Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Top Hat (1935)

Irving Berlin's overture at the beginning of Top Hat (1935) is a plunging, slightly menacing downward flight of notes punctuated visually with the clack of Gentleman's walking sticks. From this opening the movie creates a wonderful sense of anticipation. The story opens in a London Gentleman's club where a sign tells us that absolute silence is to be observed. As Fred Astaire appears from behind a newspaper and attempts to carry on a conversation through mime with Edward Everett Horton, it seems inevitable that he is going to be violating that sign in some really big way. He does. Just as he's about to exit he lets out a barrage of tap dance that leaves the old boys falling out of their chairs.

That's how I feel after every Fred and Ginger movie I've seen so far. These movies are so good they knock me out of my seat. They move from one spectacular musical set piece to another with a silly comic plot that keeps you pretty much in continuous idiot grin.

Fred and Ginger meet as only Fred and Ginger could. He is tap dancing away in his friend's hotel room and wakes her up. She comes upstairs to give him a piece of her mind and he falls immediately in love. Of course she has the wrong end of the walking stick and thinks that he is Horace Hardwicke (Horton) who is married to her good friend Madge (Helen Broderick). Determined to woo her, he kidnaps her in a handsome cab and stalks her after her riding lesson, which culminates in my favorite dance scene in the movie "Wouldn't it be lovely." This is a beautiful scene that toys with the audience moving from from a laid back swing to a frenetic dazzling tap section

Fred's big solo number is "Top Hat" which is famously choreographed with a stage full of anonymous men in evening dress. Fred blends in and out of crowd and eventually mimes machine gunning them down with his walking stick. I had something really insightful in my head to say about the meaning of this scene in relation to the rise of fascism in Europe, but frankly it just flew out of my head during the sensational "Dancing Cheek to Cheek." This final number takes place on the Venice set which is an impossible fairyland of high bridges over a really long swimming pool. I think that the Venice in Las Vegas is actually based on the Top Hat version rather than the real city. "Dancing Cheek to Cheek" is the point in the movie (and every Fred and Ginger movie has one) where the audience no longer cares about the plot at all because Fred and Ginger have let their love for their dancing completely overshadow everything else. After this the misunderstandings are tidily resolved and the movie comes to a swift and happy conclusion.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bananas for Herbie: The Good Fairy (1935)

I've always maintained that the difference between a merely good romantic comedy and a great one is that the latter needs to have a strong supporting cast and has to be funny enough to stand on its own if one excised the "romance" from the film. Preston Sturges and William Wyler in their adaptation ofthe stage play "The Good Fairy" put this theory to the extreme test. The male romantic lead, Herbert Marshall, doesn't appear until 45 minutes into the film and he doesn't meet up with the heroine, Margaret Sullavan, until the movie is more than half over.

Sullavan and Marshall really have very few scenes together but boy do they make them count. The turn the quirkiest dialog, mostly in praise of pencil sharpeners and fake fur, into something like the boiled down essence of romance, sex and longing. Marshall and Sullavan are howlingly funny in these vignettes because they are so utterly sincere. Take Cary Grant's devotion to his intercostal clavicle in Bringing Up Baby, multiply it by ten and you'll begin to understand what I'm talking about.

The contrast between sincerity and phoniness, between niavete and cynicism is a perpetual theme of Sturges' films and Margaret Sullavan is the perfect actress to express this contrast. Her Luisa Ginklebusher is an unholy combination of innoncence and sensuality that breezes into the film and completely takes over. It's no wonder that Frank Morgan's wolfish millionaire is entirely smitten and is reduced to repeating "oh you're WONDerful" in that characteristically sing-songy Frank Morgan way.

The supporting cast is not just strong, they are Olympic weighlifter strength. Beulah Bondi and Alan Hale have tiny but memorable parts and even a throwaway steroetypical wolf character is played by a willy Ceasar Romero. Frank Morgan is great and while I've found him occasionally one-note in movies before this, he actually brings a complete, complex character to life here. Eric Blore has a stand-out turn as the drunken Dr. Metz and Reginald Owen makes the movie for me as Getloff, the waiter turned impromptu gaurdian. I've seen some films where Owen has small parts before and frankly I'd never really noticed him. He's a very able comic actor and he Sullavan have great timing together. There is something so charming about a cockney waiter with airs and a good girl with ideas that their scenes could almost be a movie on its own. If I wasn't so bananas for Herbie I wouldn't have cared if they would have just let him wind up with the girl at the end.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Angst-ly: Eat, Drink, Man, Woman

Ang Lee (whose name is a syllable away from the non-existent but eerily appropriate word "angstly") is one of those rare directors who always captivates me. He has worked in a wide variety of genres from the Jane Austen love story disguised as chop-socky flick, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, to an actual Jane Austen adaptation, Sense and Sensibility. For all this diversity there is a theme of romantic and spiritual longing that pervades his work, none more so than his most famous film, Brokeback Mountain.

