sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
Tonight's movie comes courtesy of Eleanor Farjeon: Joseph Jefferson, one of the younger of her equally creative brothers, wrote the original short story developed by RKO and Julius Hagen's Real Art Productions into The Ghost Camera (1933). How could I resist a title like that? I discovered that it belonged to a well-regarded quota quickie directed by Bernard Vorhaus, just over an hour long and in the public domain. I called up the least fuzzy version on YouTube and had a wonderful time.

Despite the title, The Ghost Camera is not a supernatural story but a charming light mystery, rather like the more comedic of Hitchcock's romantic thrillers or a cozy Agatha Christie. I had never before seen its star Henry Kendall, but he is a national treasure as the nebbishy chemist who comes into accidental possession of the eponymous camera and its last snap of some vague violent act between two figures, which he has just enough time to realize might be the evidence of a murder before some person unknown breaks-and-enters his darkroom and absconds with both the camera and its half-developed, spectral negative. The only potential clues remain in the other, overlooked photographs, which appear to show quite ordinary subjects like a girl standing in the doorway of a house, a train viewed from across its track, a ruined castle viewed from a moving angle, the picturesque signage of an inn with the unhelpfully generic name of the "Red Lion." Tracing each of these images, putting them into their correct narrative order like frames cut from a film, our hero will recapitulate the progress of a witness to murder—or a murderer themselves—but the tone is not so much Antonioni and Blow-Up (1966) as it's like watching a member of the Drones Club try to take up amateur detecting. Seriously, Kendall as he enters the picture is a damn near dead ringer for Richard Garnett's Gussie Fink-Nottle, down to the gawky stoop and the unfortunate spit curl; his diction is clearer, though just as lugubrious—a kind of fretful drawl, suitable to statements like "Man is an irrational animal, Sims, persisting to hope for what his reason has proven nonexistent." (He's talking to his assistant about going on vacation.) He could be early Campion if he were thinner and fairer, distractedly twiddling with his hat and pushing his glasses up his nose in sheepish speechlessness. When an attractive girl tells him with more than a hint of interest that he's funny, he responds with serious self-examination: "I don't think I've ever been considered particularly humorous. I should think I err rather on the side of solemnity—almost morbidity." As with Garnett, I suspect the actor was basically good-looking—the stills from Counsel's Opinion (1933) look like it—but he disguises it well with horn-rims, bowtie, and a wonderfully embarrassing little snort of a laugh with which he breaks up some of his more sententious observations. The highest compliment his assistant can pay him is "He's much better than he sounds."

The plot itself is speedy and straightforward enough that any further discussion risks giving the rest of it away, which would actually do the movie a disservice; nonetheless, its major interest remains its cast and its cinematography. In the role of the prime suspect, a jeweler's employee already under suspicion of diamond theft, we get John Mills in his second appearance on film, so young that he's recognizable only by his voice and nascent cheekbones and the way his hair falls down over one eye; Ida Lupino as his sister is even younger and less familiar-looking in her fourth feature outing, a blonde waif with a very British accent she never allowed near any of her American noirs. She and Kendall have a screwball chemistry, panicking into one another's arms after a threatening incident at an inn in the middle of the night and utterly failing to notice that she's in her slip and he's in his boxers and socks until the innkeeper knocks them up and they flee into opposing corners of the same blanket, winding themselves into a sort of conjoined toga. (She will fall asleep on his shoulder, apologizing for being "terribly tiring" while he reassures her with one of the great understated deliveries of our time, "On the contrary, I find it excessively stimulating.") Cinematographer Ernest Palmer is not to be confused with his American counterpart of the same name, but his work behind the camera, combined with the editing of an equally young David Lean, is gonzo. We've got whip pans, fast zooms, handheld camera, kaleidoscopic wipes between scenes and sudden drops into subjective camera like a flashback depicted strictly from the narrator's perspective or an anxious, reeling montage when an accused man enters the courtroom. When the word "murder" is uttered for the first time onscreen, it is promptly spelled out by a quick-cut succession of newspapermen—"M for mother, U for uncle, R for red"—culminating in the gasp of a telephone operator who brings the whole word together just in time for the newsreader to pick the rest of the sentence up. The trial itself is elided into dissolving shots of the courtroom artist whose sketch of the prisoner in the dock elaborates, at the announcement of the verdict, into the portrait of a convict in jail. I would love to be able to draw some formal, thematic link between the camerawork which keeps drawing attention to itself and the significance of the camera in the plot, as if reminding the audience to take all apparent objectivity with a grain of silver halide, but mostly I think it's just the film having fun with its genre, as it does when Kendall correctly predicts the adorability of Lupino from the simple reasoning that "the heroine of a mystery drama is always a ravishing creature."

I recognize that some very specific forces produced the British quota quickies that did not apply to their American B-movie counterparts, but I like them for a lot of the same reasons: character actors, invention on a shoestring, the latitude to play weirder than the prestige pictures. The Ghost Camera even has location shooting—the ruins are Corfe Castle in Dorset, standing in for the fictitious "Norman Arches, a few miles from Merefield, Surrey"—though I would call it lagniappe rather than the main attraction. That would be Mills at twenty-five, Lupino at fifteen, and Henry Kendall whom you may pry from my silly-ass fingers only if you pass me some actual Wodehouse first. Farjeon's screenwriting credits just give me further incentive to check out Michael Powell's The Phantom Light (1935). Vorhaus' resume frustratingly includes the Hollywood blacklist, but if most of his work was comparable to The Ghost Camera, he left a decent legacy regardless. If nothing else, it is the only movie I have ever seen use slide whistles to signify suspense. Admittedly I can see why that didn't catch on. This snapshot brought to you by my sharp-eyed backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
In which I attempt to make some dent in the backlog of unmentioned movies which accrues from being sick three out of the four weeks of an already short month. Not helped by the internet cutting out for a couple of hours tonight. RCN, we left Verizon for you. Don't make anybody regret it.

It should go without saying that when a film turns up on TCM with a circus setting and Ben Lyon in the cast, [ profile] derspatchel and I need no further enticement to watch it, though in this case the one-line summary "A romantic triangle involving a hypnotist and two trapeze artists threatens to destroy a circus" was admittedly pretty attractive. I am pleased to report that it rewarded our benefit of the doubt: John Harlow's The Dark Tower (1943) is a neat little B-picture that gets an agreeable quotient of thrills and chills out of its modest budget and even managed to surprise both of us by the finale. Plus now I know that William Hartnell was shockingly beautiful when he was my age and I wasn't expecting that.

The film was a transatlantic co-production of the generation that followed quota quickies, produced by Warner Brothers at Teddington Studios with an American star and an otherwise British cast; theoretically adapted from the short-lived stage play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott,1 it has pleasingly more in common with the pulp fiction of its time, tracking the seedy but not hopeless atmosphere of a traveling circus in tough straits and the unglamorous but not uninteresting lives of the performers going on around the edges of the plot. Brothers Phil (Lyon) and Tom (David Farrar) Danton are co-owners of Danton's Empire Circus, the former being the American-accented "guvnor" in charge of the practicalities while his more dashing younger brother works the high wire with longtime love interest Mary (Anne Crawford), but in wartime the crowds are thin and the takings thinner and the "feast of equine dexterity and acrobatic marvels" which opens the movie ends with Phil forced to admit to the company that the money's run out. He's taking a vote on whether they'd rather disband now and get it over with or soldier on to the next town when their fortunes are unexpectedly saved by the appearance of Stephen Torg (Herbert Lom), a penniless drifter whose dark eyes and deep, cold voice are the outward show of an extraordinary magnetism: he calms a fractious lion with nothing more than an unblinking gaze and a few masterful gestures. "What a good fellow is Pasha," he croons to the subdued big cat, before explaining coolly to his human audience, "It's very simple. I make them obey my eyes—I make them like my voice—and then they do what I want them to do." The suggestion that he hire the stranger as the new lion trainer gives Phil a brainwave. Could Torg repeat the same trick with a person rather than an animal—Mary, perhaps? Under hypnotic control, might she be serene and sure enough to perform a high-wire act without any of the customary props used for balance? If Mary's willing, of course. Mary is indeed willing, even a little intrigued by this shabby, saturnine young man whose reticence about his origins does not conceal his arrogance about his skills. The test run is encouraging. The act is a smash success. With the spellbinding assistance of the now-"Dr." Torg, Mary can perform the most death-defying of stunts without tremble or hesitation, the kind of nail-biting that really packs an audience in. Once word gets out, it's all the way to the Winter Palace with Danton's Empire Circus: except that Torg is rapidly alienating his new family with his work-shirking, his fancy spending, and his bruising disdain for every other act under the tent, and while everyone from the abrasive sharpshooter to the enthusiastic publicist can see for themselves that Mary and Torg are spending more and more time together, it's increasingly and upsettingly unclear if it's love or mesmerism. The night that Tom falls during a trapeze act with Mary and avoids death only by a narrow margin of broken bones, it's impossible for Phil to escape the conclusion that Torg had something to do with it, but he can't see or prove how. He can't even get rid of the man without endangering the entire circus—the hypnotist is a bigger attraction now than the trick riders, the ice skaters, the low-wire clown. "I'll go," Torg promises darkly, after Phil's misgivings boil over into a physical altercation at the center of the after-hours ring, "but in my own time." And when he leaves the big top, obediently, Mary follows.

The opening titles contain the marvelous credit "Circus staged by Reco Brothers" and while I can't find much about this circus online beyond some mentions in Billboard, it is their participation which lends The Dark Tower its part-documentary feel, as the majority of the action takes place under the big top—performances and rehearsals—or in the ring of wagons where we observe the circus folk out of the spotlight, mending costumes, doing dishes, chatting with their neighbors, being entertained and slightly weirded out by the waxwork novelty their publicist brought home. When we watch the circus on the move or the big top being raised, I'm pretty sure it's just footage of Reco Brothers on the road for the season. The acts are good, too. There are precision cyclists, a standing bareback rider. The trio of ice skaters are astonishing: on a square of ice that can't be more than ten feet by ten, they perform high-speed, multiple-person spins, lifts, and spirals, a dizzying testament to the power of centripetal force. The best as far as I was concerned was the low-wire burlesque of Mary's act performed by Reco himself, a bald-pated tramp clown with a genius for entangling himself in the very tightrope he's trying to walk. He wears a mime's white gloves right up until the point where he steps on them while holding a pose more normally assumed by pretzels. I respect beyond words the degree of balance and grace it takes to wobble and flail that wildly while never actually falling. At the finale, of course, he looks the whole six feet down and panics and topples, Coyote over cartoon air. This ordinary realism is part of what keeps the story grounded even after it shifts gears into a kind of mystery-horror. It helps, too, that the stakes are never higher than the survival of the circus and Mary's health and happiness—which is plenty high for an invested viewer—and that Torg at his worst is never megalomaniacal or diabolical, just ambitious, frustrated, and unethical. At times he resembles a devil's bargain, appearing from nowhere with an offer too good to refuse, but despite his accent he's no Svengali.2 He was a bullied boy who came from nothing; now he's a man who has to have the best of everything if only so that he can rub it in other people's faces, whether that means a swanky car in a community that lives out of caravans, a girl whom everyone knew was in love with another man, or a controlling interest in a circus he despises. "It's a great thing, power. It makes you feel a king, especially if all your life you've been made to feel a beggar." Just once, he looks as young as he really is and not so sure of himself, confessing his love to Mary, but as soon as she gently rebuffs him, his face cools again. Anyone who knows Lom only as Peter Sellers' increasingly unhinged boss in the Pink Panther movies should check out Jules Dassin's Night and the City (1950) and Alexander Mackendrick's The Ladykillers (1956), but they should see him in this movie, too. It was his fourth English-language role and the star-making one.

And the rest of the cast look like they're having fun. Despite his top billing, Lyon is more of a high-profile supporting part than a lead in his next-to-last screen role (he didn't die, he just moved into radio), but at this point I'd enjoy him if he read me a want ad for soap flakes and the important thing is that he convinces as the kind of circus director who's sharp and generous enough to have earned the trust of his company even when no one's getting paid, but just slightly too much of a nice guy to believe that things are going to get as bad as they've gotten already; Josephine Wilson has to supply the cynicism he lacks as the tart-spoken, chain-smoking sharpshooter with a soft spot for her "guvnor" and no love for the mysterious Stephen Torg. I had good memories of Crawford as the snobbish but not stupid factory girl striking sparks with Eric Portman's working-class foreman in Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder's Millions Like Us (1943) and she certainly couldn't be replaced by a blender here, but she suffers from the usual problem with spending half a movie in a hypnotic state—Mary is most interesting in the early scenes when she's fully herself, her eagerness to run the experiment of the "Slide for Life" suggesting both a scientific curiosity in and an erotic response to Torg's powers. With his thick dark hair and his long jawline, Farrar makes a rugged, credibly acrobatic romantic lead in the first half of the film, then puts his physical weakness to bitterly sensitive use in the second half as his body knits itself back together while his heart takes its time; it is not the actor's fault that I don't find him at his most beautiful here, having been introduced to him at a pitch of outrageous sexiness in Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947). Besides, I'm still trying to figure out how Hartnell—still credited here as "Bill"—got typed as cops and sergeants and other hard men when he's adorable as Jimmy Powers, the floppy-haired publicist with an excitable stammer that doesn't stop him talking a mile a minute when he wants to pitch an idea. He has one of those high-boned, clean-lined faces with very dark, very soft eyelashes and brows to match, a quick-cornered smile and sleek fair hair that keeps coming out of its brilliantine while he runs around the fairground like an eager art student in his pullovers and flat cap. I couldn't tell if it was saying something about his sexuality or just accurately reflecting carny talk in the wild, but he provides one of the few examples I've heard of pre-Round the Horne Polari when he calls a blustering but ineffectual ringmaster "a pompous pot-bellied palone." He has some plot significance, but his stammer doesn't.

I'm a little sorry there isn't a pulp novel of this film, really, because then Hard Case Crime could reprint it and I could shelve it next to Gypsy Rose Lee's The G-String Murders (1941). Also then maybe Warners would bring it out on DVD and I would not have to refer you to the questionable internet if you want to watch it between its periodic appearances on TCM. I never know why most of these movies are obscure. Director Harlow was unknown to me, but cinematographer Otto Heller would go on to do distinctive work on films as diverse as Thorold Dickinson's The Queen of Spades (1949), Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), and Sidney J. Furie's The Ipcress File (1965),3 and the editor was just some guy named Terence Fisher. The title is absolutely meaningless to the finished film. Now I want to rewatch Millions Like Us and see if I can track down more films from William Hartnell's adorable period. This feat brought to you by my mesmerizing backers at Patreon.

1. As far as I can tell, the film retains only the title, the sense of romantic threat, and the key concept of an artist performing in an altered state of mind. What interests me most about this setup is that Warner Bros. had already filmed a more faithful adaptation in the U.S., about a year after the play's 57-performance Broadway run, under the title The Man with Two Faces (1934). It starred Edward G. Robinson and Mary Astor and I will almost certainly try to check it out sometime just for the cast and the comparison. I would love to know why the studio chose to sort-of-not-really remake it almost a decade later.

2. Herbert Lom was born Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchačevič ze Schluderpacheru in Prague in the next-to-last year that city could be located in Austria-Hungary and I actually like that while his accent suggests not one of us, the script itself makes no effort to mark him out as foreign, any more than it attempts to explain why one of the Danton brothers has a British accent and the other is American as the day is long, in slang as well as sound: "All the time you thought she was high-hatting you. That wasn't Mary—that was a dummy and Torg was her vent!"

3. I am retrospectively impressed with myself for recognizing some likeness between the latter two films in 2010, although it did not apparently then occur to me to check whether they shared any crew.
sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
Another President's Day has gone by (marked with protests, I hear) and [ profile] derspatchel and I have observed our sixth 'Thon together. We did not make the full twenty-four hours of science fiction film this year, but then again we had not planned on having to ditch the marathon for an emergency room. I am very ready for my physical health to start putting itself back together any time soon. For obvious reasons, this will be a shorter review than some previous years.

Neither of us had gotten much sleep the night before, so we did not make it for the traditional noon kickoff of Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (1953) or even the first feature, which in honor of the marathon's forty-second anniversary was Hammer & Tongs' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005). Fortunately, we got another chance at Sam Rockwell and Alan Rickman with Dean Parisot's Galaxy Quest (1999)—we were in fact too late for Alexander's panic attack, but we made it to the balcony just in time to hear Dr. Lazarus swearing to a stricken Thermian that by Grabthar's hammer, by the suns of Worvan, he would be avenged, at which point the audience as one correctly erupted in applause. I hadn't seen the film since it was in theaters, which never prevented whole swathes of its dialogue from turning up in my brain at the slightest excuse; I was especially glad to catch any of it on 35 mm, given how much of this year's marathon was digital. It was the rare contemporary movie in its year where I actually recognized more than one member of the cast, mostly thanks to Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, and Tony Shalhoub. I did not realize until the credits rolled that I had spent most of last year seeing earnest, dorky, dolphin-sounding alien leader Mathesar—Enrico Colantoni—as Elias on Person of Interest (2011–16), where he is not even faintly any of the above. I love character actors very much.

It is impossible for me to watch William Alland and Jack Arnold's Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) now without associating it with Caitlín R. Kiernan's "From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6," to the point where Antonio Moreno levered the fossilized, grasping claw of the Creature's ancestor out of its plaster strata of Devonian shale and I thought Grendelonyx innsmouthensis, but I can remember being in third grade and seeing—not the entire film, I think, because I recognized very little beyond the design of the Gill-man and some underwater footage of him swimming through the silt and weeds of the Black Lagoon, but enough that it went into my head as something haunting and not a little upsetting, accelerated shortly afterward by finding in my elementary school library a lavishly illustrated book about '50's monster movies which summarized the two sequels. I knew already that I felt bad for the monster. I already knew that I wanted gills and retractile claws and webbing between my fingers; I swam open-eyed, underwater in the Atlantic and had to be taught actual human swimming strokes. On that level the movie still resonates with me, even while I'm not actually sure as an adult that it's very good. I love the cosmic opening with its condensing clouds of atmosphere and prehistoric seas; the fossil itself is a great hook, even if it's essentially forgotten once the expedition enters the lagoon; I found it a fascinating touch for 1954 that one of the accumulating villainies of Richard Denning's sleek, competitive, increasingly trigger-happy scientist—the kind who's more concerned with getting his name in the papers than advancing the frontiers of human knowledge, unlike hunky but high-minded Richard Carlson—is the disclosure that he's been taking credit for his female colleague's research while convincing her that she wouldn't even have a job in her field without him. (The audience hissed him for that. Good audience.) The underwater shots of a carefree Julie Adams splashing tantalizingly against the sky while the unseen Gill-man shadows her stroke for stroke so vividly recall the opening shark attack of Jaws (1975) that Spielberg has to have seen this movie. The scene in which the Gill-man mauls and drowns an expedition member foolhardy enough to go after him with a spear gun employs no blood and gets a real predator-prey jolt out of the thrashing braid of bodies half-seen in a churn of bubbles, naked human limbs grappling ineffectually with armoring scales and claws. Just why in the name of Poseidon is the Creature so obsessed with Julie Adams except that the monster carrying off the pretty girl is a trope of horror movies and God forbid that after all the scientific buildup we apply any rationality now? Or, as Rob said succinctly over chicken shawarma at Noor this afternoon, "Tits."

I had not seen Andrew Niccol's Gattaca (1997) since it was in theaters, either, where it was almost certainly my introduction to all three of its principal actors, although Jude Law was the name I took away with me at the time. I misread the movie's construction of suspense and spent the entire runtime concerned that the hero's 99% fatal heart condition would kill him at some dramatic or ironic moment, including the climactic blastoff into space. On rewatch at least I didn't have that problem, but then I was free to notice how little the film holds up as science fiction. It makes a great parable, but I can't believe a future America premised on eugenics would actually look or behave like Niccol's cool, retro-modern dystopia; I'm not docking it points for the technological minutiae of the all-pervasive DNA-clocking system which Ethan Hawke's Vincent must study and deceive in order to achieve his skyward dream, because nothing dates faster than detailed anticipation of the future, but thanks to the nationwide tidal wave of anti-intellectualism and general irrationality in which we are all living, right now I am much more worried about conceiving in a society that would force me to carry to term a child that would know nothing but incoherent pain in its short life (I'm an Ashkenazi Jew; Tay-Sachs is the first thing I would screen for) than I am about winding up in a world in which the un-engineered are disparagingly known as "faith-births" and "Godchildren," as if religious conviction is the only reason a person doesn't jump wholesale onto the eugenics bandwagon, throwing out potential geniuses left and right just because they might also turn out manic-depressive or asthmatic or obese or bald. The movie treats genetics as an almost inherently evil science, presuming that it's better never to know in advance because any probability would be accepted instantly as written fate. I look at people I know doing disability and autism awareness and I'm not saying we don't have institutional hangovers from people self-servingly misunderstanding Darwin, but I also look at people I know doing IVF and I'm pretty sure they're not the top of that slippery slope to state-encouraged sterilization. About the only place where I agree with Gattaca is its linkage of class and eugenics: while the wealthy can afford top-of-the-line kids with the most designer tweaks, like the back-broken Olympian whose flawless genetic signature Vincent appropriates to sneak him into the exclusive space program where his own applied intelligence and dedication can take him to the stars, Vincent's own working-class parents conceived him hopefully in the back of a Buick Riviera and then, seeing in horror that he turned out short-sighted with a predisposition to attention deficit disorder and a life expectancy in his early thirties, scrimped and saved to upgrade the next pregnancy. (And while I assume it is part of the point of this movie that the protagonist's life-defining "disabilities" still leave him an able-bodied straight white cis man with the looks to pass himself off as a genetically tailored "Valid" and the smarts to teach himself celestial navigation, I still find myself wondering, all right, so what if you're black in this future and you have a learning disability? What if you're brown and autistic? What if you're a woman who isn't Uma Thurman's lanky porcelain blonde? How do you hack this system?) What this really comes down to is that there's a particular strain of science fiction in which science itself is the inevitable enemy of the human heart and I hadn't realized until I saw it again that Gattaca belongs to it. At least I was still impressed by Jude Law.

