Thursday, August 25, 2011

Vigil in the Night

A movie has to be pretty damn good to get me past killing a five year old boy in the first five minutes. Vigil in the Night does just that and though I felt like I could hardly forgive it for such monstrousness, I decided to hang in there at least until Brian Aherne showed up. I managed it and I'm glad I did. It's embarrassing to admit just how much I cried during this movie despite the fact that I was wary of the obviously manipulative writers with the whole dying kid thing. To say Vigil in the Night is a melodrama isn't quite fair to it. It would be lumping it in with all those ordinary melodramas that have only half a dozen far-fetched calamities piled on top of one another in two hours. Vigil in the Night has so many more, it's difficult to list them all. It's one of those films that if you step out to make a cup of tea, you better hit the pause button or you won't know where you're at when you return. In fact, skip the tea altogether because that's how the kid dies: his nurse steps out to get a cup of tea and he suffocates.

Carole Lombard plays a nurse who takes the heat when her sister's lapse in professionalism and love for hot caffeinated beverages allows a sick child to die. Brian Aherne plays the doctor she loves. A very determined series of coincidences and calamities keep the lovers apart (just barely) for two hours. It all winds up in quarantined fever ward where doctor and nurse put it all on the line to save a ward full of sweating little tykes. The story is based on the novel by doctor turned novelist, A. J. Cronin, who also wrote The Citadel. Today we take the medical drama as a genre for granted. There's no disease too horrifying that it can't play out for us in prime time. Back in the thirties though, the genre was just finding its feet. Of course, good doctors are glorified to a ridiculous degree (and bad ones vilified in the same extreme), but what I liked about this movie was the focus on the nurses. In one scene, the head of nursing looks at a room full of workmen scrambling to get a quarantine ward ready and comments, "it's the first time I ever saw a man work as hard as a nurse." There's a lot religious imagery in this film, and it's not difficult to see the parallel between nurses and nuns. Well, nuns who get to canoodle on occasion with Brian Aherne, anyway. If you have a nurse in your life, you could do worse than watch this movie thinking of them and then call them up and thank them for working their butts off for humanity.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Gog (1954)

It was worth watching Gog, which is a fairly tedious, but stylish 50s sci-fi outing, just to see Herbert Marshall with these awesome round, tortoise-shell glasses and undone polka-dot bowtie. If I didn't know better I'd say that Thomas Dolby stole his entire look from this screencap. (Of course, I do know better. He stole it from Harold Lloyd.) I would have felt amply reward for my time, but I was also treated to the image of urbane and elegant Mr. Marshall carrying a flame-thrower later in the film. In that scene, Marshall bears the most priceless look: a mixture of boredom, loathing and back pain that perfectly sums up this late period of his career. At that moment you can see that he is thinking that Ernst Lubitsch or Alfred Hitchcock would never have made him carry a flame-thrower.

I work in an almost 100 year old physics building, which is mainly furnished in cold war Herman Miller and old oscilloscopes. One of the credits in the film thanks Minneapolis Honeywell Controls, a name intimately familiar to Minnesota physicists. I could walk out the door of my office and start filming Gog. Or rather Wes Anderson could. Since all Anderson's films are elaborately set-up homages to art directors of films past, I think he could really do something with Gog. And when he does, brother, do I have the dials and gauges for him.

Speaking of work, watching Gog is a bit like being on the job because it takes so long to get to the actual plot of the film. Each of the labs in the elaborate underground facility has a little cast of characters doing a different futuristic experiment. They range from the plausible (a space mirror that blows stuff up) to the campy (a sexy couple who wear magnetic leotards and dance around trying to simulate zero gravity conditions). Each experiment is explained in detail to the point where even Wes Anderson would be shouting, "get on with it already. Bring on the killer robots."

Since I brought up killer robots you should know a couple of things. First of all everyone in Gog pronounces the word "robot" as if were "row-bit" stressing the first syllable and barely pronouncing the second. This also happens to be the quirky habit of a character on the kid's tv show, Word Girl, that my son watches. I'm not going to say "robot" the right way any more. I'm going to say it the Gog/Word Girl from now on. The second thing you need to know is the robots roll around slowly and swing their arms randomly. They are about as terrifying as the Daleks on Doctor Who, which is to say not terrifying at all.

