Saturday, February 27, 2010

Film #13: Swing Time (1936)

Director: George Stevens.

Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about a year ago)

The Story (in which I go through all of the plot points, spoilers included. Fair warning):

John "Lucky" Garnet is a talented dancer and gambling man about to get married to the young Margaret, but the guys in his performing troupe don't want to lose their best talent. They foil his wedding, leaving Lucky to make a deal with his fiancee and her father - come up with $25,000 to show he's worth something and he can have her hand in marriage. He's off!

A broke Lucky and his former manager, Pop, soon run across Penny, a dance instructor who initially finds him annoying, but comes to love him. Together, they navigate a few bumps in the occupational road and forge Penny a career as dancer, all the while falling for each other, despite Lucky's still-standing engagement to Margaret. Lucky tries to honor his promise to marry Margaret by not getting involved with Penny, which Penny reads as disinterest. Thus, she nearly gives in to the advances of the suave but pompous maestro, Ricardo Romero.

In the end, Lucky and his Margaret both admit to loving other people, which frees Lucky up to lightheartedly foil Penny's marriage to Ricardo and give us the happy joining that we've been waiting for.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after 1 viewing & before any research):

Great movie. And this is a lot coming from me, a person who vehemently dislikes nearly all musicals. I had forgotten that I had seen this one about a year ago, but once it began I remembered that it was one of the few musicals that stood out as likable to me. "Why?" you ask? Well...

I think my main problem with musical films is that they usually just don't mesh to me. West Side Story is supposed to be Romeo & Juliet, but on the dangerous mean streets, right? Well, pardon me if I don't buy into the danger when the "gangs" are wearing pastel skinny jeans, jumping around like figure skaters, and singing about how tough they are. Same goes for The Sound of Music - I simply can't get past thinking, "Stop singing and run from those Nazis, for chissakes!!"

Swing Time avoids all of this nonsense. Since the story is about entertainers, the song and dance numbers fit almost seamlessly into the story. Lucky is a dancer and Penny is a dance instructor, so it makes sense when they break into dances, and even sing together on occasion. Of course, it goes without saying that the two were phenomenal dancers. I'm no expert, but watching them made me want to take ballroom lessons to even approach the grace and fluidity of their movements. Check out this clip to get a taste for how damn awesome they were (I especially like the non-chalant walk-out at the end):

Freakin' amazing footwork.

The players were incredible. Fred and Ginger were all-around fantastic entertainers. There's really nothing that they didn't do well: singing and dancing are the obvious ones, but they were both really strong actors with great senses of comedic timing. I really like Astaire's character - he wasn't a drop-dead handsome guy, but he was pretty smooth. In Swing Time, the character of Lucky is a genuinely lovable high-rollin', tap dancin', cigarette smokin', wise-crackin' rogue. Ginger Rodgers was also great, easily keeping up with Astaire and absolutely smokin' hot, if I can apply such a modern idiom to one of the greats from our past.

Already alluded to is the comedy. This movie is legitimately funny and some of the cracks totally hold up 75 years later. All of the ingredients are there - a solid script and two strong lead actors who could pull it off. The final pieces to the puzzle were the two key supporting roles of Pop and Mabel, the male/female assistants of Lucky and Penny, played by Victor Moore and Helen Broderick. Sure, there are some hokey jokes, but these two made me laugh out loud more than a few times.

There are really only two things that bugged me a bit. One is that, at the end, there was a lot of one of my greatest pet peeves in acting - forced contagious laughter. You know - when a character pulls some goofy, slapstick gag and the entire cast starts laughing uproariously in a way that borders on insane. Well, the last 10 minutes of Swing Time is just such a yuk-fest and irked me somewhat.

The other is that the next-to-last dance act, Mr. Bojangles, is done by Astaire in blackface. I can't really say there's anything overtly racist about it, as he doesn't try to sing with any kind of condescending "ethnic" accent or anything, but the hair on the back of my neck stands up a bit when I see stuff like that from films past.

I've already told multiple friends about how much I enjoyed this film, and I'll continue to do so. Take it from a musical-hater - nearly everyone can find something to like about this movie, as long as they have no great objection to black and white and they understand that's it's all in good fun.

Take 2: "Why Film Geeks Love It" (done after some further research on the movie):

This was a first for me. In re-watching the movie with audio commentary by John Mueller, something was pointed out to me: just how much I should have ripped this movie for several weaknesses. There are some serious plot holes and questionable actions by the characters, and yet I didn't care. In fact, I didn't even think about them until the commentator pointed them out. To me, this shows just how charming the movie is. Even now, when I know the missing elements for which I would be pissed at another film, I don't really care. I still think Swing Time is great. Mueller put it well when explaining that it's a movie in which the sum of its parts is greater than the whole - each scene is great enough to gloss over the occasional lack of cohesion.