We had planned to run out for dinner during the first act of George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and then return in time for Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985) because it's one of Rob's favorite movies and Nacho Vigalondo's Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes, 2007) because I had very good ten-year-old memories of its twisty, panicky time-loop co-starring the director as a pleasantly sensible time-machine-inventing scientist, but instead we went to the ER at Mount Auburn where some very nice night staff gave me a nebulizer treatment and the X-ray of my lungs came out clear, of which the doctor had not been confident while listening to my chest and the sounds I made in between the coughing. If medical monitors produce a permanent record that gets stored somewhere in a patient's chart, mine almost certainly looks ridiculous because I got bored and started playing with biofeedback. (It was genuinely reassuring for me to know that I can still hold my breath for two minutes without strain even under lung-straitening circumstances.) I've now got two inhalers which I am supposed to use for the bronchitis and apparently I was sick enough this week that I almost completely forgot to eat; I shouldn't do that again. We got back to the Somerville for the denouement of Don Coscarelli's John Dies at the End (2012), which involved cultists in pig masks, a dimension-conquering biological supercomputer and its shock troops of giant spiders, a heroic dog, two slackers, some evidently extra-strength soy sauce, some cutesy-splattery animation, and Clancy Brown being randomly badass in shades, which I kind of assume is just a thing Clancy Brown does. I am a little sorry to have missed earlier portions of the film including Doug Jones as a helpful alien, but the coda in which our two heroic slackers are summoned to save yet another universe and flat-out blow their prophesied calling off may have recapitulated everything I need to know.

The film I really wanted not to miss was Clément Cogitore's Neither Heaven nor Earth (Ni le ciel ni la terre, 2015). I had read positive reviews of it last year when it got a U.S. release and they were all justified: it was the standout of the marathon for me. I liked it so much that I have difficulty describing it. It is and is not a war film, just as it is and is not a horror film, because both of those genre labels raise expectations that the film itself effortlessly frustrates. The plot tracks a squad of French soldiers stationed in the Wakhan in Afghanistan in late 2014; under the command of wiry, blond-bearded Captain Antarès Bonassieu (Jérémie Renier, incredible), the small garrison patrols and oversees a small, rocky, scrubby valley on the border of Pakistan, constantly reporting back and forth from their north and south posts. Sometimes they skirmish with the local band of Taliban, so far without apparent casualties on either side; sometimes they interact, in carefully mannered and mutually incomprehensible ways, with the local villagers whose sheep are always straying into their sector. The ISAF is pulling out of Afghanistan, but until that time their high-tech, high-testosterone, bored to fucking tears surveillance routine is unvarying. Check in, check out. Rotate. E-mail your wife. Spar. Check your weapons, break them down, check them again. Light a candle in the tarp-shadowed corner that is the barracks chapel, a black cross spray-painted on a white piece of board; if you think of Crusaders in the desert of eight centuries ago, you aren't the only one feeling those echoes, even if Antarès himself is resolutely non-observant. Whistle for the camp dog and feel a little sad when nobody can find him. Hang up on your wife when you hear the captain coming. Check in. And then one morning two soldiers don't. They don't respond by radio; their relief arriving at the north post finds no one in the little box of cement and tin siding, pin-ups and graffiti on its walls and blankets on the floor. There were civilians seen on the ridge that night, performing some kind of fire ritual—we see it through two kinds of enhanced night vision, green-and-white ghosts in a shimmer of uncertainty. The captain leaps to the same conclusion as the viewer, enemy action, collaboration, these people whose land they have been occupying and whose interests they have been hypothetically protecting have shown their Taliban sympathies at last. But the villagers can demonstrate that it was only a sheep that was burned (they won't explain why, but nobody in the squad cares; it is enough for them to know that the locals observe some form of Islam, so long as it doesn't radicalize them the soldiers are under orders not to interfere) and Antarès despite reviewing all available footage and communications can prove no link between his missing men and any outside influence. He tightens security protocols, sets more cameras up. The soldiers start to get nervous; one dreams repeatedly of his missing comrades asleep in a cave while another panics and wastes a sheep in the dark. A messenger comes on a motorcycle from Kabul, is sent away with pictures of Tek and Delcourt just in case. And another man disappears. Not in the middle of the night, even: broad daylight at the south post while his mate steps outside for a piss. Quickly now, the simple answers begin to recede—the local Taliban come waving a white flag, demanding the French soldiers give back their missing men. Antarès agrees to a cease-fire on the assumption that he'll get his own men traded back, but the truce with "the Sultan" (Hamid Reza Javdan) and his equally gung-ho, equally spooked men stretches uneasily as neither side finds what they were looking for. The messenger's motorcycle turns up in the village, his one-man camp under the fig trees inexplicably deserted. The apparently purposeless iron stake in the center of the valley has a sheep tied up to it, bleating overnight in a circle of white paint. A fourth soldier disappears. If heaven and earth are accounted for, as the title would have it, then the traditional division of the cosmos leaves only hell, but the boy from the village insists that the valley is "Allah's land" where it is forbidden to sleep on the ground or "Allah takes you back." To the squad's translator Khalil (Sâm Mirhosseini), the Sultan's men begin to speak of "the people of the cave," the Quranic Seven Sleepers to whom God granted refuge, dreaming beneath the earth until the unknown time comes for them to awaken: "Some say there were four, some say there were five . . . Some say there were seven men and a dog." Another soldier connects the disappearances to the Christian Rapture, imagining in terror a world from which God is removing his creations, one at a time, in the reverse order from which he created them. And Antarès, the modern scholar-soldier, a young but hardened commander who has famously "never left a man, a body, or even a vehicle behind," finds himself for the first time in his life feverishly, dangerously in need of answers, even as the land itself seems placidly disinclined to provide them. I was reminded of the films of Werner Herzog, especially the ones where Klaus Kinski goes crazy in a hostile landscape; I was reminded of the fiction of Gemma Files. I am pretty sure there is some postcolonial theory in this movie, but there are also arresting, singular images that don't reduce easily to any one reading, like a soldier dancing alone before a techno-blasting stack of amps, his rolling, tightly muscled shoulders showing a pair of eyes tattooed one on each shoulderblade; he looks like a monster himself in that moment, he looks like a drinking cup with apotropaic eyes, he looks like the owl of Lilith's deserts, he looks possessed. It was the right film to show at three in the morning and I am so glad the digital copy consented to show its subtitles, since I might have been able to hack the soldiers' French if I saw it written, but my Persian is not a thing.

I have such mixed feelings about Christian Nicolson's This Giant Papier-Mâché Boulder Is Actually Really Heavy (2016). It is an obvious labor of love, filmed and produced with the assistance of Kickstarter, family, and friends. The initial amusing but finite concept of three regular joes from Auckland mysteriously sucked into a far-future, low-budget world in which not only the clichés but the production values of old-school space opera hold true pivots in the second act into something a lot more metafictionally interesting and then does not quite pay off in the third, even while the inventiveness of the production design remains shameless and delightful, fashioning ray guns out of eggbeaters and pirate ships out of commodes and consoles of futuristic buttons and levers out of everything you could find literally underneath your kitchen sink. The dialogue has the time of its life sending up infodumpy worldbuilding and tin-eared heroic epithets and whoever was managing the color saturation dialed it up and down convincingly for different eras of space opera. The writer-director is one of the stars and he doesn't even give himself the most triumphantly delivered line, which has to do with the reclamation of once-spurned geekery and occasioned foot-stamping audience applause. I even think the script has a handle on the comedic deployment of profanity, which I am kind of a hard sell on unless you're Nick Frost and Simon Pegg (or Boston's own Unreliable Narrator, whose Planet of the Warrior-Bunnies last October gave our household the plummily accented, rhetorically invaluable "What a clusterfuck, eh?"). I'm just not sure that it takes the fullest advantage of its premises and to a degree that left me thinking back on the plot with more yes, but they could have than awesome, they did. In this respect it is doing no worse than many summer blockbusters with orders of magnitude more budget; I just really enjoy seeing tiny homegrown oddities outdo the big studios on every level, not just the creative repurposing of squeegees and forks.

So I know I'm not the target audience for John McTiernan's Predator (1987) because I sat through the first act of lovingly slo-mo South American guerillas being shredded with machine-gun fire or pinwheeled through the air against sheets of rolling orange flame and vine-tangled green hell at the hands of Arnold Schwarzenegger and his elite special forces squad in some kind of action-movie wet-dream do-over of Vietnam ("Makes Cambodia look like Kansas") and when Rob came back from CVS with more seltzer I said, "I have drowned in testosterone." I am not even crazy about the second act in which the commandos are stalked by Kevin Peter Hall's Predator moving like a mirror against the trees, despite the inherent interest of trying to figure out the capabilities and limitations of the hunter-alien from the very little information we have, because the logic of survival horror demands the culling of the herd of characters and I knew Schwarzenegger wasn't going to cop it with his name above the title on the poster and all. I was pleased that the script avoiding killing either of its two main black characters until well after Jesse Ventura's chest had been plasma-exploded. But I did not actually start caring about anything that happened onscreen with more than surface curiosity until the third act dropped straight into the full-bore mythic with Schwarzenegger masked in river mud bending himself a longbow, lighting a torch, and giving voice to a primal scream to alert the Predator to come and get him. Go know. After that I did not watch to see whether the hero would defeat the monster, but how, and what the monster would do about it. I had a general idea of the Predator design from the internet, but had not gathered the amphibious texture of its skin—why should it be mammalian at all—or the intricacy of its mouthparts, which gives it a familiarly doglike look until it unfolds. I was expecting much more explanation at the end than we got. I liked the withholding. I feel I may now wish to try Alien vs. Predator (2004), which both my father and brother enjoyed. They mentioned at the time that it has a black female hero, which I am pretty sure is still rare in genre film or any other kind, really.

I am the target audience for Joe Johnston's The Rocketeer (1991). I have two contradictory memories of discovering the subject material: the timing suggests that I saw the movie first, because I remember seeing it in theaters with my parents, but I also remember purchasing a secondhand copy of Dave Stevens' original comic because the trade paperback had an introduction by Harlan Ellison. In any case, I managed to get enough mental distance between the two versions that I can enjoy the film on its own terms rather than in competition with the comic, which means that I can bask in the performances and the successfully realized retro aesthetic and mostly mind only that the first act is kind of a mess and Jennifer Connelly, though she has many fine qualities which the film duly appreciates, is not Bettie Page. I did not know before this afternoon that Stevens has a brief but memorable cameo as the Nazi rocketeer who blows himself up in the suppressed training film; I keep forgetting that the German propaganda cartoon of rocketmen soaring in black arrows across the Atlantic to bring down the White House in flames and unfurl the Parteiadler in place of the American eagle was directed by Mark Dindal, who has a usually charming and here chilling eye for historical animation styles. I feel it can't merely have been punch-drunk adrenaline that had the audience hollering at every blow of the Nazi-punching climax. I've never seen Billy Campbell as anyone but Cliff Secord, but he has the right hair and the right smile; I have a longstanding fondness for Alan Arkin dating back to The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), but I think he's pretty much perfect as Peevy. Other people I keep forgetting are in this film include Terry O'Quinn as Howard Hughes ("Congratulations, gentlemen. Thanks to the diligence of the FBI, this particular vacuum cleaner will not fall into the wrong hands"), Paul Sorvino as Eddie Valentine ("I may not make an honest buck, but I'm one hundred percent American—I don't work for no two-bit Nazi"), and Max Grodénchik as the criminal underling Wilmer, which should tell you right there what his chances of surviving this story are going to be. I am not sure I had actually noticed before that William Sanderson plays one of the other stunt pilots at the airfield, which means I have finally seen him as someone other than J.F. Sebastian. I think it is highly likely that The Rocketeer is the first movie in which I saw Timothy Dalton, meaning I may never quite separate him from his Errol Flynn impression. Johnston directs period pieces so well, I wish people would let him do more of it.

And by that point it was nearly eleven in the morning and we had seen a beautiful print of Ron Underwood's Tremors (1990) at the Somerville's noon-to-midnight Halloween marathon four years ago, so we bailed on the DCP and went for lunch at Noor, where we had been planning to eat dinner the previous night before the whole ER situation intervened. It was extremely satisfying. I really like pickled turnips. The cats sang the songs of their disgraceful neglect as soon as we got home, then presented belly for petting and, in the case of Autolycus, tried to stick their faces into my tomato soup some hours later when I made myself dinner on the not-forgetting-to-eat plan. By now it is time for me to remember to go to bed. I am not sure this 'Thon review is all that much shorter than in previous years; it might just be distributed differently. This annual observance brought to you by my stalwart backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Sydney Carton)
I finally managed to watch a movie for the first time in weeks. (It's been a bad few weeks.) I am coming to the conclusion that I really like the films of Joseph Losey. For some reason I had gotten the picture of him as an icy stylist—clever, symmetrical, but cold. I could almost see it with The Damned (1963), a deliberately off-kilter mash-up of biker pulp and pre-apocalyptic science fiction, but The Prowler (1951) isn't cold and neither is Time Without Pity (1957), which I watched last night. If anything, attempting to describe it to [ profile] derspatchel, I kept coming back to the adjective hysterical, which is not the first state associated with most cinematic explorations of masculinity. But it suits the film. The plot is conventional; the transforms Losey runs on it are not.

To begin with, as if in a British B-noir Columbo, the audience witnesses the murder. We don't yet know who these people are in the darkened flat with modern art on the walls, but when the girl jolts back over the couch and her head rolls like a broken doll, we get a good look at the middle-aged man crouching over her, the fury that thickened his face slackening into panicky horror. He blunders out of the room and the titles come up over the nearest painting, a sort of Guernica-looking thing of a wild bull at bay. When we see him again, we'll recognize him. But when David Graham (Michael Redgrave) lurches into London clutching a suitcase and blinking in the early morning sun, jet-lagged, red-eyed, and newly sprung from the Montreal sanitarium where he was drying out from his latest fall off the wagon, he doesn't know who he's looking for: he just knows that his son Alec (Alec McCowen, R.I.P.) can't have committed the domestic murder for which he'll hang in twenty-four hours unless David can scrounge new evidence out of a case that opened and shut months ago. Redgrave got my attention some years ago with his almost subliminal acting in The Browning Version (1951) and here he shows the same naturalistic care for a difficult character. The parental fuck-up making a heroic effort for the life of their child is a pattern I've seen enough times now that I gather it's a popular anxiety,1 but David is an especially unprepossessing variation, a tall man in a trenchcoat and a suit that was cut when there was substantially more of him, his hair smeared stickily back from his face which looks shapeless under its flop sweat and five o'clock shadow. He blinks a lot, winces, wipes his hands over his face in a gesture that is half shame and half unabashed hiding. He is not stupid and he loves his son, even if his early promise as a novelist melted at the bottom of a glass and his very real affection for the boy snarled in the guilt-games of a messy divorce. But his social instincts misfire so reliably that the audience watches each interaction to see not whether he's going to screw it up, but how badly. He's pushy where he should be patient, hesitant where he should assert himself. He has trouble with the telephone, which is such a contemporary social anxiety that I was fascinated to see it captured on film in 1957. He has his greatest success as an amateur detective when he just keeps his mouth shut and lets people tell him the things they assume he already knows. As a result, the premise is a classic race against time, but the events of the narrative are a lot of stone walls and blind alleys; combined with the open secret of the murderer's identity, the effect on the audience is much more the don't-go-near-the-castle frustration of horror than the unfolding suspense of a procedural. The doctor tsk-tsks over the strange red marks on the throat of his fainting patient and the audience screams IT'S A VAMPIRE YOU DUMBASS, but the doctor doesn't know that he should be looking for supernatural explanations instead of medical ones and David doesn't know that he's asking the wrong questions. He doesn't know what kind of story he's in.

I'm not entirely sure myself. Five or ten years ago this scenario would have been unambiguously noir and it still could be, at the dissolving outer edge of the cycle that produced experiments like the sexual reversal of The Big Combo (1955) or the slapstick splatter of The Killing (1956). Screenwriter Ben Barzman had collaborated with Losey on the anti-war fantasy The Boy with the Green Hair (1948) before their respective blacklistings from Hollywood; working from Emlyn Williams' 1953 stage play Someone Waiting, he retained the basic constellation of characters but radically rewrote everything from the timeline to the mood. The glassy sense of nightmare agrees with film noir, as does some of the visual/verbal stylization; one of the reasons the tone can scale so successfully into melodrama without collapsing into camp is that it starts at least one high-strung degree out from realism,2 the cinematography and the often intrusive music as anxious and awkward as day-late-dollar-short David, who's still trying just to catch up on the facts of the case as he prepares to see his son for the first time in years. It has the moral ambiguity and the social critique. But so do many other genres that aren't noir and those are the ones that Time Without Pity, though I'm still working to pinpoint why, might belong more to. It's not as symbolic a universe, perhaps. In Roy William Neill's Black Angel (1946), it's a significant moment both personally and narratively when dry drunk Dan Duryea goes on his third-act bender; it signals the end of his ghost marriage with grass widow June Vincent, the resumption of the wastrel downward slide that will solve the mystery of his wife's death and her husband's guilt or innocence. Redgrave's David struggles to stay sober for the first half of Time Without Pity, but when he finally goes for the booze, the film is unemphatic about it. By this point he is being warily assisted in his quest by Honor Stanford (Ann Todd, playing about fifteen years younger than her age), the elegant, guarded mother of Alec's best friend from university; she briefly loses track of him after an upsetting interview and by the time she catches up to him in the nearest pub he's on his nth whisky double and already pretty blind. She tries to persuade him to stop drinking. He downs another and faceplants into the bar. A little while later he wakes up. And more or less sobers up. And he'll spend the rest of the film in sliding states of drunkenness, hangover, and strung-out sobriety, but he's been a functioning alcoholic for years, he can operate like this. It isn't the thing that will make or break his ability to clear his son's name. If there's redemption involved in this tale, that's not the key to it.

The social justice angle could be noir, too, though the decade that produced it had no shortage of message pictures. Much is made of the efficient machinery of the English justice system which has effectively railroaded Alec Graham without anyone involved in the process feeling very strongly about it one way or the other. Once I got over the shock of seeing Peter Cushing in a non-genre supporting role, I conceded that he provides a necessary perspective as Alec's lawyer, a polite, intelligent, colorless man who did the best he could for his client within the boundaries of the law but is now reluctant, his sympathy for both father and son notwithstanding, to push much further. He isn't heartless and he isn't a hypocrite. He just did his due diligence and he doesn't see what more there is for him to do. Neither does the Home Office, even after David pulls every string he can imagine to get an audience in hopes of obtaining a stay of execution; the support he gets from a reform-minded MP is superficial and strictly ideological, holding up Alec's case as a potential miscarriage of justice with no individual concern for the boy's guilt, innocence, or survival. Even the priest who will perform the last rites for the condemned turns his father away with some Teflon platitude about heavenly hands being kinder than the hands of earth. "All of you trying to make it look so humane and decent," David rages. "Well, you can't. I want my son to live. I'm not going to let you kill him!"

What was he to you? Someone to weep over when you were drunk? )

The ending is satisfying. I hadn't been sure it would be; the film is just enough of a noir and David's agency so marginal that it could have gone completely bleak and I wouldn't have been able to dispute it, just dislike. Instead the climactic confrontation comes down to the manipulation of narrative, a strategy any writer can approve of: the man who was always "about to write" his great novel has finally found a story worth telling and a means to make it stick. The final tableau is fantastic, deep-focus as a raked stage. The last line is the right one. I still don't think Time Without Pity is as complex a film as The Prowler or as flat-out weird as The Damned, but it was Losey's first British film under his own name and more than just a placeholder on the way to his work with Harold Pinter. If nothing else, it's got Michael Redgrave. He's sympathetic on the strength of little more than good intentions; he's less fragile than he looks, but that's not the same thing as effective. Especially in light of these last few bad weeks, I find it important that he never does turn into an action hero—at his bravest, he can still be rattled, still have to nerve himself up, still hates the telephone. This eleventh hour brought to you by my tenacious backers at Patreon.

