Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Clara Bow, Mighty Joe Young and the guy who made Reefer Madness - Reviews #162

I think I might be addicted to Clara Bow. She's the new Clint. When I haven't been watching Arrested Development, I've been mowing the lawn. Or watching these things: five Bow flicks (plus a documentary), and a film about a gorilla.

Wings (William Wellman, 1927) - Wow. Just wow. The first Best Picture winner is still one of the best: an exhilarating actioner lit by amazing flight scenes and stirring performances, and I don't think I've ever seen a 1920s movie look so good; the restoration job would make you think it's been released this week (other than for the fact it's in black-and-white and there's no talking, but, y'know: The Artist). Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen play small-town rivals for the affections of city girl Jobyna Ralston (a frequent co-star of Harold Lloyd), who become daring, celebrated fly-boys - and firm friends - in the latter days of World War One. Also along for the ride is Clara Bow, the (literal) girl-next-door whose enduring love for Rogers is obvious to everyone except him. Staggeringly shot and sincere in its cliches - several of which it may actually have created - Wings begins with some breathtakingly beautiful scenes of pre-war life, takes us briefly through training, then pitches us into battle, its engrossing narrative studded with stunning airborne sequences that are as good as any ever filmed, and some ground-level ones that lack personal investment but bring home the horror and chaos of war.

There was no "Best Picture" in 1927, but this film scooped the equivalent (Best Production), while Murnau's extraordinary Sunrise won an award for a "Unique and Artistic Production". It's a telling distinction, one that does a good job of explaining what Wings was, and what it was designed to do. Despite its undoubted brilliance and its sometimes thoughtful approach to war, it isn't a film of great complexity in either its story or characterisation. Rather, it's a Titanic for the '20s: a lavish, no-holds-barred, no-expense-spared crowd-pleaser with a great sense of conviction that overcomes any quibbles you may have with its plotting or performances. There isn't a challenging, meaty role here, like Janet Gaynor's in Sunrise or, say, James Murray's in The Crowd; it's a film that requires a certain type of characterisation, and gets it.

Ralston, a wonderfully tender, often very funny actress, isn't in the film much, but Rogers and Arlen are both ideal as these vivid archetypes - a hot-headed braggart and a quietly-spoken gentleman - and Bow lights up the picture as the pure-hearted, lovelorn neighbour who throws herself into the war effort as fully as any of them, pitching up as an army driver. Her entrance into the film is a joy, and the scene in which she toys with the idea of jealously punishing the man she adores, before her love for him wins out, is an absolute wonder: a masterclass in emoting that puts a lie to every ill-informed criticism of silent screen acting. (And then she gets her boobs out. Paramount had insisted that her part be beefed up as an insurance policy against the huge budget - she said the film was, "a man's picture and I'm just the whipped cream on top of the pie" - and her topless scene was part of the same deal.) I also love the richly emotional farewell between Arlen and his parents, as the father struggles to articulate his feelings, then wells up as his son gives him a peck on the cheek. Old movie nerds will doubtless want to note the appearance of Gary Cooper as a fatalistic flyer (you won't be surprised to learn that he began an affair with Bow on set), the first instance of product placement (Cooper's chocolate bar) and a walk-on by the director, "Wild Bill" Wellman, who's the guy saying: "Atta boy. Them buzzards are some good after all", while his wife and daughter appear as praying peasants. They may also like to know that Arlen and Ralston married during production, who can say.

The film does have a little of the usual incongruous comic relief (courtesy of El Brendel and Roscoe Karns) and the imaginatively-conceived "bubbles" sequence seems to be based on a six-year-old's idea of what being drunk is like, but it's a remarkable, enduringly entertaining movie, a landmark of action cinema that perfectly blends jaw-dropping spectacle, intense bromance and compelling human drama. And features a lovely little teddy bear. (4)


Helen's Babies (William A. Seiter, 1924)
- A very slight, mild silent comedy that sees supposed parenting expert Edward Everett Horton babysit his sister's kids, with predictably disastrous results. Traversing now-familiar ground, it's an amiable if only occasionally very funny mix of slapstick, exasperation and improvisation, as Baby Peggy (now the only living silent star) engages in much ad hoc messiness and accidental mischief-making, similar to scenes from Truffaut's Small Change. Legendary character comedian Everett Horton's patented double-takes are nowhere to be seen, which is a shame, but he and Peggy - who with that haircut looks like a 3ft Louise Brooks - are a fair team, and the film gets sporadic injections of life from the incomparable Clara Bow, cast against type as the girl next door (who's still turned on by violence) - and love interest. Her magnetic supporting performance is by far the best thing about the movie; and all I'll say is that Eddie is batting considerably out of his league. Sadly the film goes completely off the rails in the final reel, by leaving its young charges near the rails - and so in mortal danger - but for the most part it's fair going, particularly for fans of the stars. (2.5)


