Monday, 10 June 2013
Peter Boyle, All the President's Men 2, and Clara Bow talks! - Reviews #164
Joe (John G. Avildsen, 1970) - A bristling, unpredictable drama from Rocky director John G. Avildsen about the relationship between an advertising executive (Dennis Patrick) who's just beaten his daughter's drug dealer boyfriend to death, and the racist rent-a-gob (Peter Boyle) who admires him for it. In some ways it's a prototype Dirty Harry or Taxi Driver, though it's less bloodthirsty and more intriguing: a complex character piece, laced with pitch black comedy, that doubles as a state-of-the-nation treatise - as Falling Down would in the 1990s. I'm not sure if the film's politics are confused or just purposefully veiled, as it appears to oscillate between liberalism and fascism, but that moral muckiness rather plays in its favour, drawing us into an ugly, complex world with few easy answers; even if the ones Joe suggests are almost certainly wrong. Boyle disagreed: after hearing that audiences cheered the revenge sequences, he vowed never to make another film that glorified violence - if indeed this one does.
There are elements that seem cartoonish to a modern viewer - whether they were ever realistic, I'm not sure - but it is a fascinating film, a gripping evocation of a time in American life when the generation gap was at its greatest, a breeding ground for suspicion, outrage and contempt. America always seems to be at war with itself: in 1970 the enemies of the right were hippies, permissiveness and black benefit claimants, and it's all three that are making Joe mad. As the damaged furnace worker rising to boiling point, Boyle is absolutely sensational, even if, like Ron Burgundy, he has never heard of the phrase "When in Rome..." Incidentally, this was Susan Sarandon's first film. She's Patrick's daughter, a speed freak who ODs in a chemist after drawing all over her own face. (3.5)
Dick (Andrew Fleming, 1999) - From the title, I was expecting a biopic of Kelvin MacKenzie. Instead I got a passable teen comedy with a Watergate backdrop. Wouldn't it be funny if Richard Nixon ate cookies laced with weed? Not really, no. But that joke does have a clever pay-off, and the film comes equipped with some sharply satirical barbs, albeit 27 years too late. "Papier-mache is a hobby of mine," claims Nixon when his aides are caught shredding documents - actually one of his more credible lies of the period. Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst are ditzy 15-year-old friends who unwittingly stumble across the Watergate scandal, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Tricky Dicky, Henry Kissinger and those "radical, muckraking bastards", Woodward and Bernstein (Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch), who are easily the funniest thing about the film.
At its worst, it's shallow and silly - the sing-along with the Russians is a dreadfully weak concept, Devon Gummersall is wasted as a pothead, and the jokes about "loving Dick" get very tiresome very quickly - but it has an agreeably original premise, carried through with enough enthusiasm to sustain it for 90 minutes, and possesses a narrative that amusingly accounts for memorable details and enduring mysteries surrounding the scandal - including the blank 18-and-a-half-minutes on the Watergate tapes, which leads to a big laugh near the movie's close. Williams is very good as a naive, nervously-giggling nerd, and though Dunst sometimes fails to convince as her more confident friend - playing too broad, and too young for 15 - a supporting cast that includes Dan Hedaya, Saul Rubinek and Harry Shearer has fun bringing to life various infamous political figures of the early 1970s. The best thing about it, though, are those sequences riffing on All the President's Men: the sets are lovingly recreated, from the newspaper office to the garage where the investigative reporters meet Deep Throat, but now Woodward is an irritable, arrogant headline-hogger, and Bernstein is a needy, childish incompetent who keeps trying to steal his stories, and his notepad. It would be another 16 years after the film's release before Mark Felt, the FBI's former associate director, revealed that he was the pair's mysterious source, rather than two teenage girls, somewhat trashing the film's gimmick.
It's a bit too trivial and superficial, typified by a heap of annoying song choices (You're So Vain is a notably wonderful exception) and a bizarre disco coda - completely at odds with the rest of the film - in which Dunst and Williams lick lollies emblazoned with the legend "Dick" and stroke themselves, but it's still worth a look as a sporadically sharp fusion of teen comedy and political satire: two genres that are usually kept rather further apart. (The only other one that springs to mind is the exceptional Election, released four months earlier.) Just call it Romy and Michelle's All the President's Men.
CLARA BOW STUFF:
Call Her Savage (John Francis Dillon, 1932) - So... much... plot. Clara Bow's comeback, after her nervous breakdown in 1931, kicked off a two-picture deal with Fox. Depending on who you believe, her intention was to restore her battered reputation following a series of scandals and dud pictures, or to make as much money as possible before retiring for good. It may have been both.
