Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Dennis Potter, Broadway Danny Rose, and the corners of Noah's beard - Reviews #175

I got to watch a lot of films this week. These ones:



Pennies from Heaven (Herbert Ross, 1981) - A conceptually dazzling musical, adapted by Dennis Potter from his BBC series, which juxtaposes the grim reality of Depression-era life with the fantasy of popular song.

Steve Martin is a pipe-dreamer and travelling sheet music salesman who thinks about sex once every one second, leaving his frigid wife (Jessica Harper) in the lurch and a timid spinster (Bernadette Peters) up the duff. Potter doesn't give Peters the soapy sob story, though. In fact, what he does with this tiny-mouthed schoolteacher is remarkable to the point of revolution, and her candid, conflicted, sensual performance is astonishingly good, one of two real reasons to see the film.

The other is the songs: an endless succession of show-stoppers, mostly framed as fantasy sequences, and almost all lip-synched to the crooniest available versions of old standards, while faithful to some distinct visual style of the 1930s. Many borrow directly from Busby Berkeley - Yes! Yes! even has kaleidoscopic overheads - but there's also a nod to nautical numbers, an enduring obsession in American popular culture for reasons unknown, while the film reaches the height of its ambition with a Fred-and-Ginger take-off staged on a replica of the Let's Face the Music and Dance set, but with choreography inspired by Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.

Just about every number is impressive or thrilling in some way, from Peters' exuberant Love Is Good for Anything That Ails You (mimed to a Phyllis Robins record and featuring schoolchildren as backing dancers), to a gold-tinted, stunningly-staged version of the title tune danced by Vernel Bagneris, and excellent guest spots for '50s hoofer Tommy Rall and Christopher Walken, the latter magnificently objectionable as a face-cutting pimp with a sideline in tap-dancing, whose incredible version of Let's Misbehave is probably the gateway drug that Tarantino fans need to get into Cole Porter.

Between these musical high points, though, which reveal the central characters' hidden urges or wildest desires, the dramatic passages don't quite cut it. I haven't seen Potter's original, but his script here - which underwent 12 revisions while boiling down six hours of drama to less than two - operates mostly at a surface level, and seems to mistake repetition and mundanity for profundity. Few of the characters seem truly affected by anything that happens to them, that strange, cold aloofness preventing you from engaging with much of what's going on amidst the impeccable period design. The writing isn't bad - there are moments of truth amidst Potter's laid-back perviness - but it isn't up to the standard of its interludes, which border on the sublime.

There's also the problem of Martin's performance. His attempts at emotion seem to have a unique, mawkish insincerity about them, while his zany treatment of some of his musical spots, mugging when he should be following Peters' restrained lead, often puncture the pastiche, leaving only a cartoon in its place. He makes a good fist of the dancing, but with someone down-to-earth and dramatically dynamic in the central role, perhaps Potter's spoken passages would have come closer to the robustness and realism needed to make the central contrast really work. Though its numbers aren't as impressive, that's why Ken Russell's version of The Boy Friend works so well: you believe in the seedy seaside world it creates, and so the songs give you something to escape from.

I wish this were great. It should be. It almost is. But it doesn't quite make it. A little like the pipe dreamer at its centre. (3)

***



*PRETTY MUCH SOLID SPOILERS*
The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (Ernst Lubitsch, 1927)
- When I'm writing about this one, I tend to run out of superlatives halfway through. It's the greatest film from one of Hollywood's greatest directors; a silent translation of a popular operetta, and as much fun, romance and heartache as most people can generally stand across an hour and three quarters.

Ramon Novarro is the titular prince, the nephew of the king of Karlsburg, whose restrictive upbringing - one of "duty, obligation and loyalty" - goes out the window, however briefly, in a fug of love, friendship and beer, swirling (swilling?) across the old city of Heidelberg.

The love - and the beer, for that matter - comes from an ethereal but down-to-earth, slightly cross-eyed barmaid (Norma Shearer): the guileless, glugging Kathi forever the high point of her screen achievements. Novarro himself wasn't blessed with the greatest range, but then you don't want J. Carrol Naish as your callow, conflicted young romantic, you want a sweet, sensitive, big-eyed kid with a seductive streak - and who more suitable than Novarro, a Latino sex symbol whose tenderness and vulnerability were all too real.

You want your kindly professor, his sense of fun overriding his sense of decorum, played by someone with the chops and twinkle-in-the-eye of Jean Hersholt. And, of course, you want Lubitsch, the inimitable, irreplaceable Lubitsch, behind the camera, every scene handled with that "Lubitsch touch", every moment seeming to offer something new and extraordinary to bring a smile to your lips or a tear to your eye: Shearer checking out Novarro with absolutely no subtlety when they first meet, a garden-full of beer glasses raised with military precision, the look on the lead's face as his love interest downs an entire pint, the pair's spirited night-time excursion to the finest field in movies, and that heartbreaking return to Heidelberg, as heartfelt a paean to lost innocence and the youth that is never to return as the movies have ever served up.

You can analyse the film a dozen different ways and it comes up faultless - from its abundance of visual metaphor, shifting perspectives used to illustrate the prince's changing moods, to the director's sparing use of intertitles, and the groundbreaking shot in summation that predates The Long Good Friday by 53 years - but it all adds up to the same thing: a film for the ages, an emotionally overwhelming portrait of self-sacrifice, paradise lost and position found, of young lovers meeting like passing trains, together for a fleeting, shining moment, then torn away by "duty, obligation and loyalty". And it's all scored to perfection in the old Thames Silents version by the peerless Carl Davis.

"It must be wonderful to be a prince," muses one of the town kids, studying a portrait of Novarro. On this evidence, not so much, but then isn't life just about enjoying those perfect moments when they come? This film has more than almost any other. (4)

***



Broadway Danny Rose (Woody Allen, 1984)

Danny Rose: What'd you do, you divorced him, or got a separation, or what?
Tina Vitale: Nah, some guy shot him in the eyes.
Danny Rose: Really? He's blind?
Tina Vitale: Dead.
Danny Rose: Dead. Of course, 'cause the bullets go right through.

I don't think this is Woody's greatest film, but it's the one I return to most often: a sweet, funny, utterly charming tall tale - with hidden emotional heft - about a loveable Broadway talent agent (Woody Allen) trying to escort his best client's mistress (Mia Farrow) to a crucial show, and unwittingly incurring the wrath of the mafia.

What seems at first glance a slight, minor movie holds untold pleasures, from Allen's script - stuffed with gems - to Gordon Willis's mesmerising monochrome cinematography, and an unforgettable, uncharacteristic performance from an unrecognisable Farrow, as the forceful, temperamental Tina Vitale, her late husband a juice man for the mob. "He made juice for the mob?" asks a baffled Allen. (4)

***



Bad Company (Robert Benton, 1972) - A God-fearing young man (Barry Brown), fleeing conscription during the American Civil War, falls in with a barely competent group of robbers about his age, also hoping to escape the draft. Along the trail, and amidst farce, thievery and tragedy, he bonds with their arrogant, charismatic leader (Jeff Bridges), as the group begins to bicker and break up.

This extraordinary, determinedly unpredictable movie - in close up, a model of stark simplicity; in overview deep and fascinating - could only have been made in one decade, shot through as it is with both timely parallels to the conflict in Vietnam and a total lack of respect for Western cliché. It also forms an interesting comparison piece with Ben Wheatley's A Field in England, beginning in the same vein, before events go similarly but differently awry.

The performances are mostly solid but unremarkable: Brown is well-cast but not a particularly good actor, Bridges - between his star-making parts in The Last Picture Show and the experience of shooting The Iceman Cometh that fundamentally changed his outlook as an actor - has great presence but little complexity (too many of his early performances just consist of him whining and looking like a dinosaur), and The Deer Hunter's John Savage is variable as one of his more abrasive underlings. It's the supporting cast that provides the real quality: Jim Davis playing a fierce, single-minded marshal, and David Huddleston, later to be found tormenting Bridges as The Big Lebowski, who's absolutely superb as the laid-back, outwardly avuncular "Big Joe", a courteous, hulking stick-up man leading a gang of imbeciles.

The bulk of the brilliance, though, comes from elsewhere: from the spare script, oscillating purposefully between the silly and the serious, and incorporating numerous inspired developments from lynchings to shoot-outs, the poetic imagery by Godfather photographer Gordon Willis - often at odds with the harshness of the material - and that impossibly fine piano score by Harvey Schmidt.

Writer-director Benton's career has been an odd thing: he kickstarted the New Hollywood era with his Bonnie and Clyde script, wrote Richard Donner's Superman, and got a Best Director Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer, before turning to gentler fare, and in light of his box-office smashes, this directorial debut often gets overlooked. It shouldn't, it's amazing: unsentimental, realistic and yet, in its brutish and complete rejection of Western norms, somehow mythic - a portrait of lost souls in a hellish America, the whole piece heading inexorably towards a perfect ending.

***



Hold Back the Dawn (Mitchell Leisen, 1941) - A romantic slow-burner, set in a Mexican border town, with Romanian gigolo Charles Boyer seducing American schoolteacher Olivia De Havilland to get in to the States, then starting to struggle with his conscience. Written in Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett's distinctive style, and directed by Mitchell Leisen - the master of the romantic drama, now almost forgotten - it's a simply beautiful movie: one which completely sneaks up on you, with an original set-up, an unusual atmosphere, and superb performances by the leads.