Parisian Love (Louis J. Gasnier, 1925)
- Utterly dreadful silent about common thief Clara Bow and her educated lover (PFA Player of the Year, Gareth Bale) who try to rob a house, only to find - well, I'm not really sure where to begin, as everything that happens after that is so completely preposterous. After Bale saves his life, their target takes him in as his "prisoner" and sets him up with a new girlfriend. Bow pretends to be a maid at the house for a day, then goes home and almost gets murdered. Having beaten up her assailant, she exits by a window just seconds before her lover returns; in disappointment, he decides to immediately leave the country, and so it goes on, as if it were all being made up on the spot. The film is characterised not only by those ludicrous, arbitrary plot developments, but by jarring shifts in tone (one minute a heavy-set old women is trying to strangle Bow to death, the next we're supposed to be chuckling at her tipsy antics?), hammy acting and terrible comic relief, while it's all so primitive in style that it could easily have been made a full decade earlier. Gasnier went on to direct Reefer Madness - well of course he did. The film's sole selling point is Bow's performance: the iconic star is fairly good - if markedly underused in the first half - and offers a nice dance and a strong sequence where she outwits a cop, though when the film lurches into laughable melodrama for its climax, her acting is almost as bad as the rest of them. Bow was a great star - one of the greatest - but it's a lousy picture, boring as hell; just watch Mantrap instead. (1)


The Plastic Age (Wesley Ruggles, 1925) - A simple, charming campus romance, with an ace up its sleeve: the unimpeachable Miss Clara Bow. The Plastic Age - a 20s euphemism for youth (youth-phemism?) - reunites the leads of the hopeless Parisian Love to altogether more successful ends: Donald Keith is a naive fresher who heads to college dreaming of track glory, but is sidetracked by a goal of another sort, in the shapely shape of Bow. Keith is OK as the clean-cut hero, but it's Bow's show all the way, another example of her unique talent, in a role that asks her to be flirty, flighty and real. Her character - a terrifyingly seductive flapper reformed in the face of goodness - enters every scene either horny or in love, two modes that she plays as convincingly and all-consumedly as any actress I've ever seen. The film begins in a comic vein, very easy-to-take, but serving up gags that are variously impenetrable to modern minds, curiously feeble or must have been old-hat even then: certainly there's nothing here to worry the silent high-point of the college comedy - Harold Lloyd's The Freshman - or even Keaton's College. Then the movie shifts tack, adopting an overbearing preachiness, allied to a very Hollywood duplicitousness that verges on the absurd. There should be a title card that reads: "Hey-hey, catch a load of these sexy laydeez, aren't they a disgrace and a danger to modern society?" And, finally, the film serves up the obligatory American football finale, which is pretty rousing, despite the imperfections of its staging.

What I like most about the film, aside from Bow's preposterously good performance, is its unfailingly sweet nature. Though it does tend to club us over the head with its message, I admire its belief that self-sacrifice of all kinds can be a powerful weapon, and that good, mild-mannered men aren't always trampled in the dirt. Yes, Keith brawls in a speakeasy and proves his love for Bow by twatting someone in the head, but then there's that lovely speech she does in between those two acts of violence, giving him up because she doesn't want to change him. And that's something precious. The film is also an interesting snapshot of campus culture between the wars, has an American footballer whose party piece is throwing himself onto his arse, and offers considerable curiosity value for star-spotters. The villain is a young Gilbert Roland (who would start an affair with Bow during filming), David Butler - one of the best comedy directors of subsequent decades - has a supporting role as a sports coach, and superstars-to-be Clark Gable, his future wife Carole Lombard, and the great Janet Gaynor appear in bit-parts as students. That's Gable smirking behind Butler's left-shoulder as he gives his charges a dressing down. In an objective sense, The Plastic Age has its definite drawbacks: it isn't funny enough to be a comedy, and its drama is beset by a certain sanctimoniousness. But it's very entertaining, has a good heart, and boasts another in a long line of classic Clara Bow performances: her love interest so charismatic and appealing that she sucks the attention away from everyone else in the picture each time she appears, while lending real weight, emotion and dizzying charm to that wonderful ending. And who can dislike a film that describes an attractive woman as "the real 'hotsy-totsy'"? (3)


