Friday, November 28, 2008

Spiral cut Ham(let): the Youtube Playlist

While watching the neoclassic comedy, Stange Brew (1983) recently I realized that a good deal of the plot is stolen from Hamlet. Canadian slackers Bob and Doug McKenzie go to Elsinore Brewery to get some free beer. They meet the young heiress of the Brewery fortune, Pam, whose father has recently died and whose mother quickly remarried her uncle, Claude. The rest of the plot involves hockey, an insane asylum, a flying dog and for some reason, Max von Sydow as an evil brewmeister who plans to take over the world. This gave me the idea of writing a piece about all the different Hamlets I've watched over the years from my favorite (the Derek Jacobi 1980 version) to the risible (Hamlet 2000). But once I got into it, I started realizing that there were too many Hamlets to really do justice in an essay. Instead I've made the equivalent of a mix tape, a Youtube playlist in which every scene from the play is taken from different productions of Hamlet. I call it Spiral Cut Hamlet, and I thoroughly admit I stole the pun from Mystery Science Theater 3000, which gets an airing in this playlist. Enjoy.

Act one, Scene one: Hamlet (1913): English film producer Cecil Hepworth's made this version of Hamlet in which is filmed near Dover. The first appearance of Hamlet's father's ghost is an innovative optical effect.

Act one, scene two, part 1: Hamlet (1948): I love the kiss between Gertrude and Hamlet in this scene. It's a little over the top! It is an unspoken tradition in Hamlet to cast a woman to play Gertrude who is not much older than Hamlet, but in this version Eileen Herlie was 9 years Olivier's junior.

Act one, scene two, part 2: Slings and Arrows (2003): Fictional action star, Jack Crewe (based on Keanu Reeves who played Hamlet in Canada) delivers Hamlet's first soliloquy as if he's gonna hurl. For a Hamlet fan, this might be the greatest TV series ever, depicting the comical complications befalling a troupe of actors putting on Shakespeare's greatest tragedy. I love this version of this monologue because it is really a play within a play. The only problem with linking to this version is that it is going to be really hard for you to stop watching the TV show which is fantastic and instantly absorbing from the first notes of it's music hall theme song, "Cheer up you melancholy, Dane."

Act one, scene three:
Hamlet (2000) Liev Schrieber as Laertes, Julia Stiles as Ophelia and Bill Murray as Polonius. Laertes gives Ophelia some lousy love advice, packs for his trip and gets lousy advice from his father. There is much to mock in this version but it is refreshing to see actors who aren't pushing middle age playing the young prince of Denmark and his cohorts. Also Bill Murray is a good Polonius.

Act one, scene four: Hamlet Mystery Science Theater 3000 #1009, A bad production of Hamlet from German television, dubbed with Ricardo Monteblahn as the voice of Claudius. Also a skit about Mike Nelson facing a ghost of a dead family member.

Act one, scene five: Hamlet (1996): Kenneth Brannagh does a great job conveying the depth of Hamlet's grief for his father. He also reclaims a lot of the lesser known scenes in the play, by restoring the full text to the screen.

Act one, scene five, part II (1987) Finnish director, Aki Kaurismaki's "Hamlet Goes Business" is a stripped down re-telling of the old Scandanavian tale minus Shakespeare's dialog that clocks in at a lean, mean 86 minutes. Here Hamlet tells his Horatio, an indifferent chauffer named Simo, that he will "put on an antic disposition."

Act two, scene one: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: Hamlet is examined by Polonius and meets with his old chums Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Act two, scene one, soliloquy: Withnall and I: Withnall delivers the speech solo, which in the play is spoken before Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In the context of the film, the character, an out of work actor is at once lamenting his lack of opportunity for work and keeping in practice a bit.

Act two, scene one, part three: Hamlet (1996): Kenneth Brannagh is totally mad north, northwest, dude.

Act two, scene two: Hamlet (1996): Charleton Heston has a cameo as Player #1 and Dame Judy Dench has an even briefer cameo as Hecuba. This is the second reference in this act to fortune as a "strumpet." As accident, coincidence and bad luck have a big part in Hamlet, it's no suprise that the characters have a low opinion of trusting to fate.

Act two, scene two, soliloquy:
Hamlet (1996): Brannagh chews a bit of scenery as he plots his revenge, hoping to trap Claudius with the play within a play. I love the scenery, especially the minature theater. Olivier really overacts this one too so maybe it's tradition to do so.

Act three, scene one, soliloquy: (Hamlet 1980) The most famous scene in Hamlet. I think Jacobi's performance is my favorite because it as once very energetic and modern feeling, while being relatively straight-forward. When I watch Jacobi, I always understand the text, which is not always the case with other actors.

Act three, scene one:
I couldn't decide which version of the famous "get thee to a nunnery" scene I liked best, so I linked to them all. Olivier gets rough with Ophelia, but only after she goes for his throat, looking like a pyscho milk maid in her blond braid wig. Almost all subsequent versions have taken this route, upping the anti at every opportunity. I love that Olivier shows tenderness to Ophelia when neither she nor her father can see it. It's a brilliant bit of camera placement, so simple and effective. I like the Hamlet 2000 version because it plays it like two twenty-somethings breaking up: full of sarcasm, lust and betrayal. I think Richard Burton's version is a tad disappointing. He certainly has the crazy down, though. Kline's version seems derivative of Jacobi, but he brings his own special brand of crazy to it--think of it as a Fish Called Ophelia. The Brannagh version begins very sweetly owing in great deal to Kate Winslet, playing the scene as a reconciliation gone wrong, which is I think the intention. All of the versions play with the point at which Hamlet cottons onto to the fact that the couple are being spied upon. The Gibson version is my least favorite, dragging the moment of awareness back almost to the beginning, and cutting half the text. I think this grossly simplifies Shakespeare's play which gives plenty of latitude for interpretation without the vivisection of his dialog. If it weren't for Helena Bonham Carter this scene would be a total loss. The Scott Campbell television version is good, but suffers a bit from Ophelia troubles.

