Saturday, December 25, 2010

REBECCA (1940)



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REBECCA (Director: Alfred Hitchcock) (Screenplay: Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier).


The best picture winner in 1940 was REBECCA, the second straight win for producer David O Selznick, and, more importantly, the first Hollywood film for director Alfred Hitchcock, who was about to begin an amazing run of both popular and critically acclaimed films there, eventually becoming known as the "master of suspense".  Amazingly, REBECCA is his only film to ever win best picture(even more amazing, he himself never won for best director).  While it is a polished and classy production, well made and well acted, I think it pales in comparison to many of his later classics, not to mention some of his earlier English films.
Hitchcock began his illustrious career in the British film industry in the 1920's at the Gainsborough Pictures studio; interestingly, one of his first films, 1927's THE LODGER, featured a plot about an innocent man wrongly accused of murder, a premise that he would rework and rework time and again for the next fifty years!  Although his British films are uneven, (he himself referred to 1934's WALTZES FROM VIENNA as "the lowest ebb of my career".) he quickly reached a high level of prominence as he made excellent thrillers like 1935's THE THIRTY NINE STEPS, and 1938's THE LADY VANISHES.  Inevitably, Hollywood came to call, and he signed a seven year contract with Selznick.  The two had an often adversarial relationship, with Selznick's micromanaging memos angering Hitchcock to the point where he edited the film in camera, shooting scenes in a manner in which they could only possibly be edited together the way he wanted them to be.
He may have been the master of suspense, but with REBECCA  Hitchcock made more of a romantic drama, with some ghost story elements, rather than a suspense film.  In it, Joan Fontaine plays a young woman (who's first name is never mentioned), who, while vacationing as a paid companion to an older woman, meets Maxim De Winter(Laurence Olivier), a good looking, wealthy middle aged man; they quickly fall in love and marry, and all seems well until they return to his palatial estate of Manderlay, where the memory of his deceased first wife, Rebecca, is inescapable, and threatens to wreck their marriage.

Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier

Fontaine, who was not a well known actress at the time,  is excellent as the young bride in over her head; she is immediately likable and garners our sympathy easily, which is important since most of the film is told from her point of view.  Olivier is also good, managing to be both romantic and charming in the first part of the film, and withdrawn and mysterious in the second, and he does what he can with a long, exposition heavy speech that he gives late in the film.  But the movie is really stolen by Judith Anderson as the villainous house maid Mrs Danvers,who is obsessed with the memory of Rebecca; with her pale skin, protruding nose, tightly bound hair and single black outfit, Andrerson's Danvers is a truly ghostlike and frightening figure.  I love the way that Anderson gives her voice a flat, cold tone that makes even the most pleasant words sound like a threat.  Her best scene comes when she quietly but forcefully tries to talk Fontaine's character into committing suicide; without overplaying it, she almost makes suicide seem like a logical conclusion for the young bride.  Another interesting element of her character is the implication that her obsession with the dead Rebecca may have more to it than a maid remembering her mistress; the fact that she keeps Rebecca's now empty room exactly the way she liked when she was alive, and that she praises the dead woman's beauty more than once, implies a possible sexual interest.  Hitchcock would return to giving  homosexual leanings to his villains in other films like STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and while the fact that it always a villain that is gay makes them homophobic, it also does add some interesting texture to the characters.

Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson

The early scenes, with the romantic leads meeting and falling for each other, are charming and lively, and Olivier gets to deliver one of the great movie proposals: "I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool."  The shift in tone to darker drama is effective, one nice touch is the way Hitchcock shoots the Mandalay estate, which looks big and beautiful when the married couple first get there, but gets much darker and more foreboding as the specter of Rebecca's memory is cast over it.  He also pulls off one terrific tracking shot that starts with Fontaine sitting at a dinner table with Olivier for their first meal at Mandlay; the camera slowly pulls back to reveal how enormous the table is and how they are both flanked by servants, until Fontaine herself seems to shrink, effectively illustrating how overwhelmed she is.
Unfortunately, after a strong start, the film's story looses momentum, with too many scenes of the forlorn Fontaine wandering around Manderlay; Hitchcock films rarely sag, but this one does, and other than the aforementioned dinner table shot, and the big fiery conclusion, there are few memorable visuals or camera setups to be found.  Also, like GONE WITH THE WIND from a year before, too many big dramatic moments are revealed in the final third of the film, pushing it into melodrama, and moving the story away from Fontaine's character and her conflict with Mrs Danvers, which is the most interesting part of the story.  Also, the film lacks the dark wit that make so many Hitchcock films a joy to watch, and that are a big part of why they hold up so well decades later.  Indeed, even his little walk on cameo comes at the end and is barely noticeable.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
Although it's easy to see why the Academy would give the award to a stately  and well made film like REBECCA, it is not my favorite of the year that also produced Howard Hawks's HIS GIRL FRIDAY, Walt Disney's PINOCCHIO, and Hitchcock's own second release that year, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT.






Sunday, December 12, 2010

GONE WITH THE WIND(1939)


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GONE WITH THE WIND (Dir: Victor Fleming) (Screenplay: Sidney Howard, based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell)

The best picture winner for 1939 was certainly a no brainer: GONE WITH THE WIND was, from the very moment it began production, destined to become a classic Hollywood epic of enormous proportions, and it was showered with ten Oscars in all(two of them honorary).  It is also no surprise that the film has become so  well remembered and revered, since it truly is a powerful, beautifully filmed example of golden age Hollywood film making, with a cast of thousands, eye popping technicolor, terrific costumes, and a sweeping score by Max Steiner.  It is also, in my opinion, even in its greatness, often uneven.

When the Pulitzer prize winning book of the same name was published by Margarert Mitchell in 1936, Kay Brown, a story editor for producer David O Selznick's studio, Selznick International, instantly saw the novel as a film.  At first he thought it was too long, but eventually he was convinced, and when the book became a runaway best seller, he wound up spending $50,000 for the rights, the highest amount ever paid for a novel up to that point. Its production was then handled with much publicity; literally thousands of actresses auditioned for the plum lead role of Scarlet O'hara before Vivien Leigh was chosen.  Although her  English descent made her far from a Southern belle, and she was not a big star, she turned out to be an inspired choice, and she would win an Oscar for the role.  While there was some talk of casting Erroyl Flynn or Gary Cooper in the role of Rhett Butler, there really was no competition with Clark Gable, who seemed born for the role.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh: Perfect casting

