Archive for the ‘1930s’ Category

Man’s Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933)

The plot goes all over the place after a while, including an incredibly bizarre ending (instant inebriation? 😕 ), and the whole subplot involving the singer who essentially seduces Spencer Tracy is just there to…i dunno, throw a wrench into the budding romance between Tracy and Loretta Young? Regardless, it is thrown in there and practically forgotten about, and that’s fine by me since it did absolutely nothing for me (other than show me an incredibly creative way to serve a summons ). All that matters here is the rise and fall of the romance of, and the chemistry between, Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young as two penniless shantydwellers. His courting her during that fateful night with the skipping out on paying the tab and the light-up tuxedo and the skinnydipping is wonderful, and real, and following that, the relationship between the cynical Bill and innocently naive Trina runs the gamut of highs and lows, and all of those highs and lows are great. The fear in Bill’s eyes when Trina tells him that [spoiler]she’s pregnant[/spoiler], followed by the sheer awkwardness of their makeshift wedding (they can’t even look each other in the eye, and Bill looks like he just wants to bolt out of there at lightspeed). And then on the flipside, the moment when Bill finally caves and buys the stove that Trina’s been pining for, going against his anti-establishment laurels, and rather than some sappy thank-you, she simple looks up at him wide-eyed, he looks down at her with begrudging generosity, and neither can come up with the right words, but the way they look at each other says it all. And then the walking toy, the makeshift sunroof where Borzage gives us long moments to simply admire and contemplate the heavens as Bill and Trina do, and the final scene – all somewhat kitschy, but impossible not to move you. Other than some early sermonizing by Spencer Tracy, thankfully there wasn’t much by way of overtly and patronizingly trying to educate you on the unemployment rate and Hoovervilles and other 1930s-era issues a la Hawks’ “Scarface”, as other than the plot meanderings that I already said were to the film’s detriment, Borzage kept it simple in terms of telling a story about a man and a woman getting by. She ain’t the sharpest crayon in the box and he at best doesn’t know what he has in this naive but devoted girl, and downright treats her like discarded trash at worst, but what’s plain as day, even if you can’t put it into words just why, is that they’re made for each other. This was lovely, I should probably seek out more Borzage

8/10

Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937)

Putting aside the “Ozu with white people” analogy, one I thought would be a clever four-word review but then saw in just about every review I read, this was making every attempt to be, and in a number of instances was, the most depressing movie I’ve ever seen, and therefore, I couldn’t stop laughing. I mean, scenes like the one where Lucy talks to Barkley on the phone like it’s the last time they’ll ever speak, while all the bridge players can hear her, was one of the most awkward situations I’ve ever seen in a movie, and indeed one of the most depressing…and yes, I couldn’t stop laughing. Same as when Lucy tells her son that he’s always been her favorite – I BURST out laughing, it was such a deliberately meant-to-be-sad-and-depressing moment, and yet, it’s still sad as all hell, I gotta admit. Maybe it’s because McCarey just poured it on so that any intention to make it that depressing are dashed via unintentional parody, maybe because it was so genuinely depressing that I laughed so that I didn’t have to cry, or maybe it was both. So much of this movie straddles that fine line between genuine sadness and overdone parody, when you look at the wooden performances of the children and grandchildren, and the overly-enfeebled Lucy and Barkley (unbeknownst to me while watching the film, Beulah Bondi wasn’t even 50 when she played the 70+ year old Lucy, which by itself gives me a new appreciation for the maybe-overdone yet incredibly convincing old-person performance), but it’s still solid enough. But then, the final section of the film in the hotel, and then the cab ride afterwards, is just so unfathomably beautiful and utterly flawless filmmaking (Lucy giggling like a little girl and tripping over tongue-twisters when she gets a little tipsy and the way she says “I love you” to Barkley in the car while he’s singing are just so perfect, so sweet and lovely…), that I sure as hell wasn’t laughing anymore, and the movie that was straddling the line between parody and pure grace/dignity moved fully towards the latter.

I do wonder whether Winona Ryder based her old person prologue/epilogue performance in “Edward Scissorhands” on Beulah Bondi’s performance in “Make Way for Tomorrow”….

