Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Film #24: Casablanca (1942)

Director: Michael Curtiz

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: 4 or 5 (last seen about 6 months ago)

20-Words-or-Fewer Summary (no spoilers):

Jaded club owner/ex-mercenary is reunited with past love, wife of underground Nazi resistance movement leader. Romance and adventure ensue.

Full Blow-by-Blow (a detailed summary, with spoilers. Fair warning):

World War II has completely erupted and the Axis is steadily marching through Europe. In the Moroccan city of Casablanca in northeast Africa, hordes of refugees are scrambling for freedom and desperately searching for ways and means to escape from the carnage. Casablanca is now a city filled with expatriates, rich and poor, and scoundrels looking to take full advantage of their desperation.

One semi-safe haven is the swinging night club Rick's Cafe Americain, run by American expatriate and former soldier-of-fortune, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). Rick is a world-weary man who seeks nothing more than to operate a viable club, clearly stating that he won't "stick his neck out for nobody." Despite this callous decree, Rick is a man who has a hidden soft spot for those he sees as decent people, and who privately despises the Nazis and their fascist ideals.
The four main players, left to right: Rick, Renault, Lazlo and Ilsa

One night, local scumbag Ugarte (Peter Lorre) shows up in Rick's, asking him to stash two exit visas, exceptionally valuable commodities in Casablanca, that Ugarte has stolen from a pair of Nazi couriers whom he has killed. Rick agrees, but Ugarte is promptly seized and killed trying to escape. Overseeing the action is the local corrupt police chief, French Captain Renault (Claude Raines) and newly-arrived Nazi Major Strasse. Strasse has arrived to find and contain escaped resistance leader Victor Lazlo, a Czechoslovakian who has suffered in a concentration camp, escaped, and continued to fight for freedom from Nazi rule.

Lo and behold, Lazlo appears, and he's not alone. With him is his beautiful wife, Ilsa Lind (Ingrid Bergman). When the pair show up at Rick's, the normally stoic Rick sees Ilsa and slips into a deep, depressive reverie. After being cordial to Victor and Ilsa, we learn that, prior to arriving in Casablanca, Rick had fallen in love with Ilsa in Paris just before the Nazis rolled in and took over. Rick had planned to flee Paris with Ilsa, but was left standing at the train station with his piano-playing comrade, Sam, and an extra train ticket. Devastated, Rick flees, not knowing what became of his love.

In modern Casablanca, Rick's heart has become hard. When Ilsa and Victor ask for his help in acquiring exit visas, he refuses, despite having the visas stolen by Ugarte. Ilsa eventually reveals that, when she and Rick were together in Paris, she was still married to Victor, though she had then thought him dead. Shortly before Rick's flight from Paris, she had learned that her husband still yet lived, and she abandoned Rick to return to her husband. Even this revelation seemingly fails to move Rick.

As Major Strasse tightens the noose around Victor, he and his wife become more desperate. Rick cooks up a scheme by which he plans to use the two exit visas for himself and the now exhausted and complicit Ilsa, apparently to leave Lazlo to the mercies of the Nazis. However, when all of the different forces converge on an airstrip, Rick offers a final surprise: he gives the visas to Ilsa and Victor and gets them on a plane, granting them their freedom. To boot, he guns down Major Strasse, a terribly severe crime that is overlooked by Captain Renault, who re-embraces his own past convictions. Victor and Ilsa fly away into the night, and Rick and Renault saunter off to who-knows-where, to fight for the Allied cause in even more distant lands.

Love and ideals conquer all.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after this most recent viewing of the film, before any research):

Citizen Kane may be the most innovative and artistic work in the history of major American films, but Casablanca is the absolute pinnacle of what mainstream Hollywood can ever achieve in terms of storytelling. I can't think of a movie that has a tighter script, more memorable classic lines, and as solid a cast as this all-timer.

At the very start, things are a touch droll. During the initial scan through the city, we are treated to various scenes that convey the sense of wonder that is the thrumming populace. For the first five minutes or so, we see people getting robbed, suspected refugees shot, and even a young woman looking up at a departing plane and, dreamy-eyed, declaring, "Do you think we'll be on that plane one day?" Such a cheese-tastic line almost had me wondering just why I like this film so much.

Then, a reverse of my The Lady Eve experience occurs.

That film had an amazingly strong beginning, then faded significantly as it went along. Casablanca just gets better and better as the story unfolds. Every major and minor character is memorable, right down to the bartender in Rick's. Every scene and line of dialogue advances the story or reveals something essential about a character. And yet, despite the film being an economical hour and forty-two minutes long, it at no time seems rushed. There are quiet, ponderous moments, just as there are moments of high intrigue and suspense. The cocktail is mixed so perfectly that you don't even realize that you're being intoxicated until you've got that stupid grin on your face.

