Saturday, February 28, 2009

Duel in the Sun (1946)

I watched this move months ago now and I still don't know what to make of it. It was too dark to be "lurid, stupid fun" (as one web critic put it on Rotten Tomatoes) and too over-blown and backward to be the ahead of it's time Jeremiad on racism that it aimed to be.

Still, there is much to admire in Duel in the Sun. Gregory Peck gives a first rate performance as the bad son who winds up loving Jennifer Jones to death. For her part, she plays the confused, conflicted "half breed" with a nice mixture of sultry and sweet. The victim of racism, rape and just plain bad luck, she ends up loosing the love of good son, Joseph Cotton and is left to the mercy of the bad one. Turns out mercy just really isn't his style.

The movie comes to a bloody, twisted end in the titular duel, with Jennifer Jones arriving in gauchos on a horse (I love movies where women wear gauchos, which is why I mention it...) to seemingly save Peck who is on the lam for shooting Joseph Cotten (also in the sun, but that is less than a duel). When Peck shows his lovely, unshaven face, she pulls out a rifle and blows him away. He shoots her back because, gosh darn it, that really hurt! They spend the next ten minutes dragging their bloodied half dead bodies toward one another to die in one another's arms. Man, somebody involved in writing this picture must have just gotten out of a really bad relationship. I have a soft spot for fatalistic love stories like this and any movie where a guy is so hot that you stay with him even though you know he will probably be the death of you, is one that I can't resist.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Of lingerie models and leering boyfriends

Anita Page (right) and Bessie Love pre-pare for a bath in The Broadway Melody (1929).

I watched a trio of Anita Page movies from the early pre-code era recently: The Broadway Melody, Skyscraper Souls and Our Blushing Brides. Anita Page wasn't a great actress but she was a memorable presence on screen. She made her biggest impact in the silent era with Our Dancing Daughters (pre-curser to Our Blushing Brides) and the transition into sound was seemingly easy for her. She is natural and easy-going in her talkies, though sometimes she seems to loose the screen to more forceful actors, like co-star Joan Crawford. In all three of these movies Page plays a woman that men like to look at, whether on a broadway stage, modeling lingerie or standing behind a perfume counter, she is always the eye candy that pays the bills for some man. And there is always a stage-door johnny type ready to load her up with jewelry and furs and empty promises. While her more famous co-star, Joan Crawford, always played the good girl in these situations, Page got to be the girl who lets her foot slip once in a while.

The Broadway Melody (1929) was a very popular movie in its day but it is maddeningly slow and the musical numbers feel distant and uninspiring. I'm willing to forgive this clunkiness as a side effect of its being one of the first full-length talkies. The central relationship in the movie between Queenie (Anita Page) and her sister, Hank (Bessie Love) is just a bit weird. Queenie is in love with Eddie (Charles King) but he is engaged to Hank. For Hank's part she seems more obsessed with her sister than her boyfriend. Queenie has to choose between a producer named Jock Warriner (a thinly disguised Jack Warner) that wants to keep her in high style and low morals and her sister's beau. What's a good girl to do? Apparently the answer is to walk around in her underclothes a lot. Queenie goes so far as to take a bath in her underwear, which has to be one of the most bizarre thing I've seen in a pre-code film.

In Our Blushing Brides (1930) Anita Page plays Connie a department store clerk who is having an affair with the owner's son (Raymond Hackett). Her roommate, Joan Crawford works in the same store but prefers to keep the owner's other son (Robert Montgomery) at arm's length. Things don't turn out well for Anita's character as her boyfriend keeps her on the side while continuing to juggle society dames. Joan Crawford has one flirtatious encounter after another with Montgomery until you wish they would fall in love already. Their romance mostly takes place in his unreal, only-in-the-movies tree house complete with electric lights, telephone and mechanically descending staircase. One of his favorite tricks is to bring women up there and pull up the stairs so they can't leave. Charming. Crawford and Page also model for the department store (naturally) so that is what gives the excuse for them to be changing clothes perpetually. I don't think they invented those changing screens (you know the kind where the woman ducks behind and shortly afterward you see her dress slung over the top of the screen, followed by her stockings) until 1934.

In Skyscraper Souls, Anita Page mixes it up a bit: she plays a lingerie model and a prostitute who turns tricks for extra pocket money and to bail out her friends from financial disaster. (Click here for full review of Skyscraper Souls.) This clever bit of scripting gives Anita double the chances to undress before the camera. In the end she winds up going straight and marrying the only man in the Dwight Building that hasn't been paying her to see her in the altogether.