Act three, scene two: Hamlet (1996): Hamlet messes with the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hapless Polonius enters and has a famous debate about the shape of a cloud being like a whale. This is especially silly since in the Brannagh version they are indoors at night.

Act three, scene two, part 2: Hamlet (1996): Prior to the Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet pledges his friendship to Horatio who is beginning to look very good after a few minutes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet continues his pipe-playing metaphor and uses the famous phrase "passion's slave." Brannagh has a way of making these lesser-known scenes the heart of his productions and he manages to make the awkwardness of a guy telling his friend how much his friendship means to him, part of the strength of the moment.

Act three, scene two, the play: Hamlet (1976): From an avant-garde production in which Helen Mirren played both Gertrude and Ophelia and there were two actors on stage playing Hamlet at all times, both of whom were costumed like Ziggy Stardust. For her Gertrude costume the not quite yet ready for "Dame" Mirren was saddled with a pair of flame red Princess Leia buns and a set of surgical scrubs. I was noticing the other nightwhile watching A Star is Born (1937) that the play within a play, or the movie within a movie always kind of sucks and always makes us glad we aren't watching the whole thing. Who would rather watch The Murder of Gonzago than Hamlet or The Dueling Cavalier than Singin in the Rain? The one exception to this may be the bizarre and bawdy version of the Murder of Gonzago in this staging of Hamlet.

Act three, scene three and four: Hamlet (1990): The Zeferelli version pretty much looses the scene of Claudius attempting to pray for the curious choice of Claudius half vomiting. Gibson plays the scene as Mad Max Beyond Elsinore. After killing Polonius, thinking it was the king behind the tapestry, Hamlet continues confronting his mother about her new husband while simulating sex with her. At one point Gertrude (Glen Close) starts to make out with him just to shut him up. Luckily the ghost of Hamlet Sr. shows up to put the breaks on the rapidly deteriorating family quarrel/love in. I included this version from this production because it easily the most memorable scene in the film.

Act four, scenes one and two and three: Hamlet (2010): It's the all nerd Hamlet starring the Tenth Doctor, Captain Picard and Sio Bibble. Seriously though, nerdy sci fi acting experience aside this is one of my favorite Hamlets. Tennant is wonderfully funny in these scenes, as he's meant to be. The Young Prince was one of Shakespeare's most devilish punsters. Patrick Stewart and Pennie Downie are also really great in these scenes. I can't stop thinking that Penny Downie looks like Carmen Soprano, but don't let that interfere with your enjoyment. They take a mostly throwaway scene and light it on fire.

Act four, scene four:(Hamlet 1996): Hamlet encounters Fortinbras and a large company of Norwegian soldiers on their way to Poland. Fortinbras seeks permission from the King to march across Denmark. Hamlet speaks to a captain who tells them that the land in Poland which they seek is worthless and they will have a difficult battle to get it. Hamlet reflects on his own schemes given the big picture and how so many men are going to give their lives for a remote cause when he is walking away from his, which is so dear to him. He bucks himself up with a little soliloquy and goes off to seek his "dull revenge." This is classic Brannagh bombast, the sort of clip you run before the Superbowl to fire up the fans.

Act four, scene five: (Hamlet 2000): Ophelia looses it at the Guggenheim. Laertes returns to find his father dead and his sister crazy. He swears revenge and Claudius tells him that it was Hamlet who is to blame. Julia Stiles has polaroids of flowers, cause ya know, it's like post-modern.

Act four, scene six: (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead): Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves on a boat with a letter ordering Hamlet's death, with no Hamlet. This will not end well for them. In the play the whole thing is told through a letter from Hamlet to Horatio. Hamlet says that pirates chased them and he boarded the pirate ship and got them to agree to take him back to Denmark, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remained on their present course to England. Stoppard improves on a weak area of the play, giving these minor characters rhetorical footwork to equal Hamlet's for humor and cleverness.

Act four, scene seven: (Hamlet 2000): Claudius goads Laertes into going along with his scheme to kill Hamlet with a poisoned sword in a duel. In this production there is a duel and a gunfight, which is all a bit much actually. Also Hamlet sends a message in the middle of the scene (by fax, of course, cause it's post-modern and all) saying that he is on his way home. At the end of the scene Gertrude comes in and says that Ophelia is drowned. Here Shakespeare comments on his own drammatic timing in the dialog, "One woe doth tread upon another's heel, So fast they follow: your sister's drown'd Laertes."

Act five, scene one: (L.A. Story): The gravedigger scene with Steve Martin and Rick Moranis. I think it's pretty genius the way the Gravedigger changes the body of the tanner with "those Beverly Hills Women" whose parts aren't biodegradable.

Act five, scene two: (Hamlet 2000) Hamlet and Horatio are reunited and upon returning to the castle come upon Ophelia's funeral. Hamlet and Laertes have an Emo-off over who is more grieved at her death. Laertes tries to beat up Hamlet.

