Sunday, 8 December 2013

John Ford, Romeo and Juliet, and a bawdy grandad - Reviews #177

Plus: Ben Hecht, Maggie Smith and a damp squib of a kung fu film.



Romeo and Juliet (George Cukor, 1936) - This is an astonishingly good translation of the Shakespeare play, devised and demanded by the brilliant, doomed producer Irving Thalberg, but only greenlit in the wake of Warner Bros' massively successful Midsummer Night's Dream, staged by Max Reinhardt. Thalberg was a prodigious, literary-minded man with an ailing body but a will of steel, who had escaped into books during a teenage year committed to his bed, and in the final years before his death at 37 brought to the screen such ambitious projects as The Good Earth and Marie Antoinette. His fingerprints are all over the best moments of this extravagantly mounted movie and, as much as I like elements of Luhrmann's version, this is one of the few film adaptations of Shakespeare that renders his work accessible to a modern audience without resorting to gimmickry or novelty.

Its masterstroke - and bizarrely its most derided element - lies in the casting of the titular lovers. At 36, Norma Shearer was twice as old as Juliet (who's supposed to be 14), while the 43-year-old Leslie Howard is at least 20 years older than the typical present-day Romeo. In the grand scheme of things, though, it doesn't really matter. Not only can they each pass for a decade younger - sprightly and sensitively lit as they are - but in order for the play to work, the flowering of first love needs only to convince, not to be between teenagers. It does that effortlessly, partly because both the leads are absolutely sensational.

As a rule, I'm far more a fan of Howard's humorous work than his dramatic parts. In films like Pygmalion and It's Love I'm After he's a comic whirlwind, a force to be reckoned with, spewing epithets and brilliant bile, seizing the material and contorting it to devastating ends. In his dramatic parts, he tends to be a bit of a wet blanket. But whereas his speechifying introspection in The Petrified Forest - that risible philosophical gangster movie - comes across as unbearably smug and irritating, put him in tights, in love and in the right setting, and such characterisation can work wonders. Added to which, he's simply a lot better here, his heartbreaking portrayal of the tragic lover equipped with a quicksilver air and a latent dynamism to go with that impossibly romantic posturing.

Shearer was married to Thalberg, and the likes of Joan Crawford spend a good deal of their time downplaying her talent, saying she was cross-eyed (she was, but it's very charming) and that she only got ahead because she was "sleeping with the boss". Considering that Crawford was not only about a tenth of the actress that Shearer was, but was actually sleeping with most of her bosses, that seems a bit rich. At her best, Shearer was an absolutely exceptional performer: a great actress, a muse, a centrepiece of truly great romances like The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, Lubitsch's immortal silent. Certainly she achieved less after Thalberg's death - her final film, We Were Dancing, really is a bit of a clunker - and clearly he tailored films to her talents, but what talents they were. She's a magnificent Juliet: ethereal, impulsive and matchlessly tender, grasped by one emotion and then the next, navigating a complex part with a skill, intelligence and emotional sensitivity that takes the breath away. Yes she's 36, but - without wanting to sound too much like a pompous idiot (it is hard for me) - is that honestly the level at which we're going to judge art? "She's a bit old"?

It's that stunning central coupling, perfect together or alone, their masterful handling of the dialogue rendering it utterly modern and entirely unforgettable, that gives the film its grip, its hold, its haunting power, and makes up for the things the movie does wrong, several of which are slightly baffling. Edna May Oliver, perhaps the least talented person in '30s America, is typically one-note as Juliet's nurse, while future John Ford stock company alumnus Andy Devine provides atrocious comic relief in a beefed-up role as her assistant. And, then, of course, there are Shakespeare's own shortcomings. He was one hell of a writer - of course he was - but that doesn't mean you can't quibble with plotting that includes a potion replicating the symptoms of death, a father figure who can't really be arsed to ensure Romeo's safety, and an extremely sudden, remarkably convenient outbreak of pestilence.

There's also bloody Mercutio, of course, arguably the most annoying character in theatre, here brought to life by the 54-year-old John Barrymore (OK, Thalberg, now you really are taking the piss), the legendary thespian who transformed the art of Shakespeare with his stage versions of Richard III and Hamlet, but here is a mere bloated, pointing shadow of his former self, his energy and genius traded for a raised eyebrow, a finger raised to the sky and, at most, two fleeting moments of resonance. In support, it's only Basil Rathbone as a stuck-up Tybalt and Reginald Denny's Benvolio who impress.

