir John. The longer he takes over the film, the more stilted the film becomes. He drones on and on and on in long shot, so oblivious to his incessant talking that it takes another character interrupting him for things to move forward.

Sir John’s actor status and the role of the theater in Murder! show the makings of another major Hitchcock trademark; his use of the theater as self-reflexive function and metaphor for artificiality. “This isn’t a play. It’s real life!”, Sir John exclaims. An early scene shows cops interviewing actors backstage in the middle of a production and they hurriedly rush on-and-off stage, answering questions in the midst of costume changes. Never mind that the bit doesn’t quite come off. An old woman is fooled (quite easily it turns out, because if we’re supposed to be Sir John’s ruse as impressive then that’s just sad) by a man feigning an old woman’s voice. Hell, Hamlet’s play-within-a-play is used as a strategic tactic to suss the killer out! There’s even a climactic suicide through performance. And the end, a final shot pulls back to reveal that Sir John and Dinah are onstage acting in a play together.

Notes:
– Herbert Marshall is a straight-laced British Jack Lemmon in this movie.
– Esme Percy’s ‘half-caste’ homosexual drag performer killer is disquieting to say the least. Both for how he plays it and how the film sees him. But for all its lesser-than view of him, it’s really surprising to see a film this early depict a ‘perverted’ killer this explicitly.

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Anybody’s Woman (US, Arzner)
I was really hoping for more being that this is from the great Dorothy Arzner. Alas, this was a disappointment, although there are a few significant takeaways to appreciate. The protagonist is a down-on-her-luck woman with the awesome name of Pansy Gray (Ruth Chatterton). She spends the film defying expectations, being unapologetically herself, and trying to do right with the odds against her in an odd situation. She’s got a keep pushin’ through the mud outlook on life. In short, she’s a survivor. And played by Ruth Chatterton with a drawled out conviction, she’s great. Sadly, the film isn’t. It starts strong, with adjacent apartments, eavesdropping, insane drunken logic, electric fans, and Ruth Chatterton casually sprawled out on a couch while singing and playing a ukulele. But it has no inkling where to go from there. I’m not even quite sure how it manages to fill out its runtime.

Films Seen in 2013: #147-152


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#147. Like Someone in Love (2013, Kiarostami)
At the tippity top of 2013 film viewings so far. A rigorously contemplative character piece that exists in the spaces of loneliness and human connection. The film functions around what would normally be central events but not on them. It ponders what brings these people together, the lies they have told themselves and each other, and the untold history of the choices they’ve made. Abbas Kiarostami is a master filmmaker, using every single camera choice to maximum effect and dangling the possibilities of character perspective in front of us like catnip. I think of that first scene for example, and the way he quite simply has the audience from the word go, all because of where he places his camera and the way he uses sound. The return value on this film, just like Certified Copy, his first film made outside of Iran, is enormous. Leaves a lot to think about, particularly that slam-bang fade-in to the closing credits.

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#148. Beyond the Hills (2013, Mungiu)
Can we all just agree that Cristian Mungiu has the best shot compositions by a director currently working? This is a harrowing work of good intentions gone horribly wrong under the perverted superstitious-driven perspective that can come through religion. It looks at a system misused in the daily life of this monastery where judgment becomes clouded and oppression against women comes through in ways that fundamentally misunderstand people’s motivations, emotions, feelings, reactions and inner selves. There is so much going on in this scathing but always admirably level-headed critique. Mungiu likes to make films that present a story that, while from his own point-of-view, promotes individual response and thought. He wants people to be thinking about the issues that are brought up and how they feel about the story presented. He doesn’t want the audience to be thinking about what he was trying to say. This makes for a film as complex as life itself.

There are no villains; everyone involved is all-too human but unable to see what is in front of them. Meaningful values have been dwindled down into limited perspectives and a medieval way of living. It’s all backwards. It becomes difficult to pinpoint when everything starts to take an uncontrollable turn in this story which is unfortunately based on an actual event.

Like the masterpiece that is 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, this is rooted in a complex and loyal female friendship, this time with unspoken intimacy and hinted history. Both women have been and are continuously let down by various institutions they come in contact with. One has committed herself to God and the other, who has some unchecked mental sickness, clings to her friend, the only person she has left. That stalemate allows the eventual tragedy to unfold in the way it does. Mungiu continues to use tension, a lack of music, long unbroken takes with precise composition and a disturbing overlay told through bleak humanism. I had been waiting for this film for 2 years and it did not disappoint. It enthralled me at every moment even when I so desperately wanted to look away.