The lines. Those who haven't seen this film may not realize just how many classic lines come from this movie. When I first watched it back when I was about 21 years old, my initial thought was, "Man, that line was another cliche." Shortly after that first notion, I realized that this movie was the source for all of the cliches:

"Play it, Sam." (there is no "again," as some may have you believe)

"Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine."

"Here's looking at you, kid."

"Round up the usual suspects."

"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

There are plenty more, including this favorite gem of mine (sorry there's no clip, just the link):

"I was misinformed." Just count how many great lines are in this 2:30 bit of the film.

In between all of these more renowned lines are tons of others. Throughout nearly the entire film, I was smirking at the clever digs and cynical observations of everyone involved. The true stars of the show, though, are Humphrey Bogart and Claude Raines, who get the best lines and deliver them masterfully.

More needs to be said of Bogart and Raines. The other actors are excellent, including Bergman, Henried, Lorre and the others. However, when Bogie shows up as Rick, he becomes the stuff of legend. His weary hangdog face, subtle gestures, one-of-a-kind voice, and effortless delivery are cinematic platinum. His sarcasm is authentic and timelessly funny, his anger is intense, his depression is heart-rending, and his compassion, though sparing, is wholly redeeming. I can't possibly imagine any person playing the role as well, and no actor has filled the slot left in Hollywood once Bogart left.

Raines is the sleeper of this one. Though not as prominent as Rick, he's the character whose scenes you're waiting for. While he's mostly comic relief, like most of the characters aside from Ilsa, Victor, and Major Strasse, Raines is far superior to them all. His officious posture and self awareness as a playfully corrupt official are as entertaining and unique as they come. He's slimy, to a degree, but one whom you know has a good heart buried under all of that manicured vice. He and Rick pairing up at the airfield and heading out to unknown horizons on the war front is arguably the greatest ending a Hollywood film has ever had.

Here's one of Renault's greatest lines:

Of course, in addition to all of this is the time when the film was released. The U.S. had just seriously committed to engagement in WWII, so the collective emotions of the nation were focused on the goings on in Europe and northern Africa. If you keep in mind the uncertainty of things in those years, the film's story of love and hope becomes far more potent. As great as it is today, I can only imagine how much better it would have been to see it back in 1942.

There it is. With Casablanca, you arguably get: the greatest tale told in film, some of the greatest characters in film, the greatest lines in film, and the greatest ending in film. These things are the reasons that people have been trying for nearly 70 years to match Casablanca in terms of smoothness, tone, characterization, dialogue, and storytelling. Long before Steven Soderberg went at it, many have tried and come close, but none have matched it, in my view.

If you haven't seen this film yet, you only have two choices: watch it immediately or renounce any claim as a movie lover.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some further research):

As with Citizen Kane and other mammoths of film history, Casablanca has been studied and critiqued endlessly, if not for exactly the same reasons. It's a fascinating film since, while it can be called "sophisticated hokum," as one of the original script readers put it, there's a timeless charm that is exceptionally rare, though not elusive.

While the casting went through many iterations, one stood out to me. The Rick Blaine character was originally to be given to...are you ready? Ronald Reagan. Oof. I really can't get my mind around that one. I know Reagan had some clout back then, but anyone who's seen this movie can see why my eyes go wide when I consider this.

Another fairly interesting fact is that World War II itself indirectly (as well as directly) contributed to the greatness of Casablanca. Many of the supporting actors were themselves real refugees who had been prominent actors in their home countries, such as Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and others. This goes a long way to explaining why even the bit parts are so well played. I was a bit surprised at how dismissive the original TIME review was in regards to Raines' Captain Renault character. Bush-league?

In learning about the story and script I picked up that, in the film (it was adapted from an unproduced play called Everybody Comes to Rick's), Rick's background is left intentionally vague. In the play, it is revealed that in America, he was a lawyer with a wife and children. By omitting this, and only filling in the occasional detail about Rick's past fighting against fascist regimes, we're left with a more mysterious figure. To me, this is a fantastic example of skillful story editing.

Director Michael Curtiz was hailed as one of the great directors of his day. The surprising thing is that, apparently, he was not much of a "story" man. So much so that one writer explained that Curtiz didn't get along with writers and couldn't talk to them because, "He didn't know what the hell we were talking about." Rather, Curtiz was a master of scenes and working with actors. He may not have been able to create or adapt and tale, but once you gave it to him, he knew exactly how to translate it to film.

Something that I totally overlooked in my first take was the music. I think that this is because it's such a part of the fabric of the movie that I didn't give it much thought. It is excellent, and of course the song "As Time Goes By" is just as memorable as any of the classic lines of dialogue. Intriguing is the fact that the original music director didn't like the song, but wasn't able to find an alternative in time for the film's rushed release. I guess he had to eat a little crow on that one.