Act five, scene two, part ii: (Hamlet 1980) Hamlet and Horatio are chatting about Hamlet's plans for revenge when Osric, the king's greasy lackey and general Polonius replacement arrives. Horatio and Hamlet mock him. Good times. Osric eventually is allowed to come to his point, that the King has wagered that Hamlet could best Laertes in a duel. I guess the king figures that if Hamlet isn't killed at least he'll win his bet.

Act five, scene two, part iii: (Hamlet 1996): The Duel. The voice over reminds me of Dune in this scene. "The tooth, the tooth, remember the poison tooth" vs. "The poison cup. It is too late." Olivier's staging of this scene is brilliant as well, but Brannagh is just so over the top in returning spectacle to the play that I can't help myself. After so many dreary, dark, stripped down productions of Hamlet it's nice to see one that pulls out all the stops and gives the groundlings what they want: to see Claudius impaled with a sword and crushed by a chandelier. Oh, and for some crazy reason Robin Williams plays Osric.

Act five, scene two, death of Hamlet: (Hamlet 1920): Goodnight, sweet princess. Danish film star Asta Nielsen formed her own production company to make a version of Hamlet in which she could star as the title character. There is another version on Youtube from 1890 with Sarah Bernhardt playing the Dane, as well. The Nielsen version is more complete and has a very interesting relationship between Hamlet and Horatio with Hoartio claiming that Hamlet has the soul of a woman. Of course this isn't in the play, but it's definitely a unique twist on the story.

Act five, scene two, post-script: (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead): The ambassador arrives to wrap a loose end: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.

Monday, November 24, 2008


I have lots of new movie reviews to roll out in the next few days. I have a couple of things I'd like to get out of the way before the reviews start hitting the page.

  • I have a followers list now. Please sign up if you read my blog regularly. I don't want to look like a dork who has no readers.
  • Do you use keywords? I've been thinking about tagging my posts with them, but I never use them on other blogs. Let me know.
  • I am putting together a gallery of images of actor Brian Aherne. I'll be doing a whole post about it later this week, but if you have any images you want to include, please send me a note so it can be included in the gallery at the time of the posting.
  • After Shrewfest, I decided to come do a post about adaptations of Hamlet. I need a catchy title. Hamlet-orama? ; Something Rotten in the DVR? ; G'day Sweet Prince, G'day? (after the Mel Gibson Hamlet); Insane for the Dane? You decide. Or come up with your own title and I will consider all suggestions.
  • There is no Blogspot gadget for podcasts, but there should be. Here is the official CinemaOCD Podcast roll:

7 Days of Podcast

Galactica Water Cooler: Mostly about Battlestar Galactica, except when the show is on hiatus, which is 75% of the time, when it's just three geeks talking about sci fi cinema.

The Savage Lovecast: Don't listen at work if you don't have your own office, or when the kids are around. There will be adult content. Always entertaining sex/relationship advice by Dan Savage who frequently comments on politics and pop culture.

Film Junk: Forgive me, but these guys are the quintessential "fanboys" and I say that in the nicest possible way, cause I'm a rabid "fangirl."

Ask Mick LaSalle: The highlight of my Podcast week. Movie critic and author Mick LaSalle and co-host Leba Hurtz chat about movies old and new. Like car talk for film nerds.

Cosmic Slop podcast: Though the format is the forgotten pop of the seventies, one of the hosts, Joel Stitzel, is a big film buff and had a side-project "Cinema Slop" which was the forgotten films of the seventies. I saw KISS versus the Phantom of the Park at a Cinema Slop event.

Crap from the Past: Not technically a podcast, and not much about movies, but awesome none the less. You really have to listen to quite believe it actually.

This American Life: Amazing stories, sometimes about regular people from great contributors. For film geeks, check out their special on the mob in the movies.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Fatal Attwaction: Cynara

Kay Francis and Ronald Coleman face the consequences of infidelity in Cynara.

OK, so the title's a bit of a low blow. I promise that's the last time I make fun of Kay Francis' ability to pronounce the letter "R."

Ronald Coleman plays Jim Warlock a London barrister who has an affair with a shop girl (Phyllis Barry) when his wife (Kay Francis) goes out of town. Like Fatal Attraction, Cynara is one of those movies that is designed to scare the crap out of married men thinking of having affairs. Unlike Fatal Attraction, it doesn't rely on over the top gimmicks. No one gets their rabbit cooked in Cynara.

Though Kay Francis stars and has some very effective scenes, this is really Ronald Coleman's movie. We watch him reluctantly tag along with on a double date with his friend and slowly get ensnared by Doris who is a younger version of Kay Francis seemingly childlike, but quite manipulative. The thing about Cynara is that it doesn't demonize anyone. Doris believes she understands about affairs and the rules about married men. She promises to go away when its over without making a fuss. But after she falls in love with him, things change and she doesn't want to go away at all. When his wife returns a few days earlier than expected he is caught off guard and confused. Without dialog director King Vidor shows Jim's conflicted emotions in one long shot of him reluctantly climbing the stairs to see his wife. Jim thinks its best to make a clean break with Doris, believing there's no easy way to tell someone you don't want them anymore. So Jim breaks a date and writes her a note explaining his feelings. A few hours later the girl kills herself and a few hours after that his marriage and career are over. Coleman's reaction when he learns of her death is really quite great: powerlessness, shame, and sadness all come through silently. I'd always known he was a good actor, but he really is terrific here.