There's also cracking support from Paulette Goddard - as a sparkly-eyed conwoman with no illusions - and a sardonic Walter Abel, while an extremely meta framing device gives a glimpse of Paramount Pictures, with Leisen playing a director, and Veronica Lake and Brian Donlevy playing themselves. It isn't always an easy watch, because you know De Havilland's innocent dreamer is about to get put through the wringer, but it's a truly wonderful movie from a director who made some of the best. (4)

***



Titanic (Jean Negulesco, 1953) - Marital troubles and alcoholism upon the doomed ocean liner! Hurray! It's actually a lot more involving - and enjoyable - than it sounds, thanks largely to a pair of excellent performances from Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck. Webb is particularly memorable as a superficial, spiteful father shaken to his true self by a rip in the boat.

The film doesn't manage to convey the magnitude of the Titanic, takes place around somewhat artificial sets, and, most damagingly, is erratically plotted, spending just half an hour on the sinking, but finding time for an insipid teen romance that necessitates two utterly incongruous songs, including the anthem of Cornell University (I have no idea). There's also the usual risible "ethnic dancing" set-piece below stairs, while the great Thelma Ritter is given nothing - like nothing - to do.

On the other hand, a handful of nice details effectively evoke life on the boat - everyday things like telegrams, postal deliveries and the rituals surrounding the on-board meals - the central storyline is pretty interesting, and the climax, despite its weird lack of spectacle, is extremely moving, with numerous emotional high spots and an exceptional use of sound. This 1953 effort can't compete with James Cameron's magnificent movie, but it's a valuable film in its own right, a strange paucity of ambition in its staging overridden by the sheer quality and conviction of the human drama. (3)

***



The Nut (Theodore Reed, 1921) - Douglas Fairbanks' last modern-day silent comedy was essentially shot as insurance in case fans didn't go for his reinvention as a swashbuckling action hero in The Mark of Zorro. They did, making this his farewell to contemporary fare - but also little more than a footnote. That's a shame, as it's in many ways the summation of his early work: a very enjoyable movie full of imaginative gags and cheerily bizarre touches, such as the phone operator alternating between Satan and Cupid (both in their usual environs), depending on whether the caller's intentions are nefarious or nice. There's also some neat camera-trickery, done using double-exposure, employed throughout the action climax.

Doug is cast in his usual role as a misfortune-prone go-getter duelling with an utter bastard for the hand/sexy-time of a sweet-hearted maiden, leading to various mix-ups that require him to wear a cardboard cut-out of a suit, walk down stairs as a man carrying a stretcher apparently containing himself, and nick a load of wax dummies that he can pass off as local dignitaries. I don't think any of the eight early comedies spotlighted in Flicker Alley's superlative DVD set are quite masterpieces - it took Fairbanks going back in time to take his films to that higher level, but this is up there with the best of them, and it's perhaps the most consistent of the bunch. Lovely end title too. (3)

***



Ladies They Talk About (Howard Bretherton and William Keighley, 1933) - A salty, stylish Pre-Code meller with a typical Barbara Stanwyck powerhouse as a deacon's daughter turned moll who tangles with a dishy young reformer (Preston Foster) and winds up in the slammer. It's good fun, if a little insubstantial, peopled by archetypes soon to be outlawed by the censors (an unrepentant madam, a cigar-chomping lesbian, a sexually-frustrated fanatic). You also have to wonder if Preston Sturges had the opening reels in mind when he wrote The Best Film Ever (TM), Remember the Night.

Trivia-wise, Lyle Talbot has a bit as a gangster, his storyline very similar to the one in the previous year's 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, and for '30s music nerds, there are two special treats. The first is the chance to see amazing torch singer Lillian Roth, playing Stanwyck's affable new mate and singing a song about how she wants to have sex with Joe E. Brown, which seems a surprising thing to want. Second is an uncredited, unmistakable Etta Moten (who vocalised my favourite production number, Remember My Forgotten Man, the same year) wailing the St Louis Blues off-camera, as Stanwyck writes a clandestine letter to a friend on the outside. (3)

***



I Was an Adventuress (Gregory Ratoff, 1940) - Nothing more or less than sheer escapism, with Vera Zorina as a conwoman who resumes her career as a ballerina after marrying (alleged) Frenchman Richard Greene, only to be aggressively re-acquainted with her really quite gay former partners in crime: innocent Peter Lorre and domineering, creepy Erich von Stroheim, who it's frankly bizarre to find in a film like this. It's faux-Lubitsch fun all the way: minor and a little disjointed, perhaps, but also light, amusing and full of pleasant innuendo, while Zorina's obligatory ballet sequence is strikingly staged. Lorre completely steals the show, as always. (3)

***



Forbidden (Frank Capra, 1932) - A far-fetched, fast-moving soap opera, unbelievable in the more negative sense of the word, with Barbara Stanwyck as a potential old maid who falls hard for a dapper married man (Adolphe Menjou) whilst on an impromptu cruise, and quickly gets pregs. After that, events get rather out of hand.

It's very Art Deco-y in that early Capra way, equipped with bright lighting and stylish montages to go with some jazzy, swooping close-ups, there's an initially appealing supporting part for Ralph Bellamy playing a cool-as-flip newspaper editor - this was before he found that unwanted career niche: never getting the girl - and Stanwyck is going great guns as a potent cocktail of meekness, mousiness and white hot fury. The moment where she essentially strangles herself at the re-appearance of her lover is a gobsmacking piece of acting. And when she throbs with intense, detached, blank-eyed anguish by the fireplace as the police hammer at the door: just incredible.

The plotting's generally pretty laughable, though, despite the solid entertainment value, and none of the cast age very convincingly: the overall effect is as if the filmmakers forget to buy any make-up and could only find a bag of flour. For that matter, the world they inhabit doesn't change at all across more than 25 years, just the amount of flour they're wearing. Spooky. (2.5)

***



The Mind Reader (Roy Del Ruth, 1932) - Warren William is in his element here, playing a phony mystic and all-round scruple-vacuum in love with the most naive woman in the world. It's a snappy if slight, slightly gloomy Roy Del Ruth movie boasting the breathless treatment of risque gags, adult drama and redemptive romance the director made his own in the Pre-Code era. Allen Jenkins is quite good value as William's slow-witted sidekick. (2.5)

***



Miracles For Sale (Tod Browning, 1939) - Horror maestro Tod Browning's final film is a light murder mystery set around the world of the occult, with (mostly) rational conjuror Robert Young helping the police work out who killed a creepy old dude obsessed with demons. The culprit is perhaps overly obvious, but there's a strong ensemble including the likes of Florence Rice, Henry Hull and William Demarest, and the movie pulls a fair few tricks out of its sleeve along the way. (2.5)

***



Noah’s Ark (Michael Curtiz, 1928) - Ooh, somebody likes fire. A sledgehammer-subtle, hokey-as-hell but sometimes impressive epic, written by super-producer Darryl F. Zanuck and inspired by the Oscar-winning epic Wings and Cecil B. DeMille's biblical excursions, that draws one big parallel between the Great War and the Great Flood, and utilises the most 1929 cast imaginable (Dolores Costello, George O'Brien, Guinn "Big Boy" Williams and Myrna Loy) in dual roles. It's a film of scale rather than nuance, its attitude towards war makes little sense and there are countless weak scenes and stupid exchanges, but the film does offer a few good Hollywood moments, like a touching reunion between O'Brien and Williams, as well as a magnificent montage comparing the decadence of the '20s (I think - chronology isn't the film's strong point) to the ancient world that God swept away. Most significant, though, is the climactic flood sequence, which remains a wonder to behold: in artistic terms a staggering, enduring achievement that justifies the film's existence, though in moral terms an unforgivably costly one, claiming three lives and injuring countless others after Warners allegedly failed to heed warnings about extras' safety from original cinematographer Hal Mohr.

The film is largely silent, accompanied only by laughably poor sound effects, though there are a couple of awful talkie sequences added after the initial release. Loy, a favourite of mine who famously struggled with the nascent medium, is billed seventh but only has one short scene (and perhaps a bit in the finale - I couldn't spot her). The ethereal Costello, shot through a Vaseline-lensed haze, would probably seem extremely attractive if I hadn't read her boring, racist honeymoon diary in a biography of her husband, John Barrymore. It's also a bit rich for the film to preach about lust after showing a slippery Costello in her underwear for 20 minutes, though DeMille would have admired such rank hypocrisy. And that prediction about war at the end was a bit premature, wasn't it? Lol Zanuck you n00b. Perhaps it's best to distract yourself from such things with the Best Putdown of Noah Ever: "Shave the corners of thy beard, old man, to make nets to catch fish on the mountainside." Zing. They forgot to add "#sickburn". Also: "I'm going to die in a big flood." Incidentally, as regards the extremely limited Williams, I've always found it quite funny that an actor nicknamed "Big Boy", who engaged in dewy-eyed bromances like this one, was such a homophobe off the screen, once cutting off Orson Welles' tie at a bar because he'd heard that the inveterate skirt-chaser was gay. Not a great film, then, but a film with one hell of a morally-indefensible set piece. (2.5)

***



The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927) - On this evidence, I'm not sure talking pictures are a very good idea. (1.5)

***

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Cloudy 2, Joan Blondell and a Faustian folk tale - Reviews #174

Plus: '30s America, Katharine Hepburn and acute disappointment, in the latest batch of reviews of stuff I've just watched.


Boring stupidness.

CINEMA: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn, 2013) - If the original Cloudy was like one of those Heston Blumenthal dishes that's both outrageously odd and utterly brilliant - I don't know, perhaps fried egg with jam and Rice Krispies - then this misguided, saccharine sequel is a pointless pudding, an overly sweet dessert that makes you sick up a bit of the main course.

Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) lands a job with a shady corporation run by his childhood hero - funny how he wasn't mentioned in the first film - who decides to send Flint back to his home island for the post-first-film clean-up, whilst playing him off against his friends. The island itself is now inhabited by living beings made of food, including a spider comprising Big Mac and fries, a taco-dile that spits vegetables everywhere, and a cute little strawberry with the voice of Eric Cartman. Are you sure this script is ready? The problem, no doubt, is that Phil Lord and Chris Miller were only on hand to provide the story and exec-produce, with former South Park staffer Erica Rivinoja botching the writing job, and Cody Cameron (Shrek, Madagascar) and Cloudy contributor Kris Pearn taking care of the rest.

There are a few good jokes - the fishing trip, the translation, Steve the monkey generally - but it's largely overbearing sentiment, food creatures with punny names (essentially a Twitter hashtag that got out of hand), and Steve Jobs-based villainy, a sort of Robots/Wreck-It Ralph/Jurassic Park III hybrid, with a minimum of heart, wit and invention. I wanted something as anarchic and genuinely original as the first movie. Instead, I got a film that's not only aimed at kids, but doggedly conventional and insultingly predictable, both in its re-treading of old ground and its telegraphing of old jokes. It's the most disappointing movie I've seen for a couple of years at least. (1.5)

***



Union Depot (Alfred E. Green, 1932) - Wow. This is a fantastic movie, a rich tapestry of early '30s America, masquerading as a melodrama. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. is a dirty-faced vagrant who pitches up at the titular train station, looking for a break. He gets a new suit of clothes courtesy of a drunk who's obsessed with the Navy (Frank McHugh), then finds a case stuffed with cash belonging to a calculating counterfeiter (Alan Hale), upon whom the police are closing in. Not that Fairbanks senses the danger, opting to play "Santee Claus" to a down-on-her-luck dancer (Joan Blondell) he mistakes for a good-time girl. What sounds on paper like a frothy entertainment - and may have been in the hands of MGM - is exactly the opposite: a hard-edged, cynical, brutish movie full of violence, bitter barbs and truly adult themes, several personified by the limping, porn-obsessed sexual maniac who won't leave Blondell alone (George Rosener), a truly terrifying creation.

Luchino Visconti later did a similar thing with Stazione Termini: a central romance set almost entirely around a station, and supplemented by tangential, even unrelated moments of human drama concerning those round about, but this is even better. Fairbanks slapping Blondell across the face is likely to cause a sharp intake of breath, but everything else about their relationship is perfectly judged, leading to one of the most moving endings I've seen in a long while. Fairbanks, still a bit toothy and goofy, before the studio make-up men properly got their hands on him, was a very underrated actor, and he's dynamic here, laying the blueprint for his spectacular turn in Ben Hecht's Angels Over Broadway - the performance I tend to think of as his definitive one. There's one particularly brilliant scene where he lays into a slapper who's trying to touch him for a meal (in more ways than one), in which he exhibits a vitriol pretty much unmatched in '30s cinema. The big-eyed, curvy Blondell pretty much owned the Pre-Code era, and she's every bit Fairbanks' match here: her pep and sardonism is toned down, the forlorn, vulnerable and melancholy aspects of her persona are dialled up, and the result is startlingly effective.



Around this unusual, desperate pair are many of Warner's best stock players: McHugh hilarious, the erratic Guy Kibbee as funny and agreeable as I've ever seen him, and David Landau brusquely imposing as a straight-talking cop. The film doesn't tackle the Depression head-on like Gold Diggers of 1933, or go for the novelistic approach to a period like, say, 1981's Ragtime (set a little earlier), but it does evoke the essence of the era more strongly than just about any film I've seen: a time of poverty and want, the people of America looking back confusedly at the Great War, and uncertainly towards the future. For many, it was a period of cynicism and individualism, people grabbing what they could, doing it to the other guy before he did it to them. Cultures were colliding in a way they hadn't before, and the depot is awash with faces from different races, some Americanised, others anything but. The supporting snippets aren't all of the same standard, some a little too broad or clichéd, but in totality it emerges as a remarkably real film, with an almost semi-documentary feel.

I've always regarded director Alfred E. Green as a bit of a hack: he made some very impressive films like Baby Face and Four Faces West, but also a lot of lifeless, stylistically-barren dreck. Here, working with the Sicilian wizard Sol Polito, he manages to create a stunning, self-contained world, opening with a simply mesmerising POV tracking shot, and keeping the action fast and credible, as the film juggles drama, horror, comedy, romance, suspense sequences, social comment and even some awesome stuntwork. A couple of the plot points may be a little forced, but it's still an absolute knockout: an entire era boiled down to 66 minutes, with a timeless, off-kilter love story at its heart. (4)

Many thanks to Owen for sending this one to me.

***



The Devil and Daniel Webster (William Dieterle, 1941) - A flavourful Faustian folk tale, vividly directed by William Dieterle, evocatively scored by Bernard Herrmann, and featuring fine work from a notably unglamorous lead duo: weighty, crusading lawyer Edward Arnold, and devilish, exceedingly hammy Walter Huston, who seems to be having the time of his life. They're fighting over the soul of farmer James Craig (just about the most unpopular actor in '40s Hollywood), who's traded his spirit for wealth and fortune, and traded doting wife Anne Shirley for puggy sexpot Simone Simon. It's a familiar story, obvious even, but given a timeless presentation, and particularly arresting when Dieterle's visual imagination goes into overdrive, or the commanding Arnold moves centre-stage. Unfortunately, the film's climax has little to say about man's nature or the bonding together of the oppressed - a key theme earlier in the film - instead peddling the same trite "Land of the Free" platitudes as countless other movies of the period, at odds with much of what we've seen. After all, isn't it the servitude of poverty that drives the callow Craig into the arms of Huston's "Mr Scratch"? That shortcoming leaves you feeling unsatisfied, despite the film's clever, irreverent final image - fully in keeping with Dieterle's Gothic but homespun, jocular tone - though the botching of the big finish doesn't diminish the brilliance of much of what precedes it. The scene in which Arnold himself is tempted by the Devil is a minor classic. (3)

***

A Katharine Hepburn double-bill:



Undercurrent (Vincent Minnelli, 1946) doesn't have a reputation to speak of. Hardly anyone's seen it, and those that have tend to think it's a bit rubbish. I enjoyed it, though, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it's essentially entertaining: you can see where the story's going ahead of time, and it's certainly strung out a bit, but it's enjoyably devised, well-handled by Minnelli, and well played by a couple of screen legends. Because, secondly and most importantly, it's one of those "wouldn't it be great..." films. In this case: "wouldn't it be great if Bob Mitchum and Kate Hepburn made a film together?" Two actors that it's hard to believe ever inhabited the same world, let alone the same film. There were so many movies made in the '30s and '40s that a fair few of these perfect pairings did become a reality, for which we have the studio system to thank. So, you've got Mitch and Kate signed up for your fantasy film - when would you like it to be made? How about '46, when he was still young, lean and hungry, and looked killer in a trenchcoat, and she was graduating from desirable young women to vulnerable spinsters, proving equally adept at the new mode. You know how it'd play out: you'd think her acting was as good as it gets, until Mitchum turned up, all effortless authority and insouciant cool, underplaying to the hilt, and then you'd realise he's probably the best actor the American screen ever threw up, even in these early days, between his only Oscar nom and Out of the Past.

They wouldn't have to have long together: just a couple of scenes, he only one other in the whole film, but it would be a joy to behold: their first meeting like the coffee shop scene in Heat, but for nerds, and not terrible. Even if the second one was hackneyed as hell, over-lit and embarrassing, it wouldn't matter too much, not for the chance to see this coupling come to life. The story, since you ask, has Hepburn as the sheltered daughter of an academic, who marries millionaire and all-round legendary figure of industry, Robert Taylor, but becomes besotted by his notorious, ne'er-do-well brother, a man she's never met. Mitchum is the caretaker she happens upon at the mystery man's old place. Aside from the horsey finale and the pat pay-off, which we can safely file under "stupid endings", it's a really fun film: an MGM melodrama tinged with noir and thriller elements, the heavyhandedness in much of the scripting compensated for by slick direction, an agreeably exciteable score and a couple of fine performances. Taylor, forever pushed by the studio as the new Gable, is better than usual in a role that subverts his carefully-developed image, but it's the chance to see two titans of the cinema sharing the screen that makes this something a bit special. (3)



Without Love (Harold S. Bucquet, 1945) - Katharine Hepburn starred in three movies based on Philip Barry plays and adapted by Donald Ogden Stewart: the immortal Holiday, the incomparable Philadelphia Story, and this one: a witty, involving but disjointed affair that's somewhat over-reliant on contrivance and coincidence. It was written for the actress and, after playing it for four months on Broadway, she took it to Hollywood. The story sees her hardened, 28-year-old widow (Hepburn was 38) swearing off love and life after the untimely death of her husband, only to be reawakened by a straight-talking scientist on a Government mission (Spencer Tracy). They marry for the sake of companionship and convenience, their union being one Without Love, but naturally it doesn't end there.

