Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Pride and Prejudice, Gene Clark, and John Ford returning to Ireland - Reviews #197

Hello, how are you? Great, me too! Reviews:



Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947) - A stunning, staggeringly cynical melo-noir-ma about an amoral carnival huckster (Tyrone Power) using everyone he meets as he cuts a rapid path to the top. Gripping from first frame to last, it's simply one of the best of its decade: richly atmospheric, incisively intelligent and both fatalistic and unpredictable in the best tradition of the genre.

From the quasi-religious Jules Furthman script to Lee Garmes' gloriously textured cinematography, everything here works, and the performances are an absolute treat, with pin-up Power exhibiting his dazzling charisma, Helen Walker matching him as a shrewd psychologist with a fiercely jutting chin, and Joan Blondell threatening to steal the show in arguably her greatest performance, playing a horny, big-hearted mind-reader with a lush for a lover. (4)

***



Adventures of Don Juan (Vincent Sherman, 1948) - Errol Flynn’s first swashbuckler for eight years, and the last one he ever made, has him as an older, wiser version of his familiar, sword-wielding lothario, reforming in the face of love. Well, reforming a bit.

He plays Don Juan – in the immortal words of Shaggy, “a Mr Lover Lover” – who marauds around Europe, leaving a trail of breathless women, furious husbands and severe diplomatic incidents in his wake. In the film’s classic opening scene, he scales a balcony in the old John Barrymore manner, seduces an old flame, humiliates her groom-to-be using a sword and a chicken, and then rides away. Delightful.

Then he returns to Spain, to find there are serious social wrongs that need to be righted, putting him at odds with the Duke de Lorca (Robert Douglas), but winning him the favour of Queen Margaret (Viveca Lindfors), a big-hearted, big-eyed monarch somewhat troubled by his dignified, offhand smouldering.

In a way, I’d have liked for the film to crack or puncture Flynn’s irresistible persona, but it’s still a magnificent movie, and strikes a good balance, playing along with Don Juan’s incorrigibility, while asking him to truly care and feel. In his (preposterous) autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Flynn seems proud only of his breakthrough film, Captain Blood, and a couple of late ‘50s efforts. I’d argue, though, that this is probably the best performance he ever gave – funny and athletic, yes, but also tender, conflicted and sincere – even if it is housed in the most roistering entertainment.

He’s helped, no doubt, by having words put in his mouth by two of the finest writers ever to hit Hollywood: George Oppenheimer – the creator of high-concept nonsense like A Yank at Oxford and A Yank at Eton, as well as gems like Libeled Lady and the magnificently-titled Slightly Dangerous – and Harry Kurnitz, who wrote the 1938-9 ‘Fast’ trilogy, a Thin Man cash-in that nevertheless included one absolute gem, Fast Company.

The pair were chief writers on just two films together: I Love You Again, a spectacular comedy film that’s comfortably among the four or five funniest I’ve ever seen, and this one. Right from the off, their quality is apparent. There’s a little clunky exposition here and there, and the character of a dwarfish courtier is frankly unnecessary, but Flynn has an almost constant supply of devastatingly witty, still modern one-liners, and his scenes with Lindfors are subtle, heartfelt and credible, deftly dealing with that old love-in-a-hopeless-place scenario that is the commoner-and-Queen romance. There’s also at least one completely unacceptable ‘swordsman’ gag that got past the censors. I presume that was these two – additional material was by B-movie director and committed orientalist Robert Florey, and William Faulkner!

I also Vincent Sherman’s handling of the often boisterous action sequences, Max Steiner’s Korngold-ish score, and the photography by the incomparable Woody Bredell: there’s one particularly brilliant shot during the fencing demonstration, the camera passing through the flashing blades as it zones in on the proud, trim Flynn, bedecked in blue and gold. On one level, it’s just nice that there are films out there that are this funny and charming and romantic, with such a dash of quality in their action choreography. It’s more than that, though – and it isn’t all in the subtle writing or the heartfelt playing. There’s something slightly sad about the ageing, once-beautiful Flynn: a little dissipated, a little melancholic, a little greying beneath the dye, that gives this added pathos for anyone invested in his life and career. Is that something you can praise the film for? Perhaps not, but it elevates it further for me: a film about an ageing lothario trying to reform, starring an ageing lothario who never did, and shuffled off this mortal coil aged 59, alienated from his family and friends, pretty much alone.

