Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Barbara Stanwyck, Before Midnight and the McConaissance - Reviews #198

I had a couple of days off work and the deposit back after my house move, so I bought a stack of DVDs, dug out some others, and watched the lot. My current preoccupations are Joan Blondell and Matthew McConaughey, and two of my enduring ones are John Ford and Barbara Stanwyck, so they dominated the holiday. It was great.


Barbara Stanwyck was simply one of the greatest actors who ever lived. I'm not saying she couldn't be annoying, phone it in or ham it up beyond reason, but there was something about her best performances - a beguiling sincerity, a breathtaking vulnerability backed by an inner steel - that no other actor has ever had. Her finest movies are stuffed with these moments that others happen upon once or perhaps twice in a career: Remember the Night and Ball of Fire are just one after another. Recently I've been delving into some of her less celebrated films, with predictably variable results. I found one absolute masterpiece though, which made sitting through the others entirely worthwhile...

Illicit (Archie Mayo, 1931) - A very talky early talkie, primitive in execution, that nevertheless has an interesting enough premise to just about sustain it, as young couple Dick (James Rennie) and Anne (Barbara Stanwyck) talk (and talk and talk) about the virtues of living in sin, as opposed to married life.

Co-written by Robert Riskin, who penned most of Capra's best films, it's creaky as hell, replete with comic interludes that no longer make any sense - most of them featuring Charles Butterworth - and has a viewpoint that wobbles throughout and then falls over at the end, but it's sporadically insightful, and unusually daring in the topics it takes on.

There's also a scene in which Stanwyck and Natalie Moorhead argue about who loves Dick the most. Huh-huh. (2)


The Miracle Woman (Frank Capra, 1931)
- This is by far the best of the five collaborations between future It’s a Wonderful Life director Frank Capra and the mercurially gifted Barbara Stanwyck: a blistering, beautiful Pre-Code masterpiece about a minister's daughter (Stanwyck) who enters the religion racket, selling salvation to small-town folk through a mixture of pageantry and planted miracles.

There are three passages in particular that stand out: the sensational opening sequence, unlike anything else I've ever seen, in which Stanwyck lays into a church-full of parishioners for their staggering hypocrisy, blasting them with two barrels of righteous fury as they cower for cover; her overwhelming beach-side confession; and a final speech on the stage that may well be the best thing she ever did - at which point I should add that she stars in my favourite film of all time, Mitchell Leisen's Remember the Night.

A subplot about Stanwyck's relationship with a blind songwriter (David Manners) sounds hackneyed and trite on paper, but his character is completely lacking in self-pity throughout their romance, and, despite a couple of slow scenes in his apartment, taken as a whole it's wonderfully rendered, a story of unquestioning love and mutual reliance to rank with something like Damon Runyon's The Big Street.

And for Pre-Code nerds, there's a daring cynicism about some of the religious material, one exclamation that would have been deemed 'blasphemy' a few years later, and an extended middle finger. All pretty racy, I'm sure you'll agree.

Some of the plotting is a little convenient and I'm not sure that it needs the action climax it gets - before a perfect coda - but Joseph Walker's jawdropping imagery lives long in the mind (that chat in the dark, Stanwyck and Manners' profiles glinting in a far-off light!), and the star is in the form of her life (and never looked hotter, if I'm being honest), giving the kind of performance that you see once and then never forget. (4)


Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948) - A phenomenally successful radio play becomes a radio play with pictures, as whiny, well-off invalid Barbara Stanwyck overhears a murder plot after getting the wrong number, then tries to unravel the mystery, across phone calls, recollections and flashbacks-within-flashbacks. It's unremittingly nasty, and far too derivative of its source, but pretty entertaining in the end, and though Stanwyck is at her most irritating, she does flash into brilliant life during the final scene. (2.5)


Blowing Wild (Hugo Fregonese, 1953) - An extremely silly but sometimes watchable action drama, apparently written by an exciteable eight-year-old, in which ageing stars fight over love and oil in some South American backwater.

Gary Cooper plays a two-fisted driller working for old pal Anthony Quinn, who's cheerily oblivious of the fact Coops once had a fling with his old lady (Barbara Stanwyck, exhibiting that 140-a-day latter-career croak). Meanwhile, sultry Ruth Roman tells whoppers and Ward Bond has severe difficulties with one of the worst scripts of all time.

It's ugly and paper-thin, but weirdly entertaining for an hour, incorporating a barroom fight, some extended fun with nitroglycerin and various shenanigans with a gaggle of clichéd bandits.

Then the wheels fall off completely, as the story enters the realm of the ridiculous, and Stanwyck and Cooper engage in two showdowns that incorporate the most hysterically unconvincing acting either of them ever did. Seeing two legends brought so low is genuinely dispiriting, and even the sight of a bandit being blown sky-high by his own dynamite can't make it better.

Ironically, this was made the same year as the nitro film par excellence: Henri-Georges Clouzot's Wages of Fear. (1.5)


Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013) - So, some thoughts on the 'Before [Time of Day]' trilogy...