I've now seen seven of Tracy and Hepburn's nine films together, and while none are genuine classics, all are interesting and entertaining to some degree: Woman of the Year is the best, despite an overwrought subplot and a weak ending, and State of the Union and Adam's Rib have much to commend them, the former lit by a raw emotional power, the latter sparked by Judy Holliday's supporting pyrotechnics. This one's a touch below, but well worth seeking out for Hepburn. She's alternately harsh, fragile, funny, clever and naïve, displaying that rare gift for rapidly-quickening delivery and shaky-voiced honest sentiment that was her calling card. Playing a very well-written character within a not always coherent drama, she gives one of her finest ever performances - and that's saying something. Tracy is also in very good form, if not quite his greatest, while Lucille Ball works wonders with a colourful if minor supporting role, playing a self-proclaimed "bad girl" who seems oddly smitten with the bespectacled, tippling Keenan Wynn.

Hepburn's the main draw, though, her familiar mannerisms employed to serve a memorable character, even if beyond all Barry and Stewart's astute philosophical ruminations my favourite moment is just Kate laying down one of her magnificent, self-mocking "haha"s. (3)

***



Full Of Life (Richard Quine, 1956) - When you insist on seeing every film starring a favourite actor, you usually end up watching a dud or two. Aside from some early bit parts, Judy Holliday made just eight movies, but this is hers: a static, unfunny comedy-drama, drenched in self-pity, that's perhaps commendably unusual in trying to deal with the misery and awkwardness of pregnancy, but isn't at all fun to watch. It's also rather upsetting to see Holliday puffing away, not because her character is pregnant, but because this uniquely brilliant performer died so tragically young from cancer.

The story, if you can call it that, was adapted by John Fante from his novel, and sees Holliday's husband Richard Conte warring with his larger-than-life Italian father (Salvatore Baccaloni), amidst various other uninteresting misadventures. Even Judy isn't up to much in this boring, genuinely painful film, rife with poor writing, lifeless direction and dislikeable, deeply irritating characters. As her co-star, Conte proves that his strong suit was playing reptilian gangsters, not curiously sour family men, and throughout it all there's that same inane musical theme, played over and over and over again.

Then, bizarrely, with 10 minutes left, something in Judy and her character stirs - a baby, and a previously untapped joie de vivre - and we get a fairly pleasing finish alive with her distinctive warmth. All a bit late though, really, isn't it?

See also: Conte was rather more at ease in the quite brilliant Cry of the City.

***

Thanks for reading. Comments are welcome below or on Twitter.

Monday, 21 October 2013

The fiendishly difficult Advice to the Lovelorn movie quiz



Fifty questions, each more tricky than the last (except for question seven, that's a doddle if you get number six right). No prizes except for pride, but there's plenty of that available. There are 52 points up for grabs - I reckon a decent score would be anything above 15.

Email richardburin@hotmail.com with your answers (subject line: "Movie quiz"), and I'll add you to the leaderboard at the bottom. The quiz is open until the end of the month.

Moderate
1. Which three films have won all five major Oscars (picture, director, screenplay, best actor, best actress)? (One point for each)
2. Which actress was immortalised in the biopic Mommie Dearest?
3. Which movie had the tagline: "Garbo talks!"
4. What was Jean-Pierre Melville's favourite film?
5. Warner couldn't scrap As Time Goes By from Casablanca because Ingrid Bergman had cut her hair, making re-shoots impossible. Which picture necessitated the snip?
6. Which editor re-cut Orson Welles' Magnificent Ambersons...
7. ... and which 1965 musical did he direct?
8. Who played Annie Hall's brother?
9. Max Fischer's line in Rushmore, "Can you get me off the hook? You know, for old times' sake?" was borrowed from which '70s movie?
10. Who portrayed Deep Throat in All the President's Men?

Tricky
11. Which film couldn't be reviewed by critics because Sinatra's female fans were screaming too loudly?
12. Who voices a character in every Pixar film?
13. Which 1961 movie helped change the British law prohibiting homosexuality?
14. What was Alan Smithee's directorial debut?
15. The Hulk and Gollum dance together in which movie?
16. How much was Preston Sturges paid for his Great McGinty script?
17. Christopher Reeve's Hollywood star was paid for by fans of which movie?
18. Which Bunuel film gets a namecheck in the Pixies' Debaser?
19. In which film did Ginger Rogers try to shoot Fred Astaire?
20. Clint is chased by a toy car in which '80s movie?

Difficult
21. Which movie did Dillinger break cover to watch at the Biograph Theater, the night he was killed?
22. Who played Charlie Chan's Number Two Son?
23. John Barrymore performed Hamlet's soliloquy in which movie?
24. Fred Astaire said which 1943 dance number was the greatest he'd ever seen?
25. Who described Jean Arthur's appearance as "half-angel, half-horse"?
26. Marion Davies does a Lillian Gish impression in which film?
27. A novelisation of this film won the 2004 Carnegie Award.
28. The Smiths song Reel Around the Fountain contains two lines from which kitchen sink drama: "You're the bees' knees, but so am I" and "I dreamt about you last night - I fell out of bed twice".
29. Billie Holiday played a maid in which movie?
30. Which film did Noah Baumbach direct under a pseudonym?

Fiendish
31. Sam Peckinpah got final cut on only one his movies. Which one?
32. Which 1972 movie was based on a comic strip in the satirical magazine Private Eye?
33. Who is the only person to have ever won an Oscar without being nominated?
34. John Ford wound up Peter Bogdanovich by telling him that Arrowsmith was his favourite of his films, and at other times claimed it was the critical and commercial flop, The Fugitive. Neither was true. What was?
35. Who tripped up Leo McCarey as he went to pick up his Oscar for Going My Way?
36. Ronald Reagan's autobiography was named after a line in which film?
37. Peter Boyle renounced movies glamourising violence after the release of which film?
38. What links Apocalypse Now and Giuseppe Tornatore's Baaria?
39. Which comic actor said the Russian version of his name looked like it said: "Exapno Mapcase"?
40. In which '80s film does Colin Firth climb out of a lake in a dripping wet white shirt?

Evil
41. Who is the only actress to have, erm, unwittingly "excited" Melvyn Douglas (i.e. Little Melvyn) during a love scene?
42. What do Joanne Woodward, Owen Wilson and Neil Hamilton have in common?
43. This actor died the day before the New Yorker printed the correction he had demanded, saying that he was still alive. That was in 1959.
44. Which actress had the most requested profile of the 1930s, in terms of plastic surgery?
45. The famous line: "My name's John Ford, I make Westerns" is actually a misquote from which director's memoirs?
46. Who was Robert Mitchum's first choice for the part of his brother in his pet project, Thunder Road?
47. What was Hitler's favourite film?
48. In 1989, which actress appeared as the mother of a character she won an Oscar for?
49. John Mills compared his daughter Hayley to which vegetable on the set of Pollyanna?
50. Which movie is the picture at the top from?

WALL OF FAME (LAST UPDATED, 28/10/13)
Kirbyapplegate - 49 points
Louise Penn - 40 points
Pamela Fallon Thornley - 34 points
Elab - 33.5 points
Gustav - 22 points
Jules Ark - 15.5 points
Christopher Hyatt - 14 points
Owen Hughes - 5 points (wins the prize for the funniest made-up answers)
Billy Ray - 4 points
Rocco Tenaglia - 3.5 points
Thanks also to those who've tweeted me their scores, though you don't go on the list unless you email me your answers, as I'm no fun.

Myrna Loy, Gaslight, and Toronto's premier downtown mall - Reviews #173

SOME REVIEWS! Also featuring: MGM showing off, Alan Ladd being cool, and Anton Walbrook being mean. Very mean. Evil, even.



Test Pilot (Victor Fleming, 1938) is the epitome, if not the apogee, of Old Hollywood excellence, a slick but weighty entertainment with several remarkable facets, and the full weight of the MGM dream factory behind it.

First, consider its pedigree: its scriptwriters included Howard Hawks and former aviator Frank "Spig" Wead, the personable stars - Clark Gable and Myrna Loy - had just been voted the King and Queen of Hollywood in the biggest poll of its kind ever conducted, there was a meaty role for dramatic heavyweight Spencer Tracy, about to land his second consecutive Oscar, and the direction came from skilled filmmaker and unequivocal "man's man" Victor Fleming - who specialised in rough, tough pictures, but would shoot most of The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind the following year. Seventy-five years on, it still looks like what it was: a proper prestige production, shot on location as well as in the studio, and full of impressive flight footage (which I'll acknowledge isn't always perfectly integrated with the close-up work).

Gable is the test pilot of the title, pushing new planes to the limit at risk of his life. Tracy is his fatalistic, constantly chewing mechanic, Loy the university-educated farm girl on whose parents' land he downs, setting up a romance that moves from blissful exploration to bitter desperation, as drunkenness and death intervene.

This was among Loy's favourites of all her films, and, she said, the last movie in which her seven-time co-star Gable dared to emote, before the need to protect his macho image rendered him dramatically immobile. He was a formidable star, if not much of an actor, and Test Pilot finds him at the top of his game. Loy herself is out of this world: she was never more affecting or amusing - eliciting bona fide lolz and heartbreak in equal measure with a rich, multi-layered characterisation brimming with confidence. Usually happy to merely complement her co-star, here she just acts him off the screen. Tracy is also at the peak of his gargantuan powers, exhibiting a wondrous naturalism that's sustained throughout every moment he's on screen, whether centre-stage or not.

There are a few extraneous scenes, a couple of lurches in mood and perhaps an overly folsky wrap-up utilising Lionel Barrymore's popular persona, but it's largely a proper movie with proper characters, and little of the superficiality or convolution that marred many of Gable's MGM vehicles. It's also a film of great moments: Loy's first meeting with Gable, her breathtaking heart-to-heart with Tracy, a noted precursor to the classic "Who's Joe?" scene from Hawks' own Only Angels Have Wings, and that gutting instant that consists of nothing more than the mechanic tossing some chewing gum on the ground. (Unless my ears deceive me, it's additionally one of the only Breen-era movies to contain blasphemy, in the scene where Gable goes to visit Gloria Holden.)

