What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1930: A Love Letter


My What I’ll Remember posts are an ongoing tradition in the Top Ten By Year Project. A logbook of sorts, they pay tribute to all the year-specific viewing I’ve done over the past however many months. It also stresses that, while the Top Ten list is the crux of this whole project, it’s really a means to an end. It goes without saying, but the process and journey of watching and re-watching these films is most important. I’ve recently looked back on previous What I’ll Remember posts and they evoke the feeling of a photo album, flipping through filmic memories of all shapes and sizes. Top Ten By Year: 1930 will be up by the end of the month.

Posts in the What I’ll Remember tag: 1925, 1943, 1958, 1965, 1978, 1992, 2012, 2013, 2014

Top Ten By Year: 1930 Coverage
Top Ten By Year: 1930 – Poll Results 
Movie Poster Highlights: 1930 
100 Images from the Films of 1930 
Favorite Fashion in 1930 Film

1930 aka The Year Garbo Spoke and The Year Lon Chaney Died

The oh-so-brief but oh-so-magical forerunners of the widescreen format, the too ambitious for its time 70mm Fox Grandeur film (The Big Trail, Song o’ My Heartand MAGNAFILM (The Bat Whispers)

As much as anything else, for me 1930 is The Year of Lillian Roth. She is one of my favorite screen presences and esoteric pop culture figures of all time, a gifted comedienne with a crinkly nose and a practiced yet untouched vivacity. Her initial film career only lasted from 1929-1930, and 1933. She only appeared in 13 feature length films across her lifetime. Five of those were in 1930 when she was 20 years old.  They were The Vagabond King, Honey, Paramount on Parade, Madam Satan, Animal Crackers, and Sea Legs.

The bedroom farce that is Madam Satan, the disaster film that is Madam Satan, the awkward musical that is Madam Satan, the outrageous and doomed masquerade party on a zeppelin that is Madam Satan, the rekindled love story that is Madam Satan. In short; Madam Satan

LetUsBeGay11May I Present The Dull As Fuck Leading Man Brigade of 1930: 
Rod la Rocque (Let Us Be Gay), Douglass Montgomery (Paid), Chester Morris (The Divorcee), Clive Brook (Anybody’s Woman), Charles Starrett (Fast and Loose), Gavin Gordon (Romance), Jack Buchanan (Monte Carlo), Ralph Graves (Ladies of Leisure), John Garrick (Just Imagine), Ben Lyon (Hell’s Angels)

Spotting Ann Dvorak, another all-time favorite of mine, as a chorus girl in Free and Easy

Introducing!
(actors in their feature film debut in something more substantial than extra/bit part):
Spencer Tracy (Up the River), James Cagney (Sinners Holiday, The Doorway to Hell), Miriam Hopkins (Fast and Loose), Jean Harlow (Hell’s Angels), Laurence Olivier (The Temporary Widow), Irene Dunne (Leathernecking), Bing Crosby (King of Jazz), Herbert Marshall (Murder!), Una O’Connor (Murder!), Rose Hobart (Liliom), Una Merkel (The Bat Whispers, Abraham Lincoln, etc.)

the big trail 7The American West in The Big Trail 

MGM starlets playing characters named Jerry/Gerry – can we please bring back this trend? (Norma Shearer in The Divorcee, Joan Crawford in Our Blushing Brides)

The sing-song jury meeting scene in Murder!

Failed Bids for Sustained or Successful Hollywood Fame
(mostly musical-based careers, not exhaustive):
Marilyn Miller, Lawrence Tibbett, Vivienne Segal, John McCormack, Fanny Brice, Dennis King, Winnie Lightner, Paul Gregory, Zelma O’Neal, Helen Kane, Betty Boyd, Bernice Clare, Sharon Lynn, Jeanette Loff, Alice White, James Hall, The Sisters G, Ona Munson (later character actress), Claudia Dell, Charlotte Greenwood, Norma Terris, Ethelind Terry

The sequence in Follow Thru when Jack Haley and Eugene Pallette sneak into the girls locker room to steal a ring. They come up with hand signals. They pretend to be plumbers. The girls are in various stages of undress. It all builds to a moment of perfect anarchy

The Rise Of:
Marlene Dietrich, Robert Montgomery, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, William Powell, Barbara Stanwyck, John Wayne, Kay Francis, Helen Twelvetrees, Ann Harding, Jean Harlow

Two-Strip Technicolor! (Follow Thru, King of Jazz, portion of Hell’s Angels)

The sheer existence of King of Jazz, the most elaborate and audaciously overproduced spectacle film I’ve ever seen from the Golden Age of Hollywood

HellsAngels11

hell's angels
The privilege of seeing Jean Harlow in color and with natural eyebrows (Hell’s Angels). Also realizing that tomboy Jean Harlow is the most attractive Jean Harlow

The last year before the modern movie genre begins to get in formation, allowing for a final round of bizarre and unrepeatable genre hybrids (Madam Satan, Liliom, The Bat Whispers, King of Jazz, Just Imagine)

Knowingly playing with artificiality (Murder!, Liliom, The Blue Angel)

The unintentional meta symbolism of Louise Brooks’s onscreen death in Prix de Beauté

the big trail 3The eye candy that is John Wayne in The Big Trail 

Movies Interacting with Other Movies:
Joan Crawford in MGM’s Paid going to see MGM’s Let Us Be Gay in the theater, Fast and Loose playing Follow Thru’s “Peach of a Pear” in the background during a scene, King of Jazz giving a shout-out to Universal’s upcoming All Quiet on the Western Front

♫♫”Look out, look out the dumb police are on your trail”♫♫ (Liliom)

♫♫ We’re going somewhere
We’re going nowhere
We’re going everyyyyywhere ♫♫
(Madam Satan)

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Meta Moments:
(Murder!, Die drei von der Tankstelle, The Bat Whispers, Free and Easy)

Alfred Hitchcock using Murder! as a platform to blatantly experiment with sound from all conceivable angles

Jean Grémillon using La petite Lise as a platform to inconspicuously experiment with integrating sound as tapestry

Loaded glaring and ample cowardice in The Big House 

Howard Hawks using sound in The Dawn Patrol as a platform for more natural dialogue and an immersion into the communal and isolated male experience of wartime