8.5/10

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931)

…or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: The Ride.  Because for the first 5 or so minutes of this film, and then in spurts and starts throughout the duration afterward, we’re ‘treated’ to these inexplicable first-person shots from Henry Jekyll’s point of view, going so far as a long tracking shot so that we walk where he walks, look at who he’s talking to right in the eye, and look at him as he looks at himself in a mirror.  This was 1931, when a moving camera was still a pretty new and shockingly impressive innovation, so it seems like Mamoulian’s trying to milk it for all it’s worth in this long, superfluous tracking shot to start the film.  Maybe I’m being unfair looking at this type of over-reliance on flashy camerawork with 2009 eyes, and I suppose he’s trying to put us in Jekyll’s mindset, but that’s bogus, it’s just silly, and like I said, like a ride at Universal Studios.  I only wish that this adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s horror classic would’ve been more actor and character-driven than style-driven with those nonsensical point of view shots, because as it turns out, Fredric March is really, really good from the outset as Dr. Jekyll.  He’s enthusiastic about his work and his harebrained theories concerning the duality of man (that turn out to be not so harebrained after all), perhaps to a fault but still in an endearing kind of way, and even more enthusiastic about his love for and desire to marry his Muriel.  He’s just an affable, likable guy, made even more likable by his charming zeal for science – a zeal that quickly turns from charming to disturbing when he turns his experiment on himself in the name of science, allowing Mr. Hyde to emerge.

March had an impressive screen presence as the enthusiastic yet dignified Jekyll to begin with, but once he transforms into the crude and monstrous Hyde, whoa, what a performance!  This might’ve been the most knee-slappingly entertaining performance I’ve seen since I saw Nicolas Cage ham it up in “Vampire’s Kiss.”  March’s Mr. Hyde looks like a neanderthal, has the subtle mannerisms of both an ape and a man in the way he walks around normal-like and then jumps up and down, climbs bookshelves, laughs almost with a monkey-like “ooh-ooh”, and maniacally slaps people over the head at the drop of a hat, has these weird facial ticks featuring a deranged smile with those disgusting teeth, and just the way he acts and speaks is as vulgar and raucous as Jekyll is regal and professional.  You wouldn’t believe for a second that the same actor is playing both these parts, but Fredric March is convincing and compelling both as intelligent man of science and as malicious animal.  Also helps that the facial transformation from Jekyll to Hyde, shown in its entirety using different types of makeup that responded to separate camera filters, is absolutely remarkable, and more convincing than any present-day CGI that I’ve ever seen – no trying to conceal quick-cuts to get to the next phase of his transformation or cutting to another person’s reaction shot to get away with a lack of special effects, no, the entire transformation from handsome Jekyll to ape-like Hyde is depicted completely uncut in a single take, and you’ll completely buy into it.  Amazing.  If those first-person tracking shots were superfluous, here’s an instance of surface style and special effects that’s anything but.

If the character of Jekyll becomes repetitive and one-note after a while, especially during the increasingly hammy dialogues between he and his potential bride-to-be (although their final meeting, when he’s at the point of barely being able to keep Mr. Hyde at bay, is damn near heartbreaking to see this broken shell of a man long-removed from his prime), then the real selling-point of this film is the dark side of man, personified by Mr. Hyde and the dark underbelly of the world that he calls home.  Early on, Dr. Jekyll finds himself in the ramshackle home of common woman Ivy Pearson, and we’re treated to some very revealing, very sexy leg shots and near-nude shots of the absolutely beautiful yet shrill Miriam Hopkins as she slowly removes her pantyhose and tries to seduce the higher-class Jekyll and he rebuffs her, but these shots that would be unheard of just a few years after this when the Hayes Code would be put into effect foreshadow the coming emphasis on the nature of Hyde, of his cruel, sex-driven, animal-like instincts – the id personified that Jekyll, as the logic-driven ego, is initially able to suppress.  But later, Hyde emerges as the ultimate terror – a hateful, cackling monster with the memories of another man at his disposal, able to use those memories to torture and confuse Ivy, who has no idea who Mr. Hyde really is, and indeed, the scenes of Hyde insinuating himself in Ivy’s life are absolutely terrifying, the way he forces himself on her and she can only cry and scream in terror, even as he commands her to sing for him or brag about himself as a wannabe-Lothario.  Miriam Hopkins’ performance, although overdoing it with the whole cockney thing at first, quickly becomes great and heartbreaking – her fear of Hyde, as seen through sheer despair and hopeless tears, is totally palpable, so that even a performance as silly as March’s does become frightening in a way when we see it through the eyes of someone who’s basically being emotionally raped by him time and time again (without the use of first-person shots, no less! 🙂 ).  And this isn’t nearly as much a cookie-cutter depiction of Jekyll = good, Hyde = evil as I make it out to be, especially once Jekyll rather shamelessly tries to acquit himself of any responsibility for the terrible things that Hyde has done.  Jekyll may have no control over when Hyde emerges, but it was Jekyll who drank the potion.  He ain’t exactly an innocent party in all this, despite futilely trying to convince himself otherwise.