I really enjoyed all three of these movies, each in their own way and Anita Page is certainly entertaining and of, course, watchable in all of them.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Another beautiful ensemble: The Big Chill

Blogging about two ensemble movies, The Women and The Jane Austen Book Club, got me thinking about my favorite ensemble film of all time, The Big Chill (1983). . Every character is pitch perfect and their chemistry together and their improvised jokes sell the idea that these people really have known each other forever. Writer-director, Lawrence Kasdan rented houses in a remote resort community in South Carolina in the off season. The cast members had nothing to do for a month but rehearse their parts, improv and hang out together building a rapport. Kasdan filmed most of the movie in one location which allowed them to do all the scenes in chronological order, a rare thing in the film industry. The basic premise is that a group of college friends gathers for a funeral of Alex, a character we never see except as a corpse at the beginning of the movie. Alex's girlfriend, (Meg Tilly above, left) is the one person that is not a Baby Boomer.

To talk about the movie in depth, I've decided to try something new for Cinema OCD, a pic spam. (Click here to see Part One, which I posted in my livejournal rather than make my whole blog really hard to load.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Dracula '79

Night Fever: Frank Langella oozes an oily charm as Dracula. His seductions are aided by the smoke machine that follows him around.

This movie came up in my Tivo's fortnightly scan for Laurence Olivier. Though this is a dangerous period for his films since he was in the habit of acting for anyone who paid him to help abate personal debt, I thought it would give it shot since it also stars Frank Langella who is in the news these days because of Frost/Nixon. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Dracula (1979) wasn't as cheaply made or poorly acted as I expected. To the contrary, the whole cast is excellent, the script, though not true to Bram Stoker, is at least intelligent and the production values are first-rate.

Director John Badaham (Saturday Night Fever) has a leaden touch when it comes to creating a gothic atmosphere with a gloomy washed out color pallet, acres of spiderwebs, bug eating coffin bearers and an elaborate insane asylumn set. Sometimes his effects connect with the viewer to produce genuine horror, such as the scenes of the madhouse in an electrical storm or Dracula crawling up and down buildings, but other times it all just a bit much. The most successful aspect of the movie is the relationship between Dracula and his intended victim/bride Lucy (Kate Nelligan). The pair have genuine chemistry and when she arrives at his run-down abbey for an ill-advised dinner the mood shifts from spooky to romantic.

The script moves the setting from Victorian era forward twenty or thirty years to the the early twentieth century to give more a leeway to turn Lucy into a headstrong, modern heroine. Trevor Eve gives a subtle performance as Lucy's fiancee, Jonathan Harker, who can't quite wrap his Edwardian man-brain around the fact that his girl would prefer to sleep in a coffin with the undead than wait out their long engagement.

As I watching the movie I got the feeling that I had seen it before. The love scene with Dracula in Lucy's room with its cheesy effects sequence seemed familiar. After a bit of research, I think I was remembering Love at First Bite (1979) which had a comic version of this scene. The spoof film had an inspired piece of ironic casting with supernaturally tan George Hamilton as the Count.

Eye Candy of the Day: The Curious Case of Mr. Chips

With the Curious Case of Benjamin Button walking away with the Best Special Effects Oscar last night, I thought it was time to dig out Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939) as another example of a movie where a man goes from old to young and then slowly back to very old in the space of two hours. The make-up in this movie was excellent. It wasn't until a half an hour in that I realized the actor playing Chips was the very dashing Robert Donat (The Thirty-nine Steps). He appears briefly as a young man, clean shaven, much as you see him above. Though by the time he catches up with Greer Garson, he is middle aged and wearing a shaggy unkempt mustache and some fairly convincing lines around his eyes. He spends about 75% of the movie as an old man and Donat's characterization of the spry, springy Chips is really convincing. Donat deservedly won the best actor award for his emotional transformation from a shy, tired man, always on the edge of the action to an energetic force for good. Chips' revolution is one of tea and cake and good humor, but those things were sorely lacking in his environment and they make a difference.

I have avoided this movie because it is spectacularly maudlin but I tend to forget that at its heart beats a really sweet love story. Garson and Donat are lovely together. Mr Chips meets his wife while hiking in the mountains in Switzerland. They are trapped together in a fog and the altitude allows the shy, overly-Victorian Chips to actually put the moves on her. Garson's character is very modern, a fact which the movie eases into place by labeling her a revolutionary. One of the truly delightful scenes in the movie has Chips introducing her to his stuffy colleagues at Brookfield school. Expecting a much older woman, they fall over themselves trying to impress her. It's nice to see poor Chipsy get some respect after always being the good sport in the movie.