1. Though I've seen it four or five times now with fathers and I'd really like to know where their female counterparts hang out. Pre-Code? Indie filmmaking? Foreign films? I'm taking suggestions.

2. I love the way clocks are used in this movie. They are the obvious symbol of devouring time, so the set design puts them so blatantly everywhere that they become surreal and start to get on the audience's nerves as much as they do the protagonist's. An important witness' mother (Renée Houston, a perfectly pitched grotesque) has filled her parlor with them. The aggressive, oppressive ticking unsettles David, already on edge with the nearness of the liquor she keeps offering him and liberally drinking herself; whenever an alarm goes off, she leaves it "just to hear it ring and know that you don't have to go anywhere—it's wonderful" while David tries and fails not to hear Alec's time running out with each new chime. He can't get away from mirrors, either. He's the last thing he wants to look at or think about—his past failures, his dwindling future, the fatalistic way that Alec, as sensitive as his father and already more bitter, claims to welcome his own hanging as an escape from "turn[ing] into something like you." He sees his own face reflected over his child's and would do anything to take that doom away.
sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
So the first weekend of this month I was in New York City and the second weekend of this month I was at Arisia and the third weekend of this month I was protesting on Boston Common and in between I have been working overtime and the news has been a non-stop horror show, so I am not really surprised that I am exhausted and my attention span is shot. Nonetheless, it is time to talk about movies. Specifically, about the pre-Code comedies of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. I've seen three and a half and I love them.

The half-movie is the Ziegfeld musical Rio Rita (1929), adapted from the stage hit of the same name. The A-plot is some bunk about a dashing Texas Ranger and a south-of-the-border bandit named the Kinkajou and the beautiful Mexican-Irish woman whose brother is the most likely suspect and the Russian general who's blackmailing her into marriage because of it; it is remarkable mostly because the title role marked Bebe Daniels' successful transition from silent stardom to sound and because the finale in two-strip Technicolor is our best record of a Ziegfeld stage show in the wild. The B-plot is just as much of a farrago of bootleg liquor and phony divorces and sketchy legal advice and last-minute partner-swapping to make it all come out right, but crucially it retained for the screen the actors who had originated onstage the roles of baby-faced bootlegger Chick Bean and his cigar-chewing shyster Ed Lovett: Wheeler and Woolsey. They had never met before starting rehearsals for the stage show in 1926, but [ profile] derspatchel and I thought they must have been a long-time vaudeville team we had unaccountably never heard of. They have the timing down, the interlocking rhythms of Wheeler's plaintive innocence and Woolsey's assured nonsense. They are funny even when the jokes are old enough to have voted for Garfield. Wheeler has great playful chemistry with Dorothy Lee, who would become a staple of their RKO comedies and even come out of retirement in the '40's to tour with Wheeler after Woolsey's (I'm sorry, it depressed me to find this out, too) untimely death; I don't think Helen Kaiser ever worked with the pair again, but her sniffy ex-wife waltzes off cheerfully with Woolsey in the last reel, the first in a long line of non-ingenues to capture his heart. Basically, I can't remember a thing about the resolution of the A-plot except that it involves a lot of singing, but I am unlikely to forget the scene where Chick and Lovett get bladdered on a mezcal so potent it dissolves the shot glass and hallucinate a striptease with disastrous results. If you ever get a chance to see this thing, the comedy is worth checking your watch through the melodrama for.

Their starring features are harder to describe, or at least harder to describe in a way that you won't have to take my word for. So far I have seen Hold 'Em Jail (1932), Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1934), and most recently Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934) because that's what's turned up on TCM; the first of these sends up two popular film genres simultaneously and at the same time by starring the duo as joke-shop drummers decoyed onto a prison football team, in the second they're hard-luck lipstick salesmen who find romance while helping out a struggling cosmetics company, and the third finds them going all points, ruffs, and anachronism as a couple of early modern hobos ("Egad and gadzooks—to say nothing of a couple of odds bodkins—this Pullman service is awful") who wind up impersonating the King's physicians while Dorothy Lee impersonates Mary Martin in Peter Pan a boy. You must understand that I have no idea if any of these movies are what you would call conventionally good. Despite three different sets of writers, the prevailing tone in all cases is an absurdist ricochet through riffs and skits and non sequiturs, structure optional, pacing optional, double entendres a must. Plot is relevant only so far as the writers can hang jokes on it. Continuity is negotiable, especially if it would be funnier to ignore. Get the songs in there with soap and a shoehorn if you have to, but they'll be catchy. As with the Marx Brothers, Wheeler and Woolsey are essentially themselves from picture to picture, whether they go by the monikers of Curly and Spider, Andy and Dr. Dudley, or—as far as we could tell, neither of them ever got a proper name in Cockeyed Cavaliers—"the doctors," and the same kinds of stock characters orbit them at all times, daffy young girls, shrewd older women, an endless array of men in authority set up like tenpins and ideally played by Edgar Kennedy. No matter how far afield the storyline has caromed, the last act comes back to extended exercise in slapstick: the big game complete with chloroformed handkerchiefs and a high casualty rate of referees, a cross-country auto race with tadpoles in the radiator and helium in the tires, a boar hunt where the boar is doing the hunting. Oh, and romance, adorable and goofy as you can get it.

All of this stuff is fun for its own sake—even when a scene drags, the sheer silliness of the gags usually saves it, and so far no one has plunged off any racial cliffs—but there are a specific couple of reasons I am evangelizing. One is the fluidity of their double act. Broadly speaking, they divide along classic vaudeville lines. Moony Wheeler with his schoolboyish face and his plangently earnest tenor is the eternal naïf, always falling in love or taking metaphors at face value or otherwise ganging aft agley the best-laid schemes of wiry, world-weary Woolsey, the four-eyed, fast-talking know-it-all who got his diploma from the same school as the commedia's Dottore and thinks he's got all the angles figured until it turns out he was doing his calculations in a curved mirror. The former can be counted on to meet cute with the only eligible girl in the plot, the latter to sidle up to the nearest dowager in sight; the one flirts by shyness and the other by cracking wise; it is terrifyingly possible to describe Wheeler's screen persona as a cross between Naunton Wayne's Caldicott and Zeppo Marx, but Woolsey in the right light can be mistaken for late-period George Burns. He wears plaid vests and sport jackets that can be heard from space. And their chemistry works so well in part because they don't observe a strict straight man vs. zany divide. For all his assumed professional expertise, Woolsey is just as likely to don a tutu or leap into a nonplussed bystander's arms as Wheeler is to produce an inexhaustible supply of bananas out of thin air or steal a coach and four in a kleptomaniacal trance; either one of them can flummox an opponent with anti-logic and both of them can dive like Olympic champions for the door when a big lug escalates from slow burn to HULK SMASH. Wheeler is capable of maintaining a look of cherubic bemusement in the most life-threatening of circumstances, annoyedly waving off a prison break on one side and the armed guards' artillery on the other so that he can meet the warden's daughter at nine o'clock with a bunch of flowers just like he promised, making shadow rabbits with the searchlights while he waits. Woolsey meets all obstacles, threats, and reversals of fortune with a characteristic cry of "Whoa-oh!"—eyes round as his horn-rims, not infrequently clearing the room ahead of his compatriot. They are not unstoppable forces of anarchy like some of their contemporaries, but time and again they skip out on the rules through wits, persistence, and damn-fool luck.

And the women are in on the fun. So far I have found no Margaret Dumont in a Wheeler and Woolsey movie. The ingenues—here represented by Dorothy Lee and Betty Grable, whom I am not sure I had ever before seen outside of a pin-up—are spunky and loopy, disobedient daughters and go-getting working girls, with senses of humor that snap right into place with Wheeler's faint air of picking up Radio Mars on his bridgework. In a modern setting, Lee necks so enthusiastically on a park bench with Wheeler that he fails to distinguish between her caresses and the squirrel scampering up his pant leg; in seventeenth-century drag, she gets to climb out a window, start a brawl, charm a barmaid, and not get clocked until she impulsively kisses Wheeler, who is delighted to discover her deception until he remembers telling her "the story of the itinerant merchant and the peasant's daughter" and has to take a moment to die of embarrassment. Grable smooches her jailbird beau over the cake she's supposed to be frosting and chirpily refers to her authoritarian father as "Popsicle" until you can see the steam coming out of his ears. Edna May Oliver and Thelma Todd take the older women's parts1 and steal scenes like they're going out of style. As the warden's spinster sister in Hold 'Em Jail, Oliver bamboozles her brother with more straight-faced finesse than either of the two misfit inmates whom she gets made trusties for her own benefit and her niece's. Her inimitable tartness appears to act on Woolsey like a curl of perfume in a Pepé le Pew cartoon; they waltz one another into walls, share a romantic duet of "Chopsticks," and he chloroforms himself into her arms at the finale, declaring, "I'm just a prisoner of love. Take me!" Resplendent in theoretically Restoration fashions, Todd flirts outrageously with Woolsey in Cockeyed Cavaliers (she promises to meet him on her balcony "with bells on" and they both break up laughing when he rejoins, "Never mind the bells, honey!") and is even called out by the dialogue as a co-conspirator in their masquerade, but her finest moment almost certainly belongs to Hips, Hips, Hooray! The internet tells me that Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby's "Keep On Doin' What You're Doin'" was originally written for and then cut from the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup (1933), but even in that anarchic company I can't imagine it could have been more fun than Woolsey performing a mating dance for Todd with a lampshade around his waist in response to which Todd gracefully extends one high heel and kicks a vase off its pedestal. (Previous courtship behaviors involved her twisting all the buttons off his waistcoat and pulling a tablecloth out of his pants.) He leaps around the office scattering memoranda like rice at a wedding; she trails yards of ticker tape like bunting. When the young lovers get in on the action, Lee ends up hanging from the very Deco light fixture and waving to the office's actual occupant when he enters and stares. Woolsey dances him off into a closet and everyone slams the door and runs like hell. I love this sort of thing for much the same reason that I love the secondary romance in Gilbert and Sullivan's Utopia, Limited: women who are weird and funny and cherished for it. More, please.

I can't speak for the duo's entire oeuvre. I have seen three and a half films out of something like twenty-one and I have read more than one warning that the quality declines after the enforcement of the Production Code. Frankly, I can't imagine what a Code-compliant Wheeler and Woolsey movie would look like. Any time the scene returns to Maiden America Beauty Products, Hips, Hips, Hooray! is wall-to-wall with girls who are wearing clothing in the sense that there is material between them and the camera, although sometimes it is transparent and most times it wouldn't count if they turned around. A deep-bosomed gown in Cockeyed Cavaliers is described as "the coming thing," with which Wheeler concurs "because there's a lot of it that hasn't arrived yet." Side by side at the piano in Hold 'Em Jail, Oliver and Woolsey share the following Hays-defying exchange:

"I spent four years in Paris. Of course, I'm not a virtuoso."
"Not after four years in Paris, no."
". . . I trust we're both talking about the same thing."

No wonder these movies disappeared for years. In Hips, Hips, Hooray! alone, Wheeler and Woolsey wake up kissing, Wheeler and Woolsey lean in to kiss the same girl and lock lips with each other instead, Woolsey kisses a line of girls to quality-check the flavor of their lipstick (it's a plot point) and the last one throws him back in a clinch and sucks face until he's levitating: "Public enemy number one!" he gasps as she puts him back on his feet. There is a pansy joke, which is inseparable from an actually funny Busby Berkeley parody. Plus Thelma Todd runs her own cosmetics company which is in trouble only because her smarmy—male—sales manager is selling her secrets to her competitors. In short, it does not feel possible to list the pre-Code content without simply summarizing the plot, and for no other reason the films of Wheeler and Woolsey may be of interest to pre-Code aficionados. Also I am enjoying the dickens out of them so far. This silliness brought to you by my snappy backers at Patreon.

1. I know Thelma Todd was younger than me when she died in 1935, but in both of her appearances with Wheeler and Woolsey she is playing the role of a glamorous matron or businesswoman rather than a girl. Wheeler (1895–1968) looked younger than he was, Woolsey (1888–1938) looked older. Their leading ladies were cast to match.
sovay: (Morell: quizzical)
Tonight I saw Lloyd Bacon's Wonder Bar (1934) at the Harvard Film Archive. I have no idea how to talk about this movie. I must have spent an hour in the basement of the Harvard Book Store post-morteming it with [ profile] ladymondegreen who had watched it on DVD at home, being unable to attend in person due to family obligations,1 and I still have no idea. It's not that it's difficult to describe; the technicalities of the plot are complicated, but no more so than the similarly interwoven Grand Hotel (1932). It has pre-Code content coming out its ears, but that's nothing new around here. The introductory speaker pointed out that all of the elements which made Wonder Bar so controversial and censor-baiting on its release in March of 1934—the breezily amoral treatments of adultery, murder, and suicide, plus a rather lovely moment with two queer men who are not a pansy joke—barely raise an eyebrow with a modern audience, who instead have heart attacks from the element viewed at the time as a beloved, wholesome American art form; that would be the blackface. About fifteen minutes of it, staged and filmed elaborately as any other musical number by Busby Berkeley, densely packed with clever sight gags and, yes, giant fruit. It is skull-spinningly racist. I think it may have been intended as some kind of tribute. I have no idea how to talk about this movie.

I might have been better prepared for it if I had ever seen Al Jolson before, but I hadn't—I've seen Overture to Glory (דער ווילנער שטאט חזן/The Vilna City Cantor, 1940) with Moishe Oysher, but not The Jazz Singer (1927). I had somewhat studiously avoided ever even listening to "My Mammy." So I can't tell if Al Wonder, owner and emcee of the Wonder Bar in Paris, a decadent nightspot that flashes its name in three different alphabets of neon and attracts a clientele from expatriate White Russians to good-time American businessmen to high-rolling German officers, is a good representation of Jolson's star persona. "Manic" is one word you could use to describe it. "Proto-Borscht Belt" is another. At different points he reminded me of Groucho Marx, Danny Kaye, and the Emcee from Cabaret. The character is a quick-change tummler, bouncing from persona to persona with each new routine, a fast deadpan crack out of the side of his mouth or a dialect shaggy dog story that tops off in a performance of "Ochi Chornya" so spreadingly schmaltzy, I thought I could hear Kaye starting to sneeze and Tom Lehrer starting to never forget something about Lobachevsky; he moves so fast that it's impossible to tell what's underneath the patter and the punch lines, leaving open the possibility that the answer is nothing. According to the plot, he's in love with specialty dancer Dolores del Río, but she, despite past history with torch-carrying bandleader Dick Powell, is self-abasingly obsessed with her dancing partner Ricardo Cortez, who is smarmily romancing married Kay Francis and planning to skip town later that night with the profits from her diamond necklace, whose supposed loss is sufficiently high-profile to have triggered a call from a pair of insurance investigators to her banker husband Henry Kolker, who happens to be a friend of Jolson's and a big patron of the Wonder Bar. A sloshily peripatetic Hugh Herbert and Guy Kibbee keep trying to pick up a pair of garter-tossing bar girls while their reproving wives Louise Fazenda and Ruth Donnelly set their sights on a gigolo with a pocketful of visiting cards, each printed with a compliment appropriate to a different kind of woman (the one he eventually hands over to the Schenectady matron claims that she reminds him of his mother). Robert Barrat withdraws his last funds from the bank, set his monocle at an angle to match his dueling scar, and strides off backstage to divest himself of all his worldly possessions to the delight of the bare-legged chorus girls. Jolson's Wonder is in near-constant motion throughout, greeting his patrons in four languages, covering for the late entrance of the dancers with the tongue-twister "Vive la France" ("Frenchmen are gallant, the women can't resist them / Frenchmen have talent—you ought to try their system"), and darting in and out of dressing rooms in order to keep track of the plot, which is more than the audience can hope for. He's definitely some kind of trickster, but not necessarily the nice kind—he resolves an inconvenient murder by stashing the body in the trunk of a suicidal patron's car and simply not standing in the way of the owner when he peels out for his fatal rendezvous with a cliff. How pre-Code is this movie? That's the happy ending, it's that pre-Code. Jolson doesn't get the girl, of course, but maybe she dodged a bullet going home with Dick Powell instead of Comus.

The thing is, when Jolson's in mile-a-minute trickster mode, he is actually not repellent to me. "Vive la France" was recorded live on set because Jolson said he couldn't do it to playback—so the house band at the Wonder Bar is the actual Warners studio orchestra—and I think he was right. It's a live wire of a number, maybe a minute and a half tops of innuendo and nonsense and the obligatory "Fifty Million Frenchmen" reference and it blasts past on the high-octane excitement of a performer throwing themselves a hundred and ten percent into a song and at least looking like they are enjoying the hell out of it. Not all of his emcee's punch lines landed for me, but the exchange about the giraffe is so absurd it hasn't dated at all. The aforementioned queer moment depends on switched expectations, but not on stereotypes—"Boys will be boys," Wonder whistles after a handsome young man politely asks to cut in on an equally attractive couple and then waltzes off with the smiling man rather than the expectant woman (she shrugs and wanders off into the crowd). We just start to run into problems when we hit the art form he was famous for. From the original trailer, capitalization not mine—

"Going To Heaven On A Mule" is a musical creation so startlingly different
that to show you ONE SINGLE FLASH of its 42 unforgettable scenes
. . . would rob you of the greatest thrill you've ever had in a theatre

DU MUẞT CALIGARI WERDEN I GET IT OKAY. Look, whoever put together that trailer for Warner Bros. was quite right that Wonder Bar's big closing number resembled nothing I had ever seen before in my life and that I would never forget the experience. It's just not going to be for lack of trying. I literally ended up making bibble-bibble-bibble noises at [ profile] derspatchel while attempting to convey something of the effect of Berkeley's conception of an all-black heaven, into which a blacked-up Jolson in raggedy overalls and a frazzled straw hat rides his literal mule direct from the plantation by way of a rather attractive Bifrost bridge that deserved to lead into a legitimate Art Deco Valhalla rather than a tinsel-winged parody of Harlem where pork chops grow on trees and chickens are flash-fried at a wish. A full-length portrait of Abraham Lincoln hangs in the receiving room where Jolson is fitted for his robe and his wings, because Emancipation is funny. God forbid we should save on shoe polish and cast some actual black people in this number, so Saint Peter and the Angel Gabriel make their appearances in blackface while among the white clouds and little burnt-cork cherubs can be glimpsed such sages of minstrelsy as Old Black Joe and Uncle Tom. Jolson will later win the epaulettes off Emperor Jones in a game of craps, which in heaven can be played all day without danger of gainful employment interfering. You lose your wings and get the express chute to hell if you pass bum liquor to Peter, though. Typing all of this out isn't helping. I don't even feel sociologically qualified to unpack the moment in which, having his shoes shined at the bustling intersection of Lenox Avenue and the Milky Way, Jolson's new-minted angel flips up his newspaper and grins at the audience over the Yiddish-language front page of the The Garden of Eden Star—דער גן עדן שטערין. I am normally all about Busby Berkeley and giant fruit, but at the point where blacked-up Hal Le Roy emerged from within giant slices of watermelon for a white-grinning, jitter-legged tap dance, I started to pray for Carmen Miranda to descend from the Technicolor Olympos of people who are least in on their own jokes and just squash him with a Terry Gilliam-sized banana or something. It improves nothing that on top of the inherent screaming racism which all the inventive little details of this chocolate-colored heaven only emphasize, blackface has, for me, the uncanny valley quality that many people seem to associate with clown makeup—nobody's lips look like that. Nobody's eyes look like that. I don't care that we're on monochrome film stock, people aren't that color. An entire screenful of this sort of thing turns into nightmare fuel after a while, e.g., two seconds. The occasional sighting of an actual, un-painted, I wish to God I thought they'd gotten hazard pay for it black chorus member just makes it worse. I keep asking myself how this happened and I know how it happened: blackface was Jolson's thing and Berkeley spun his usual surrealism on it and the combined results are a live-action cartoon of the kind Disney is currently attempting to make everyone forget ever graced its vaults. Coming home and reading that Jolson's offstage interactions with black artists and entertainers were reliably, progressively friendly and supportive still doesn't incline me to a rewatch. At least I guess it answers the question of whether I want to seek out any more of Jolson's movies, except maybe The Jazz Singer eventually for its historical importance and Hallelujah, I'm a Bum! (1933) somewhat sooner for Harry Langdon.