If more of the movie were like this, instead of Mamoulian trying to wow us with long tracking shots or trying to put us in Jekyll’s mindset via ridiculous point of view shots when March’s performance alone would’ve done that just as well, this could’ve been one of the all-time great horror films.  But what am I saying, even though Hyde’s mannerisms and the makeup applied to Fredric March are more silly than scary (but damned entertaining), watching a film this frank about its depiction of the female body – images that would drive the Hyde in all of us wild and scared the censors to death not long after this, and watching Miriam Hopkins’  look of shocked terror when Hyde reemerges in her life and cruelly summarizes to the letter her desperate meeting with Jekyll, a meeting she was so sure was in complete privacy and confidence, and then cower, scream, and cry in complete fear of this man-beast the way a battered woman lives in fear of an abusive spouse, pretty much makes this one of the all-time great psychological horror films anyway, and a great testament to the terrible instincts inherent in all of us –  a film years ahead of its time.

9/10

Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932)

This bored the hell out of me as I was watching it…there’s really nothing worse in 2009 than stuff that was meant to be funny, or dare I say stretched the societally-acceptable limits, of what could be implied as being funny, in 1932.  Stuff like romance and horror are genetically imprinted in every human from every era, so the sensation of fear or love will never change, whether it’s 1932 or 2009, but I’m sorry, to me at least, comedy just doesn’t fare nearly as well.  What’s funny then and what’s funny now just changes (then again, I thought 1934’s “The Thin Man”…and Chaplin, and Keaton, and Lloyd, were hysterical, so everything I’ve just written is pretty much bogus, but I’m too lazy to erase it all and come up with a more legit introduction.  Consider this an opportunity to completely discredit me and stop reading  ), so what can I say, elegant, romantic parlor humor in the vein of Ernst Lubitsch just doesn’t tickle my funny bone.  But you know what, I said that things like romance and lust are eternal while societal humor might not be, which is why I did find something universally endearing about “Trouble in Paradise.”  I had no use for nonsense like a bunch of well-dressed non-English-speaking men saying ‘tonsils’ over and over again, and by all rights I should’ve been irritated to all hell by these formal people with wit up the wazoo, but in any case, I was still able to identify, to an extent, with the anything-but-original premise of a couple of con artists/lovers ingratiating themselves with a rich widow to rip her off, and then the man unexpectedly falling for the widow.   Yes, I was bored, but after sleeping on it, I don’t think I gave this movie its due because of how it portrays romance and sexual tension.  Of course it’s completely tame by today’s standards, but then you consider how this movie was practically banned for years because of the Hayes Code, and then you consider some of the clearly risqué one-liners and the physical expressions of passion, and then you put yourself in 1932 America, and man, this must’ve been some heavy stuff!  Herbert Marshall, as the impossibly charming thief Gaston Monescu, is kinda like a poor man’s William Powell – not quite as quick or clever with the one-liners as Powell’s Nick Charles, but just as charming and endearing – when he needs to be.  You can see why Kay Francis’s Madame Colet swoons for him, and boy, some of their back-and-forths are pretty racy – their impact went completely over my head as I watched, but then thinking about it afterwards, all the double-meanings of their words, and the subtleties of their body language as they slowly move within orbit of each other in tantalizing anticipation of a kiss that might or might not happen, would’ve driven audiences wild in ’32 – I just took my more sexually liberal 2009 standards for granted and plain missed it.  Their unlikely courtship is certainly predictable, as is the less than enthusiastic response from Gaston Monescu’s partner in crime Lily, played by the absolutely lovely, albeit somewhat shrill, Miriam Hopkins (her wearing glasses when she plays secretary for Madame Colet made me swoon the way Madame Colet swoons for Gaston Monescu  ).  Nevertheless, I invested myself in these characters, felt the passion oozing out of the screen thanks to some wonderful chemistry between all three characters (an early scene in which Lily and Gaston learn of each other’s dubious ‘professions’ is close to being wonderful), even if the jokes and the comedy didn’t do it for me.  And yeah, I suppose I can see why Lubitsch is the director everyone goes ga-ga over, what with the subtly elegant and unobtrusive yet intimate camera during conversations and those sweeping pans of the outside of buildings, or at least scale models of buildings (which I didn’t like…surface style, blech), but as far as I’m concerned, this was all about one of the more convincing and realistic birth and blossom of a romance that I’ve seen in the otherwise unreal world of comedy, thanks to some great chemistry, which in turn allows for a pretty great triangle of love and deceit.  When all is said and done, this might be the best comedy I’ve ever seen that never, ever made me laugh, whatever THAT’s worth  .