It's a film with dips, then: troughs filled with broad comedy and lazy hamming. But boy are those peaks mighty: Cukor and William H. Daniels' often masterful compositions - Romeo lit silver as he plays to the balcony, Juliet "dead" beneath a transparent veil - and Shakespeare's glorious words and intensely moving scenarios performed to perfection by two extraordinary actors. (3.5)

***



It’s a Wonderful World (W. S. Van Dyke II, 1939) - "I swear by my eyes." Claudette Colbert's Hechtian vow is right up there with "I close the iron door on you" (Twentieth Century), "I thought you thought so" (Libeled Lady) and "Oh Dook" (I Love You Again) as one of those Golden Age phrases that instantly transports me to a happier place. And every time she says it, it gets slightly funnier. This daft, fast-paced screwball thriller isn't terribly deep and isn't terribly polished, hopping from one comic scenario to the next with no thought other than where the next laugh might be coming from, but it's a film I happily return to every couple of years, always to discover that, yes, it still rocks. Hard. And - due to my current commuting - that I am sitting on a train, laughing out loud at my laptop like a weirdo.

Jimmy Stewart is a cynical, woman-hating private detective (in the film) who goes on the lam to try to save his playboy employer from the electric chair, and so scoop 100 Gs. Claudette Colbert is poetess and potentially incriminating witness Edwina Corday, who first finds herself his prisoner, then decides to never leave him alone, since she totally fancies him. It's one of the few variations on It Happened One Night that doesn't make me want to sue the writers out of sheer annoyance. At one point Stewart punches Colbert in the face, at another he does a blackface routine, but somehow it's all kind of fine, because the film is so light, charming and hysterically funny, thanks to Hecht's dialogue, the transcendent performances of the leads, and supporting masterclasses from Guy Kibbee and Nat Pendleton - the latter forming one of cinema's great "dumb cop" double acts with Edgar Kennedy.

Most of Hecht's favourite things are in here - tough-but-secretly-sentimental heroes, cynical reporters, smart one-liners ("You couldn't find that guy if he was riding in a float"), absurd catchphrases, dizzy dames and murder - and they're mostly my favourite things too (the only one I'm not as keen on is murder), so that's cool. It's a Wonderful World isn't quite top-tier screwball, but it's close enough: endlessly quotable escapism, and another '30s comedy to be filed under "instant joy". (3.5)

***



Young Cassidy (John Ford, 1965) - I was surprised by how strong Young Cassidy was: a good movie that does a few things wrong, rather than a bad one that does a few things right. It's oddly billed, as "a John Ford film... directed by Jack Cardiff", as the great American director was on his penultimate legs and had to bail after two weeks of shooting, and that's about right: its themes and its characters are Fordian, its stylistics are for the most part pure Cardiff, the whole thing shot in the same way as Sons and Lovers, merely in colour. The exceptions, perhaps rather are obviously, are the pub brawl (recalling She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and most of Ford's others) and a crucial death scene, both of which were filmed by Ford.

It's all based on a memoir by the great Irish playwright Seán O'Casey, climaxing with the first night of his breakthrough work - The Plough and the Stars - which was filmed by Ford in 1936. Australian actor Rod Taylor is O'Casey, Johnny Cassidy by birth, a drunken, brawling working man with an artist's sensitivity, or "the most John Ford character ever", in shorthand. There's no narrative drive until the last 15 minutes, but what there is is a succession of vignettes, many of them interesting and powerful, as we move from a beautiful credits sequence, through O'Casey's encounters with poverty, free-spirited women and Irish rebels, to the flowering of his art and the meeting of the love of his life, a meek, virginal librarian played with a beguiling sincerity by Maggie Smith.

The film is far more effective from an emotional perspective than a historical one. O'Casey cheerily laments at one point that the Abbey Theatre feels he can never strike the right balance between plot and character. Neither can the film. Its feelings are real, but its storytelling is sometimes ham-fisted, particularly in the first half. The Easter Rising is effectively evoked, but the street battle that precedes it is poorly staged, and the grinding poverty of O'Casey's family is marked only by death, which intrudes guttingly but too suddenly. There's also the age-old problem with films about writers: how do you squeeze the literature into your story? At least here the whole thing is an O'Casey work, but there's still too little of his language, his themes, the specifics of his worldview: the things we're told about but rarely made privy to.

From a human angle, though, it works. I've seen Taylor in eight previous films (and have always wanted to see The Picture Show Man), without him ever making much of an impression beyond being a man with a broad hairy chest. I suppose he did a fair job with a weak part in 36 Hours, but his performance here is on a whole other level. There are three crucial parts to his characterisation: his macho energy, his massive screen presence - completely dominating the frame - and his total immersion in the character. It's superb stuff, bringing to vivid and convincing life a complex, contradictory and crucial figure.

Smith is even better. I always enjoy her work, but up until the late '80s it seemed like she still had something to prove, taking on complex, varied roles and doing flatly incredible things with them. On paper, her character may seem like a younger version of her Judith Hearne, but on celluloid she makes these shy, nervous and religious women utterly singular creations. The scenes between Taylor and Smith could have tipped over variously into comedy, farce or melodrama, but instead they feel entirely genuine, attaining a complex, multi-layered truth central - and perhaps largely responsible - for the film's claims to some sort of greatness.