Realizing I’d much rather see an all-male story over a film that clearly wants to be an all-male story but throws a woman in the mix that it has zero time or respect for
(The Dawn Patrol and All Quiet on the Western Front vs. Hell’s Angels and The Big House

scary
Scary Images of 1930 Cinema:
Chester Morris’s shadowy confrontational glare (The Bat Whispers), Paul Whiteman as a winking moon (King of Jazz), Jack Haley’s spastic eyebrows (Follow Thru), the creepy man-baby (King of Jazz), Emil Jannings: The Humiliated Clown (The Blue Angel), Buster Keaton: The Humiliated Clown (Free and Easy)

Electric fans as plot point! (Anybody’s Woman)

My first wholly depressing experience with Buster Keaton’s trademark bassoon baboon talkie moron in Free and Easy. The humiliations endured by Keaton here are a special level of cruel, not to mention that he’s forced to act in an MGM film within an MGM film

Learning to appreciate Chester Morris when his characters operate outside the confines of the typical romantic lead (The Bat Whispers, The Big House as opposed to The Divorcee)

People on Sunday 2
The four central day-trippers in People on Sunday are great and all but I’m all about Annie (Annie Schreyer), the beautiful lazy loafer who sleeps all weekend

The Dawn Patrol > All Quiet on the Western Front > Hell’s Angels 

Finding eroticism and profundity in rain and simple gestures (Ladies of Leisure)

American sound films that feel refreshingly free from the pressures of plot
(Laughter, The Dawn Patrol, King of Jazz, Animal Crackers)

Ahh Golden Dawn, a movie with bottomless racism and a song (“A Tiger”) that features a woman singing about explicitly wanting a man to straight-up beat her

Getting to watch one of my favorite men, Robert Montgomery, in his early career mode of sexy cad (Our Blushing Brides, The Divorcee, Free and Easy)

That damn car horn in Die drei von der Tankstelle 

One of my favorite niche genres in film: Department Store Gals (Our Blushing Brides, Au bonheur des dames)

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That kiss in Morocco

The unforgettable schizophrenic feeling of Borderline 

Uncle hits a breaking point in one of the most unsettling and feverish sequences in silent cinema (Au bonheur des dames)

The Fall Of:
(once major stars declining in popularity or quality of work, either momentarily or permanently)
Clara Bow, John Gilbert, Al Jolson, Corrine Griffith, Norma Talmadge, Charles Farrell, Mary Pickford, Dolores Costello, Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks

the dawn patrol 8Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s adorably playful drunken interaction with the German officer who shot him down in The Dawn Patrol 

The way Kent (Robert Montgomery) is used to subvert audience expectations in The Big House

The radical modernity and spontaneity of Barbara Stanwyck’s performance in Ladies of Leisure

herbertmarshall
Herbert Marshall looking like a straight-laced Jack Lemmon in Murder!

Everywhere, Everywhere, Miniatures Everywhere:
(including but not limited to Ladies of Leisure, Liliom, Madam Satan, Murder!, The Bat Whispers, Under the Roofs of Paris, Outward Bound)

Haunting child deaths (L’age d’Or, The Doorway to Hell, Blood of a Poet)

Doorway to Hell 6My favorite moment in The Doorway to Hell: Doris (Dorothy Mathews) is talking on the phone to Mileaway (James Cagney) about how lame Louie (Lew Ayres) has become now that he’s removed himself from gangster life. Then Louie comes in wearing the above outfit and says “I’m a fine golfer”

The rigorous tailoring of Marlene Dietrich’s image is born in the short time between filming The Blue Angel and Morocco (though American audiences saw Morocco first)

Marjorie Rambeau playing a kindly pitiful drunk (Her Man) and a wretched pitiful drunk (Min and Bill)

Hells_Angels107
Watching the incredible aerial footage of Hell’s Angels knowing that several pilots died because of Howard Hughes’s unstoppable ambition

The tiresome trend of introducing unrelated low comedy subplots to lighten things up (Min and Bill, The Big Trail, Her Man, Golden Dawn)

The formal rule-breaking of the prison sequence in La Petite Lise

Running through the wheat fields in City Girl

Tale of the Fox (2)
The staggering stop-motion animation of Le Roman de Renard (The Tale of the Fox). Figures, flow, range of expression. Like watching Fantastic Mr. Fox eighty years before the fact

The Claire Denis-esque way that Tilly Losch’s dance and body movements are shot in the short Dance of the Hands 

Great Character Names:
Tripod McMasters (Wallace Beery; Way for a Sailor) Mrs. Bouccy Bouccicault (Marie Dressler; Let Us Be Gay), Amy Jolly (Marlene Dietrich; Morocco), Mileaway (James Cagney; The Doorway to Hell) Pansy Gray (Ruth Chatterton; Anybody’s Woman), Arabella Rittenhouse (Lillian Roth; Animal Crackers), Dulcinea Parker (Marion Davies; Not So Dumb) Countess Olga Balakireff (Kay Francis; A Notorious Affair), Lem Tustine (Charles Farrell; City Girl)

Being hypnotized by the close-up movement of gears in the avant-garde short Mechanical Principles 

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Esme Percy’s ‘half-caste’ homosexual drag performer killer in Murder!

The messy but unshakable loyal friendship between Morgan and Butch (Chester Morris and Wallace Beery) in The Big House

Wanting to live in the proto-French New Wave romantic bloom of People on Sunday and its immaculate footage of 1930 Berlin

three good friends 3

The angle of this shot, which takes place during a song, should give you a sense of how sophisticated and ahead of its time Die drei von der Tankstelle is within the context of ‘1930 musical’

Mops/Mopsi; Lilian Harvey’s nickname for her father in Die drei von der Tankstelle

Jean Cocteau’s trademark surrealist special effects, showing us a portal to another world and a statue that clings to its maker in Blood of a Poet 

Being reminded that The Blue Angel disturbs me more than most films

norma9Norma Shearer going full dowdy (Let Us Be Gay)

The bleak ending of Street of Chance, with an unseen level of implied violence that makes way for the much more famous ending of 1931’s The Public Enemy 

Films with a leftover from silents; intertitles
(including Anybody’s Woman, The Big Trail, Liliom, Follow Thru, A Notorious Affair, Not So Dumb)

A Notorious Affair 2Kay Francis giving interior life to her intoxicating Countess vamp in one of the worst films I’ve ever seen (A Notorious Affair). Her work, and the above image, deserve so much better

Sound films that don’t capitalize on dialogue, instead using sound as an extension of silent film (Prix de beaute, L’age d’Or, La petite Lise, The Blue Angel, Blood of a Poet. Basically; the non-American films)

The confirmation that I don’t much care for the two most canonized films of 1930, L’age d’Or and The Blue Angel

nutshellThe Nutshell Pictures Corporation logo, which features an animated dog pissing into a plant (Dance of Her Hands)

Busby Berkeley choreography appears on film for the first time ever in Whoopee!