Sunrise was ambitious and memorable, but strayed beyond its limitations into verbose pretension.

Sunset was older, wiser and richer in romance, precisely because it was more grounded and real (and set in Paris).

And Midnight? Well, this third walk-and-talk-athon - tougher, sadder and lighter on the pretty locales - is a movie made by people who've lived, and who've lived with these characters, pouring their knowledge of love, of life, and of Jesse and Celine into a brilliant, bristling examination of middle-age, marriage, parenthood, and the myriad joys and frustrations with which all are beset. Sure, there's bleak and pointed bickering to join the badinage, but isn't that the point?

The supporting cast is bafflingly amateurish - particularly veteran cinematographer Walter Lassally - but when Hawke and Delpy are centre-stage, and they usually are, exhibiting that unique chemistry, it's an astonishingly erudite and incisive movie, and one of the few deserving of that oft-cited adjective: life-affirming. (3.5)



Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2012) - I told you that Matthew McConaughey was amazing. I spent 10 years saying it, while all he did was stand around on rom-com posters, leaning against things, but would you listen? No you would not. But I was right, I am the best. (NB: If you did listen, please discount this introduction.)

Now we've got that settled: Mud.

This is one of the best films of the decade so far: a little like Lawn Dogs, with a touch of The Way, Way Back, immersed into the world of Beasts of the Southern Wild, and yet very much its own movie, with flavourful dialogue, real - though heightened - characters, and a point to all this, about the nature of love, friendship and sacrifice.

The story sees resourceful Southern teens, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and the Chris-Chambers-alike, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), happen upon a handsomely brooding fugitive (McConaughey), hoping to reconnect with the love of his life, whilst hiding out from the cops and some hired guns. Meanwhile, Ellis's parents drift apart, the fugitive's mentor (Sam Shepard) sits quietly frowning, and our sympathies and understanding of the characters, shifts, separates and congeals anew.

Whilst its broad structure is fairly formulaic, what happens within it is bracingly original, and though it has six too many endings, it's still an extraordinarily effective, unusual and powerful film, with at least seven exceptional performances, one of them from McConaughey. I was right. (4)

Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013) - The Wolf of Wall Street for nice people. Ikiru in America. A slightly selfish Schindler's List for the '80s. An acting masterclass from McConaughey and Leto, with great moments compensating for some recourse to formula. A'ight. (3)

TV: True Detective (Created by Nic Pizzolatto, 2014) - A dark, brooding, labyrinthine southern noir, stunningly acted, written and directed. I mostly just fancied the '95 McConaughey, though. (4)


Joan Blondell:

Miss Pacific Fleet (Ray Enright, 1935) - Warner Bros comedy about a popularity contest, which starts off well - with some snappy interplay between fast-talking Glenda Farrell and a deadpan Joan Blondell - but quickly degenerates into laboured, plotless nonsense, wasting its promising cast. And Minna Gomball. (2)

Traveling Saleslady (Ray Enright, 1935) - A minor but very likeable Warner Bros comedy with a feminist flavour, as Joan Blondell disproves her grumpy pops' contention that "women know nothing about business" by joining a rival firm and proceeding to destroy him, with the help of some 'cocktail toothpaste'.

It isn't really laugh-out-loud funny, but it's very enjoyable and has great fun with its progressive gender politics, providing a good, Lee Tracy-ish role for William Gargan as Blondell's womanising, increasingly frustrated sparring partner, and an underwritten one for the magnificent Glenda Farrell, who still makes it work.

Blondell takes care of the rest, a bundle of energy, at once modern and of-her-time: amusing, tough, sexy and strident, bearing the unapologetic contention that she's every bit as smart as the men around her - and probably a bit smarter.

Incidentally, the film features several of the same cast members - including the deeply unfunny Hugh Herbert - as Warner's notorious cut, banned and then lost Convention City (which is referenced in the trailer) and also, erm, climaxes with a convention. There are a couple of dirty jokes sneaked in here, but it's Code-era and so relatively sedate: something like Jean Harlow's Girl From Missouri was to her Red-Headed Woman. (3)


I'm also investigating some of John Ford's more obscure movies, beginning with Pilgrimage - a favourite of Ford biographer Joseph McBride - Doctor Bull and When Willie Comes Marching Home.

Pilgrimage (John Ford, 1933) - One of John Ford's best early sound features, though it occupies the same world, both stylistically and thematically, as the movies Frank Borzage and F. W. Murnau made for the same studio - Fox - at the tail end of the silent era, 7th Heaven, Sunrise and Lucky Star.

It's a well-photographed melodrama of thawing and redemption, written by frequent Ford collaborator Dudley Nichols, about a terrifyingly possessive mother (Henrietta Crosman) who signs her son up to fight in WWI, in order to keep him away from the woman he loves, then - 10 years after his death in the Argonne - wrestles with her guilt on a mothers' pilgrimage to the fields of battle.