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#149. Ex-Lady (1933, Florey)
Buoyed by of Bette Davis’ presence and her progressive free-thinking ideology, which the film surprisingly never directly throws back in her face. Unfortunately the story itself is just as non-committal as Helen. This is really just about two people who have a hard time sustaining their relationship, first in rebellion of marriage and then within it. Despite all the Pre-Code goodies (and there are plenty of bed-sharing, pre-marital sex and statements like “I don’t want babies” to be had), Ex-Lady is largely flat and nondescript.

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#150. The Place Beyond the Pines (2013, Cianfrance)
There is a critical difference between interweaving the concept of fate into storytelling and having every plot motion forward feel predetermined by the writers themselves. In The Place Beyond the Pines every choice made by every character and every tragic piece of happenstance feels forcefully pushed into place, taking any organic notion or weighty pull out of play. I appreciate the novelistic ambition of Cianfrance’s sophomore effort, the grand reverberation of father-son bonds and breakage and of class consciousness between the lower and middle class. But there’s no glue holding it together; just intent. Many have said the film falls apart in the last third, but it all feels equally hollow. First, second, and last.

No matter the purported thematic or epic scope, The Place Beyond the Pines aims to be rooted in its characters. Yet every single person is presented as a stock substitute for the real thing, led by an invisible hand towards their in-the-cards conclusion, with the women unsurprisingly faring the worst by way of archaic peripheral placement. It may be hard to believe, but merely casting Ryan Gosling does not mean a character earns my understanding or sympathy. Those puppy-blues gotta give me something more. Every single character beat is about getting to the next place, getting to the next place. As visual ellipses and dissolves abound, we steadily move our ciphers towards their non-sensible full-circle conclusion. You walk away feeling the limped strain of its message instead of its intended impact.

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#151. You’re Next (2013, Wingard)
Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/review-youre-next-2013-wingard/

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#152. The World’s End (2013, Wright)
If this kind of film were made by anyone other than Edgar Wright, the four men with grown-up lives would be seen as a problem to be fixed, as ‘stuffed shirts’ in need of letting loose. Gary King would be seen as a bringer of fun, a harbinger of good times. But The World’s End takes a much different, much more rewarding road by depicting Gary King as an alcoholic whose life peaked at 17. He is the odd one out. He is the one with problems. He is the one that needs to grow up. Whether Wright and Simon Pegg meant to or not, this is a deconstruction and a much-needed reversal of the overplayed man-child that has populated films this past decade (sometimes brilliantly sometimes tiresomely). This is a sci-fi film rooted in reality.

Matt Singer’s review over at The Dissolve put it perfectly by pointing out the fact that Wright and Pegg use spectacle to serve ideas and character, a rarity these days. What we experience with The World’s End is like an antidote to the disappointments and the unoriginality of summer ‘blockbuster’ films. The World’s End continues to take a lifetime of movie influences, both within pop culture and more obscure realms, and to refurbish them in ways that are original and exciting.

The World’s End also, like everything Wright does, rewards repeat viewings far more than the first viewing experience. Everything is intricate and interwoven in structure. The first five minutes are a mini-version of the entire film, the pub names all mean something, the exchanges fly at you with abandon.

I found myself so invested in the broken dynamic between the four men and Gary that part of me didn’t even want the genre play to kick in. The entire cast is perfect but Simon Pegg and Nick Frost both completely take me aback here. Both play against type and their interactions are the most affecting of their other onscreen pairings. Pegg in particular is something to behold with his alcoholic desperation, his put-upon obliviousness and his impossibly high energy level. Frost, Marsan, Considine and Freeman all have each other to bounce off of, but Pegg has to be on his own wavelength throughout and convey that his life is on the line in more ways than one.

It is clear (as per usual within the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy) that everyone commits to performing far more choreography that would normally be asked of actors. Between that and Wright’s ability to photograph action scenes with clarity and style, we get to see some really exciting physicality on display. Anyone who knows my tastes understands this means major points. The World’s End doesn’t stay as strong in its final minutes, but it doesn’t matter much. This is one of the most rewarding movie-going experiences I’ve had in a long time. It’s hilarious and heartfelt and built around its characters. Stasis is damaging; stasis is death. Nostalgia cannot mix with the present because bad things will happen.

PS. I’ve been waiting my whole life to see Alabama Song used to great effect in the film. My wish has finally been granted.