I also like that Cynara doesn't turn Francis into either a helpless victim or a shrew. Before the affair comes out she jokes that she had many temptations while away on her trip including a handsome young Frenchman. As she begins to suspect something is wrong with her marriage there is quite a powerful scene where he tries to come clean, chickens out and then rejects her attempts to get him into bed. It's a quietly heartbreaking scene less the stuff of melodrama than the rest of the plot would lead you to believe. When Francis finally learns the truth about her husband she stands by him through the scandal and inquest but quietly decides to end their marriage. That she changes her mind in the end doesn't feel like a compromise. She genuinely still loves her husband and it isn't difficult to imagine that with a twist of fate their situation might be reversed.

It's the ultimate irony that the code made a movie like Cynara impossible, even though it was probably the best sort of propaganda against the very worldliness from which it was trying to protect audiences.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Piratical Dudes: The Sea Hawk

Errol Flynn and Alan Hale diggin some pirate booty.

I love pirate movies. Maybe not with the same fanatical devotion as I love submarine movies, but pirate movies are definitely up there in the whole men at sea milleaux. The Sea Hawk (1940) is one of the great pirate movies of all time. Or is it? It starts off very promisingly indeed, with a sea battle in which Flynn captures a Spanish Galleon, all its treasure, a cranky ambassador (Claude Raines having the worst hair day of his life) and, the requisite hot-tempered lady of nobility. The second act of the film changes course and follows Flynn and his men as they ambush Spanish soldiers in the jungle. The jungle? What is this Pirates of the Caribbean II? It's almost as if the producers decided to make a hybrid of their earlier hits Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). The Sea Hawk is then probably only 30% pirate (despite slinging about the words pirate, buccaneer, privateer and my favorite "piratical") but it's still 100% fun.

Errol Flynn stars as Geoffrey Thorpe a Francis Drake type of privateer (a pirate who works officially or unofficially for a government). He captures Spanish vessels and treasure in the name of Queen Elizabeth (Flora Robson) taking public slaps on the wrist all the while getting an official wink and nudge behind closed doors from the grateful and flirtatious monarch. The movie is a perfect two hours of non-stop rip-snorting swashbuckling mayhem and romantic adventure directed by the great Michael Curtiz (Casablanca).

It may be worth noting that there is a novel called 'The Sea Hawk' by Rafael Sabatini and the 1924 silent film version is based on that book about a man sold into slavery aboard a pirate ship who swears his revenge on the brother who betrayed him. Apparently the film's producers started off using the novel and there are some strong anti-slavery themes, but quickly dispensed with all the characters and situations in favor of a strong pro-England message. Given what was going on in the world it is not surprising that movie's main theme revolves a power-mad despot who uses slave labor and intends to conquer the whole globe using his super weapon, the Spanish Armada. The film begins with King Philip of Spain looking at a map of the globe and proclaiming that the only thing that stands between himself and controlling all of Europe is "that barren, rock-bound island" as the camera pans up to zero in on England. It's not hard to understand the context that the scriptwriters were hinting at.

I must confess I have a great fondness for the historical dramas of this period. I love Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Fire Over England, That Hamilton Woman, Henry V and the earlier Flynn/Curtiz collaboration The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. All of these movies hold up England as a great place and emphasize its noble traditions of law and literary art. Some use past military campaigns and leaders as stand-ins to make their case about rallying around the country and forgetting appeasement, but all of them are completely and totally anglophilic. Sometimes the parallels seem quite apt as long as you don't look too closely at history. It's one thing to condemn the Spanish Inquisition as tyranny but one doesn't have to look very hard in Elizabeth's reign to find examples of religious and political persecution. Yet, overlooking hypocrisy as the inevitable effect of a cinema at the time which was unapologetically pro-British and anti-fascist, I still love their sense of scale, grandeur and wonderful actors. These are some of the most beautiful and romantic films ever made by anyone, for any reason.

And The Sea Hawk is a very romantic movie, though the romance doesn't come from the quarter one might expect. The chemistry between Flynn and his love-interest Donna Elmira (Brenda Marshall) is a bit flat. He plays Thorpe as supposedly awkward and tongue-tied around the beautiful lady and the effect is that he just seems half-hearted. Flynn is much better in scenes with Flora Robson, his male compatriots like Alan Hale and even the villainous Henry Daniell. The real romance is between Flynn and the camera. Maybe the reason we don't buy Flynn as an awkward lover is that we can't believe him to be anything but perfectly smooth and graceful at everything he does. In one scene Thorpe and his men escape from the galley of a Spanish ship and move silently in cover of darkness to capture a different ship in the harbor. Even in low light Flynn stands out as perfectly chiseled with fluid movements as he stalks about in his pirate short-shorts.

From the opening sallies of gunfire of Thorpe's Albatross onto the Spanish Galleon, to the final parry and thrusts of the inevitable climatic candle slashing sword fight, the Sea Hawk is thoroughly entertaining. There is also the innovative middle section of the movie set in the jungles of panama which uses a sepia tone to convey the intense heat. It's a remarkably simple technique and just one of the many innovations in the film. The opening sea battle is as good as anything ever put on film and I only wish Curtiz had been given a movie like Fire Over England to make as a follow up since it picks up where The Sea Hawk leaves off, with England sending with a small fleet of scrappy fast ships against the fearsome Armada. In comparison the sinking of the Armada in Fire Over England looks like something my toddler would manage with his plastic boats in the bath tub. While it's true Curtiz only had to create a battle with two ships in the Sea Hawk, but I'm sure he could have pulled it off. I'd bet on anyone that could make Henry Daniell look like he's actually a great fencing master when in reality the man was famous for barely knowing how to hold a sword.