Discovering the sassy greatness that is Marie Prevost. Once a leading lady, by 1930 (because of weight gain and alcohol abuse) she was relegated to the goofy “best friend” roles which she used to steal every film she appeared in (Paid, Ladies of Leisure, War Nurse

Only in an MGM film would a character have an art deco loft hidden in a tree (Our Blushing Brides)

Josef von Sternberg’s trademark absolute submission to love and desire in The Blue Angel and Morocco. The former filled with despair, the latter with triumph and a dash of hope.

Speaking of, the incredible final scene and shot of Morocco. The radical act of linking up with a group of women following their men into the desert and the unknown

Rooting with all my heart for Lem and Kate (Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan) in City Girl 

Doorway to Hell 51930’s James Cagney is as sexy as sexy gets in case you needed to be reminded (The Doorway to Hell)

Frances Marion dominating the early world of talkie screenwriting with credits for Min and Bill, Anna Christie (adapted by), The Rogue Song, Let Us Be Gay (continuity and dialogue), Good News (scenario), and for being the first woman to win a non-acting Oscar for her work on The Big House.

The use of interior space in Laughter

monte carlo 10Jeanette MacDonald going bonkers and rustling up her precious hair in Monte Carlo

Favorite Characters: Kate (Mary Duncan; City Girl), Douglas Scott (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; The Dawn Patrol), Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich; The Blue Angel), Annie (Annie Schreyer; People on Sunday), Paul Lockridge (Fredric March; Laughter), Countess Olga Balakireff (Kay Francis; A Notorious Affair), Trixie (Lillian Roth; Madam Satan), Jimmy Wade (Roland Young; Madam Satan), Dot Lamar (Marie Prevost; Ladies of Leisure)

Least Favorite Characters: Jack Martin (Jack Haley; Follow Thru), Professor Emmanuel Rath (Emil Jannings; The Blue Angel), Andre (Georges Charlia; Prix de beaute), Mr. Tustine (David Torrence; City Girl), Paul Gherardi (Basil Rathbone; A Notorious Affair), everyone in Golden Dawn, Count Rudolph Falliere (Jack Buchanan; Monte Carlo)

Laughter 11Fredric March suddenly kissing Nancy Carroll behind the neck while driving in Laughter, one of the sexiest gestures ever committed to film

The sketchy but catchy “Trimmin’ the Women” song in Monte Carlo 

Proto-screwball comedies (Not So Dumb, Fast and Loose)

The mock-up symbolic hallucinatory carnival in Liliom

The most unintentionally hilarious bit from any 1930 film (Golden Dawn)

The forgotten and incomprehensible mega-fame of El Brendel (Just Imagine, The Big Trail, Her Golden Calf, New Movietone Follies of 1930).

Orgasm from hair treatment in Monte Carlo  

Based on a Play (Paid, Romance, Fast and Loose, The Bat Whispers, Liliom, Ladies of Leisure, Follow Thru, Murder!, A Notorious Affair, Animal Crackers, Her Man (well, kind of), Not So Dumb, Let Us Be Gay, Outward Bound)

paid 4The revelation that Joan Crawford is, at least in Paid, a dead ringer for Sigourney Weaver

The onscreen persona of Wallace Beery amounts to a real-life Baloo the Bear (The Big House, Way for a Sailor, Min and Bill). He manages the impossible by remaining lovable even when talking about his murder rap or domestic abuse. A rare gift that.

 The distinct hilarity Miriam Hopkins wrings out of “I’m sorry” is the epitome of what makes her so great (Fast and Loose)

♫♫ She wanted to take it further
So she arranged a place to go
To see if he
Would fall for her incognito  ♫♫
(Madam Satan & “Babooshka” by Kate Bush)

The wholesome sex comedy is born with Follow Thru 

Marie Dressler beating the piss out of Wallace Beery and tearing apart his room in Min and Bill 

Laughter 16Fredric March casually drinking coffee in a polar bearskin rug in Laughter 

The wordless sequence in which Jerry (Norma Shearer) allows herself to be illicitly seduced by playboy Don (Robert Montgomery) in The Divorcee

The names of the party guests in Madam Satan (Miss Conning Tower! Mr. and Mrs. Hot & Tot! Mr. & Mrs. High Hat! Miss Victory! Miss Movie Fan! Fish Girl!)

The “I Want to Be Bad” number in Follow Thru

QUOTES:

“I’ve balanced our accounts”
(Norma Shearer in The Divorcee, talking to her husband about her promiscuity)

“I know now how a man feels about these things”
(Norma Shearer in Let Us Be Gay, talking to her husband about her promiscuity)

“It’s that coin that makes them so sassy Cassidy”
(Paid)

“I’m an orchid and he wants to change me into a lily” (Barbara Stanwyck in Ladies of Leisure)

“I never knew you had pale blue eyes. I hate pale blue eyes. Funny, I never noticed it before” (Kay Francis in A Notorious Affair)

Ted: “Who’s the man?”
Jerry: “Oh, Ted, don’t be conventional!”
(Chester Morris and Norma Shearer in The Divorcee)

“The memory of you makes them much happier than you ever could”
(The Magistrate in Liliom)

“What are you doing with those fingers?”
“Nothing. Yet.”
(Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper in Morocco)

“Wise as a tree full of owls, that’s me”
(Paid)

“Oh, and a cup of coffee”
“Large or small?”
“Do I look like a small cup of coffee?”
(Marie Prevost and a waiter in Ladies of Leisure)

“Well, do you see my flowers here?”
“You’re crushing them”
“Oh, what does it matter? They were born to die”
(yes, this is actual dialogue in Romance)