It doesn't last long, though and the movie morphs into a wartime tale of an elderly man being useful in a time of crisis. Of course this is to be expected given the year the movie was made, but the film has a very dark take on the theme as boys who are one day in boaters and short pants are the next being referred to in a roll call of WWI dead. I was reminded of my visit to Cary Grant's school in Bristol and how there is plaque there filled with the names of dozens of former students killed in action who were just a few years older than Archie Leach.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

New movies in the media room

I have a mess of movie reviews to catch up, so I'm posting some of them in the media room.


A Star is Born (1937) & What Price Hollywood (1932)

The 1930s should be in black and white. It's just plain odd to see a 1930s film in color. The exceptions to this are Gone with the Wind and Wizard of Oz, both 1939. It just feels weird to see the young Frederich March in technicolor. The power of the art deco sets and costumes is lost when its rendered not in silver bur a lot of green and brown. If there's one thing I learned from watching A Star is Born, it's that brown was a far more popular color in 1937 than I imagined. This gripe aside, this movie is undeniably a classic, only lessened slightly by the fact that I had just watched George Cukor's smart version of this story, What Price Hollywood, a few days before.

Fredric March is always great and he especially shines in the early part of the film, playing an actor who drinks too much and is unhappy with his girlfriend. One night he meets an ambitious waitress (Janet Gaynor) who treats him humanely. March is drunk and he ends up getting her fired, so he gets her a screen test to make up for the trouble he's caused her. She becomes an overnight sensation, while his career sinks into oblivion. His low point comes when he humiliates her at the Academy Awards ceremony with a drunken tirade. Afterward he disappears on a long bender while his wife and few remaining friends fear for his life. He returns and she pledges to give up acting to help him get sober. Unable to face being the cause of ending her career he commits suicide by walking into the sea.

In What Price Hollywood, Lowell Sherman plays the drunk, this time a director and Constance Bennett plays the waitress turned star. This story is complicated by a love triangle between Bennet, Lowell and Bennett's polo playing husband (Neil Hamilton). Cukor is a romantic comedy master and he creates a very romantic and funny foundation for the polo player and the Hollywood glamor gal. As their marriage falls apart Bennett is consumed with caring for her alcoholic friend who has fallen from grace at the studio. The question is never overtly raised but it seemed clear to me that this toxic friendship is as much a cause for her divorce as demands of her career. His suicide is handled in a way that lets the viewer believe that he was trying to keep from being a burden on his friends.

Hollywood's view of itself is always slightly strange, because it is always critical of the system that makes stars and spits them out when its had its merry way with them and yet the movies never do much to deflate the dream of overnight stardom. In fact they do just the opposite as in both films, the women are working dead-end jobs and their dreams come true with seemingly little effort. Although the dreams come with a price they still reinforced that fairytale. In the 30s contract players had a yearly option at which time the studio could decide not to continue employment. An off take at the box office or the wrong move in front of the press could end a career. Actors were never really secure and even the biggest stars were vulnerable to changeable tastes and the whims of executives. Many of the stars who rose to the top in the pre-code era, lost their audience when the code came in and dumbed down their movies, just as the stars who had been big in the silent era seemed to fade when sound came through, proving that talent and star quality, what ever it may be, is a tradeable commodity.

The Phantom Menace (1999)

This movie is ten years old. Wow. Ten years since George Lucas went from creator of beloved universe to "childhood memory rapist" as some of the most disappointed fans put it. Ten years since the greatest confluence of hype and mediocrity in the history of cinema. Had Lucas made a decent movie in that ten years, all would be have been forgiven, but sadly the other to "prequel" movies were just as deeply flawed in different ways as "Episode One."

Phantom Menace was always my favorite of the prequels because though it is long, uneven, busy, overblown and creaky it had a few advantages over the later installments. The twenty year hiatus allowed Lucas to indulge the audience a bit in seeing the origins of characters from the original trilogy. The later installments do this as well, but it seemed more ok, somehow to indulge in this one. The first time R2 saves the day, a character actually shouts, "that little droid did it!" Moments like that worked for me in 1999 and they are still fun. Phantom Menace also has Liam Neeson, which the later films do not. By being the first Jedi in his prime that we'd seen, fans finally got to do more than just dip their toe in lightsaber fights, mind tricks and that special combination of kung fu and pseudo religion that we'd been teased with in the original trilogy.

