Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Gentleman's Fate (1931)

Until recently, I'd never actually watched a John Gilbert talkie, so I couldn't really have an opinion on his supposedly problematic voice. My first thought about Gentleman's Fate, was that it reminded me rather a lot of a William Powell vehicle. Gilbert plays Jack Thomas a young playboy millionaire who has finally found a girl (Leila Hyams) with whom he can settle down and do some serious drinking. Then he gets a call from his benefactor and finds out that his father, whom he was always told was dead, is still alive and wants to see him. It turns out his real name is Gacimo Thomasulo and that his father is a kingpin bootlegger who has hidden his youngest son from the family business. As his father lies dying of a bullet wound he gets to know his older brother Frank, (Louis Wolhein) a brutish man in charge of the bootlegging empire. His father gives him a gift of some supposedly heirloom jewelry which predictably John wraps rounds his fiancee's neck at the first opportunity. Turns out that was "hot ice" and a neighborhood dinner party becomes awkward as the jewelry's previous owner lays claim. Oops. John winds up going to prison, but keeps quiet about his father's career to protect the dying man. With reputation gone and his fiancee married to another man, he gets out of prison and takes up the family business in earnest. He meets a gangster's moll (Anita Page) and decides to make an honest woman of her, though eventually their lifestyle catches up with them.

Throughout Gilbert is breezy and acerbic when called for and emotive without being soppy in the dramatic scenes, just like one would expect of well, William Powell. His voice is a tad reedy, but nothing I would notice if I weren't looking out for it. The only thing I can think is that his voice didn't match the romantic image that audiences had in their minds and then William Powell arrived around this time to take the sorts of roles to which Gilbert would have been best suited. It's really too bad, because Gilbert was a fine actor with many productive years ahead of him, when Hollywood hung him out to dry. Gentleman's Fate shows that he definitely had the potential to continue as a leading man.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A Pair of Ladies

Warren William and May Robson in Lady for a Day. Thanks to Cliff at Warren William dot com for the still.

Lady for a Day (1933) is an early example of classic Frank Capra fish out of water comedy. May Robson plays a boozing old apple peddler who poses as a society dame in order to fool her daughter's fiancee and his family. Warren William plays the gambler Dave the Dude with an irrationally strong attachment to Annie's apples as good luck charms. Dave gets completely consumed by the plot, borrowing an apartment, convincing his girlfriend to give the old girl a makeover, pressing his gang into posing as dignitaries and eventually getting himself deep into a kidnapping charge. So deep, that only a last act, Frank Capra style miracle could pull him out. For a pre-code film, this was pretty tame and even Missouri Martin's (Glenda Farrell) "I need a Man" dance number probably would have made it through the censors later in the decade. Why this film got lost, I'll never understand because it would have perfect for revival. I guess the studios had enough current Frank Capra product to deal with in later years.

William and Robson are quite fun together, but he always hangs back and the movie skillfully avoids getting mushy. You know Dave's motivation is more than just needing her luck, that there is also real affection there as well, but he never lets it out of the bag for more than a moment. That's one of the things I appreciate about William as an actor. Dave is an unrepentant scoundrel who may or may not get roped into making an honest woman out of Missouri Martin, but he is still likeable. Annie for her part gives up the sauce and becomes infinitely less fun. Robson is great when she's embarrassing herself with her nails on chalkboard shriek in a posh hotel lobby or when she's penning letters to her daughter while slugging back an entire bottle of gin. She's just perfunctory and proper when she becomes a society lady and she has too few moments where you think she might slip a little. The characters are probably too numerous and those that should have center stage, get the short shrift in the second half of the movie as Capra's jauggernaut plot steams along to its conclusion despite them. I would also like the relationship between Missouri and Dave to be fleshed out a little more, or at all.

Building on the success of its first Lady, Columbia knocked off Lady by Choice, less than a year later with the same star (May Robson) and several of same supporting players including the always-excellent Walter Connolly. This time Robson plays a boozing bag lady who gets adopted by a fan dancer (Carole Lombard) as a Mother's Day publicity stunt. Despite being derivative, this rehash is actually just as entertaining as the first "Lady." Where Capra delights in heaping more characters and complications into his plot, director David Burton hangs back and concentrates on the relationship between Lombard and Robson. Robson actually gets to explore this character and really bring her to life in this second film. Robson and Lombard are very good and they work wonderfully well together, skillfully cranking out comedy and playing just enough sentiment, but not too much. There is a weak love story (we really could have used a Warren William here!) with Roger Pryor and Lombard. Of course, Lombard is luminous and charming as always and manages to carry those parts of the picture despite not being particularly well matched.

Lady for a Day is a busy picture that will probably reward repeat viewing and Lady by Choice may be a pleasant surprise, a knock-off that is every bit as good as the original.


Norma Shearer and Herbert Marshall in "normal" evening gear in Riptide. As always, Ms. Shearer's evening gear is by Adrian. Though Marhsall gives a great performance you can tell what MGM's publicity department thought of the male actors in Shearer's pictures by how little light his face is given.