“Oh baby. Don’t think I’m such a heel just because I am!” (John Gilbert in Way for a Sailor)

Groucho: “Go away. Go away. I’ll be all right in a minute. Left-handed moths ate the painting, eh?”
Chico: “Yeah, it’s a-my own solution.”
Groucho: “I wish you were in it. Left-handed moths ate the painting. You know, I’d buy you a parachute if I thought it wouldn’t open.” (Animal Crackers)

“Press the flesh. Who’d you croak?” (The Big House)

“If you don’t watch your step you’re gonna find a way to treat yourself to a handful of clouds” (The Doorway to Hell)

“When a man begins to talk about inhibitions, it’s time to look at the view.” (Joan Crawford in Our Blushing Brides)

“It already has proved dangerous to wipe yourself off on the furniture”
(Blood of a Poet)

Groucho’s Strange Interlude bit in Animal Crackers, particularly:
“This would be a better world for children, if the parents had to eat the spinach.”

“Oh Mary, don’t be so 1890”
(Paid)

“When does she dunk her body?” (of course this is Eugene Pallette’s way of asking when a woman takes a bath in Follow Thru)

“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”
(Joan Crawford in Paid)

Angela: “Here’s the newspaper”
Bob: “Anything new?”
Angela: “Not much. Only that you’re a bigamist” (Madam Satan)

animalMargaret Dumont and Lillian Roth in Animal Crackers (I forget whose tumblr this comes from; I’m very sorry!)

 

 

 

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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.

follow thru

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.

fast and loose
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.

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 11.31.30 PM

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”

big trail

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.

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.

liliom 5

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.

king of jazz 6

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!

bat 5

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.

 

Top Ten By Year: 1978


For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year project:
The majority of my viewing habits have been dictated by this project since September 2013. Jumping to a different decade each time, I pick weak years for me re: quantity of films seen and/or quality of films seen in comparison to other years from said decade. I use list-making to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-driven way. And I always make sure to point out that my lists are based on personal ‘favorites’ not any notion of an objective ‘best’. I’ve completed 1935, 1983, 1965, 1943, 1992, and now 1978. Next I’ll be doing 1925.

So, we’re finally at the end. 1978 contained my longest watchlist and the longest time spent on an individual year in the Top Ten By Year project. I was reminded just how much I love 70’s cinema. That it’s not just about New Hollywood and the force of macho film-school bred auteurists. 1978 catches us between two worlds in American cinema. On the one end is the reign of the thinking man’s picture, mid-scale character dramas, revisionist genre play, and expansive rule-breaking. On the other end, this is three years after Jaws and a mere year after surprise phenomenon Star Wars; studios are quickly realizing that youth is the most potentially profitable demographic. Superman is about to become the first film deliberately constructed blockbuster, with the now ubiquitous strategic ad campaign and excessive merchandising. Though we now recognize the overlap between the two, the modestly scaled and heavily auteur-driven genre play of the 70’s will soon give way to the big-scale classic pop genre play of the 80’s. With Vietnam three years in the past, filmmakers are beginning to investigate the country’s very messy recent history. And while we somewhat rightfully refer to the nostalgia drenched culture of today as a poisonous succubus that has only recently swallowed up pop culture, looking at some of the top films of 1978 such as Grease, Superman, National Lampoon’s Animal House and Heaven Can Wait, demonstrates this as an age-old custom.

All Top Ten By Year: 1978 posts:
Poll Results
Movie Poster Highlights 
1978 Movie Music Mix
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1978: A Love Letter (includes Suggested Double Features and Favorite Shots)
10 Honorable Mentions plus Grease

Biggest Disappointments:
California Suite
Same Time, Next Year
Alucarda
Capricorn One
Empire of Passion
Despair
Five Deadly Venoms

Some Blind Spots:
Gates of Heaven,  Perceval le Gallois, La Cage aux Folles, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, Who’ll Stop the Rain, The Boys from Brazil, Big Wednesday, The Green Room, Fingers, Graduate First (so sad I couldn’t find this), Lord of the Rings, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Every Which Way But Loose, The Big Fix, Convoy, My Way Home, Crippled Avengers, American Boy: A Profile of Stephen Prince, Don, Nighthawks, China 9, Liberty 37, The Buddy Holly Story, The Shooting Party, The Scenic Route

I had seen 16 films prior to this. I’ve now seen 64 films from 1978.

TOTAL LIST OF FILMS SEEN IN 1978: (bold indicates first-time viewings during research, italics indicates re-watches during research):
Alucarda, Always for Pleasure, Autumn Sonata, Avalanche, Blue Collar, Blue Sunshine, California Suite, Capricorn One, The Cheap Detective, Coma, Coming Home, Dawn of the Dead, Days of Heaven, Death on the Nile, The Deer Hunter, The Demon, Despair, Drunken Master, Empire of Passion, Du er ikke alene (You Are Not Alone), Eyes of Laura Mars, Fedora, Five Deadly Venoms, Foul Play, The Fury, Girlfriends, Grease, Halloween, Heaven Can Wait, Heroes of the East, Interiors, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, In a Year of 13 Moons, Jubilee, Killer of Sheep, Krabat (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), The Last Waltz, Long Weekend, The Mafu Cage, Magic, The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa (short), Midnight Express, Mongoloid (short), National Lampoon’s Animal House, Panna a Netvor (Beauty and the Beast), Pretty Baby, Remember My Name, Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (The Meetings of Anna), Same Time Next Year, Satiemania (short), The Shout, The Silent Partner, Straight Time, Superman, Thank God It’s Friday, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, An Unmarried Woman, Up in Smoke, Violette Noziere, Watership Down, A Wedding, Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?, The Wiz

Key:
FTV = First-Time Viewing
RW = Re-watch
LTF = Long Time Favorite

Mafu Cage 110. The Mafu Cage (US, Arthur) (FTV)
Top Ten By Year: 1978 is bookended with films directed by women. I couldn’t really say whether The Mafu Cage is well-regarded or not because it’s not regarded, period. Hell, it doesn’t even have a wikipedia page. In one way this makes sense; the majority of people are likely to be turned off by this claustrophobic and perverse story. In another way, it makes no sense whatsoever; just where oh where is the cult following for The Mafu Cage??? Come out from behind those bushes, people! There are so few of us (thank you author Kier-La Janisse, whose essential book House of Psychotic Women brought the film’s existence to my attention)! It’s massively fucked up and pretty tasteless, but surprisingly stirring, very intimate, and so very very loaded. It’s also one of the more bizarre and discomfiting fictional realms I’ve ever been invited to participate in. This is really uncomfortable stuff, people (extended appropriation of African culture as characterization and monkeys that no doubt felt some level of trauma in real life from the filming of this); familial support gone horribly horribly wrong. 