Films Seen in 2013: #138-146


Sorry that I’ve been away folks. I haven’t been watching as much recently due to focusing a little more on reading and also with a heavy focus on learning German at a snail’s pace. Also, in efforts to save money I’ve been cutting back on theater excursions and canceled subscriptions to Hulu Plus and DVDs from Netflix. But I signed up w/ Warner Archive again so I’ll be watching a handful of their offerings soon.

Strangers May Kiss

#138. Strangers May Kiss (1931, Fitzmaurice)

This is basically a carbon copy of The Divorcee, but not quite as quintessential or iconic. But still entertaining because Norma Shearer literally sleeps with all of Europe!!! And she gets a couple of big speeches about gender hypocrisy and what not. Of course she ends up with the total tool at the end and it is absolutely frustrating as a modern viewer to see her double back on her philosophies. However, we have to keep in mind that the depiction of any of this, that a woman would want to sleep around, does sleep around, a woman who is not playing a prostitute, who we sympathize with, who isn’t ‘fallen’, etc. All of this is highly scandalous. Highly highly scandalous. And even though the ever-fabulous Robert Montgomery plays a drinking goof, that playboy element is missing making him less fun than he is in The Divorcee. Still an important Pre-Code nonetheless.

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#139. The Heat (2013, Feig)

If I were a member of the Academy, chances are I’d submit Melissa McCarthy in The Heat for Best Actress. If there’s been better comedic work by a female in the last few years I haven’t seen it. She dusts off one-liners like they are nothing at all (they come flying at us at breakneck speed) and creates a full and layered character within a comedic framework. Her and Bullock create the best onscreen duo since Hill/Tatum in 21 Jump Street. Not coincidentally, both are buddy cop films. And unlike 21 Jump Street, which falters in its last third, The Heat manages to stay consistent with its weaknesses trinkled throughout (including a mean-spirited streak) without hindering it too much at any given time. I had such a blast watching this and Feig’s direction really comes through in getting the most laughs out of chaotic situations. Two examples being the scene at the club and the drinking montage. I’ve realized over the years that I like Sandra Bullock a lot, but she is one of those actresses who I never get to appreciate because of the projects she attaches herself to. The Heat really gave me a chance to appreciate her comedic timing. Also, I wasn’t aware until the opening credits that it was also written by a woman so; extra points.

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#140. Lore (2013, Shortland)

Short review post:

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#141. The Conjuring (2013, Wan)

It may be a one-function film without much longevity impact to it, but damn if James Wan isn’t honing his skills for some seriously effective mileage. Something I really admired about The Conjuring is just how aligned we are to the Perron family. Though the first shot of them is seen from the perspective of the house, which creates an immediate long-lasting sense of unease, we are mainly experiencing events with them instead of the more common sadistic slant. We feel upset and unnerved by the family’s experiences; genuinely spooked along with them. There is a naturalism to them which makes their experiences feel somehow more realistic. It’s nice to feel that level of empathy for the characters involved instead of them just being figurative punching bags. It also helps that the cast is full of class-act actors who sell the material with straight-faces, elevating everything to an even more respectable level. Wan knows how to spend an entire film building up to something chaotic. His sense of control both within individual scenes and how it fits into his overall trajectory of manipulation for the audience is mighty impressive. He also knows when to use flashy techniques or references and have them be effective, not distracting. The Conjuring had me at giant yellow-retro scrolling title card and long tracking shot set to “Time of the Season”. A solid and effective film like this stands out in a sea of disappointments for me so far this year.

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#142. Blue Jasmine (2013, Allen)

My favorite Woody Allen film since Husbands and Wives released just over 20 years ago. I’ll say outright that the film is somewhat riddled with potential drawbacks; the men mostly represent things, Allen’s continually simplistic look at class which can veer into caricature, and some clunky expository dialogue. But this is a genuine gut-punch from Allen, possibly his bleakest film but also his most refreshing turn in some time. It has a flashback-heavy structure that bleeds past and present as we sit in Jasmine’s mindset. Watching it recalls the back-and-forth information letting of a stage production. The sense that this could be a play, along with Jasmine’s heavy Blanche DuBois vibe, is part of what makes Blue Jasmine so memorable.

I don’t really know what to say about Cate Blanchett. She’s one of my top five living actresses and this is her best performance, indeed one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. She alternates between barely contained put-upon niceties, acidic selfishness, spaced-out madness, twitchy high-strung drunkeness and everything between. This is not a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. This is a woman who has already had a nervous breakdown and is not in a state of mind to be out in society.

Andrew Dice Clay, Bobby Cannavale and especially Sally Hawkins are other stand-outs. I really hope what with all the deserved recognition Blanchett is sure to get, that Hawkins is not lost in the mix.