The very Leslie Nielsenesque Richard Egan, "stars" and forties film noir siren, Constance Dowling plays Marshall's assistant who takes us on the real-time tour of the endless laboratory. Dowling manages to fill out a jumpsuit in an inspiring way, but she is saddled with a horrible haircut that reminds me of Jobriath. Egan's character is sent in to investigate a series of killings in the laboratory, which means when the plot does eventually arrive it feels like an episode of Columbo with good production values. The robots kill everyone remotely by manipulating all the automated controls around the lab. Oh goody! More closeups of dials and gauges! I'm sure there are people out there who have a fetish for vintage scientific equipment, and Gog is to them the most amazing porn ever, but the rest of us will long for the robots to roll slowly up to someone and bludgeon them with random arm movements.

I'm not really all that interested in 1950s science fiction except as a clearing house for some of my favorite actors of earlier eras. You know I watched Forbidden Planet just because Walter Pidgeon was in it. To that end, Netflix Instant has been streaming a lot of rarities in the genre, like this one. Stream it while you can, people.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Colorado Territory

Film buffs know Colorado Territory primarily as a Westernized re-make of High Sierra. The chief advantage to me of the later film is getting to watch Joel McCrea instead of Humphrey Bogart. McCrea plays Wes McQueen a train robber who breaks out of prison and plans to pull one last big job before going straight. He meets a hard luck rancher who has a pretty daughter (Dorothy Malone). He plans to marry the girl and use the loot from the robbery to stake himself in his new life. His schemes are complicated by his accomplices who want to kill him and take his share. There is also a "bad girl," nick-named Colorado,(Viriginia Mayo) who wants to shack up with him.

Never mind the horses and cowboy hats. This is film noir. In typical noir fashion, the hero is neither as good or as bad as Hollywood film poster copywriters would like. The good girl, is actually a bit of a greedy tramp and the bad girl turns out to practically a saint in disguise. Mayo and McCrea are really delicious together and true to the genre (noir that is) their supposedly illicit relationship is actually full of quaintness and purity-- they try to give the money from the heist to a mission church.

Director Raoul Walsh who also made High Sierra, and Gentleman Jim, keeps the tension ratcheted up till the inevitable shoot-out in a dead -end canyon. The ending made me think that Bob Dylan must have been watching this movie when he wrote Romance in Durango. That's as much of a spoiler as I'll give you, people.

I'm not sure why but Colorado Territory stuck with me for weeks after watching it. I found myself dressing in peasant tops and long skirts and bidding on Navajo jewelery on Ebay. Sometimes a really solid, well-made movie has more staying power than something more ambitious. Colorado Territory is just such a film.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

She Married Her Boss (1935)

Gregory La Cava directed some of the seminal films of the 1930s, My Man Godfrey and Stage Door being the first that usually come to mind. I also enjoy some of this director's lesser known stuff including the pleasing 1935 romp She Married Her Boss. Claudette Colbert plays a driven, highly effective executive secretary who is in love with her boss (Melvyn Douglas). In order to get him to notice her as a woman she agrees to straighten out his chaotic domestic affairs, including a stroppy, bratty child, an overwrought sister and a pack of disagreeable, dishonest servants. After she sorts out his life, he marries her as a reward. You know, just like real life. She expects romance to come eventually but instead her man is even more of a workaholic than before, partly because she's no longer in the office keeping things in order.

What's a girl to do? Well, if it'a 1930s film, in this situation, the best thing to do is to run off with Robert Montgomery, play piano, drink, dance and get caught by the press in a compromising situation. If Robert Montgomery is unavailable, than a Robert Montgomery-type should be enlisted to be the good-time Charlie, friend with benefits. Such is the case in She Married her Boss and a justifiably forgotten Michael Bartlett plays the boyfriend. I found myself longing for Melvyn Douglas to play the good-time Charlie because he does those types of roles so well. (See Angel, Ninotchka, etc.) Here, Douglas is stuck playing the Herbert Marshall type. If we had Herbert Marshall and Melvyn Douglas then we'd really have something. Fantasy football casting aside, this is still a fun, if predictable film. Nothing here to threaten the greatness of Godfrey atop the La Cava canon, but still not a bad way to spend 90 minutes.

My biggest beef with this film is the insipid, oft-repeated idea that a woman's first job is marriage. They were running along nicely with the idea that Colbert's character was indispensable at home AND at work, when they suddenly decided work wasn't important. What? Maybe it was Hollywood's way of pandering to the unemployed to make out that a job wasn't that important. Or maybe it was pandering to the production code which suddenly meant that women couldn't work and be happy any more. At any rate, Colbert is stuck at home, trying to look feminine in a lot of hideous lace collars and I just want the snappy, competent, well-dressed Gal Friday back.