Shooting began with George Cukor in the director's chair, but he was fired after about a month.  Just why he was let go is a matter of some debate; some say that Selznick thought he was moving too slowly.  On the other hand, in his excellent book "You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet": The American Talking Film History and Memory 1927-1949" film critic Andrew Sarris said it was because Gable thought that Cukor was focusing the film too much on the female characters, and also that Gable did not want to directed by the openly gay Cukor.  (This accounting of events is confirmed by Patrick McGilligan in A DOUBLE LIFE, his biography of Cukor). Whatever the reason, he was replaced by Victor Fleming, who had directed Gable before in 1932's RED DUST, and who matched Gable's manliness, although the female cast members were not as happy with him as they were with Cukor.  To get the massive film done in seven months of shooting, director Sam Wood also did some uncredited work on it.  The script was also a definite group effort; Sidney Howard may have gotten sole credit (and an Oscar) for it, but there are reports of as many as ten different writers working on it, including Selznick himself.  Indeed, with his constant meddling and decision making, the finished film could be said to be more Selznick's than anybody else's.  The film's final budget was a then enormous 4.2 million dollars, but its success was almost assured from the start, and today many people still consider it to be the biggest money maker ever, when adjusted for inflation.
In the film, the first time we see Scarlet, she's sitting on the porch of Tara, her family's plantation in Georgia, wearing a white hoop skirt and delivering the immortal line, "Fiddle-dee-dee", while being attended to by two young male admirers.  Immediately, she appears self centered and vain, drinking in the attention of the two men and shutting them down when they start to talk of the oncoming war.  She will remain this way throughout the film; really, there are few classic films that revolve around such an unlikable character.  Not only is she vain, she's spiteful, manipulative and impulsive; she marries three times in the film, never out of love, and hates even having to pretend to mourn for her first two husbands.  Nor does she let her marriages stop her from pursuing her true love, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), even though he himself is married.  She's not even a good mother to her daughter Bonnie(Cammie King).  It is really a tribute to the excellence of Leigh's performance that the audience can still care about Scarlett and can be moved by her story even as we frown upon her actions.  Leigh always lets us know what Scarlet is thinking, and we can understand her motivations even if we don't condone them.  Certainly, we come to admire her as a survivor; when she returns to Tara after the burning of Atlanta and finds it in ruins, she takes charge and gets the place running again, even if she has to work in the fields herself.  She also bravely shoots a lecherous Union soldier, and famously turns some curtains into a dress to make an impression on Rhett. 
As the roguish Rhett, Gable is perfect, playing up to his macho image as he bravely leads Scarlet out of the burning Atlanta, and later forces himself upon her.  He also shows a more tender side as he becomes a doting father to Bonnie and despairs over his unhappy marriage to Scarlett.
As perfect as the casting of Gable and Leigh are, I find the film's selection of the story's other two main characters to be far less so. Leslie Howard felt that at forty six he was too old to play Ashley Wilkes, and I think he was right.  Even worse, he often seems lifeless and stiff in the role, and he frequently over delivers his lines.  And then there's Olivia de Havilland as the saintly Melanie, a truly dull character who always sees the best in everyone, including Scarlett; in fact she practically fawns over her, despite Scarlett's obvious dislike for her.  Her character is presented as so kindly and  good hearted, that, in one slightly ridiculous moment, she is made to look like the virgin Mary while nursing a wounded soldier.  To be fair to de Havilland, I think her character's blandness derives more from the script (and I presume the novel)than from her own weakness as an actress, and I've enjoyed her in other films like 1949's THE HEIRESS.  In any event, the best thing to be said about the Melanie character is that her inhuman goodness makes the audience identify with Scarlett, who at least is a believable person.

Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havillind: Not so perfect casting

Many jokes have been made over the years about just how Scarlett could pass up handsome Rhett for stuffy Ashley, but obviously what the movie and the novel are driving at is more than mere physical attraction.  Scarlett loves Ashley because he is noble and honorable, and he bravely goes off to fight in the war because he truly believes in the cause; in her mind he is what she deserves.  Rhett, on the other hand, is a notorious scalawag, who's reputation with the ladies is well known before he even meets her.  He also has no interest in the Southern cause in the war, saying that "I believe in Rhett Butler, he's the only cause I know", and during the war he makes a fortune blockcade running instead of fighting.  He is immediately attracted to Scarlett, because he sees in her the same cynical survival instinct that he has, saying to her at one point that they are both "selfish and shrewd".  She continually rebuffs him because she can't quite believe that truth about herself.  A crucial moment in their relationship comes in the latter part of the film; after they are married and have a daughter, Scarlett refuses to sleep with him anymore, worrying that having more children will ruin her figure.  One night Rhett comes home and drunkenly forces himself on her; immediately we cut to her the next morning, lying in bed, smiling, with a look of sexual satisfaction on her face.  For the first time, she is happy with him; clearly she likes his rough animal side. But, when Rhett walks in and apologizes for his behavior the night before, trying to be the gentlemen he thinks she wants, she is immediately cold to him again.  Clearly, this is a woman who does not understand her own desires!  Sadly for her, she will not realize what she truly wants until the film's end, when she vainly tries to stop Rhett from leaving, leading to perhaps the most famous use of a swear word in film history.
The first half of GONE WITH THE WIND is truly remarkable, with unforgettable images, like Scarlett's walk through a sea of wounded Confederate soldiers, and its depiction of the last days of the Confederacy are moving and well done(even if you aren't as sympathetic with the Southern cause as the characters are).  It builds to a remarkable climax of pure spectacle, with Rhett leading Scarlett and Melanie out of the flaming city of Atlanta, followed by a wonderfully written and acted  moment when Rhett returns to join the fallen Confederate army.  Then it tops itself with Scarlett's return to the fallen Tara and her towering delivery of the legendary line about never being hungry again.  I think if the film had ended here, it would completely justify its classic status.  But the second half just doesn't hold up; first of all, I think the Civil War and the fall of the South are just inherently more interesting and dramatic subjects than the postwar reconstruction, and even that part of the story is forgotten once Rhett and Scarlett restore Tara to its past glory; from then on the scope of the film is greatly reduced, and there's nothing left but romantic melodrama.  Even worse, considering the film's almost four hour length, the last half hour of the film feels rushed. In quick succession we see: Scarlett fall down the stairs and have a miscarriage, Bonnie die in a riding accident, Melanie die of an unknown disease, Ashley turn away Scarlett one last time, and, finally, Rhett leave her for good.  Scarlett may not be the most sympathetic character, but piling this much drama on her in such a short time seems cruel, and I think that Selznick's original idea of turning the novel into two separate films may have been a better idea.
Finally, when looking at GONE WITH THE WIND, I feel it is important to discuss this film's attitudes towards the South and slavery.  Any fan of old movies knows racism is just a sad fact of Hollywood history; from studios forcing African American actors to change their names to "Stepin Fetchit" and "Sleep 'n' Eat", to Katherine Hepburn playing an Asian woman(!) in 1944's DRAGON SEED, the dated attitudes of those times make some movies unwatchable today.  But GWTW is more complicated on this issue than other films of that era.  It opens with this credit crawl:


There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind... 

This passage(which is not found in the novel) clearly establishes the film as a romanticization of the days of the antebellum South, and its hyperbole (gallantry took its last bow?) puts it over the top. Overblown it may be (most Southerners at the time didn't even own slaves),  this film was so popular  that for many people in America, when we think of Southern plantations, we think of this film's nostalgic view, with fancy dress balls where chivalrous young men vied for the women's attentions while mint juleps were sipped on the veranda.  And slavery was just accepted as a fact of life, and necessary to the running of the plantation. So, while there are likable African American characters in the film, they are clearly portrayed as happy slaves, who don't question their fate or sympathize with the Union in any way; in one hard to believe moment, former slaves are seen proudly marching off to help the Confederate soldiers! The only African American we see in the film that isn't a slave is an unlikable carpet bagger who refuses to give a ride to a handicapped Confederate veteran.  And then there is the character of the maid/house slave Mamie (Hattie McDaniel), who, as stereotypical as she is,  is also the one character in the film who is always wise to Scartlett's tricks;  when Rhett refers to her as wise in one scene, we can see why.  McDaniel won a best supporting actress award for the role, the first African American actor to win, or even be nominated, and I think she deserved it.  Unfortunately, she defined a role that would quickly become the only kind open to African American actresses; the feisty maid who has no life of her own outside of the household she works for.  Years later, when singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday appeared in films, they had to play maids who just happened to sing.   So in many ways, this film was one step forward, two steps back in the depiction of African Americans in movies, but, like all works of art, it is a product of its time.
More than anything, GONE WITH THE WIND shows the difficulty in telling a war story (from any war) entirely from one side; I'm sure to many Southerners of that time, this film accurately shows their feelings of anger at the Union "invasion" of the South, but, obviously, the war meant something entirely different to the Union and the slaves.  So, I would recommend that parents today show their children this movie as an educational tool about the Civil War, but I think they may also want to show them Edward Zwick's 1989 film GLORY to see the other side of the story.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
1939 has become a legendary year for classic Hollywood fans; along with this film, numerous other enduring classics were released that year: MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, STAGECOACH, GUNGA DIN, GOODBYE MR CHIPS, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, and the underrated but still wonderful NINOTCHKA.  But for me there is one film that towers above them all, and that holds up even better than  GONE WITH THE WIND, and that film is THE WIZARD OF OZ.  Amazingly, Victor Fleming was also credited with directing that film too!  (Even more amazing, he replaced George Cukor on that film also).