Friday, November 21, 2008

You Belong to Me: Almost as good as the real thing.

Sometimes a knock-off can almost as good as the real thing. Take those fake purses you can get everywhere. Everyone assumes if you are carrying a Louis Vitton bag that it is a fake (unless you are Sarah Palin's seven year old daughter) so you might as well buy the fake. In 1941, that's what Columbia pictures did with You Belong to Me a slight marriage comedy built entirely on the success of The Lady Eve and pumped it out only a few months later. It was an unfortunate fact of history that The Lady Eve was so popular that it was still playing in theaters when this movie came out. Still, The New York Times gave it a decent review because You Belong to Me is actually very funny and well-made. It's like opening up that fake purse and finding that bootleggers have gone to work on the inside too, making the thing work as well as the genuine article.

The story of You Belong to Me revolves around a lady doctor who falls in love with one of her patients. (I guess this is lady doctor week, eh? Stanwyck's Dr. Helen Hunt is another clothes horse lady doctor, a chip off Mary Stevens block.) The initial conceit of Fonda pretending to be sicker than he really is, gets old pretty fast. All great comedies know when to retire a joke and move on to the next as this one does. The movie really gets going in the second act after the wedding when Fonda becomes insanely jealous of Stanwyck's male patients. In his defense they are all ludicrously good-looking and have names like "Oily" and "Van."

It all winds up in a glorious mess with Fonda bursting into a party in a hat with branches coming out both sides, like antlers. I won't bother to take you through the succession of improbable misunderstandings that got us to such a gloriously wacky moment, but it's nice to know that such a moment exists. Fonda plays it to the hilt and Stanwyck plays it with a real, cool anger. On the car ride home she says in a her best Double Indemnity voice, "take those antlers off before someone takes a shot at ya."

It's enough that we just love both these stars and we love them together a lot. In that respect, You Belong to Me is the real deal. I think of My Favorite Wife, a movie that's very derivative of The Awful Truth but in many way almost as enjoyable because the thing we love most about the original movie is screen couple that carries it. Fonda and Stanwyck were together in Miss Manton (1938), The Lady Eve and finally You Belong to Me. The final movie, has the benefit of the experience of the previous two.

Apart from the charm of the leads, the movie was directed by capable Westley Ruggles (brother of Charlie) who was a veteran of several Mae West and Claudette Colbert Paramount comedies in the previous decade. The script was adapted by Claude Binyon, a frequent collaborator with Ruggles from a story by Dalton Trumbo. All this one still wouldn't be enough to make a great romantic comedy without a good supporting cast. Edgar Buchanon (perpetual side-kick from films like Penny Serenade and the Talk of the Town); Melville Cooper (also in The Lady Eve but best known to me as Mr. Collins from the original Pride and Prejudice); and Ruth Donnelly (Emma Hopper in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) all have big, juicy parts in this movie.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

First Comes Courage (1943)

Merle Oberon and Brian Aherne in the wartime spy drama, First Comes Courage (1943).

First Comes Courage is saved from being a rather forgettable bit of wartime propaganda by some interesting direction by Dorothy Arzner. Though it was dismissed in its day by critics as ordinary and mediocre, Arzner's talents as a director have been more greatly appreciated in hindsight. I think that First Comes Courage, her last movie, was more influential than even the revisionist feminist critics imagined.

One film that First Comes Courage seems to have influenced quite a bit is Alfred Hitchock's Notorious (1946). Though Notorious is admittedly a superior work in every respect, there are a number of plot similarities, at least one actor who plays a similar role in both films and a striking use of a wine cellar as suspense device. First Comes Courage is the story of a female underground agent, Nicole Larsen (Merle Oberon), in Norway who is willing to make love to a German officer (Carl Esmond) in order to gain valuable information. One evening while entertaining an important senior officer (Reinhold Schunzel, best known as "kind faced" Mr. Anderson from Notorious) her boyfriend begins to suspect that she is responsible for a series of raids. With her position threatened, the Allies send a former lover Allan Lowell (Brian Aherne) to assasinate the officer. Lowell's plan of attack and rescue is intricate to the point of ridiculous and its not a huge shock when it goes horribly wrong. Oberon and another member of the underground, a nurse in the prison ward in the hospital, manage to break Lowell out of jail and he hides out in her wine cellar. In one scene Oberon appears in the doorway of the cellar in a backlit sillouette that is an exact match to several of the wine cellar shots in Notorious.

To further dispel suspicion and to gain even greater access to information Oberon agrees to marry the German officer. Naturally this causes a bit of tension between the recently reunited couple. When Nicole's new husband realizes that she leaked information leading to a raid on a munitions plant he threatens to kill her in faked car accident. (Is any of this sounding familiar? Yeah, I thought so too. Poor Emil Hupka.) After the raid is successful Allen rushes to Nicole's house and shoots her husband before he can kill her. The pair move his body so that it looks like he was heroically killed in the raid. Allan begs Nicole to return to England with him but she refuses, reasoning that as the widow of a German war hero she will be more valuable than ever.

The script is a bit talky and Arzner's attempts to build suspense from it are not always successful. I can't help but think if Hitchcock was watching and taking notes, he thought of ways that he would have done things differently. For example, the audience doesn't know that Nicole and Allan are former lovers until after they are reunited on screen. I think the tension would have been far greater had we known that ahead of time. As it is the intercutting between Nicole and Allan's sides of the story seems a bit weird and jumpy. Despite these flaws, First Comes Courage is well worth watching if you get the chance.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Eye Candy of the Day: Destry Rides Again

Stewart and Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (1939). the pair were rumored to have had an affair during the making of this unforgettable Western. Image from Simply Classics.