The opening image of Lee's 1994 film, Eat, Drink, Man Woman is a chopstick lodged deep in the throat of a live fish, who is gasping his final breaths. Master chef Chu (Sihung Lung) drives the chopstick home and adds the hapless fish to an enormous steaming kettle as part of his ritual preparation for Sunday dinner. It is an unsettling and compelling image, one that sums up the best of Ang Lee's work, which is usually so visually beautiful that you forget you've often watched something that can be quite ugly as well. His films remind you of great paintings and indeed he cited Vermeer as an influence on Sense and Sensibility and I felt like parts of Brokeback Mountain were Charles M. Russell canvases come to life. Lee is a sensualist who emerses the viewer in the texture of everyday things. Bear this in mind while watching Eat, Drink, Man and Woman. You will probably get the urge to make a large banquet and failing that, will order a an unwise quantity of ultimately disappointing Chinese takeaway as I did after watching the movie.

Chu has three grown daughters and it is difficult to tell whether his crisis is that they are leaving or that they haven't left yet. I guess life is life that. You alternate between clinging to and pushing away your loved ones. The eldest daughter, Jia-Jen, is a Christian which makes her something of an odd duck in her family, but she seems just as mysterious and closed off to herchurch friends as well. Jen uses a variety of techniques to keep the world at arm's length including inventing an elaborate lie about a college boyfriend who dumped her and broke her heart. This changes when she becomes the object of attention at the school where she teaches. A handsome, dashing new volleyball coach pays a very small amount of attention to her and she blooms anew. It reminded me of Anne Elliot in Persuasion, except that her Wentworth winds up being friends with her sister and she lives happily ever after with her Cousin Elliot, so to speak.

The middle daughter, Jia-Chien is the most driven, successful and openly critical of her father. Over the course of the film we learn that she is also a talented cook but that her father discouraged her from pursuing it as a career. Instead she succeeds as an executive at an airline, while filling time in a horribly empty friends-with-benefits relationship with her ex-boyfriend. At work she becomes intensely attracted to the guy that supposedly dumped her sister in college. Another Jane Austen moment happens when she confronts him about it and he gives his own-Darcy-esque version of how he ruined the happiness of a most-beloved sister.

The youngest daughter, Jia-Ning, ironically works at a fast food restaurant. She begins a secret affair with the boyfriend of co-worker, whose "treat him mean; keep him keen" policy has back-fired disastrously. Master Chu, for his part has plenty of secrets of his own. He has lost his sense of taste and relies on the palate of his friend Old Wen at work and he has been having a secret affair with one of his daughter's friends and contemporaries, a young divorcee.

At the heart of Chu's problems is the loss of his wife and the slow, steady alienation of his daughters. He is a cook with no appreciative eater. The theme of needing someone to care for, to cook for runs through the film and Chu finds happiness when his girlfriend's daughter falls in love with his cooking and recommends it to all her school friends. Chu happily trades the child for all her mother's tasteless meals since he can not enjoy them anyway. Eat, Drink, Man and Woman is like a cooking show that spends the bulk of its time going over the proportions of spices and the origins of ingredients. Yet for all this fine, detail, it packs a very satisfying emotional pay-off to the story.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Eye Candy of Day: Four Frightened People

What is more awesome than Herbert Marshall and Claudette Colbert in a romantic comedy melodrama action adventure film? Herbert Marshall and Claudette Colbert wearing leopard skin in a romantic comedy melodrama action adventure film!

This campy Cecil B. DeMille spectacular was more than a little bit responsible for the enforcement of the Production Code. Claudette Colbert has an infamous nude scene that worked the censors into a frenzy. It's tame by today's standards of course, but hot stuff for 1934. Herbert Marshall is adorable in it too. "I didn't want you to get pneumonia." I'll bet!