Sunday, November 28, 2010

YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU(1938)






YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU (DIR: FRANK CAPRA) (SCR: ROBER RISKIN, BASED ON THE PLAY BY GEORGE KAUFMAN AND MOSS HART)

Four years after he had won his first best picture Oscar with IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, director Frank Capra won again for his adaptation of George Kaufman and Moss Hart's Pulitzer Prize winning play YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU.  A lot had happened to him in those years: he had become one of the few Hollywood directors to have his name above the title of his films, and he was also president of both the Academy itself and the director's guild.
He first saw the play at its opening in New York while he was there for the debut of his 1937 film LOST HORIZON, and he immediately saw its potential as his next cinematic project, eventually persuading Columbia studio head Harry Cohn to shell out two hundred thousand dollars (a then enormous sum) for the rights.  His instincts were correct, as the film eventually turned in a healthy profit on its total budget of over one and half million dollars.
The play told the sweet tale of the Vanderhoffs, a large family of eccentrics, run by a lovable patriarchal grandfather, who encourages the family to do what they love, not what they have to do, which leads them to try play writing, candy making, dancing, and firework manufacturing, among other things. When the most sane member of the family, his young granddaughter,  Alice, falls in love, she is worried that her boyfriend's family won't like hers, especially since her boyfriend's father is a prominent banker.  At first she is proven correct, as her grandfather and the banker clash, but,  after some crazy events, inevitably, the banker comes to see the wisdom of her grandfather's ways. 
Capra and his collaborator, screenwriter Robert Riskind (who had already written four films for him), made sure to open up the play, adding subplots, exterior scenes and greatly increasing the number of characters.  It also features crisp editing and many crowd scenes, so that it would be easy to forget its theatrical origins.  More importantly, the film is not just about the Vanderhoffs, but also about the community they live in; a real Capra trademark.  Interestingly, in one scene towards the end, when the Vanderhoffs have to pay a fee in court, all of their friends from the neighborhood pitch in to pay it for them, presaging the famous ending of Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE that came out eight years later.
While this is not my personal favorite Capra movie (that would be MEET JOHN DOE),  I still find this to  be charming, funny, and romantic; as in many of his films, its world view is often too naive, but I for one can't help be moved by his desire to believe in the basic goodness of the average person.  Indeed, in his auto biography (THE NAME ABOVE THE TITLE), Capra stated that he wanted the film to dramatize the simple idea of Love Thy Neighbor.
It certainly is a well cast film: with a joyful gleam in his eye, Lionel Barrymore is wonderful as Grandpa Vanderhoff, and he completely sells the many speeches, both funny and serious, that he has in the film (I particularly like his moving remembrance of his late wife).  Equally strong is Edward Arnold as Anothony Kirby, the banker, who's gruff demeanor and owl like appearance made him a formidable opponent to Barrymore. All of the minor roles are played  by various character actors (like the well named Donald Meek) or newcomers, like the fifteen year old Ann Miller as the constantly dancing Effie, and they all acquit themselves excellently.  And, perhaps most important of all, for his two romantic leads, Alice Sycamore and  Tony Kirby, Capra cast Jean Arthur and James Stewart.  Capra once described Arthur as having a "husky voice that broke into a thousand tinkling bells"; more importantly, she was the perfect ideal of the all American girl next door, and casting her was easy for Capra since he had worked with her before, wonderfully, in MEET JOHN DOE.  Jimmy Stewart, on the other hand, was new to Capra, but he immediately seemed to embody Capra's love of the  decent everyman, and they would go on to work together again in the classics: MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE.  One change Capra and Riskind made from the play was to add more scenes of romance between these two, and it certainly was the right decision.  (Does anyone shoot better scenes of moony young lovers talking than Capra does?).  Unfortunately, one sequence with the two lovebirds visiting a restaurant and inadvertently almost causing a riot is just silly slapstick; oddly, it resembles a similar scene from BRINGING UP BABY, released that same year.

Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur


The romance in the film tends to work better than the social comment, some of which is quite ridiculous; in a memorable scene Grandpa Vanderhoff argues with an IRS agent, claiming that he sees no reason to have to pay income tax.  Clearly, we are supposed to be on Grandpa's side here, but it seems absurd for him to assert that he shouldn't have to pay taxes if he doesn't like the way the money is spent(his character is supposed to be a patriot, so you'd think he'd know more about how the government works).  It's also a bit chilling to hear him criticize spending money on defense just three years before the Pearl Harbor bombing.
The film's comic highlight comes when Mr Kirby and his wife (Mary Forbes) agree to go to dinner at the Vanderhoffs, although neither of them are particularly excited about the interest their son is showing in Alice.  Unfortunately, they show up on the wrong night, and enter to see Alice's mother (Spring Byingtonwatch full eye of her crazy Russian dance instructor, Kolenkohf (Misha Auer).


Not what the Kirbys expected to see!

Things go from bad to worse, as the Kirbys sink into uncomfortable chairs and Klolenkohf tries out one of his old wrestling moves on Mr Kirby.   As things continue poorly, Tony admits to his father that he purposely invited them on the wrong night so that they could see how the Vanderhoffs really are, not how they would pretend to be when they knew they had company coming,  which angers his father even further.  But before the Kirbys can leave,  a disturbance involving an entire basement of fireworks shooting out into the street (An image that Capra stages wonderfully!)causes the entire household to be arrested.  While in jail, Mr Kirby is disgusted at having to be around poor people while waiting for his lawyers to bail him out, and he refers to his cellmates as "scum".  This leads Grandpa to rip into Kirby, calling him a failure as a man, a human being, and a father.  It's the only moment in the film where Barrymore raises his voice, and it he plays it for all that it's worth.  Unfortunately it also shows the stain of self righteousness that runs through many of Capra's films; it's never enough for the audience to see his lovable heroes defend their values, they have to announce those values at full volume.  And much of what is said are simple homilies that should be common sense to almost anyone: yes, having the love of friends and family is more important than a lot of money.  Does that really count as an earthshaking sentiment? That obvious tone is probably the film's greatest flaw; it isn't enough for Grandpa to dump on Kirby, he will later get a tongue lashing from Alice, from a co worker that he has financially ruined, and, inevitably, from his own son.  His  greed and avarice is fully on display without having other characters point it out to the audience, but Capra still feels he has to pile it on.  And, while I do enjoy the scenes at the end, when Mr Kirby, like Ebeneezer Scrooge, renounces his materialistic ways, it feels like it was a realization that was far too long coming.  I think a good twenty minutes could easily have been edited out of this film without hurting its message.


SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

While I certainly enjoy this film more than Capra's first best picture winner, (IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, 1934) I don't think it holds up as well as some of his other films.  I think that the best picture of that year was the ground breaking Walt Disney classic, SNOW WHITE.  I also greatly enjoy Micheal Curtiz's two films that year: THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD and ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES.