All of this is the slenderest tip of the iceberg of study that can be done on this movie. As opined above, Casablanca is not a masterpiece of high art or the culmination of genius. This film is not the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Rather, it's more like the most superbly crafted wooden chair. All of the pieces have been carefully carved and fit together just the way that they need to. You can sit down, lean back, run your hands over the supply curved arms, relax and marvel at how such a seemingly simple thing can be so rare and enjoyable. While it's perfection may invite overanalysis, there's no real need - just enjoy it.

Greatest ending ever? If not, it's in the discussion:

That's a wrap. 24 shows down. 81 to go.

Number 3 in the 1-2-3 combo of some of my favorite films is this film noir classic. Barbara Stanwyck makes her third appearance of TIME's list, this time as a true femme fatale. I'm all geared up for another viewing of this back-stabbing, double-dealing yarn of lust and betrayal. Good, clean fun.

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

Sunday, April 18, 2010

FIlm #23; Citizen Kane (1941)

Director: Orson Welles

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: 2 (last seen about a year ago)

20-Words-or-Fewer Summary (no spoilers):

The life story of a fictional (?) massive American newspaper magnate.

The Full Story (a complete summary, with spoilers. Fair warning):

In a sprawling palace in Florida, aged American newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane dies in bed, uttering the cryptic word, "Rosebud." The enigma of this single word sets off a search by hungry reporters to find its hidden meaning.

In a series of time jumps and near-Rashomon like tale-telling, we gradually get an ever-clearer portrait of the larger-than-life tycoon Kane. As a child in the snowy winter landscape of Colorado, his mother unexpectedly comes into a massive fortune in the form of Colorado gold mines. Not wanting her son to grow up in their family's meager conditions, she signs over care of her only boy to the money-centric banker Jerry Thompson.

Over the succeeding years, young Kane is sent to, and kicked out of, a variety of Ivy League schools. Upon turning 25, he decides to take on the duties of one of his smaller properties - a tiny New York newspaper which he sees as a chance to exercise his idealism upon the public. With tireless energy, inexhaustible financial resources, and a flare for sensationalism, he turns the paper into a massive success. From this, he builds a media empire that he uses to build up or tear down whatever causes he sees fit. Kane becomes one of the most powerful men in the country, if not the world.

However, as his financial and political strength grow, so does his isolation. His friends begin to realize that they may not truly know Charles Kane, as his opinions and yellow journalism seem to change on a dime, with little regard for who he may or may not harm. As he slowly becomes estranged from his wife, Emily, he finds some relief in the form of a poor young musician, Susan. He begins to spend occasional evenings at Susan's, initially innocently, but eventually keeping her as a mistress.

Kane eventually runs for political office and appears to be headed for a landslide victory over incumbent but corrupt "Boss" Jim Gettys. That is, until Gettys obtains proof of Kane's evenings with Susan and reveals them to the press. His first marriage and political aspirations are destroyed. His wife and 10-year-old son die in a car accident a few years later.

Kane marries Susan and attempts to repair his damaged reputation and psyche. Despite her obejctions, Susan is forced to undergo training as an opera singer at Kane's behest. He funds a stringent regimen of music lessons, builds an opera house to showcase his wife's "talent", and uses his newspapers' might to publish glowing reviews. Regardless, Susan's lack of talent cannot be overlooked. She bombs horribly, eventually attempting suicide to escape from the pressure of her domineering husband. Kane relents and they retire to his newly-constructed Xanadu, a pleasure palace of mythical proportions.

On high, Susan makes the realization that her husband has no true feeling for her. She sees that he wants her to love him, but he is unwilling to reciprocate beyond showering her with material wealth. She leaves him, and he is devastated. He goes on a wild destructive rampage in Susan's room, then takes ill. As death approaches, Kane clutches a snow globe. He utters the haunting word, "Rosebud," and releases the globe, which crashes to the floor.

In the end, during a final look at the countless works of art that Kane had amassed during his life, we see a small, simple child's snow sled, the name of which is "Rosebud." The mystery is now solved: the final wish of the immensely powerful icon was a return to his childhood, before the massive forces of the world took control of his life.

Jeez, that's a lot for just under 2 hours, eh?

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after this most recent viewing):

This movie completely lives up to the word "masterpiece" in my mind. Not that there aren't a few things that I could do without, but it's still a film unlike anything that I've ever seen. Every time I've watched it, the time flies as I drink in the narrative structure and the various elements at work in the film.