Fun film though. (3.5)

***



*MINOR SPOILERS*
Make Me a Star (William Beaudine, 1932)
- An extraordinarily sweet-natured film in the popular '30s vein, serving as both a hymn to and a satire on the movie industry, as an earnest hayseed (Stuart Erwin) turns up in Hollywood with stars in his eyes, has the stuffing knocked out of him, then makes good - but perhaps not in the way he expected.

In plot terms, it's reminiscent of King Vidor's Show People, and almost identical to the Harold Lloyd film, Movie Crazy - released a few months earlier - but it's far more touching than that work, considerably lighter on the slapstick and delivers for the fan magazine crowd (i. e. me), with some fun cameos from a couple of massive stars, and an entertaining look at Paramount Studios in 1932.

At times, Erwin seems a little too one-note as the slow, simple and folsky hero - who haunts the casting office, sleeps rough on the lot, then gets the lead in a film he doesn't know is a comedy - but there is something extremely attractive about his guileless character, and the actor is astonishingly good in the film's final and most important scenes, particularly the closer, which is an absolute classic.

As his leading lady, the immortal Joan Blondell is simply as brilliant as ever, playing a wise, protective and not unattractive old hand showing the rural dope the ropes - shades of Jean Arthur in Capra's seminal Mr Smith.

Based on a play by George S. Kaufman - still one of the finest writers ever to pick up a pen - this gentle, enjoyable and very moving comedy-drama is one of the best Hollywood-on-film pictures of its era, an era when more were made than at any other time, its sporadic uncertainty about tone and theme giving way to several sequences of breathtaking sincerity.

The short scene in which Erwin confounds the cast and crew who are busy stitching up, by delivering a teary, tender talk to his horse, is a little beaut. And that ending? Wow. (3.5)

***



Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story (Alex Holmes, 2014) - A straightforward but extremely accomplished telling of the Armstrong story, with few revelations for those already acquainted with it, but a fine selection of interviewees, an excellent score and a veritable treasure trove of archive footage, edited with rare confidence and skill.

Unlike Alex Gibney's film, The Armstrong Lie, the subject granted no access to the director, so he has little chance to retroactively justify his actions - or to endear himself to the filmmaker.

As a result, everyone's favourite cycling sociopath comes out of it far worse, thanks to an abundance of damning detail about his political power and various nefarious bully-boy tactics.

I personally prefer it to the Gibney film, as though it's somewhat simpler, it's also more coherent, complete and compelling - if somewhat rushing its conclusion. For such a nasty, dream-crushing tale, this one's a very entertaining ride. (3.5)

***



Love Is a Racket (William Wellman, 1932) - Blessed Event, Advice to the Lovelorn (!), Okay America!... In 1932 and '33, the American screen was saturated with films in which sarky, hard-boiled newspaper columnists - invariably patterned after gossip peddler Walter Winchell - locked horns with slimy Pre-Code gangsters. I'm not complaining, that is literally the best premise for a movie ever. And here's another.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. is our hero, a debonair, slightly effete man-about-town, dining at Sardi's, nursing hangovers and writing up Broadway rumours for a New York paper. His comrades-in-arms are my favourite actor of all time, Lee Tracy - who was very soon to make the part of an unrepentant smear-factory his and his alone - and Ann Dvorak, the sparky secretary who's pining after Doug Jr. Sadly he's got his eyes on someone else, a spoilt, superficial actress (Frances Dee), who's naturally caught the eyes of a Brylcreemed hoodlum (Lyle Talbot).