 

 

Friday, November 19, 2010

THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA(1937)



THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA (Dir: William Dieterle) (Scr: Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald,Geza Herczeg)

In 1937, for the second year in a row, the Academy gave the best picture award to a biographic film; they both were essentially hagiographies, with minor characters constantly reminding the leads of their greatness, and they both end with eulogies that state that greatness one last time.  Still, THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA is a much more serious film than the frothy THE GREAT ZIEGFELD, because it is about corruption, and it has several long speeches railing against injustice.  In that regard it resembles 1935's best picture winner MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY in that both films criticize unfair military systems of the past; unfortunately, as with MUTINY, the THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA gives us a simplistic story of good vs. evil.  Awarding these films was a no brainer for the Academy since their stands against wrongdoing are only about military systems that are European and that essentially ended decades before the films were made.  They were hardly controversial.  Films that portrayed injustice in a modern setting, like say, Charlie Chaplin's MODERN TIMES(1936), were generally avoided by the Academy then (and perhaps still are!).
Emile Zola (1840-1902) was a famous French author, journalist and playwright who often courted controversy in his writings, especially in his attacks on the French military of the time.  He is most famous for his defense of an army captain wrongly accused of treason,  and this is what the film focuses on.  (In the film, an opening title card explains that this film is based on fact, but that it is not completely historically accurate; something that could be said about every historical film ever made).
The movie begins in Paris in 1862, with the struggling young writer Zola (Paul Muni) living in a dingy Parisian apartment with the soon to be famous painter Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff).  The first half hour of the film briskly shows the rise of Zola and ends with him old and successful; most of his literary works are barely mentioned, and his wife hardly shows up all.  When Cezanne accuses him of complacency and leaves his home for good, it feels like an ending, even though there is a good hour and a half of film to go!
The film then switches to the story of Captain Alfred Dreyfus(Joseph Schildkraut), who is accused of being a traitor by his superior officers; he is found guilty and sentenced to Devil's Island.  When evidence is discovered proving his innocence, the officers cover it up to avoid disgrace.  Dreyfus' wife (Gale Sondergaard), convinced that he is not guilty, brings his case to the attention of Zola, who initially resists her, but then becomes involved.  Zola boldly attacks the officers in a newspaper editorial with the famous headline "I Accuse!" (or, in French: "J'Accuse!"), knowing full well that he will be sued for libel, which could end with he himself going to jail.  The trial divides the country and although he fails to win his case and is forced to flee to London, justice is eventually served, and both Zola and Dreyfus are exonerated.

 Paul Muni,  in slightly ridiculous old age makeup, as Zola

The then forty two year old Muni had the disadvantage of playing Zola as an old man through most of the film, and he looks a little uncomfortable in padding to make him look heavier and old age makeup.  Still, he gives a mostly credible performance, giving Zola some eccentric touches and doing his best to sell the long, heavy handed speeches that he delivers.  Sadly, the same cannot be said for the rest of the cast: Schildkraut as Dreyfus won a best supporting actor award for his role, but I find him too broad and melodramatic; he doesn't just proclaim his innocence, he yells it, repeatedly.  Even worse is Sondergaard as his wife,  with her pained, suffering expressions pushing the film further into soap opera territory.  The corrupt officials, led by Harry Davenport's chief of staff, are all thoroughly unlikable villains who practically ooze evil in a most predictable manner.


 Gale Sondergaard

I find the direction of William Dieterle here to be flat, with few striking images or interesting camerawork; the era of Paris in the late eighteen hundreds is barely evoked.  The big court room scene hits all the obvious notes, with various characters stentorially orating about the case,  while onlookers yell and catcall and the inevitably dictatorial judge demands silence.  Zola's big speech before the court is shot in one take, which makes it seem to last forever.  Even Max Steiner's score for the film feels obvious and it often painfully underlines emotions that the characters are already stating.  And, while it may be historically accurate for Zola to flee to England until Dreyfus is eventually freed by the work of others, it makes the ending anti climatic, with Zola and Dreyfus never even meeting each other.  Worst of all is what this film leaves out: Dreyfus was Jewish, and the accusations made against him were clearly anti Semitic in nature, a fact that the film never mentions.  In fact, a new book by Ben Urwand called THE COLLABORATION:HOLLYWOOD'S PACT WITH HITLER claims that studio heard Jack Warner himself had the word jew removed from the film, out of fear of losing the German market for this and other films.  To me this makes this dull and stuffy film even less praise worthy.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
As I'm sure you can tell from my comments, I find this film mostly ponderous and full of self righteous speeches that last too long.  For me, Gregory La Cava's STAGE DOOR, with its wonderful female cast, would have been a much better choice.  I also greatly enjoy Leo McCarey's THE AWFUL TRUTH, William Wellman's original version of A STAR IS BORN, Frank Capra's LOST HORIZON, and William Wyler's DEAD END.



Sunday, November 14, 2010

THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936)





THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (DIR: ROBERT Z LEONARD) (SCREENPLAY: WILLIAM ANTHONY MCGUIRE)

In 1936 the Academy gave the best picture award to a splashy, big budget musical, the second time it would do so in its nine years of award giving, (the first being 1929's THE BROADWAY MELODY)showing a fondness for that genre that continues to this day with films like CHICAGO and MOULIN ROUGE getting multiple nominations.  Along with being a musical, THE GREAT ZEIGFELD is also a biography, the first film of that type to win best picture.
The film began production at Paramount, but when the studio realized that to do justice to the story would require a much larger budget, it was sold to Metro Goldwyn Mayer, who produced it with director Robert Z. Leonard for over two million dollars.  (Perhaps it was appropriate that a film about a man who's grandiose vision and spendthrift ways often left him in debt would go over budget).
Florenz Ziegfeld (1867-1932) was a great Broadway impresario, who produced annual variety  extravaganzas that were known as THE ZIEGFELD FOLLIES from 1907 to the 1920's; in them he claimed to "glorify the American girl", (which is really just a nice way to say he had a lot of pretty chorus girls in garish outfits)and to be a "Ziegfeld girl" was considered the dream of every aspiring female dancer of that time.  He also produced successful shows like WHOOPEE, GIRL WITH THE GOLDEN VEST, and SHOW BOAT, and helped to popularize performers like Will Rogers, WC Fields, Ray Bolger and Fanny Brice (Bolger and Brice appear in the film as themselves).  In 1936 (four years after his death) his name was still well known by the public, and studios assumed that recreating some of his follies shows for the big screen would prove irresistible to the movie going audience; they were correct as the film was a smash hit, grossing over forty million dollars at the box office.
The opening credits for THE GREAT ZIEGFELD are shown in big flashy lights like names on Broadway, already setting a larger than life tone for the film, a tone that continues as the film opens in 1893 at the Chicago World's fair, which is beautifully recreated with lavish sets.  Here we first meet Ziegfeld, played by William Powell.  Two years after breaking through to stardom in THE THIN MAN, Powell is well cast here as the charming, fast talking, womanizing Ziegfeld, and he breezes through the role winningly; he's always likable, even when bluffing a costume designer into letting him use the costumes he ordered for free.  If Ziegfeld ever had a dark side, we certainly don't see it here!  He's brash and assured of his success, even when he's broke, and his energy and confidence is infectious.  I love the way he gets one prominent singer to sign a contract with him even though he has no money to offer her, just promises.
At the film's start, Ziegfeld is just a carnival barker at the fair, trying to drum up business for his strongman star Sandow (Nat Pendelton).  On the verge of failure, Ziegfeld hits on the idea of turning his strongman into a sex symbol, and charging women to touch his huge muscles; he quickly becomes a sensation, and Ziegfeld learns the importance of selling sex appeal.  Later, while promoting another star, French singer Anna Held(Luise Rainer), he spreads an untrue rumor that she bathes in milk every night to maintain her glowing complexion, and again he has enormous success. 
Director Leonard uses a light comedic touch in these early scenes, and I feel this is the right choice; audiences went to a film like this to see big musical numbers and get a nice story with a little romance in between, and that's what they get.  Indeed, this light tone is maintained throughout most of the movie, and even the serious moments, like when Ziegfeld's wife leaves him, are quickly glossed over; it's only towards the end, when Ziegfeld is sick and dying, that Leonard gives in to maudlin sentiment, but thankfully, this doesn't last for long.
Louis Rainer won as Oscar for best actress as the flighty, egotistical French singer Anna Held, but with her thick accent and flowery movements, I often find her annoying.  It's a mostly comic performance, but she does have one big emotional moment (that almost certainly won her that Oscar) when she speaks to Ziegfeld on the phone and manages to congratulate him on his upcoming wedding to Billie Burke (Myrna Loy) even though she still loves him.  It's a showy scene, but the audience is with her and it works, even if I think she overplays it.