Colbert plays a shy, bespectacled school teacher of whom it is said, "girls like her chaperone themselves. Right into the old maid's home." She is shipwrecked with Arnold Ainger (Herbert Marshall) a shy rubber chemist and Stewart Corder (William Gargan) an earthy American journalist, and Mrs. Fifi Mardick (Mary Boland) the obligatory aristocrat complete with lap dog. It doesn't take long before Colbert looses her glasses and goes native. What fun!

Thanks to Four Frightened People, I've gone bananas for Herbie this week and made a Herbert Marshall Picture Gallery as well as a Youtube Playlist. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Three Wise Girls (1932)

Jean Harlow and Walter Byron in Three Wise Girls.

Of the three rare Columbia Pre-codes that TCM showed last week (on this blog's anniversary, by the way), I was most excited to see Three Wise Girls, starring Jean Harlow, Mae Clark and Marie Prevost as three girls who come to the big city from a small town and learn about men. I hoped for snappy patter, lots of pre-code naughtiness and knowing talk about men. I guess I wanted Sex in the City with bias cut gowns. Sadly, the patter was too much sap and not enough snap (except when Prevost was on screen, of course) and the knowing talk about men lacked irony and originality. Since Clark and Harlow were conveniently cast as lingerie models, you can guess that there was still plenty of pre-code naughtiness. I lost count how many times Harlow takes her clothes off in front of the camera.

Prevost's character completely saved the movie from getting bogged down in preachiness and it was nice to see her wind up with the chauffer she has her eye on throughout the movie, played by a young Andy Divine. The nicest surprise in this mostly forgettable picture was Walter Byron who plays Harlow's married boyfriend. Byron was an English actor who made a good career at the end of the silent era and transitioned nicely to sound. His career did a nose dive in the mid-thirties but not before he'd played the playboy boyfriend in quite a few starlet showcases. Byron is funny and instantly likable as he cheers on Harlow's exit from her soda fountain job and lecherous boss. Afterward he gives her a ride home and Harlow laments later to Prevost that he didn't hit on her. "I thought you wanted a gentleman." "Yeah, but he didn't have to be insulting about it," Harlow replies.

Mae Clark doesn't fair as well with her married boyfriend. Clark looks depressed, beaten down and tired through most of the picture. I guess its all part of the stress of being a kept woman to a married man by night, an underwear model by day and a saintly patron of her mother back home in the small town the rest of the time. Clark is a good actress, but sometimes she and Harlow don't click very well together. They can't seem to get into a rhythym and their scenes come off wooden and clunky. Clark's storyline ends up being the most predictable and tedious part of the movie, and, although she pulls off the melodrama admirably, you can't help but wish she was working with something a bit better.

Of course, the entire premise of this film--that a girl could hook an unhappily married rich man, secure his divorce and walk happily off into the sunset-- would have been impossible a few years later. Though Harlow's character is more virtuous than Clark's (she actually breaks off the relationship when she finds out he's married rather than using the money to keep her poor mother in furs), she would still be a home wrecker in the Code era. Three Wise Girls fits into the working single girl as hero mold that so many pre-code pictures did and though it offers no solution to their problems but an honest and happy marriage, at least its willing to admit in a realistic way, that a single girl did have problems.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Everything I know, I learned from watching TCM

You may not realize just how much knowledge you are picking up by osmosis by watching old movies. Half way through a viewing of Madame Curie (1943) with Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon, I realized I'd unwittingly learned a lot of physics and that the story of the discovery of radium was actually told with technical accuracy as well as dramatic interest. If the movie takes liberties its with the details of the lives ofits er subjects, not with the science, which is actually very refreshing. Other biopics are loaded with information, which if not exactly useful, is stored away for further use. Would I know anything about the Mexican Revolution if it weren't for Viva Zapata (1952)? It's doubtful.

Everything I know about English history, I learned from costume dramas. Recently I was having a discussion with a friend about Edward VI, you know like ya do, and I couldn't picture who he was talking about until I remembered his character, portrayed by Rex Thompson in Young Bess (1953). Sometimes I go online after watching a costume drama and try to research more about the historical context, but even if I unearth grave errors of fact, its unlikely that I'm going to remember much beyond what is shown in the film.

