Wednesday, 21 January 2015

John Barrymore, Hold Your Man, and the Great American Novel - Reviews #201


The Great Man Votes (Garson Kanin, 1939) - John Barrymore was the best and quite possibly the laziest actor of his generation. He reinvented Shakespeare on the American stage, with the help of astonishingly talented collaborators Ned Sheldon, Margaret Carrington and Edward Gordon Craig, before making a near-permanent transition to the screen, where he found that while occasionally there was something worthy of his gargantuan talents (The Beloved Rogue, Counsellor-at-Law), most of the time he could just throw an eyebrow and a finger skywards and that satisfied the punters and paid the bills.

By the late 1930s, a string of failed marriages, a disastrous approach to his personal finances and a severe drink problem had left him in the unfortunate position of having to accept whatever work came his way. Like three Bulldog Drummond films, each worse than the last, which is fairly astonishing given how bad the first one was.

Meanwhile, former wunderkind of the American stage Garson Kanin – the 24-year-old assistant who had turned around director George Abbott’s fortunes almost single-handedly – was gearing up to shoot his second film. Having served an apprenticeship as a prospective executive under legendary independent producer Sam Goldwyn, he had risked it all to start a career as a filmmaker over at RKO, where his debut – A Man to Remember – met with rave reviews and emerged as one of the major sleeper hits of the year. Given the chance to pick his next project, he alighted on a dormant project called The Great Man Votes, then somehow managed to persuade boss Pan Berman to let him cast his personal idol, John Barrymore, in the lead.

When Kanin rang Barrymore to speak to him about the part, the legendary thespian asked him to come right over, and greeted him in his customary style: nude. Though it's tempting to applaud the star for a lifetime of carousing, debauchery and being a ‘ledge’ or whatever, it was frankly this kind of behaviour, reinforced by sycophantic acolytes and frequent boozing, that moved Barrymore from the realm of the immortal into the Bulldog Drummond canon. Kanin, though, knew how to handle Barrymore, insisting that his cast and crew foster an atmosphere of formality and mutual respect by calling Jack as “Mr Barrymore”, and firing anyone who brooked the idea. The result, bar the occasional tantrum at little co-star Virginia Weidler’s scene-stealing, was remarkable: an unexpected professionalism on set, and the last great lead performance of Barrymore’s career.

The Great Man Votes is, to all intents and purposes, a smart but standard B-movie, a sweet little story about a down-and-out ex-teacher (Barrymore), on the skids since his wife’s death, who ekes out a living working as a night watchman, so as to support his two kids (Peter Horton and Virginia Weidler). With an election looming, he suddenly finds himself the only voter in a key precinct, and the toast of the town – working the angles to get the best deal for himself and his family.

The story isn’t always exploited as keenly and clearly as it might be and the supporting cast is mediocre, but it’s a solid mix of family comedy and political satire – with a sting in the tail – and presumably a minor influence on Preston Sturges’ films of the subsequent decade, casting Sturges regular William Demarest as a shouty ward boss. Where it excels, though, is in Kanin’s inventive direction – like a simply wonderful sequence in which Horton and Weidler walk to school deep in conversation, Kanin only shooting their fleet feet – and in Barrymore’s performance.

He was working from cue cards, as his memory ailed and his enthusiasm for learning dialogue waned, but he was at least energised about the project, thanks to his spirited, intelligent director, with the pointing, eyebrow-raising and eye-rolling all kept to a merciful minimum. Those tics aren’t eradicated completely – at moments he still goes for the easy gag or the lazy gesture – but this is Barrymore closer to his best than at any other time after Twentieth Century, in which he gave a simply legendary comic performance. One of the most telling things about the star is just how well he played fragility. When he was on top, he didn’t seem to know how to act, or at least how to act well, coming off as smug, broad and triumphal. But when he was vulnerable – as in A Bill for Divorcement, his staggering 1932 portrait of a man beset by crippling mental ill-health, or here, wracked with unhappiness, sodden with drink – he still had it in spades. If you want to know why, read John Kobler’s book about Barrymore, Damned in Paradise, which paints him as a mercurial lost soul, tormented by his father’s descent into madness.

For Barrymore, there was to be no grand revival. After a charming supporting part in Mitchell Leisen’s classic rom-com, Midnight, he slipped into sad, self-parodical projects, as his life slipped into the abyss. The Great Man Votes, though, is something like a great, low-budget hurrah for the actor that was: a tender, touching characterisation that showed what he could still deliver when he stopped being a dick and just did his job. (3)


Executive Suite (Robert Wise, 1954) - A glossy drama about big business – peopled by big-hitters of the ‘50s screen – that ultimately reveals itself as a state-of-the-industry statement, arguing that America needs to innovate, produce and grow, not just cut costs to keep shareholders happy. That might sound dry, but it’s actually the most arresting material in the production, the rest of it highly entertaining but barely remaining in the memory: two affairs, a couple of revelations, a bit of insider trading.

Launching with a very effective PoV sequence, it’s skilfully directed by Robert Wise (and was produced by fellow Orson Welles alumnus John Houseman), with a solid script by regular Hitchcock collaborator Ernest Lehman, but really you’re watching it for the performances. They’re good across the board – pun intended – though the real standouts are William Holden as a muscular up-and-comer, Shelley Winters playing a lovelorn secretary, and Fredric March in one of his best mid-period roles as a supercilious, blandly detestable financier.