The Wild Party (Dorothy Arzner, 1929) - This early talkie from the biggest studio in the world (Paramount), starring the most popular actress in the world (Clara Bow), still has no right to be as entertaining as it is. Why, you ask? Because most pre-1930 talkies are barely-watchable guff. And while this formative venture into sound comes loaded down by an absolutely idiotic story, its fun atmosphere and Bow's megawatt charisma make it leap from the screen, even in archive.org's hissy, fuzzy public domain print. Bow plays a sexy party-hound, and sorority house queen bee, who regards college as, well, one big sexy party, a view which puts her at loggerheads with an uptight professor, played by a very young, very moustachioed Fredric March. The plot manages to be both laughable and predictable, and the film is deeply hypocritical, revelling in bad behaviour before endlessly moralising about it, with almost all of Bow's dialogue just being about what a terrible, aimless tramp she is (surely a destructive experience for someone of her fragile mental state). But for all of that, it's a surprisingly zippy offering, with a technical proficiency largely lacking from its rivals (the trend-setting female director Arzner created the boom-mic during filming), a pleasingly caustic Pre-Code worldview - one character is dismissed as "sex-starved", March utters the phrase "mewling morons" - and a central performance that's touched with gold dust.

Bow's Brooklyn twang wasn't what audiences were expecting, but her voice is very easy on the ear, and The Wild Party proves that she had what it took for a successful career as a talkie actress, had she wanted one. Ironically, the stricter imposition of the Code from mid-1934 may have posed more of a threat to her career than the advent of sound, rendering her kind of suggestive fun verboten. And of course, aside from her pleasing voice, she had - in the Sunset Blvd. parlance - "a face", a silent movie visage capable of registering a wealth of complex emotion, but also an expressive body, with a natural, unadulterated, physically affectionate acting style that creates an intense feeling of warmth and solidarity between the sorority house sisters, particularly Bow and her better self, Shirley O'Hara. As you'd expect, the love scenes between the star and Fredric March also possess her usual erotic charge, flitting between coquettishness and passion in the blink of an eye. And it's little wonder she's fallen for him: "'Love his 'stache", coos one of her roommates, appreciatively. In support, there's a bit for Jack Oakie as a lecherous fool; he would return to higher education four years later for the rather wonderful College Humour, opposite Richard Arlen and Bing Crosby.

The Wild Party isn't a great film - I'm not even sure it's a good film - but it's a fascinating historical curio, an unexpectedly entertaining piece of fluff, and a chance to see one of the movies' most remarkable performers positively bursting from the screen - a bit like that Japanese woman in that film I won't name because of spoilers. (2.5)


Clara Bow: Hollywood's Lost Screen Goddess (2012) - Very good BBC4 doc about the iconic sex symbol, "3D movie star" and fine purveyor of "flesh impact", who bucked every Hollywood trend going, quit movies in her 20s, and then fought manfully with mental illness before her death at the age of 60. It features some good film clips, a few insightful talking heads (including Leonard Maltin, her biographer, and former co-star Baby Peggy - now in her 90s) and - best of all - some incredible snippets of home videos, archive radio and the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1924 immortalised by newsreel cameras. The doc could have done with being 12 times' longer, as sometimes it felt we were just brushing the surface of the story, but within its constraints it's an extremely nice piece of work. Also, they show that bit from Wings where you see her boobs. (3.5)


Mighty Joe Young (Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1949)
- On one level it's just King Kong for Kids, as the creators and their male lead reunite for a less complex, less ambitious and less frightening action-adventure, with a more obviously sympathetic gorilla at its centre, but in some ways I prefer Mighty Joe Young. For while it lacks its forebear's iconic imagery and groundbreaking experiments in special effects and music, it's rather more fun to watch: pacier, more convincing and immersive, and with less of the stiltedness that mars Kong some 80 years on. Cooper and Schoedsack had already reunited for a sequel, Son of Kong, a film that features a memorable disconnect between its brooding, mesmeric opening third and the rest of it, which centres on an insipid romance and a very cheeky monkey. Mr Joseph Young, who according to the jolly credits plays himself, is pitched somewhere between the terrifying Kong and his inanely cuddly son: he has sentimental ties to his owner (the pretty, chubby-cheeked Terry Moore) but he remains a fearsome beast - at least until the final five seconds, which are frankly a bit silly.