In her book, Loy says the film "really stands as an example of what big-studio filmmaking could be", and who am I disagree? (3.5)

See also: Tracy and Gable's next, and final collaboration, Boom Town, is reviewed below.

***



The Glass Key (Stuart Heisler, 1942) - For all its flaws, this is one of my favourite noirs, and a movie I return to time and again. There isn't much plot, and what there is doesn't always make sense, but it's pure joy from start to finish, with Ladd and Lake's usual fireworks, Brian Donlevy and William Bendix in career-best form, and a spectacular script crackling with menace, innuendo and pitch black humour. Putting the malnourished story aside, it's everything film noir should be: violent, sexy and funny. And homoerotic. It's very homoerotic. (3.5)

See also: I reviewed Sullivan's Travels, also starring Veronica Lake, here.

***



The Silent Partner (Daryl Duke, 1978) - A very good thriller in a very '70s style, with a languid style of storytelling punctuated by scintillating genre set pieces, a shambling, handsome-ugly hero, and lots of women without any clothes on.

Elliott Gould is a Toronto bank clerk, in love with co-worker Susannah York, who realises he's about to be stuck up by a department store Santa (Christopher Plummer) and decides to turn the situation to his advantage. Unfortunately his adversary turns out to be an absolute psychopath – shades of Charley Varrick – but Gould's dalliance with illegality seems to have woken him from his stupor, and sharpened his wits.

In plot terms it's reminiscent of Wait Until Dark and the later Hopscotch, it's thematically and stylistically akin to Michael Cimino's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and the atmosphere of growing dread and danger within a sanitised, bloodless corporate environment makes it an interesting companion piece to the same year's Dawn of the Dead, but this Curtis Hanson-scripted movie also treads its own path, thanks to consistently surprising plotting, delicious performances from Gould and Plummer, and an incredible score by jazz legend Oscar Peterson, his only one for a feature film, which fills those bank vault sequences with an irresistible, pounding tension.

It's Gould's sporadically assured anti-hero, though - nervous one minute, nerveless the next - who gives the film its apparently contradictory gamut of virtues: it's cool and gripping, fatalistic but unpredictable, escapist but sometimes plain old terrifying. In fact, my only complaint with this offbeat, frequently magnificent movie is the misogynistic nastiness that sometimes intrudes, revelling in Plummer's sexualised deviancy as it pretends to condemn it. (3.5)

Trivia note: The film is set at Toronto's Eaton Centre. I went there once. It wasn't as tense as this.

***



When Ladies Meet (Harry Beaumont and Robert Z. Leonard, 1933) - AKA "The one where Myrna Loy is hot for The Wizard of Oz". This is one of the most grown-up films to come out of Hollywood in the '30s (in stark contrast to the opening of my review): a fiercely intelligent and sexually candid drama about a "good woman" (Myrna Loy) who falls in love with a married man (err, Frank Morgan, in a departure from his popular persona), then winds up spending an unwitting evening with his wife (Ann Harding) thanks to the machinations of the sarcastic, good-hearted journalist (Robert Montgomery) who's stuck on Loy.

It's talky in the extreme, and the character comedy from Alice Brady, Luis Alberni and Sterling Holloway is abysmal, but it's also equipped with a fascinating, astonishingly incisive take on gender politics, with none of the stifling conformity enforced by the Hays Office in future years (or by MGM normally). Though it starts slowly, it builds superbly, and the climactic conversation between the two women is a powerhouse. Harding, who specialised in smart, adult dramas during the Pre-Code era - also appearing in Double Harness with William Powell - is extremely good, particularly in the later scenes, and Montgomery handles a tricky part with some style, but it's Loy's show all the way. She's nothing short of sensational as the modern woman who just might be heading for a fall. With The Rains Came, it's the best dramatic performance she ever gave. (3.5)

***



Truly Madly Deeply (Anthony Minghella the Merciless, 1990) - Juliet Stevenson's performance in this fantasy romance is comfortably in my top 10 of all time, her grieving widow contorting with anger, confusion and unhappiness at the untimely death of her husband (Alan Rickman). Her pleasant, measured and good-humoured demeanour crumples and cracks, revealing a raging sea of anguish, tears and snot, but after the return of Rickman - in ghost form - there's joy there too (Walker Brothers!), and wonder, and then more confusion. When I interviewed Terence Davies a few years back (yes, still harping on about that), he insisted on referring to this film as "Truly Madly Boringly". Far be it from me to contradict the best British filmmaker of his generation, but a) That's not a pun, and b) The film's not boring. It is often quite annoying, though, not to mention thematically muddled, tonally baffling, frequently unfunny, saddled with a weak supporting cast, and equipped with a love interest sporting legitimately the worst hairstyle of all time. How do you rate a film like that? Generously, I think, for Stevenson's intense, jaw-dropping, utterly real performance, and for Minghella's work in securing it, whatever the film's other innumerable shortcomings. (3)

***



"Don't call me 'shorty'."
Boom Town (Jack Conway, 1940) - MGM wasn't in bad shape in 1940. This familiar but ludicrously entertaining mix of comedy, drama and romance – set in the world of wildcat oil drilling – was made on a vast canvas, has the usual polished production values and features no fewer than four massive stars: Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert and Hedi Lamarr, whose names scroll across the screen in gargantuan capitals. It was the last (and probably least) of three collaborations between screen titans Gable and Tracy, whose mutual jealousy added to their on-screen sparring. As Myrna Loy notes in her book, Tracy was envious of Gable's sexual magnetism and his popularity with the public, while Gable yearned to be taken seriously by the critics and his fellow actors in the way that Tracy was.

The story sees Big John (Gable) and Straight Jon (Tracy) variously making and losing vast fortunes in the oil game, while fighting over Tracy's childhood sweetheart (Colbert), Gable's interest in a single-minded glamour puss (Lamarr), and the fact that the taller guy keeps calling the smaller one "shorty". The first 30 and last 30 minutes are both very well done; the rest is bitty, fast-moving fun, full of abrupt plot developments and excitable montages portraying the passing of time. Tracy and Colbert are superb, Gable – who had worked in the fields with his oil-driller dad – is very charismatic, and there are some wonderful flourishes, both artistic and dramatic: the smoke from a steam train buffeting a banner, a drunk Tracy's parting line to showgirl Marion Martin, and his heart-to-heart with a bedridden Colbert, which moves from faux-poetic predictability to tearjerking brilliance in the blink of an eye.

John Lee Mahin's script is unquestionably erratic, with an unfortunate, jarring propensity to threaten women with violence, but there are lots of enjoyable scenes in it, and it's never boring (just horribly sexist). There's also a first-rate supporting cast, led by Lamarr (whose billing is a little confusing), legendary weirdo Lionel Atwill and Frank Morgan, his riotous performance interrupted by a single moment of overwhelming sincerity. Boom Town isn't as deep or thrilling as George Stevens' later oil-fuelled epic, Giant, but for fans of Golden Age movies, it's a must. (3)

***


We've all been through this.

36 Hours (George Seaton, 1965) - As you'd expect, this is only three-quarters as good as 48 Hrs. It's a disappointing spy story, set on the brink of the Normandy landings, in which the Nazis devise an elaborate way to get American diplomat James Garner to spill the beans about the D-Day plans. An ingenious first half gives way to a conventional, convenient second that mixes reheated cliches with artificial attempts to deal with big issues, and a litany of far-fetched developments, several concerning a particularly improbable "good German" in the shape of doctor Rod Taylor. Garner's hero must also be about the most stupid in movies, and among the least pro-active: a square-jawed moron buffeted around by chance, German office politics, and his own confusion as to which day it is. It's a shame that after a disorientating, deftly-devised first hour that promises plenty, all the film can deliver is a daft, dull and formulaic final 50 preoccupied with German incompetence, and augmented by a little suspenseless pursuit. (2.5)

***

And here's a review of a recent DVD release that I wrote for MovieMail:



Gaslight (Thorold Dickinson, 1940) - There can surely be no higher compliment than the world's most famous movie studio trying to destroy the negative of your film because it's a bit too good. That's the fate that befell Thorold Dickinson's Gaslight in 1944, as it dawned on MGM that their remake of the British film - released four years earlier - didn't really measure up.

Dickinson's original is a scintillating, richly atmospheric and sickeningly tense suspenser set in Edwardian London, in which sadistic maniac Anton Walbrook returns to the house where his aunt was once strangled, and methodically and insidiously drives his blameless wife (Diana Wynyard) to the brink of madness.

The director fairly revels in Walbrook's dapper deviance, and proves himself every bit as meticulous as his villain, stuffing his gas-lit movie with vivid montages, ingenious juxtapositions and nerve-shredding set pieces. The sequence in which Walbrook stage-manages his wife's breakdown at a charity concert is one of the most harrowing in movie history, Dickinson masterfully dragging his heels as we move towards the inevitable, and Wynyard sits blissfully unaware, listening to the tinkling of ivories. Later, he cuts restlessly between a crucial conversation and a rambunctious music hall show, briefly stemming the undercurrent of mounting dread via a sea of can-can dancers, only to unleash it in a veritable torrent.