Colbert was at the height of her powers coming off It Happened One Night, the year before. Sexism, bad clothes and anemic scripts can't hold her back. She just shines. And Douglas has the good sense as he always did when acting with magnificent, talented actresses like Garbo and Dietrich, to just get out of the way and let her carry the show.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Private Lives (1931)

I'm just going to go ahead and say it: Noel Coward inadvertently created the genre of screwball comedy. When his stage play, Private Lives was being made into a film, he advised director, Sidney Franklin, to keep things moving along. In response Franklin turned in a comedy so blisteringly fast that its rapid fire dialog to competes with the infamous His Girl Friday. I had to watch many sections of this film twice to make sure I caught all the quips. I'm sure that, like Friday, it will reward multiple viewings. Not only is Private Lives fast, it's loud, shrill, and full of pratfalls and impossibly mixed-up situations. All it's missing is an escaped fugitive in a roll-top desk.

Until I watched Private Lives, I thought Noel Coward was all about cocktails in the drawing room and biting sarcasm. He is, but, apparently he's also about full body tackles and insulting one's mother-in-law with a viciousness that would make Walter Burns blush. Robert Montgomery and Norma Shearer play Elliot and Amanda, an English couple who have divorced after a series of violent rows. They both remarry and end up honeymooning in the same hotel in the South of France. Their adjacent rooms share a veranda, so it is inevitable that an awkward confrontation and, eventually, a reconciliation will follow. All of the action is compressed into three days, so Coward can be forgiven for packing a decade's worth of arguments into an hour and a half. Elliot and Amanda are loathsome characters, selfish and obnoxious, but they are also a lot of fun. I don't think I could take much more than 90 minutes of their carrying on, though.

Coward's outlook on love is bleak; if Private Lives weren't so dang funny, it would be depressing. In his worldview, passion is a miserable roller coaster of blissful kisses and socks to the jaw. This drunken slugfest can be difficult to watch. Take out the jokes and you'd have a Lifetime movie, or a TMZ expose on Madonna and Guy Ritchie.

The acting is uniformly excellent. The new spouses are played by sadly forgotten Pre-Code bombshell, Una Merkel and stalwart, supporting actor Reginald Denny. And the leads, though miscast as English, are wonderful. Montgomery looks completely at ease as an unchivalrous cad and his role in Private Lives reminds me of my favorite Montgomery performance in Mr. And Mrs. Smith. Speaking of which Norma Shearer seems to have gone to the Carole Lombard School of Meltdowns. Yeah, I had to mute her a few times, but even Lombard, the unquestionable queen of the spoiled rich female temper tantrum, could occasionally cross that line. I'm sure I never let the remote out of my hand while watching Twentieth Century.

Shearer is an able comedian and she brings star quality to the table as well. When Elliot declares that Amanda is the most thrilling, fascinating woman every born, you can't help but think the same applies to the actress playing her. If nothing else there is her habit of forgetting to wear a bra which is in evidence in a couple of scenes in Private Lives. I predict that Shearer will gain a whole new following if her filmography is ever transferred to Blu-Ray.

Thanks to Classic Movie Favorites for the stills.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Crack Up (1946)

While casting Crack Up, the filmmakers must have made a clerical error. How else to explain Pat O'Brien playing an art critic and Herbert Marshall a cop? Still, it works because Pat O'Brien is pretty bad ass: he makes art criticism seem like a gritty profession. As usual, he drags me, kicking and screaming into liking him. Herbert Marshall is pretty urbane for a cop, but he is supposed to be an undercover agent from Scotland Yard. I guess that makes a difference.

Despite the weird casting, Irving Reis' highly competent direction ended up selling me on this film noir. Reis seamlessly strings together the various set pieces, including, my favorite sequence: O'Brien on the run from the law in a penny arcade. Deft camera movement and clever editing work together to turn a guy standing around pretending to play a video into edge-of-your-seat action.

The script is less good--at times, not even up to the level of a decently written teleplay. An overly enthusiastic writer gives Marshall a rant about how Americans don't appreciate their law enforcement, thus ruining the surprise revelation of Marshall's cop identity. At least the writers do manage to keep track of the plot twists. I like film noir best when it's not so grand at the expense of logic. If I get to the end of the movie and feel that I've learned something about the nature of good and evil but still don't know who dunnit, I get a little peevish. Yeah, I'm talking about you, Big Sleep! No, of course, I'm not saying that Crack Up is better than The Big Sleep--just that it annoyed me less.