After years of being shoved around by Paramount, who increasingly put her in inferior vehicles with nothing co-stars, her new contract at her new home gave her the final say on material, cast and director. What she chose first was this absurd Pre-Code melodrama - as Pre-Code as Pre-Code gets - which introduces her braless and furious, bullwhipping the hell out of "half-breed" Gilbert Roland in a sexually-charged frenzy. While the film can't maintain the breathless momentum of that classic, bizarre sequence, it does take in adultery, venereal disease, prostitution, paedophilia and attempted rape, as well as the first gay bar in cinematic history and more melodrama than you can crack a whip at.
And for anyone familiar with Bow's tragic life, the film is even odder than it may look at first glance. Her heroine makes a glib reference in a party scene to "a nervous breakdown", bursts into tears at the mention of mental illness - Bow's mother and two aunts were all institutionalised, as she had just been - and falls into destitution, the life of grinding poverty that would have been the actress's lot had she not won a magazine contest in 1921. She talks about mending her promiscuous ways and settling down - precisely the life that she had mapped out for herself at this juncture of her life - and is begged by her best friend (Bow's former fiancee, Roland) to try to sleep, recalling the insomnia that plagued the actress's life, after her mother attacked her in her sleep, aged 16.
As with so many of the star's films, this one also tried to head off or cash-in on scandals in her colourful private life, resulting in a perverse scene where her character frolics on the floor with a Great Dane. For those who need to brush up on their tabloid smears of the 1920s, it's a reference to an allegation that Bow frequently copulated with her dog - also a Great Dane - a claim that ultimately cost its author eight years in prison.
As a stand-alone film, rather than a historical curio, Call Her Savage is rather less compelling. Though it has superb moments, including a thrillingly-directed opening that sees a bunch of marauding Native Americans attack a wagon train, Bow's unforgettable entrance, and a slew of short sequences in which arguably cinema's finest silent actress gets to emote without those troublesome words, it's a haphazard movie that jumps from one rather unconvincing development to the next, buoyed only by its censor-hurdling tawdriness and Bow's charismatic performance. I'm not sure that, taken as a whole, her combustible character makes for a convincing human being: her fiery temper, fiery hair and plunging neckline seem to be the only constants across her various contrasting personas. But she does command the attention most of the time, and if she's hardly the force of nature that she was in silent films like It and Mantrap, she's still a fascinating performer.
Sadly, she isn't helped in her noble bid to defeat the dodgy material by a flat, uninteresting supporting cast. I bow to no man in my admiration for Willard Robertson, the lawyer-turned-actor who graces my favourite movie, Remember the Night, as a flamboyant defence attorney, and gave one of the coolest characterisations of all time in the comic Western, Along Came Jones. Here, asked to play an authoritarian father, he's just completely dull, an affliction that he shares with every one of his fellow cast members, aside from Bow. Even the smouldering Roland and the usually reliable Thelma Todd fail to spark much interest, perhaps because of the company they're keeping, but almost certainly because the script and story - while loaded with adult themes and moments of unspeakable tragedy - are so terrifically pedestrian in execution.
So, if you're after a '30s movie that still stands up well today, look elsewhere. But if you're a film historian, a Pre-Code buff or a Clara Bow fan, then this incredibly miserable movie - endlessly preoccupied with "the sins of the father" - is worth 85 sordid minutes of your valuable time. (2)
Hoop-La (Frank Lloyd, 1933) - Clara Bow gives one of the greatest performances I have ever seen in this, her final film, an otherwise standard carnival romance. Movies set around this seedy, colourful world were ten-a-penny in the '30s, from Borzage's dreadful Liliom (based on the same play as Carousel), to Tod Browning's Freaks and The Mind Reader, Ruth Chatterton in Lilly Turner, and a couple of films starring the extraordinary Lee Tracy: Carnival and Fixer Dugan. This adaptation of a popular Kenyon Nicholson play, filmed before in 1928 as The Barker and twice later by Tokyo Story director Yasujiro Ozu, tells the story of a sexually-savvy dancer (Bow) who agrees to seduce the carnival manager's callow son (Richard Cromwell) for a hundred bucks. Naturally, she falls in love with him, putting her at loggerheads with her boss - and the broad who stumped up the dough.