Destry is a lively, well-acted western that is probably best remembered for the big cat fight scene between Dietrich and Una Merkel. Dietrich and Stewart have amazing chemistry together and one or two trashy Hollywood biographies have them hooking up for a doomed love affair that supposedly left Dietrich pregnant and heartbroken. Whatever the case, the film benefits from the sparks that fly whenever they are on screen.

Dietrich I've always felt was under-rated as actress because she has been so terribly over-rated as a style icon. Just because her looks foretold menswear-inspired fashion, Madonna, punk and post-punk doesn't mean she couldn't throw down when she needed to. Destry is one of her best performances: she sings, she cracks jokes, she kicks ass and she breaks hearts.

Jimmy Stewart has many great performances to his credit, but Destry has always been up there with Philly Story and Mr. Smith in my book. He plays a Sheriff in a crooked town who manages to clean up the stereotypical mob of bad guys mostly without guns. Stewart goes through the movie, with a bemused, laconic attitude. It's almost as if Dietrich's famously ironic tone wore off on him and he added it to his all-american bag of tricks.

Where would Courtney Love be without Destry Rides Again?

Director George Marshall made a lot of westerns, (including the 1955 remake called Destry) but Destry Rides Again doesn't feel like a typical turn in the genre. First of all, the solution to the town of Bottleneck's problems is that all the women band together to fight beside their men. Westerns are usually about the individual, they almost always champion a lone wolf who rides into town and vanguishes the bad guys only to disappear again. Destry is really the oppoosite of that. There is a bit of High Noon here, without the preachiness--the idea that people are collectively resposible for law and order and that evil can only thrive in an atmosphere of fear that Destry manages to mostly dispel with cleverness and humor. My big beef with Destry is the ending of course. It bugs me every time I watch it because Tom seems to forget Frenchy almost immediately. Other than the ending, I'd say it's a darn near perfect movie, so entertaining that for years I labored under the delusion that Howard hawks directed it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Mary Stevens M. D.

Kay Francis in what we can only assume is a sterile for surgery silk organza ruffle. Thanks to Trouble in Paradise for the image.

I was all set for Mary Stevens M.D. to be kind of campy. After all, it features Kay Francis in full-on clothes horse mode playing a lady doctor who changes nappies in to die for silk bias cut Orry Kelly gowns. And there is at least one scene in which I'm sure the studio employed a knitting double. Despite these conceits, Francis is really very believable as a driven professional woman who simply doesn't have time to sort out her personal life. In the opening scene, Mary Stevens arrives at a tenement apartment in a stunning wool travel ensemble only to be confronted with a stereotypically irate Italian man who grabs a machete and threatens to kill the lady doctor if she doesn't deliver a healthy child. After sending her driver out to boil water, Stevens calmly delivers healthy twins to the man, just as the police arrive to arrest the father, who responds to the whole situation by collapsing in a faint. She has an air of authority and even though don't really believe that she's in an actual tenement delivering actual twins (who are afterall movie babies, arriving clean and clothed in matching outfits) you believe her when she says that she says sarcastically, after the man has fainted, "You would [faint]. What do women know about having babies, anyway?"

Mary Stevens sets up her shingle with fellow doctor and boyfriend, Don Andrews (Lyle Talbot). The couple take on Glenda Farrell as wise-cracking side-kick and super nurse and things seem to be booming for their practice, except for the payment part, in Depressiona-era New York. Though Stevens is unfazed and undaunted by her lack of financial success Andrews wants money and an easy life. In short, he wants what he believes he is entitled to as a man whose been trained as a doctor. Perhaps because she's a woman, Stevens must work harder to make her dream of running her own pediatric clinic come true. Andrews departs for a cush job with the city's medical board and a wealthy fiancee with connections at city hall. Francis plays Mary Stevens as pained by the Andrews new relationship, but she keeps a brave face and a sense of humor about even to her best friend. Months into his marriage Andrews is drinking and missing work and Stevens who now occupies an office in the same building, notices. They take a long lunch one day where he proceeds to get drunk and then remembers suddenly that he has to do a surgery in a half and hour. Stevens drives him to work and then assists him in the operation, taking over when he realizes that he can't continue. This incident is enough that she severs her relationship with her ex-boyfriend. We next see Mary as she's working tirelessly in her clinic. After an especially long and difficult day, she's clipping articles from the newspaper and Farrell notices that she keeps a scrap book of articles about Don Andrews. After a soul-searching conversation Mary admits that she's still in love with him. Farrell insists that Mary go on vacation right away for some must needed rest, and to advance the plot of course. Mary books herself into a hotel in upstate New York where Don Andrews just happens to be lying low after an insurance fraud scandal. The pair are reunited and Mary becomes pregnant with Andrews's child.