7.5/10

A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood, 1935)

What was great:

– the famous scene where 8 billion people are all crowding into the cabin on the ship (above picture)
– the big climax, combining brilliant physical comedy, perfect timing, and impressive (aka expensive) production value
– the disappearing beds scene
– Chico’s piano playing and Harpo’s harp playing

all of the above were pretty much brilliant tour-de-forces of physical comedy, with Harpo taking most of the cake (crawling up the curtain, the rope scene, basically challenging the conductor to a duel right before the opera starts, etc.), and enormously entertaining. The rest? Well, I’ll defer to a much wiser person than myself, whose comments about Dr. Strangelove pretty much mirror my exact sentiments about “A Night at the Opera” outside of those scenes I just listed:

“Dr. Strangelove didn’t make me laugh once and i guess it was supposed to be a comedy…  ”

“I’ve seen the whole thing for Dr. Strangelove tho, Simon. OWNED! Didn’t laugh 1ONE1 freakin’ TIME.   ”

Allison

I mean seriously, Groucho Marx REALLY needs to shut the fuck up and stop trying to be funny with lame one-liner after lame one-liner  And the whole Kitty Carlisle subplot? *shudder*

This was my first Marx Brothers film, and a very uneven experience for me. Even when I knew that I liked the scenes like the crowded room and the disappearing beds and the mayhem at the opera while I was watching it, I was so bored with everything else that that boredom poured over and I desperately wanted it to end. Yet now that it’s over, my memories are fond overall, and I’m telling myself that I really liked this stuff, even though I didn’t. Odd. This score I’m giving is really, really hesitant, ‘cuz I have a feeling that when I see more Marx Brothers and get more of a feel for what they’re all about, my opinion of this one will change, either positively or negatively. Time and viewings will tell.

And if Chico and Harpo were really playing the piano and harp like that, much props to them for being so musically gifted. But if it was fake, fuck that shit SO much, and fuck Groucho Marx and his stupid puns that’re a step or two above Schwarzenegger’s in Batman and Robin (though at least Groucho, unlike Arnold, had good delivery and the gift of gab, even if the material didn’t hold up to that mile-a-minute delivery), and fuck everything else in this movie that’s not a physical comedy-driven set-piece.

7/10 (?)

The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934)

The murder mystery is ridiculously convoluted, vital suspects are never really properly introduced to us until near the end so that any attempt to try to put it all together is pretty much pointless, and the acting is universally awful, the product of the first few years of talkies.  But then there’s Nick and Nora and Asta, and in an instant William Powell, Myrna Loy, and that damn dog turn a run of the mill murder mystery into something really, really special.  A former detective now living the good life as a socialite, Nick Charles has the mystery of the disappearing inventor practically fall into his lap when he comes across the inventor’s daughter, an old acquaintance, at one of his famed parties (Powell in this film really has one of the best character introductions, like, ever – at the bar, slightly tipsy, unfathomably easygoing and charming, teaching his partygoers how to shake a martini – Nick Charles defined).  Whether out of a hunch or out of sheer boredom or because they’re out of booze, Mr. and Mrs. and dog Charles are on the case. 

But none of that matters.  Everything in this film outside of the goings-on of Nick and Nora is pretty much junk – the mystery’s a superfluous macguffin, and the hasty resolution, thanks in no small part to Nick’s brilliance as a detective and possibly foolhardy cockiness, indicates as much.  This is all about the chemistry and life and times of Nick and Nora Charles, with the biggest mystery really being whether Nick’s yen for mystery-solving will take a big chunk out of their precious drinking time.  I’d never seen William Powell or Myrna Loy act before, but when this film was over, in all seriousness, I had to go to IMDB to see if they were married in real life.  They weren’t, but I tell you, they had THAT much chemistry between each other.  Best on-screen couple I’ve ever seen, I’d say.  They drink like fish, Powell has that perpetually tipsy slur when he speaks, even while brilliantly deducing the facts of the case at a dinner part, Loy has a wonderful edge of both playfulness and mean but cute sarcasm, but alone they’re merely really good, but nothing revolutionary.  It’s when they’re together where the magic happens and two performances become one truly special presence. 

Their sarcastic banter, Powell’s especially, is among the most phony and unrealistic I’ve ever heard, but Powell’s constant tipsiness and semi-goofy charm, and Loy’s constant playful cockiness just make it so damn charming that it’s an absolute joy to watch and listen to these two together.  And there’s the little things, like the faces they make behind the other’s back, or little moments of cute fighting and touching and other signs of affection (this marks one of the few times I’ve watched a film where hitting a woman in the face turned out to be the right thing to do…), how they instinctually know when to get the other a drink, that indicate how they really, really can’t live without each other, and that behind all the jokes and playful insults is true love and a need for each other and a partnership like no other.  Or, there’s that hungover Christmas morning where Nick’s playing with the airgun he got as a present, and Nora simply watches him with a blank face that you’d think shows disappointment in how silly her husband is, but really just indicates that she got used to this kind of thing a loooong time ago – stubborn acceptance, and unconditional love.  They almost act like brother and sister the way they kid around with each other, but the way they always know exactly how to respond to the other’s sarcastic comment, or how Nora won’t put up with Nick’s occasional macho bullshit, or how they drink each other under the table without a second thought, all suggest that they really have known and cared for each other for years.  It’s all played for laughs, sure, and I was very pleasantly surprised at how much I laughed at this film, but their silliness is never, ever too over-the-top – it’s just enough so that one performance is quite simply incomplete without the other.  They fit together like those final two pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.  I haven’t seen that kind of on-screen chemistry since I watched The Beatles’ performances in “A Hard Day’s Night,” and those were based on real-life relationships – Powell and Loy’s were based solely within the realm of fiction and celluloid.  Just goes to show you how special Powell and Loy’s performances really are, when an exchange like this, following a tussle at a party:

Nick: I’m a hero.  I was shot twice in the Tribune.
Nora: I read where you were shot 5 times in the tabloids.
Nick: It’s not true.  He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.

…can actually feel REAL and spur-of-the-moment, and not like it was randomly inserted into a screenplay to get laughs.  I’m not gonna quote this movie any more than that, because most of the comedic effect of any given line comes from Powell and Loy’s delivery, anyway, so it wouldn’t do to read them on a page and ruin the experience.  Even with the dumb mystery story whose convolutions try to make it into a poor man’s Big Sleep, “The Thin Man” was one of the most joyful and carefree and endearing filmwatching experiences I’ve had in a very, very long time.  I mean seriously, I wanna be Nick Charles.  A brilliant detective, slightly alcoholic but never too drunk (therefore eternally happy and tipsy 😛 ), impossibly charming and clever and witty, married to a beautiful woman who’s just as intelligent and spunky as he is and can match his banter wit for wit, has the most awesome dog on the face of the earth, rich, spending their nights throwing parties and drinking (and drinking, and drinking…) and hobnobbing it with socialites AND degenerates (he’s actually all buddy-buddy with a thug he once put away), and solving murders as a fucking HOBBY.  Seriously, how is that NOT, like, the most perfect lifestyle imaginable?

9.5/10

Tabu (F.W. Murnau, 1931)


A while back I said that John Ford’s “The Hurricane” might’ve worked better as a silent film; that its portrayal of the life of native South Islanders already had enough moments of stagy, exaggerated expressionism that it might as well have just gone for broke and given up the contrived plot and performances and just focus on those faces and those actors in dynamic sculpture-like poses in a full-on expressionistic silent film.  Well, in “Tabu,” F.W. Murnau basically granted my wish and gave me that silent film (other than a few instances of singing in the soundtrack) about forbidden love and the exotic customs and locales of the South Islands, and it turns out I basically had no idea what I was talking about, because “Tabu” is for the most part an absolute bore.  The story, involving pearl diver Matahi’s prohibited love for the girl Reri, who’s seen as something of a human deity by the tribes of the South Islands, and the pair’s attempt to escape from the islands and tradition to be with each other, is melodramatic, and therefore practically made for silent cinema, and had tremendous promise.  And indeed, a select moment or two of “Tabu” is wonderful to look at, and represented Murnau in his prime (ironic, since this was his final film before dying far too soon, and far too deep into his prime as a filmmaker, in an auto accident).  There’s that moment during the big tribal dance, when Matahi butts in and does his show-stealing dance with Rari (who’s smile is to die for, by the way), and the tribal elder, in close-up, has the sternest look you can imagine.  It’s a face that tells you that his rage can barely be contained, and only shows a deep disdain for this punk who dares to defy tradition by falling for Rari.  And later, Matahi and Rari make their escape and try to make a life for themselves on a French colony, only for Rari to discover that the tribe has discovered their whereabouts.  While the blissfully ignorant Matahi is off living the life of a full-on hedonist, we cut to Rari’s face – a face of deep, solemn disappointment that this life of happiness must inevitably end, but also a face of regrettable understanding of the system.  The old man’s face and Rari’s face fit perfectly into the formula of expression-driven silent cinema, as do select shots here and there like the second one I posted above – and props to Murnau for not taking the easy way out with a tacked-on happy ending – a fate he regrettably couldn’t avoid in “The Last Laugh.”  It’s an incredibly bleak ending that seems to suggest that tradition’s a dangerous thing that almost has an iron grip on love and individuality, or something like that – either way, it came out of nowhere and brought me out of my bored stupor, so kudos to the film for that at least.  But these moments that scream ‘Murnau’ are way too few and far-between.  One moment, the film wants to be documentary-like, showing tribal life in all its glory, and later, it wants to be completely plot-driven once Matahi and Rari encounter hardships as penniless fugitives living in paradise.  When we see documentary-like realism, I wanted to know more about the protagonists – I thought they weren’t fleshed out enough.  And when those protagonists finally do have the spotlight, it’s contrived – a romantic story that had already been well-treaded in just 1931, and other than those damned interesting faces I mentioned, ho-hum acting that for once doesn’t have much of Murnau’s visual flair to hide it.  Where’s the exuberant energy and zeal for life that made “Sunrise” and “City Girl” so downright joyous?  Where’re the attention-grabbing angles and lighting, practically perfect but never too attention-grabbing, that made “Nosferatu” and “The Last Laugh” such visceral experiences?  Here we get bits and pieces of fine expressionism, sprinkled amongst footage of natives hunting and dancing that might as well be shown on the Discovery Channel, rather than fleshing out a tale of forbidden love.  “Tabu” has two ways of telling a story that clash with each other, and neither one is all that successful.  From my point of view, Murnau was in a lose-lose situation – a sad way for one of the finest talents in the history of filmmaking to so abruptly and tragically end his career.