The organization of the tale is incredible. The set-up is a single word: Rosebud. After that, the story is told in an inverted pyramid structure: going from a broad, sweeping scope to ever more focused glances at various seminal moments in the title character's life. Kane's death at the beginning is told through newsreels that give a "public" summary of his life and accomplishments. This gives us viewers some scope to work with, not unlike the outline of a jigsaw puzzle (an image that comes into play much later in the film).

From the massive scope of the newsreels, we start to get interviews from Kane's past associates. Each one adds his or her own brush stroke to the incomplete portrait of the man's life, with no single one completely able to reveal the sum total of the titan. As the story moves on, the exuberance and sensational expositions become ever quieter and more intense, culminating in the grand finale of an elderly Kane being shunned by his last chance at love, Susan, and going on an almost tragically comical rampage in her now-empty room.

Here's a taste of the playful feelings the earlier parts of the film, in which the young and idealistic Charles Kane has his whole life ahead of him:

If only the cock-sure young fellow knew what was coming.

One thing that people may not be crazy about is the occasional overblown theatrics of the acting, and this is fair, to a point. There is a certain amount of melodramatic simplification and hokum in terms of the characterization, dialogue and sometimes the humor. Many of the characters could be dismissed as being a bit 2-dimensional, especially minor characters like the first newspaper editor, Mr. Carter or the banker Thomson. However, the more important supporting characters like Jedediah Leland and Susan are extremely well-rounded, and their multi-faceted personalities help to reveal various aspects of the enigmatic Kane.

Yet the ostentatious posturing in the early parts of the film are another element that morphs as the tale unfolds. It almost seems natural that the arrogant young playboy is a cardboard cutout, as that's what most idealists are. His grand gestures at being a "man of the people" manifest themselves in an earnest manifesto in which he makes a public promise in his newspaper to be "honest and fair," for the cause of mankind's betterment.

However, as age and hubris set in, the vibrant charisma wears off. People begin to realize that Kane has built a fortress of self-righteousness around himself, without ever truly reflecting on his own motivations. It is only at the end, with that now-iconic dying word, "Rosebud", that we glimpse what Charles Foster Kane was perhaps truly after: the simple joy he felt in childhood, just before the crushing world became his foster parent. By this point in the movie, true gravity has taken over, and the near-silly playfulness mixed into the first half of the film is nowhere to be seen. This speaks to the complexity of the movie's structure. Welles crafted something that few storyteller have ever been able to do: telling a familiar story - the dark side of the American dream - in an engaging way that could only have been done in the cinematic medium.

Speaking of the cinematic aspects, Citizen Kane has few, if any, peers. The sets, costumes, and the camerawork are so well-coordinated that we viewers are treated to one iconic image after another. Once you see this film, the number of unforgettable scenes is almost countless: The reporters in the smoky newsreel room. A young Kane framed in by a shoddy window. The 30-year-old Kane throwing a massive celebration with dancing girls. A weary Kane slouched in a tattered chair in Susan's apartment. An emotionally drained Susan poring over a jigsaw puzzle at Xanadu. One could go on and on. If you see this movie a single time, you could turn it on at any moment and, despite the incredibly non-linear narrative, know exactly where in the story you are.

One of the more famous scenes in which the young Kane's (in the far background) entire future is being framed, both figuratively and literally:

Many serious studies have been made of this film, so one could (and many have) obviously write volumes on it. Alas, I will reduce my basic reactions and thoughts to one that is far from controversial: this film needs to be seen by everyone at least once. If nothing else, it will give you some nourishing food for thought on life and the grand art of storytelling.

Take 2: Why (a whole lot of) Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some further research):

As stated above, there is no shortage of opinion and analysis on this movie. I'll try to pick out some of the highlights here.

One who hasn't seen the film may wonder why it gets so much modern attention, despite not being a household name, like Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, or a handful of other iconic films. Well, therein lies part of the fascinating story of the film itself and its creator.

Orson Welles was, by all accounts, a true genius of the arts. By the time he was 23, he had already become a force of nature in the theater and on the radio (his version of War of the Worlds had listeners fleeing town, thinking that a real alien invasion was occurring). Based on this success, he was granted something unprecedented in Hollywood: a contract guaranteeing total creative control to make his first film. Right from the jump, this fomented jealousy and bitterness in other filmmakers.

For this first project, Welles started right in on Citizen Kane, demanding to use only performers who had never before appeared in film. Personally, I love this idea, as it works to create verisimilitude through unfamiliarity with the actors. Critics agreed that the performers, all radio and theater actors from RKO, did marvelously. In addition to this freedom, Welles used the lack of parameters to try anything that came to mind, in terms of narrative and cinematography. The result was a tremendously novel movie that should have been a smash hit that would be recognized for its genius from the day it premiered.

It was a commercial flop.