By contrast, the supporting cast is studded with familiar names, but suffers from '60s-itis, stellar players piled into the picture to lend some glamour, then given little to do: Michael Redgrave, Dame Edith Evans, Flora Robson... At least Julie Christie's chapter is worth it: she's magnetic as a kept woman, and her sexually-charged meetings with O'Casey form an effective counterpoint to his relationship with Smith. Speaking of '60s-itis, veteran Carol Reed collaborator Ted Scaife also throws in a few of those crappy zoom-ins and zoom-outs that can provoke no possible response aside from: "Oh yes, now I remember, this is a film and it was made in the 1960s." With Cardiff shooting rather than directing, I wonder if we might have got something a little more artful and imaginative, something closer to what Freddie Young did on Ryan's Daughter.

As a Ford fan(cier), I also can't help but imagine what he would have done with this material. And, to be honest, it isn't hard to imagine. He was a masterful editor of scripts and would surely have zoned in more closely on the points of conflict. He was a great director of action and would have made the most of the two big set-pieces. He was a lover of Ireland who would have made the country a central character, as it was in The Quiet Man. He was a shameless sentimentalist who would have beefed up and milked the film's tragic elements. And he was an unapologetic whitewasher and lover of strong women, who would perhaps have taken the edge off Taylor's performance, and the fragility out of Smith's, giving us a less resonant and significant central pairing.

As it is, Young Cassidy is "a John Ford film... directed by Jack Cardiff", a good but not great movie without the urgency of its hero or the mark of the master, but with an abundance of vim, vigour and actorly poetry. (3)

***



*A FEW SPOILERS*
The Unsuspected (Michael Curtiz, 1947)
- This sort of nasty, noirish melodrama was all the rage in the mid-'40s, and The Unsuspected owes more than a small debt to the likes of The Spiral Staircase, Laura and Undercurrent.

The mellifluously-voiced Claude Rains is Victor Grandison, an outwardly affable broadcaster whose interest in murder goes well beyond a ghoulish weekly radio show examining notorious cases. After his saintly, virginal and absolutely loaded ward (Joan Caulfield) dies in an explosion, and his secretary is murdered - the police call it suicide - his house is invaded by a smug, angry guy called Steve (Ted "Michael" North), who wants some answers, and claims to be Caulfield's husband. Further complicating matters are Grandison's malevolent, sexually voracious niece (Audrey Totter), her callow, gloomy and drunken husband (Hurd Hatfield, MGM's Dorian Gray), and Caulfield, whose bland, nervy Matilda isn't very dead after all.

It isn't particularly tense or at all mysterious, and there are more than a few loose ends, but it is an extraordinarily good-looking and stylish film, courtesy of Curtiz - who's simply oozing confidence - and the magnificent cinematographer Woody Bredell. There are touches here that will linger long after the rather erratic story has faded from memory: a murderer's face reflected upside down on a glass table, North pumping Totter for information (no smirking) - observed through net curtains and in full-length - and a Murder My Sweet-ish shot from the PoV of the addled, ODing Caulfield.

There are some good performances too. Caulfield, North and Hatfield are uninteresting, and William H. O'Brien is distractingly awful as the house butler, but, as you'd expect, Rains effectively inhabits the skin of the amoral, greedy Grandison - obsessed with playing God - Constance Bennett is ace in a small part as his Eve Arden-esque secretary, and character comic Fred Clark finds the sweet spot that he sometimes passed by through overplaying.

None of them can hold a candle to Totter, though, who strides off with the film as a bitter, cynical and extremely horny socialite too selfish to report a murder, and too distracted by North to stay faithful to her husband. Totter wasn't as integral to The Genre That Didn't Know Its Own Name as Gloria Grahame - who basically was film noir (sorry, Scorsese) - but in her own way she was also crucially important (and just as talented), appearing in everything from The Postman Always Rings Twice to the PoV noir, Lady in the Lake, High Wall and The Set-Up. She's sensational here, giving a well-directed but somewhat ponderous, flawed movie a proper shot in the arm. (3)

***



The Private Life of Henry VIII (Alexander Korda, 1933) - This is regarded as the grandaddy of British period dramas, but it's a bawdy, annoying sort of grandad who has no concept of how to pace a movie, and keeps pulling silly faces.

Rex Harrison memorably opined of Charles Laughton: "Everyone said he was a genius, I just thought he was a bit of a show-off." I think Laughton would have trounced Harrison in a talent-off, but this early performance is probably the sort of thing he had in mind, a mannered, slightly ridiculous turn full of stagy quirks that keeps the audience at arm's length, never letting you forget that you're watching someone acting. And acting rather badly at that.