 The Famous Phone Scene


Although Myrna Loy is given second billing in the credits, her Billie Burke does not even appear in the film until well after the half way point.  Still, she dominates a good portion of the latter part of the film, and the romantic sparks that fly between her and Powell are great as always(they had already been matched together in other movies before this, and they would go on to share the screen together 14 times in all). It's interesting to note that the real Billie Burke took an interest in this film, and worked on the script with writer William Anthony McGuire, which may explain why Ziegfeld's womanizing is only mentioned and not shown, and also why Burke's character in the film is so noble and supportive of him.  She even sells the jewelry he gave her to help him raise money for a show after he loses a fortune in the stock market crash of 1929.
Considering that this is a film about a famous Broadway musical producer, it's a bit of a surprise that director Leonard holds off on the first musical number until around the half hour mark, but, this is a long movie(almost three hours, with an intermission at the halfway point), and the musical scenes show up soon enough. Among those scenes are what could be called three "spectacle" numbers: the first is "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody", in which the camera slowly pans over an enormous revolving multi layered set filled with exotically costumed performers who sing who or play instruments; filmed almost entirely in one shot, it just keeps building and building, with more performers and levels to the set (snatches of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue are used to good effect here) being revealed, until the camera slowly pulls back to show the entire set in all its gigantic wonder.  One hundred and eighty Performers in all were used here, and it certainly captures the huge vision that Ziegfeld brought to the stage.  A second big number plays up his love of sexy chorus girls as we see a large number of them pretending to sleep in beds arranged on large, sliding stages; they "wake up" and dance on their beds as they floor under them moves the beds back and forth.  This is an impressive illustration of just how acrobatic these dancers had to be, as they had to both maintain their balance and dance on the beds as they moved around.  The scene quickly (if incongruously) moves to an array of women displaying spectacular, over the top gowns (designed by Adrian Adolph Greenburg, credited only as Adrian) that must be seen to be believed.  Overall, this number is not as impressive as the "Pretty Girl" scene, but the crazy gowns are really something.

 Amazingly, This is not the most garish outfit in the film!

The final big number is a silly Circus themed one, with the prerequisite chorus girls jumping around some bored looking dogs; it's the film's weakest musical moment, and, unfortunately, one of the last ones.  Along with these spectacle scenes, there are some other remarkable musical moments to be seen here:  I love Ray Bolger's  terrific crazy comic tap dance number (he would go on to play the scarecrow in THE WIZARD OF OZ, three years later), and I also enjoy Fanny Brice singing two songs (one comic, one serious).  She also gets to do a funny scene in which Ziegfeld comes to offer her a job in one of his shows, and she doesn't believe it's really him.  With her nasal voice and broad expressions, Brice is not for everyone, but I find her likable and amusing, and I only wish she had more to do in the film.
  At almost three hours, THE GREAT ZIEGFELD is too long, with one subplot about a drunken chorus girl making a play for Ziegfeld feeling completely unnecessary; on the other hand, the ending feels rushed, with many of the man's greatest theatrical successes barely mentioned.  Also, as with so many Hollywood biographies, reality is often glossed over, (for example, in the movie he marries Anna Held, even though in real life the two were romantically involved but never married)and our hero is often over glorified; at the end a faithful butler extols his greatness to him as he lays dying, ladling the emotional sap on very thick.  Still, this is a fun, entertaining film with some fine musical numbers.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

With its big budget and enormous box office, THE GREAT ZIEGFELD made quite a splash in 1936, but there were many better films made that year, the best being Charlie Chaplin's brilliant MODERN TIMES and Frank Capra's MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN,  not to mention James Whale's classic THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEINI also prefer the Astaire Rogers film, SWING TIME and Jack Conway's excellent adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel A TALE OF TWO CITIES.



Wednesday, November 10, 2010

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY(1935)


MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (DIR: FRANK LLOYD) (SCREENPLAY: TALBOT JENNINGS, JULES FURTHMAN AND CAREY WILSON, BASED ON THE NOVELS "THE BOUNTY TRILOGY" BY CHARLES NORDHOFF AND JAMES NORMAN HALL)

The name Frank Lloyd is one that rarely comes up when discussing great Hollywood directors of the 1930's, but he directed two films that won best picture in that decade: 1935's MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY and 1933's CAVALCADE.  Although the films do have some things in common (they're both handsome looking period pieces with an English setting, appropriate enough for the Scottish born Lloyd), MUTINY is clearly better remembered and more revered than the earlier film.   It is also interesting to note that Clark Gable had a starring role in two best picture winners in a row, this film and IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT.   Amazingly, Gable starred in a whopping seven other films in the year between these two, a real good example of how much faster film production was at that time!  Reportedly, he had to be talked into taking the role of Fletcher Christian, at first thinking that he couldn't play an Englishman (his accent was, of course, wrong, but that was already nothing new for Hollywood, and he did shave off his mustache for historical accuracy), but he later said that it was his favorite role, and it's easy to see why: Fletcher Christian is perfect  for Gable's rough, manly, but charming persona and there's good amount of action and romance, both of which he had a flair for.
His antagonist in the film is, of course,  Captain Bligh, played memorably by Charles Laughton.  Rumor has it that producer Irving Thalberg hired Laughton because he was openly gay and Gable was homophobic; Thalberg thought their inevitable animosity off screen would make them more believable onscreen, and certainly their contempt for each other often feels palpable.

Gable and Laughton weren't just acting

With a budget just under two million dollars, this was Metro Goldwyn Mayer's most expensive film yet, and it features a cast of thousands, terrific looking ships, and beautiful location shooting in French Polynesia (a real rarity at a time when many films set in exotic locations used studio sets instead of actual locations).  As with CAVALCADE, Lloyd delivers a good looking film that is generally well acted.
Set in 1787 and based on the 1932 novelization of real events by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY begins with British seaman Fletcher Christian (Gable)using a press gang to round up recruits for a two year voyage on the Bounty, sailing to Tahiti to pick bread fruit.  Also on the journey is midshipman Roger Byam(Franchot Tone), who is from a royal family, and who will find himself torn between Christian and Bligh. The men are afraid when they hear they'll be sailing under Bligh(Laughton), and he immediately meets their expectations.  In a precursor of what's to come, he has a man flogged, even when he's already dead!  As the voyage begins, the movie starts to bog down a bit, with scene after scene of Bligh treating the crew horribly, which quickly start to become repetitive; since we know the mutiny is inevitable, Lloyd seems concerned that we really understand why it happened by making Bligh capital E Evil.  But that point was made almost right away, and further illustrations of his cruelty seem unnecessary.  By the time they finally reach Tahiti, I was as glad that they landed as they were.
The scenes on the island bring some welcome relief from Bligh's sadism, as Christian and Byam romance some native girls, and there's also a fine comic performance by Bill Bambridge as native chief Hitihiti, but soon its back to the ship, where Bligh's continued cruelty(he cuts the men's water rations in half so that they can carry more bread fruit plants) leads to the inevitable mutiny.  Given that the whole film is leading up to this moment, I wish this scene went on longer, and had more action.  Still,  Lloyd does use some exciting quick cuts of sudden violence well. It would appear here that Lloyd's fast editing is influenced by another film about a mutiny, Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 Russian silent classic, BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, but unfortunately the short length of the mutiny here doesn't allow it to build to the powerful climax that POTEMKIN has.
After the mutiny, Christian nobly spares Bligh's life and allows him and his few loyal men to man a lifeboat.  Amazingly, they sail successfully back to England, and eventually Bligh returns for revenge.  He captures a few of the mutineers, but Christian and most of the men sail away.   For me, the film really should have ended here, but instead it drags on, giving us an unnecessary military trial in which Byam makes a dull speech about how, yes, captain Bligh is really evil.  Finally, the film ends with Christian, his men, and their native wives, settling on an island, realizing they can never return; it's a good ending, but it should have come sooner!
I have put off discussing Laughton's performance because it makes such an impression that I wanted to save it for last; although he won an Oscar for best actor in 1933 for THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII, it is for his captain Bligh that Laughton is best remembered.  Laughton plays the role full tilt, with a jutting lower lip, effete mannerisms, a stiff backed walk, and an absolute bellow of a voice.  While often entertaining, this is a one note, hammy performance; Bligh has not one ounce of humanity or sympathy in him.  While it is implied that his cruelty stems from the unjust system that ran the British navy at the time, he goes well beyond his officer's training: at one point he steals from the ship's cargo and blames it on one of the men!  Yes, this is an all around repulsive character, and I wish that the screenwriters had ignored historical accuracy and given him some kind of comeuppance at the end(walking the plank?), instead of having him return to England and continue his captaincy.  Interestingly, I find Laughton's best scenes come when Bligh is at his lowest point: after the mutiny, when he and a handful of loyal men are put on a life raft, and, with grim certainty, he sails them back to England.  Laughton practically burns with vengeance, and we have to admire his character's nautical skills here, even if he has brought the situation upon himself.