The other Berkeley-staged number in the film is full of domino masks and mirrors and trees shedding silver foil in an endlessly reflective autumn or spring and it's actually quite nice, with a kind of carnival Cinderella motif to accompany the song "Don't Say Goodnight," but "Goin' to Heaven on a Mule" goes on for so long and is placed so close to the end of the movie—thankfully we get out of it before the credits, which cannot be said of many musicals Berkeley worked on—that it ends up leaving the dominant impression, along with the part where Al Wonder cheerfully exploits a dude's suicidal depression to get his love object out of trouble. It's a very considerate movie that way. If the extended blackface didn't bounce your brain off the inside of your forehead, you'll still get tonal whiplash on the way out. I should mention here that it independently confuses me that the story is taking place in Paris, if for no other reason than that a nightclub named "Wonder Bar" should by all rights have existed in Weimar Berlin, but I expect that impression was partly formed by the HFA's print coming from Gosfilmofond by way of German elements, meaning that all onscreen writing was in either German or French and random reels had German subtitles stuck to the bottom of the screen. Seriously, the more I think about this, the more I kind of want the crossover with the Kit Kat Klub, only not, because Cabaret has got sufficient Nazis that it doesn't need blackface. I don't know what else I can say. I regret nothing about the experience of watching Wonder Bar because it happened in pre-Code Hollywood, for better and for worse, but eighty percent Menschen im Hotel and twenty percent Tambo and Bones is not my ideal ratio of entertainment. This artifact brought to you by my better-educated backers at Patreon.

1. Through pure coincidence of the kind that frequently attends interaction with Lady Mondegreen, on my way out the door to Harvard Square I discovered a package which turned out to be the copy she had sent me of Derek Sculthorpe's Van Heflin: A Life in Film (2016). On reading that Heflin ran away to sea at age fourteen (taking a camera on all his voyages so that he could take snapshots for his grandmother in southern California; she tracked his progress on her atlas) and loved the writing of Joseph Conrad, I realized instantly that the alternate universe which contains Wuthering Heights with Robert Newton and all those other contrafactual movies of my heart would have had the good sense to cast Van Heflin in a screen version of Lord Jim: I'm sure I'd have facepalmed my way through its Southeast Asian setting as hard as I did through the New Zealand of Green Dolphin Street (1947), but damn would he have knocked the character out of the park. I might even have preferred him to Peter O'Toole.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
I am beginning to think I may have had the flu. Exhaustion, fever, headache, literally spent a day in bed, spent the next day out of bed and fell over before midnight, more fever, slept twelve hours at the end of which I am still hallucinatorily tired, I have to travel tomorrow (come hear me read classically-themed poems in Brooklyn!) and I'm having trouble with the concept of sitting upright. Nonetheless, I can type: I can talk about film.

I'd wanted to see The Moon Is Down (1943) since May, when I had a dream that made me wish the novel wasn't packed away with the rest of my books. All paperback fiction after G is still in storage, but the film did me the favor of turning up on TCM on Monday night. I had not planned in advance for my first movie of 2017 to be a story of resistance, but I don't mind.

When the idea of a novel on the themes of occupation and resistance first occurred to John Steinbeck in the fall of 1941, he was working for a variety of government agencies and his own country was neutral; by the time The Moon Is Down saw print in March of 1942, the U.S. had entered World War II and the prospects for the Allies looked grim. On publication, the novel met with commercial success, dramatic adaptation, and critical controversy. Steinbeck was careful to identify no nationalities in his short fable of a small mining town under military occupation by a belligerent foreign power—the characters are divided into "invaders" and "townspeople" with vaguely European names on both sides, the terrain is mostly defined by mountains and winter and the nearness of the sea, and external references to England, France, Belgium, and Russia still leave a lot of the globe unclaimed—but only so that it would have the widest possible range of identification for readers in Nazi-occupied Europe. In the U.S., it was criticized for its melodrama, its optimism, its naïveté, and especially its sympathetic portrayal of the invaders, including the war-weary veteran at the head of the occupying battalion who knows that "there are no peaceful people . . . no friendly people" in a nation taken and held by force. In Europe, where audiences understood that not every enemy comes with a cartoon mustache and an affidavit of recently eaten babies, the novel became a classic of the resistance. It was translated—clandestinely—into Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, French, Italian, even German; there were two serialized versions published in the USSR and another in China. After the war, Steinbeck was awarded the Haakon VII Freedom Cross by the king of Norway himself, for outstanding service to the country during the war. The lack of proper names had not prevented readers all across Europe from identifying the novel's invaded country as Norway. I was introduced to the novel by a friend whose father had grown up in Fredrikstad during the German occupation. It didn't matter that it was written by an American author who had known refugees and members of different resistance groups but never lived in an occupied country himself; to Norwegians, it rang true.

In any case, despite the critical flamewars, The Moon Is Down—its title taken from Macbeth, which never stops me from thinking δέδυκε μὲν ἀ σελάννα and inappropriately associating it with Sappho—was not so unpopular at home that it didn't get optioned by Twentieth Century-Fox, adapted and produced by Nunnally Johnson, and directed by Irving Pichel. On the whole it's a faithful version. The novel is quiet, omniscient, compassionate, and impossible to read without feeling a little cold; the deep, waiting winter closes around the reader as much as it does around the town and its inhabitants, and whether you find it a comfort or a horror depends on whose perspective you're in. The film is more exciting, which means that it feels more episodic and the stakes are raised on some of its significant events, although not so much that I think the point is lost. I would love to know its reception in Norway, because the national identity of the nameless little town is unambiguous from the opening image of Hitler's fist pounding on a map of Scandinavia while a harshly rising voice rants about Norwegen, Norwegen to the choral singing of "Ja, vi elsker dette landet" (Anglicized to "Yes, We Love This Land, Our Country") underneath the final scene. In between it is nowhere near as programmatic as these two examples make it sound, since the script is, despite Steinbeck's reassuring but specious distinction between the "free men" of democratic countries and the "herd men" of authoritarian regimes, as conscientiously complicated as the novel in its depiction of both sides of an occupation.

I don't just mean that the German characters are human, although it's important that they are, since it is one of the ways they can be defeated. But they are more interestingly human than the conventional sympathy for the villain; the townspeople resist them in ways that do not always look like recruiting posters. For us the war lasted exactly two hours. )

So that was a very interesting movie to see in the same week that Trump tweeted about his enemies and I am thinking about resistance in general, Nazis optional. It has its flaws—primarily I think its score is a little too dramatically on-the-nose and could have relied more on folk motifs like the Norwegian national anthem, as composer Alfred Newman had done successfully with his scores for The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and How Green Was My Valley (1941)—but it preserves all the things I remember liking about the book and adds some I didn't know I was missing, like Henry Travers and occasional striking cinematography. Other films that may deserve a rewatch in the near future are Jean Renoir's This Land Is Mine (1943) and Vernon Sewell and Gordon Wellesley's The Silver Fleet (1943). This course of study brought to you by my organized backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Default)
So the thing that becomes immediately obvious to me when I look at my year-end summary for 2016 is the degree to which the health issues which were identified in February and are only just now beginning to resolve affected almost every aspect of my writing. The second half of the year was scarily thin in new fiction and poetry; it was actually worse than 2006, the year my life up to then fell apart. Nonetheless, the way 2016 turned out, I think I am going to count anything published as an active victory over the forces of violence and entropy.

There was new fiction:

"Skerry-Bride" in Devilfish Review #16, February 2016.
"The Trinitite Golem" in Clockwork Phoenix #5 (ed. Mike and Anita Allen), April 2016.
"The Choices of Foxes" in Not One of Us #55 (ed. John Benson), April 2016.
"All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts" in Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror (ed. Lynne Jamneck), June 2016.
"Imperator Noster" in Genius Loci: Tales of the Spirit of Place (ed. Jaym Gates), July 2016.

There was new poetry:

"The Lost Aphrodite" in The Cascadia Subduction Zone 6.1, January 2016.
"Anybody That Looked Like That" in Go Now (ed. John Benson), January 2016.
"The Parable of the Albatross" in Stone Telling #13: Hope, January 2016.
"For Saint Valentine, on the Occasion of His Martyrdom" in Goblin Fruit #36: Winter 2016, February 2016.
"Men Who Aren't Crazy" in The Cascadia Subduction Zone 6.2, April 2016.
"In a Funny Kind of Way" in Polu Texni 4/25/16, April 2016.
"Sudden Death" in Through the Gate #10, May 2016.
"The Anniversary" in Through the Gate #10, May 2016.
"'Лондонский маленький призрак'" in Through the Gate #10, May 2016.
"Phliasian Investigations" in Spelling the Hours: Poetry Celebrating the Forgotten Others of Science and Technology (ed. Rose Lemberg), August 2016.
"A Gun and a Boy (Le Cercle Rouge)" in inkscrawl #10, August 2016.
"The Ghost Marriage" in Uncanny Magazine #12, September 2016.
"Ghost Ships of the Middlesex Canal" in Not One of Us #56, September 2016.
"At the Meyerhold Theatre" in Through the Gate #19, October 2016.
"A Death of Hippolytos" in The Cascadia Subduction Zone 6.4, October 2016.
"The Other Lives" in The Cascadia Subduction Zone 6.4, October 2016.
"Vocatio" first appeared in Twisted Moon #1, October 2016.
"About Building" in Through the Gate #23, December 2016.

There were even some reprints, of which I am very proud:

"Upon the Land, On the Sea" in Angels of the Meanwhile: Poetry and Prose in Support of Pope Lizbet (ed. Alexandra Erin), April 2016.
"Chez Vous Soon" in
Sirenia Digest #124 (ed. Caitlín R. Kiernan), June 2016.
"Exorcisms" in An Alphabet of Embers: An Anthology of Unclassifiables (ed. Rose Lemberg), July 2016.
"The Clock House" in Spelling the Hours: Poetry Celebrating the Forgotten Others of Science and Technology (ed. Rose Lemberg), August 2016.
"And Black Unfathomable Lakes" in The Museum of All Things Awesome and That Go Boom (ed. Joanne Merriam), August 2016.
"When Can a Broken Glass Mend?" in Heiresses of Russ 2016: The Year's Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction (ed. A.M. Dellamonica and Steve Berman), November 2016.

And a small quantity of fanfiction, none of which I was expecting to write:

"Not a Tame Lion" (Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis), September 2016.
"ἐπὶ οἴνοπα πόντον" (Benjamin January, Barbara Hambly), December 2016.

I had no published interviews this year (I did one by phone, but it won't air until—I can still say this—next year), but Ghost Signs (2015) garnered some very fine reviews:

Rich Horton for Locus, January 2016.
Liz Bourke for Strange Horizons, January 2016.
Lev Mirov for Stone Telling, January 2016.

Honestly, I think my major intellectual achievement this year was the writing I did for my Patreon:

Too Late for Tears (1949), January 2016.
Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990), January 2016.
Despicable Me (2010), January 2016.
Fast Workers (1933), January 2016.
Cain and Mabel (1936), February 2016.
Boston Sci-Fi Marathon 41 [Starman (1984), Himmelskibet (1918), Blade Runner (1982), High Treason (1929), Ex Machina (2015), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Bride of Finklestein (2015), Pitch Black (2000), Big Ass Spider! (2013), Never Let Me Go (2010), Donovan's Brain (1953), They Live (1988), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)], February 2016.
Mr. Skeffington (1944), February 2016.
The Guns of Navarone (1961), Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965), Hail, Caesar! (2016), February 2016.
Crack-Up (1946) and Act of Violence (1948), March 2016.
Moonrise (1948), March 2016.
Belladonna of Sadness (1973) and The Witch: A New-England Folktale (2015), March 2016.
Gay Purr-ee (1962), March 2016.
Phaedra (1962), April 2016.
Johnny Eager (1942), April 2016.
The Blackcoat's Daughter (2015), May 2016.
Seven Sweethearts (1942), May 2016.
Fighting Men: Baptism of Fire (1943), May 2016.
Madame Bovary (1949), May 2016.
World for Ransom (1954), June 2016.
Macao (1952) and Green Dolphin Street (1947), June 2016.
The Prowler (1951), June 2016.
Santa Fe Trail (1940), June 2016.
Criss Cross (1949), July 2016.
thoughts on the femme fatale, July 2016.
thoughts on film noir, July 2016.
A Thousand Clowns (1965), August 2016.
Detour (1945), August 2016.
The Big Combo (1955), August 2016.
HFA Night Train Marathon [L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896), Twentieth Century (1934), Night Mail (1936), Night Train to Munich (1940), The Little Train Robbery (1905), The Narrow Margin (1952), Nayak (1966), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)], September 2016.
The Killing (1956) and Born to Kill (1947), September 2016.
The Ten Commandments (1956), September 2016.
Demon (2015) and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), October 2016.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962), October 2016.
Red Hot Tires (1935), October 2016.
My Son, the Hero (1943) and Lady with a Past (1932), October 2016.
Princess Caraboo (1994), November 2016.
The Gang's All Here (1943), December 2016.
Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), December 2016.
Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) and Dames (1934), December 2016.
Lady Be Good (1941), December 2016.
Possessed (1947), December 2016.
The Spy in Black (1939), December 2016.

And I will do what I can as soon as I can do it to make up for the associated obligations on which I fell behind. I feel in may ways as though I am just getting my brain back for the first time in months if not a year. It's just as well; I think I'm going to need it.

Happy New Year. Let's do what we can to make 2017 something we want to set slightly less on fire and shove off a skyscraper. Tonight [ profile] derspatchel and I are going to hear the bells ring.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
The Spy in Black (U.S. U-Boat 29, 1939) played on TCM recently, so I got to show it to [ profile] derspatchel last night. It is the first collaboration of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, working as director and screenwriter respectively under the auspices of Alexander Korda; it was as good as I had remembered from five years ago; it is still not on DVD, which feels particularly inexcusable and bewildering since it appears on TCM courtesy of Criterion, who evidently can't be bothered to get off their tacks and give it a proper release rather than just streaming. I wrote briefly about it in 2011, by way of introduction to Powell and Pressburger's equally weird and worthy follow-up Contraband (U.S. Blackout, 1940):

Veidt and Hobson had starred together the previous year in The Spy in Black (1939), the film on which Powell and Pressburger met; it was a neat little World War I espionage flick, with Veidt as a U-boat captain come ashore in the Orkneys to lead a raid on Scapa Flow and Hobson as his apparent contact, a cool schoolmistress with more layers than he's prepared for, maddeningly attractive to him because of her ice-nerve professionalism, not in spite of it. Their chemistry is terrific; it's almost not possible to believe the sudden revelation that she's the wife of the supposedly disgraced and turncoat naval officer who's been feeding Veidt information about the disposition of the British fleet and that she was dragooned at the last minute into her role of double agent, because she seems so much more in her element with a small pistol in her hand and nothing to be read in her eyes at all.

Having spent most of my attention on Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson the first time around, this time I could spare some appreciation for second-billed Sebastian Shaw, who appears first to the audience and Veidt's Captain Hardt as the dissolute, disloyal Lieutenant Ashington, recently busted down from commander for losing his destroyer in a moment of drunken carelessness and resentful enough of it to offer aid and comfort to the enemy so long as they offer him plenty of liquor and Hobson's Fräulein Tiel in return. In later life Shaw apparently looked back on his pre-war acting as "rotten" and described himself dismissively as "a piece of cinema beefcake" who didn't start learning his trade instead of relying on his pretty face until after his stint in the RAF, but I hope he made an exception for Ashington. He is good-looking, but his rounded bones look insipid next to Veidt's intense, iconic angles and in any case the man's insolent, petulant manner ensures that the audience catches any unpleasant aspect of his features first: the thinness of his mouth that stretches a sneer more easily than any other expression, the wide curve of his cheek suggesting softness without youth; his fine dark lashes give his eyes a dreamy look that is belied instantly by the sarcastic pinch of his brows and the dissipated creases under his eyes. He isn't a mess, but he's sloppy—uniform jacket unbuttoned, dark hair a little tousled, always a glass in his hand. He smokes while his contacts silently refrain; when Hardt won't take a drink with him, he makes a point of knocking back the extra ration himself. He has a good voice, crisp, a little dry, but when he's not drawling his lines with deliberate hostility, he rattles them nervily out. Put him in another film and he might be the fuck-up with charisma, but the audience of The Spy in Black is not directed to find him charming: we have already been impressed with serious, seasoned Hardt and his dedication to a job he would rather not have been detailed for—he is a career navy man who follows his orders from Berlin with punctual invention but wears his captain's uniform whenever possible so that "if [he's] shot, it will be as an officer, not a spy"—and nothing about faithless Ashington inspires any competing affection, especially not his passive-aggressive attitude toward his beautiful handler, who may have bought his cooperation with her body but doesn't bother to pretend she's enjoying it. The best he might get from the viewer is a wince of sympathy when Hardt ditches him in the blowing sea-fog by the Old Man of Hoy to rendezvous with his crew aboard U-29 while Ashington with no coat on swears and shivers and paces and drinks and complains to Tiel as soon as they get back: "Damn fellow left me sitting in the heather!" (Hardt responds, grinning, "It's not our custom to entertain British naval officers during the war, however useful they may have been.") In his delicately sketched combination of weakness and cynicism, he reminds me oddly and strikingly of Denholm Elliott, who was sixteen at the time of filming and wouldn't essay these kinds of characters for another twenty-five years.

That was the worst ten minutes I've ever spent. ) I would not be surprised if at that point in his career Shaw had figured out how to play weakness but not yet strength—and the script didn't give him a saving assist. I still wouldn't call it rotten acting when two-thirds of it works for me, but I find the failure point fascinating.

In any case, while I know where to look for more Valerie Hobson and more Conrad Veidt, I will have to research what else Sebastian Shaw did on film or TV that might interest me. As far as I can tell, I have seen him otherwise only in Return of the Jedi (1983), at least before George Lucas went back and mostly swapped in Hayden Christiansen. Everything comes back to Star Wars eventually. There is at least one rip of The Spy in Black available on YouTube and others may lurk elsewhere on the internet. I do recommend chasing it with Contraband if you can. This thumbnail brought to you by my loyal backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
Half an hour from the end of last night's movie, as the protagonist returned uneasily to the partly derelict lake house where she had once served as nurse to the fretful, jealous, invalid wife of the Canadian industrialist who was now her much older husband, I finally diagnosed the problem with Curtis Bernhardt's Possessed (1947). If you guessed from the previous sentence that this film's rightful genre is the Gothic, you would be correct. And if you suspect that no genre was ever improved less by the addition of state-of-the-art late-Forties psychobabble, then you know more than the screenwriters.

My feelings toward Possessed are more sorrow than anger. It could so easily have worked. The plot takes two classic Gothic tropes—the Byronic demon lover and the uncertain marriage, complete with haunted homes and a husband who may or may not be concealing a dreadful secret—and interweaves them into a racheting nightmare into which the sanity of Joan Crawford's Louise Howell progressively dissolves, quite realistically when it's not being explained in outmoded Freudian terms by the paternal, infallible psychiatrist interrogating a dissociative Louise in the Los Angeles psych ward of the frame story. The cinematography and often the action has the translucent, dreamlike quality of much film noir, with the mise-en-scène doubling for the protagonist's mental state, but it's wilder, lusher, more capital-R Romantic than the high-contrast expressionism of noir. I have yet to see Crawford in a role where I find her as interesting as some other actresses of her era, but I have enjoyed her acting in movies such as Jean Negulesco's Humoresque (1946) and David Miller's Sudden Fear (1952) even when I felt the writing let her characters down1 and she is wholly committed here, playing both madness at a high theatrical register and realistic disordered thinking with no more dramatic tells than sentences that don't seem quite congruent with the situation and a thousand-yard stare that returns whenever she doesn't have anything to distract her. Raymond Massey is cleverly cast as Dean Graham, Louise's wealthy employer who's barely closed the inquest on decades of grim marital fidelity before he's proposing out of nowhere to his late wife's beautiful but penniless and insecure caretaker: on the one hand he's touching and softer than usual as the older widower regarding his romantic chances with more than a little self-deprecation ("It isn't very easy for a man my age to kiss a woman with dignity—I'll need practice"), but on the other the audience will recognize him as Citizen Chauvelin and Black Michael and Jonathan Brewster and while you want him to be genuine, with that saturnine, cadaverous look you can never be quite sure. His daughter Carol (Geraldine Brooks in her screen debut) insinuates coldly that Louise's presence in the house is replacing not only mother but daughter. Was his wife's drowning death a suicide? With Raymond Massey, your options are basically Abe Lincoln or villain. Meanwhile Van Heflin is sly, sour, and loiteringly sexy as David Sutton, the womanizing engineer whose casual dismissal of Louise after sharing the first intense affair of her life knocks her into a decaying emotional orbit. "I've never had anything in the whole world I ever wanted, except you . . . I just can't go back to being on the outside of people's lives looking in," she protests, to which he gives a world-weary sigh: "Louise, we're all on the outside of other people's lives looking in. You wouldn't like being on the inside of my life, anyway—there's nothing there but a few mathematical equations and a lot of question marks. Darling, I honestly think we'd better not see each other for a while." A rake like they made them in Hogarth's day, he switches seamlessly from his fragile ex-lover to her college-aged stepdaughter, drinking steadily all the while; the more time the audience spends with him, the more his cynical charm is revealed as corrosion, his caustic wit as actual hostility. Technically he gets most of the script's best lines, but after a while they lose their playfulness and begin to sound like red flags: "My liver rushes in where angels fear to tread . . . Her money is an obstacle—so I intend spending it just as rapidly as possible . . . I seldom hit a woman, but if you don't leave me alone, I'll start kicking babies." Either man could furnish a Gothic narrative on his own, but merging their plotlines is what really sends Louise off the rails, as the anguish of not being "lovable" enough to make David stay finds its explanation in the conviction that she must have done something monstrous to forfeit his affections, something unforgivable, like murdering a lonely man's wife in order to take her place and make the man of her dreams jealous enough to come back to her as he swore he never would . . .