In any post-code movie, it is difficult to imagine a woman having the reaction to this development that Stevens does: she's over the moon. She books a trip to Europe where she plans to travel and pretend to "adopt a baby." While Andrews is trying to extricate himself from his marriage and his crooked job, Stevens decides to keep the baby a secret. She confides in Farrel that has always wanted to become a mother and Farrel agrees to go with her to Europe to help her. Then Stevens tells a story about a "kid who was in my office the other day in my situation. She begged me to help her, but I convinced her that she should be a good sport about it and go through with it." The implication is that she talked the woman out of an abortion and that it would be hippocritical not to do the same herself. Even stronger is the sense that she is perfectly capable of raising a child on her own, especially when it seems that her baby daddy may never be free from his marriage. It wasn't so long ago in this country when a television show drew criticism for implying that a successful woman could have a baby on her own without a husband. Given the whole Murphy Brown/Dan Quayle culture war, Mary Stevens M.D. seems even further ahead of its time.

Things are going well for Stevens after the birth of Don junior when the baby contracts infant paralysis on the boat home from Europe. Despite her best efforts, with limited access to drugs at sea, Stevens is unable to save her own child. Francis is amazing in these scenes and those that follow where she tries to cope with this failure that not only takes her child but destroys her faith in her work, the thing she has been living for at the detriment to rest of her life, for years. The ending is classic "only in the movies" stuff, but still works given Francis' gifts as an actress. Stevens is about to jump out a window and kill herself when her doorman arrives saying that his child has swallowed a safety pin and is choking to death. Mary rushes to the boys aid and saves him using the only tool she has at hand, a hairpin. The camera zooms in for a close-up as she concludes, "they say medicine is a man's game, but I wonder what a man could do in that situation." What I love so much about this ending is that she was reunited with her ex boyfriend after arriving from New York, but it's not the relationship that saves her. It is her own skill and intelligence and her belief in her job that saves her. It is not that she's a great doctor despite being a woman. She's a great doctor because she's a woman. Mary Stevens M.D. says yes, a woman can have it all and still be a woman at the same time, fabulous wardrobe and all.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The business of marriage: Double Harness

Ann Harding plays a clever independent woman, Joan Colby, whose family has fallen on hard times in the Depression and who feels her age rapidly approaching the "Old Maid" barrier. She concocts a plan to marry a charming playboy, John Fletcher, (William Powell) who has so far avoided the minister like a matrimonial plague. Contrary to her plan to keep emotion out of the business of marriage she inevitably falls in love with her playboy. Were we not introduced to Harding's character first and like her so much we might not be entirely sympathetic to her scheme to force Powell to the alter by purposefully arranging to have her father catch her in his apartment wearing a nightgown. Harding states a plain truth that she doesn't really have any options. She doesn't have the sorts of talent that a respectable lady could use to support herself with and so her business has to be marriage to a man with a future.

Though the Double Harness of the title refers to a pair of horses yoked side by side as a metaphor for matrimony, it could as easily refer to the predicament that Harding finds herself in. As an attractive young woman of her class, she has had plenty of opportunities to dine with men alone in their apartments and in doing so, to audition for the role of wife. As a respectable young lady, she hasn't taken any of those opportunities, because she hasn't liked any of those men well enough to risk her reputation on them. Her double harness is the damned if she does, damned if she doesn't situation of single women through the ages. In code era films, such a dilemma could not be as honestly stated nor treated as realistically. Joan certainly enjoys going to Flethcher's apartment for weeks before she springs her trap. For a few days she convinces herself that she likes John Fletcher just enough to trick him into that harness. After she falls in love with him, she changes her plan. Now she simply must marry him in order to save him from his lazy, decadent lifestyle. Colby's certain she can do something for him and so manages to rationalize the whole misadventure. Had she married anyone less affable and pliable than a William Powell character, the whole thing would have ended in disaster. She would have nagged him to work and he would have ignored her and eventually come to resent her.

Ann Harding is a very obviously smart woman which comes through in her acting. Sadly, she had almost no post-code career. Like Kay Francis, she took smaller and smaller roles until she retired. It's sad that audiences just didn't want what she offered. Some found her too mannered, and others probably didn't think her quite pretty enough. Certainly comparing her to the other smart, younger actresses of that era,your Myrna Loys, your Jean Arthurs, Ann had a softer more old-fashioned kind of look. (It didn't help that she always wore her hair in a librarian bun). It's too bad because I think she could have been really good in a fast-talking comedy.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Eye Candy of the Day: Strangers on a Train

Farley Granger and Kasey Rogers in Strangers on a Train (1951).

I didn't appreciate until yesterday, just how visually arresting this Hitchcock film is. From the murder reflected in the victim's pair broken glasses to the noirish gleam given to our nation's capitol, this is one Hitchock's most beautifully made movies. The story of an ambitious young man with political aspirations and dreams of the golden girl who is inconveniently tied to a woman he wants to be rid of, is reminiscent of A Place in the Sun which came out the same year. Ruth Roman who plays Granger's love interest even reminds me a bit of Elizabeth Taylor. While A Place in the Sun has all around superior performances from the actors, and probably a better script, Strangers on a Train is one of Hitchock's most concentrated and successful efforts at building an atmosphere of suspense. In one scene a lone figure standing on the steps of the Lincoln memorial in stark broad daylight is reminiscent of the dreamscapes from Spellbound. We see the figure from Granger's perspective, never knowing whether or not the figure is psychopath Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker).

Walker's performance is chilling in its intensity. The young actor was briefly hospitalized for a nervous breakdown before making the movie and committed suicide shortly after production finished while working on the feircly paranoid anti-communist polemic, My Son John (1952). The context of the Red Scare is part of the tense feelings in Strangers as well. Though it is a-political, the movie is set in Washington and the protagonist is a young man working in the office of a prominent Senator. The fear of scandal hangs over most of his decisions and prolong his troubles. In another scene he sits in a dark suit in a crowd full of tennis fans clad in white. As we watch their heads moving mechanically left to right with the match, Walker looks straight into the camera which moves quickly in on his face. It's one of those terrifying forward camera moves that Hitchcock would use most famously in Psycho (1960) and Vertigo (1958), but perfected in Strangers on a Train.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Child of Manhattan

Adorable Nancy Carroll as Madelaine McGonegle in Child of Manhattan.