Barbara Stanwyck, my reason for watching most films nowadays, is rather overwrought but has a couple of nice quieter moments, as a major stockholder thrown over by the head honcho now lying on a slab. (3)


Hold Your Man (Sam Wood, 1933)
- In the immortal words of Sven-Goran Eriksson: first half good, second half not so good. Hot off the back of their phenomenally successful first teaming, Red Dust, MGM put stars Jean Harlow and Clark Gable into a second vehicle. At that point, though, the Hays Office was expressing severe concerns about Harlow’s hyper-sexual image – especially in the wake of the Paul Bern scandal that had unfortunately engulfed her – and the result was this slight botch job, in which a fantastic opening 40, rich in irreverent wrongdoing and flirtatious badinage, gives way to a stodgy, slightly dreary drama of reformation.

Gable is a cocksure conman who, fleeing from the cops, meets his match in the hot, funny good-time girl (Jean Harlow) who agrees to shield him, the pair trading zingers from the unmistakable pen of Anita Loos, a brilliant – though erratic – screenwriter responsible for everything from early Doug Fairbanks vehicles to Gentleman Prefer Blondes, and most of Harlow’s key credits. But after a (confusingly conceived) encounter with a drunk, Gable finds himself wanted for murder and Harlow finds herself in the reformatory, alongside a socialist, a minister’s daughter (the smoking hot Theresa Harris) and her own arch nemesis (a borderline psychotic Dorothy Burgess). Cue much moping, hand-wringing and sub-Ladies They Talk About melodrama, partially rescued by Sam Wood’s handsome direction and particularly Harlow’s brilliant performance.

The star was at the peak of her popularity and – aside from one ill-judged sequence where the tone-deaf actress talks her way through a song – is at the peak of her considerable powers, vaulting contrived plotting and some unaccountable changes in characterisation with consummate skill, and proving that by 1933 there was very little she couldn’t do. Her scenes with softly-spoken Stuart Erwin (essentially doing his bit from Make Me a Star) are beautiful, with both players in their element, and her chemistry with Gable in those early scenes is just exceptional, crackling with sex while eliciting a succession of belly laughs, as she bats away his advances, mocks his grin and pockets his cash. She also punches his ex-girlfriend.

Ultimately it’s half a screwball classic, half a laboured morality tale in which people shout, sulk and walk around a lot, but that’s kind of good enough, especially with a star like this. (3)


Mandalay (Michael Curtiz, 1934)
- I hate it when you go for a date with your boyfriend and then he sells you to a nightclub. That’s sadly the situation facing Kay Francis (she of the slender talent and soft ‘r’) in this largely incomprehensible Pre-Code movie. Reinvented as hostess (prostitute) ‘Spot White’ (is that even a pun? What of?), she spends her evenings seducing men, having them buy her jewellery, taking off the jewellery whilst doing a sad face and just generally being in montages. Then she blackmails a police chief and leaves town with 10,000 rupees, falls in love with a doctor, renews her acquaintance with her ex-boyfriend and is accused of murder. This film is 65 minutes long.

It’s largely complete nonsense, but sufficiently tawdry, barmy and good-looking to hold your interest, with the talented Michael Curtiz finding atmosphere where others would find only embarrassment, and the usual familiar faces turning up in bit parts: Lyle Talbot, Warner Oland, Ruth Donnelly, Etienne Girardot and Ricardo Cortez – who, I shall never tire of relating, was a Brooklyn-born Jew who changed his name from Jacob Krantz during the silent era so as to cash in on the boom in ‘Latin lovers’ like Rudolph Valentino.

Francis is one of those gargantuan stars of the 1930s who – like Eddie Cantor or Warren William – are virtually forgotten nowadays, beyond circles comprising complete nerds. Unlike those two, it’s difficult to quite comprehend her appeal – which saw her become the highest-paid actress in America – beyond her fashionable looks and competent performances, though she does appear in a handful of all-time classics, all released in 1932: Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise and two films with regular co-star William Powell, One-Way Passage and Jewel Robbery. (2)



"Basketball was never like this, Skip."
American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997) - Oh, someone wrote the Great American Novel. Well done them. Roth's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 work - the first of his I've read - is a mammoth accomplishment, a dizzying, jawdropping story, spun with bravura style, that deals with immigrant identity, the unknowability of everyone, the disappointments of adulthood and the utter chaos of existence, as a legendary high school sports star turned upstanding citizen has his life exploded by an unexpected act of violence. It is his daughter “who transports him out of the longed for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counter-pastoral — into the indigenous American berserk", as Roth unforgettably characterises it.

He is "Swede" Levov and his fat, stuttering, psychotic daughter Merry is his flipside: the girl whose rejection of his country, their country, makes him question everything he has ever done in his life. An unwise joke. An unwise kiss. The even-tempered appeasement of her burgeoning, spittle-flecked rebellion. And his perfectly ordered, doggedly restrained, all-American existence, an idyll blown to bits along with a doctor, in a general store. Merry was the fourth generation of immigrant Jews. She was supposed to perfect the art. And now this. Lit by twists that astound and yet ring utterly true, blessed with slivers of black comedy and bitter humour, and loaded with faultless symbolism - from the glove industry that defines his father's life to the cattle business and face lift that reshape his wife's - it's as good a book as I've ever read about America. (4)

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