When it is over you don’t really know what to do with yourself. Allen seems to almost hate his protagonist, and indeed she’s a pitiable monster who has made her own bed. But Allen and Blanchett do such a mesmerizing job of getting into her state of mind that Blue Jasmine is a rewarding experience and a tough one to shake off.

The Wolverine
#144. The Wolverine (2013, Mangold)

This seems to be the summer that really has people divided and riled up over the state of the blockbuster. I admit I ended up seeing very few of them. The main one I did see disappointed me greatly. Despite being from a director I love, and having some really refreshing philosophical ideas and themes at its root, Pacific Rim greatly disappointed me in its execution. Based on others reactions, I honestly felt like I watched a different film. I love and agree with what people have to say about it in theory; but for me it largely fell flat. I’m not saying The Wolverine gets it right; but among other blockbusters and superhero films of late, it’s comparatively scaled-down and I respect that. It is surprisingly rooted in Logan as a character. It’s not a gripping character study by any means, but the effort is there. We need more of that. Especially since it takes a great deal for me to care about any kind of superhero film at this point, or really at any point. This is coming from someone who was never really on this train to begin with. Unless we are talking about Batman Returns or Batman: The Animated Series.

I really enjoyed Rila Fukushima as Yukio, whose dynamic with Logan is purely based entirely on equal footing and eventual friendship. Even Mariko, the love interest, is given far more agency than normal. This is one of the things that worked for me in Pacific Rim by the way; relative equality in gender dynamics.

The third act is where the film completely falls apart. Until then, it is solid summer popcorn. My huge problem with Wolverine as a character has always been his immorality and lack of invulnerability make him inherently uninteresting to me as far as stakes are concerned. Hugh Jackman has long-standing synergy in this part but when his big dilemma really comes down to him being slightly tired after a fight and temporarily mortal like the rest of us (still with claws and strength), I can only care so much.

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#144. Ruggles of Red Gap (1935, McCarey)

A beautifully wry, moving and patriotic cross-cultural comedy that wears its gentle earnestness on its sleeve even as it pokes fun at the very thing it promotes. What surprised me about Ruggles of Red Gap is the way in which the changes within Ruggles sneaks up on both him and us. It’s so subtle and so genuinely affecting almost 80 years later. The realization of opportunity and its potential. It all shines through a remarkable performance by Charles Laughton in his first onscreen comedic role. An actor known for playing in extremes, this is a deceptively subtle performance; indeed, extreme in its subtlety. It’s a consistently surprising bit of acting too; the mileage you can get out of interpreting and dissecting what he does here is considerable. And this is a genuinely funny film to boot. It’s got everything, including a divine stop’s-everyone-in-their-tracks reading of the Gettysburg Address and an uplifting ending that demands the use of a hankie. A new favorite and though it’s relatively well-known amongst film buffs, this really should be a part of the public consciousness of iconic 1930’s films.

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145. Thirteen Women (1932, Archainbaud)

A preposterous and thus impossible-to-resist early slasher-like Pre-Code. I’ve always been fascinated by the systematic yellowface casting of Myrna Loy in Eastern dragon-lady parts throughout the early 30’s. Here, her character blurts out her sufferings in the final minutes, stuck between desperate attempts at assimilation and not being seen as human to those around her, which the film itself further perpetuates at every turn. She is mystical, a villainous Other, with a left-of-field revenge plot that might be the most absurd revenge scheme ever in a film. This is all intriguing stuff and Loy is easily the most interesting part of Thirteen Women with her piercing eyes, unmovable stance and fabulous costumes. The rest of the women are just sort of there, barely developed and then offed; the film clocks in at just under an hour. Along the way there are bombs planted in rubber balls, suicides, murders, happily single and proudly independent mothers, hints at past promiscuity and heaps of gullible women who succumb to the power of suggestion. It’s a bizarre oddity, which makes it a lot of fun to watch.

Anytime I encounter yellowface I always try to promote the PBS documentary Hollywood Chinese, which looks at the history of yellowface within Hollywood films.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #112-117


Though I’ve also seen Behind the Candelabra, The Boat That Rocked, Point Break and Blood but I’m going to shift those into this upcoming week’s entry.

The Easiest Way
#112. The Easiest Way (1931, Conway)

My quest to see pretty much every Pre-Code continues. This viewing was also inspired by a resurgence of love for Robert Montgomery. I found myself falling for him many years ago, back when I first started watching classic films. It subsided for years until I saw him in When Ladies Meet this year. It all came flowing back. The dapper obliviousness. The drunken cavorting. The boyish charm.