Where does The Mafu Cage fit within female-driven horror? Is it horror? Absolutely, (although it’s equal parts psychological chamber drama), especially its incorporation of taboo subjects and the way narrative plays out in regards to Cissy’s victims. It could easily be a companion to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and other psycho-biddy films. Just take out the aging camp legends and insert the apocalyptic Carol Kane.

I’ve always loved Carol Kane but this is a whole other can of worms; she is absolutely unapologetic here. What’s wrong with Cissy? Well, what isn’t wrong with her? She lives in self-imposed seclusion with her sister in a Los Angeles home that recreates the African jungle of her youth. She’s like a child, living off delusions and whims. She says “DUMBSHIT” when provoked, which is often. She screeches and yells a lot. She is possessive, entirely irrational, and in no way equipped to be functional within anything resembling reality. Capable of momentary self-reflection, it’s only a matter of time before she  inverses self-awareness. Kane plays Cissy as someone trapped in her own patterns of behavior, which are unfortunately defined by the death of people and animals alike. She is a tantrum-led woman suffering from severe unchecked mental illness. Her sister Ellen (Lee Grant) means well but is ultimately an enabler, keeping a promise to their father to protect her, shielding her instead of getting her the help she so clearly needs.

Karen Arthur was the first woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series (for a 1985 episode of “Cagney and Lacey”). She was the second female member of the DGA. Arthur does a beautiful job with this material, and it’s a shame the film mostly exists at a video quality level. The film is filled with strangely bewitching images. She confronts Cissy even though we and those around her walk on eggshells in her presence. Montages cement her behavior as part of a cycle. The Mafu Cage played at Cannes, received a good reception and then a weak independent release only to disappear. I’m hoping at least a few people seek it out because of this post.

i wanna hold your hand9. I Wanna Hold Your Hand (US, Zemeckis) (FTV)
From time to time Robert Zemeckis marries touchstone history to the lives of his characters. His success rate varies but his first film, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, is scaled to chaotic perfection. This isn’t Forrest Gump haplessly stumbling through hallmark events like a walking gimmick; this is a dogged unshakable group of fanatical girls who very much want to shove their way into a national moment; by gaining access to The Beatles on the day they’re set to perform on the Ed Sullivan show (February 9th, 1964).

In my Honorable Mentions post, in reference to Thank God It’s Friday, I mentioned my love for One Crazy Day/Night films (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Modern Girls, Adventures in Babysitting, After Hours, Magnolia, ParaNorman; the list goes on and on). I Wanna Hold Your Hand is a lesser known treasure of the subgenre. It starts at the eventual final destination, with Ed Sullivan’s rehearsal session, and quickly branches out to our core group, made up of obsessives and reluctant and/or opposed tagalongs. When our characters enter the abyss of countless fanatics on the same quest, they quickly find themselves splintering off, and soon the characters are having their own individual adventures.

The most entertaining of these is the soon-to-be-married Pam (Nancy Allen) who at one point finds herself alone in The Beatles hotel room. I’ve grown so fond of Nancy Allen’s bright-eyed cherubic quality over the years, and seeing her lust over leftovers, instruments, and whatever else she can get her hands has become an instantly iconic movie moment for me.

Zemeckis’s debut doesn’t look down on or solely gawk at the devotion of fanaticism; it just hops on the insanity train. Regarding the tone it could have employed, I’m reminded of the recent snarky reactions from people, largely men, towards the collective mourning from One Direction’s largely female fan base over Zayn Malik’s recent departure. I Wanna Hold Your Hand playfully looks at Beatlemania as a phenomenon of ‘hell hath no fury’ fans, but also recognizes that fan bases are made up of individually felt emotional extremes, a very authentic loyalty, and sincere commitment.

 

The Shout8. The Shout (UK, Skolimowski) (FTV)
The only comparison I have for the cryptic and unknowable experience of The Shout are the films of director Nicolas Roeg and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The ‘unknown’ at the center of The Shout, made up of aboriginal mysticism and an unreliable narrative, makes for a disturbing nucleus that resides underneath consciousness. Even the credits are hazy and out of reach.

Like our next film, sound is central to The Shout, employing an innovative Dolby mix to disorient. Alan Bates, who disrupts the lives of a young couple in the countryside (John Hurt and Suzannah York), claims to have attained occult powers, specifically ‘The Shout’, which apparently has the power to kill anyone who hears it. John Hurt plays an experimental electronic musician, and several scenes take place in his home studio as he records various noises. To him, ‘The Shout’ becomes the holy grail of sounds; something he, at least initially, denounces as hogwash. And finally, the score by Tony Bates and Michael Rutherford of Genesis, is an ambient soundscape that further dislodges the viewer. But then, everything about The Shout dislodges the viewer.

This is a world where everything may be a lie, or worse, everything may be true. A world where people can be controlled as long as you have their belt buckle. The cricket game in the framing device carries a waiting room kind of menace, as if this world will end as soon as one team wins. Films like The Shout are the kind I wait and hope for. These mind-fuck movies that are legitimate and hypnotic, fueled by rhythms that defy standard logic and are populated by mysteries that defiantly refuse to be solved.

invasion of the body snatchers7. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (US, Kaufman) (RW)
Philip Kaufman spends the first half of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a remake of Don Siegel’s 1956 film, establishing a paranoid mood piece where the threat infiltrates safe spaces before we’ve even had time to settle into the picture. They may just look like plants, but fuck do they move fast. Everything is in plain sight right from the beginning, covering both the corners and foreground of the frame, and there is nothing anybody can do about it. Kaufman secretly plans to have it both ways by filling in the run-run-run second half with some startling practical effects sequences, allowing mutating slime and atmospheric smoke-screens to give way to each other.