It's very deliberate, even ponderous at times, and easy to patronise: for its moments of early talkie stiltedness, corny improbabilities and typically incongruous, weak comedy. But, like Crosman's big, flawed central performance, it's also sincere, heartfelt and humane, and you'd have to be made of stern stuff not to draw something from its story, or be moved by its final two scenes. (3)

Doctor Bull (John Ford, 1933) - Legendary American filmmaker John Ford made a trio of films with famed raconteur, newspaper columnist and movie star, Will Rogers, a man so popular he'd nearly been nominated for President in 1932. The middle one, Judge Priest is, by any standards, a cast-iron classic, while Steamboat 'Round the Bend - their last - remains a flawed masterpiece, due to some liberal, perhaps unwise cuts made after Rogers' tragic demise in a plane crash.

Doctor Bull is the first and least of the bunch: like the others, a hobby-horse for Ford's values of tolerance and inclusion - not to mention his obsessive aversion to hypocrisy - and similarly shot through with Rogers' folksy, shambling good humour, but its social comment isn't quite so searing, and its jokes not quite so on-the-money. It's all relative, though, and this tale of a small-town physician dispensing pills, castor oil and wisdom certainly has its merits, with some genuinely touching romance, some clever barbs and the sort of intense Americana that only ever came from one director.

Andy Devine's comic relief is bloody awful, though - and how quickly does Rochelle Hudson get wasted?! (3)

When Willie Comes Marching Home (John Ford, 1950) - Hail the Conquering Hero, but with no jokes, as the greatest director in the history of American cinema shows once again that he can't really do comedy. But would really like to try.

Dan Dailey is a young patriot who becomes the first person in Punxatawney to sign up to fight. Sent off to train amidst much fanfare (some of it literal), he soon finds himself back in his home town as an instructor, patronised and pilloried by his former friends, who think he's a coward. Then he gets a shot at redemption...

The film is more stressful than funny, and its comedy is astonishingly witless and unfunny, but what it does do is provide a small number of Ford's 'grace notes', little flourishes of understated humanity a lot more memorable than the noisy bombast and lousy running gags going on around.

There's the couple weeping in the corner of the shot as the young soldiers pull out, Dailey's flutter of self-conscious acting as he gets to soothe his girl on (supposedly) the eve of battle, and that brilliant moment in which, unsure how to stand as a soldier and a man, he apes his father's posture, placing a hat silently over his chest. Then Ford drops the sentiment and plays the scene for laughs. Sigh.

Despite such minor joys - including a litany of great shots in the French countryside: that unique Fordian composition where the horizon is right at the top of the bottom of the frame and, oh, you just have to see it to believe it - there are only three really good scenes in the picture, and they're all domestic, a proper strong suit of Ford's.

One is Colleen Townsend's stoical speech to her man (Dailey) about how he's done her proud despite his building self-loathing. The second is Dailey's genuine farewell, in which his family first disbelieve his departure, then rush him in an explosion of emotion. And, finally, William Demarest's defence of his son in the face of danger: a sign that while Ford's funny bone was defective, he never lost the ability to evoke the sincerity and compassion of real human relationships - or to make us very nearly cry. (2)


Girl Missing (Robert Florey, 1933) - Gold diggers Glenda Farrell and Mary Brian investigate a murder in this fast, funny Warner Bros programmer, full of Pre-Code badinage and Farrell calling herself "mother" and saying things that probably made more sense in 1933. It sags slightly in the middle, taking the girls off screen for a while in order to set up the mystery, but Farrell's rat-a-tat delivery and Jules Furthman's dialogue are a treat, and there's fun support from both Lyle Talbot - as a raffish playboy - and Guy Kibbee, inevitably and invariably cast as a horny, red-faced old man. (3)


His Double Life (Arthur Hopkins, 1933) - Want to see Lillian Gish in a rom-com? Then I think this is the only chance you're ever going to get. In 1933, the silent screen legend had largely retreated to the stage - prior to her reinvention as a cinematic character actress - having had her career torpedoed by jealous studios and their press lapdogs. As a result, this was the only film she made between 1930 and 1942.

It's a real oddity, a London-set comedy-drama, decidedly stilted and based on contrivance, that sees a legendary, reclusive painter (Roland Young) beginning a new life after the media erroneously announces that he's dead. Gish is the calm, kind-hearted and matter-of-fact spinster with whom he falls in love.

The far-fetched story is very choppy, and Young's character is rather too narcissistic - more interested in his own legacy than the fact that his valet has just snuffed it - but there are a few good jokes and choice observations in the first half ("He's to be buried in the Abbey because he's a philanthropist, not because he's an artist. Oh, that's England all over"), and the leads do what they can to salvage the rest, prior to an almost incomprehensible climax.

His Double Life pales alongside the many comedic gems being pumped out by Hollywood during this period, but if you're a big fan of the leading lady, it's still a must. Her emotional sensitivity and economy of expression is much in evidence, even at this, the oddest time of her career. (2)


Thanks for reading.

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