The Easiest Way disappointed me quite a bit, though an ambitiously mobile camera and a couple of outdoors scenes lend a little to grasp on from a formal point of view. The story didn’t bring the progressive aspects of women claiming their own desires, even under the guise of a compromised message film. Instead, we see Constance Bennett exhibiting inertia as subdued dignity. Her lack of character kills the film in its tracks. Many people love Bennett; stunner though she is, color me unimpressed with her acting abilities (at least here). Watching a non-entity of a character make poor choices and become a pity-case for Depression-era women about what not to do in the face of easy opportunity isn’t very fun. Furthermore, Robert Montgomery gets a pitiful fifteen minutes of screen time. Slightly making up for this is his perfect entrance.

Anita Page as Bennett’s sister, and Clark Gable in his first sizable role as her husband, are a parallel instructional couple of how to live life as a woman in the 30’s. Honestly and dutifully of course!

There are a few notables here. Though the final scene plays into my inherent issues with the film, it strikes an effectively complex and bittersweet cord. Marjorie Rambeau has a palpable desperate quality to her speeches which also mark the most astute and empowering material in the film.

Side Effects
#113. Side Effects (2013, Soderbergh)

Much more satisfying than the slim pickin’ offerings of Haywire, Side Effects is another yet another Steven Soderbergh genre exercise, this time working within a third generation Hitchockian springboard. It’s a meticulous Jenga tower of a pharmaceutical potboiler fronted by Scott Z. Burns’ precision and Soderbergh’s reliably yellow-hued stasis. It’s a satisfying old-fashioned romp that plays around with manipulation through perspective.

Its final act veers into somewhat uncomfortable territory. I’m not sure if we’re ready to have gleeful throwbacks to the archaic sexual politics of 80’s/early 90’s thrillers with no repercussions. Even more importantly, it simply doesn’t come off, landing between preposterous yet not preposterous enough to retain the necessary guffaw factor. Other unfortunate elements include Vinessa Shaw’s shrill one-note wife.

The trailers worked too hard to cover up its halfway point event, making the very thing they were trying to hide obvious. However, I appreciate that the marketing had the intended effect of not knowing where the film was going after the halfway point. Rooney Mara and Jude Law are both excellent, particularly Mara who paints a realistic picture of crippling depression with her doe-eyed fragility as well as her other layered nuances of character.

Soderbergh’s cinematography under pseudonym Peter Andrews presents some of the best, and at the very least some of my personal favorite, digital cinematography I’ve seen, utilizing shallow focus and deep sensual lighting amidst a clinical backdrop.

Night Must Fall

#114. Night Must Fall (1937, Thorpe)

I’m a big ball of giddiness when it comes to Night Must Fall. It features a career-best performance from Robert Montgomery, playing against type as an Irish homicidal maniac with equal parts charm, vulnerability and psychosis. Opposite him is Rosalind Russell as a repressed quiet niece torn between her fascination for morbid visceral excitement and recognizing her fright as a dangerous reality and that her inaction is paved with potential consequence. There’s an atypically interesting and rich dichotomy between the two characters; it almost feels like a plot line from “Dexter”; except actually good. No, great.

Night Must Fall is severely underrated and filled with character-driven tension. I basically spent the entire time lustily swooning over Montgomery, getting lost in his ‘baby-faced’ Irish lilt and trickster charm tactics. This is a memorable yarn based on an acclaimed play of the time and featuring Robert Montgomery’s only Academy Award nominated performance (and his own favorite performance as well). That introductory shot with the nonchalant swinging door is one of the best first character glimpses in film. I’d count this film among my many favorites.

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#115. Pieta (2013, Kim)

“To put it bluntly, Pietà is a baseless experience posturing under the guise of arthouse profundity. I’m not quite sure what Michael Mann and fellow jury members were thinking when they awarded it the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival. I’m also not sure how so many people are being tricked into finding meaning in this faux infant terrible submission. It comes down on us like a sloppily blunt object but without the impact. Kim Ki-duk’s limply affected ‘realism’ is a creative cop-out as he shamelessly uses his name and reputation to wrongly excuse his barely present content. It’s a defense mechanism that only goes so far; you only have to remove his proclamation ’18th film’ statement to realize this entire film, from its unpracticed camera to its cheap shock tactics, is a pile of bull.”