As so many of these films do - it seems only Blessed Event was exempt - it begins in a comedic vein, with Doug Jr cracking wise and Tracy doing the ice-bucket challenge, before shifting into less persuasive melodrama. But it's sharp and funny most of the way, with a rich early-'30s flavour, a magnificent supporting performance by the outrageously talented, uniquely expressive Tracy (check the way he uses his hands to articulate Fairbanks' probable fate!), and a quite brilliant ending redolent with those twin joys of Pre-Code film: smirking immorality and unabashed sex. (3)

***



*MINOR SPOILERS*
The Rising of the Moon (John Ford, 1957)
- John Ford, the greatest American director of them all, often unwound after intense, ambitious and draining moviemaking experiences by creating something gentle, easy and laidback. Following his landmark Cavalry Trilogy, it was the beautiful, semi-musical oater, Wagon Master: still his most underrated and overlooked film. And after The Searchers, that monumental exploration of racism, redemption and Western mythos, he did The Wings of Eagles (perhaps his purest, most self-indulgent work) and then this - a lighthearted, patronising but extraordinarily heartfelt paean to his parents' home country of Ireland so rose-tinted that it makes The Quiet Man look like Calvary.

Made by the director "for fun", as well as to promote filmmaking in the Emerald Isle, it was shot quickly and cheaply - at odds with the director's initial plans for a Technicolor opus filled with star names - on Irish locations and using a homegrown cast, telling three comic stories: each introduced by Tyrone Power, Ford's old Irish-American buddy (and possibly lover, depending on who you ask), who that year made his last notable contribution to the US screen in Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution. The script came from his regular collaborator Frank S. Nugent, who wrote many of the director's best - though of course Ford would re-write, re-tool and at times just literally through away pages of dialogue.

While all three films are intensely 'Fordian', 'Fordian' means a great many things - starting with sentimental, timeless, moving and, at times, full of iffy, overbearing comedy - and this one is stuffed to the gills with his singular concerns.

After a heartstoppingly poignant credits sequence soundtracked by the revolutionary song of the title, we begin with the best of the three tales, The Majesty of the Law, an amusing, beautifully rendered version of a story by popular Irish author Frank O'Connor. Telling the tale of a police inspector (Cyril Cusack), a warrant hanging heavy in his breast pocket as he visits an old acquaintance (Noel Purcell), it starts in stunningly poetic fashion, unwraps its story through delicate touches slipped into old-fashioned (perhaps overly talky, static) Blarney, then produces three external scenes of rare quality and emotional resonance, finishing as only a Ford film can. It's a deeply personal work, dealing with a pet Ford theme of personal honour, and manages to be both extremely understated and remarkably powerful, the director exhibiting an effortless lyricism.

The second story, A Minute's Wait, is the weakest of the three, a rather obvious, overbearing segment about a provincial railroad, with a train pulling up at Dunfaill station, and various 'characters' pouring into or out of it for a good half hour, to the sound of people yelling, "One minute's wait!" There are some good jokes amidst the caricaturing, but it's Ford at his broadest, and we know how broad that is. The director's strong suit was never comedy, no matter how he might have fancied that it was (even his bleakest and most complex works feature people being hit in the face and/or arse), and there's precious little heart here, just a lot of noise - some of it from a typically stupid, snobby and spoilt English couple, who get their comeuppance for having the temerity to attend a wedding.

Our final chapter falls somewhere between the first two (though chronologically after them, hence it being the final chapter): a film of shifting tone, ostentatious camerawork (with avant garde angles courtesy of Third Man photographer Robert Krasker) and contentious Republican sympathies, which probably works best if you're familiar with Ford's other treatments of the Troubles, particularly The Informer, the movie which won him his first Oscar, and which is cheerily subverted here. Updating Lady Gregory's one-act play, The Rising of the Moon (itself named after an old rebel song), to the Irish War of Independence - and renaming the piece 1921 - Ford casts largely from the rep company at Dublin's famous Abbey Theatre, and tells the story of a revolutionary (the very Irishly named Donal Donnelly) awaiting execution by the British occupying forces.