The Astaire/Rogers dance movies were monstrously popular. So much so that they essentially started a massive dance craze in the U.S., and even a few other countries. Apparently, some critics knock(ed) the films for being so much fluff, which is a fair observation. Still, I don't go into a musical/dance film to find serious social commentary or even tragedy or drama (West Side Story, anyone?), so I don't see the point of getting bent out of shape about it.

I shouldn't have been surprised at the comedic chops of Victor Moore & Helen Broderick. Moore was an accomplished vaudevillian & stage comedian, and Broderick was just naturally funny as hell. When I re-watched it, they were just as good.

Something interesting is that Fred Astaire absolutely refused to do an on-screen kiss with Ginger Rogers. He never felt that he was much of a "looker" and he thought such kisses were contrived and had already seen their day in cinema. So, he artfully teased the audience. Here's an amusing sample (start it at about 1:30):

The blackface bit. As stated in Take 1, I know that it wasn't really meant as offensive, and Mueller's commentary calmed my nerves a bit more. He pointed out that the dance was, as I suspected, a tribute to an old African-American dancer named Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Astaire wasn't even using the full "white-wide lips" make-up that really appeals to stereotypes. Here it actually is (the Bojangles character shows up at 1:30):

The final thing that re-watching it gave me was a greater appreciation of the slower beauty of some of the dances and the way that they are meant to convey the emotional transitions of the characters. The dance numbers truly do take the place of dialogue and facial expressions, perhaps as even more accurate representations of the emotions that they evoke than words could ever be.

That's a wrap. 13 shows in the can. 92 to go.

Coming Soon: Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936):

Never seen this one. I would laugh at this poster if I hadn't discovered, in recent years, that there are some kick-ass noir films from France. Maybe this was one of the earliest? Come back and find out.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Film #12: Camille (1936)

Director: George Cukor

Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: none

The Story (in which all plot points, as well as spoilers, are given away freely. Fair warning):

A young courtesan, Marguerite Gautier, seeks a life of leisure in the fantastical setting of early 19th century Paris. Marguerite has come from an agrarian life, but her natural beauty and cutting wit make her the apple of many a gentleman's eye. While seemingly looking for a wealthy man who will simply underwrite her every material desire, she falls in love. Much to her surprise, it is not to a man of great financial means, but rather a young and earnest fellow, Armand Duval. Armand's love for her is so powerful and enduring that Marguerite overlooks his pedestrian means and comes to love him as well.

However, society, including Armand's father, sees the match an unfitting. Believing that Armand's potent love combined Marguerite's expensive tastes and seemingly predatory nature will result in ruining the young man, nearly everyone conspires to convince Marguerite to turn her back on Armand. She reluctantly does so, deceiving Armand into believing that she no longer loves him. Crestfallen, Armand leaves to travel the world. In the meantime, a broken-hearted Marguerite gives herself to a much wealthier, though emotionally cold alternative suitor.

In the end, Marguerite is gripped by a chronic illness that slowly destroys her health. Wishing only to see her one true love again, she waits and hopes on her death bed for Armand's return. He comes at last, and the two lovers re-avow their feelings for one another. Alas, it is too late, as Marguerite succumbs to her illness and dies in Armand's arms.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after 1 viewing & before any research):

Oi. This one took some serious effort to get through. I realize that the term "chick flick" didn't exist in the 1930s, but they should have invented the term when this film came out. While the technical merits are beyond reproof, there was not a whole lot for me to sink my teeth into in this one.

Greta Garbo. I really don't know her work that well, but I realize that she was huge in her day, though the reasons are not immediately apparent to me. There's no question that she was a great actress. And sure, she was good-looking enough, if in a mannish sort of way, but I find Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis, and even Fay Wray to have been better lookers. Garbo had a steely, knowing sensuality about her, but I think Stanwyck had more of it and in a more feminine way. My suspicion is that it was these characteristics, combined with the slight Swedish accent that made her such a hit. Maybe one of those "whole being greater than the sum of her parts" kind of thing.

The story of Camille is high trageromance, and it's not like it was hard to see the tragic part coming. Within the first 5 minutes, Marguerite lets out a few subtle coughs. At that point, I could essentially see the whole story unfolding, an hour before it happened. Maybe it's because I recently watched Baby Face, which tells a somewhat similar story about a social climbing gold-digger who finds true love, only to have it end in tragedy (or near-tragedy, in Barbara Stanwyck's case). While Camille actually has the guts to stick with the more upsetting finish, it still lacked the punch that Baby Face had. Maybe this is because Baby Face was grittier and more real to me. Whatever the case, the same story unfolding in Parisian high society was not nearly as interesting.