Full Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/05/24/review-pieta-2013-kim/

Sightseers

#116. Sightseers (2013, Wheatley)

Rising out of the same kind of mundane death-related British humor from films like Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Trouble with Harry, Sightseers is sprinkled with moments of scathing clarity but is too often bogged down in one-note transparency. We get it. It’s funny because Tina and Chris treat murder like light-hearted shenanigans.

Alice Lowe and Steve Oram created these characters and wrote the film, which Ben Wheatley then directed. Tina and Chris are both pretty pitiful individuals with Chris lacking for creativity and swamped in resentful class issues and Tina a repressed dog psychology obsessive whose life has passed by taking care of her deeply unpleasant mother. Though it boasts two fantastic lead performances, my main problem with Sightseers is that they are seen as pathetic creatures. They are not depicted with an adoptive get-on-board-the-murder-train sympathetic glee, even if Wheatley and co do a good job of entrenching us into their mindsets. They are depicted with one-note pity, as sad adults in arrested development. You don’t root for them and I wanted to be rooting for them.

The trajectory of their road trip, and the film, is a lovingly crafted smaller sights of Northern England tour (the Pencil Museum!) There are shots, like the one above, that Wheatley employs that have either Oram or Lowe staring straight into the camera that are involving instigating moments. And that final scene is tops; truly tops and the kind of biting jab the rest of the film was trying to execute with intermittent success. Basically, Scott Tobias’ NPR review perfectly sums up how I felt about it. He articulated it way better than I ever could.

The Big House
#117. The Big House (1930, Hill)

Known as pretty much the first prison film, The Big House establishes a well-known prototype whilst stretching out the boundaries of its own blueprint. Basically, it tweaks its own formula while simultaneously establishing it. Writer Frances Marion became the first female to win a non-acting Oscar for her screenplay and a lot of prison visits and research went into her preparation. So the film is on one level a critique of the prison system, namely the indoctrination process and life within a microcosm society. Overcrowding, poor care, conformity, discipline and the authorial rot are all addressed.

We expect to sympathize with Robert Montgomery’s Kent, a Tobias Beecher-lite audience surrogate, with the touted up big-shots of Chester Morris and Wallace Beery as our troublemakers. In fact, Montgomery’s shifty snitch-fish out of water is seen as the enemy. Morris and Beery, united by loyalty and an inside-out pattern of established friendship are actually the ones with which we sympathize. Chester Morris, who had yet to impress me in a film, is fantastic here. And Beery, in a role that brought him back on top elicits the perfect dangerous but soft lovable aura, even as he talks about his murder rap and knocking dames teeth in. A rare gift that. The two have such memorable chemistry and you become very attached to their camaraderie.

George W. Hill gets around the stilted blocking of early talkies by mixing it up where he can. He creates a claustrophobic atmosphere of sweat and brawn, using boxed-in framing and dark strips and towering architectural structure which threatens to weigh down on the prisoners. There is also a lot of panning and effective use of close-up. Montgomery’s darting eyes are so well-captured in the second half. You are just waiting for him to explode with quaking fear. And finally, the climax of the film is a thrillingly-mounted event of smoky chaos and uncontrollable gunfire. In short, this ranks up among my favorite Pre-Code films.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #98-105 & Reintroduction #32


Witchfinder General

#98. Witchfinder General (1968, Reeves)
Depicting violence without key trade-offs for the audience i.e titillation, a focus on the build-up to and the inevitable ‘pay-off’ was a bold and hard-to-swallow conceit in 1968 (especially by those expecting a ‘Vincent Price’ movie). Hell, it still is. Michael Reeves, who died at age 25 shortly after this film’s release, took some chances with his scummy trek through an inescapably bleak world where power yields a blank check of unimaginable suffering. It’s all doled out in matter-of-fact fashion by Vincent Price, in a chilling atypical depiction of collected subtlety. There’s really nothing inherently or traditionally enjoyable about Witchfinder General but that doesn’t take away from it being a good film. Perhaps the most admirable thing about it is that it while its depiction of 17th century England is likely not a paragon of accuracy, it feels so dirty, so lived in, so meager. It steps beyond forced recreations of time periods with its low-budget expenditure and a washed out glow of pales and whistling winds. It’s not a pretty film in either content or aesthetic and Reeves makes good by sticking to his guns in this way.