I can’t think of a cooler ensemble than this; Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Goldblum and the recently departed Leonard Nimoy who uses his soothing demeanor to chilling effect. Donald Sutherland in particular is in peak form doing his baritone Chia Pet thing.

Layers and layers of heartbeats, electronic white noise and throbs, rain sticks, and clanging and banging push in on us; a contemporary comparison for the cumulative impact of Denny Zeitlin’s score is Brian Reitzell’s ingenious work on “Hannibal”.

My first time seeing Invasion, I was totally unprepared to discover it’s the kind of slick and smart artful mainstream horror that doesn’t come around too often. Full of applicable social commentary, a genuinely rattling air you desperately want to shimmy off, and filled with fodder to dissect every which way you turn.

The Fury6. The Fury (US, De Palma) (FTV)
Pauline Kael’s review of The Fury is one of her most famous because it’s an anomalous hyperbolic rave, a viewing experience that sounds like it amounted to something like an orgasm. Much of the review’s notoriety stems from the generally lackluster reaction people tend to have to Brian De Palma’s follow-up to Carrie. De Palma devotees drool over it, and most others either casually dismiss or actively deride the film. But I’m with you Pauline. I’m with you.

On its face The Fury has a lot in common with Carrie. It’s also based on a novel. It’s also about a girl with telekinesis. It also features Amy Irving. But this one has conspiracies, chases, a father trying to find his son, an Xavier Institute equivalent. It’s a strange brew of supernatural spy thriller! Sound overcrowded? It is; but I love the hell out of The Fury‘s bloated convolution.

Even through its slower section The Fury is blisteringly alive. I can’t explain why, especially because John Ferris’s script (adapting his novel) is kind of a hacky mess, but it all felt like it mattered. Being thrown into the preposterous story, you either submit to it or scoff through it. Sure, the Kirk Douglas material is initially less interesting, but come on, who doesn’t want to see Kirk Douglas vs. John Cassavetes? How can one deny watching the star in his sixties, running around shirtless with a machine gun, and disguising himself to make him look, wait for it, old! And besides, this slowly but surely becomes Gillian’s (Irving) film. There’s also weird pockets of humor. De Palma often opens scenes by zeroing in on peripheral characters, whether it’s the cop who just got a brand new car, the little old lady who delights in helping out a trespasser, or the two security guards who like to trade Hershey bars for coffee.

It’s trademark De Palma to toy around with the nature of cinema, and The Fury is constantly interacting with itself. Gillian’s telekinetic link to the missing Robin (Andrew Stevens who is terrible, but I love sociopathic brat characters like this) is depicted visually, so the intimate and exclusive link between them also includes us. Since Gillian’s visions strike through sight (what else?), she acquires information by watching scenes play out in front of her eyes. She learns, and we learn through her. Gillian becomes, in her way, an audience member. This is cinema as the ultimate form of communication and information (surveillance is a recurring theme here too), something that can transcend the confines of the screen. At one point, Robin is even shown the first five minutes of the film! De Palma’s stylized techniques drive it all home; editing and rear-screen projection are used to emphasize and encompass, and characters are brought together by overlapping spaces and sounds. The camera often tracks conversations by moving around characters, covering all bases.

There’s a bravura four minute slow-motion sequence that turns the notion of the escape scene on its head. It isn’t until the end when we realize the slow-motion is in fact stretching out a character’s final moments. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a better send-off to any movie; I’m serious. It cannot be beat. Don’t even try to tell me it can. It’s the money shot to end all money shots, but shown from every possible angle. But it’s not just showstopper sequences like these that I fell in love with; it’s the whole damn film.

(There is a scene in which a horrified Gillian sees Robin, her face directed straight at the camera, horrified. This is exactly what Stanley Kubrick would do with Danny Torrance in The Shining a mere two years later.)

coming-home5. Coming Home (US, Ashby) (FTV)
Three years after the Fall of Saigon there were two Best Picture nominees that directly dealt with Vietnam. One was the wholly masculine collapse-of-camaraderie film The Deer Hunter. The other was the far more liberal-minded Coming Home, about tormented veterans and a woman who comes into her own politically and sexually following her husband’s departure for Vietnam. People tend to knock Coming Home for being a war film that ‘descends’ into something as ‘cliche’ as a love triangle. Is there any easier way to dismiss a film for daring to be about the female experience of wartime? These are three people (Jon Voight and Bruce Dern are the paraplegic lover and husband respectively) whose lives become inextricably linked through their traumas, their evolution, their bodies, and their love.

The film materialized through Jane Fonda’s tenacity, and her outspoken anti-Vietnam activism prohibits us from buying into the place her traditional sheltered wife character begins. But that doesn’t last for long. Everyone involved, not just Fonda, from Jon Voight to Hal Ashby to producer Jerome Hellman, were heavily concerned with post-war realities. Coming Home is a best case scenario message picture in the guise of an achingly human love story.

This was not a film I expected to have this kind of response to. Perhaps most of all, I had an all-in investment in the pairing of Jane Fonda and Jon Voight. Their relationship, which begins with, of all things, a broken pissbag, makes Coming Home one of the most erotic films I’ve ever seen. The two actors share a vitality that is not only palpable, but supports the core of the film; the basic necessity for people to connect with each other in times of strife, immeasurable hardship, and an unknown future.

Days of Heaven4. Days of Heaven (US, Malick) (RW)
Already with his sophomore feature, Terrence Malick brings his storytelling into the ether, the outer zones. The characters and their drama are contained in something bigger than themselves; the cornfields and the magic hour, and the narration of a child (Linda Manz), mumbling and halting. Her perception is omniscient if not all-knowing. It begins as a romanticized snapshot, not of Depression-era workers, but of what surrounds them. It gradually transforms into something else altogether, a kind of melodrama hiding in plain sight. The central house is like a mirage, and Days of Heaven is triangular, made up of people, land, and machinery, each interacting and needing the other. Like Badlands, there is a honeymoon period for these characters, the makeshift family, isolated but not wanting for anything. “I think the devil was on the farm” is just one of many Biblical allusions. Days of Heaven is as immense as the universe and as microscopic as a single house in the middle of a wheat field.