And it's not just history. I've learned a great deal of geography from the movies as well. From Bringing Up Baby (1938), I learned that generally Connecticut is north of New York City. From Metropolitain (1990), I learned that Princeton New Jersey is south of Manhattan. From North By Northwest (1959) I learned that Chicago is about 12 hours north and west (duh) of of New York by train. From East of Eden (1955) I learned that I'm not really crazy about James Dean as an actor. (Ok, maybe that last one doesn't count as geography, but its still an important thing to learn.) Casablanca (1942) has a useful map of the Middle East and Africa with the famous red line (reused by the Indiana Jones series) to represent the trail of refugees to Casablanca where they wait...and wait...and wait.

Of course it can be dangerous to learn to much from old movies. While I'd say I know a great deal about World War II beyond the average person, thanks to watching so many movies, it's all very much slanted from one perspective. I shudder to think if I'd learned everything I knew about the history of the American West from Westerns. Even relatively non-cotroversial topics such as Custer are portrayed with such a distorted view in generally in favor of history's winners that it's pretty dispicable. All I going to say is Custer probably really had it coming and he's generally portrayed as a great American hero in movies, up until Little Big Man.

Monday, July 20, 2009

In praise of mdeiocrity: Girl's Dormitory

A good film is always a joy to watch. Sometimes a bad film can be a joy just because it's fun to mock it or to laugh at the unintentional humor. But I want to talk about something that is rarely loved--the mediocre film. The main joy that I get from mediocre films is re-writing them in my head. Often these movies have a great deal of potential and you can see where the writers went wrong. The Norma Shearer/Herbert Marshall melodrama, Riptide, for example was just begging to be produced as a comedy. I spent more time imagining the scenes re-written as farce than I did watching the movie. Any movie is worthwhile that lingers in your mind for more than the run-time of the film. This probably accounts for why I give so few negative reviews to films on my blog.

Girl's Dormitory (1936) had every promise of being a bad film: a somewhat lurid title, the whiff of scandal, and an unseemly love triangle between two teachers and a pupil at a vaguely European boarding school. Perhaps if this film had been made a few years earlier it could have really sunk deep in the swamp of these tantalizingly tawdry motifs. It might have even elevated itself to the status of legendary camp or better yet, it could have miraculously become a good film. It might have actually made an honest exploration of the various power imbalances inherent in May-September romances. It could have been "Lolita" ahead of its time. Simone Simon would have made an astoundingly effective Lo. Though she was 26 in 1936, she came off as younger even than the 19 years she is supposed to be in the film. She also has a worldliness about her that it is probably simplistic to describe as merely "French," an epithet hurled at her in one scene. She instinctively knows that her older, stodgy, quarry is going to need more prodding than usual. It's too bad for the film that her rival doesn't have those same Gaelic instincts. Speaking of Lolita, there is even a creepy scene in the movie where Herr Director Stephen Dominik (Herbert Marshall) talks with nostalgia about what Marie (Simon) was like when she came to the school at age 15. Another scene, in which Marie unceremoniously dumps Dominik, shows me that the filmmakers understood some of these imbalances but weren't brave enough to spell them out. Marshall creates Humbert Humbert twenty years before Nobokov even dreamed of him, briefly, in that scene as a mixture of heartbreak, humiliation and utter desperation plays across his face.

What we are left is a post-code romance that is set-up to be fairly formulaic and even there it could have turned out to be a better movie than it did. Everything in the movie is crying out for Dominik to realize his mistake and admit that he's in love with fellow teacher, Anna, ably played by Ruth Chatterton. With more loose ends than an old tapestry, a very short run-time at under 80 minutes, it seems like the filmmakers just panicked and left the audience with an unsettling, contrived "happy" ending between Dominik and Marie. This is further confused by the presence of a very young Tyrone Power whom I was completely convinced was brought on board in the final reel to remove the young girl from the neck of our very middle-aged hero. (Marshall was actually 46 when he made this movie, though he makes a fairly convincing 37. He did have a baby face. ) I guess I wanted The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer: the uncomfortable older man played for laughs juxtaposed with a comically serious young heroine. I would have even been happy with the story left as melodrama, as long as it had a different ending, not so favor of youth and beauty.