 Captain Bligh bellows at Christian one last time

The sheer volume and force of Laughton's performance underlines for me what I think is the film's main flaw: its lack of subtlety.  Here is a simple of tale of good and evil, with both sides represented in the most obvious way: the good represented by the young, physically attractive Gable and the bad by the flabby, older Laughton.  I think a much more interesting film could be made in which Bligh is more sympathetic and Christian less noble, which would make the film more about the conflict between duty and desire, and less of an obvious story with a hero and a villain.  In fact, such a film does exist: it may be seen as sacrilege to old movie fans for me to say this, but I think the 1984 film THE BOUNTY, does a better job with this story(it is also believed to more historically accurate).  There, Anthony Hopkins portrays a far more complex and believable Bligh than Laughton.  Sadly, that film was a flop, and the 1935 one remains as the best known version of this story.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

All in all, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY is an entertaining (if overlong and simplistic film), and with its big production values and stars, it's easy to see why the Academy gave it the award.  But it's not my favorite of that year; I prefer Alfred Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS, Sam Wood's Marx Brothers classic, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, and Mark Sandrich's Astaire Rogers vehicle TOP HAT.



Monday, November 1, 2010

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT(1934)


IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (Dir: Frank Capra) (Scr:Robert Riskin, based on the short story NIGHT BUS by Samual Hopkins Adams)

In 1935, the Academy did something they rarely do: they gave the best picture award to a comedy.  They also gave the film awards for best actor, actress, director and screenplay, a clean sweep and another rarity.  Amazingly, no one saw it coming, least of all its soon to be legendary director Frank Capra.
At the time he was toiling away for the then low rent Columbia studios, having broken into the business years earlier by making silent comedy shorts for Hal Roach. While shooting LADY FOR A DAY he happened to read the story NIGHT BUS, by Samuel Hopkins Adams in an issue of Cosmopolitan, and he thought there was a movie in it.  He showed it to his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Robert Riskin, who agreed, and they convinced Columbia studio head Harry Cohn to buy it.  As luck would have it, Columbia had a deal with Metro Goldwyn Mayer to loan out one of their stars to Columbia for one film. MGM sent over an actor who was having trouble breaking into the big time, and who was complaining about the roles he was getting; he was sent to Columbia as punishment.  That was Clark Gable.  Claudette Colbert came over on a similar deal with Paramount, and the movie was set.
Nobody involved expected much from it, but it slowly built into an enormous hit, making Columbia studios a major player and Gable a star, establishing the "he-man" persona that he used for the rest of his career.  It is considered the first of the "screwball" romantic comedies, a genre in which the romantic leads often banter, and bicker for the whole movie before finally falling for each other in the end.  (Although as any Shakespeare fan will tell you, this was not a formula invented by movies!).  It is a genre returned to time and time again today, but the results often lack the charm and wit that seemed so effortless in many of these older films.  While this film's influence is undeniable, I must admit that I'm not a huge fan; I find the chemistry between the two leads uneven, with Gable being a lot more convincing in his scenes where he can't stand Colbert than when he falls for her.  Also, the comedy is only intermittently funny.  Whenever the film is remembered on TV specials, the famous hitchhiking scene (in which Colbert shows up  Gable's attempts to hitchhike by getting a car to stop by lifting up her dress and showing her leg)is shown, and understandably so; personally I think it's the only really big laugh in the film.
The famous hitchhiking scene

The film's opening is bold in that the two main characters are unsympathetic at first: Colbert is Ellie Andrews, a spoiled heiress who has eloped with an aviator named King Westley(Jameson Thomas).  Her father, Alexander (Walter Connolly), can't stand King, and has trapped her on a yacht in Miami until she agrees to have the marriage annulled.  Ellie throws a tantrum and eventually dives off the boat and swims to shore.  Her father has the airport and train stations watched and Ellie, knowing this, heads for a bus station to ride to New York City, where King awaits.  At the station, we get our first glimpse of  Peter Warne (Gable); and he is drunkenly yelling "in a pig's eye you will!" into a phone at a phone booth.  He is reporter, and he's being fired by his editor.  Angrily he hangs up the phone and staggers onto the same bus that Ellie is riding, almost getting into a fight with the driver on the way.   When he thinks she has stolen his seat, he sarcastically growls at her "that which you sit upon is mine." Yes, here is a romance in which our two leads are a spoiled brat and a surly drunk! 
Eventually, Peter sees a paper with the story of Ellie's disappearance and figures out who she is; realizing he has a great scoop, he resolves to help her get to New York in exchange for the exclusive story of her trip.  With this premise set, most of the film is their journey by bus, car and foot, with them arguing all the way and then falling for each other.  The film will inevitably humanize them as they travel together and find out more about each other, although Peter will still often be disagreeable for the rest of the film.  Colbert, on the other hand, does becomes more likable: an important moment for her character comes when she claims that her father has dominated her all her life, and that she would gladly trade places with a plumber's daughter if given the chance.  (Alright, she's likable here, but I'm not sure she's entirely believable!).  I think Colbert is better here than Gable, more funny, more endearing, and she finds the right way to play her big declaration of love for him towards the end of the film, which is sweet, hopeful and vulnerable, because she has no idea whether he feels the same way about her.
On the other hand, Gable is not only sour towards Colbert throughout most of the film, he is also self righteous and condescending; he continually  refers to as a brat, tells her to shut up more than once, and lectures her about how she's doing everything wrong.  He even criticizes the way she dunks a doughnut in her coffee! While depression era audiences may have enjoyed watching a rich girl get her comeuppance and have to live on a strict budget (she forgot to bring much money with her when she ran off), today Gable's character just often seems like a sexist jerk.  Part of the reason the hitchiking scene works so well is because it's the only time that Colbert's character really shows up Gable; other than that, Capra appears to be on Gable's side in their arguements.
Gable's character (and the movie itself) hits a real low point in one scene where he has to carry her across a river piggyback style; this leads to a silly, childish disagreement about piggyback rides that ends with Gable giving her a swift spank on the rear while still carrying her.  When I saw this film at a revival house recently, many people in the audience hissed and booed at this, and I can't say I blamed them.

A much better scene occurs earlier when the two have to stay at a hotel, and, hard up for cash, have to pose as husband and wife and share a room.  Peter hangs a string between their separate beds and hangs a blanket on it, calling it "the walls of Jericho"; Gable's relaxed charm is at its best here, as for once he doesn't lecture Ellie, and instead he plays up to her obvious discomfort at being next to a man who's undressing.
 The walls of Jericho

One of the tricky problems that many romantic comedies often have is finding a way to keep the two leads apart until the final scene, and IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT can't quite conquer this problem; late in the film, while staying at another hotel, Ellie finally confesses her love for Peter to him.  At first he seems to reject her, but then he dashes off  to borrow money from his newspaper editor, saying that he plans to propose to her, but can't do it without money in his pocket; before he gets back she has awoken and, thinking he has abandoned her, calls her father to have him take her home(he has publicly agreed to let her marry King).  For the life of me, I can't understand why Peter doesn't just tell Ellie that he loves her and wants to marry her earlier instead of running off; why does it matter whether he has money on him or not when he proposes!  But he does run off, setting off a chain of events that ends with Ellie literally dashing away from King at the alter seconds before saying "I do"; the last twenty minutes of the film seem forced, with needless obstacles being put up between our two lovebirds,  and I think it would have been better if the film had ended with the two of them united much earlier.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

I think Capra would get much better in his later films like MR DEEDS GOES TO TOWN and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, in which he effectively injected social commentary in with the romantic comedy plots.  That said, I seem to be dumping on this film a lot, so I should mention that overall I enjoy this film, uneven as it is, because when it works it is charming and romantic.  But the best film of the year?  Nope, other movies like THE SCARLET EMPRESS, IT'S A GIFT, THE GAY DIVORCEE', and even THE THIN MAN(a romantic comedy with better chemistry between the leads) work better for me.