6.5/10

The Lost Patrol (John Ford, 1934)

 
 
 
 

Yeah, the story and the characters aren’t the deepest and most complex you’ll ever find (the movie’s only an hour and 10 minutes, so there ain’t exactly much room to flesh these guys out as they find themselves stranded in a desert oasis…), and the acting’s pretty damn hammy (Boris Karloff, as the humorless worrywart of the group, takes the cake…he’s like a bad, extremely hammy Shakespearean actor who has no business doing Shakespeare in the first place).  But all that be damned, because this movie was fucking awesome, man.  Proof’s in the pudding…

A W E S O M E

Truth is, who fucking cares that there’s not enough character development, because this…nothing but a lost patrol in World War I Mesopotamia trapped in an isolated oasis, surrounded on all sides by an unseen Arab enemy, is tension defined.  Yeah, the oft-jolly music as this man or another does something goofy can be grating, but when that music suddenly comes to a sudden halt and a goofy man suddenly becomes a dead man, struck by an unexpected bullet, that’s incredibly disturbing and unsettling if you ask me.  Much, if not most, of the dialogue isn’t plot-driven, but rather indirectly goes into the men’s backstories – not completely, but just enough to give us a taste of who these guys are and what their motivations might be.  It’s all very off-handed, in the moment, and genuine – even charming.  I couldn’t identify a single character by name if you held a gun to my head, but boy did I like ‘em, even as the tension, mistrust, and desperation grew, and the bodies started piling up.  And tension there is.  The patrol’s Arab enemies are unseen and can kill from practically any range from practically any invisible vantage point.  It defies all logic, but that just makes this unseen menace all the more terrifying and nerve-wracking for the patrol.  The sound of a bullet (the bullets that almost never miss) is short, with no echo or reverberation – quick, to the point, remorseless, just like whoever’s firing the gun.  The cinematography’s pretty much remarkable, the small men in a vast desert under a vast cloud-covered sky underscoring the feeling that the enemy really can be anywhere.  The paranoia and anxiety amongst the men hits you like a ton of bricks, especially considering how relatively carefree the feel of the film is early on, even as they’re being hunted – the desperation is real, and you really feel like these guys are going bat-shit crazy (which is where Karloff’s performance actually starts to work), exactly as men in a situation as intense as this one should.  The Arab villains are portrayed as anything but realistic, and indeed pretty much super-human, but hell, that pretty much makes our heroes even more vulnerable, and worthy of our worry, and human.

But still, 

 

fucking Karloff, man 😆  No wonder his claim to fame was a flat-top head, bolts on his neck, grunting, and a mix of fearsomeness and child-like innocence 😛

8/10

A couple of John Fords: The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) and Fort Apache (1948)

The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)

THIS was directed by John Ford? A light, funny little semi-parody of gangster movies and tale of mistaken identity? If you just showed me this movie without credits, I wouldn’tve guessed in a million years that John Ford of all people helmed it…but hey, I’ll take it. Edward G. Robinson is fantastic, as usual, this time in a dual role, showing both sides of a range you never would’ve guessed he had – a meek, shy and soft-spoken bookkeeper, and the nasty, fast-talking gangster he gets mistaken for – the persona you’d much more readily associate Robinson with. But, he pulls off both roles very nicely (it really is incredible how different these two characters, being played by the same actor, are), and while some of the movie is incredibly dated (that black doorman at the bank…  ), many of the situations that arise from an unassuming bureaucrat being mistaken for ‘Killer’ Mannion are very clever and funny – even moments of slapstick aren’t overdone, but are more in-the-moment than anything, making the humor that much more endearing (Robinson can do obnoxious drunk like no other 😛 ). I’ve only seen three of Edward G. Robinson’s performances (well, 4 if you count this movie’s as two…), but I think he’s shooting right up my list of favorite actors regardless. This movie’s nothing profound, but it was cute, and I liked it 🙂

7.5/10

 

Fort Apache (1948)



 

jesus christ, Shirley Temple got HOT!