One of the more glaring unresolved plot dilemmas is the investigation into Marie's supposed affair which is sparked by a pretend love letter she writes to Dominik. After a group of hard-nosed faculty threaten to call the girl's invalid mother into the school, she runs away in a rainstorm, Bronte style, nearly jumps off a cliff and spends enough of the night unchaperoned in a cabin with the good Herr Director to cause suspicion. Instead of seeing this as an admission of guilt or evidence of a deeper conspiracy, these teachers, whose actions were unbelievably prosecutorial to begin with, suddenly have a change of heart and see her disappearance as proof that she wasn't guilty. It gets worse. Dominik is made aware that Anna is in love with him, but this revelation has no effect on him, despite the three or four scenes to the contrary earlier in the film. I can see problems for his character either way he chooses to go. Sting didn't write "Don't Stand So Close to Me" in a vacuum. This situation could pretty much wreck his career no matter what. There is a narrow ledge that comedy walks to rid itself of the taint of unfair scandal, and it usually involves a public trial in which the true feelings of all the characters are revealed. Frank Capra knew this which is why he employed the device so often. Though the movie had a golden opportunity for such a set-piece through the investigation, it is never utilized.

The few people whom I've seen comment on this film have felt that it simply puts forth outdated mores. When one of the teachers says "After all, she is 19. My mother had two children by the time she was that age," it caused me to involuntarily squirm in my seat. Perhaps audiences in 1936 were OK with characters marrying young or more ready to accept the idea of an older man with a much younger woman, but I still think they would find the notion that a middle-aged man would throw over the very attractive and devoted colleague for a girl half his age to be a bit foolish. I can't imagine that audiences would buy the way in which Chatterton gracefully bows out, counseling both of them as her friends as an acceptable fate. It's made worse by the fact that all this is done off-screen and is summed up in an after-the-fact conversation at the end of the film. And what about the disadvantages for Marie? Is she going to wake up some day at 35 and find her self married to an old man? I simply refuse to buy the "outdated" argument. The mores described in this movie are more than just outdated, they are simplistic, wrong-headed and they must have appeared so, even in 1936. Indeed, the contemporaneous New York Times review says as much, while going on at length about the charms of Si-MOAN Si-MOAN.

One year anniversary, plus eye candy

"Dr. Venkman" and the Groundhog go for a little drive.

Hey, I just realized last week was my one-year anniversary! A whole year of blogging just about every movie I've watched.

Here's a movie I watched, with my son, Robert who is obsessed with Ghostbusters, so much that he now wants any movie with Bill Murray, or as he calls him "Dr. Venkhman." We saw this at Cinema Rex at the scifi Con which is a great place to see a movie like this: appreciative audience, comfy couch, and most importantly, free snacks.

Andie MacDowell didn't annoy me as much as she usually does, this time through. I used to shout, "thanks for ruining Groundhog Day" everytime I passed one of the Andie MacDowell "Got Milk?" billboards. Maybe I'm just lightening up in my old age.

I am still amazed that Bill Murray can say schlocky lines like "when you stand in the snow you look like angel" with complete sincerity and make me buy it. Though the best scene in the film is his "driving lesson" with Puxatony Phil, the love scenes in this sweet romantic comedy are both funny and romantic, often at the same time, which isn't always so easy.

There are some inspired short bits in the movie: the day that he shows up dressed like the Outlaw Josie Wales with a cigar and a sombrero. He gets in line to see the family movie "Heidi," saying "I've seen this film over a thousand times." In another scene he goes to visit the town psychiatrist who looks like he's about 25 years old, just out of college. He is clearly in over his head with Bill Murray's rather large psychiatric problem, especially after a few minutes when his new patient starts punching himself in the face with a pillow.

I wondered just how many days Phil Connors has to repeat in the movie. Screenwriter Harold Ramis said he had in mind that he was stuck in that one day for ten years. The premise is a useful way to look at the way we repeatedly fail in the same way in life. Connors makes the same mistakes with women, in this case the same woman. He is always working an angle, saying what they want to hear and trying to appear more than he is. He also treats people generally like crap. Over the course of the movie, he undergoes a Scrooge type transformation from malevolent egoist to obsessive do-gooder. Murray is great at making both incarnations of his character believable and funny. The big change is that he works on himself. He reads more, picks up hobbies, and in doing so he quits trying to impress Andie MacDowell so much. This is actually pretty good advice for anyone looking for love. The minute you stop trying so hard and focus on finding what it is you love to do, the right person usually comes to you.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Doctor Noir: Take the Blue Dahlia and call me in the morning.

After a spate of low-grade noir recently, one of my readers issued the prescription of watching some good Alan Ladd film noir as soon as possible. Luckily I had a movie to fit the bill, The Blue Dahlia (1946), already and waiting in my tivo.