The reason could be summed up in one name: William Randolph Hearst. Hearst, the near-omnipotent newspaper magnate heard about the film during its production and saw in it a searing parody of his own life. While this was not totally unfounded, Welles never meant it to be such. In constructing the character of Charles Foster Kane, Welles took elements from the lives of several larger-than-life American millionaires, Hearst included. I liken this to working with highly volatile materials in a chemistry lab - if one of the sensitive chemicals reacts badly, the lab can blow up. Hearst reacted badly, and the immediate success of Citizen Kane blew up.

Hearst blacklisted the film from any mention in all of his many newspapers across the country; he also threatened to blacklist any theater that dared to show the film. He also bought up as many of the film prints as he could, seeking to have them destroyed. The result was that Citizen Kane, despite glowing reviews from nearly every independent critic, went largely unnoticed (TIME magazine was actually powerful enough to give its own, highly positive review, back in 1941). It wasn't until the 1950s and '60s that its greatness and influence were re-discovered.

Upon re-watching the film with an audio commentary track by filmmaker and personal friend of Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich, several things were pointed out: most notably the breaking of filming conventions. Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland used harsh lights, odd angles, and multiple perspectives to create a moving tapestry that apparently blew viewers minds. They also set up the conventions that would essentially be usurped by the entire film noir genre of film making.

Here's a still that shows the darkness, light and shadows that would be seen in films like Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, and others:

To me, one great thing is how this film illustrates how true genius can often not be described in words. There's a well-known scene in the film that is shot from an angle that is so low that Welles had a hole dug into the floor to get the camera low enough.

This is one still from the well-known "low angle" scene. It was one of the earliest uses of such technique to convey the deeper themes of narrative. After his election loss, Kane becomes even more megalomaniacal and isolated.

Analysts have subsequently imbued the ultra low-angle's purpose to give Kane a domineering appearance, highlight the framing of the background, or a number of other speculations. However, when Welles himself was asked about it, he replied simply, "I don't know. It just looked better from down there." He was absolutely right, and I love how this speaks to how often true masters may not be able to articulate their reasoning for doing things.

"God, how they'll love me when I'm dead." - Orson Welles

This line was all too prescient. Welles was hailed as a true master of the arts before Citizen Kane. His film career never totally recovered from the movie's commercial failure. The remainder of his life was spent scrambling for money to fund his own projects, some of which were excellent (see Touch of Evil or F for Fake, for example). The man who, at the age of 24, had already conquered radio and theater, and was poised to be a driving force of American film, ended his career voicing Unicron in Transformers: The Movie. Now, there is little debate as to his real contributions to the medium of film. Citizen Kane stands as testament to that.

That's a wrap. 23 shows down. 82 to go.

Coming (very) Soon: Casablanca (1941):

Another strong contender for the title of "Greatest American Movie of All Time" and one that I enjoy every time I watch it.

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

Monday, April 12, 2010

Film #22: The Lady Eve (1941)

Director: Preston Sturges

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about a year ago)

20-Words-or-Fewer Plot Summary (no spoilers):

Wealthy ale heir is conned by lovely young grifter, who falls in love with him.

The Full Story (a complete summary, spoilers and all. Fair warning):

Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) a young ophiologist (that's snake scientist to we lay people) and heir to the vast fortunes of the Pike Ale company boards a cruise ship returning to the U.S. after a year-long research expedition in the Amazon. He is spotted and marked by Jean Harrington (Barbra Stanwyck) and her father, a pair of slick con artists. The savvy Jean uses her cunning and wiles to seduce Pike with the intention of suckering him out of some serious dough. In the process, however, she falls in love with him. She promises her father and herself to give up grifting and marry Charles, but before she can do so, Pike discovers their identities, dumps Jean and crushes her earnest desire to be with him.

The slick Harringtons on the left, with the mark, Pike, on the right.

Some months later, Jean, still seething from the rejection, sees a chance to get even with Pike. She poses as a young English aristocrat, Lady Eve Sidwich, and turns up at the Pike family mansion, once again conning Pike into believing that she's a different, though still infinitely charming, woman. Pike falls for her again and marries her. On the wedding night, just before the consummation, Jean tortures Pike with fictional tales of a wildly loose past with countless men. This time, it's Charles' turn to be crushed. He stops the train, mid-trip, and jumps off, swearing to never see his bride again.

Only after achieving her harsh revenge does Jean realize that she still loves Charles, and she seeks to make amends, still under the auspices of her assumed identity as Lady Eve. She is severely rebuffed by a still-disconsolate Charles, who then leaves for a new research journey into the jungles. On the ship, however, Jean tracks him down again, this time as herself. Charles sees her and, without realizing her past ruse as Lady Eve, instantly falls in love with her again. All is apparently forgiven and they fall into each other's arms.

Eve has truly captured her Adam, the one for whom she was made.