When I think about it, I feel that this is really my only strong objection - the setting. The characters are rather well-rounded, and the actors play them well. I'm simply not as interested in the machinations of the social elite. For the same reason, I have no interest in seeing movies like Young Victoria. In fact, the only film even close to this type that I like is Dangerous Liaisons. I think the psychological manipulations, back-stabbings, and the presence of Uma Thurman probably explain this exception to my otherwise hard-and-fast dislike for such movies.

Back to Camille. A very minor annoyance was Garbo's head and neck. Weird, I know. Let me explain. When I now think back on this film, my lasting impression is of Garbo's head constantly tilted back, exposing her long neck. Marguerite would become amused, so she would throw her head back and laugh. She would be overcome by passion, so the head would go back in a swoon. Illness. Head back. Consternation. Head back. You get the point. It's an odd thing to notice, and is a little peccadillo on my part, I know. Still, this little visual hiccup is what I've come away with.
Garbo, about to lose nearly lose consciousness. Again. She easily sends the swoon-o-meter into the red as Camille in this picture.

In the end, I would highly recommend this to anyone who's into melodramatic period romances. Fans of Jane Austen would undoubtedly love this one. Alas, Jane Austen is not my cup of tea. I need my love stories to have a touch more adrenaline, such as in Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans; or they have to be insanely fantastic (in the literary sense), like Darren Aronofsy's sci-fi/fantasy film The Fountain. Camille falls outside of those personal parameters, so I will not be watching it again.

Take 2; "Why Film Geeks Love It" (done after some research on the movie):

I guess I wasn't alone in thinking the plot predictable. Here's the original TIME magazine review from '37. Most interesting that the review points how the director, rather than try to change any of the cliches, simply went after them, whole hog. The descriptions of Garbo seem to match my own impressions, as well.

I was actually stunned, though I shouldn't have been, when I saw just how many times this Alexandre Dumas, fils, novel has been adapted to film. It was done in 1909, 1915, 1917, 1921 (with Rudolph Valentino), 1926 and 1984. And these are just the American versions Basically, this tells me that this story was exceptionally well-known at the time, so audiences didn't care about any worn-out plot elements. People go to see Camille for the same reason they go to see Phantom of the Opera on the stage - they know and love the tale and want to see how the performers pull it off. With a good cast, the story is freshened a bit. As said before, the technical merits of the 1936 Camille are outstanding, so I'm not surprised at its success and place in film history, even if I struggled to sit through it.

That's a wrap. 12 shows down. 93 to go.

Coming Soon: Swing Time (1936):

What do you suppose Fred and Ginger are waving at up there? Can't say I'm a fan of musicals, though there are a few that have surprised me. We'll see if this will be another one.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Film #11: Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Director: James Whale

Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about 4 years ago)

The Story (in which I completely give away all plot points, including any spoilers. Fair warning):

*In order to tell the full tale, I feel it necessary to cover the original film, Frankenstein. In addition, all readers should be aware that these reviews cover the film versions, not the book. The films take much "artistic" license with Mary Shelley's novel, which will be briefly covered later.

Frankenstein: Young Doctor Henry Frankenstein robs a few graves to assemble the final pieces that he needs to complete his ultimate experiment - to create human life from previously-dead tissue. He is successful in creating a hulking but inarticulate being. To the horror of his onlooking fiancee, Elizabeth, and closest friend, Victor, Frankenstein revels in the majesty of his accomplishment. Unfortunately, Frankenstein's sadistic henchman, Fritz, frightens the creature, who escapes into the countryside. Henry returns home to marry Elizabeth. Meanwhile, the creature roams free, seeking friendship but finding only horrified villagers. After mistakenly killing several people, including young children, the monster is chased by Frankenstein and a German posse into a windmill , where he is seemingly burned to death.

Bride of Frankenstein: Picking up where the previous film left off, we see that the creature escaped death by falling into a deep, watery recess underneath the burning windmill. Back at Frankenstein's nearby home, the doctor prepares to marry his betrothed. A mysterious and sinister character from Dr.Frankenstein's past named Dr. Pretorius arrives on the scene and entreats Henry to work with him to recreate his experiment. We soon see that Pretorius is a death-obsessed, maniacal genius who has created a bizarre menagerie of strange creatures of his own. He will stop at nothing to force Frankenstein to help him realize his ghoulish vision.

All the while, Frankenstein's creature roams about, initially finding the same hatred as before, until he finds an old, blind hermit in the woods. Not seeing the creature's hideous exterior, the blind man takes him for a mute, treats him with kindness, and even teaches him how to speak, though in a limited capacity. Eventually, a few villagers show up, see the monster, and run him off once again.

The monster, amazingly, comes across Dr. Pretorius, and they conspire together to kidnap Elizabeth and force Frankenstein to construct a female companion for the creature. The young doctor concedes and creates the female abomination. However, once she becomes aware and sees the original creature, her intended mate, she recoils in horror. Upon realizing that he has no hope of finding a kindred spirit in this world, the creature sabotages the machinery in the massive laboratory, killing himself, his "bride" and Doctor Pretorius, with Frankenstein and Elizabeth narrowly escaping.