The film sees Robert Armstrong, who clearly hasn't learned his lesson, as a theatrical promoter who wants something special for his new nightclub. He hires a bunch of cowboys to go to "Africa" with him (the film never gets more specific than that) - including one Ben Johnson - but they find themselves somewhat in the way of a marauding, 10-tonne gorilla with a fit girlfriend. Produced by John Ford (in a rare venture away from his directing chair), with effects by Ray Harryhausen and a cast that includes the great character comic Frank McHugh, I've rarely seen a movie with more impressive credentials. And while another film of the same year, The Red Pony, rather failed to live up to the promise of its collaborators (Myrna! Mitchum! Milestone! Steinbeck! Copland!), this one winds up not too far off.

The first half is reasonable but somewhat unremarkable, a nice prologue with a cute baby gorilla segueing into a fairly standard set-up: the accent on wooden drama - interspersed with unremarkable action - the model work excellent but somewhat uncertainly incorporated into the live action, and the story featuring clumsy bits of characterisation that simply jar: Johnson twatting Joe with a branch for no reason, his immediate reconciliation with Moore just minutes after he was planning to shoot her mate, and her instant decision to up sticks and head for Hollywood. But once we get back to town, the film is largely amazing, with one incredible set-piece after another. There's Joe's incredible stage entrance (only slightly undone by the ludicrous tug-of-war sequence that follows, featuring genuine former heavyweight champion of the world Primo Carnera trying to box Joe, in clear contravence of the rules), the heartbreaking scene in which he's pelted with money, the prison break, the extraordinary nightclub destruction sequence and a perfectly-conceived action finale that comes out of nowhere.

Though Joe's eyes still look as cartoonish and artificial as Kong's (a recurring problem for special effects teams right through to Toy Story and Final Fantasy) and the necessities of integration seems to mean an awful lot of scenes where he or his co-stars stand with their backs to us, he's still an absolute marvel. Despite the film's more obvious highlights, Harryhausen's genius is most evident in the scene where Joe - sitting in the back of a canvas-covered truck - reacts to his pursuers by roaring, posturing and pounding his fists. Then, when they've disappeared, he briefly, nervously checks the truck for further threats, a gesture that lasts for just a second, but imbues him with a greater humanity, and inspires another swelling of sympathy. In a way, his brutalisation at the hands of unthinking humans is similar to the one we see in the documentary Project Nim, particularly the way in which his supposed friends continually endanger his well-being through a lack of understanding or empathy. More trivially, I love the texture and movement of Joe's hair, a tactile bristling that you only get with stop-motion.

The rest of the cast is a varied bunch. Armstrong is no great actor, but brings plenty of welcome baggage to the role (surely if you can use the dufus from Kong for Kong 3, you would) and Moore manages to be completely one-note and yet completely appealing, though the young Johnson appears ill-at-ease away from a Western setting. He would go on to become one of the greatest actors in the movies (from his understated lead turn in Wagon Master the following year to his Oscar-winning part as Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show), a progression that seems almost inconceivable when viewing his alarmingly simplistic if likeable turn here. I'm not asking him to method-act his way through a gorilla movie, just to register up to three different emotions. Most disappointingly of all, McHugh - playing a press agent, as he had in the incomparable Blessed Event - is given almost nothing to do. Not even his "one, two, three" laugh. Shameful. Still, you do get to see Joe swing across a nightclub on a rope, like a big, angry, furry Tarzan, so that's some compensation.

The re-release trailer pegged Joe as "mightier than King Kong" and the film as "the most astounding movie since the movies began" and while neither of those things are true (Kong would win in a fight, Remember the Night is the best picture ever - and featured Joe's drunk tormenter Paul Guilfoyle as a level-headed DA), it's an excellent entertainment that gets better and better as it progresses - right up until the coda, in fact, which is so sweet that you can't help but let it off. And how about that action climax, which kicks In Old Chicago back to the Stone Age? It throbs with excitement and danger, throws in a succession of surprises and features a classic call-back to Kong, in which Joe is forced to climb and climb and climb, flames licking at his toes.

And in case you were wondering, it wasn't Moore and co who saved Joe, it was baby saved the beast. (3)


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