Sunday, October 31, 2010

CAVALCADE (1933)






CAVALCADE (DIR: FRANK LLOYD) (SCREENPLAY: REGINALD BERKLEY & SONYA LEVIEN, BASED ON THE PLAY BY NOEL COWARD)

Noel Coward's image, that of the immaculately dressed Englishman poised over a piano, talking- singing his way through a acidicly witty song,  is often more remembered today than his work as an actor and playwright.  This is probably because of the great success he had performing in Las Vegas  for the Hollywood elite late in his career.  But Coward wrote over fifty plays in his lifetime, and while many of them are comedies, such as BLITHE SPIRIT and PRIVATE LIVES, he was also capable of serious work, such as BRIEF ENCOUNTER, which was made in to a popular movie by David Lean in 1945 (and also had a recent successful revival on Broadway), and, of course, CAVALCADE, which opened in 1931.  It is a a serious, ambitious attempt to capture the people of England and the changes the country went through over decades of time, complete with wars and historical events; not surprisingly it was a massive undertaking with enormous sets and a large cast.
It is interesting to note that, for the second year in a row, the Academy rewarded an adaptation of a play that is set in Europe; but, whereas GRAND HOTEL was turned into a vehicle for several big stars, CAVALCADE had no big stars in its cast.  More importantly, CAVALCADE has none of the staginess that GRAND HOTEL does, indeed this film has a cast of thousands, and features many visuals (such as a Zeppelin attack on London)that, as big as the stage production was, could only be hinted at onstage.  Yes the Fox Film Corporation (later 20th. Century Fox) clearly saw this film as a high class production, giving director Lewis Milestone a budget of over $1.5 million, which was used not only for that huge cast, but also for the film's beautiful (and numerous)sets and costumes. There are also several musical numbers in the film, with songs written by Coward himself, and while they effectively show the passage of time, ranging from British music hall to jazz,  they often go on too long, and most are not very inspired, with the notable exception of the last number, the jazzy, "20th. Century Blues".
At times, the film almost feels too ambitious, with director Milestone cutting away to busy scenes of politicians giving big speeches and soldiers marching endlessly to war; it is pretty much impossible for one story to contain an entire country, and this attempt to show so much of what happened often becomes tiresome. Also, although this is a great looking film, Milestone makes one odd stylistic choice: there is not a single closeup in the film.  This is surprising considering how much importance glamorous star closeups were given at the time(even for a film without glamorous stars!), and it has a definite distancing feel, lessening the film's emotional impact, in my view.

The film begins on New Year's Eve, with the 20th century just about to begin, and ends in 1933; it focuses mainly on one attractive, well off English family, Robert and Jane Marryot(Clive Brook and Diana Wynyard), and their two sons Edward and Joseph (played as children by Dickie Henderson and Douglas Scott, and as adults by John Warburton and Frank Lawton).  Their married servants, maid Ellen (Una O'Conner) and butler Alfred (Herbert Mundin), also play large roles in the film.

 Diana Wynyard and Clive Brook

In the first scene, Robert and Jane arrive home from a new year's party and wake their children to celebrate the new century; although all appears well,  Robert and Alfred are both about to head off to fight in the Boer war, and both of their wives are nervous.  Immediately Coward contrasts the optimism about the war the men have with the fears of their wives, and, even though both men will return safely, he clearly is sympathetic to the women's  feelings ("What's the sense in the war?" asks Jane), and sees the men's gung ho attitude as foolish (Alfred proudly parades around in his new uniform, even though it looks ridiculous on him).  Right away, the film establishes itself as antiwar, and praises the strength of the women left behind to worry and watch over their children as the men go off to fight.  The opening is consciously repeated later in the film, when, once again, the men prepare to go off and fight, this time in WWI, and here their casual, positive attitude towards the war will prove tragically wrong.  The fact that Jane refuses to drink a toast to the start of the war shows how much more perceptive she is than the men.


The tragic couple

But this is not just a film about war, and its most famous scene is about another kind of big historical event.  Edward, the Marryot's eldest son, and his new wife, Edith (Margaret Lindsay) are on a honeymoon cruise, and while they gaze out at the water, they talk of their upcoming life together.  At first, she fears that his love for her will fade as the years go by, despite his protests to the contrary; finally, she concludes that she doesn't care about the future, because she "isn't afraid of anything."  The two of them walk off, and behind them we see a life preserver with one word written on it: TITANIC.  Another tragedy occurs when Joseph, Edward's brother, proposes to his dancer girlfriend just before returning to the battlefield; he is killed literally the day before armistice. 
While certainly a drama, there are some welcome traces of the trademark Coward wit on hand, especially in the earthy humor of the servants (Merle Tottenham as Annie, who also appeared in the role onstage, has such an  odd manner of speaking and mispronouncing words that she must be heard to be believed!), and when one character describes a young couple as "Romantic?  They're absolutely pathetic!", it's a classic example of Coward's sense of humor.
Despite the film's wealth of characters and stories, it always returns to Jane, who is not only the heart and soul of the film, but also a symbol of England's strength and determination in the face of war and strife.  As Jane, Wynyard is marvelous, totally believable as she ages from young mother to old woman.  Her Jane is lovable without being saintly, wise without being too smart, and Wynyard somehow  manages to underplay the scene where she is given the news of Joseph's death.  And her romantic chemistry with Brook as her husband Robert is wonderful, and we fully understand why they still adore each other at the end after so many years together,  (Jane calls their time together "a great adventure.") even if I have a little trouble with Jane's continuing optimism, given that both of her sons have been lost to tragedies. 
CAVALCADE tries to end on a positive note, as Jane and Robert celebrate the new year once again, and in a moving and well acted moment, Jane drinks a toast to England, hoping it will have "dignity, greatness, and peace again".  It is difficult to watch this scene without thinking of what lay in store for England; how tragically naive its characters are!

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

Of all the movies that have been made of Coward's plays, BRIEF ENCOUNTER seems to be the best remembered and revered; perhaps CAVALCADE has fallen into such obscurity even after winning best picture because it is so specific in its time and place; it's the kind of story that dates almost immediately.  Given that, I can understand why the Academy awarded a distinguished and ambitious  film like this the best of the year, even though now it seems off by a long shot.   You see, 1933 was a very impressive year for Hollywood, perhaps because the difficult transition to sound was now behind it, and it would be another year before the  production code would be strictly enforced.  In any event DUCK SOUP, QUEEN CHRISTINA, DINNER AT EIGHT, 42ND STREET,  and, perhaps most influential of all, KING KONG, all opened that year, and all of them are still popular at revival houses and on cable today.  And I think any one of them would have been a superior best picture choice than CAVALCADE.