With a first half hour that would make any comedy of re-marriage of the late 30s proud, Riptide is one of the best Thalberg-produced Norma Shearer vehicles. The story begins with an an unseen dowager's invitation to the "World of the Future Ball." Lord Philip Wrexton (Herbert Marshall) and Mary (Norma Shearer) are strangers meeting en route to the party while struggling with the ridiculous costumes assigned to them by the dowager. These costumes are at once masterpieces of art deco styling and totally hilarious. The pair decide to ditch the party and their silly duds. (I have to say that I was a little disappointed that we don't actually get to see what the MGM art department would have down with the World of the Future Ball). After one big eyeful of one another in regular evening clothes--though to be fair when was Norma Shearer in an Adrian gown, ever anything but spectacular--they fall instantly in love. They then have one of those ridiculous conversations that could only happen in the movies where they acknowledge their intense attraction and plan their future in the vaguest and most breezy manner.

After a whirlwind "spree," represented by the usual polo-playing, speed boat riding montage the couple marry despite her wild past and his somewhat fusty personality. We flash forward five years and the couple are happily married and living in London with a three year old daughter. (I was delighted to see Norma Shearer reading the Tale of Jeremy Fisher at bedtgime. That is as close to being Norma Shearer as I ever get in a day.) Philip is going away on a men's only business trip (whatever that means) his wife is feeling sorely neglected. If this weren't a recipe enough for trouble, Philip's blacksheep aunt Hetty (Mrs. Patrick Campbell) is called in to chaperone. Hetty is a fun-loving old scamp and she insists of dragging her niece first to Monte Carlo and then into the apartment of Mary's ex, Tommie (Robert Montgomery) who is the life of every party. Tommie introduces us to a great hangover remedy, the crown of ice cubes. Inevitably there is moonlight and too much booze and Mary and Tommie get unfairly caught in a scandal. Unwilling to believe that their romance amounted to nothing more than a kiss and some idle chatter, Philip asks Mary for divorce. Apparently there was more than polo playing happening during their spree and Philip decides that because she was the kind of girl who didn't stop at a kiss back then, there's no reason (other than, you know, five years of a marriage and a child together) she should have changed. Mary is understandably annoyed by this double standard and does the sensible thing which is to start sleeping with Tommie. Then Philip changes his mind after learning from a private detective that Mary was innocent after all. Now, Mary is happy to go back to Philip except she has this new and actual cheating to explain. Things get very awkward and driven by his insecurity and her temper, the couple decide to divorce again. The last third of the movie is tiresome as heart strings are tugged, child custody is debated and marriage triumphs about 15 minutes after we quit caring about it.

If this movie was just a tad funnier and a bit shorter, it would be remembered today as a classic romantic comedy. It has all the pieces: a stellar supporting cast, a juicy love triangle and a breezy clever script. As it is, Riptide isn't much remembered at all. Dismissed by critics as a typical Shearer vehicle, it was a box office hit and quickly forgotten when the next one came along. Like most of Norma's pictures it had a lot to say about sexual politics. It is very frank and not entirely outdated. For all its fantastical settings, the portrait of a marriage of opposite personality types was quite accurate--the very qualities which attract also cause tension. Marshall is adept at playing a man in love, yet wracked with quiet insecurities, unable to communicate with his wife. Shearer portrays her loneliness and frustration admirably and then simply shines in her scenes with Tommie. Robert Montgomery who gets billed above Marshall is in many ways the star of this picture, even though he doesn't get the girl. He is always the charming gad-about playboy in these movies, but he takes "charm" to it's zenith in Riptide. He is a leviathan of charm, scooping up hearts like so many plankton and swimming muscularly away when his part in the film is complete.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Star Trek 2009:It's all about the hitting

I've been rewatching the original series of Star Trek in the week since I saw the latest Star Trek film and I'm amazed by how uncannily the new film captures the spirit of this 1960s television show. I've been keeping a tally sheet next to my recliner and I make a little tick every time someone gets socked in the face in the original series. It happens a lot. At least once per episode and sometimes five or six times.

True to its source, the new movie has lots of fist fights. Young Spock fights Vulcan bullies ala Ralphie in A Christmas Story (if Ralphie would have had green blood on his lips) and young Kirk fights everyone else. For all the splashy effects, sexy new actors and summer movie gloss, the real reason that Star Trek is connecting with audiences in 2009 is that it emotionally uncomplicated, good versus evil stuff and lots of people punching each other. Watchmen and the Dark Knight are examples of where scifi/fantasy films have gone lately and they've gotten very dark, very sticky, and very violent. People punch each other and they leave teeth in countertops and they remove arms with saws. It's like what happened to TV after the X-files: all the darkness, blood and angst and none of the subversive politics and inherent goodness of ordinary people just trying to do their jobs that made the darkness bearable. It's all extraordinary people killing people in extraordinary ways and then feeling really bad about it in place of emotional development or character growth.