O'Brien plays George Steele, whom we first meet in the throes of an alcoholic bender and apparent mental breakdown. In typically circuitous noir style, we soon learn that he began his evening aboard a train that crashed. The problem? The cops have no record of a train wreck. Even in 1946, they kept track of that kind of stuff. So it's not looking good for our hero's sanity. One of his museum colleagues (Claire Trevor) agrees to help him clear his name. He retraces his steps, beginning with another ride on the same train that made him loopy. So far it's a little Lady Vanishes with a some Spellbound tossed in for good measure.

I'm fine with derivative filmmaking, but in those particular Hitchcock films, it’s the romance that keeps me coming back. Here, Claire Trevor manages to play both gal Friday and mysterious dame. Her friendship with O’Brien teeters on the edge of romance and, although it's not a huge surprise when they hook up, it's satisfying. Marshall provides the third side of the triangle, but that plot element doesn't really work. He and Trevor have no chemistry, and in one scene she admits that he makes her miserable. If it weren't for Marshall’s sudden uptick in energy at the end of the movie, I would want to give him B-12 shots. Eventually, however, he solves the crime with panache and starts to seem like an actor who might be worthy of a detective series of his own.

Speaking of detective series, I let out an internal "squee" every time someone in the movie called O'Brien "Mr. Steele." I can't help but wonder if the creators of my all-time favorite TV show, Remington Steele, weren't referencing Crack Up. If you gave Pat O'Brien's wardrobe to a woman, turned the urbane undercover cop into an urbane undercover con man, kept the references to art theft and forgery, squinted and stood back twenty paces, you might have Remington Steele. 

Thanks to the epic series The 100 Greatest Posters of Noir, I will never take movie advertisements at face value again. This poster is terrible. If Where Danger Lives did a 100 Worst, this might well make the list. The title is too small and the tagline is too big. The cracked font is an obvious concept carried out in a half-assed fashion, and, combined with the green, the whole thing reminds me of a turtle. Claire Trevor looks nothing like the poor woman on the poster, who appears to have a painfully broken leg. Pat O'Brien’s portrait does him no favors, either. Herbert Marshall gets third billing, but his portrait dominates the poster. Maybe the artist was a secret Herbert Marshall fan? Nah: no one with such good taste could turn out this little fiasco.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Gentleman Jim (1942)

Before I saw this movie, my knowledge of Gentleman Jim Corbett had been limited to a particularly audacious Bob Dylan rhyme in the song "Hurricane." (We're gonna put his ass in the stir/we're gonna pin this triple mur/der on him. He ain't no Gentleman Jim.) Nevertheless, I was quickly absorbed in this biopic chronicling the life of the famous 19th Century boxer. For those who need more to entrance them than Errol Flynn's near-constant shirtlessness, this tightly plotted film has plenty of action. Director Raoul Walsh (White Heat, High Sierra) keeps things moving along briskly, with fight scenes peppered liberally throughout the script.

Flynn plays a boxer so cocky and self-absorbed that in the climactic championship bout his main concern is that his hair not get mussed. In addition to fame and fortune, Corbett is also pursuing wealthy boxing patron Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith), who keeps promoting the up-and-coming fighter in hopes that he will get his ass kicked and learn his place already. He keeps winning, and eventually Ware realizes that Corbett differs from his nouveau riche "betters," a bunch of dirt prospectors and miners who got lucky in the Gold Rush, only in being a few decades more nouveau.

The Not So Quiet Man

In the meantime co-stars Alan Hale and Ward Bond steal all their scenes as, respectively, Corbett's scrappy Irish father and larger- than-life Irish rival, John L. Sullivan. Bond is particularly fun to watch; this character stands alongside his hilarious turn as a gambling, boxing-enthusiast priest in The Quiet Man as outstanding examples of his supporting work. Also in the mix is another The Quiet Man alum, Arthur Shields, who plays a gambling, boxing-enthusiast priest. Like The Quiet Man, this movie is funny, sentimental and wildly entertaining. What the later, better-known film has--and Gentleman Jim lacks is the romance. Flynn and Smith have nice-ish chemistry but their constant arguing is shrill and annoying. There's a fine line with these things, and usually it is the script that makes the difference. Give squabbling people amusing things to say, and you've got a Noel Coward play. Give them the script to Gentleman Jim and you're eavesdropping on the dysfunctional couple upstairs. But Smith and Flynn are so gosh-darned pretty that this shortcoming doesn't sink the film. Feel free to use the mute button, is my motto. The movie works as light entertainment and solid proof, if you needed any more, that Raoul Walsh could direct the heck out of an action scene.

The only thing I really learned about 19th Century prize fighting from Gentleman Jim, was that boxers favored sweaters over robes at one point in history. Several scenes show meaty, sweaty boxers with sweaters tied around their necks like 1980s yuppies.