I dragged Episode One out recently because my kid plays with my Star Wars toys and he has taken a shine to a twelve inch figure of Qui Gon. He was so happy to find out that there was a "Qui Gon movie" as he calls it, that I dug it out for him, even though I was pretty sure it was a little old for him. Maybe it's just not old enough since he was bored a great deal. He watches Cars which is just as long and more character-driven. He liked certain action set pieces, but there are too many talky meeting scenes that aren't really made any more bearable by the fact that the people in them are crazy long-necked aliens. They still suffer from Dam Busters syndrome.

The effects were a major selling point of the movie and I think they still hold up. I'm no huge expert in this area, though. I still watch the unadulterated Original Trilogy (no special editions, thank you) without being bothered by the effects. Heck I watch Errol Flynn movies and am not bothered by the effects. The film is busy, but not as cluttered as the last two installments in the prequel trilogy.

George Lucas really only has one way of ending a movie. An outnumbered squadron of underdogs must blow something up (a death star, a shield generator, a control ship, a series of Dams that provide hydroelectric power for Nazi Germany....oh wait, that was Dam Busters again) before a bunch of other characters get wiped out. There will be spectacular effects as the squad moves through a purpose-built landscape that only exists to give some variety for the matte painters and to tantalize the viewer with how spectacular it all is. This may sound harsh, but I really mean it as a compliment. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies are to dancing on improbable staircases what Jedi Knights are to fighting in reactor cores. Any franchise with a successful formula has to simply shuffle the elements and give the people what they want. In that respect, The Phantom Menace is more of a success than a failure.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Song is Born

I've had A Song is Born (1948) in my tivo queue for more than a year. I don't know why I've overlooked watching it till now. I recorded it because it was a young Danny Kaye movie and I've always loved young Danny Kaye. I started watching it, with my usual twenty minute rule--if a movie doesn't hook me in that time, I turn it off. In the first twenty seconds I was intrigued because it looked like it was filmed on the Ball of Fire (1941) set. It took me another ten minutes or so to realize that A Song is Born is a technicolor musical remake of Ball of Fire, my favorite Gary Cooper movie. It was directed by Howard Hawks who made the original as well.

The script sticks very close to the original except that instead of creating a general encyclopedia, the professors are working on a complete history of music with a set of reference recordings. One of the professors is played by Benny Goodman and the group of musicians who drop by to help with the project are a who's who of Big Band Jazz. In one scene Goodman sits in on a jam session, pretending to know nothing about jazz. Lionel Hampton tells him that they all play without sheet music, just like Benny Goodman, to which the professor replies, "Never heard of him."

Danny Kaye and Virgina Mayo play the parts made immortal by Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. Mayo has that breezy, sexy way of singing and relating to the older professors that makes the movie crackle and kaye is adorable as usual. Kaye gets an added scene of typical nonsense. After he realizes he's in love with Miss Honey he eats breakfast, stirring jam in his coffee with a dill pickle, putting mustard on cake, etc. Happily its a short scene. As brilliantly funny as he is, he never seems to know when to end a gag.

Though the script sticks close to the original, some of the dialog is mangled in a Song is Born. Some scenes have been updated or cut down to make room for the musical numbers while later references are in tact from the original script. This would be a bit confusing if you hadn't practically had the original memorized as I do. You can see why they decided to remake this a musical. It makes sense since the fugitive from justice is a nightclub singer and the original has a very memorable musical sequence "Drum Boogie" which feature Gene Krupa on the matchbox.

Even though I think the story flows a bit better in the musical version, I still prefer Ball of Fire. Cooper and Stanwyck have amazing chemistry and the love scenes in A Song is Born are a bit flat in comparison. I found myself anxiously waiting for the next musical set piece rather than enjoying the romantic interaction between Honey and the Professor. Perhaps the problem is that in original, Cooper was playing against type and in the remake Danny Kaye is more or less playing Danny Kaye. Which is more romantic, finding Gary Cooper buried away under layers of dust in old mansion or finding Danny Kaye in the same circumstance?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Quaker Bad Boys: Friendly Persuasion

Is there any movie that Gary Cooper can't save? I've wondered that for a while now, and I think after seeing Friendly Persuasion, we have a definitive "no." This could have been a earnest, insufferable "message picture", with its Pat Boone soundtrack and teenage angst but somehow the presence of Coop elevates it to light, comic gold. It is also helped by a thoughtful script which poses the topic of pacifism in a more intelligent and in-depth way that the more famous Oscar-winning Sargent York. To be fair Sargent York could not have been made during the Second World War and given us any other answer to the question than it did.