When Kirk gives the order to destroy his enemy at the end of this new movie, he gives the bad guy a chance to surrender and he doesn't feel too bent out of shape that the guy didn't take him up on the offer. What would Wolverine do in that situation? The new Doctor Who? Captain Picard? You can bet they'd milk it for all the drama possible. Kirk just leans in his chair, in that special way of sitting that Kirk has that is a really very studied kind of lazy, and gives the order to fire. So much of this movie is waiting for Kirk to get into that chair, all the bumps and snags along the way. You are waiting for Kirk and Spock to be friends as well. If there is one element missing here it is that odd chumminess that those two had. We are dealing with alternate realities, a time line where Kirk had no father and Spock has big daddy issues as well. Hence Kirk is just that snot nosed hot shot who defeated Spock's Kobiashi Maru program in Spock's eyes and Spock is just a pointy-eared bureaucrat to Kirk. All that starts to change, weirdly enough, when it comes out that this new Spock is sleeping with this new Uhera. Any Kirk, from any time line has to respect that.

One thing I never really noticed the first half dozen times I watched the original series is how flirty Kirk and Spock are with each other. There are lots of scenes where they remind me of the love/hate relationships between couples in screwball comedies and it seems that part of the tension between Spock and McCoy comes from jealousy of Spock's relationship with Kirk. In The Enemy Within there is a scene where Kirk and Spock are in Kirk's quarters and he's shirtless. The whole conversation has this very awkward, stilted feeling, and they look like they might start to make out at any second. How I missed this before, especially given that there is a vast genre of fan fiction dedicated to this very point, is beyond me.

This new film has really first rate effects, a passable script, and for a Star Trek product, a breakneck pacing. In this respect too it is reminiscent of the original series. Though the effects look bad and campy, now, you have to remember that for their day they were considered very good and I'm really appreciating how spare and clean those old episodes were. You get in, set up the plot, complicate it a bit and get out. No two and three and four parters necessary. This new movie is tight in that same way. While J. J. Abrahams does draw a page or two from the George Lucas: If One Waterfall is Good than Seven is Better book of filmmaking, at least the story is relatively uncluttered. Mostly it's about these characters, solving a problem, having an adventure and saving the Universe. What's not to love?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Song of Two Humans

F. W. Murnau's masterpiece Sunrise (1927) is subtitled, "A Song of Two Humans" and begins with an prefacing announcement about this being a song that can be heard anywhere at anytime. With its deliberately vague setting and nameless characters, Sunrise does have a timeless feel. Yet, it is any thing but common place. How many boy meets girl stories do you know that have three attempted strangulations and a drunken pig for comic relief?

The plot surrounds the Man (George O'Brien) his Wife (Janet Gaynor) and the Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston). After a particularly steamy tryst in a swamp with his lover, the Man decides to try to murder his Wife, A Place in the Sun style, by pushing her out of a boat. O'Brien moves like Frankenstein's monster, as he sets about trapping his trusting wife. In an excrutiating sequence the family dog catches on that something is wrong and attempts to foil the plot. The suspense and sense of doom build as O'Brien trudges slowly about his evil business. The Wife for her part is not only the victim of the worst wig in history but she isn't that bright either. It takes her a really long time to suspect that her husband is up to no good at which point her only defense is to plead for her life, pathetically. Luckily, it works and The Man breaks the spell of the Woman from the City, which is represented visually by her figure being superimposed over his at various time.

The Wife flees from her husband but finds herself stranded in the big evil city and slowly begins to forgive him. The couple wander into a random wedding and the husband has an extremely poignant realization of his own failure to live up to his vows. He drops to his knees sobbing begging his wife to forgive him. While the sequence is visually stunning and moving, I couldn't help but feel a little bad for the couple who are actually supposed to be getting married in the church. Who are these people to suddenly show up and have their massive melodrama? Well, they are the stars in a German Expressionist Silent Film Masterpiece so you're just gonna have to cut 'em some slack.

After their reconciliation the next half hour plays like a slightly surreal romantic comedy, with the couple enjoying the pleasures of the city, Ferris Beuller's Day Off style, including their adventure with the afore-mentioned pig. It's amazing that Murnau pulls off this childlike and light-hearted feeling for so long given the darkness of what comes before and after. The film ends after a spectacular reversal with the couple nearly drowning in a storm. When the sun rises again, they are reunited and the Woman from the City is high-tailing it home.

Sunrise was released at the same time as The Jazz Singer, and was largely over-shadowed by the first "talkie." Sunrise also represents a technical breakthrough, as it was the first film that had a synchronized sound track, recorded to play along with the film. Instead of dialog, the story is told through images with very few intertitles. The soundtrack is comepletely unlike anything I've ever heard. The music is orchestral, but varied and uses overlapping tracks and "effects" such as a french horn that sounds like a human voice crying out. It is too bad that The Jazz Singer could not have waited a few more months to come out. Sunrise represents the end and in many ways, the high-water mark of the silent era.