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.