Take 1: My Opinion (done after one viewing, before any research on the film):
Bride of Frankenstein is a really good movie, though steeped in some old, B-Horror movie conventions. It's clearly better than its predecessor, even though both were directed by the renowned horrormeister James Whale. The primary difference is that Bride moves closer to the deeper themes of Mary Shelley's timeless novel, whereas the first Frankenstein keeps things relatively simple.

While in Frankenstein, the creature is portrayed as almost more monstrous than sympathetic, in Bride, there is a much better balance. By allowing him to speak and giving more time to his obvious pleas for companionship, I felt much more for him than in the first film. This touches on the creator/creation relationship that was so key to the novel. The vehicle for this shift comes in the scenes between the "monster" and the blind man who takes him in. In these few minutes of the film, we really see the creature as a young, desperate and tormented child who wants nothing more than contact. Here's a taste of the interaction:

Scenes like this one set this classic horror flick far above its peers. Perhaps the capper is the literally explosive grand finale. By accepting death rather than a tormented and solitary life, the creature represents a certain existentialism that belies the B-horror veneer.

My main problem with the movie is that it is rooted in a few clumsy elements. Dr. Pretorius, played extremely eerily by Ernest Thesiger, seems somewhat contrived. While the character himself is somewhat intriguing, he represents the biggest of several serious gaps in the narrative. Who is Pretorius? Why the death fixation? This guy quite literally just shows up on the doorstep and takes control of the entire movie, with nary an explanation. The plot was obviously highly streamlined in order to keep the pace quick, but it leaves a few too many questions to be answered for my liking.

In addition to the semi-choppy narrative, there are several insanely coincidental occurrences that defy my ability to suspend disbelief. Chief among them is the monster happening across Dr. Pretorius in a tomb. I suppose you could argue that it fits that these two beings, both having affinities for the macabre, would meet in such a place. I had to roll my eyes a bit at it, all the same.

In all, though, it's a really good movie that earns the moniker of "classic". Modern viewers, especially young adults, may not be able to see past the outdated effects and occasional silliness of some scenes. If, however, the viewer can look past the surface, they may see a lot of things that the vast majority of films, horror and otherwise, are sorely lacking.

Take 2; Why Film Geeks Love this Movie (done after some research on the film):

This film is hailed as one of the greatest horror films ever. Film historian Scott McQeen even goes so far as to call it, "the perfect horror film." In listening to his audio commentary, he certainly makes his case well. He points out a lot of the meticulously-planned elements of the movie, including the visuals and the overall character interactions. I agree that the aesthetic of the film is really engaging and cohesive, with elements of baroque, rococo, and expressionism blending really well to create a slightly alien feel to the world. Even a non-art buff like me can appreciate these things.

I also discovered that my initial feelings about the narrative being a touch choppy were not just subjective. Apparently, the script and film went through several edits, thanks in large part to objections by the Hays censorship board. In the end, a longer scene that explains the relationship between Frankenstein and Pretorius was cut, along with several other scenes in which the monster kills people.

One surprising thing is that the original TIME magazine review saw Bride as equal to the original, rather than superior. Here's their original review.

The really interesting thing about the creative forces behind the films is director James Whale. A somewhat flamboyant, totally atheistic man, Whale was a playful and strong-willed man who had a vision and tried all he could not to compromise. He may have been one of the earliest users of campiness in his films. 

Dr. Pretorius, displaying his bizarre menagerie of experiments. This character gleefully and skillfully tiptoed the line between genuine eeriness and laughable camp.

A lot of analysis has been done on the possible religious and homosexual symbolism or themes in the film. In the end, it all sounded like people with too much time on their hands (ahem...). There's a great story about the movie: In the late 40s, James Whale went to a review showing of Bride. Throughout the show, Whale was obviously amused by his own cleverness is telling the equally horrifying and entertaining story that he wanted to, while tap-dancing around censors and critics, so he kept chuckling during the moments he knew were meant to be humorous. A woman in front of him, not knowing who he was, agitatedly turned and said, "Look, if you don't like the film, you can damn well leave!"

Just goes to show that few, if any, of us ever completely see all of the things that a filmmaker is showing us. Or, if we do, it's not for years or decades after they first revealed it to us.