I like the set piece about "The King's Guard!" and Laughton's yelling during the climactic council meeting - indeed, there are flashes of quality in both his performance and the film as a whole - but it's by and large a frustratingly empty, unfunny, superficial affair, in which triviality and tedium triumph, and supporting characters are reduced to a single characteristic, wasting a potentially astonishing ensemble that includes Robert Donat, Merle Oberon, Elsa Lanchester, Wendy Barrie, Binnie Barnes, Lady Tree, John Loder, Miles Mander and Claude Allister. (2)

***



Tai-Chi Master (Yuen Woo-Ping, 1993) - A bloody, ultimately pretty tiresome wire-fu wuxia film from Yuen Woo-Ping, nowhere near as good as Iron Monkey or Wing Chun – the two films he made either side – and notable only as the sole teaming of martial arts icons Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh... at least until The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (I haven’t seen it, is it any good?).

Leaning on a story as old as the hills (or at least 1934’s Manhattan Melodrama), the film follows childhood friends who ends up on opposite sides of the law, though in this instance it’s Chin Sui Ho’s amoral soldier who’s in the wrong – propping up a despicable regime – while the fugitive Li demands our sympathy, getting involved with a group of rebels defending some put-upon townsfolk, and boasting among their number the high-kicking Yeoh (have I mentioned my crush on Michelle Yeoh? Yes I have).

The comedy is wretched, even making the usual allowances for cross-cultural differences, incorporating an extended set-piece in which we’re encouraged to laugh at a man having a nervous breakdown (the film came out in 1993, but its understanding of mental illness is from 1893), the plotting is clichéd and largely uninvolving, and the acting is mediocre at best, though there are at least a few decent fight scenes.

I say “a few”, as though the film is action-heavy, its basic weakness calls to mind Fred Astaire’s objection to Busby Berkeley-style films: “either the camera dances or I do”. Not only does Woo-Ping frequently wander into the realm of the cartoonishly incredible, but his flights of fancy here bear so little relation to reality that he can only achieve them by throwing together mere fragments of film – a flying foot here, a barrel there, a disappearing victim way over there – all meant to represent some outlandish feat, an approach that has an altogether alienating effect, while failing dismally to showcase the gobsmacking gifts of Li and Yeoh.

It’s hard to nullify them entirely, though, and the stars do shine in fits and starts: when they fight side by side – if not quite in the buddy movie style you might like – it just about makes it worth sitting through the rest. (2)

***

... and I reviewed this one for MovieMail:



To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942) - It starts, of course, with Hitler. August 1939, and he is alone in Warsaw, bringing the streets to a standstill as he peruses the window of a delicatessen. Except it's not him. This is a film full of imposters and this Führer is our first: a stage actor (Tom Dugan) merely trying to prove a point.

That memorable, rug-tugging gag merely commences a legendary black comedy, the darkest, most ambitious movie to which Ernst Lubitsch ever turned his touch. It has a catchphrase about concentration camps, a palpable sense of fear and foreboding, and such gallows one-liners as Nazi colonel Sig Ruman's observation that what stage star Joseph Tura did to Shakespeare, 'we are now doing to Poland'. And yet it never strays into bad taste, thanks to the deftness of Lubitsch's handling, the strength of his righteous fury, and a simply pitch-perfect ensemble.

Jack Benny is Tura, an actor in Warsaw who comes complete with a massive ego and an unfaithful wife (Carole Lombard), also a renowned star. Their quarrelling, concerning a handsome young flyer (Robert Stack), is rudely interrupted by the Nazis, and the arrival in Warsaw of a double-agent who plans to smash the resistance. Cue the actors putting their skills to good use in the real world, with Benny posing as the colonel and the spy, Dugan reprising his Hitler, and Felix Bressart's spear-carrier finally getting to play Shylock.

Lubitsch was a magnificent director of actors and here he draws career-best performances from just about everyone involved: radio comic Benny, whose double-takes are a thing of sheer beauty, screwball titan Lombard - who tragically died prior to the film's release - and a supporting ensemble that includes such familiar faces as Bressart, Dugan, Charles Halton and Sig Ruman, who steals the show as the garrulous, idiotic 'Concentration Camp Ehrhardt'.

The film's stakes are high, and yet it can frequently break off into absurdity, poke gentle fun at actorly pretension, or knock you sideways with a deadpan gag. Like Benny wandering into a nest of Nazis who have left him to stew with a corpse. "I tried to open up a conversation with your friend in there," he says calmly, "but he seems to be dead." (4)

See also: This is one of my three reviews for MovieMail this month. The others are David Copperfield and Wings.

***

Thanks for reading.

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