Jess (Gary Cooper) and Eliza (Dorothy McGuire) Birdwell are Quakers struggling to keep their religious views in the midst of the civil war. They manage this by compromising a lot with their kids, their church and their neighbors. That is to say they stay Quakers by being lousy Quakers. Their eldest son Josh (pre-Psycho teen hearthrob Tony Perkins) wants to enlist to fight against slavery which the Quakers oppose. Their daughter Mattie (Phyllis Love) is in love with the nice neighbor boy who happens to be in the Union Army and a Methodist. Their youngest seems to be perpetually scrapping and even their pet goose is a badass. The Birdwells' response to this tension is to try to reason with and convince their children to follow the right path. They use persuasion. Get it, "friendly" persuasion as in "Quaker friends." Ha.

I loved this movie because it has such a sane response to teenagers. What other movie from the fifties can you think of where the parents aren't the enemy? Rather than forbid and punish they allow them to make their own mistakes, trusting that they've given them enough in the way of example and discipline that they will find their way back. Jess seems to be dealing with his own issues with his religion. His wife is a minister but he's a bit of Quaker bad boy. He buys a fancy organ even though music is forbidden, he gets in the occasional "altercation," he drops his "thees" and "thous" at will and he trades for a fast horse so he can show up his neighbor. In one scene his daughter and her suitor are up in the attic playing the forbidden organ when the church elders drop by for an unannounced visit. He covers up the noise with especially voiciferous praying that is really only a gorgeous Gary Cooper eyelash away from blasphemy.

Friendly Persuasion has a liberal slant that I would expect more from the seventies than the fifties. Mattie is full of faith and pride but a little male attention sends her running down the road barefoot in a wantonly display of hatless unQuakerly behavior. Her parents let it slide. If the Birdwells aren't letter of the law Quakers they're not very good Victorians either. Jess has an interesting way of dealing with marital discord that is pure Gary Cooper. He uses sex. The disagreement over the organ has Eliza sleeping in the barn out of protest. So Jess puts the kids to bed early and goes out there himself. The next we see of the couple it's morning and they are cheerful, disheveled and Jess has hay all over his shirt. It's refreshing to see a movie from any era where married people have sex and its a normal healthy thing.

When the war comes to their peaceful, idyllic community Josh decides to enlist in the home guard. Neighbors who were letter of law Quakers loose everything and join the fight out of bitterness. Fearing for Josh's life, Jess goes after him leaving Eliza to guard the homestead. She manages to preserve the place by offering the Rebels absurd quantities of home-cooked food and beating one of them with a broom when he gets wrong ideas about her pet goose. When Jess catches up with Josh he finds the boy popping Rebel Raiders at a rate of proficiency that would make Alvin York proud. It helps that Josh feels really crappy about it. Jess manages to turn the other cheek in a near fatal altercation. Compromises are made but the family remains. The kids are alright after all.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What a darling ensemble!

I'm pretty confused about female friendships after watching Jane Austen Book Club and The Women (1939) in the same day. Are my female friends horrified by my personal calamities or secretly thrilled by them? Are they the wind beneath my wings or the knife in my back? The classic 1939 film maintains that most women are a pack of gossiping, shrewish harpies whose main pleasure is to shop and send the bills to their husbands who are so busy having affairs with perfume counter girls that they don't notice another $250 nightgown (in 1939 money!) more or less. The 2007 film maintains that women become instantly bonded over the smallest triviality (a favorite author) and spend the rest of their lives bucking each other up with a steady diet of reading Jane Austen, wine-drinking and Ugg-wearing. That I have female friends that remind me of characters from both movies only adds to the confusion.

Here's the thing about these staggeringly different "chick flicks:" I really loved both of them because of all of the amazing ensemble acting. I'm a total sucker for ensemble acting. The Big Chill is one of my favorite movies of all time though I have little interest in the 1960s or the lives of self-obsessed yuppies who went to college in the sixties. Give me a movie where a bunch of actors get enough room to really create characters and even if their interactions are hopelessly contrived (as in both The Women and The Jane Austen Book Club) and I'm all over it.