The Blue Dahlia is the story of a returning war hero, Johnny Morrison, who is greeted upon his return with the news that she's leaving him for another man, and that their son who died while he was away, was killed in a drunk driving accident and not from diphtheria which she'd let on her letters. Not exactly the home-coming any GI would want. It gets worse, after the understandable fight that ensues after hearing these two whoopers back to back, the fellow storms out, meets a beautiful, enchanting woman Joyce Harwood, (Veronica Lake) and spends the night with her (in separate bedrooms of course, this was 1946 people) in a hotel. Ladd learns that his wife has been murdered while he is checking out of the hotel. He nonchalantly goes about his business as the news of her death is played on the radio. He realizes that he is the chief suspect and his actions (fleeing the apartment in a rage, meeting a beautiful woman who is heavily connected to the case and leaving town with her) look mighty incriminating. It turns out Joyce Harwood is married to Eddie Harwood, the slimy owner of the club, the Blue Dahlia, and the man for whom Johnny's wife is leaving him. All these facts play across the couple's face plus a hundred emotions at once. If ever there were a single scene that sumed up power of showing versus telling in a movie, it's that one.

This is a masterfully told detective story. Director, George Marshall (Destry Rides Again), gives you just enough detail to keep you following along, but not so much that the solution is ever obvious. There are several skillfully placed red herrings that will trip up even the most die-hard detective story nut. The supporting cast is superb, especially William Bendix as Ladd's war buddy. But the real joy of watching The Blue Dahlia is watching Veronica Lake. The movie never drags when she's off-screen, but when she's on screen it comes to life. The quality of a film noir is directly bound up with the quality of its femme fatale. A good one will make the movie. A bad one (and I mean in acting ability and appeal, not morally bad) will ruin everything. See my review of The Lady in the Lake for further proof if required. Lake and Ladd have incandescent chemistry together. I hadn't realized it before watching one of their films, but they really are one of the great screen pairings. This was their third noir film together and you can see the benefit of the earlier two films in their first scenes in the car. There is a perfection of timing that actors who work well together have after two or three pictures that's always a joy to watch. Sometimes the later outings, though not as original as those that made them famous, can actually be more enjoyable for fans because of this perfection. Of course I haven't seen the Glass Key or This Gun for Hire yet.

The Blue Dahlia does suffer from one of my most frequent complaints about noir and that is the irrational behavior of its characters. Ladd's wife is a horrible spiteful person, and we come to understand why she would act that way out of guilt over her son's death. What is truly puzzling is why her lover would cheat on Veronica Lake with her. Even more baffling is that he almost leaves her over the affair. And then of course, one wonders what Veronica Lake is doing with sleazy Eddie in the first place.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Philo Vance Round-up

William Powell and fog-horned voiced character actor, Eugene Pallette in The Kennel Murder Case.

TCM recently showed a Philo Vance marathon featuring films from the thirties about this fictional detective all made by Warner Bros./Vitaphone. The movies are enjoyable if slight--most of the films clock in at a lean, mean 75-80 minute length. The studio employed a string of actors including William Powell, Basil Rathbone, Warren William, Paul Lukas, Edmund Lowe, Wilfrid Hyde-White and Grant Richards in the 1930s alone. There was another series of Philo Vance films in the 1940s, which I haven’t seen.

The closest thing we have in our times to the Philo Vance phenomenon is the British TV series Doctor Who which continues to survive decades into its run by replacing the leading actor every once in a while. Like Doctor Who, each of the actors I watched in the series brought their own spin to the character.

By far the most enjoyable Philo Vance movie of the three I watched was The Kennel Murder (1934) case, starring William Powell. His fourth and final Vance outing, Powell was on the cusp of major stardom. The next year he played Nick Charles in The Thin Man. Powell has same charm he has in the later more famous detective series all the while hiding a sharp mind with a soft-easy going manner. While he lacks a Myrna Loy with whom to trade witty lines, or indeed witty lines, he does have a cute Scotty Dog, who is perhaps the inspiration for Asta. This movie seemed more lavishly produced than the other two movies I watched. It’s possible that since it was the latest of the three chronologically, the budgets had increased, but it’s equally possible that it was all just Powell’s superior star power rubbing off on the flimsy sets.