Well, when I wasn’t thinking about the things I would do to America’s former sweetheart in a sleazy motel room, I was pretty much bored. You’ve seen one 2-hour excuse to show off Monument Valley, you’ve seen ’em all, and “Fort Apache” was one of ’em all. Some shots of desert, some trouble at home at a remote army base, some stock chase/action scenes between army ‘n Indians, that just about sums it up. Even John Ford’s bizarre brand of comic relief, namely involving inexperienced soldiers and their horses in some really weird slapstick, is just plain strange, and Fonda stick out like a fucking sore thumb. I’d compare his go as a stubborn, bloodthirsty or glorythirsty or both Lieutenant Colonel to, say, Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s “Rope” – in both cases, a great actor in the prime of his career, practically dumped into a movie where it just doesn’t feel like he belongs. On the bright side, though, John Wayne’s pretty damn good as the captain – charismatic, honorable in sympathizing with the Indians, basically the foil to the bullheaded Fonda, and doesn’t yet have that stroke victim drawl the uninitiated would associate with John Wayne. But, at least until the finale, Wayne is woefully underused, in favor of trying to build up Fonda’s assholeishness for some kind of redemption that, while portrayed heroically at the end, feels disingenuous, and a sub-plot involving Fonda’s daughter (Temple  …can’t act to save her life, but  ) and her romance with the young officer who, of course, daddy doesn’t approve of, that has its moments but falls a bit flat like most everything else. If it wasn’t for little moments like the drunk serenading the happy couple and the O’Rourke family on their porch one night (a most-decidedly Ford-ian moment 🙂 ), and a climax that ends things on an incredibly strong note, as Fonda’s near-crazed Lt. Col. Thursday and his men take on the Indians (who’re portrayed in a more positive light than negative, so the question of which side to root for is surprisingly, and nicely, complex), “Fort Apache” would be utterly forgettable. As it stands, it’s still one of the weaker Ford’s I’ve seen, but the last reel or so saves it from oblivion

6.5/10

Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939)

The question that immediately arises when you consider “Young Mr. Lincoln”: is its success, and the success of its protagonist as a compelling one, dependent on the viewer’s outside knowledge of Abraham Lincoln?  We all know that he’s perhaps the most influential American who’s ever lived, and every American child has been taught of his exploits as the 16th President of the United States, from the Emancipation Proclamation to guiding the nation through perhaps its bloodiest conflict, from the moment they’re old enough to sit in a classroom.  The Abraham Lincoln of “Young Mr. Lincoln” is not yet that legendary figure.  He’s an awkward, idealistic, and inexperienced young lawyer who’s supremely devoted to bettering himself and doing the right thing despite that awkwardness and inexperience, which is why you gotta wonder whether you need to know of the near-mythological figure this blundering young man would become, or if you can divorce yourself from that legend and just accept young Mr. Lincoln as a compelling protagonist on his own.  Let’s just assume for a moment that you don’t need that inherent knowledge of the legend of Lincoln – in that case, “Young Mr. Lincoln” is a fine character study, and a fine courtroom drama, with Lincoln going through a nice character arc, from idealistic yet wide-eyed kid to confident, accomplished, and gifted public servant.  But now let’s assume that any given person seeing this movie will, obviously, have at least some knowledge of who Abraham Lincoln was and what he accomplished, which brings about the ultimate question: does Henry Fonda pull it off?  Can he fill the shoes of the man who would be Commander-in-Chief?  None of us were around to know what Lincoln was like in person, and Fonda’s performance, and the film as a whole, isn’t exactly going for realism.  Despite that (or perhaps because of that), we can’t determine whether Fonda is living up to Lincoln the man, but he’s sure as hell living up to Lincoln the mythic legend.