Related Media

"Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus" (novel; Mary Shelley): brilliant novel that has been and will be around for centuries. The universal themes of existentialism and the search for knowledge through technology are still as, of not more, relevant today as when the novel first came out 200 years ago. James Whale took a lot of liberties with the story, right down to the names of some of the main characters, but retains some of Shelley's more brilliant ideas.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (film; 1994): Pretty wretched attempt to blend a faithful rendering of the original novel and the more popular conceptions of the story as created by James Whale. Director and main man Kenneth Brannagh was trying to do way too much with this one, and ended up creating a technicolored mess. Cool visuals. DeNiro as the creature is pretty good. The rest of the this thing is totally overblown, though, and in only a few moments does it approach anything worthwhile. I got through about two-thirds of it but couldn't take any more. Give me the original James Whale movies any day.

That's a wrap. 11 shows down. 94 to go.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Coming Soon: Camille (1936):

This one looks a little froo-froo, so I don't know what to expect. I may have to follow it up by watching Mike Tyson's Greatest Knockouts, just to keep my feminine/masculine equilibrium.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Film #10: It's A Gift (1934)

Director: Norman Z. McLeod

Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: none

The Story:

Harold Bissonette (pronounces "Bis-oh-nay"), a mumbling, bumbling goofball of a man inherits some cash and seemingly wastes it by buying his lifelong dream: an orange orchard. Much to his wife's dismay, he sells their grocery store in New Jersey, packs up the family and heads to California. Upon arrival, they discover that the hoped-for splendor of an orchard is a complete dust bowl. Just when it all seems to be lost, Bissonette is offered a true orchard and tons of cash for the property, so that some prospectors can build a grandstand for a race track. All's well that ends well.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after one viewing & before any research):

I enjoyed the movie for giving me a few really good laughs, but overall I don't love it.

I love W.C. Fields for probably the same reason that everybody has loved and still does love him - he's a character. He never had the wit of Groucho Marx, the pure physical abilities of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, and he was never in movies that told interesting tales. Still, there was no one at all like him: a half-clueless, drunken clown who spent half of his movies insulting those around him under his breath, while refusing to notice his own total ineptitude.

It's a Gift is pretty forgettable, story-wise. As with the other Fields films I've seen, the plot serves purely as a vehicle for Fields to do his thing - getting verbally and physically abused for his buffoonery and staring back at the world from between those narrow slits of eyes as if to say, "All of you are mad. Leave me out of all this."

When I try to pin down what it is that makes Fields so damn funny, I think of the reason my Dad gave me years ago: it's the under-the-breath comments. Dad's right. It's that and, like Buster Keaton, the downright refusal to so much as crack a smile.

One of the earliest scenes of Field's goofy interactions with his family. A still photo does him small justice - you've got to see him in action to witness his genius physical comedy.

The way he gets continually badgered by the people and world around him is all just the foil for his responses. In truth, a lot of the scenarios do become quite tiresome and annoying. In a handful of them, there's a good payoff, with Fields delivering a really snarky line. Other times, they fall flat.

Basically, Fields was something like the Will Farrell of his day. Not that they play the same character - but both men continually play singular characters of their own design. Farrell is always a semi-clueless, hyperactive gorilla; Fields was always a semi-clueless, lazy tippler. Neither man made a career of being in thoughtfully plotted films, but I laugh at them, all the same. Maybe not at all of their jokes, but enough to keep me coming back.

Take 2; or, Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some research):

There's not much research to be done on this one. TIME Magazine didn't even do an original review for it back in 1934. The one thing that critics of past and present point to is what strikes everyone about W.C. Fields films, and that's W.C. Fields. It's funny to notice that no analysis of the film gives more than a line or two about the story, or anything else, aside from Fields. This is as it should be. All reviewers point to Fields' singularly misanthropic, yet lovable and engaging, character. It's a Gift, by most accounts, had the greatest number of solid gags in it. It's put quite well in the one paragraph here on the TIME website.

The other things worth mentioning are (surprise, surprise) about Fields himself. Born William Claude Dukenfield (quite a handle, that), the young Fields would become a world-class juggler and vaudevillian. By all accounts, he never drank as a young man, so that he could maintain the dexterity needed for his craft. However, the other performers drank like fish. Fields enjoyed their company, so had booze on hand for them. Eventually, he took to the sauce as well. Like it was his job. It's interesting to me that a highly social, phenomenally agile performer would make his name playing a hilarious, person-hating sot. Oh, the irony.

A scene from the end, just before Fields delivers one of his most famous (and often ripped-off) lines:
Bosterly: You're drunk!
Bissonette (Fields): And you're crazy. But I'll be sober tomorrow and you'll be crazy the rest of your life.

That's a wrap. 10 shows down. 95 to go.

That's right- the sequel to the original. I just reread the Mary Shelley novel to boot, so I'll have some more literate thoughts to add to this one. Cinephiles & bibliophiles unite!!
Please pick up all empties on the way towards the exits.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Film #9: Baby Face (1933)

Director: Alfred E. Green

Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: none

The Story (In which I shamelessly give away the plot, key points and all. Fair warning.):

Lily Powers is a young, beautiful and intelligent, though jaded and cynical woman who works in her father/pimp's run-down speakeasy "parlor" in their apartment. When her father offers her up to a local politician in exchange for police protection, she becomes fed up and splits town for New York, with her trusty friend and father's former servant, Chico, in tow. She vows to herself to use her beauty and smarts to her, and only her, advantage.