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

When I first watched this film a year ago, my lingering impression was of a decent, though not great, film. Upon this second viewing, I was conflicted for the first half. For 45 minutes, the film is so damn good that I almost wondered why I came away with such a lukewarm impression the first time. The characters are fantastic, Fonda and Stanwyck are absolutely perfect in their roles, the intrigue of the con game is totally engaging, and the script is razor sharp. Stanwyck renews my opinion that she may have been the sexiest woman in American film, which is only augmented by Fonda's stern, semi-naive portrayal of the bookish Pike. Everything that unfolds in the first episode of the film is flawless.

In this scene, Stanwyck does nothing more than run her fingers through Fonda's hair and whisper to him. She was so sensual, though, that this is one of the most alluring scenes I've ever seen in film.

Then, the second half.

After Pike leaves Jean emotionally high and dry, things got really tedious really quickly, and I can sum up every problem with one hyphenated word: Screw-fucking-ball.

Once the action goes to the Pike mansion, it all got to be way too much like the corniest bits of The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story, and their ilk. Virtually gone is the sophisticated plot and thoughtful dialogue, only to be replaced by a torrent of sophomoric sight gags. Within about 15 minutes, you get to watch the high-brow (read that with oozing sarcasm, please) jokes of: a couch tripped over by Pike, curtains ripped down by Pike, a roast beef platter spilled on Pike, coffee spilled on Pike, Pike fall over in a train, and Pike slip in the mud. If it had been a Three Stooges film, I would have been into it. Based on the first half of The Lady Eve, though, I felt like I had been demoted from a trigonometry to a finger painting class.

On top of that, the ending is a touch implausible. After Pike has dumped "Lady Eve" and sees Jean on the second cruise ship, his instantly re-kindled love is a bit confounding. He had initially dumped her as a deceptive gold-digger, and there's really nothing that's changed from this standpoint. Yet he gives himself right back to her, giving us all a happy ending that seems almost slapped together.

While the latter half left me unsatisfied, I still have to say that the first half is so strong that I'm willing to forgive the lamer follow-up. In fact, I was even able to deal with the weaker portions due to the performances of Fonda and Stanwyck. I cannot express enough how much I like Barbra Stanwyck. Before starting this blog, I only knew her from Double Indemnity (soon to be reviewed as film #25), and grew to appreciate her far more in Baby Face (film #9). I'm willing to admit that there were probably more stunningly beautiful actresses of the day, but I'm yet to see one who had the natural wits, power, and smoky sensuality that she portrayed with seeming effortlessness.

Check out this symbolic still of when she's seducing Pike under the guide of "The Lady Eve", especially how close her mouth is to Pike's:
Along with this, Stanwyck constantly draws attention to her mouth, whether it be with her words or movements. There's a scene on the ship deck in which she uses a rose to gently and playfully caress her own lips. It's entracing.

Fonda is a slightly different story. I've seen a handful of his better-known movies and I think he's great, though limited. Whether he was playing the quiet hero Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath or the cold-blooded murderer Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West, he had the strength one would ascribe to a gnarled oak tree. It's rigid and tough as hell, but in the end it's wooden. His character in The Lady Eve doesn't dispel this image that I have of him, but it's perfectly acceptable for the character. Charles Pike is meant to be a stiff bookworm who's uncomfortable around women, and Fonda was the perfect man to play him. The juxtaposition of Pike and Harrington was amazingly effective.

This is a film that, for me, represents a movie-watching experience that all movie-watchers experience at some point - the disappointment of a great extended first act followed by inferior second and third acts. I'd gladly re-watch the first half , but couldn't make any promises about sitting through the rest.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some further research):

No fantastic shocks in doing the research. Of note is that the original TIME magazine review, obviously impressed, indicates that neither critics nor fans were yet tired of the slapstick gags littering screwball films. I guess I just have to suppose that, had I been born in 1920, I would be far less bored by these elements.

One thing that I'm almost ashamed to have overlooked was the figurative nature of all of the physical humor. All of the the spills that Fonda takes throughout the story are meant to represent the mythical "fall" of Adam. This may add a certain amount of depth to the fumbling, but it doesn't make it any less tiresome to me.

Also of note is that director Preston Sturgess is a major footnote in film history. Most casual fans of classic films know at least a few old directors: D.W. Griffith, John Ford, and so on. Sturgess, though, is far less known, in the grand scheme. This apparently is because he was something of a comet - he banged out 9 extremely successful films within four years, most notably The Lady Eve and Sullivan's Travels. Nearly all of these screwball tales were darlings of moviegoers and critics alike, a feat that not many directors accomplish. I can only assume that his relative lack of enduring fame is due to the screwball genre having faded so much once films evolved in certain ways.