Although the vicious, grey-templed Walbrook steals the picture in familiar fashion, as he would in Dickinson's cult classic The Queen of Spades nine years later, Gaslight wouldn't work without the basic human goodness at its centre. It's a film that finds time to properly humanise its heroine, whose intense fragility is instantly recognisable and whose true character only truly emerges in the presence of some boisterous street urchins, and equips her with a pair of selfless allies: a rotund retired detective (Frank Pettingell) who smells a Walbrook-shaped rat, and her affable cousin Vincent, played by a young Robert Newton.

Stark, suspenseful and sexually frank, essentially good-hearted and yet dripping with the menace and malevolence of its errant villain, Gaslight remains a must for fans of classic British cinema. Just be sure to lock your copy in your desk, Walbrook-style, in case MGM come calling. (3)

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Sergeant York, Andie MacDowell and a really, really bad film - Reviews #172

Nowadays I mostly just watch films on a little computer on the train. Like a boss, as I believe they say. That's how I saw most of these - as the director intended.



Sergeant York (Howard Hawks, 1941) - If Ball of Fire is Howard Hawks' best film - his most enchanting, entrancing and affecting - then Sergeant York has a claim to being his greatest: an astonishingly ambitious piece of storytelling, with sweep and style and a tremendous universality, that's also rooted in the personal. Though the DVD cover features Cooper in full-on battle mode - tin hat on, revolver out, face fixed in stoicism, a hero for the Father's Day market - Sergeant York is much more than a mere war movie.

Its first half is a pastoral masterpiece (pastorpiece?) in the vein of Tol'able David, staggeringly shot in charcoal tones by Sol Polito, and chronicling hellraiser Alvin York's conversion to Christianity, within an isolated mountain community. The second follows Alvin (Gary Cooper) as he wrestles with his conscience upon being drafted during WWI, and winds up a war hero, via one of the greatest battle sequences ever filmed.

If you can stomach the film's patriotism and justification of war as a means to peace, and an unselfconscious sentimentality in much of its dialogue (some written by John Huston), then the film is nigh-on perfect, with even the "in the Army now" sequences possessing the absolute minimum of incongruous character comedy. The immortal Cooper does perhaps his best dramatic work in the lead - it was his favourite of his films - Walter Brennan's performance as the local pastor is another masterclass (pastorclass?) from one of the great supporting actors, and the 16-year-old Joan Leslie - probably the prettiest actress in '40s cinema - is extraordinarily effective as Alvin's fiancée, Miss Gracie, her naturalism and remarkable gift for reaction creating the usual alchemy with her leading man.

Beautifully conceived and rendered, from the stunning sets - at once stylised and realistic - to Max Steiner's astonishing score, the film is a triumph as Americana, as a character study, as a portrait of religious conviction to rank alongside Becket, as a romance, as an entertainment (it was the highest grosser of 1941) and as a - perhaps unwitting - piece of propaganda, its respect for pacifism and conflicted relationship with conflict barely registering with the thousands who saw it just after Pearl Harbor and headed straight for the recruiting office.

To modern eyes, the film may seem fanciful, hackneyed or hokey, but I found it spellbinding: an immersive experience that conjures up a whole lost world. A work of art. (4)

***



Whisky Galore! (Alexander Mackendrick, 1949) - Harrowing drama about Scottish people's reliance on alcohol. (3.5)

***



Green Card (Peter Weir, 1990) - An old-fashioned romantic comedy with a certain intangible, unaccountable magic. Andie MacDowell wants a greenhouse, Gerard Depardieu wants a green card, and so these strangers marry, then bid farewell forever, little knowing they'll be flung back together by suspicious immigration officials. Written, directed and produced by Peter Weir - an enduringly class act - the film isn't particularly funny, but it is a cut above usual romantic fare, partly because it's rooted in the real world and in credible characterisation, partly due to the chemistry of the leads, and partly because of Weir's skilful direction, which fails only in two regards: if MacDowell gives you a handful of wooden line readings, you ask her to re-take, and if you've got a flipping recurring musical motif inspired by a burgeoning love affair, you flipping play it over the flipping climax. While Bebe Neuwirth from Cheers is fun in support, casting off that unsmiling sternness in an infectiously vivacious performance, this is a movie that zones in on its leads. MacDowell comes in for a lot of stick, but she's often very good here, when not relying on that stock smile or fluffing the odd infuriated riposte. Depardieu's first English-language performance seems nothing special in itself - while those sorts of barbs aimed at vegetarianism and clean-living may have been old-hat when they were used in the 1916 movie, His Picture in the Papers - and yet the film is ultimately entirely winning, and its central romance unusually and comprehensively affecting. (3)

***



Man on the Moon (Milos Forman, 1999) - There are three basic ideas about stand-up comedy: 1) That it's about making people laugh, 2) That it's about hauling down the powerful, 3) That it's both an art and a science, a medium in which the element of performance is integral and the self-aware, post-modern deconstruction of comedy is funny in itself. The last one of those doesn't sound at all funny, but it can be in the hands of the right comic, as the numerous critical bouquets flung in the direction of Stewart Lee will attest.

Andy Kaufman thought a little of the first idea and a lot of the last. He thought that dying on stage was hilarious, that making his audience unsettled or outraged was at least as worthwhile as getting them to giggle, and that the only way to respond to requests for his TV catchphrases was to read the entirety of The Great Gatsby aloud on stage. He prefigured the "ironic" un-PC humour of Ricky Gervais by a couple of decades during a peculiar venture as a sexist wrestling bad guy, figured that if he found something funny that was more than enough, and took very much to heart the Wildeism, "I put all my genius into my life", a Withnailian get-out for those who lack the discipline to create anything of genuine worth. I'm rather fond of it myself.

This superior biopic, another portrait of a genuinely odd iconoclast from the People Vs Larry Flynt team, is, if not quite the film that Kaufman would have made of his own life (that doubtless would have been out-of-focus for the second half, which came at the start of the film), at least alive with the perverse glee of his comedy and the sincerity of his erratic artistic vision. Played by Jim Carrey with a level of complexity and dramatic intelligence that proved The Truman Show was no fluke, the film follows Kaufman from his discovery by super agent Danny De Vito, through Saturday Night Live and sitcom fame, onto a relationship with a one-time wrestling adversary (Courtney Love) and then down through professional disaster and failing health.

This standard narrative, shot through with about the right amount of Kaufman's own penchant for rug-pulling and getting somewhere close to an understanding of quite a strange man, is also cleverly bookended, kicking off with a frankly amazing mock-ending and climaxing in about the only way it can. My main criticism is that the film loses a little of its vitality and fondness for invention as it progresses - certainly there's too much wrestling and too much Tony Clifton (a one-joke character whose one joke is funny once) - and may have benefited from a more adventurous, non-linear screenplay: perhaps of the type that Andy's namesake Charlie might have provided. Despite the quality of the acting, despite Forman's gift for montage and comic timing, despite the erudition of the dialogue and the quality of the R.E.M. score, it all comes a little close to storytelling-by-numbers in the second half.

But while playing it safe wasn't exactly his style, a biopic that's often funny, sometimes infuriating and ultimately kind of brilliant does seem about right for Andy Kaufman. (3)

***



20,000 Years in Sing Sing (Michael Curtiz, 1932) - Golden Age legends Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis made their only appearance together in this powerful but deeply flawed prison movie from Warner Bros, based on the memoirs of Sing Sing warden Lewis E. Lawes. Tracy is an underworld big shot who gets sent down for 5 to 30 (they had vague prison sentences back then) after an armed robbery, leaving big-eyed Davis on her lonesome. Naturally she spends her newly freed-up calendar trying to spin nefarious fixer Louis Calhern around her finger, so Tracy can be sprung, but it doesn't quite pan out like that. The star - who had already been sent to prison in his debut film, Up the River - is superb when the part calls for him to play sincere, noble or troubled, but struggles with the malevolent material, seeming somewhat miscast in a role originally intended for Jimmy Cagney. The film's essential toughness is also diluted by weak comedy and studio gloss, while Warner's reputation as a progressive studio doesn't extend beyond a slightly cautious supposition that not all prisoners are evil; "You've got to be useful to live," says the warden at one point, which is the sort of thing Hitler might have said.

The film does get a kick from the stars, though, and includes a nice bit part for future Plan 9 alumnus Lyle Talbot as a complete psychopath, while the fast-moving story is diverting enough - despite a rather daft gimmick concerning Tracy's loathing of Saturdays - and there's one absolute knockout prison break sequence shot in vivid Expressionist style by Curtiz and journeyman Barney McGill: pure film noir, some eight years before the fact. 20,000 Years in Sing Sing can't compete with the bleak, grown-up I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, released by Warner Bros the same year, nor The Big House - one of the first great talkies and still the daddy of all prison films - nor even Cagney's own penitentiary pic Each Dawn I Die, but for a brief, low-budget programmer, it's pretty punchy, and all builds to a gutting pay-off. I still love that title too. (2.5)

***



The Flame and the Arrow (Jacques Tourneur, 1950) - A handsome Technicolor swashbuckler in the familiar Warner Bros style, with Burt Lancaster taking over from Errol Flynn, who was getting too old/debauched for this shit. Lancaster is a free spirit in 12th century Italy - with frankly resplendent teeth - who starts fighting for the little guy after his son is taken prisoner by the ruthless German tyrant who's married his ex. Virginia Mayo is Lancaster's sassy feminine foil (who spends a fair bit of the film with a chain around her neck, like a kind of sexy dog), Frank Allenby is the hissable aristocratic villain and Robert Douglas has a potentially interesting role as a duplicitous swordsman that he doesn't do a great deal with. The star's regular sidekick and former big top buddy, Nick Cravat, also gets a showy part, effective as the star's mute, fiercely loyal right-hand man.