But what's this? A nun-related escape plot? A plan to evade the police by walking around town singing folk songs and leading a donkey? And a sentimental old duffer of a policeman (Denis O'Dea) conveniently positioned at a prized place along the waterfront? Stylistically it's full of pointless and pretentious touches (more Four Sons than The Fugitive), thematically and narratively it's like The Informer's cheeky little brother, if you can imagine such a thing, but if not a complete triumph, it is very Ford-y, and so is the whole of Rising of the Moon. If you're not a fan, it will drive you up the wall - particularly if you're an Irish person who finds the stereotyping of your national character somewhat annoying. If you are a fan, it's simply a must: distinctive, at times powerful, at others trivial, but always overflowing with a genuine and rhapsodic love of Ireland; its language, its mores and its peculiarities of character. An Ireland that may never have existed but forever will on film. (3)

***

I'm starting a bit of a Barbara Stanwyck season, on account of SHE'S AMAZING:



*MINOR SPOILERS for this film and You Belong to Me (1941)*
The Bride Walks Out (Leigh Jason, 1936)
- This is an underrated romantic comedy with a rather daft, dated overarching story - about model Barbara Stanwyck resenting having to jack in her job when she weds hard-up engineer Gene Raymond - but some wonderfully tender moments, and a few delightful details.

There's Stanwyck silently crying to Auld Lang Syne, the room lit by lanterns; Helen Broderick breaking down in tears as she realises she truly loves taciturn beau Ned Sparks; and Robert Young's fascinating, very unusual supporting character: a drunken millionaire who adores the married Stanwyck and acts as her secret, silent benefactor. I'm not really a fan of Young, beyond his excellent performances in King Vidor's memorably mature, intelligent drama, H. M. Pulham, Esq., and the seminal noir Crossfire, but it's a very well-conceived part and he does a decent job.

Amidst much bickering and broad comedy, there are also some flashes of quality in the humour, with two cleverly inserted one-scene wonders: one a kid who keeps saying that his brother could beat up Raymond, and another a chauffeur who has never started a fight before (Irving Bacon); plus Stanwyck excitedly assisting a cop in the execution of his notepad-based duties. And then there are the little touches that lift pedestrian passages out of the ordinary: a gift-laden street-side waltz and a watch-and-learn dance diversion shot through with joie de vivre.

The film is liable to offend anyone with a feminist bent, due to at least three wife-beating gags and an ultimate belief that a woman's place is in the home, but it does have moments of real heart and humour, and at least gives Stanwyck a chance to put her case, even if in the end we know she's never going to win (and wouldn't win five years later, facing a similar problem in You Belong to Me).

I rather disliked Stanwyck when I first got into old movies, but Meet John Doe showed me some of what she could do, before Remember the Night and Ball of Fire revealed a certain something that no other actress has ever really had: a beguiling sincerity that can take the breath away. I'm not saying she couldn't be annoying - in something like Lady of Burlesque she's harsh and grating - but when she was allowed to unlock that softer side, the results were unfailingly remarkable. Here she's working with erratic material but that unique sensibility shines through - perhaps especially when her character recalls a youth of poverty and want: the actress herself was orphaned at four and grew up destitute in innumerable foster homes. She always played those scenes with a desperate, heartbreaking vulnerability. (3)



*MINOR SPOILERS*
Annie Oakley (George Stevens, 1935)
- This 1935 biopic of the backwoods sharpshooter is barely mentioned today, existing as it does in the shadow of its musical update - Annie Get Your Gun - but it's great entertainment, if not really a great film.

The incomparable Barbara Stanwyck is the titular heroine, who shoots to fame after facing off against celebrity marksman Toby Walker (Preston Foster) and ends up as the star attraction of Buffalo Bill Cody's travelling Wild West show.

For an hour it's just a solid crowd-pleaser: useless as history, but full of homespun charm, touches of Americana and old-fashioned romance. Then the writers realise that they've forgotten to include any real dramatic tension, and so contrive some, which wasn't a very good idea.

Lucky then, that Stanwyck is in that rare form which for her wasn't so rare, her mesmerising sensitivity in full effect as she waxes poetic about Walker in a room full of his enemies.

Then director George Stevens completely loses the plot - almost literally - with an idiotically conceived comic subplot featuring Chief Sitting Bull (Chief Thunderbird - yes, that is his name), before finally wrestling it back through a rather delightful little closing scene.