Warren William had an enjoyable outing as Vance in The Dragon Murder Case, about an absurd homicide in which the chief suspect is a mythological giant lizard. Like Powell he was more famous for playing a different detective in a later series, The Lone Wolf. If the X-files existed in 1933, The Dragon Murder Case, would definitely be a candidate for a plot scenario. Unfortunately the whole thing unfolds with a rather Scooby Doo obviousness where as The Kennel Murder case was so busy and confusing you were guessing till the last minute because the plot was so byzantine. Maybe I’m being unfair here. Perhaps if I was watching it in 1933, and had not spent my childhood watching Scooby Doo, I would have been delightfully surpised by the denouement of The Dragon Murder Case.

Basil Rathbone’s lone Philo Vance picture was The Bishop Murder Case (1930). This series was a detective training ground because like the other two actors mentioned here, Rathbone was about to become a lot more famous by playing another well-known detective, Sherlock Holmes. In between playing Vance and Holmes he was best known for playing the stereotypical English bad guy in Errol Flynn movies. I’ve always enjoyed Rathbone as an actor, but something about him in The Bishop Murder Case just didn’t click for me. The stand-outs in the supporting cast, Roland Young and George F. Marion, perhaps took something away from my enjoyment of the detective. Marion in particular plays an eccentric chess master who lives with his ancient sister and spends his evenings skulking around in dark corners. Rathbone can't compete with this kind of a show-stopping villain. He doesn't have the eccentric flair needed to play a great detective, or even Doctor Who. He moved workmanlike through the plot like perhaps the Second Doctor or the Eighth might have, but without the droll, self-aggrandizing panache of a Fourth or a Tenth Doctor. I apologize for getting off course here and contaminating my post with obscure references to an obscure English television show. I’ve just spent the last week deeply immersed at a science fiction and fantasy convention, which is why I haven’t posted much lately.

I look forward to watching the rest of Philo Vance movies waiting in my tivo queue. It's likely that I will shove the posts into the media room though, unless I'm blown away by one of the remaining pictures.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Capra and Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck was to Frank Capra in the early thirties almost what Marlene Dierich was to Eric Von Stroheim in that same era. She was a muse. You can see this in their earliest pictures Forbidden (reviewed here), Ladies of Leisure and The Miracle Woman. In Ladies of Leisure, Stanwyck plays a "party girl" the sort of borderline prostitute without the sex that Holly GoLighly worked in Breakfast at Tiffany's. She meets a nice rich boy, Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves) while escaping an attempted date rape on a yacht and though she lifts his wallet, he hires her to be his artist's model. The plot give Capra the excuse to have dozens of loving close-ups of his star. His camera captures the mixture of worldliness and other worldly beauty that Stanwyck had. She resembles those romanticized Art Noveau Indian maidens that graced beer advertisements at the turn of the Twentieth century.

Ladies of Leisure has a breezy, morality all its own that was typical of the pre-code period. It's not a great film, but Stanwyck is always watchable, and no less so in a film that's all about a man watching a woman while the audience waits for him to realize that he's in love with her.

I don't think Capra was terribly interested in the type of film making where he spent hours on elaborate lighting set ups to present his starlet like a beautiful bug in amber, as the afore-mentioned von Stroheim. Those kind of movies were getting stale even in 1930. He was much more interested in the blend of social commentary and comedy which he managed to pull off in The Miracle Woman. And because his star was playing a tent revival evangelist, she got to wear flowing white robes, one night and a hoochy mama gold lame band uniform the next. Bonus!

The Miracle Woman is one of the best early Stanwyck films with a good script and nice chemistry between Stanwyck and co-star David Manners. Manners plays a blind man whose life is saved by one of Stanwyck's sermons. After he comes onstage and takes the part of one of her usually pre-paid patsies, he helps her get her life back on track. One of the more memorable aspects of the movie is the fact that Manners' character relates most of his emotions to Stanwyck via a ventriloquist dummy. He somehow manages to make this less creepy than it sounds.

The denouement of The Miracle Woman was audacious even for Frank Capra who never had any trouble putting spirituality on film. When Stanwyck's revival tent complex burns down Manners fumbles through the smoke to rescue her in a heavily-implied miracle. For a movie that spends most of its time mercilessly satirizing both conventional organized religion and evangelism, this is a pretty strong statement about true faith. Stanwyck, with her dual quality of worldliness and inner beauty was the perfect actress to help him make that statement.