Satiemania3. Satiemania (short) (Yugoslavia, Gašparović) (FTV)
Visualizing the music of Eric Satie, Satiemania alternates between the mocking hustle-bustle of city life, where outsized caricatures fill the streets, and the melancholy hours where women drink and undress, their bodies of various shapes and sizes, eternally longing for something more. Not only do I love Satie’s “Gnossienne” pieces, but Gašparović’s animation style is exactly the kind of aesthetic I tend to respond to; messy and sketchy, action shown through ever-morphing dissolves as if the nights are forever slipping away; moments are lost even as they happen. The illustrations are exclusively about people, whether singled out in a crowd, pushed together in a bar, or by themselves in their most private moments.

Blue-Collar2. Blue Collar (US, Schrader) (FTV)
Blue Collar is probably the best working mans drama I’ve ever seen. Systematically shattering, from the bowels of an incensed and very hungry monster. These are people at their wit’s end, backed into a corner by corrupt unions, with no exit strategy. Blue Collar is frighteningly relevant in its portrayal of corruption as a trap that sees working class solidarity as just another thing to be exploited, suppressed and dismantled. Paul Schrader, in his debut film, is on the front line with them, never taking the easy way out. It’s direct and didactic and illuminating.

There is the scene where our three characters, played by Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto, strategize about the stolen ledger. They talk about their options and each guy has a different idea. Three options are presented, yet it feels like they have none. These men aren’t stupid. They see through it all and make a concerted effort to exploit the exploiters. And it backfires. Big time.

The three main actors apparently all hated each other in real life, and it’s one of those things that results in a live-wire chemistry and onscreen camaraderie that authentically sings to the tune of empathetic disgruntlement. We become so attached to them and what they are to each other, whether together in the thick of it or blowing off steam. I sat at the edge of my seat sensing the trajectory of the film and wishing so badly to be proven wrong. Richard Pryor in particular is electric, by turns exhausted and exhausting. So earnest is he in his desire for change, a naive hope that he can make the system better if only he comes at it from the right angle.

girlfriends_sc1. Girlfriends (US, Weill) (FTV)
Let’s be honest, Frances Ha is an uncanny reworking of Girlfriends; narratively, structurally, thematically. Except this is way better (sorry ’bout it). There are hardly any films about women made by women from this era. Nowadays the fumbling twenty-something trying to figure it all out in NYC is an indie cliche. But in 1978?

This is a film to be cherished by everyone who sees it. No lie, my life can now be split into Before Girlfriends and After Girlfriends. Claudia Weill and screenwriter Vicki Polon have created something truly disarming here; an open and honest work about female friendships rightfully treated as life-defining, where change equals tailspin, resentment, and adjustment. It is equally about being comfortable with living alone, being comfortable with not living alone, and trying to build a creative career in a tough racket. The film is unstudied and charmingly choppy, primarily homegrown in its form. And at the same time, it’s entirely assured; the film and Susan (Melanie Mayron) are uniformly comfortable in their own skin, even when on the surface they doubt and fret. There is a painfully sincere and recognizable quintessential harmony at work with no affectation in sight.

The film admires Susan, loves Susan, but isn’t bewitched by her in that familiar way (you know what I’m talking about) where we shake our heads and coo ‘oh you’ at her. The film would be great regardless, but Melanie Mayron as Susan Weinblatt cements this as an all-time top 100 film of mine. I cannot even begin to do her justice. Drowning in hair with second grade glasses and a goofy and frumpy demeanor, she is completely laid-back in her neurosis, and somehow not awkward despite all this. A genuine character, and a special performance in a truly special film.

Review: The One I Love (2014, McDowell) [Criterion Cast]


the-one-i-love-sundance-1
Warning: This review discloses the film’s central conceit which is being kept under wraps in the marketing

What if the need to recreate, repeat, or reset the good ol’ days of a relationship were replaced with the option of idealized perfection? Recognizable but tweaked, this is everything you’ve ever wanted from the person you love. But then you have to walk out of guest house paradise and talk to your actual significant other, facing that slump of disappointment. That’s what Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) grapples with in the Charlie Kaufman-lite The One I Love, a flimsy but highly amusing ‘what if’ relationship fantasy, anchored by the flummoxed curiosity of Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass.

Read my full review at Criterion Cast

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #120-124


A Tale of Winter
#120. A Tale of Winter (1992, Rohmer)

Roger Ebert astutely stated that A Tale of Winter “is not a love triangle because the person she (Felicie) loves isn’t there”. This is only my second Eric Rohmer film (the first being Pauline at the Beach). True to form, love and choices are dissected and philopshized. Words are used to withhold and dangle the future, a tether with which Felicie (Charlotte Véry) keeps two men in her orbit knowing (as do the men; Felicie is forthright to a fault) they are just placeholders for the long lost Charles. Maxence (Michel Voletti) and Loic (Hervé Furic) aren’t characters in their own right; they are to us as they are to Felicie — distractions. She puts all of her hopes and dreams into the idea of another man, a man she knew but briefly, their connection broken off by a silly address fluke. In the meantime (the meantime taking up most of the film), besides her unbreakable certainty she will be with Charles again, she is defined by her borderline manipulative use of indecision.

The bright topless summer fling of the start gives way to a five-years-later heavy-coated winter. Felicie is periodically shown entering and exiting places, the routine of her days shown for the chance present in comings and goings. And lo and behold! A happy ending! Of course, we have no idea what comes next for Felicie and Charles, but it’s a romantic close, full of hope and potential. At the very least, we are given access to the start of their fanciful reunion. The way everything quickly falls into place is enchanting instead of a cheat.

I use the word enchanting for a reason. There’s another 1992 film, which will be covered in my next capsule review post, that also closes with the picture perfect erasure of conflict and emergence of relationship kismet. This one sells it. The other one, I ain’t buying.

bittermoon
#121. Bitter Moon (1992, Polanski)

Perverse, deeply ugly, and comically absurd; I loved it. At first glance Bitter Moon is just another to emerge out of the trashy kink, boundary pushing erotic thriller trend of the early-to-mid 90’s. But this is Roman Polanski, and the man has got a lot of poisonous and revealing fish to fry. Hiding behind camp and pig masks, this could be his most uncomfortably personal work. At the very least it feels like a purging. The sex relates to the endless potential of corruptible dynamics. Two couples out to sea on an ocean liner (Knife in the Water anyone?), one staid, the other extreme, have more in common than they think. Peter Coyote and Emmanuelle Seigner are the purist form of masochistic and manipulative chess game toxicity that can exist in a couple, a toxicity that Polanski posits exists on some level in all of us.