Wednesday, October 27, 2010

GRAND HOTEL (1932)


GRAND HOTEL (Dir: Edmund Golding)(Screenplay: Bela Balazs & William A Drake, based on Drake's play, based on the novel and play "Menschen im Hotel" by Vicki Baum)

Formed in 1924, Metro Goldwyn Mayer quickly became the dominant film studio in Hollywood.  Their claim was that the studio contained "more stars than there are in heaven"; in GRAND HOTEL, five of the biggest of those stars came together for a major production that was both a commercial and critical success.  Not surprisingly, MGM would repeat the formula, with some of the same stars, a year later with George Cukor's DINNNER AT EIGHT, which I prefer to this film.
GRAND HOTEL began as Menschen im Hotel a 1929 novel by Vicki Baum, who had worked as a chambermaid in two  hotels in Berlin.  Rights to the novel were bought by Irving Thalberg, and it was first produced as a Broadway play before being given to director Edmund Golding, who managed to control the various egos at play in the making of the film, and he gets mostly good performances out of all of them.  His ability to do this may have been why he was picked to direct the notoriously difficult Marx Brothers three years later in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA!  Golding pulls off some some good tracking images of busy hotel phone operators, some lovely shots of the  bustling hotel lobby, and some even better images of the cavernous hotel hallways overlooking the many levels of the building.  Striking as these sights are, too often his camera retreats to individual rooms or the bar of the hotel, which seem like simple recreations of the original stage sets.  As with many movies based on plays, there is not enough attempt to "open up" the story.  Indeed, there are hardly any exterior shots in the entire film.
The Grand Hotel Lobby & Floors

I have not read the book, but the film seems to be presenting the Grand Hotel of Berlin, Germany as a microcosm of life; it even has a "circle of life" ending, with one character's body being carried away while a hotel worker hears of his wife giving birth. The film's main characters are a true cross section of society: an artist, an industrialist, two low level workers, and a member of royalty who is now a thief.  Their actions are observed by the cynical Doctor Otternschlag(Lewis Stone), who's face is badly scarred from a war wound.  He opens the film sitting in the hotel lobby, watching people pass by and wryly remarking: "Grand Hotel, always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens."  Over the course of the film, the characters will deal with issues like love, death, greed,  and betrayal in dramatic fashion, which would seem to disprove his observation.  Yet, at the end of the film, after so many big events, he delivers the exact same line; his pessemistic view seems to extend beyond the hotel into life itself, as he seems to wonder what is  the point of it all.  This almost nihilistic viewpoint seems to capture the anger and sense of betrayal that gripped Germany, and indeed much of the rest of the world, in the wake of WWI, and it is appropriately stated by a man who's face has been disfigured by the war.
But enough of portentous meanings, GRAND HOTEL is at heart a big star heavy drama that tells the different stories of five people who's lives criss cross with each other while visiting the hotel.  They are: Grusinskaya, a great Russian ballerina (Greta Garbo), Baron Felix von Gaigern(John Barrymore), a once wealthy baron who has fallen on hard times, Flaemmchen, a  sternographer (Joan Crawford)who's been hired by Preysing(Wallace Beery), a wealthy industrialist, and finally, Otto Kringelein(Lionel Barrymore) a book keeper who is dying of a terminal disease, and who has decided to live it up for the first time in his life.  The best way to look at the film is to examine each star's performance in turn:
Garbo gets top billing, but shows up last, playing on the audience's anticipation. She plays a great star, not unlike herself, and she gets a classic star closeup of her glowing face the first time we see her.  She epitomizes glamor here, but her acting is at times uneven. Overall, her performance works better as GARBO, the great star, giving the film goers what they want, than it does as a believable characterization.  Although this was not her first sound film, she seems to still be trying many of the same broad gestures she used in silent films, (and she may still have been struggling with her newly learned English)and her line delivery often shows her trying to wring every ounce of emotion out of each word.  Listen to her most famous line in the film, "I want to be alone",which she repeats three times, and tell me I'm wrong!  (Her Swedish accent is also wrong for someone playing a Russian, but the accents in this film are almost all wrong, so that doesn't matter).  Even for a prima ballerina, she is often too melodramatic, but in her defense, I don't see how any actress could believably pull off the scene where she considers suicide while talking out loud to herself in her hotel room.  Her acting improves in her later scenes, when she has fallen in love and radiantly dances and spins around. So overall, it's fun to see her being the bright star that she was, but I prefer her in later films like QUEEN CHRISTINA and NINOTCHKA.
John Barrymore and Greta Garbo


John Barrymore as Baron Felix von Gaigern gives the film's best performance which is fortunate because his character is the link between all five of them. He is  instantly charming and likable, even when he's planning a robbery, and Barrymore is smart and subtle in the role. Without ever raising his voice he commands every scene he's in through sheer charisma; we can still why most people take an immediate shine to him, and why the two women in the film fall for him so quickly! A key moment for him is when he sneaks into Garbo's room to steal her pearl necklace; he is forced to hide when she returns earlier than expected.  She is sad because the audiences for her dancing are getting smaller, and  alone in her room, she considers suicide out loud to herself, causing Barrymore to reveal himself to her.  When he asks him who he is, he responds "Someone who could love you, that's all. Someone who's forgotten everything else but you. " This scene is faintly ridiculous in the way that the two strangers fall deeply in love at the drop of a hat, but Barrymore manages to sell it (Garbo's image as the most desirable woman in the world certainly helps!).  After spending the night together, he returns her pearls and refuses her offer of money that he needs to pay off his criminal accomplices (the baron is broke, but still noble). This leads to Barrymore's best scene  when the baron, now desperate for   money, could easy steal a fat bank roll from a drunk.  The way Barrymore shows the emotions playing out on his face, weighing the pain of the crime he has committed on the drunk with the possibility that his own life depends on getting the money, is great, understated acting.
Joan Crawford as Flaemmchen, the sternographer and sometimes model, doesn't really have a lot to do here, but, in high contrast to Garbo, she gives a relaxed and natural performance that is winning.  It's probably for the best that she and Garbo never have a scene together (indeed, at no point in the film does Golding get all five of his stars together in the same shot) because their different acting styles probably wouldn't mesh well.  Crawford is at her best when she's flirts with her boss, Preysing; clearly, she's not attracted to the man, but she knows that she can get an all expenses paid trip from him (and possibly much more)if she plays her cards right, so she leads him on without actually saying too much, accepting his advances without quite promising to return them.
John's brother, Lionel Barrymore, plays Otto Kringelein, and if I didn't know for a fact that they were brothers, I certainly wouldn't have guessed it!  Lionel may have only been four years older than John, but he looks and acts much older, and he lacks John's leading man looks (John was famously know for his great profile).  Not only do they not look alike, but their voices and style of acting are also different; Lionel's high pitched voice gets a workout here as he spews out dialogue at a brisk pace (his character is often drunk, so there's some excuse for his energy here).  Lionel certainly seems to be having a grand time with this role, as his terminally ill  character gets to drink, dance and gamble for the first time in his life.  His big scene comes when he gets to tell off his boss, Preysing, with a rush of glee and drunken bravado.  While such a broad character can become tiresome (I get particularly annoyed by him when he complains about his room early in the film), Lionel's zest and joy for the role eventually won me over.
Finally, there is Wallace Beery as the corrupt industrialist Preysing, and I simply think he is utterly miscast.  With his gruff demeanor and physical size, I find Beery much more believable in roles such his washed up boxer in THE CHAMP, or his hardened criminal in THE BIG HOUSE, than here.  He seems ill at ease in his fancy clothes, and when he speaks of big business wheeling and dealing with his associates, he's seems to have no idea what he's talking about.  (These scenes are among the film's worst, with a lot of yelling about some kind of big business deal that's never explained to the audience.) Oddly, Beery is the only actor in the film to try a German accent, but it never really works, and one wonders why he bothered.  The best thing to say about his performance is that it doesn't sink the film, and he usually is interacting with one of the other stars, who are all doing better work than him.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

GRAND HOTEL is often considered a classic, perhaps more for its gathering of great stars than for its quality; still, it certainly is ambitous, and mostly effective, with Beery's performance being the only glaring weakness.  Personally, I prefer Howard Hawks's fast moving gangster film, SCARFACE:THE SHAME OF A NATION, but there was no way that the Academy would honor a gangster movie at that time; they were often attacked for glamorizing criminals.  I also perfer Josef von Streberg's SHANGHAI EXPRESS.  Still, it's no surprise that a movie as big budgeted and star driven as GRAND HOTEL won, and I certainly don't think it's a bad choice.