And then the psychobabble rolls back in. Possessed works hard to build a sumptuous, seasick mood of unreliable perception and unstable memory, in which Louise can hear the voice of the first Mrs. Graham calling to her from the electronic blare of an intercom or the cold, black, lapping waters of the lake and the audience shouldn't be able to guess which version of Carol coming upstairs after an evening at the opera is the real one until they're both done speaking, but every time we cut back to the white-clad hospital staff saying things like "Typical schizoid detachment" and "Do you notice the beginning of the persecution complex?" the whole thing just folds up and falls over like a broken deck chair. It even has the five-minute psychiatric monologue to wrap up all loose ends at the finale. I can't explain it. You want a Gothic, then you let people have their brooding and their tortured gestures and their psychotropic weather. You don't slap labels on the melodrama. It makes the characters look silly; it makes the film look like it doesn't trust itself. Constantly yanking the audience out of Louise's perspective into the critical, clinical reductions of her (badly dated) diagnosis breaks not only our immersion in the story but our identification with Louise, especially when the effect of these analyses is to diminish her further from an individual heroine to a type specimen, a "beautiful woman—intelligent, frustrated . . . It's always the same. A problem of some kind—simple, perhaps, but she was unable to cope with it. And now this," where this is near-catatonia from which only drugs and men's insistent voices can rouse her to tell her tale. I can imagine a movie which played with this effect deliberately: the protagonist envisions her life at a Gothic pitch of romance and suspense, the reality is that she's just ordinarily, mundanely overreacting and reading too much into things. I don't think the script for Possessed is that clever. I don't believe it's trying to anticipate The Snake Pit (1948), either: the music which accompanies the wrap-up monologue is too heroic. When Stanley Ridges' Dr. Willard delivers the sententious verdict that "this civilization of ours is a worse disease than heart trouble or tuberculosis," we are almost certainly expected to agree. I'm not saying the filmmakers did wrong in making a modern Gothic, but I couldn't help noticing that the plot could have withstood a period treatment with almost no alterations—Dean might have needed to make his money in steel or railways instead of oil, but David's ambition to build a bridge with a particular parabola is timeless and Louise's successive jobs as nurse and governess to the Graham family are almost retrograde in the film's contemporary, postwar setting. Her fear of being institutionalized by her husband would have translated naturally to the age of Bedlam and we might then have been spared the weirdly Christian and frankly horrifying characterization of psychiatric treatment presented by Dr. Willard to a worried Dean: "It was pain that made her this way. Only through greater pain and suffering beyond belief can she get well again." I don't care who the filmmakers consulted with, my grandfather got his PhD in psychology in 1947 and he never once tried to persuade me that getting mentally healthier had to be literal hell or it wouldn't work. Remind me to avoid your therapists like the plague, Los Angeles County Hospital.2

Maybe my feelings toward this movie are more anger after all. Everyone's behavior in Possessed is psychologically plausible, but you wouldn't know from the way the supposed experts discuss it. It makes a great framework for a woman to suffer within, but I maintain the protagonist was doing just fine on that front without professional help. So as with many badly flawed works of art, I end up treasuring fragments of this movie more than the movie itself. The way Van Heflin looks like a hot librarian in the nerd-heavy horn-rims that David wears at his drafting table; the way he gets one genuine moment of shock and empathy in his last confrontation with Louise and otherwise leaves the picture as he entered it, an A-1 asshole who really has no idea what he's taking lightly. Raymond Massey slouching in from a fishing expedition in a windbreaker and a hat fishhooked with fly lures, clumsier and gentler in his craggy body than I have ever seen him: because he proposes to her not five minutes after David has rejected her yet again, she laughs almost in Dean's face and he reacts with some embarrassment but without anger, which is perhaps why she decides to marry him after all. Joan Crawford's nearly-no-makeup in the frame story—intended to demonstrate how despairingly she has let herself go in her mad search for her demon lover—showed me instead what an interesting face she had: lean-boned, strong-jawed, her most expressive features her sensitive dark brows and her silently searching eyes. As soon as we flash back to happier days when she wore powder and lipstick and eyeshadow like every well-balanced woman, she looks much more like herself in photographs, which means much more conventionally attractive.3 I like the point-of-view shot with which Louise enters the hospital, sliding beneath signs and ceilings and reflecting lights and the nostril-first faces of a pair of ER nurses, who speak over her quickly and professionally—I believe them, even if the ward they abbreviate as "Psycho" stands for "Psychopathic." "One manic, three seniles, six alcoholics, and ten schizos." I like quite a lot of the flashback sequences until the psychobabble interrupts. I'm not sure I've ever seen a film blow its own kneecaps off in quite this fashion before. This curate's egg brought to you by my recovering backers at Patreon.

1. I have positive memories of her Flämmchen in Grand Hotel (1932), but I haven't seen the film since high school. It was my introduction to its entire cast. As a result I always think of Lionel Barrymore as a sympathetic character rather than Mr. Potter, but once I found out that Buster Keaton had been seriously considered for the part of Otto Kringelein, I wanted that branch of the universe so much more.

2. On top of everything else, this film squarely hits my MENTAL HEALTH DOESN'T WORK THAT WAY button.

3. My favorite photograph of Crawford was taken by George Hurrell and is the unretouched version of a portrait for Laughing Sinners (1931); it is the only reason I know she had freckles, which were otherwise hidden with cosmetics and the painstaking predecessors of Photoshop. I couldn't see them even in her washed-out scenes in Possessed, so I assume she was wearing minimal makeup after all. I hope her freckles featured at least once in a movie. I think they're great.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
As the lights came up at the end of MGM's Lady Be Good (1941), directed by Norman Z. McLeod with dance sequences by Busby Berkeley, [ profile] ladymondegreen turned to me and said, "Is there such a thing as anti-romantic comedy? Because I think that was it."

It's a fair question to ask of a movie whose A-plot tracks the marital travails of a woman who discovers that the only way she can live and work with her husband is not to marry him. So long as they're independent operators, lyricist Ann Sothern and composer Robert Young are an unstoppable hit machine, madly in love and easily distracted into all-nighter bouts of mutually inspiring creativity which are probably some kind of metaphor; once legally tied, however, Young wants nothing better than to blow off his Broadway commitments with his loving wife and swank around on the piano for an admiring lineup of society dames who pronounce him "Too, too divine," which is probably also some kind of metaphor. As more than one of their friends wryly notes, "You don't run after a streetcar once you've caught it." They divorce once and it's the right idea, but then they can't stop having make-up songwriting; they remarry and things get really convoluted, so the Production Code has to preserve at least a fig leaf of the sanctity of marriage in order to pull off the finale. In and among the will-they-won't-they-no-really-should-they shenanigans, the leads get to put over such legitimately catchy numbers as "Oh, Lady Be Good!" and "You'll Never Know" (the songs of Dixie Donegan and Eddie Crane are supplied in real life by George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II,1 and Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed; technically the film is based on the Gershwins' 1924 Broadway musical of the same name, although since it jettisons the entire plot and all but two of the songs, not to mention both Astaires, I would call it a rights grab rather than a screen version) and the supporting cast have fun with their bits of business, also mostly musical. Song-plugger Red Skelton and his stonefaced girlfriend Virgina O'Brien are the kind of background weirdness I'd have liked to see more of, especially when the main plot was winding itself up with implausible comedy of remarriage. John Carroll is unobjectionable as the radio baritone who records most of the hits and I have no idea why he was romantically paired with Eleanor Powell when she has much better chemistry with the rather astonishing spotted terrier with whom she rehearses an increasingly acrobatic tap routine. Naturally her dancing is the climax of the briefly excerpted but stunning show-within-a-show which Eddie bails on to devote himself to symphony-writing ("Real music speaks a language more eloquent than words!" he proclaims before getting absolutely nowhere) but Dixie sticks with to the much more rewarding returns of "Fascinating Rhythm" and tickets going for $5.50 at the Melody Box Theatre, which made me nostalgic for an economy I've never lived in until I calculated the inflation. I think Lionel Barrymore came down on the right side of not being a conservative jerk in the final act, but it was close.

Despite Berkeley's independent credit as dance director, I'm not sure how much of him we would have seen in this movie if we hadn't been looking. Most of the musical numbers are filmed naturalistically; none of them involved intricately arranged ladies. The most stylized sequence is a montage tracking the success of Dixie and Eddie's "Lady Be Good," which intercuts and overlays succeeding performances of the song—everywhere from nightclubs to shoeshines—with stop-motion of records piling up and sheet music flying off the counters and the song's spotlit title sliding up the hit parade. It feels of a piece with his usual treatment of human bodies as movable components of a pattern, but notably does not feature any as such. The other standout is the aforementioned production of "Fascinating Rhythm," for which I believe Powell did her own choreography, though I can see the staging as Berkeley's: endlessly receding layers of enormous, pale billowing curtains behind which are concealed glossy black concert pianos2 which wheel away as Powell taps her way back to a full orchestra and the cyclotron of a city nightscape, all in one breath-holding tracking shot. Eventually some geometry comes into play with a chorus of male dancers and their symmetrically swaying canes, but since they finish by slinging Powell head over heels in the same crowd acrobatics as Born to Dance (1936) or Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940), I associate them as much with her aesthetic as his. I don't think he did anything with the Berry Brothers except keep a camera on them, either, but since that means the jaw-dropping flash dancing of Ananias, James, and Warren Berry was preserved for future generations including me, I'm thankful for it. They have two numbers in Lady Be Good; I dialed up the second for [ profile] derspatchel as soon as he got home and his response was the gratifyingly awed "Insane kinetics!" They are pyrotechnic. I had never before seen some of their moves outside of ice skating (or, in their earlier number, breakdancing). The internet tells me that they once faced off against the Nicholas Brothers in a dance-off at the Cotton Club and I don't care who won, I just wish there was footage. I mean, good grief. I'm just sorry it was not racially permissible for Powell and the Berry Brothers to dance together, as Gene Kelly would later insist on doing with the Nicholas Brothers in The Pirate (1948). I think about the possibilities and I wonder if the film stock could have taken it or if it would have just melted.

I regret nothing about having seen Lady Be Good: I just don't want to make any great claims for it as a lost classic of the Freed Unit, like It's Always Fair Weather (1955) or Invitation to the Dance (1956). I imprinted on Robert Young years ago with The Canterville Ghost (1944) and The Enchanted Cottage (1945) and from this movie I mostly learned that he can sing and he can't save a jealousy scene, although his pratfall over an armchair goes a long way toward trying. Ann Sothern was new to me; she can really sing and I would have happily watched the other movie in which she ends up living permanently with Eleanor Powell's Marilyn and Buttons the terpsichorean terrier. She has a nice rapport with Young nonetheless, which means I should probably check out her much brassier, defining turn in Maisie (1939). I found a throwaway line much funnier from recently seeing The Match King (1932) than I think I was supposed to.3 I fell asleep slightly during the film's one fight scene, which I guess tells you my priorities. Under no circumstances sleep through its dance numbers. Catch them on 35 mm if you can. This judgment brought to you by my fascinating backers at Patreon.

1. Knowing the future history of American musical theater better than the characters, I was entertained to hear Young's Eddie speak enviously of such established songwriting teams as "Rodgers and Hart, Kern and Hammerstein—oh, what's the use? There are a dozen more." This is your usual reminder that while Rodgers and Hammerstein may have reconceived the form and relevance of the American musical, you will pry the back catalogue of Rodgers and Hart from my romantic, cynical fingers.

2. The pianists are also black. I can't tell if it's because they're playing jazz, or for the visual contrast, or if there is some other embedded coding I can't read.

3. Asked under oath to give her assessment of Dixie and Eddie's relationship, Marilyn says, "I thought the match was made in heaven."–"But it didn't work out that way?" Barrymore's judge presses. "No, sir," Marilyn responds ruefully, "I'm afraid they still make most of the matches in Sweden."
sovay: (Claude Rains)
Tonight [ profile] derspatchel and I met [ profile] ladymondegreen for a Busby Berkeley double feature at the HFA: Mervyn LeRoy's Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) and Ray Enright's Dames (1934). We were capable of coherent speech when we left, but it wasn't for the movies' lack of trying.

I had never seen Dames, which went into production just as the Production Code hit; the censor-baiting plot is resolved nearly as cursorily as the romance in The Gang's All Here (1943), but the musical numbers are delirious. Turn-of-the-century Joan Blondell gets romanced by a pile of lust-animated long johns in "The Girl at the Ironing Board" and Ruby Keeler's face multiplies ad absurd infinitum in "I Only Have Eyes for You," including an enormous photomosaic and Keeler rising out of her own literal iris shot. I hadn't realized the title song came from this movie, but Berkeley rose to the challenge of illustrating its self-referential argument—"Who cares if there's a plot or not when they've got a lot of dames?"—with geometric refractions of ladies in movable beds, ladies in neon-framed baths, ladies in front of endlessly reflecting mirrors, ladies freezing into kaleidoscopes, ladies grinning upside down, a four-sided rotating corridor of ladies . . . I didn't know that was a fetish, I keep thinking as I watch his choreography, but I'm glad somebody filmed it. One of the songwriters for Dick Powell's Sweet and Hot revue is composer Sammy Fain, meta-cameoing with a proud smile for one of the numbers he actually didn't write.1 I think it is a good thing that an entire audience now hisses in reaction to the sunnily defiant line "free, white, and twenty-one." I wouldn't call it first-rank Berkeley, but it's worth it for the weirdness if you get the chance.

I had seen Gold Diggers of 1933 two or three times before, but never in a theater or on film. It's great for the musical staging and Ned Sparks' stoneface. I love Aline MacMahon clawing her way out of her hair in the morning, because I have had mornings like that; Guy Kibbee matching the bemused tongue-out expression of a pug dog in a mirror is a great bit of random improv. The order of songs seems to assume that if you can take Ginger Rogers singing in Pig Latin while wearing nothing more than some differently sized silver dollars, the roller-skating cops and swirling neon violin girls won't faze you a bit.2 More seriously, while I know the planned finale was swapped with an earlier number during production, it was the right choice because there's nothing like the ending of Gold Diggers in another musical of its time. The film opens with the surreal optimism of "We're in the Money," which turns out to be a rehearsal for a show that never opens because the producer's gone broke with the rest of the country; it throws the plate-spinning fun of a backstage comedy into the air and we're encouraged to escapism by the happy ending of wealthy Boston snobs who learn to love Broadway, but reality smacks it all down at the finale, seriously and persuasively, with the explicitly political show-within-a-showstopper "Remember My Forgotten Man." I had not consciously noticed before how much like a WPA poster that final tableau is staged. It's the realization of the show Sparks originally envisioned, hearing Powell noodling bluesily at the piano: "That's it! That's what this show's about! The Depression. Men marching, marching in the rain—doughnuts and crullers—jobs, jobs—and in the background Carol, spirit of the Depression . . . Not a blues song, but a wailing, a wailing, and this gorgeous woman singing a song that will tear their hearts out. The big parade. The big parade of tears!" We just got distracted by ending up in the money after all and the reminder blows the bloody doors off. Etta Moten should have gotten screen credit for her spellbinding singing. First black woman to perform at the White House, Warners, it wouldn't have killed you.

Lady Mondegreen and I are going back on Sunday for Lady Be Good (1941), which promises Eleanor Powell and the Berry Brothers on top of whatever Berkeley can think to do with the Gershwins' music. I have already promised Rob that I will describe it for him, since he is formally envious at having to miss it. (He's working two performances of The Slutcracker at the Somerville Theatre; he tells me that seeing a giant candy-striped penis onstage never gets old, but that cleaning up after a Slutcracker performance is the worst. "Only because they use rose petals!") That leaves me tomorrow to try to sleep and not hallucinate common household objects in the form of kaleidoscopic ladies. This opportunity brought to you by my cinematerpsichorean backers at Patreon.

1. I feel bad about Dick Powell. I got home, looked him up on IMDb, saw that he'd died relatively young—fifty-eight. Oh, damn, I thought, what happened? Then I scrolled down and saw he'd directed The Conqueror (1957). I know it's a legendarily dreadful movie, but Hollywood has produced any number of those and they don't usually require actual death in expiation. The one movie of Powell's I've seen was actually quite good: the late noir Split Second (1953). With hindsight in irony, its climax involves a nuclear blast.

2. Watching nine-year-old Billy Barty playing a baby in "Pettin' in the Park"—peeping on the petting couples, passing Powell a can opener so that he can get through Keeler's tin cuirass—I suddenly realized that if your childhood experience of acting includes Busby Berkeley as just another day on set, then growing up to impersonate Liberace and demolish "That Old Black Magic" with Spike Jones and His City Slickers is a perfectly reasonable career trajectory.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
[personal profile] rydra_wong, if you're looking for a film by Dorothy Arzner with all of the crunchy gender callout and none of the crushing heteronormative tragedy, I have found it for you; it is Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), it stars Maureen O'Hara and Lucille Ball, and it is only a musical in the way that Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948) is a musical, although that's the category on TCM where [ profile] derspatchel and I found it. Then again, their one-line summary is also hopelessly incorrect: "A ballet dancer and a burlesque queen compete for a wealthy suitor." The real contest of Dance, Girl, Dance is not over romance and it's between women only because the straight world pretends that men are a non-renewable resource and female friendship is a zero-sum game. Sidestepping the game entirely is a happy ending in Arzner's world and I am delighted to report that it is accomplished in this film without anyone having to fly into the sun.

Directed by Arzner from a story by Vicki Baum and a script by married screenwriters Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis, Dance, Girl, Dance is one of the more frank and explicit movies I have seen about the male gaze, which means that since the '70's it's been a reclaimed feminist classic and on its release Bosley Crowther said he didn't know what the producer was thinking.1 I agree that it shares some of the coded quality of its times, but it's not like the subtext is all that far beneath the surface. Plotwise, the movie's a backstage musical with an apparent conflict of high and low art and an intermittently entangled love quadrangle which all characters involved mistake for the A-plot when it's really a red herring. Thematically, the lights come up on a line of girls kicking and shimmying their way through a nightclub routine while all around them men drink, smoke, chat up their dates, and generally take for granted the background girlflesh on display. The camera looks at them like individuals right away. Some of them have sore feet, some of them are having fun, some of them have better professional smiles than others, some of them dance better or worse, some of them know the quality of their dancing isn't what they're there for. Art is nice work if you can get it, but paying the bills comes first and that's mediated by the male willingness to shell out cash—blatantly spelled out when the club's sudden shutdown for gambling threatens to strand the NYC-based troupe in Akron, Ohio without pay. Only the whimsical appeal of a gentlemanly drunk to the "well-known generosity" of his fellow citizens and the policeman's amused tolerance of his hat-passing sends the girls home with any recompense for "danc[ing] their feet off for a jaded public" and they're still going to need to hitch-hike. I'll get back to all these people by name in a minute, but the important thing is that there are no illusions about the entertainment business up front. Nearly every scene that follows will revisit some aspect of this intersection of commerce and gender: and dance, which the film is quite seriously about. Some movies make me wish I knew more about gender, some movies race; with this one, it was choreography.

All right, names. The title of Dance, Girl, Dance could plausibly refer to any abstract female receiving encouragement or command, but in practice it is most likely to apply to either Judy O'Brien (O'Hara) or Bubbles (Ball), each in her own way the prize pupil of tiny, butch Madame Basilova (Maria Ouspenskaya, adorable in severe tailoring) who danced in her youth with the Imperial Russian Ballet and now laments the changes in public taste that have reduced her to "a flesh peddler . . . a jellyfish salesman!" Judy is her protégée, a serious student of ballet whose soft-spoken reserve belies the intensity with which she exercises in rented rooms and rehearses her own routines even when there's no venue for them; she dreams of being "discovered" and making her teacher's name famous again. To make ends meet in the meanwhile, she dutifully shepherds the troupe around the hinterlands of the club scene while flashy, brassy, saucy Bubbles sashays off with $25-a-week solos thanks to very little in the way of classical technique but a lot of well-tempered "oomph." Booking agents ask for her specifically: "Where's the hot one?" When both dancers audition for the same job, the difference in their styles is made Freudianly clear by the reactions of the Hoboken club owner and his cigar that is manifestly not just a cigar: it dangles limply from the corner of his mouth while Judy and the rest of the troupe perform their gently undulating, "very classy" hula, perks up and puffs smoke as soon as Bubbles starts slapping her hips and throwing winks over her shoulder with every steel-stringed guitar twang. His dismissal of Judy is brutal and painfully familiar: "What my customers go for, she ain't got." Secretly, Madame Basilova arranges an audition for her best student with the prestigious and modern American Ballet, but when tragedy intervenes, Judy finds herself forced to fall back on a job offer from Bubbles, who has since shaken the dust of Hoboken off her shapely feet and is headlining the Bailey Brothers' burlesque show as up-and-coming stripteaser "Tiger Lily White."2 What she claims to want Judy for is a "tony number" to class up her act; what she really wants is a stooge, the dancing equivalent of a straight man to whet the audience's appetite for the entrance of the delicious star. Judy finally gets to perform the "Morning Star" dance she's so painstakingly rehearsed—while the stagehands drop items of underclothing onto her and the patrons heckle her with increasing license and relish, the goody-goody, unsexy, uncool symbol of all things snooty and highbrow whose professional effort to finish her routine in the face of men hollering for her to get off the stage only makes her a better target for derision. In effect, it's the hula audition, night after night after night, and Judy sticks it out for two reasons: it pays $25 a week and Bubbles didn't think she could do it. And we might otherwise end up watching a seriously depressing movie about the way that men play women off against each other and women pull each other down for male approval except for two complicating factors. Funnily enough, both are men. Even more funnily, they're not the expected complications.