Annie Oakley isn't in the same league as Stanwyck's best - or Stevens', for that matter - but for all its flaws, it's an enjoyable watch, with another of the star's apparently endless supply of indelible characterisations. (3)



The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra, 1933) - Interesting, erotically-charged drama about the strange, intense relationship between a Chinese warlord (err, Nils Asther) and the American missionary he's sort of kidnapped (Barbara Stanwyck).

It's oddly paced, light on actual incident and might have worked better with someone more innocent and refined in the Stanwyck part, but the leads are both very good (she has one great speech about God), Capra's soft-focus, epic rendering of China is effectively done, and the subject matter is often fascinating, with a sensitive approach to inter-racial attraction that would soon be prescribed as verboten by the censorship clampdown of 1934.

That wordless scene in the train carriage is basically a threesome in which only the eyes make contact.

This one would also make a fascinating companion piece to Lewis Milestone's magnificent 1936 film, The General Died at Dawn, a sumptuously-photographed story that exists in a similar realm, but takes fewer chances with its central story. (3)

***



Molière (Laurent Tirard, 2007) - Ou "Shakespeare in Love à la Français", as Romain Duris - kitted out like Russell Brand - offers a somewhat cartoonish approximation of the legendary Gallic playwright, who learns to live thanks to the love of a married woman (Laura Maurante), then channels his new-found feelings into his work.

For the most part it serves up a pleasant but unremarkable mix of broad farce, self-reflexion and heartfelt yet not entirely on-the-level romantic expression that recollects both 1999's Best Picture winner and the fitfully fine '30s film, The Great Garrick. Indeed, it isn't until the final five minutes that Duris' dramatic talents are properly called upon - and while he's adept at the wordplay elsewhere, the broader, slapsticky parts of the material leave him wanting.

For the rest of the time, it's Fabrice Luchini who dominates - playing Molière's idiotic, self-serving "employer", who secures the writer's services under duress as he seeks to woo a young widow - with Edouard Baer offering consistently funny support as his raffish, incorrigible and entirely unscrupulous fellow philanderer.

It's fairly good fun, there are a few big laughs ("Your eyes make me die of love"), and Molière scholars will probably get more from it than I did, due to the wealth of in-jokes apparently peppered throughout, but it's ultimately too broad, predictable and insubstantial to fully score - an affliction that's alarmingly obvious from the first 10 minutes. (2.5)

***



Err, yes.

The Return of Doctor X (Vincent Sherman, 1939) - This much-maligned non-sequel to that Pre-Code curio, Doctor X, is actually quite good fun, with smart-alec reporter Wayne Morris and surgeon Dennis Morgan investigating a string of murders in which the culprit drains his victims of blood.

It's all highly silly, but there are some fun twists and turns, and it all moves at a fair clip. The real selling point, though, is its achilles heel: a notoriously and hilariously miscast Humphrey Bogart as an evil, anemic and transparently embarrassed henchman (with a very funny secret), who comes complete with a vivid blonde stripe through his jet black hair, some unforgivable wire-framed glasses and a pet rabbit. His entrance and his final line deserve an entire cult around them - let's see if we can start one.

See also: This is the final film in the Hollywood's Legends of Horror box-set I wrote about here.

***



The Byrd Who Flew Alone: The Triumphs and Tragedy of Gene Clark (Jack Kendall and Paul Kendall, 2013) - A disappointing doc about the mercurial Byrd, who never attained the success his unique talents deserved - largely because he refused to play the publicity game, and kept on pushing the self-destruct button.

There's great music to spare (much of it played distractingly under the interviews), but the film is shallow and poorly-paced, racing past triumphs like Clark's 70s triumphs White Light and No Other, then dwelling on the McGuinn, Clark and Hillman era - illustrating a point about his abilities as a live performer by showing footage of him miming listlessly on a TV show - and crawling through his prolonged decline.

The interviews are also a mixed bag: Clark's wife, two of his 12 siblings and several noted collaborators turn up, but few have anything insightful to say. Fellow Byrd and noted Gram Parsons cohort Chris Hillman is the best of the bunch: extremely thoughtful and eloquent, while David Crosby should be shown to schoolchildren as an example of what drugs to your brain.