The film is a bit too talky and the action is variable - half awesome circus moves, half bog-standard scrapping - but it's intelligently cast, frequently entertaining and builds to a very satisfying conclusion. At its best, such as in those exuberant opening scenes, it fairly throbs with energy and vigour - much like its leading man. It's also attractive to look at: while Tourneur was no auteur - and cinema is after all a collaborative medium - his films peg him as a fine visual stylist, especially when working with a talented cinematographer like film noir pioneer Nicholas Musuraca (Out of the Past, Cat People), Charles Schoenbaum (Stars in My Crown) or Ernest Haller (this one), who went on to shoot Rebel without a Cause. (3)

***



Tall Man Riding (Lesley Selander, 1955) - A formulaic but fun Randolph Scott Western, one of a pile of identikit offerings the oft-wooden star made from the late-'40s to the mid-'50s, before Budd Boetticher and Burt Kennedy made a cult figure out of him. The best of these is probably A Lawless Street, directed by B-movie wizard Joseph H. Lewis, while the interminable Coroner Creek must be the worst. This one's placed midway between the two, beginning in a confusing, slightly tedious vein, gradually improving, then getting hijacked by a silly twist that feeds into an unexpectedly strong triple-ending.

As usual, Scott is a quiet, stoic gunman, bent on revenge, who's suspected of various nefarious doings (including shooting his ex-lover's husband in cold blood) while finding that his thirst for vengeance abates as more important considerations intrude. That story is rather over-familiar and Scott is at his most oak-like, but the supporting cast has its compensations to atone for the mediocre males - the still-brunette Dorothy Malone is very forceful if clichéd as Scott's ex, and Peggie Castle (the femme fatale in the Mickey Spillane adaptation, I, the Jury) gives a decent performance as a saloon singer and gangster's moll who finds her essential goodness sparking up again - and it's a fast-moving, quite well-directed movie that's wrapped up in an appealing way. For all its shortcomings, Western buffs should find it an enjoyable enough ride. (2.5)

***



Walk, Don’t Run (Charles Walters, 1966) - A fittingly pedestrian remake of George Stevens' The More the Merrier - that classic comedy about an ageing romantic bringing together two young people during a housing crisis - updated to the sexually franker '60s and the hustle and bustle of Tokyo during the Olympics, and notable only as Cary Grant's swansong.

While Samantha Eggar and Jim Hutton are no Arthur and McCrea, hers is actually the stand-out performance, beginning in an uptight, officious manner, then blossoming charmingly. The mahogany, lazily suave Grant - once the most gifted light comedian in screen history - is fairly good but largely coasting, as he so often did later in his career. He hadn't lost his timing (that "... then I'll stay" sequence is beautifully played) and he has fun belting out the theme songs of a couple of his most famous films before waving us goodbye at the end, but he's unable to summon the enthusiasm or the resources to breathe much life into the more trivial, sitcomish material, which mistakes endless repetition for humour (especially in the interminable "timetable" set pieces), thinks the volume of a TV being turned up is in itself hilarious and has characters constantly behaving in incredible ways: like climbing up the side of a building rather than waiting to be let back into an apartment.

There are a few laughs and a few nice romantic moments, while the curious homoerotic undercurrent in the early scenes between Grant and Hutton is sort of fascinating (Grant was long rumoured to be gay, a reputation he'd cheerily spoofed in Bringing Up Baby), but unless you're a Grant completist, distrust black and white films or resent having a good time, you'd be better off just watching the original. (2)

***



Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock, 1950) - Silly, arbitrarily-plotted Hitch film, set in London, his first British movie after leaving for Hollywood a decade earlier. Jane Wyman is a stage-struck kid who risks it all for the man she loves (Richard Todd) after he's framed for murder by his lover (Marlene Dietrich), getting entangled with the investigating officer (Michael Wilding) and going deep undercover as a maid, with the help of an extraordinarily bad Cockney accent. The story is so scatty that it seems as if they came up with the set pieces first and then just tried to tie them together - the director and his writers did sometimes work that way, successfully on North by Northwest - the balance of comedy and tension is never quite right, and rarely has Hitchcock's stairs fetish been so boringly employed as in the sequences of Wyman running up or down steps, trying not to let people see her face. It's a passable entertainment, though, thanks to a few directorial flourishes and a very special home-grown supporting cast, including Kay Walsh as a chain-smoking blackmailer, Wilding giving a masterclass in smitten but hard-edged suavity, and Joyce Grenfell playing her (incongruous) stock character of a toothy incompetent, this time in charge of a shooting gallery. Best of all is Alastair Sim as Wyman's rascally father, a man always in control despite his bumbling manner and disordered appearance: a sort of Boris Johnson for the suspense set. (2)

***



The Saint Meets the Tiger (Paul L. Stein, 1943) - This late, British entry in the Saint series starts and ends quite well, but has an incredibly boring, extended middle, full of secret passages, dull characters and awkward pauses. Hugh Sinclair is an underrated, enjoyable Templar - debonair and amusingly offhand - but no match for Louis Hayward's definitive characterisation. The supporting cast is mostly weak, though Jean Gillie isn't bad as the love interest, and Charles Victor has a fair scene in which he tries to frame the Saint for murder. All in all, though, this cheap, poorly-scripted comedy-mystery is a bit of a chore. (1.5)

***



*SOME SPOILERS*
Ruby Sparks (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2012)
- Oh fuck off. There's the germ of an interesting idea in Zoe Kazan's screenplay, concerning the collision between the adolescent ideal of a lover and the reality of sharing your life with someone, flaws and all. Unfortunately it's swamped by buckets and buckets of utter bullshit, a heap of ideas nicked from Stranger Than Fiction and The Purple Rose of Cairo and a veritable avalanche of manic pixie dream girl posturing.

Paul Dano plays a frustrated "boy genius" - a once-renowned writer who expresses the usual fondness for Fitzgerald and Salinger (a familiarly shallow way to imbue your screenplay with faux-intellectual credibility) while being hampered by block as he tackles that Difficult Second Novel. After a dream about an annoying ginger (Zoe Kazan) - sorry, a beautiful dreamer (Zoe Kazan) - who couldn't fit the MPDG stereotype more perfectly if she was wearing a Smiths t-shirt (I have several, but that's not the point) and scrawling Rimbaud verse on her arm with a sparkly pen, he begins to write about her, only to find that she has come to life, and is in his house.

The first 15 minutes is genuinely the worst opening to a film I've seen since Mamma Mia!, full of dreadful dialogue and risible acting. The opening exchanges left me slack-jawed in amazement. Does this kind of pointless writing, combining lazy juxtaposition (dreamy girl says mundane thing) with clumsy attempts to subvert non-existent expectations, honestly merit being filmed? Then suddenly the film seems to get a grip of itself - and so its audience - as Dano's brother (Chris Messina) delivers a neat little speech about the difference between a dream girl and a real woman. Ah, so Kazan's character is supposed to be shallow and ridiculous? Finally we're getting somewhere. Actually, no, the film's not sure. Let it just consider that for a moment, then completely change the subject.

After that, I'm not sure what happens. I mean, I watched it, but it passed in a cacophony of white noise, as deep as a trailer, the sort of wildly inconsistent nonsense that's very difficult to judge, as I've no idea what it's supposed to be, and Kazan has no idea what she's trying to say. Or else hasn't the skills to say it. The film embraces the one plot development you're urging it to, as Dano is overwhelmed by the desire to "perfect" his creation (again, a mature analogy for relationships in general), only for the results to be instantly sunk by gimmickry and bad acting, the "comic" scenes in which Kazan is consumed by joy being the more embarrassingly overacted since Ginger Rogers became a little girl in Monkey Business.

It's never clear whether the Ruby who appears is supposed to represent a real woman or merely a literary creation - surely the crux of the piece - or whether she grows apart from Dano because she has become more human or simply because he is unable to adapt to her inexplicable arrival. There's also a gaping great hole in the way that he is unable to correct her increasingly unrealistic flaws. I don't think it's a critique of perfectionism (if it was, surely he'd answer her request to start over in the final scene with, "It doesn't have to be perfect") and nor does it seem to be dealing with any lack of realism in literature. It's just a flaw.

Somewhere along the way there's also a fucking road trip, of course, with meaningless bit parts for Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas. Bening's character, the Incredibly Irritating Earth Mother familiar from just about every disappointing indie film of the last 20 years (Broken Flowers, Away We Go), handily represents nothing, serving only to inform us that people who excessively embrace a New Age lifestyle are probably quite annoying, which I think we already know. Steve Coogan pops up every so often too, as Dano's overbearing mentor, affecting an accent perhaps best described as "Americunian". There are a couple of laughs in there, Messina is good and the film occasionally alights on something more universal than "man fancies Zoe Kazan" - whether by accident or design, I'm not sure - the idea of a writer paralysed by his own success remains interesting, and certainly the climax to the "human puppet" sequence has a wonderfully manic energy to it, but it's not enough, not nearly.

The film's argument seems to be that we shouldn't try to change people, but that if we don't, they'll leave us. How life-affirming. And also that Zoe Kazan is Zoe Kazan's idea of the perfect woman, in all her cooky capriciousness. It's like (500) Days of Summer, but without the self-awareness or charm, and with all the flaws turned up to 11. Or like Weird Science for pretentious, posing tossers. (No offence intended if you liked it, though you are wrong.) Like I said: fuck off. (1.5)

***

Thanks for reading.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Why I love... Remember My Forgotten Man

I wrote the first draft of this piece on spec for the Guardian's fantastic Why I Love... series, but they're not accepting freelance contributions, so I decided to go into a bit more depth and tack it up here.