We’re trapped with the male perspective in each couple. Oscar (Coyote) is the classic unreliable narrator, a scumbag spouting the purple prose of failed authordom. He uses self-loathing as a catch-all excuse for his actions. His hesitant listener is Hugh Grant, who basically does a parody of his bumbling Brit. I’m not quite sure why Kristen Scott Thomas’s Fiona is consistently labeled by viewers as cold. Yes, she’s reserved. But cold? No. Is it because we’re stuck in the masculine? Is it because of audience expectations of her? Or a recognition of what we’re meant to be thinking? In that case, I’d say the film is cold towards her. As it is, the Brits are used as props to make a point about the destructive dependencies of human nature.

The structure, framing device aside, is marked into three shifts (making four total sections) between the dominant and submissive. Sexual games become a prelude for everyday power plays. Nigel (Grant) is disgusted by Oscar’s sordid tale, but he keeps coming back. And we’re revolted as well, first by the shameless ecstasy Oscar projects onto Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner), and then the bottomless pit of constant public degradation that transfoms poor Mimi, and is then reversed as she has her revenge; a revenge in which she’s still fated to him, locked in for life. The entire thing is a cruel joke on Nigel. Making each other miserable for kicks, enforcing dependency has run dry. So they turn it outwards.

On the one hand, Seigner (Polanski’s real life wife) isn’t very good, but the physical moments in her performance, gyrations and hair tossing, are incredibly effective in their lithe animalism. Yet what she lacks in acting abilities (at least in English) ushers in a sense of fragility, followed by blankness, which suits the character well. Oscar is a pig, in more ways than one. He describes Mimi as being all about sex, but he’s really describing himself. She is ultimately a cipher because he is pitifully limited in his view of her. “It’s no fun hurting someone who means nothing to you” is the defining piece of dialogue. It’s nasty and unapologetically honest.

The camera rocks and sways while on the boat with our teetering and destructive characters. At first it seems like a corny way of evoking ‘at sea’, but it coats the framing device with a somethings-gotta-give vibe, the woozy threat of a tipping point.

A big question, especially considering it’s what turned so many off at the time of its release; how much control does Polanski have over Bitter Moon’s tonal makeup? It’s a risky piece of work, less from content, and more out of an unequivocally bizarre sense of self. Is this a joke? Are we in on it? Is Polanski in on it? Does it obstruct viewers from seeing the unpleasantly complicated treaty at the center, or does it enable? Is this the only way to present something so dire and hopeless? I see Polanski as having far more control than he was at first credited with. Seigner pouring milk all over her breasts, looking like a zombie by the way, as Peter Coyote licks it off with George Michael’s “Faith” in the background is unequivocal evidence Polanski means Bitter Moon to be a kind of brazenly sadistic circus. These other 90’s erotic thrillers took themselves so seriously, so it must have been unmanageably jarring to see a film that at once did not take itself as seriously, yet contains twisted barbs of resonance.

It’s The Little Things:
– This is the 3rd 1992 film I watched in a short period of time to be centered around/lead up to New Year’s Eve. The other two were Peter’s Friends and A Tale of Winter.
– “Anything you can do I can do better”
– Seeing Bitter Moon now ended up being perfect timing for me re: the release of Venus in Fur.
– That dance between Seigner and Scott Thomas.
– When you think back, the first time Mimi meets Fiona and Nigel says a lot, as it’s not through Oscar’s perspective

The Missing Picture

#122. The Missing Picture (2014, Panh)
Free-floating memoir documentary about the discrepancies and overlap of personal experience, how an individual recalls being subject to history (in this case the unimaginable Khmer Rouge), and how events were presented by those in command at the time. The former is presented through clay figurines and narration. The frozen and expressively hollow faces, and their immobility, evoke a devastation so great that only something as simplistic as clay can hope to capture it. The latter comes in the form of archival propaganda footage from Cambodia, presenting the Communist Party of Kampuchea as an agrarian utopia. Emotional and apt, but it eventually felt like a reconciliation with no place for me as a viewer, if that makes sense.

The Immigrant
#123. The Immigrant (2014, Gray)
Full Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/06/21/review-the-immigrant-2014-gray/

large_mystery_train_blu-ray3x
#124. Mystery Train (1989, Jarmusch)

Without a doubt my favorite vignette film by Jim Jarmusch as he continued to comfortably and safely play with his career focuses like happenstance, multiculturalism, the slight threat of melancholy by way of disappointment, meandering, lots of smoking, and hip tranquility. And of course capturing the lived-in spirit of a specific city or location, finding identity in the ignored details, and a central focus on music. My favorite vignette is the first one, that of the opposites attract Japanese tourists (Masatoshi Nagase exudes cool to the point of catatonia) who wander aimlessly through Memphis in their idolization of Elvis and Carl Perkins.

Actually, scratch that. My favorite is anything involving Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Cinqué Lee, The Arcade Hotel staff stuck in time, and witness to all. The eating of the Japanese plum is a perfect moment, perfect in how unexpected it is. I was unreasonably excited every time the film checks in on them.

There’s not a lot to chew on in Mystery Train, but that’s precisely what makes it so enticing. As characters pass through this narrow area of blocks, it feels like anything could happen. That Tom Noonan’s story could be true. That Luisa really does see the ghost of Elvis. That there could be something connecting Elvis, Madonna, and the Statue of Liberty. That sense of possibility isn’t like a jolt of energy. More the opposite. We watch with hypnotic nonchalance, taking in the glum humor, ever-so-anxiously awaiting Tom Waits’s DJ Lee Baby Sims to usher in Elvis’s rendition of “Blue Moon”.

It’s the Little Things:
– Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s flashy red threads
– Robby Muller’s cinematography which slightly recalls the radiating neons of The American Friend
– Masatoshi lighting his cigarette and throwing his lighter up in the air, catching it in his shirt pocket

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #74-84


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.

The Man in Grey

#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/*****

Cabin in the Sky

#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

Lumiere d'ete

#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.

Eternal Return

#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). 

LaMainDuDiable7

#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.