Bow, despite frequently sporting a risible hairdo that makes her look plump and 50, is absolute dynamite, shifting between playful sensuality, heartfelt emotion and coarse threats in the blink of an eye, taking what's little more than flax, and spinning it into pure gold. As usual, she's hilarious and sexy (despite the hairdo), but there's also that wonderful sincerity and vulnerability in this performance that lights up her very best work. In sound films like The Wild Party and Call Her Savage, she seemed to be succeeding in spite of the new-fangled need to vocalise her feelings. Here, she's finally at ease with the medium, producing a stunning, startling characterisation that leaps off the screen and proves that the talkies were hers for the taking, if only she'd had the temperament to go with her talent. Instead, she bowed out at the top of her game, leaving us with this: a dynamic starring role that dominates the movie to the point of parody and recalls the very best of her silent work, but, y'know, with talking too.
The rest of the cast is thrown into shadow by the brilliant Bow and her sparkly bikinis, but Cromwell - equally adept as a pure-hearted juvenile (Emma) or an appalling coward (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer) - makes for a likeable leading man, and I was extremely surprised by how good the often bland Preston Foster was as his father, navigating the rather overwrought material with considerable skill. Minna Gombell, who essentially played the same role throughout the '30s, is also well-cast as Bow's pal, a spoilt, selfish fellow dancer who wants her to win Cromwell, so she can get back to boffing his dad. When Clara's off-screen, Hoop-La looks like a conventional carnival flick, with a decent, nicely-detailed backdrop, but a slightly pat, cliched story. But when she's centre-stage, and she usually is, it's something else entirely: a mesmerising, affecting, often exhilarating ride, and a staggering swansong for one of the greatest actresses ever to grace the silver screen. (3.5)
Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild by David Stenn (1988/2000) - The definitive Bow book is a brilliantly-researched account of her desperately sad life, written with a fair amount of style, and only detracted from by a slight sensationalism and some excessive armchair psychology. The enduring impression is of a sad, haunted soul with a miraculous gift whose career - and life - were destroyed by rampaging inner demons fuelled by her heartbreaking upbringing. The manipulative, selfish Paramount executive B. P. Schulberg comes out of the book terribly, though not as badly as Bow's hateful father. Ironically, when MGM made a fun film loosely based on her life in 1933, Bombshell starring Jean Harlow and Lee Tracy, he was portrayed by popular character comic Frank Morgan as an affable bumbler. (3.5)
Louie Bluie (Terry Zwigoff, 1985) - This was the first film from Ghost World director - and blues buff - Terry Zwigoff, an odd little documentary about the leader of America's last black string band, Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong, a painter, pornography afficionado and tall-tale teller whose suspect anecdotes (usually directed at someone who has heard them before, such are the necessities of the medium) are alternated with exhilarating jamming sessions featuring many of his wizened, laid-back contemporaries. In striving for intimacy, the film suffers from a distinct lack of context - despite a nice effect which sees his stories accompanied by his evocative artworks - and though we hang out with Louie, playing cards, shooting the breeze and buying a poster of a dragon, we never really get a sense of the man beneath the bullshit. Still, while the audience is kept at arm's length, and Armstrong can unquestionably be a bit irritating, he remains an interesting character, and it's hard not to admire a man with such a cool signature, such a colourful lexicon, and acquaintances called things like Bumblebee Slim. The music, which is stunning throughout, climaxes with a beautiful version of Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams, performed on a Chicago street in front of 20 people and a sign about lampshades. (3)
Another from the Treasures V: The West box-set:
Womanhandled (Gregory La Cava, 1925) - A sporadically entertaining comedy about pampered New Yorker Richard Dix pretending he's a Western he-man to impress a woman he met in the park (Esther Ralston). He heads out to his uncle's lamentably modern ranch and then, when she decides to follow, tries to make it all seem a bit more "Western". The version on the Treasures V box-set is only 55 minutes long, as it's missing both the lost "cattle stampede" climax and a scene that the compilers cut out because they thought it wasn't very interesting (what the hell?!), but it has a few laughs - including a fun bit in which the ranch hands try to ride horses for the first time - and a couple of nice meta gags ("All the real cowboys have gone into the movies," laments Dix's uncle). It's all very reminiscent of Doug Fairbanks' 1917 film, Wild and Woolly - an embryonic version of those trick-the-visitor outings like Seducing Dr Lewis or Local Hero - but not as good. Dix's clean-cut appearance and sprightly manner may surprise those who only know him as a tired-looking '40s B-actor in films like the Whistler series and Val Lewton's The Ghost Ship, and he does a fair job with what he's given. Sadly the script, co-written by director Gregory La Cava, is rather hit and miss, with too much time given over to a destructive little kid who isn't very funny. Still, there was enough about Womanhandled for Variety to say of its director: "It is safe to predict he is going a long way in making the pictures of the future", and they weren't wrong. Within 12 years, La Cava would have made both My Man Godfrey and Stage Door, two of the defining achievements of '30s American cinema. (2)
Thanks for reading.