Here are a few of the highlights:

Rosalind Russell
in the Women is a revelation even for this Ros Russell fan. She's over the top loathsome and catty and though she was a gorgeous glamorous woman she was completely willing to lookunattractive in this film. The ingenious costuming always includes extra tall ugly hats and fussy ruffles is designed to make Russell looks as awkward as possible. Compare her to star Norma Shearer who was actually a little bit frumpy in this movie until the final scenes and to Joan Crawford who benefits from the femme fatale wardrobe she's given. Speaking of wardrobe, The Women has about 15 minutes of amazing filler in the form of a technicolor fashion show. These are some of the most hilriously odd clothes I've ever seen in my life. The recent remake of the film has the main character, Mary Haines, as a fashion designer. I like how the original film skewers the world of fashion, the absurdity, the expense and the snobbishness. And then of course it turns around and gives you fifteen minutes of clothing eye candy.

Emily Blunt in Jane Austen book Club is excellent as the tightly wound "time bomb" Prudie who has serious mommy issues and a thing for one of her high school students. She also has the most amazing clothes, which stand in stark contrast to the other "hippy handcraft" wearing members of the club.

Paulette Goddard stands out in a critical but small part in The Women. I love her advice to Mary Haines, "You forgot to lick her in the one place it counts. In his arms. And if I know men that's still Custer's last stand." And then she goes on to have the film's one genuine cat fight, with Rosalind Russell. Awesome.

Hugh Dancy plays the lone male member of the book club. He's a sci fi nerd who is attracted to one of the members and so ends up reading all of Jane Austen as well as the Mysteries of Udolpho just to get her attention. Stunt reading. Look ma, no cliff's notes. I love his take on "Mansfield Park," that it's a reverse Empire Strikes Back, because the brother and sister get together at the end.

It would take a much longer blog post than I really feeling like doing right now to go into depth about either of these movies. They are both vacuous, enjoyable and have a way of distracting and soothing the way a good chic flic should.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Eye Candy Generator: Olivier and Leigh

I love Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh so it was an extra big treat treat to find a huge cache of high-rez photos of them on the Life Magazine website. This is stage performance of Anthony and Cleopatra. Ya gotta love the giant pharoh's head set piece in the background. This must have been a matinee blockbuster of a play. So many of time machine fantasies involve going back and watching plays, it's not even funny.

Life Magazine has their entire photo archive online in high resolution for free. If you have any interest in old movie stars at all you will probably spend hours as I did, coming through thousands of unpublished photographs drooling like mad.

A couple of other pieces of housekeeping:

My podcast roster continues to grow. I have just recently found the awesomely funny Bugle podcast which reminds me of a combination of Monty Python, the Daily Show and the old Firesign Theater show, Nick Danger. Comparatively less funny, but perhaps of interest since it's is movie-related, Doug Benson: I Love Movies.

The Misdaventures of Margaret is on Youtube. Now you can see the misguided remake of the Awful Truth without wasting a Netflix rental on it.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

I can't give you anything but love, Baby!

Happy Valentines Day my fellow cinematic obsessives. I have, for the sake of the occasion, my all-time favorite film, Bringing Up Baby. Yes, it's a movie with roaring leopards, barking dogs, tumbling dinosaurs and a shocking disregard for firearm safety, but it's also my idea of romantic.

Part of what makes Bringing Up Baby so romantic is that it is very old-fashioned. I say that not because it's 71 years old, but because it harkens back to a more innocent time than 1938. From the tin pan alley origins of its theme song to it's breezy college prank plotting, Bringing Up Baby feels more like something out of the twenties than the thirties. And with Cary Grant in full-on Harold Lloyd mode, it's difficult not to recall The Jazz Age. Indeed the screenplay is based a humorous short story from the previous decade. The problems of the characters are those of care-free, self-absorbed rich folks, the sort of ridiculous catastrophes that marked P.G. Woodehouse's best work.

Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) falls in love with a quiet zoologist, David Huxley (Cary Grant), who is trying to woo her aunt for a million dollar donation to his museum. She makes up her mind to deter him from marrying another woman by scheming to get him to help her take her leopard up to her farm in Conneticut. Plot complications such a psychiatrist who believes Susan is a kleptomaniac, an incessantly barking dog (Asta) who steals a "rare" and "precious" dinosaur bone and a "baaaad" leopard escaped from the circus, all click into place at exactly the moment they are needed. The dialog is as fast-paced as it is slyly funny and the entire cast of rock solid RKO studio players (May Robson, Charles Ruggles, Barry Fitzgerald, and Walter Catlett) are up to the challenge of delivering it. Add to that mix Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, a comic team who literally move together as one being in the famous torn coat/torn dress sequence, and you have nothing less than the funniest movie of all time. All that might be enough to make it one of my favorites, but it wouldn't explain to you why I've saved this movie for Valentine's Day.