Hoop Dreams

99. Hoop Dreams (1994, James, etc)
Some of my favorite documentaries are the ones where the finished product is entirely different from its original conception (ex. The Up Series, Capturing the Friedmans). Hoop Dreams was meant to be a 30-minute special, only to morph into an ambitious 4-year project, collecting 250 hours worth of footage. Examining the American Dream via two African-American teenagers in inner-city Chicago who dream of playing in the NBA, Hoop Dreams develops far beyond its subject. I don’t like basketball. Hell, I don’t really care for sports. But this isn’t about basketball. It’s about the make-it-or-break-it years for William Gates and Arthur Agee, both extremely talented players. In the world of basketball, adolscence is where the stakes are highest both professionally and personally. This is more than just a dream for Agee and Gates. In an urban enviornment such as this, surviving and graduating high school are considered not give-ins but achievements that not everyone gets to experience. Success means getting out of their ‘inherited incarceration’ and making a better life for themselves and their families. The pressure on them from themselves, family members, professional mentors, coaches, etc. is incaluculable and palpable. The stakes literally become life-or-death for these kids and we as an audience get wholly caught up in their victories and their strife.

The running time and the way Steve James and company assemble the film, which follows the two boys throughout their high school career, lets everything breathe. We are so used to super-structured documentaries and reality TV, that to see Hoop Dreams both construct a narrative, and acknowledge that it’s not the narrative feels revelatory. The filmmakers always take care to remind us that we are getting a sliver of a peek into their lives. Events unfold naturally and often surprisingly, being careful never to anticipate the directions the boys lives will take. We get our information presumably when the filmmakers do.

In constant periphery are the inherent and complex social and economic problems that pervade all without it ever feeling condescending to its subjects. Hoop Dreams is on-the-level and some people could learn a lesson on how to represent African-American inner-city life almost two decades later.

Included is the life-and-money-sucking meat market of the sports world where coaches, schools, recruiting agents and the like fall over each other for a taste of these kids, promising riches and waiting to suck them dry before their lives have even started. St. Joseph’s witholding of Arthur’s scholarship is devastating as is any other number of things in Hoop Dreams. This is a rousing and at times overwhelmingly emotional and involving experience that stands at the tippity-top of the best documentaries out there.

lady-for-a-day

#100. Lady for a Day (1933, Capra)
Whoever haughtily dismisses this early Frank Capra is off their rocker. Because I’ll say it outright; I prefer this to It Happened One Night. That has just as much to do with how lukewarm I am towards It Happened One Night as it represents how much I loved Lady for a Day.

It’s the earliest Capra film that oozes his trademark sentimentalist formula. It’s yanks at your insides but provides just as many belly-laughs. It’s populated with character actors, mostly from the Warner Brothers lot, giving everyone a chance to shine. It’s bookended by estranged family schmaltz and is a delicious comedy of errors at its center. Warren Willam, May Robson, Guy Kibbee and Ned Sparks are all memorable, even if Robson is dropped in the middle section.

Lady for a Day encapsulates what I love about Old Hollywood and the singular spell it can cast. It’s a world where a superstitious gangster won’t make any shady deals until he buys an apple from ‘Apple Annie’. The film is unabashedly sentimental, completely preposterous, and a result, summarily charming.

deadmansbrdn1

#101. Dead Man’s Burden (2013, Moshe)
Full Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/review-dead-mans-burden-2013-moshe/

summertime-3

#102. Summertime (1955, Lean)
A limply dated love story can’t stop Katherine Hepburn’s poignant portrait of a spinster daring to hope for love or David Lean’s touristy love of Venice from shining through.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot posthttps://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/05/08/hit-me-with-your-best-shot-summertime-1955-lean/

Bad Timing

#103. Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession (1980, Roeg)
Nicolas Roeg uses his elliptical memory-based editing to great effect here as past and present reminisce, contradict, and reveal the troubled layers beneath a turbulent relationship based on conflicting interests in desires for possession and freedom. Roeg uses Art Garfunkel’s persona to swerve expectation. We presume to encounter wordly kindness from him. Instead he’s a cold demeaning asshole. Garfunkel’s lack of acting ability damages the film in some ways, but also has its advantage in the streak of indifferent cruelty he unintentionally exudes.

Theresa Russell is fiery and damaged and a force to be reckoned with. The film works against her, invalidating her claim to independence by giving her a self-destructive weakness, and by being so invested in the way Garfunkel’s obsession with her is undone by old-time masculine arrogance. It’s also got a misogynistic streak. But I think Russell’s performance saves the film from being accusingly dismissive of her perspective on life. She gets Melina. She gets that she dares to want her own life, to not be defined or owned by a man. She presents this with a conviction shakeable only in her inability to reconcile when it gets down to brass tacks. And so I got Melina and sympathized with her plight even when Bad Timing seems to want to dismiss her as an alcoholic emotional wreck. In a sense she saves the film and I mostly loved it as a result. It’s an obsessive, delusional work of in-sync connections giving way to an unresolvable avalanche. It demands more attention, as much as Roeg’s most famous works.