It's not that the men in this movie are irrelevant, but they are very definitely not the motive forces of the plot. Handsome Jimmy Harris, Jr. (Louis Hayward) won the liking of the audience and the troupe with his sloshed but kindly intervention at the Palais Royale in Akron, but his interactions with women in New York City repeatedly demonstrate that he's no Prince Charming in waiting: he ping-pongs passively between Judy's shy attraction and Bubbles' self-assured flirtation and in either case he is so obviously still on the rebound from his newly ex-wife Elinor (Virginia Field) that he probably shouldn't be talking to women outside of legal offices and maybe not even then. It is doubtful that he ever appears onscreen sober, except in occasional moments of horrified waking; his boyish haplessness is appealing until it becomes clear that, at least in his current farblondjet state, he can't turn it off. He functions most effectively as a distraction—the cavalier way that Bubbles picks him up and drops him and scoops him up again only when she sees him interested in other women is a decent reason for Judy to be upset, but it's not what she's really angry about. Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy) has a more potentially central position as the director of the American Ballet where Judy missed her audition and where the audience is hoping she'll finally get the chance to fulfill her dreams, but the way she catches his attention without a formal introduction means that not only does she not know who he is and therefore feels no need to impress him, he's forced to become a regular patron of the Bailey Brothers in order to get a good look at her dancing. "Something rather depraved about you, Steve," his choreographer Fitch (Ernő Verebes) teases, "hiding a yen for burlesque under cover of the ballet," but after a moment studying the "little stooge"'s technique, he admits professionally that "her footwork isn't bad at all." Even without connecting the girl who didn't keep her appointment with the girl who looked so unhappy in the elevator the day it rained, Steve's eye for a dancer is solid—he got his first inkling from the way she darted across the wet pavement into the crowd as lightly as if she were en pointe. Given that their initial interaction and his later attempt to catch her at the stage door have left Judy viewing him as a persistent masher rather than a respectable mentor, however, he doesn't look like he'll get much chance to present a happy ending on bended knee, either.3

The best gag on Broadway. )

I've been awake for thirty-six hours now, so I'm heading for bed. You can find this movie on DVD thanks to The Lucille Ball Film Collection (2007), which puts it ahead of most things I recommend; I have to say that I liked it orders of magnitude better than The Wild Party (1929), my sole previous experience of Dorothy Arzner's filmmaking. I really think it's because Dance, Girl, Dance, while it also recognizes when things about gender in this country are terrible, does not feel the need to make its protagonists fall prey to them anyway when alternatives exist. It makes a change. This non-zero-sum game brought to you by my starry backers at Patreon.

1. Since the producer was Erich Pommer who, in his capacity as head of production at Decla and Ufa between 1919–1926 and 1927–1933, essentially gave us German Expressionism and other high points of Weimar cinema—look at his filmography, it's ridiculous—I'm inclined to assume he had some idea. The original director of Dance, Girl, Dance was Roy Del Ruth, who had previously directed such successful musicals as Broadway Melody of 1936 (1936), Born to Dance (1936), and Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937), all of which I can recommend, especially if you want to see the opportunity and in a real sense the talent that was lost when a dangerously stupid makeup idea knocked Buddy Ebsen out of The Wizard of Oz (1939). Pommer didn't want another musical in the MGM house style, however, and after repeated clashes with Del Ruth took the first opportunity to replace him with Arzner. It is my impression that none of Del Ruth's footage even survives in the finished film.

2. I know we're talking striptease that could get past Joseph Breen, but Ball does a fantastic job of suggesting what her costumes won't let her show. "Give 'em all you got, baby!" her sugar daddy enthuses as she waits in the wings. She murmurs coolly, "They couldn't take it," and sails past him onto the stage. She slings her gloves into the audience as if she's got all night.

3. It genuinely doesn't seem to occur to him that a man repeatedly offering to share an umbrella and a taxi with a woman he just met in an elevator could be read as unwanted overtures rather than a neutral, platonic offer from one person who has an umbrella and a bank account to another who is clearly having a terrible day and just lost her last dime down the storm grate; that's nice as far as knowing his motives goes, but it probably loses him a lot of chance acquaintances. After the stage door incident, I started shouting at him that he should stop trying to leave her his name and number and start carrying business cards like any impresario with half a brain.
sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
I am home from seeing Busby Berkeley's The Gang's All Here (1943) at the HFA with [ profile] derspatchel, [ profile] rushthatspeaks, and [personal profile] skygiants. I had remembered it fondly since 2012, but forgotten that it possesses the dreamlike quality of really weird film where remembering one outlandish sequence means you are forgetting three or four others, in my case including the children's chorus, the fake blackmail, and the entire wartime plot. Despite knowing perfectly well that the film was released in 1943, it had entirely slipped my mind that the pretext for the romance is the chance meeting between soldier James Ellison and showgirl Alice Faye right before he's shipped off to the Pacific to become a war hero, leaving a pining Faye and childhood sweetheart Sheila Ryan behind him. (How important is this love triangle? Berkeley settles it with a conversation half-overheard behind a hedge and the hero's father going off to clarify matters with him offscreen. No kisses, no clinches. No attempts even to shoehorn the romantic leads into the same shot. There are stranger things to spend that film stock on. "You can't keep the children waiting all night.") The fake blackmail is a glorious piece of melodrama staged by society wife Charlotte Greenwood and theatrical producer Phil Baker—old comrades from her "purple past" as a cabaret dancer in postwar Paris—in order to snooker her strait-laced husband Edward Everett Horton into letting daughter Ryan take a turn as a specialty dancer in Baker's new show, also co-starring Faye, which is going up at the homecoming party/war bonds rally in honor of the now-decorated Ellison, who I am afraid really is the least interesting person onscreen. The children's chorus are part of the finale, and it is true that their tiny polka-dotted bustles and bowties and overdubbing by an adult offstage chorus were very arresting in the moment, but I don't actually blame myself for blanking them out because the finale itself is "The Polka-Dot Polka," where Berkeley pulls out all the stops from neon to bluescreen to an actual kaleidoscope effect layered on top of his usual habit of choreographing women to look like one, and it sails right off the edge of Dada into the end titles and there's just not much to say about it except that I had failed to notice the first time around that the film is actually bookended with disembodied singing heads and I am delighted. Carmen Miranda is a joy throughout, even when she's just wearing spangly butterflies instead of the total fruit cargo of a steamship on her head. Benny Goodman looks consistently confused by the lyrics he is required to sing, which is fair, because "Minnie's in the Money" is forgettable and "Paducah" ("If you want to, you can rhyme it with bazooka / But don't pooh-pooh Paducah / It's another name for Paradise") is extremely confusing. Eugene Pallette gets to sing exactly one line in the finale and it is like somebody pulled out the organ stop for "bullfrog."

I love this movie so much and I find it essentially indescribable; none of the above statements are untrue, but they also make the film sound far more rational and conventional than it really is, even by the highly elastic standards of a 1940's movie musical, because the overwhelming impression left by The Gang's All Here is not a pleasant if ultimately disposable romance with good supporting characters and some socko numbers, it's wall-to-wall surrealism and metatheater and camp and above all Technicolor—it was Berkeley's first solo color film and he didn't just costume his actors to take eye-popping advantage, he turns fountains electric pink and argon violet just because he can. The realistic parts of this movie are not very real and they are not pretending to be. The fantastical parts of this movie gauge carefully where the top is and go over it every time. The theatricality of diegetic stage design and the theatricality of extra-diegetic movie sets parallax back and forth through each other like an optical illusion. A surprising number of punch lines are addressed to the fourth wall, as is almost all of Miranda's performance. The giant bananas, people. The giant bananas. The giant strawberries. Charlotte Greenwood's deadpan jitterbugging high kicks. Lipstick-plastered Edward Everett Horton experiencing sexual attraction to a woman ("Nobody's more surprised than I am!") for the first time in his life. Alice Faye's wry, yearning ballad about not getting any with her sweetheart away at war, performed on the most naturally dressed and realistically lit set in the entire movie, which naturally makes it a production number in rehearsal at the Club New Yorker. At one point Tony DeMarco—playing himself, like Goodman and Baker but not for whatever reason Miranda—fires off a volley of furious Italian and is sharply cautioned, "If you don't cut that out, the censors will!" I am amazed that the only actual censorship this movie seems to have suffered was a repositioning of the aforementioned giant bananas: once the scantily clad dancers held them a little higher than groin level, suddenly they weren't as Freudian as they look to everyone else? This movie is on beyond Minnelli. It renders me as incoherent as The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953). I hope to God Wittgenstein saw it at least once in his life. I didn't know where to buy a cold pork pie in Boston, so Rob and I took the Orange Line to Chinatown in the late afternoon and bought a quantity of really fine, fluffy char siu bao from Eldo Cake House, plus some lotus paste with preserved egg for later; I ate my pork bun through "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat" and it made me feel better about almost everything. See it in a theater, on film if you can; if you can't, I hope a Blu-Ray with a decent color balance at least exists in your country and you have a very large TV. This shower bath brought to you by my tutti-frutti backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Default)
Every time I have tried to write about a movie lately, something else politically awful has happened and eaten my time and attention; then there has been life to deal with and no chance to catch up on sleep. On the assumption that this pattern is not likely to change any time soon, here's a movie anyway.

In the spring of 1817, a young woman was discovered wandering the village of Almondsbury in Gloucestershire. Her dress was outlandish, her manners graceful but obviously foreign. She was dark-haired, dark-eyed, attractive and expressive. She appeared neither disoriented nor unintelligent, but she did not react when addressed in English, except to the speaker's gestures and tones of voice. No one understood the language she spoke. She was briefly jailed in Bristol for vagrancy, retrieved by the wife of the same unimpressed magistrate who had sent her away. Eventually, through a combination of pantomime, interpretation, and the imaginative assistance of her listeners, the mysterious stranger made it understood that she was a daughter of the king of Javasu near Sumatra, stolen from her native island and sold into slavery by pirates; having been traded ship to ship across the oceans, she had finally escaped by jumping overboard while off the coast of England and made her way alone across the countryside, eventually fetching up in Almondsbury. She could write in her native language and demonstrated its characters, which looked a little like Chinese and a little like Greek and a lot like nothing ever before seen in England. She observed a vegetarian, teetotal diet and prayed daily to her monotheistic God, whom she addressed as "Alla-Tallah." She liked to practice archery, fence, and dance. From the start, she called herself by the name of "Caraboo." Residing for ten weeks with Samuel and Elizabeth Worrall at Knole Park, Princess Caraboo became something more than a nine days' wonder, especially after experts in the languages and culture of the East Indies were unable to break her story—the more she was studied, in fact, the more convincing her presentation became. She became the latest craze of fashionable society, receiving visitors in Bath, sitting for portraits in Bristol; articles about her were published and republished in the local papers, at which point her description was recognized and the exotic fantasia collapsed. In reality, "Princess Caraboo" was the confabulation of twenty-five-year-old Mary Baker from Witheridge in Devonshire, an itinerant serving girl with a quick ear for languages and a genius for theater. She had fabricated the customs of her country from sailors' tales, travel books, and free-floating Orientalism; her imperious, flowing foreign tongue was a mixture of Malay, English Romani, and her own invented language. She had taken everyone—scholars, adventurers, high society—in. Unpunished by the law despite the seriousness of her offence, still fêted by her public despite the reveal of her deception, the ex-princess took passage for America at the end of the summer. The fullest contemporary account of her imposture was written and published later that year by John Mathew Gutch of Bristol as Caraboo: A Narrative of a Singular Imposition, and almost two centuries later it formed the basis for the script of Michael Austin's Princess Caraboo (1994), which [ profile] derspatchel and I watched over the weekend.

The film is a romanticized version of the story, but not, it turns out, in ways that I mind. Rather than relying on is-she-or-isn't-she ambiguity for its narrative pull, the script wisely opts for lightly observed social satire, treating Caraboo's effect on the surrounding cast as a kind of Rorschach of their characters and Regency England in general. Kind-hearted, discontented Mrs. Worrall (Wendy Hughes) is captivated by the romance and mystery of Caraboo's plight, adopting her guest's taste in brightly patterned calicos and sparking a fad for turbans and bangles among her social set; her efforts to make the princess feel at home include redecorating rooms in a lavish silken style and flying a homemade gold-and-crimson flag over Knole Park as if it were the Javasu embassy. Nouveau riche banker Mr. Worrall (Jim Broadbent) has less imagination than a radish and a lot higher alcohol content and can't believe the deference his wife is extending to some weird vagabond in breeches with her hair tied up in a scarf, but even he isn't too slow to cotton on to the lucrative business opportunities presented by close acquaintance with an authentic princess of the Spice Islands. To the sour magistrate Haythorne (Roger Lloyd-Pack), all foreigners are vagrants and wastrels and not understanding the language in which a trial is conducted is no object to receiving a sentence from the court; to the jaded Lord and Lady Apthorpe (Peter Eyre and Jacqueline Pearce), a foreigner this quaint and beautiful is a diversion worthy of presenting to the Prince Regent (John Sessions! We drove ourselves crazy trying to recognize him until the credits). Kevin Kline gets a chance to exercise both his Greek accent and his air of weary condescension as the snippy butler who has the newcomer judged as a fraud right up until the moment she bites him for trying to look up her skirts. John Lithgow briefly and piercingly steals his scenes as a supercilious philologist who comes from Oxford to debunk Caraboo and leaves with both his assumptions and his heart in pieces. At the center of all of their fascination is the princess herself, like a cipher of the Orient that none of them have ever seen but everyone knows when they see it. Here the film has a great asset in Phoebe Cates, who I understand is extremely famous for some teen movies I've never seen. As both Caraboo and her creator, she is almost never offscreen and for much of the runtime has the difficult job of holding the audience's interest and sympathy while being almost opaque to interpretation—the script is not constructed to tip its hand any sooner than history did. The actress' ability to look the part with her dark, delicate looks and her lightly folded eyes, her unapologetic carriage and her startling dazzle of a smile would count for nothing if she were actually a blank. Instead, in every interaction, we realize that behind the attentive gravity that is her most common expression we can always see her thinking; what we can't see is whether we're watching a fish out of privileged water working to comprehend an entire new culture on the fly or a con artist calculating her next strategic move. When she weeps at a performance of Schubert's Trio No. 1 in B-flat major, the emotion is naked and unfeigned and tells us nothing about the nature of the woman with tears on her cheeks except that she's got good taste in piano trios, even anachronistic ones. She can't be what she claims. No real person from the Indonesian archipelago would so match in every particular the English fancy of an "Oriental princess." So then what is she?

That's the line of inquiry pursued by the film's version of J. M. Gutch, played by Stephen Rea as narrator, adversary, and eventual co-protagonist of Caraboo's story. He's the script's greatest departure from history, although I can see how he evolved from the admiring tone of the real Gutch's narrative, which the film uses to bookend its action. An Irish printer and journalist for Felix Farley's Bristol Journal—"none too successful financially and, I will admit, none too fortunate in love, either"—he's taking notes in the gallery when Caraboo comes up before the assizes for vagrancy; he asks a snarky question, gets a prompt snub, and is left curiously touched and intrigued by a woman he's seen for all of five minutes, standing straight-backed despite her chains with all the poise of royalty waiting for some tiresome but requisite ceremony to be over. At first the Worralls want nothing to do with him, especially since his paper has been publishing what Mr. Worrall blusterously considers libels about his bank; presently an appeal to their Christian charity, not to mention his ability to publicize it, wins them over sufficiently for an audience with the princess. The viewer may recognize him as a danger. He's suspicious and he's smart. He cuts a nice ambiguous figure among the brightly dressed gentry, conspicuously out of fashion in his black coat that doesn't show the ink; his disheveled dark hair gives him the initially misleading air of a Romantic poet rather than the put-upon publisher Coleridge can't be bothered to pay. It's a good part for Rea's lanky slouch and wry deadpan—he's a bruised romantic in a cynic's trade, a boy who dreamed of far-off islands with names like poetry grown up into a man who makes his living from muckraking and monotony, disillusioned with himself and resigned to it. "As a journalist," he comments with stinging prescience, "I know people will believe two things—what they read in the newspapers and what they want to believe. And that's the way of the world." Predictably, he's soon as obsessed with the elusive Caraboo as the rest of the countryside, but with a lovely twist: surrounded by people who have staked their self-images, their social success, and even their financial futures on the truth of a stolen princess from the far side of the world, Gutch wants her to be a fraud, not because he resents her impersonation or even because it will make a better story for his paper, but because he's enchanted with the idea of "an ordinary girl with an extraordinary imagination," tricky and clever enough to reinvent herself as exotic royalty, take the ton by storm, and make her social betters pay through the nose for the privilege. He was never that brave himself. But he has to know, either way, and so we watch his investigations progress as Caraboo's star rises in society, culminating in an all-night fancy-dress ball at which she dances till dawn with the Prince Regent while Gutch, who wouldn't be invited dead to a party of this quality, gate-crashes recklessly in hopes of making her understand that what he can discover, others will soon learn, and rich people don't take well to being made fools of. He calls her by the name he believes she was born with. She gazes at him with wide, dark eyes and says nothing, in English or otherwise.

At times the performances are stronger than the script. It was co-written by the director with John Wells, who also contributes a supporting turn as the decent, credulous parson who first brings Caraboo to the Worralls' attention; it has some nonfatal but noticeable trouble finding its way to the right ending, and while its broad jabs at English hypocrisy generally land ("And as Christians, we are taught, 'Blessed are the merciful'"–"Rubbish!"), its attempts to highlight the harsh social conditions behind its narrative of glittering imposture meet with only partial success. The score doesn't help—pace Richard Hartley and his fine work with Richard O'Brien, it's Hollywood fairy tale where a more period sound might have grounded things better. Maybe I've just developed an allergy to the celesta. Fortunately, the movie fires on all cylinders exactly where it needs to, and that is its deft and steady skewering of Orientalism. I really need to read more postcolonial theory.

There you are; here I am. )

I am sorry that I missed this film in theaters; the only extant DVD has been formatted to fullscreen and in addition to all the spatial and character information that gets lost when that happens, there are some lovely shots that I suspect would have really benefited from 1.85:1 Technicolor, like a dockside view of Bristol Harbour that even on my computer looks like an early nineteenth century painting. Freddie Francis did the cinematography and it's not like The Elephant Man (1980) looked amazing or anything. It furthers my affection for Stephen Rea, whom I honestly think I encountered for the first time in the script of Brian Friel's Translations (1980); it makes me wonder what else Phoebe Cates might have done if she had not retired from acting after Princess Caraboo; it never loses its theme even when the plot occasionally wobbles. It would double-feature quite handily with Charles Sturridge's FairyTale: A True Story (1997), another sweetly pointed period piece about fakery and narrative and belief that I missed in its first run. At this point I have movies like Busby Berkeley's Bright Lights (1935), Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934), John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven (1960), Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's The Most Dangerous Game (1932), and Denis Villeneuve's Arrival (2016) on my conscience and would really like to get around to them sometime soon. Between the news and Thanksgiving, this week really disappeared. I am thankful that I got this thing written at all. This imposition brought to you by my imaginative backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
Just around the two-thirds mark of Edgar G. Ulmer's Runyonesque wartime farce My Son, the Hero (1943), a character makes eye contact with the fourth wall and offers a sigh of commiseration: "What a screwy picture!" He's not wrong, but I loved it anyway. It is a silly, sweet, morale-boosting B-picture turned out by Producers Releasing Corporation for less than half the time and budget of Detour (1945), but it puts several of my favorite bit players together in the same plot and gives them some nice lines to throw back and forth and the whole thing lasts 65 minutes, so you can hardly complain about not getting value for your money, especially if you watch it for free on the internet.