Bringing Up Baby has served over the years as a bit of manifesto for me. It shows us action is needed and ethics mostly unimportant when what is stake is one's entire happiness. Susan Vance practically kidnaps a man she's met twice in order to keep him around long enough to make him fall in love with her. As Susan explains to her aunt who is curious to know why a rude, naked man is wandering around in her house in a negligee, "If he gets some clothes, he'll go away and he's the only man I've ever loved!" David Huxley is a shy, awkward bookish fellow trapped in the body of a movie star. The man he changes in to at the end of the film--brave, quietly amusing, romantic--is purely Susan's creation. The scene where she drags the snarling "bad" leopard to the jail is a visual metaphor for the way she drags David out of his shell and makes him into a lion tamer. Put another way, there are two lessons to be learned from Bringing up Baby: 1) all is fair in love and war. 2) never leave your keys in your car.

The movie is also very romantic in its Midsummers Night's Dream of a setting. The bulk of the action takes place on a moonlit evening in the woods in June. Susan must be her own Oberon, but there is also the feeling that Fate is right behind her filling in with screwball schemes of its own whenever it appears that David might make his matrimonial date with the aptly named Miss Swallow. The tune "I Can't Give You Anything but Love Baby" not only captures the old fashioned romance, but it is also integral to plot, as it is said to have a calming effect on the leopard. As such David and Susan must roam the countryside singing a fair bit of their dialog to the tune and memorably wind up howling it along with George and Baby under the psychiatrist's window. There is a music to the rhythm of the dialog as well. David's chorus is "be with you in a minute Mister Peabody" and Susan's is "everything is going to be alright." One could make a fairly deadly drinking game out of just the repetition of those two lines of dialog, but I prefer to think of them as a quirky but beautiful love song.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Movie Justice: Skyscraper Souls

All the better to see you with my dear. Warren William plays the big bad wolf to Margaret O'Sullivan's Little Red Riding Hood.

Earlier this week our new President declared that the heads of companies who were going to take government bailout money were going to have a salary cap of $500,000 a year. He said that the level of executive compensation was "shameful." Since these titans of industry had no shame for the wreck they made of our economy, the new head of government was going to teach them a bit of humility. During the Great Depression, the legend has it that shame for their failure drove some Wall Street executives to plunge to their deaths by leaping out of tall buildings. How true that image is, may be open to some debate but it's never left the public imagination because the bloody symbolism of it just feels right somehow. Greed and risky behavior pushed over the first domino and some of those who were responsible at least felt shame.

I've been watching that Great Depression through the warped carnival mirror that was the Hollywood movie during the pre-code era a lot for this blog. That story of shame of those who broke the machine is not the story that is most often told. The most popular story of shame in this era was the Prostitute movie. Its not just the titilation (though there was plenty of that) that attracted producers and audiences alike to the "oldest profession." There was something about the condition of the prostitute, a person forced by economic circumstances to compromise their very souls and sell their bodies that spoke to people in the early thirties. Skyscraper Souls (1932) is perfect example of what I'm talking about. There are many different kinds of prostitution in the film, with the wonderful irony, that the one card carrying whore (Anita Page) goes straight in the end.

Skyscraper Souls
is often compared to Grand Hotel because all of the action takes place with in the titular building and the various stories of the inhabitants intertwine and connect in powerful ways. Yet, this film is so specific to the time in which it was filmed that it seems to be warning us from beyond its nearly forgotten pre-code grave. The movie was based on the 1931 novel Skyscraper which came out around the time of the completion of the Empire State Building, which was financed by money raised during the final hours before the Stock Market crash of 1929. This was a time so early in the depression, it was as if the Titanic had just hit the iceberg and the band were still playing. People had no real idea yet what they were in for, which is what makes it such an interesting movie for our own time.