In New York, she uses her brains and feminine wiles to sleep her way up the ladder of a major banking firm, abandoning each man after getting what she wants from them. Eventually, one young executive becomes obsessed enough to kill Lily's current meal ticket, the bank's vice president, and then commit suicide. In the face of public scandal, the bank executives quickly decide to fire the president and bring in Courtland Trenholm, playboy descendant of the bank's founder. Trenholm quickly and astutely sizes up Lily for the opportunist that she is and sends her to work in Paris, assuming that she will soon quit and leave the company in peace.

In Paris, Lily takes the job, does masterful work, and stays very quiet, all just to prove Trenholm wrong. During a visit by the young president, Lily and Trenholm find fondness for one another, begin an affair, and are soon married. This all sets off another firestorm of controversy back in New York, ruining Trenholm's career with the bank. Lily initially tries to abandon the now-ruined Trenholm, sticking to her self-serving mantra; however, she comes to realize that she loves him and rushes back, prepared to offer up all of the vast amounts of money that she's gathered from her past conquests. As she returns to him, she finds that he has just attempted suicide. The film ends with the both of them in an ambulance, where the couple is told that Trenholm should recover, and with Lily ceasing to care about the money that will be lost.


Take 1. My Gut Reaction (done after one viewing & before any research):

Quick note: there were 2 versions of the film on this disc. I watched the unedited/pre-theatrical release version.

This is a pretty much the kind of movie that I was hoping to find when I conceived of this blog: a previously unknown (to me) gem. There are a few reasons I liked it so much, but the hands-down winner is Barbara Stanwyck. I really only knew her from Double Indemnity (1944; film #25 on the TIME list), but she is now becoming one of my favorite classic film actresses. She had such incredible sex appeal that she was perfect for this role. Sure, she's good-looking enough, but very few actresses could pull off the natural intelligence, cunning, and allure that Stanwyck did with such ease. In fact, her steely, manipulative gaze is so convincing that I felt a true sense of change during the few moments when, for just a few seconds, her eyes would soften and suggest that she's not just a mercenary to the bone.

Lily begins coolly working her way up the ladder. She'll soon be trading in that polka-dotted secretary garb for furs...

Another intriguing thing is the story itself. On the surface, it may seem to be merely seedy, but there a fair bit of thought put into it. In the beginning, as Lily is working in her scumbag father's speakeasy, an older, uptight German patron tries to convince Lily to read the works of Nietzsche and empower herself. Keep in mind that this was 1933, not long before Hitler used some of Nietzche's ideas to promote his notions of racial superiority and the "Ubermensch". In Baby Face, such philosophy is suggested as a tool for the empowerment of women. Once Lily adopts this strategy and executes it effectively, the only question that remains is: will she get what she wants and crush all the men in her path; will she herself go down in flames; or will she find her heart again. In the end, just when it seems not to be, she does find that she has a heart. This is quite touching and plausible, oddly enough. Right up to the end, Lily has shown herself a master of manipulating men, and has all but banished sentimentality to do it. And yet, her character and Stanwyck's performance are such that you can sense a true caring somewhere deep inside of her.

Another quick note about the story is the pacing. As you can see from the long summary, a lot happens, and this film is only 75 minutes long!! And yet, it doesn't ever feel rushed. Thanks to good scripting, directing and editing, it flows very smoothly, with not a scene wasted.

The overall acting is solid, even by most of the supporting cast. At this point in film history, I'm starting to notice a gradual but steady evolution of both scripting and screen acting. Sure, the dialogue is still a wee bit forced and the lines are delivered in an unnatural, staccato way in many cases, but not quite as much as I noticed in King Kong and other, later films that I've seen. The actors seem more at ease from head to toe, and don't overdo too many of their gestures. Stanwyck was the standout in this. Up to this point, she's the most relaxed actor I've seen, both with her lines and with her general postures.

I suppose the only minor gripe I have is that the ending, while not bad, felt a touch sugary. It seems odd to say, since it involves an attempted suicide, but it seemed to let off of the gas just a bit. I'm quite alright with Lily rediscovering her heart, but my eyebrows raised just a bit upon discovering that Trenholm will recover. As with the end of City Lights, I feel like a more powerful ending was abandoned. If the film had ended with Trenholm, Lily's new-found love, dying, I think it would have had more impact.

This is where the film shied away a bit, so as not to upset too many viewers. Personally, I think having Trenholm succeed in killing himself would have been far more impacting. 