It's arguably the most heightened and heartbreaking evocation of the Great Depression ever filmed: an unforgettable portrait of a people betrayed by their country, gripped by a crisis not of their making, disillusioned, dehumanised and dismissed. Rife with righteous fury, dripping with anguish, and populated by marching masses almost zombified by hopelessness, it's a piece of socialist art pitched somewhere between poetry and propaganda. And it's a number in an otherwise innocuous Hollywood musical from 1933.

For most of its running time, Gold Diggers of 1933 is a standard crowd-pleaser. Though its first half has numerous wry references to poverty, one chilling line from Aline MacMahon about the lengths to which out-of-work chorus girls might be forced to go, and interrupts the new song We're in the Money – sung partly in Pig Latin and introduced by Ginger Rogers, dressed as some coins – because the creditors are closing down rehearsals, this is still a film in which struggling actress Polly (Ruby Keeler), seeking funding for a show, catches the eye of a secret millionaire (Dick Powell), who's young and dashing and lives next door and also happens to be a songwriter. In fact, once Doberman-faced Pre-Code lothario Warren William and ruddy lecher Guy Kibbee turn up, and the movie starts to revolve around that '30s staple of a wealthy family trying to buy off a troublesome showgirl, it seems to forget about reality altogether.

In terms of the score, there are two more numbers staged by visionary choreographer Busby Berkeley: the peculiar, sexualised Pettin' in the Park – featuring eight-year-old dwarf actor Billy Barty, cast as a pervy baby – and the Shadow Waltz, replete with neon violins, in addition to the peppy Powell's solo spots. Some 11 years before his reinvention as a film noir tough guy, he's all chubby cheeks and cheese, crooning soppy songs through open windows. It's all amazing fun, but still just snappy, superior escapist fodder, with a tantalising early reference to stage producer Ned Sparks' vision for a "Big Parade of tears" the only hint that something important might be on the way. Nothing, though, can quite prepare you for what it is.

With the daft plot neatly tied up, Berkeley suddenly drops the big one: a climactic number that runs for almost seven minutes and seems to encapsulate an entire generation's experiences in an endless parade of marching, shuffling feet. Men on a downward spiral that begins at the front and ends at the soup kitchen; an army of heroes deserted by America. Prefaced by Berkeley himself as the crew member yelling: "Everybody on stage for the 'Forgotten Man' number!", and smartly moved to the end of the picture by studio head Jack Warner and the brilliant, staunchly Republican producer Darryl F. Zanuck – resulting in some rather obvious continuity errors – it's a rousing, moving and frankly jaw-dropping spectacle, and an uncompromising piece of political cinema.

In 1933, Hollywood movies were preoccupied with the Depression, as well they might have been. Heroes for Sale encompassed all manner of social problems in tracing the troubled life of Richard Barthelmess's war hero. Hallelujah, I'm a Bum rather daringly – some would say naively – equated joblessness with freedom, while finding a role for ex-silent comic Harry Langdon as a communist binman called Egghead. The exceptional time-travel drama Turn Back the Clock allowed Lee Tracy's tobacconist to relive 20 years of his life, and to confront the major social issues of the day, and the entirely bonkers Gabriel Over the White House, bankrolled by William Randolph Hearst, suggested that dictatorship – in the shape of Walter-Huston-with-superpowers – was the only answer to the nation's ills.

For all their virtues, though, none of these films possess the poetry, the passion or the sheer relentlessness of Remember My Forgotten Man, let alone its concision and erudition. It grips right from the start: the strings plunge, the curtains open and a street scene is revealed. From there on in, there are no cutaways to the audience, no concessions to the wider, engagingly daft story: the focus is entirely on this Depression opus, shot in stunning, Expressionistic fashion by studio cinematographer Sol Polito, the gifted Sicilian who gave Sergeant York its unique, painterly feel.



A homeless man (Frank Mills) stands under a streetlamp. A passing white-collar worker drops a cigarette butt on the floor, and he swoops for it. The bum stands and catches the eye of a prostitute (Joan Blondell), who takes a light, then locks eyes with him. He smiles, lowers his gaze and walks away. She looks after him, her coquettish manner evaporating as her face washes over with gloom. “I don’t know if he deserves a bit of sympathy,” she says. “Forget your sympathy, that’s alright with me. I was satisfied to drift along from day to day, till they came and took my man away.”

Though the story naturally attributes the song to Powell's dimpled moneybags, it's actually by Al Dubin and Harry Warren, the pair who'd written the score to Warner's 42nd Street the previous year ("Cancel my contract with Warren and Dubin!" shouts Sparks' character when he hears Powell's tunes for the first time). As a lonely sax starts up a call and response, Blondell slips into the rhythm of the number, and hits us with lyricist Al Dubin's staggering refrain, presumably inspired by Yip Harburg's Brother Can You Spare a Dime?: “Remember my forgotten man? You put a rifle in his hand. You sent him far away, you shouted ‘Hip hooray!’, but look at him today.” As we snap to a close up, we see the tears springing in her eyes. “Remember my forgotten man? You had him cultivate the land. He walked behind a plough, the sweat fell from his brow, but look at him right now…”


The forgotten women.

Then she frames the Depression as a tragedy for women too: "And once, he used to love me, I was happy then. He used to take care of me – won't you bring him back again? 'Cause ever since the world began, a woman's got to have a man. Forgetting him, you see, means you're forgetting me – like my forgotten man." Then, without warning, the massive, magnificent voice of African-American vocalist Etta Moten blasts into the film. The implication from Berkeley is clear: this crisis transcends then-significant racial boundaries; each case, regardless of colour, is as tragic as the last (not that Warner gave Moten a screen credit, appallingly). Hanging out of a tenement, she drenches the sequence in blues, restating Blondell’s words as we move past other windows: a starving mother cradling a child (an image so like a couple of Dorothea Lange photos that it's astonishing to note it predates both of them), a pensioner in a rocking chair staring into the middle-distance. Then it’s Sledgehammer Blow 1: a truncheon-wielding cop tries to move on another bum (Billy West), who's lying listlessly in a doorway. As he pulls him to his feet via his lapel, the man's jacket falls open and we see the war medal still pinned there. Blondell closes it, cold fury in her eyes, and pushes him solemnly out of the frame. (There is an added undercurrent here relating to Blondell's own brutalisation by the law; as a young woman she survived an attempted rape by a police officer.)




Sledgehammer Blows 1 and 2.

A fade, and we’re at an army parade in 1917, ticker tape flying, crowds cheering and flags waving, the pitch-black background giving it all the atmosphere of a dream. Another fade and the men are walking more wearily, their faces grim, the rain bucketing down. Sledgehammer Blow 2: more soldiers appear, staggering in the opposite direction, returning from the front bloodied, blinded and crippled. One of them, his face set in grim determination as he strides towards the camera, has a half-naked casualty slung over his back. Fade again and we’re at a soup kitchen, Berkeley’s camera – so often used to idolise chorus girls’ legs in these Warner production numbers – tracking past hungry, lost souls, some with their lips pursed in determination, bowed but not yet broken, shivering against the winter cold.



Then Sledgehammer Blow 3, Berkeley pulling out all the stops in a way that comprehensively shifts the focus from the personal (emphasised by the lyrics) to the communal. As silhouetted soldiers march endlessly across a huge, three-tiered dome, a chorus of the unemployed starts up. “We are the real forgotten men,” they sing, these swelling masses marching towards the camera, then turning to Blondell, who helps them blast out one last chorus, their hands rising as if enraptured, glorifying the plaintive cry of the prostitute.



It isn’t that much like a Fred and Ginger film.

The number was conceived by Berkeley, whose remarkable, regimented routines (frequently leading to kaleidoscopic imagery, shot from above) were informed by the Army drills he experienced during his time as an artillery lieutenant. Though it can be viewed as a general indictment of the Hoover Administration’s failure to address the nation’s problems, the direct inspiration for the routine, with its unique and wrenching power, was the May 1932 war veterans' march, in which 17,000 soldiers who had fought in the Great War went to Washington in search of enough money to get by. Two of them were shot by the police, the rest were charged by the Army under the command of General Patton. Alongside The Grapes of Wrath, a stunning translation of the Steinbeck novel made by then "socialist democrat" director John Ford and Zanuck, Berkeley's response is probably the most radical work to come out of a mainstream studio during Hollywood's Golden Age.

Closing your film with an incongruous, unprecedented musical routine is ballsy, but it isn't courageous. What is courageous, even prior to the communist witchhunts of subsequent decades, is climaxing with a number that accuses the Government of betraying its people, and calls on the country's lawmakers to recognise the sacrifices made during World War One (and in forming the economic backbone of the country), and to come to the aid of the working classes. Turn off the sound and chop a couple of zeroes off the budget, and the sight of these impoverished masses striding towards the camera, facing down their oppressors and calling for the state to intervene, could easily have been culled from a Soviet propaganda film.

In every way, this stunningly scored mini-epic still astounds: in its matchless atmosphere, its feeling of communality, its extensive use of unglamorous extras, its perfect marriage of sound and image – unobstructed by dialogue or the necessities of plot – its technical complexity but thematic simplicity, and its sense of human compassion permeating every frame. That all this is housed in an otherwise inoffensive Hollywood entertainment, following some glow-in-the-dark violins and plenty of comic relief from a tipsy, horny Guy Kibbee, is almost inconceivable.

***

I previously wrote about Remember My Forgotten Man in this post, "Nine things I like about movies". You can watch the number itself on YouTube.