It's nice to see one of the most important and consistently overlooked musicians of the rock era afforded the documentary treatment - I think I'm the only one of his 10 fans who isn't interviewed - and there are a few nice moments, including a beautiful passage about Clark's divine creative process, but the film ultimately becomes a little boring, the one thing you could never say about his glorious, glorious music. (2)

***


"At this moment it's difficult to believe we are being asked to read this dialogue."

Pride and Prejudice (Robert Z. Leonard, 1940) - A lot of dismissive words have been written about the 'Hollywoodisation' of classic plays and novels, when in reality the studio system often made a decent job of adapting them, especially when producers like MGM's Irving Thalberg and Fox's Darryl F. Zanuck were in charge.

The 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice, though, seems to bear out every criticism ever levelled at the Californian trivialisation of great art, with none of the wit or nuance of Jane Austen's peerless romantic comedy, and only about half the story. It's OK to make changes if they serve the contrasting demands of the medium, but here every decision MGM made seems to be wrong, from the dubious, artificial sets and costumes, to the safe, dull and wrong-headed characterisation.

Greer Garson is completely miscast - but considering that, quite good - as Elizabeth Bennet, the sparky, funny heroine of the 1812 novel, with Laurence Olivier, a year on from Heathcliff, recruited to play another dark, brooding heartthrob, albeit one of finer lineage. You'd think he'd be perfect, but his character is rendered almost unintelligible by the artless compression of the story. The whole point of Darcy is contrast: how his principles are transformed by love. Here he's shown to be noble and incongruously charming far too early in the story, and directly in Elizabeth's sight, so the tension between them either doesn't exist or else doesn't ring true.

Mr Bennet also gets a raw deal, his reaction to Lydia's husband changed by the Hays Code (which presumably thought audiences had gotten more sensitive in the previous 122 years) from absurd delight to stern disapproval, Miss Catherine De Bourgh becomes a sponsor of the central romance - which makes no sense, further undermines Darcy's character and takes us off into the realms of fantasy - while Melville Cooper plays Mr Collins far too aggressively, accompanied by an idiotic theme tune. Worst of all is Mary Boland's infernal, grating Mrs Bennet, giving way to every scenery-chewing impulse the actress ever had.

The only characters that really work are Maureen O'Sullivan's Jane (a nonsensical early dissing of Darcy aside) and Bruce Lester's avuncular Bingley - both pleasantly restrained and in keeping with what Austen intended.

It's strange to learn that the book was adapted, via a stage play, by Aldous Huxley (!) and the co-writer of The Women, Jane Murfin. It's perhaps not the easiest work to transfer to the screen: set in a world of now defunct rules, often dealing in thoughts and feelings, and with several key passages of the book presented in vague reported speech - a challenge to any writer, if a welcome one - but the version they delivered was just far too simplistic, to the extent that we even get the following abysmal exchange between Lizzy and Darcy:

“At this moment it's difficult to believe you are so proud.”
"At this moment it's difficult to believe you are so prejudiced."

I mean, really?

Ironically, the film seems vastly more dated than the novel it's based upon, a loud, cloying, annoying and superficial rendering of a masterpiece, its only saving graces a handful of Austen's timeless lines and a couple of passable performances. (1.5)

***



Als ich tot war (Ernst Lubitsch, 1916) aka When I Was Dead - The earliest surviving film by the master of the romantic comedy is, well, a bit crap really. Director Ernst Lubitsch (looking a lot like The Count from Sesame Street) plays a chess-loving husband whose all-night matches are mistaken for infidelities. After being stitched up by his mother-in-law and turfed out of the house, he returns one Paul Weller wig better off, masquerading as a valet. Lubitsch would indulge his fascination with disguise and masquerade across three more decades, with often dizzying results. This one's just silly - if inoffensive - has no real story or ending, and doesn't seem to contain any jokes. But who cares? He made Ninotchka. (1)

***

Thanks for reading.

2 comments:

  1. As a twenty year old I remember watching this version of Pride and Prejudice mainly to ogle Laurence Olivier. It was worth it. :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I can understand that. He's possibly the prettiest Darcy on record...

    ReplyDelete