Amazing how an extra 51 seconds can completely alter a story. Alas, it's a much happier ending for all.

If you like older movies that touch on darker subjects, or even like film noir flicks like Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, or Sunset Boulevard, I'm pretty sure you'll love this one.

Take 2. Or, "Why Film Geeks Love This Movie" (Done after some research on the film):

Well, well, well. I guess I wasn't the only one who didn't like the slightly more upbeat ending. Apparently, the original writer and director didn't like it either. The production studio, Warner Brothers, forced them into it, not wanting alienate too many viewers with such a downer ending as Courtland Trenholm killing himself, leaving Lily Powers only her money and the crushing guilt of having destroyed the one man that she loved. As I suggested, a missed opportunity.

I guess the critic at TIME Magazine wasn't too crazy about the film as whole. Here's their write-up.

Another interesting note is that this film was part of the "pre-Code" Hollywood, a roughly six-year period when studios released a number of films that dealt with seamier topics. This was all in order to attract any Depression-era dollars that they could. Hence Barbara Stanwyck's sexual predator character. At this point, in 1933, Hollywood had only about one more year before the real crack-down began, and we could no longer see women in their "undergarments," interracial relationships, open references to drug use, or any other sorts of fun stuff.

That's a wrap. 9 shows down. 96 to go.

Coming Soon: It's A Gift (1934):

I can't wait to watch this one. I love W.C. Fields, even though I've only seen a handful of his short and full-length movies. We'll see what kind of antics he gets up to in this one.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Film #8: King Kong (1933)

Directors: Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack

Times Previously Seen: 1 (about 10 - 12 years ago)

The Story (in which I blatantly spoil the hell out of the plot for you. Fair warning, though probably not necessary for this movie.):

In the early years of the depression, adventure film maker Carl Denham has grand plans of traveling to the mythical Skull Island in search of a legendary creature known only as "Kong." He also convinces a poor, young girl, Ann Darrow, to come along and be the main actress in the documentary movie he plans to make, though he neglects to tell her all of the details beforehand.

Denham, Darrow and a shipful of sailors travel to Skull Island and discover a primitive tribe of islanders who worship "Kong." After initial attempts to film the tribe are rebuffed, the American travelers are ushered back to their anchored ship. That night, the locals kidnap Darrow and offer her as a sacrifice to their deity, Kong, who turns out to be a 50-foot rampaging gorilla. Kong inhabits the island along with dinosaurs and other beasts thought to have been extinct for tens of millions of years. Denham and the American sailors, upon discovering Ann's abduction, gather a party and enter the jungles to rescue her. Most of them are killed, but Denham and first mate, Jack, manage to use stun gas to fell Kong and save Ann.

Rather than leave well enough alone, they decide to cart the massive ape back to New York to put on display. However, at the first show, Kong breaks loose, wreaks absolute havoc upon Manhattan, steals Ann again, and takes her to the top of the Empire State Building. In the end, airplanes arrive on the scene and riddle Kong with bullets, killing him.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after one viewing, before any research):

I had to force myself to pay attention to this one, for a variety of reasons. Some reasons are very obvious to me, others I can only guess at. Let me preface this by saying that I completely understand this movie's place in film history - there are certain elements that were so novel, exciting, and entertaining, that I wish I could have been there for its release in 1933. It's not hard to see why it has remained a legend in movie history. And yet...

The racism. Let me quickly get this out of the way. I don't know if Cooper meant it, and I understand that the prevailing attitudes of the 30s were different, but one can't help but ponder the potential metaphor of the whole thing: a large, black gorilla becomes infatuated with a blond white woman, is taken in chains to the U.S. and is put on display. Slavery, anyone? But these are vague suppositions on my part. Not too vague are the depictions of non-whites, including the native Skull Islanders, but especially the grossly exaggerated portrayal of the ship's Chinese cook, whose hokey, broken English made me cringe. Then again, I'm an English teacher who works with international students, so maybe I'm just sensitive.

When it came to casting the "natives" of Skull Island, as well as writing the dialogue for the Chinese cook, the script writers adhered to the 1930s standards of political correctness. In other words, none at all.

Even ignoring these things, I didn't overly enjoy watching this movie, just as I didn't enjoy it when I first saw it around a decade ago. When I put my mind to it, I think that the story itself is really cool - the movie director, the band of reluctant sailors, the shadowy island, the early cryptic references to "Kong," massive Cretaceous-era monsters, primitive power vs. modern civilization. These elements and others blend together for a great adventure tale. I think one reason they weren't enough for me is that I already know the story. A fair bit of the movie's power comes from the suspense that's built up in the first half of the film: What is Skull Island like? What is "Kong"?If you know the answers already, a bit of the air is let out of the balloon.