Three Strangers

#104. Three Strangers (1946, Negulesco)
I’ve been wanting to see all of the Peter Lorre/Sydney Greenstreet collaborations for years now. Last month I saw that both Three Strangers and The Verdict were going to air on TCM, and so I commanded my DVR to finally trap them for me. I had heard both are overlooked films to seek out and after seeing them I have to agree.

We meet the three strangers just as they converge, without context, brought together by Geraldine Fitzgerald’s frank pretend-dalliance into prostitution. Greenstreet’s expression when he sees Lorre in the apartment is priceless. Placing a ritualistic gamble on Chinese goddess Kwan Yin, each go their seperate way and we see all three (with the partial exception to sympathetic loser Lorre) knee deep in their own criminal activity, manipulation and scheming.

Three Strangers is about fate and asks whether or not destiny already had it out for these three characters. Only Lorre realizes that fate is an excuse, that you have a choice and that this choice stems from the soul of your own person. Greenstreet and Fitzgerald never had a chance because they mistook destiny for their own greedy gait which only left one path for their ends.

The film’s middle section gets away from the main three and there are troublingly less engaging times to be had when ten minutes pass and we haven’t seen Lorre, Greenstreet or Fitzgerald. But when it concentrates on any or all of them, each gets their chance to play the hell out of their parts. The film is a study of nefarious deeds and the relentlessness that comes with unknowingly digging one’s own fateful grave. Negulesco gives the film a dreamlike connective tissue which feels like an upper hand moving the chess pieces of fate into place.

The Verdict

#105. The Verdict (1946, Siegel)
Don Siegel, who would go on to direct Dirty Harry, Two Mules for Sister Sara and much more in future decades, gets off to a formidable start with this fog-strewn whodunit set in London starring Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. Its twist ending is relatively evident but that in no way takes away from The Verdict and the revelation still lands. In another film, the plot set-up would lay the cobblestones for a shot at redemption. Here, it sets up a suicide run.

Lorre, playing another man who loves to dilly-dally with alcohol, is tops as usual. Really, the whole thing is a great yarn. At this point, it’s become a grand ambition in my life to be a Lorre/Greenstreet afficianado. Films with Lorre and Greenstreet headlining are more than worth seeking out, first for their existence and second because they are wonderful fare. I fear I’ve seen the best of them, although I hear great things about The Mask of Dimitrios.

Alice

Reintroduction #32:
Alice (1988, Svankmajer)
First Seen in: 2009
While fairy tales and unrelated cousins, such as Lewis Carroll’s works, inaccurately get categorized as fairy tales and continue to be trendily bastardized into lazy old forms, I went back to visit what is easily my favorite adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic. This is another film I’d love to write about at length someday. For now, a quick basic gathering of thoughts will suffice.

To be clear, Alice isn’t a full-on adaptation and the credits even state ‘inspired by…’. It’s amusing that the most artistically rewarding take on Carroll’s work is really a decayed skeletal recreation, nothing like the dainty fantasy of the book. For Svankmajer, there is no Wonderland; only shavings, nails, wood, bones, endless clutter, keys, pebbles and the like within a decomposing house. There’s nothing wondrous or magical here in the traditional sense. The world of Alice is constructed out of a fascination with found objects, and with Svankmajer’s bizarrely unforgettable and literally eye-popping stop-motion mastery. The sound design is as crucial to Alice as the visuals are, calling attention to itself in an out-of-step way, purposely existing on a different plane.

The magic of Alice is undoubtedly in Svankmajer’s stop-motion work,which brings sawdust-stuffed rabbits, socks, skeletons, cards, leaves and dolls to unsettling life. It makes the power of Alice what we discover through sight and sound. There’s little-to-no dialogue, which is all told in narration and purposely dubbed over in English. The story is stripped to its abstract subconscious guts and thrown at us in dreamlike image after dreamlike image.

It comes back to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland being inaccurately categorized as a fairy tale. Sure, a connection can be drawn to fairy tales in that there is a lesson to be learned, a parable at its fantasy-laced heart. Jan Svankmajer forgoes all of this for his first feature film, focusing instead on the dream state. Alice’s curiosity and the art of nonsense is distilled into pure uncut image and sound, and as an audience our understanding of the possible is newly awakened.