If you’re going by Abraham Lincoln’s uber-altruistic hero image, then Fonda does exactly what he needs to do.  His young Lincoln is the consummate good guy, eternally optimistic and unselfish, devoted to bettering himself so that he can better the world around him.  9 times out of 10 that’s the most clichéd and vapid and irritating character type you can think of, but all the little elements of Fonda’s performance, as well as the world around him, sell it completely – he quite simply is that consummate good guy, and suddenly an unrealistic extreme in wholesomeness becomes convincing.  The way his tall frame slouches and he walks with an awkward, shuffling gait (complete with hands-in-pockets), the way he talks hesitantly at first, later persuasively, but still folksy as hell, when his clients’ lives hang in the balance, the way he constantly remembers his humble past, complete with that obligatory gleam in his eye, all the “gee!”’s and “golly!”’s, his exuberance upon finding a book about the law and taking it to read under a tree – wholesome doesn’t begin to describe young Abe Lincoln, but rather than being nauseating, Fonda makes it work because of that indescribable quality that completely immerses him in his role – it’s as sincere an acting effort as you’re likely to ever see.  As a rookie lawyer defending two brothers accused of murder, he goes through a remarkable transformation seemingly overnight – awkward yet likable the night before, and now solemnly confident and even cocky once the trial starts.  As the obnoxious mummy of a prosecutor makes his opening statement, Lincoln arrogantly and nonchalantly browses the bookshelf, leans back in his chair, looks incredulous, and finally asks his questions with forceful conviction and even some very funny sarcasm (his questioning – playing with, really – of witness J. Palmer Cass and why the man initials his first name ends with a magnificently satisfying payoff – a real Who’s On First-like exchange between the two).  If we take this film by its own merits, we’re seeing a young lawyer tackle his first big case and maturing just when he needs to.  If we put this in a historical context, we see young Lincoln’s inherent altruism and wholesomeness and his burgeoning gift as a public speaker, and we see a President in the making.

One reason why Fonda’s performance works as well as it does is how he interacts with the just-as-wholesome world around him.  Pie tasting contests, tug o’ wars, parades, log splitting contests (all of which Abe is the star of) – the Springfield, Illinois of “Young Mr. Lincoln” is a Norman Rockwell-like place, where everyone knows each other and likes each other, a murder trial is like a meeting of friends, and even a vigilante mob out to lynch a couple of murder suspects seems scripted.  It’s manipulative, sure, but I was more than happy to be manipulated to see how much Lincoln matures in such a short span of time – a gangly young man giving an awkward speech at the start, becoming an obscured, silhouetted version of the iconic tall-man-in-suit-and-big-hat by the end – from man to symbol in two hours.  And John Ford’s minimalist, restrained technique perfectly complements the minimalist, restrained Abraham Lincoln.  Abe leaning against a tree on a perfect day reading his prized law book evokes Eden itself, and his visiting the grave of a lost love under just such a tree, at the crossroads of his humble past and influential future, is both heartbreaking and heartwarming.  The portrayal of the killing in question, for which Lincoln must defend the two brothers, is filmed without embellishment, from a single, simple high-angle shot in a dark clearing, with the boys’ mother in the foreground, looking on helplessly as the men scuffle.  Haunting.  Abe’s courtship of Mary Todd at a ball (where he sticks out like a sore thumb) is awkward but sweet – he’s as clumsy a dancer as you’d expect.  The way he practically takes on the Clay family as his own, making himself at home as he confides in the mother (a wonderful Alice Brady) that reminds him of his own, about his own past, the sunny homestead and his comfort in leaning back, arms folded behind his head, evokes paradise.  It’s moments like this, rather than the verdict of the murder trial, that show young Abraham Lincoln coming into his own and becoming a decent and sympathetic man.

All of those images are perfect in adding character to Abe Lincoln, the Clay family that, despite being ostracized by the villagers and barely having the money to even pay Lincoln for his legal costs, he takes on as his own, and the nearly dream-like world that they inhabit.  Sure the murder trial is riveting and you want to see justice done just as much as Abe Lincoln the defense attorney does, but the focus here isn’t entirely an arbitrary murder trial or getting from point A to point B.  Everything is about character evolution, about inhabiting the world that Abe Lincoln inhabits, about understanding how a man destined for greatness can be influenced.  This isn’t an origin story or a sprawling biography, but a snippet, a snapshot of a moment in Abraham Lincoln’s life showing him in his element naturally (at least as naturally as an rustic Ford-esque world can provide).  One scene, one little moment did this perfectly, and affected me like no other, and it’s so, so simple.  Abe Lincoln rides his horse alongside his buddy near the river and trees, as he plays the mouth harp.  That’s all – but Ford focuses on it as long as he does for a reason, and I’m glad for it.  In a serene and dream-like movie such as this, this is the most serene and the most idyllic, a little throwaway moment that shows Abraham Lincoln, portrayed by Henry Fonda as one of the most admirable and likable protagonists a film could have, at absolute peace.  The storm clouds and thunder that conclude the film, that signal the turbulent future of America and the momentous destiny of Lincoln, seem a long way off when he’s enjoying a fine spring day playing the mouth harp and confiding in kindly and motherly Mrs. Clay.  The Lincoln that we learn about in the history books guided America through perhaps its most chaotic period, but to understand the man behind that you need to know where he came from and how he became that mythic figure.  “Young Mr. Lincoln” might not be very ‘realistic’ and might be overly-pastoral – the ultimate calm before the storm – but how appropriate that such an allegorical setting and story, an unblemished representation of the ideals that Americans like to think that their nation was founded on, contribute to the legend of a man who’s become almost pure allegory and symbol of Americana in his own right.

9.5/10