The title sounds like Allan Sherman, but the plot is pure Lady for a Day, with Roscoe Karns in the rare starring role of Big Time Morgan, a Hollywood hustler currently managing glass-jawed prizefighter Kid Slug Rosenthal ("Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom) and making absolutely bupkes from him even in fixed fights, mostly because Big Time, despite his expansive aspirations and gift of the rapid-fire gab, has never met the dollar he couldn't immediately lose on blackjack or the ponies, leaving nothing over for Kid Slug's dreamed-of steak dinners or the bill for the barely furnished SRO they share with Tony (Luis Alberni), an Italian ex-pug of obscure employment but definite opinions, such as "Excuse me, please, I think you are all crazy." With his history of coloring the facts until they've gone ultraviolet, Big Time meets with some skepticism when he goes into a tizzy of pride over a picture in the paper, but a telegram arriving later that night—and the reporters who crash the shabby hotel the next morning—bears him out. No joke, the decorated war correspondent Michael Morgan (Joseph Allen, Jr.) really is Big Time's son from his short-lived marriage to a Philadelphia socialite. He's coming through town on a war bonds drive and he wants to see his father. Big Time is overjoyed for just as long as it takes him to remember that, in the years since the divorce, he's lied himself an entire glamorous life so as not to show up badly in his absent son's eyes. "I'm supposed to be rolling in dough . . . I've got a mansion, I've got a rich wife, a beautiful stepdaughter, and servants!" Having none of these things and no fast, cheap, obvious way to get them inside of twenty-four hours, he turns in a moment of inspiration to Kid Slug's sometime wife Gert (Patsy Kelly), a force of fast talking in her own right.

(Hold up here a minute if you have never seen Patsy Kelly, one of the wisecracking goddesses of old Hollywood. She came up through vaudeville and Broadway as a dancer, her mother having sent her for lessons in an utterly pointless attempt to gloss over her daughter's tomboy edges; she started her film career in two-reeler comedy shorts with Thelma Todd and showed off her brassy, sassy, salty persona in close to two dozen features through the '30's and early '40's. Like Karns, she was more often a character type than a lead, usually playing the heroine's best friend and/or maid—the Colombina of the commedia, the street-smart trickster with a pin for every pretension and a voice of unadulterated Brooklyn gravel to stick it in with. Offscreen, she was an outspoken lesbian in the heyday of the Production Code, brash, butch, and at one point living openly with fellow actress Wilma Cox, all of which makes for heroic queer history and contributed in no small part to her abrupt and seventeen-year hiatus from film, starting the same year My Son, the Hero was released. I didn't even remember until I had to double-check a fact for this paragraph that I had seen her years before in Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Freaky Friday (1970). She has memorable turns in the freewheeling weirdness of Pigskin Parade (1936)1 and family comedy of Merrily We Live (1938). I am always happy to see her name in the credits of a movie even when she's just onscreen for five minutes to roll her eyes at somebody. She's top-billed here and it isn't wasted.)

Good as her word, Gert phones up a Beverly Hills acquaintance with "a heart like a tough custard" and secures his mansion for the weekend, then sets about organizing the stumblebum cast into a plausible facsimile of the high life they have only observed from outside. European Tony will serve as majordomo of the Morgan residence, bringing his girlfriend Rosita (Elvira Curci) along as the cook on condition that she doesn't have to wash the dishes; Nicodemus (Nick Stewart) has access to an appropriately swanky car, so he gets tapped to play chauffeur while his girlfriend Lambie (Jeni Le Gon) poses as the maid. Gert herself makes an impeccably nouveau riche second wife—"Why, Big Time, this is so sudden!"—and shy ex-cigarette girl Nancy (Lois Collier) completes the portrait as the beautiful stepdaughter. Introducing Michael, it looks like the only hiccups in the masquerade are going to be the instant mutual attraction of the supposed step-siblings and maybe Kid Slug's absentminded instinct to steal the silver. With the arrival of two unplanned players, however, the grift of a lifetime suddenly starts to look like the booby trap of the century: Cynthia Morgan (Joan Blair) may be an elegant society blonde who needs the slang translated in questions like "Is that the McCoy?" and "Who bounced for that?", but she's nobody's fool when it comes to her still-smitten ex-husband, and Linda Duncan (Carol Hughes), the haughty, Vassar-polished daughter of the real homeowner, will blow the gaff outright if she isn't allowed to play—she has her sights set on a war hero and handsome Michael Morgan, even if he's already interested in someone else, will do. Throw in some free-floating millions and a horse named My Son and the odds for our heroes start to look as bad as the rest of Big Time's bets. "Lady Fortune knocks but once, and I got good hearing!" he boasts to Kid Slug, but for the first time he looks like his spiel isn't convincing either one of them. "You know this is a business deal, don't you?" he says uncomfortably, his fingers already spinning the combination on the wall safe. "Other men have business deals, don't they? Well, I'm going to have one." He writes a very neat hand for the IOU.

The charade naturally comes to a head at a costume party organized in Michael's honor,2 but I appreciate that the story never collapses into schmaltz or comedy of embarrassment. It helps that, while the outcome of the picture is predictable, the specifics are pleasantly varied. Gert and Cynthia, for example, far from fighting over Big Time or personifying some kind of unconquerable class divide, bond immediately over Nicodemus' best guess at Cointreau, swap beauty tips for slang lessons, and join forces in encouraging a dispirited Nancy to stick out the weekend instead of abandoning Michael to the confidently predatory Linda—the Philadelphia matron becomes one of the Hollywood pretenders, signaling her allegiance by remembering to call her ex-husband "Big Time" instead of his real name, the spit-take-producing "Percy." The love angle reassures the audience that Michael will be just as happy to learn that his stepsister is no such thing; even better, there are implications that he may have had his suspicions from the start. I never realized how much of a family I had until now. ) Everything is spur-of-the-moment and seat-of-the-pants. Big Time's moniker may ring of wistful irony, but even the rich people whose lives he and his friends are temporarily wearing have troubles and pretenses of their own. The borrowed house comes "with all the fixings—swimming pool, mortgages, back taxes, everything." Nicodemus successfully procures a friend-of-a-friend's pre-war Rolls-Royce, but warns as he drives, "We better be kind of careful with this heap. Samson was telling me that the insurance has, um, collapsed." A couple at the costume party preen themselves on dressing as "the only original Martha and George Washington" only to watch three more identical sets of George and Martha walk through the door—it is an obviously storebought costume, patriotically themed in keeping with wartime morale.3 As Big Time says happily toward the end of the picture, "I've been lying from A to Z, that's all. The whole thing has been put together by mirrors and anybody could kick it down." He could be talking about the production values as well as the plot. Any moving shot of the outdoors is stock footage. The one exterior view of the mansion is played by a blown-up still photograph and any room that the camera can't track through is bound to play two or three different locations over the course of the film. As in Detour, the characters move through a world of false fronts and negotiable identities, only where the later film will use its flimsiness to suggest the unreality of a nightmare, here it means a chance to get away with a happy ending.

And because Roscoe Karns is one of my favorite character actors, it is nice to see him getting, even in a no-budget Poverty Row B-picture, a chance to show off his skills at center stage. The script by Ulmer and Doris Malloy gives him plenty of flim-flam lines (eager to impress his son on their first adult meeting, Big Time breezily declares that he's "making money hand over fist. I've invented a new kind of a gadget that will probably revolutionize the entire war scene—a gunsight, you know what I mean," to which Michael responds tactfully, "Mother said you were quite inventive"), but also quieter moments with his makeshift family and his conscience, which is erratic but in about the same right place as his heart. He's older here than in any other role I've seen; he still moves and talks at double-time from anyone else around him who isn't Patsy Kelly, but he might be ready to stop living hand to daydream, like Coyote with solid air under his feet so long as he doesn't look down. The redemption arc requires it, but the script doesn't lay the moral on too thick. When the conspirators are sitting around their plush drawing room and Big Time bursts out with a self-accusing condemnation of "chasing rainbows" and living like "phonies" instead of real people, Tony kills the melodrama with a poker-faced "Thank you," solemnly plunking another cube of sugar in his tea. He is a real person, though; he really loves his son, doesn't want to disappoint him, has trouble resisting the lure of the shortcut, and sums up his feelings for his ex-wife with the adorable hyperbole "The Statue of Liberty couldn't carry my torch." They're hiding out from their own costume party at the time, letting their masks fall. He doesn't quite get to turn his tall tales into the real thing, but the important parts stay.

Halloween is almost over, so I should finish up, go downstairs, blow out the pumpkins, feed the cats. If the internet is an accurate reflection, this particular story of masks and faces appears to be almost totally obscure despite being in the public domain, but I don't think it deserves it. It has character faces, good double-talk, and some bits of business which I hope to God were improvised, because I can't imagine anyone scripting the scene in which Kid Slug, in the background of some other characters' conversation, can be seen placidly and without comment shaving off his arm hair. Somehow I just noticed that Ulmer has co-directing credit on Peretz Hirshbein's Green Fields (גרינע פעלדער‎, 1937), so I suppose I'll have to follow him into Yiddish film next. This carnival brought to you by my creative backers at Patreon.

1. I keep trying to describe this movie to people and I always just end up linking its musical numbers, because the plot really doesn't matter and any attempt to synopsize it will end up getting bogged down in watermelon-throwing, harmonica-playing, and the distressingly catchy Red-baiting of the collegiate glee club that convinces Elisha Cook, Jr. to throw a brick through a bank window. Kelly gets second billing as the wife of the football coach played by Jack Haley, whose no-name agricultural college team has just been accidentally invited to play Yale. Let it surprise no one that she knows more about the game than her husband does.

2. If nothing else, I do not regret this movie because it gave me the sight of Patsy Kelly smoking a cigarette in near-full plate armor; she strikes the match on her breastplate. "Be careful," Lambie scolds her, "you'll scratch up the chassis!" Kid Slug gives her the nicest compliment he can think of: "The way you look now, any junk dealer in town'd give you twenty-five dollars, right on the hoof."

3. My Son, the Hero was filmed in December 1942 and the wartime setting comes out in some interesting touches. Early on, Kid Slug protests sharing a couch with an "enemy alien," at which Tony rounds on him furiously: "You see? Every time I do something he does not like, he calls me enemy aliens! Look here. I come here in this country 1929 with Primo Carnera. I stay in this country. I love America. I hate Benny Deluxe!" The mission for which Michael won his medal is not named directly at first, but it's the Doolittle Raid—when asked how he got to Tokyo, he says with the air of an in-joke, "It's no secret at all. We left from and returned to—Shangri-La." In hindsight the title should be read with a little tongue in cheek; nobody even needs to drop a hat to start Big Time kvelling over his son, but he can't shake the feeling that the kid may have gone just a little overboard. "All my life I've been writing to Michael asking him to be a right guy so I could be proud of him. And the kid believes me! He turns into a hero!"
sovay: (Claude Rains)
A title like Red Hot Tires (1935) needs no introduction. Either you want to see a movie by that name or you don't. [ profile] derspatchel and I did, especially since its first three credited stars on TCM were Lyle Talbot, Mary Astor, and Roscoe Karns. The one-line summary was "A race-car driver wrongly convicted of murder escapes prison to prove his innocence." This turned out to be only about half true, but it doesn't matter: Red Hot Tires is an absolutely delightful B-programmer with lots of snappy dialogue, good footage of championship car racing circa 1934—including some brief but serious stunt driving—and a plot most accurately categorized as a farrago, but that doesn't matter, either, because it's done and out the door in 61 minutes. There seems to be some confusion over whether it was released by First National Pictures or Warner Bros., but it feels like the latter, with its pulpy, rackety energy and its Tardis-like ability to fit a serial's worth of plot developments into the same hour of film. More specifically, despite its release date, it feels like Warner Bros. pre-Code. I happily blame Astor.

She's second-billed, so I'll get to her in a minute. Top billing goes to Talbot as Wally Storm, a hotshot race car mechanic whose cool head with machines and hot luck with ladies provoke such jealousy from driver Bob Griffin (Gavin Gordon, sporting a mustache like a resting sneer) that, not content with getting Wally unjustly fired from his work on the cutting-edge "Sanford Special," he has to pull a Messala at their next meet and get himself killed in the crash that results from sneakily spiking his opponent's wheels at top speed. Because Griffin's confederate Curley Taylor (Bradley Page) presses charges, the accident goes to trial, and because Wally was known to have threatened Griffin—and knocked him down—the trial does not go his way, and because Red Hot Tires has never met a genre it can't immediately zoom out the other side of, next thing you know Wally is breaking out of prison with the help of his sidekick-in-chief Bud Keene (Karns, always a fast-talking treasure) and making a barn-burning career for himself under a false name in South America. Will an invitation to drive a Sanford car in the prestigious Memorial Day Races at Dayton tempt him back to the States? Are his friends still trying to clear his name and his enemies still trying to lock him up? Are there fifteen minutes left to wrap this film up in? Let's talk about Mary Astor.

When I described the character of Pat Sanford to [ profile] nineweaving, she exclaimed at once, "It's Petrova!" Indeed, Astor would have made an excellent grown-up Petrova Fossil, short dark hair and all. Late in the film, a radio commentator introduces her as "the daughter of the famous racing car designer Martin Sanford and the only woman in the state who holds a racing mechanician's license," but the audience has known from her second scene that Pat's an engineer in her own right. She looks good in grease-stained white coveralls, up to her elbows in an engine of her own design. Her office has a drafting table full of blueprints, automotive concept art on the walls; she reads the latest invoices with a cigarette in her hand. Her rapport with Wally almost certainly stems from their shared interest in machines—Griffin fancies himself a rival for her affections, but since we never see him tinkering around in the garage with her, he hasn't got a chance. She knows about handling cars as well as building them, too; the announcer at the Legion Ascot Speedway may chauvinistically call her "the real prize for winning this preliminary event" as she briefly crowns the winner with the fancily laureled, athlete-ornamented silver helmet that is the trophy of the Indy 500 Dayton 500-Mile Classic, but when Wally fatefully steps in for his driver at the last minute, she and Bud yell technical advice at him from the pits. The second half of the movie goes nowhere without her intervention. In the aftermath of the crash and Wally's conviction, it's Pat who identifies an anomalous bolt in the wreck of the Sanford Special, unscrews it to disclose a highly unsporting tire-spike, and promptly calls a cab over to Curley's place to "perform just a little bit of petty larceny." "You can't do that!" tagalong teenager Johnny (Frankie Darro, last seen pre-Code) protests, like a pint-sized voice of the patriarchy. "You're a girl!" Her response is affectionately delivered, but it makes its point with a grin for his indignation: "That's why I got you, Johnny—you're my bodyguard!" She knows a razor-slashed tire when she sees one. Best of all, when Wally's a no-show in the climactic race, when it's field another driver or forfeit, she collars designated mechanician Bud—"You've got a racing driver's license, haven't you? Well, get in there and do the best you can till Wally comes!"—and climbs in alongside him as his riding mechanic: she's not going to stay out of a car she designed.1 She doesn't get sidelined even when they swap in their eleventh-hour driver. Bud says without hesitation, "She knows more about this car than I do," and helps her back into the inside seat. The happy ending pointedly involves no suggestion that she's about to punt her day job just because of marital bliss. Plus she really does straight-up break into a dude's house and steal a piece of evidence from him. I love everything about her.

I am also fond of Karns' Bud, a dependable but fidgety type who provides the B-plot with a running gag about his never-seen, increasingly unlikely girlfriend Maggie—he's always referring to her, but when pressed for details, the best he can come up with is "She's pretty and her name's Maggie!" Even guys who've known him for half a truck ride are skeptical, but he remains undeterred even after Wally calls him on it in the gentlest possible way, remarking wistfully in an Argentinian club that it "must be nice to have a girl, even if she's only in your imagination."2 His happy ending is a meet-cute straight out of The Importance of Being Earnest. She warns him that he'll be disappointed by her name; he snuggles his head into her shoulder like a contented cat on hearing it. I wish I could say more about Lyle Talbot as the fast-driving hero of this whole affair, but anyone who's going to compete with Roscoe Karns' double-take patter and Mary Astor's sheer awesomeness needs more than good eyebrows and a general air of go-getting nice guy to do it. He's not a hole in the screen, but I'm not sure what he brings to the part of Wally Storm that any other B-star couldn't have supplied; he was so much more interesting as the debatable romantic lead of She Had to Say Yes (1933) that I'm left wondering if he was better in character roles than straight heroes. Testing this hypothesis will give me an extra excuse to check out Three on a Match (1932), Ladies They Talk About (1933), and Mandalay (1934), anyway. He does have good chemistry with Astor. The comfortable way they hang out before the plot really kicks into gear did more to convince me of their romance than all his South American pining. I am probably still more charmed by all five minutes tops of Karns and Mary Treen.

The title of this post comes from Wally's signature song, which against all expectations turns out to provide a significant plot point. I'd say the movie's so short it doesn't have time for extraneous detail, but given the way it ricochets through genres and cliffhangers, that is manifestly untrue. It's a fun little actioner with a surprising streak of not-so-stealth feminism and I'd have written about it sooner if we hadn't had to deal with the Day without Internet and the Night without Electricity. This wild ride brought to you by my handy backers at Patreon.

1. As the latest model of Sanford Special is being pushed to the starting line, Bud says with some wryness, "Hope you ain't jittery, Miss Pat."–"Not any more than you are, Bud," she returns. He pulls a face, jerks a thumb at her side of the car: "That's funny. Wished I was in that seat." She grins at him just as she did at Johnny: "A better man than you is in this seat." Bud takes resigned hold of the wheel and sighs, "Wished a better man than me was in this one!" I understand that particular forking path would have rendered Wally entirely superfluous to the story's climax, but I'd have enjoyed it.

2. The most interesting thing to me about never-seen Maggie is the way Bud uses her not just to stay competitive with his friends' love lives, but as a kind of ventriloquism. In their very first scene together, Bud tells Wally, "That reminds me—I was talking to Maggie and she says you ought to be stepping out on your own hook. You ain't going to get anywhere being a mechanic for Griffin." It's good advice and quite true, but Bud couldn't say it for himself?
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
So seeing John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962) on a big screen was great. It was a digital projection, which still allowed me to perceive details and contrasts that had not been apparent from television or DVD; someday I'll see it in 35 mm and it'll be even better. It remains one of my favorite movies and the reason my feelings toward Lawrence Harvey gravitate in the direction of wanting to give him a hug, even though everything I have ever read about him as a person suggests that he was almost as difficult to get close to as Raymond Shaw. I like Sinatra in it, even if I like him more in the otherwise disposable Suddenly (1954). Angela Lansbury is iconic, immortal, and terrifying. Having seen Frankenheimer's Seconds (1964) and The Comedian (1957) since my last experience of The Manchurian Candidate, I paid a lot more attention to the cinematography this time around and it is a register-shifting blend of noirish deep focus, three-camera staging, handheld disorientation, and inclusions of live video feed overlapping, doubling, confounding the action. The tone is much the same: it adds up to a tight, touching, nightmarish movie I love.

What was not so great was the lengthy introduction by the series programmer in which, presumably taking attendance at tonight's showing to equal having already seen the movie, she described the entire plot. I'm not just talking about the premise, although I wouldn't have been pleased if she had given it and nothing else away. Major points of revelation, scenes with shocking emotional impact. She read out passages of dialogue. I was suddenly and furiously reminded of the reasons we never renewed our membership to the Coolidge Corner Theatre. "What if someone had come to see it for the first time?" I text-fumed at [ profile] derspatchel. "This is the kind of analysis you do after the fact!" It was not even very analytical. I appreciated her situating the film in context of other political thrillers like Otto Preminger's Advise & Consent (1962), Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe (1964), Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Frankenheimer's Seven Days in May (1964), all with some paranoid, chaotic spirit and all at least loosely based on novels of the time; I was glad she talked a little about the 1959 novel by Richard Condon, although not about the part where Condon plagiarized passages from Robert Graves' I, Claudius (1934).1 Otherwise she was mostly, merely narrating the film in advance. She made one very good point that I hadn't noticed for myself: she finds The Manchurian Candidate an incredibly weird film and thinks it's because no matter how perverse, preposterous, or bleak the action becomes, the film always presents it straight-faced, never winking to the audience or offering a reassuring check-in with reality as we believe we know it. That makes sense to me. It's how nightmares work. A perfectly ordinary interaction, object, landscape can be charged with unspeakable dread. Ladies showing off their prize hydrangeas at a meeting of a garden club in New Jersey. A game of solitaire. A man taking a long walk off a short pier. The sequences the film presents as the craziest, scariest, and most out of control are expressions of the American political process: a televised press conference that turns into Red-baiting pandemonium, the confetti-and-flashbulbs frenzy of a political party's nominating convention at Madison Square Garden. The fight scenes in this movie inflict less damage than quiet, measured conversation. And then, because the film doesn't push its weirdness stylistically, it can offer a surreal image like a heart-shot man appearing to bleed milk from the carton he was holding when the bullet drilled both it and him—a gouting, visceral moment without a drop of gore—and it lands with the force of the other side of nightmares, the things that in waking or dreaming life are just wrong. The speaker did not offer examples like these in support of an argument, where I would have considered them more fair game, if still kind of premature. She just made the observation and moved on to another plot description. That is not the way to do it for people who have never seen the film.