Skyscraper Souls is that Empire State story shrunk down to a more manageable size, even to the point that the building in question is a mere 72 stories high. The chief energy behind the building is David Dwight, (Warren William) a young ruthless financier who wants the building as a lasting legacy to his own ego. He plays at love as thoughtlessly as he plays at business and he keeps a wife (Hedda Hopper), a secretary/mistress (Veree Teasdale) and is currently working on his secretary's protegee (Margaret O'Sullivan). The latter is in love with a poor bank clerk (Norman Foster) who also works in the skyscraper, but she is seduced by her Dwight's wealth and power. Warren William is wonderful as the slippery, charming and completely conscienceless man. Finding himself in trouble with creditors who want to take his building, he fights dirty and causes an artificial stock run which temporarily enriches most of the characters in the film. Dwight bides his time, causes the stock to crash and winds up owning the building outright, as well as impoverishing his romantic competition in one fell swoop. Faced with bankruptcy, disgrace and most importantly shame, one of his business partners commits suicide. Dwight is not impressed. He knows that in times when everyone is falling down, the one can remain standing will wind up with everything left worth having. That is an important lesson from the first Great Depression. Not everyone was wiped out. Many rich men became even richer when their competition went under. A few profited by the suffering of many.

This being a movie, even a pre-code movie, justice must prevail. Dwight's secretary, getting wind of his plans to retire her to a nice house in Schenectady (Dwight is at least a generous John with his ladies) and his preference for her young friend, takes a revolver and kills the man she loves before flinging herself off the building. Movie justice is served.

Since the President's announcement earlier this week, many have pointed out that the money wasted on executive compensation and $2,000 wastebaskets was merely a drop in the bucket and that the salary cap is pure political theater. It's movie justice. Those who were on the receiving end of it should be glad it wasn't worse.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Touch of Evil: If only Janet had access to Hotwire

It's hard to watch Janet Leigh given her most famous role in Pyscho, in Touch of Evil, as she blunders her way through one dangerous situation after another to arrive at a lot of bad motels. True to form for her career, no good comes to her in a motel. In the early scenes in Mexico, where she is supposed to be on her honeymoon with Charleton Heston she witnesses a horrifying car bomb and is almost kidnapped from the lobby of her hotel. Next she is the victim of a creepy peeping tom before being driven out to the middle of nowhere to a very Batesian looking motel where she is nearly gang-raped and forced to over-dose. She is then taken unconcious to another hotel that is also possibly a brothel where he is left alone with a murder victim. I can't help but think that if she had access to Hotwire or some other modern day guide to accomodation she could have avoided a lot of problems. I can just see a review for the hotel in the desert: 1/2 star, inconvenient to public transportation, staff is made up of criminal underworld, no clean towels, noisy (there was some kind of sock hop/drug party/orgy in room next door), security is poor as adjoining door to room was easily forced and the telephones never work. On the plus side, the ice machine seemed well stocked, though I didn't have occasion to use it as I was busy over-dosing on heroin.

The biggest source of suspense in the movie is Heston's lack of attention to his new bride who seems so obviously vulnerable wherever she goes. He is off to investigate the car bomb, and gets entangled with an American sheriff (Orson Welles) who is determined to pin the crime on a local gigolo. When Heston decides to oppose the Sheriff, Welles feels no guilt about going after his wife. As film noir, I think that Touch of Evil is in the Pantheon because of its dark, surreal mood and Welles performance but as with many films in this genre, I wish it were more grounded in common sense. Heston's character is so wrapped up in his work that even when it becomes clear that he's in over his head and that he may loose his new bride, he keeps poking the angry wasps nest that is this crooked litle fifedom. Perhaps it is a chink in my film buff armor to admit that most film noir leaves me pretty cold and usually confused. There are some exceptions of course such as Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, The Killers and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Touch of Evil certainly is visually arresting and it is easier to follow than many entries in the genre, but in the end I just didn't love it.

Welles performance is certainly stylish and Marlene Dietrich has a nice cameo as an aging prostitute who has a nostalgic friendship with the Sheriff. One of the more interesting aspects of the plot is the way in which the film blurs the line between Mexico and California. You never really know which part of the action takes place in which country and that is part of the wonderful irony. Our American sense of superiority would teach us that the crooked cop is bound to be Mexican and the honest cop American, but that is just the opposite case here. Yet, as a villian, Welles' character is weirdly charming . At any rate he's a nice contrast to the tiresomely upright Heston (Can you tell I'm not a fan?) and I could imagine that it wouldn't have taken more than one or two changes to the script to switch the roles of hero and villian. Had this movie been made in the 70s, I think that's the way it would have gone down.

Perhaps I should set a goal for myself to watch more film noir in hopes of eventually "getting" what everyone always seems to love in this genre. I'd certainly be willing to take suggestions in the comments area for titles with which to start.