That's not to say that I can't enjoy a movie when I know what's coming (I mean, Jesus, if that were true, I wouldn't have watched Raiders of the Lost Ark 50-some-odd times). However, to enjoy a tale when you know the outcome, other strengths need to be present. King Kong lacks too many of them for me. One is that the special effects are hopelessly outdated. Again, I know the time period. For 1933, they were the Avatar of their day. Alas, it's not 1933 anymore, and all I see is a stop-motion puppet moving in a herky-jerky fashion. The animators showed their skill with this film, and I have to say that Kong's face in particular is still terrifying. Here's a quick pic that I think conveys the dark terror that the creature's face can inspire:

Honestly, if I had this picture on my wall, I'd have a lot of trouble sleeping at night. Terrifying at any size, really. Still, this is another case of film aesthetics evolving much too far for me not to notice. Effects, including stop-motion, have just gotten too much better in the last 77 years for this golden oldie to still suspend my disbelief.

The other thing that made the film a bit difficult for me to get into is the acting. I know this is debatable, but to me, there wasn't really a single strong actor in the whole bunch, which I imagine is why none of them, aside from Fay Wray, ever carved out much of a Hollywood career. Some of the acting is still rooted in the slightly-exaggerated, melodramatic theater style; the rest of it is simply weak. Wray, who I didn't find to be much of an actress, spends over half of the time screaming her lungs out anyway, which really just grated on my nerves by the last 15 minutes or so.

As stated, I think that story holds up really well as an adventure tale, which is obviously why Peter Jackson decided to give it a facelift and re-introduce it to modern audiences in 2005. I saw that one, too, but found it overlong and too concerned with extended, slow-motion action scenes. I actually think that a blending of the two would be perfect - if Jackson had been able to add the modern effects to the concise and highly skilled pacing of the original (only 100 minutes, compared to Jackson's 188-minute behemoth), I think it would have worked better.

All-in-all, I won't watch this one again, and I only recommend it to real fans of classic movies. Just be sure that you're not put off by relatively primitive special effects and sub-par acting. There really is a good yarn in here, told in a masterful way, if you can look past some of the archaic aesthetics. I couldn't.

Take 2; or, "Why Film Geeks Love This Movie" (done after some research):

The racism. By all accounts, the massive "slavery" metaphor was unintentional. I suppose one could argue that it may still have been a deeper, subconscious tapping into the American psyche, but I believe that never did Cooper & Schoedsack say, "Let's tell the story of the white America's fear of black male potency and power." They just wanted to tell an adventure tale.

As assumed, this movie brought a lot of things to the 1933 populace that they had literally never seen before. In addition to the massive scale and epic fantasy elements, King Kong introduced no less than eleven cinematographic innovations in order to cut, splice, and blend together all of the separate aspects. The filmmakers were, truly, brilliant. From the unprecedentedly large use of stop-motion animation, to the masterful camera angles, to the take-no-prisoners action pace of the last hour of the film, the production was, itself a 50-foot stomping ape. Never before seen, and never to be forgotten by those who saw it. Here's the original TIME Magazine review. The reviewer seemed to find it a tad ridiculous, but undeniably entertaining.

Key to it all was the co-director, Merian C. Cooper. This guy led an amazing life. Perhaps due to a potent case of Short Man Syndrome, he attacked life from an early age, sunk his teeth into it like a pit bull, and never let go. Before getting involved with film, he was a bomber pilot in WWI, where he was shot down and injured in a dogfight, then captured by the Germans. He made a daring escape and rejoined the war, offering ground aid to victims in Poland. He constantly sought out new places and new adventures after this, which led him to film.
When not making films about giant gorillas & dinosaurs, Cooper was a professional tough s.o.b.

Early on, he carved out his place in Hollywood as a documentarian of the Teddy Roosevelt spirit, going to Africa & the South Pacific to film native cultures. During these trips, he found a way to make dramatic ethnographies that were quite popular in their time. It was these things, along with his powerful lust for life, that he poured into King Kong, and made it such a powerful movie.

There's a ton more about Cooper that's impressive, especially after he made history with Kong. Honestly, when I watched the hour-long documentary on Cooper's life, I was far more impressed and attentive than I was during King Kong. I'd recommend that anyone take an hour to give a look.

And that about sums it up. Here in the year 2010, I'm more impressed by the director's life than by his movie. Of course, this isn't the movie's fault. It made a quantum leap as far as action/adventure movies go, and it doesn't take a genius to see how it fathered so many of the techniques and approaches still used today. And still, I'm not terribly entertained. I wish I could, but I just can't look past the outdated elements of the film, let myself go and simply enjoy it. Maybe you'll have better luck than I will.

That's a wrap. 8 shows down. 97 to go.

Coming Soon: Baby Face (1933):

I love the "Come hither" look on Stanwyck's face in this poster. I'm comin', Barbara. I'm comin'.

Please pick up all empties on the way out.