Look: I am indifferent to spoilers. I enjoy discovering books and movies cold and it can be very rewarding, but I have never lost enjoyment in a work because someone told me something about it in advance. Traditionally I chalk it up to a background in classics—nobody goes to see Oedipus for the shocking twist ending—but more realistically I imagine it is something about the ways in which I process narrative and which elements of it I prioritize. Suspense is rarely the top of the list. I am much less interested in shows that hang their audience investment on some central mystery than in shows that work out the nth-order consequences of their premise all the way down. I don't want to be told some climactic revelation just to spoil it for me, but that's an objection on the grounds of jerkassery, not information. In general, I really don't care. I am not the norm in our current media culture. There were people in that audience who hadn't seen The Manchurian Candidate before; I heard a couple of them enthusing on their way out of the theater and I wondered if others stuck their fingers in their ears and hummed through the introduction or if they were just faintly sorry that they watched the pre-credits sequence for the first time already knowing not just the first-act bombshell but the third-act twist. I think it annoys me not just because it's unkind to viewers who might have wanted to discover the story on their own terms, but because it's unnecessary. You don't need to lay out a story's entire plot in order to prime an audience's interest. You can truthfully say that The Manchurian Candidate is a movie which warped its topical references to such a pitch of hallucinogeny that it inspired conspiracy theories about its script and urban legends about its release; you can suggest its destabilizing spell by noting that flirting in this movie sounds like numbers station shortwave while its most fervent gesture of parental devotion is the one that will make most of the audience's skin crawl. You can talk about the ways in which it sensitizes its audience to suspect even normal social conditioning, like the soldier who can't refuse friendly advice when it's restated as performative speech—"What I've just told you is not a suggestion, Major. It's an order"—and the absurd respect with which everyone holds in place for the national anthem even in the middle of a suspected assassination attempt. You probably should mention that it's funny, in both the outrageousness of its ultimate conceit and the patriotic satire that is almost too raw to laugh at, especially this election year, but the ketchup joke got a huge laugh tonight and it deserves to. You may appreciate how constantly the very modern questions of media spin and manufactured identity are at the center of the story. I already said something about the painful sympathy this film draws out for a character initially and accurately encapsulated with the line "It isn't as if [he's] hard to like—he's impossible to like!" so you don't have to bring it up. If you want to talk about the deliberate genre-slippage, though, go for it. That The Manchurian Candidate is both a satire and a tragedy is a neat, jagged trick. It may be one of the movies I find so interesting that I am not as emotionally upset by it in toto as I am by some of its separate scenes. Your mileage and your audience's may vary. I hope I have communicated a little of the interest it holds for me, however, and if I have done this at all successfully, I have done so while saying almost jack about the plot.

I may write what I consider an actual review of The Manchurian Candidate at some later date. Right now, I'm going to read more Le Guin and go to bed. This exercise in apophasis brought to you by my loveable backers at Patreon.

1. Mostly pertaining to the relationship between Eleanor Shaw Iselin and her second husband Johnny; Condon adapted it from Claudius' assessment of Livia and Augustus' marriage. I have no trouble seeing how Graves' Livia would inspire Condon's Eleanor; it makes me a little wistful for a Lansbury Livia. You want to rewrite Roman history with American senators, I can think of worse ideas. Just don't steal immediately recognizable chunks of phrasing from the British writer who already did the retelling. Your audiences aren't so divergent that someone won't notice someday.
sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
It is the ghost-season of the Gregorian calendar and the middle of the Days of Awe. I have been wanting to write about Marcin Wrona's Demon (2015) ever since I saw it in May as part of the National Center for Jewish Film's annual festival at the MFA. Now seems as good a time as any. It's the best dybbuk film made in any country since 1937.

Loosely adapted from Piotr Rowicki's stage play Adherence/The Clinging (Przylgnięcie, 2008) and taking cues from Jewish folklore as well as An-sky's seminal play, Demon is, like every effective possession, more than one thing at once, encompassing a poignant ghost story, a romantic tragedy, a black comedy, and a scalding indictment of the failure of historical memory, specifically in the director's native Poland. Pay attention to the opening image—a front loader trundling through the misty, empty streets of an antique-looking town is an obvious symbol of excavation and construction, but it can be used just as easily for covering up and tearing down. One does not preclude the other. Building can be a form of erasure, depending on what's under the foundations. Everything in the film will be this ambivalent, its protagonist included.

The action begins with a ferry rounding the bend of a wide, flat river, a young man leaning on the rail. This is Piotr (Itay Tiran, giving a powerhouse performance), nicknamed "Python." He has a clever, slightly clownish, youthfully leonine face, something of a tough air in his black leather jacket and jeans and boots, his dark hair cropped tight. He drives a Range Rover. He could be anyone. He's an engineer from London, come to Poland to marry his girlfriend in her rural home town; he knows his way around the loader left on the grounds of the ramshackle farmhouse he and his bride-to-be are inheriting as a fixer-upper gift from her father. The day before the wedding, the place looks like a derelict memory palace, its rain-faded walls still hung with clouded mirrors and glass-cracked photographs, its doorways scratched with heights and ages that Żaneta (Agnieszka Żulewska) assumes must have belonged to her grandfather's family, though she's puzzled not to recognize all the names. They are a modern, international couple—they did most of their falling in love over Skype—but the Catholic blowout of the wedding is more than just a concession to her parochial parents (Andrzej Grabowski and Katarzyna Gniewkowska) who'd rather have seen her marry a nice homegrown Polish boy; tradition seems important to them, too, the past, roots, family. Żaneta's enthusiasm as she shows him around the property causes Piotr to tease that she's "more in love with this place than she is with me." She kisses him passionately in rebuttal while her brother Jasny (Tomasz Schuchardt) wraps them both in an affectionate embrace, two fair-haired kinfolk welcoming the dark stranger into their midst. When he fires up the loader to break ground on an ambitiously proposed swimming pool, already as confident as a homeowner, they leave him to it. They shouldn't have: in the next scoop of earth are bones. They look human. A troubled Piotr immediately drives over to tell his imminent in-laws, but the wedding preparations are so busy and so joyful—and his position as the groom from away still so contingent—that he can't bring himself to interrupt. He keeps the secret to himself, going out after dark with a flashlight to look again for the gravesite. He sees rain, trees, a human figure moving beyond the windows of the old house, kneeling with its back to him or standing somehow to its knees in the dark wet field; he's lured by its vagueness, drawn off into his own rain-scattered circle of light when he comes suddenly face-to-face with a dark-haired girl in white (Maria Dębska). For a moment he sees her clearly—her pale face, her antique wedding dress, her mouth and eyes as heavily shadowed as theatrical makeup—and then the earth liquefies beneath his feet. Black, depthless, it swallows him up.

He flails awake in the back seat of his car with his groomsmen banging on the windows, laughing at him for almost oversleeping his own wedding. He's a little disoriented, a little groggy, but Jasny greeted him yesterday with a bottle in hand and today they're getting started on the booze well ahead of the wedding celebrations. Flanked by the glowering but obedient Ronaldo (Tomasz Zietek), Jasny gives a toast in farewell to his wild London friend and greeting of the husband who's going to make his sister happy: "Python has died and in his place is born Piotr." The groom dresses distractedly—staring at his own hands, starting at a string of small children who seem to run from and to nowhere—but for the ceremony itself he is clear, focused, committed, sliding the ring onto Żaneta's finger and lifting her joyously in a swirl of white-blond hair and whiter veil. Arriving early at the barn out back of the farmhouse where the reception is to take place, the newlyweds even sneak off into a bedroom to consummate their marriage in a giggly, adolescent moment of stolen privacy before the hours of revelry and congratulation to come. Everyone who is familiar with the Ashkenazi post-wedding ritual of the yichud, please start your wondering. It is at the reception, however, that things really begin to derange. Żaneta flings her glass over her shoulder after a traditional toast; Piotr stamps on his, sharp and gleeful as a dancer, then seems puzzled both by his own reflex action and the crowd's lack of appropriate response. Making his first toast as a married man, he stumbles over Żaneta's name, substitutes the unfamiliar "Hana" instead. He dizzies in the dancing, finds himself spinning in the arms of the same dark-haired girl from last night's vision, who by the electric glare of the barn's bulb-hung rafters looks even less alive than she did standing over her own grave. He stammers. He faints. As his body convulses and his voice whoops through registers, the frantic parents of the bride blame vodka, food poisoning, epilepsy, schizophrenia, God knows what freakish foreign ailment, finally bundle him out of sight into the basement to give themselves time to think how best to salvage this scandalous disaster. Half-naked, his breast beating like a bird's, Piotr struggles against his bonds, glossolaling an eerie nonsense—unless, like the elderly teacher Szymon Wentz (Włodzimierz Press) whose erudite, self-deprecating, pointedly disregarded toast told the audience everything they needed to know about his token status in this community, the listener has some knowledge of other languages common in Poland before 1939–45. Piotr's body language is trembling, defiant, protective of its modesty. His voice lightens in his throat, his words catch farther back in it. Even his gold chain lies differently around his neck. He says his name is Hana; he says she lives in this house. Where is her family? Isn't this her wedding? Piotr is the man she was promised, her basherter. Szymon blinks back tears, addresses another question to this familiar spirit in strange flesh in a language he hasn't shared with anyone in seventy years. He knew her when she was alive—"Little Szymon," she recalls him, the tagalong younger brother of a boy she ran with. He remembers when she was going to be married; he remembers when she disappeared. He remembers when there was a synagogue instead of a butcher's shop, when it would not have been difficult to find the nine other adults necessary to form a minyan and perform an exorcism. She's speaking Yiddish. They are the last surviving Jews of their village and one of them is dead.

I assume it is obvious why I love this premise. It plays like a dream cross between a genderswapped Dybbuk and the sixteenth-century folktale retold by Howard Schwartz as "The Finger" and repurposed by Tim Burton for The Corpse Bride (2005)—both stories not only of romantic entanglement between the living and the dead, but of the insistence of the past on coming to light. The dead bride who clawed her way out of the earth with joking Reuven's ring on her skeletal finger died before her wedding and was forgotten so completely that no one even knew the riverbank contained her grave, but now she stands before the assembled guests at Reuven's wedding, insisting on her rights to the married life she was promised, the happiness she was denied. The dybbuk in An-sky's play both springs from and exposes a failure of memory—the convenient forgetting of wealthy Sender that he once made a vow with his beloved friend Nisn concerning the futures of their unborn children, so that now he can ignore the brilliant, penniless student with a strange affinity for his daughter in favor of a match more advantageous to his business. Demon's screenplay, co-authored by Wrona and Paweł Maślona, both broadens and sharpens this theme: in the shadow of the Holocaust, it is Jewish memory itself that is the persistent, inconvenient ghost. The war is only shallowly buried. It's darkly funny to watch Żaneta's parents scramble to contain the chaos of the reception with no help whatsoever from any of the spiritual or temporal institutions that are supposed to rise to the occasion of something like demonic possession. The Catholic priest (Cezary Kosiński) backs hastily away from the whole mess, practically disclaiming his faith in the process; the alcoholic doctor (Adam Woronowicz) philosophizes and psychoanalyzes to no one in particular and dissolves into mysticism as the night wears on; and the marginalized professor is too busy tenderly singing "Rozhinkes mit Mandlen" to the dybbuk in the cellar to spare a thought for helping the neighbors save face. When Zygmunt and Zofia decide that the best course of action is to get all the guests blackout drunk and pretend that nothing out of the ordinary is going on, that's funny, too, in an increasingly manic and disintegrating way. It is not so funny to see that their ideas of restoring order include physically dragging their weeping, protesting daughter away from her possessed husband and buttonholing the priest about an annulment, and it is not funny at all to realize that their willingness to make Piotr and his dybbuk disappear in a wave of vodka is merely the latest layer of the self-protective denial that has been going on in this town since the Germans blew up the bridge. Nothing bad is happening underneath this house, just as nothing bad happened here during the war. This land always belonged to Żaneta's grandfather. I guess there were maybe some Jews here once. Maybe? Not like it had anything to do with us if there were. Or weren't.

In the old days it was simple. Everyone was Polish. )

"We must forget what we didn't see here," Zygmunt intones to his wrecked, exhausted guests at the end of the hellish night, a magician of negation carefully replacing the scales on his audience's eyes. "There never was a wedding . . . Neither is there a groom. And there never was." Some of the audience with which I saw it faulted Demon for ending without resolution, but that seemed to me almost the entire point of the film. There is no ending something that no one will acknowledge started in the first place. You cannot have an exorcism unless you first admit there is a ghost. You cannot heal a trauma if you deny there was ever a wound. The film's last shot shows the ferry pulling away around the river's bend, like a reverse of its initial entrance; on its deck stands a figure in a black leather jacket, her pale hair flagging in the wind. She is the script's one grace note of hope, a woman walking away from Omelas. Everything she leaves behind is trapped in a timelessness between atrocity and denial, a "whole country . . . built on corpses" resolutely refusing to look under its feet. Or it is in the past already, where history has already happened to it. There's nothing for that but memory.

It's a beautiful movie. The cinematography by Paweł Flis is full of near-tableaux that break up vividly and messily, everything so warmly shot that it feels—without being desaturated—like paging through an album of old photographs, with some of the same curious lacunae. There are no special effects that I could see. Hana is a hollow-eyed girl in an anachronistic dress, passing among the wedding guests in the theatrical understanding that she is invisible to everyone but the audience and the basherter who found her bones. Piotr's possession is conveyed as it would have been onstage—Tiran's contorting body, his husky falsetto voice coloring to its new language as if it had never spoken anything else. The most uncanny images in the production are the ones that feel like allegories with the key missing: a woman struggling from a man's arms into the river, the front loader moving as if self-willed, the juxtaposition of a funeral procession crossing paths with the wedding party the morning after. Altogether it possesses the quality I associate with the best fiction of the weird, the sense that everything should fit together in some kind of pattern, but nothing quite does. It's not dreamlike; it has too many sharp edges. I would call it unheimlich, except the supernatural element is the one that has the most right to call itself at home.1

The previous best dybbuk film made in any country was also Polish: Michał Waszyński's masterwork of Yiddish cinema The Dybbuk (דער דיבוק‎, 1937). Watching it, as with many other Yiddish-language movies made before World War II, is a double act of haunting: An-sky set his play in a world that was disappearing even as he documented it and the industry in which Waszyński worked—not to mention much of his intended audience—would be gone within a few years of filming. Marcin Wrona committed suicide in 2015, a few days after Demon's premiere. I don't know his reasons; neither did Antony Polonsky, who spoke briefly after the screening at the MFA. It was his third and last film. It is appropriate to hear a dead voice tell a dybbuk story, but I don't think it should be compulsory. Nonetheless, this one is worth listening to. It's a worthy successor to Waszyński's film and has set me listening to the Klezmatics' Possessed (1997) on repeat; more recently I was reminded of Robert Eggers' The Witch (2015), another movie like things I have read and dreamed of seeing for a long, long time. This unearthing brought to you by my mindful backers at Patreon.

1. The other main contributor to the uncanny feel of Demon is its out-of-focus specificity, by which I mean that some of its incidental details are very clear and some very important ones blur the closer you try to look at them. Piotr is one of the latter. His personality is forthright; his origins are not. Polish is not his first language, although he insists on speaking it with his prospective in-laws; they address him naturally in English and have to be reminded not to call him "Peter." He met Żaneta in London, but we don't know what he was doing there. The likeliest explanation is that he's the UK-born/raised child of Polish immigrants, but the fact that the film never offers evidence either way gives him an ambiguous, unsettled status, half outsider, half countryman. There is an almost subliminal question of whether he's Jewish: his actor is. After a while, the uncertainty of his identity extends even as far as time.
sovay: (I Claudius)
In keeping with the recent theme of ancient Near Eastern civilizations, Orientalism, and Jewish representation, this afternoon I saw Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956) for the first time in my life. The Somerville was screening a 35 mm IB Technicolor print, so I figured it was now or never.

At the intermission I staggered out and said to [ profile] derspatchel, "I feel like I've been clubbed with a Sunday-school primer."

After it was over, my mother (who had not come with me) asked what I thought and I said, "Well, I don't think it's going to change how I lead next year's Seder."

I am not sorry to have seen the movie. It's full of great actors, it's gorgeously filmed, it's a cultural touchstone and a truly monumental spectacle and I got to see it larger than life, which I think is the only way to treat DeMille's pyramids and Heston's beard. Everything about Yul Brynner's Rameses is terrific, from the amounts of clothing he is not wearing (but a lot of jewelry in which he looks very good) to the fact that he is actually giving a performance as well as pageantry: a beautiful, commanding man wasting his energies on envy and insecurity and cruelty he doesn't need to resort to; he breaks himself on the God of Moses as surely as Pentheus on Dionysos' smile. The matte-painted parting of the Red Sea stands up to its reputation, but I was really impressed by the simple practical effect of the commandments writing themselves in fire on the red granite of Sinai, sparking and roaring like a cutting torch of Paleo-Hebrew.1 A lot of the smaller theatrical touches worked very well for me: the recognition token of the white-and-black-striped red Levite cloth that serves first as Moses' tell-tale swaddling, then as the ironic livery of his exile, and finally as the fulfilled reclamation of his heritage; the game of hounds and jackals between Cedric Hardwicke's Pharaoh Sethi and Anne Baxter's "throne princess" (because apparently you can't get away with depicting dynastic incest even in a movie with as impressive a third-act orgy as the Golden Calf) Nefretiri that ends when the ebony head of one of Sethi's jackals snaps off and skitters across the floor to be picked up by Rameses as he enters, unconsciously providing the final word in a discussion of birthright and inheritance; a scale balanced with silver weights and mud bricks with which Rameses maliciously underscores his charges of treachery against his cousin and Moses defends himself to his Pharaoh. When the Nile turns to blood, Rameses defiantly pours out water in a blessing upon it and the clear stream thickens and reddens mid-flow. DeMille's staging of the Exodus includes Moses' adoptive mother binding her fate to her son's and the mummy of Joseph borne on a palm-decorated bier, going home to be buried in long-lost Canaan. A lot of the bigger theatrical gestures did not work for me, especially once Heston shifts into really declamatory mode. The luminous green mist fissuring the sky and pouring in a smoke of pestilence through the streets, ankle-high, grave-deep, is a terrifying interpretation of the tenth plague, but I could not take seriously the passage of the Angel of Death over the house of Aaron and Miriam once it turned on the spot into the first Seder, complete with youngest child piping up innocently, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" Hearing a crowd of extras repeatedly shout "The Lord is our God! The Lord is one!" in English is really disorienting if you have ever said the Sh'ma on a regular basis. I appreciated the rabbi credited up front as one of the film's consultants along with archaeologists and scholars from the Oriental Institute and the Egyptian Department of Antiquities, but the overall effect of the movie is still a Jewish story being told for a Christian audience, through a Christian lens. To be fair to DeMille, I didn't go in expecting anything else. It was nearly four hours long and brilliantly colored and very loud. Edward G. Robinson looked like he was having a lot of fun. Any more intellectual analysis is going to have to wait until I feel less like a very intricately painted obelisk fell on me.

The Somerville was also screening Ben-Hur (1959) as the second half of what David the projectionist called the Charlton Heston Jewish Film Festival, but especially after seeing Spartacus (1960) last night,2 I was pretty much epic'd out. I sort of reeled home and fed the cats and wrote a job application, which was exhausting. I don't know if I would feel differently toward The Ten Commandments if I had grown up on it as an Easter tradition, the same way we always watched A Claymation Christmas Celebration (1987) and the Alastair Sim Scrooge/A Christmas Carol (1951) for Christmas and Lights (1984) for Hanukkah; I never had a default version of the Exodus story other than the one my family told every year, which changed a little every year. I didn't even see The Prince of Egypt (1998) until well into college. At the moment I can't imagine how The Ten Commandments would even work on a small screen, when I think much of the effect it had on me was the cast-of-thousands enormity of the production and the friezelike, painterly compositions, as if the whole thing were a moving progression by Alma-Tadema or some other pre-Raphaelite artist specializing in the ancient world.3 I was delighted to come home and discover Arnold Friberg's concept art and costume design for the film, which look, and I mean this in the best possible way, as though they should be decorating the walls of a library à la John Singer Sargent. And now I kind of want to read something with Jewish characters written by actual Jews, which shouldn't be at all hard to find. Who knew that eating at Mamaleh's yesterday would suddenly feel like a cultural victory? This awareness brought to you by my epic backers at Patreon.

1. The only T-shirt I own with Paleo-Hebrew on it is the one [ profile] ladymondegreen sent me from the Archaeological Seminars Institute in Israel. I wore it for the occasion.

2. I still think Kirk Douglas would have knocked it out of the park as Judah Ben-Hur. So did he—being turned down for the part by either William Wyler or MGM seems to have been one of his major impetus for making Spartacus. I can't say that was a bad idea, especially considering what Spartacus did for Dalton Trumbo and the breaking of the blacklist, but Douglas would have brought the requisite intensity to the role, plus he was fit as hell and actually Jewish. It would have been fun.

3. I can't imagine how long it must run with commercial breaks, either. My reaction to the latter parts of the film was rather like a road trip version of "Dayenu": all right, the Lord has hurled horse and rider into the sea, are we done yet? All right, Moses has brought down the laws from Sinai, are we done yet? All right, Moses has destroyed the Golden Calf and divided the faithful from the idolators, are we done yet? All right, the people have wandered in the wilderness for forty years, are we done yet? All right, Moses is on Mount Nebo, are we done yet? Cecil B. DeMille, it would have been enough!

August 2017

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