That's a wrap. 22 shows down. 83 to go.

Coming Soon: Citizen Kane (1941):

This is it! The one that many argue is the greatest American film of all time, and the film that kicks off what may very well be the best 1-2-3 sequence of the list: Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Double Indemnity. Damn. On top of this, I absolutely love this movie and am greatly looking forward to watching it again, with my critic's hat on. Y'all come back now, y'hear?

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

Friday, April 9, 2010

Film #21: Pinocchio (1940)

Directors: Hamilton Luske & Ben Sharpsteen
Release Country: United States
Times Previously Seen: Maybe once or twice as a wee tyke. Don't really remember.
20-Words-or-Fewer Review (no spoilers):
Marionette youngster comes to life, learns right from wrong from wild experiences and a kindly insect.
The Full Story (A detailed plot summary, spoilers and all. Fair warning):
In a little Italian village, a kindly master toy-maker, Geppetto, makes a wooden marionette in the figure of a young boy, naming it Pinocchio. Upon retiring for bed that evening, he wishes upon a single star that his newly-crafted companion might come to life, perhaps to offer him some companionship. After Geppetto falls asleep, the star transforms into a fairy who alights in the craftsman's bedroom and grants his wish, bestowing life upon Pinocchio.
Watching the entire scene unfold has been the kindly bug, Jiminy Cricket. Little Jiminy agrees to become Pinocchio's conscience, as the animated puppet will not achieve true human life until he learns right from wrong, as per the fairy's guidelines.
The little wooden fellow first meets his newly-minted, top-hatted conscience.
Pinocchio wakes Geppetto who, after the initial shock, is overcome with joy. In the morning, he sends his new son to school. Pinocchio, however, is waylaid by the wicked Honest John, a conniving fox who sees Pinocchio as a cash cow, lures him with promises of fame and glory, then sells him to the greedy gypsy, Stromboli. Stromboli has Pinocchio perform once to great success, then locks him in a cage to prevent his escape. Upon realizing the hopelessness of the situation, Pinocchio and Jiminy despair until the star fairy descends and frees him. She says, however, that this is the final time that they can rely on her help.
It isn't long, however, before Pinocchio is once again fooled by the ever-rakish Honest John; this time leading Pinocchio to the ministrations of "The Coachman," an oily predator looking for troublemaking little boys to spirit away to "Pleasure Island" for some mysterious purpose. Pinocchio, along with a gaggle of other local truants, follow the Coachman to the enclosed island, where they discover that Pleasure Island is a paradise for the mischievous young lad: there are cigars to be smoked, fights to be gotten into, and palatial houses to be destroyed, all for their amusement. Little do they realize, however, that once night falls, they will all transform into donkeys which the Coachmen sells to various labor camps across the globe. Jimeny discovers this and warns Pinocchio, just as his transformation begins. They manage to escape just in time, leaving the other ne'er-do-well boys to their fates.
Upon returning to the toy shop, Pinocchio and Jiminy discover that Geppetto has gone looking for his prosthetic son, only to be swallowed up by the mythical whale, Monstro. The two searchers find the nearest shore, plunge themselves into the deeps and begin the search for the kindly toymaker. They do eventually find the terrifying Monstro and, after a titanic battle with the leviathan, liberate Geppetto, though Pinocchio seems to have been killed in the process.
Back at the toy store, a distraught Geppetto cries over the body of his dead creation but then is revived when the fairy returns a final time and, in recognition of Pinocchio's selfless acts of courage, deems him worthy of real life.
He's a real boy!!
Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after 1 viewing & before any research):
I feel I have to section this review off into two sections of my brain.
If I were a kid watching this, it would be incredible. I realize that modern animation, most of which is CG, is peerless in terms of detail and fluidity. Still, Pinocchio trumps damn near all of its followers in terms of pure life and magic. Every scene is a treasure chest of movement and vivid kinetics. There are plenty of scenes where the eye doesn't know where to look, there are so many intricate dances of objects and characters.
This scene only gives you the tiniest of tastes, but the early moments in Geppetto's shop are vibrant marvels of color in motion.
What kid wouldn't want to spend the rest of their lives in that place?
On top of the visuals is the pure adventure of the story. It takes no time to get a puppet-brought-to-life and a magical blue fairy. Form there, we get the brief and terrifying domination of the gypsy Stromboli's suffocating wagon. Then, the sinister evil of Pleasure Island, followed by the epic force of nature of the sea beast, Monstro. Pinocchio's involvement in it all is almost incidental, and if I were a kid, I may barely remember his place in the story. Much more memorable are the strange and frightening things going on around him.
As an adult seeing this film all the way through for the first time, the film is almost as good. The visuals are still incredible. Sure, modern animation has grown by leaps and bounds in terms of technique and smoothness, but I don't know that I've ever seen another animated movie that conveys the mood in such a singular and effective way. The hand-painted backgrounds and the omnipresent shadows create alternating coziness, power, and terror, as the tale dictates.
This is the pedophilic-looking rogue who pays to have young boys whisked away to "Pleasure Island". The scene where we first see him is creepy beyond belief, for children or adults.

