Sunday, 7 February 2010

Paris, Play Time and Caggers' last stand - Reviews #12

Good Girls Go to Paris (Alexander Hall, 1939) was the second of three movies pairing two of classic Hollywood's best light comedians: Melvyn Douglas and Joan Blondell. Though all three films were made at Columbia, the stars seemed to epitomise their more regular employers. Douglas was suave, elegant, sometimes stuffy, like America's biggest studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Blondell played down-to-earth, a touch raunchy but essentially good-natured - Warner Bros' censor-baiting product in a nutshell. In Douglas and Blondell's other vehicles - There's Always a Woman and The Amazing Mr Williams - he was a detective, while she played his wife. Good Girls Go to Paris offers something a little different. Joan is a waitress with a masterplan: she's going to date a rich boy, secure a marriage proposal, then blackmail his parents and skip to Paris with the funds. As you might expect, there's a catch: the "flutter" in her stomach, a pang of conscience that flares up at just the wrong time. It doesn't help that she's secretly in love with college professor Douglas. That set-up is a springboard for genre fun, but the writers aren't happy with just one surefire premise, so they throw in another. In common with numerous films of the period (Merrily, We Live, My Man Godfrey for starters) our hero(ine) ends up being adopted by a wacky upper-class family - whom she teaches a life lesson or two. The script isn't always as sharp as you'd like, with some one-dimensional characters - Joan Perry's Sylvia isn't very well-realised compared to Gail Patrick's similar character in My Man Godfrey - and an inability to maximise the situations it creates, but the leads are very bright, with an effortless chemistry. And it's great to see divisive blowhard Walter Connolly shouting his head off. One curious aspect of the film was making Douglas' professor English. He doesn't make much of a stab at the accent and his nationality is the basis for nothing save a throwaway joke. Most odd. (2.5)

NB: Douglas tired of films shortly afterwards, saying he had played too many identikit roles in romantic comedies, and after 1943 made only irregular screen performances, devoting himself increasingly to the stage - though also to TV. He made a triumphant return to films in the early 1960s, and won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Hud in 1963. He repeated the success with 1978's Being There.


Play Time (Jacques Tati, 1967) - Firstly can I just say:

I'd seen just the one Tati film prior to this: Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, which was pleasant but thin - and not that funny. Still, Play Time intrigued me from first mention. A two-hour satire on modern life loaded with sight gags, set in a futuristic Paris and shot on a six-acre set nicknamed Tativille? Sounds great. Only it isn't. It's monumentally boring. Play Time is a message movie with nothing to say; a comedy with almost no jokes. There isn't a plot to speak of: we simply travel around the city, alighting on various minor incidents, like Hulot waiting to speak to someone in an office, or being recognised by a war chum, or some package tourists getting on a bus. And it's all in long shot, so sometimes a few things happen at once and you're not sure which you're supposed to be watching. And for long stretches absolutely nothing happens, and you begin to wonder what's for lunch. I've made a list of the bits I liked, most of which last for a matter of seconds.

* Hulot getting lost in an office block (extended set-piece, about five minutes long)
* Hulot breaking a man's glasses with a handshake
* A silent door slamming (twice)
* Landmarks being reflected in a glass door (twice)
* A bouncing bus/sky reflected in an opening/closing glass window
* A traffic carousel (twice)

The method of storytelling is original, and the film attains a certain realism, but the result is mostly unwatchable. It feels like monitoring CCTV. Or watching someone play The Sims (with the same inane verbal soundtrack). Or just wandering around town. It's difficult for me to attack something so obviously personal and so evidently ambitious, but it's not as difficult as watching Play Time. Chalk this up as the biggest disappointment of the year so far. (1.5)


"They took away Coalhouse's wife, child and pride. He made them pay in a way America will never forget. It was a tough time... It was Ragtime."
Ragtime (Milos Forman, 1981) is one of the few films I've wanted to see for even longer than Play Time. Thank goodness it was any good. Based on E. L. Doctorow's novel, this portrait of 1906 America weaves together a series of stories, some historical, others fictional. A millionaire loses his cool - and his mind - over his wife's sordid past (an incident previously dramatised as The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing), a middle-class family is hit by seismic cultural change, and a young black man (Howard E. Rollins Jr) seeks justice against the bigots who sleighted him. The film starts superbly, with an assured grasp of the various narrative threads and a use of real and faux newsreels that's positively inspired. That footage is even justified on screen, being backed by the instinctive slumming of Rollins Jr's theatre accompaniest. But after about an hour the film loses its sprawl, focusing increasingly on Rollins Jr as he goes from ivory-tinkling bounder to gun-toting renegade, and letting other narratives peter out. As good as Rollins Jr is - and as compelling as his character's tale becomes - the film needs that scope, that grandeur, to make sense of its pet story. Out of context, the plight of its terrorist protagonist feels confused and unresolved. The other disappointment is James Cagney's final performance. He came out of retirement for the film - it was that element that excited me as a 15-year-old Caggers obsessive - but he's given little to do in terms of screen time or dramatic material. If that sounds overly critical, there's a very good reason. Those drawbacks wouldn't be so noticeable, nor so infuriating, were it not for the film's frequent forays into the sublime. Ragtime is a bold, often brilliant near-epic, stuffed with memorable vignettes and aided by some excellent acting. James Olson's repressed patriarch is particularly memorable - if Daniel Day Lewis wasn't influenced by his performance/moustache in preparing for There Will Be Blood, I'll be very surprised - while Mary Steenburgen and Moses Gunn offer startlingly good support. I just wish the film had the courage to tell every story it started. (3)
NB: There's plenty for star spotters to do here. Cagney's frequent co-star Pat O'Brien plays a lawyer, while Donald O'Connor is the stage performer and dance trainer. Jack Nicholson has a cameo during the pirate movie sequence.


Four's a Crowd (Michael Curtiz, 1938) is a really fun screwball comedy that pits a newspaper reporter against millionaire Walter Connolly and his daughter, a la It Happened One Night and Libeled Lady. The first 15 minutes are blisteringly funny. Journo Rosalind Russell schemes to get editor-turned-PR-man Errol Flynn to return to his ailing paper, which the managing director (Patric Knowles) is trying to close down. Flynn agrees, and wages war against Connolly, hoping to turn him into the most-hated man in America, so he can repair his reputation via a publicity campaign. After that, the plotting goes a bit awry, spending quite a bit of time in Connolly's country mansion, where Flynn ends up trying to steal butter whilst mollifying heiress De Havilland and being chased by dogs. Well, I said it went a bit awry. Still, while the screenplay hops from one situation to the next without stopping to consider its internal logic, it moves so fast and so funnily you'll probably be swept along. Flynn and Russell are both near peak form, and they make a delightful team. (3)

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