After a long week-end in New york, I was attracted by the title of this movie. Child of Manhattan (1933) is a pre-code drama starring Nancy Carrol and John Boles as the richest man in New York, Paul Venderkill, falling in love with a taxi dancer. Nancy Carol works at Loveland a dime a dance "ballroom" on 29th street and 6th avenue in Chelsea. Vanderkill's family is building a huge set of apartments in the neighborhood (in 1930 the Settlement housing in Chelsea was the largest in the cities' history). He's gone to check out the dance hall to ease the conscience of his aunt to make sure the place is respectable. He meets Madelaine McGonegle who lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. When she finds out his name, she laughs and says "that's a phone exchange, not a name," not realizing that the phone exchange is named after his family.

Child of Manhattan is a curious movie, part melodrama, part comedy and romance. It mixes the low comedy of immigrants with funny accents brushing up against old money in a way that mirrors the history of the city after which its named. The child in Child of Manhattan is a love child who dies shortly after birth, but it could as easily refer to the whole relationship between rich and poor that movie explores. When Vanderkill takes his new girlfriend to buy her clothes, she balks at the prices and the looseness of the gowns. Her taste run to tight and cheap, available she informs him from shops in the garment district for $4.98 and up.

Vanderkill, though he loves Madelaine does not consider marrying her and she takes that fact as a given and doesn't seem to want to or expect to push for a wedding. When her mother finds out that she is being kept by Vanderkill she throws her out of the house. (Watch for a very young Betty Grable, who plays Madelaine's little sister.) This pre-code arrangement works fine until Madelaine gets pregnant and Vanderkill decides to do the honorable thing by her.

Child of Manhattan has an undercurrent of social satire that I didn't expect from this relatively straight-forward melodrama. This is surely owing to its source material, a play by Preston Sturges, which was a success on Broadway the previous year. Jessie Ralph plays "Aunt Minnie" a sort of agony aunt to all the firls at Loveland, who dispenses common sense, in between taking belts of the hard stuff from a flask in her garter. Ralph played the role played the role on Broadway as well and this performance marks the first talkie in a long career as a character actress in Hollywood. Aunt Minnie, apart from making amusing mistakes with English "you could knock me over with a fender," is one of three older females who influence the story. The second is Mrs. McGonagle who paradoxically kicks her daughter out of the house for being a tramp but smacks her unsympathitic bum of a son for implying that his sister is a tramp. Speaking of Madelaine's brother, there is a scene where he asks her for money, whining that he's unemployed and that there are "better men than me out of work." Madelaine snaps back "there are better men than you in prison." The third older female is the aunt requests Vanderkill to go to Loveland in the first place to salve her conscience. It's telling that her first instinct is to shut the place down until Vanderkill reminds her how much they collect in rent from the operation. the presence or absence of money infuses everything in the movie, and though it was written and produced early in the Depression, it has an awareness that greed and generosity are to be found in all classes in equal amounts.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Lovely to Look At: Roberta

Ginger Rogers sings the intro to Hard to Handle in Roberta. In this scene, Ginger sports a ridiculous fake Russian accent though she is supposed to be from Indiana. (Irene Dunne who is supposed to be from Russia might as well be from Indiana.)

Though the movie is jam-packed with spectacular gowns, this is my favorite outfit. Ain't she just adorable?

What can you say about a movie so bursting with talent and entertainment that two hours can scarcely contain it? Well, you could just say "Roberta" and anyone whose seen it will know what you mean. Roberta is funny enough to stand as a comedy without singing or dancing and entertaining enough as a musical that it could be half as funny and still work. Throw in gorgeous Art Deco gowns enough for twenty movies and you have the eye candy of the century.

The ogling begins with Randolph Scott as the male object of desire who makes girls go giddy with the sheer bulk of his charm. I've always had a soft spot for Randy, due to his friendship with Cary Grant and his work in movies like My Favorite Wife. Pairing him with Irene Dunne, my favorite Cary co-star, has the feel of a bit of a family reunion of sorts. Scott and Dunne have a fun hick meets chic chick chemistry that is reminiscent of Ralph Bellamy and Dunne in the Awful Truth. I kept half-expecting Cary Grant to burst in, do a pratfall and win the girl. Really, that would be the only way you could improve on this already awesome movie.

Roberta marks the first-ever Rogers and Astaire movie I've ever seen. I loved it. Though, they weren't the leads in this movie, and take second-billing to Dunne and Scott, it is easy to see why they became the immortal legends they did. Their interactions are so easy and fun and their dancing is so seemingly effortless. My favorite number is Hard to Handle, in which Ginger almost seems to melt into Fred as they move around the stage. The band the so-called Wabash Indianians are no slouches either. Two years earlier, Bob Hope and George Murphy had starred in the Broadway version of Roberta. The producers of the film decided to combine their characters into the Huck Haines character played by Fred Astaire. They also removed a couple of numbers and added two discarded Jermome Kern songs "I Won't Dance" and "Lovely to Look At" which became more popular than any songs in the original version. I don't keep good record of such things, but this may be one of the few instances in which a film improved on stage play.