One of the things that I loved about an animated feature like this is its timelessness. Disney actually used to be much better at this, and their subsidiary Pixar has rediscovered the formula, to a degree. The keys seemed to be source material and, more importantly, the script. Pinocchio, released in 1940, is blessedly devoid of any "topical" jokes or dialogue. No allusions or mentions of communists, Nazis, movie stars, or any other subjects that were relevant way back then. Disney really lost its way with this in the mid and late 1990s, with films such as Aladdin, Hercules, and the atrociously-named The Emperor's New Groove, which relied way too much on gags that were better suited to late night talk show monologues and would be stale in a matter of years. Pinocchio avoided dating itself this way.
There are some seriously murky things lurking beneath the surface of this tale. Perhaps the obvious one is the entire Pleasure Island episode. Cynical adults will look at the story of a fat, leering man looking for little boys to kidnap as a thinly veiled metaphor for pedophilia. It's not as obvious as all that, but I won't deny that the writers may have been intentionally tapping into that primal fear of parents the world over.
The other thing that makes for analytical thought is the entire story of Pinocchio as a vessel. It dawned on me that, really, the Disney version of Pinocchio is oddly like a somewhat positive inverse of Frankenstein's monster. Both the wooden lad and the monstrous construct of Shelley's novel were tabulae rasa, vessels with no initial concept of themselves, or anything else for that matter. Oddly enough in Pinocchio, it's not Geppetto but the Blue Fairy who serves as the Dr. Frankenstein; she imbues the marionette with a soul, then leaves him nothing more than a woodland insect to figure out ethics. As a result, Pinocchio nearly gets kidnapped by a greedy gypsy, half turned into a donkey by a wicked boy-peddler, and swallowed whole by a massive, boat-swilling whale. What kind of sick bitch does that? I'll tell you who - the same kind of person that creates a massive creature from dead tissue and then abandons him. That's who. At least the fairy came through in the end, unlike our misguided Austrian doctor.
There were only two things that truly struck me as weak, both of which I only notice as a hyper-critical adult. One is that Pinocchio, as alluded to above, is a bit of a dope. I know it's by design, but he has zero personality, unlike virtually all other cartoon protagonists. He's laughably led astray by the fiendish fox Honest John twice, and one can hardly say that he learns his lessons. To reiterate, though, it's a minor point. If you're one to look for lessons and morals in animated movies, they are there to be found, even if the title character is a dunce.
The other, lesser, problem is the pacing. There are a few jumps that are dizzyingly quick. When we learn that Geppetto has been swallowed by a whale, it's as much a shock to the viewer as it is to Pinocchio. Pinocchio takes it in relative stride; I, however, thought that perhaps I had missed part of the movie. When the hell did that happen? There were a few other moments like this when the film seemed to be rushed. Not a great problem, but it stood out.
Pinocchio is an animated film that I think can stand up to all but the very best animated movies released in the seven successive decades. The folks over at Pixar are the modern masters, but they are certainly riding the coattails of standards like Pinocchio.
Take 2: or, Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some further research):
There certainly is no shortage of interesting research to be done on this one.
Pinocchio was the second feature length animated film from Disney (following Snow White in '37), and both clearly display the master formula that has served that franchise to this day: (1) take a well-written fairy tale (2) clean out all of the objectionable bits (3) get phenomenal animators and story-writers to tell the story. Repeat.

A very early rendering of Pinocchio from the 1880s.

The source material in this case in an original Italian "fairy" tale written by Carlo Collodi in the 1880s. Just like the original Grimm's Fairy Tales, Collodi's tale was not exactly meant specifically for children. An allegory for social commentary, the original Pinocchio features a truly irascible marionette who kills "the cricket" (the name "Jiminy" was a Disney invention) with a hammer, lies repeatedly to his father, and is even hung at the end for his foolish deviance. This ending was actually changed by Collodi at the behest of his publisher, so that it may be a bit more palatable to a wider audience. I guess one could say that Collodi Disneyfied his own story a bit before Walt and his team could finish the job 60 years later.
It has been pointed out, through Pinocchio and many other films, that animation can be appreciated on a level that goes far beyond childish amusement. Leonard Maltin points out that, "There are no accidents in animation." This struck me as meaningful as I looked at the splendor and vivacity of a film like Pinocchio and I realized that every scene, every background, every character, and every color had to be sweated over. It's a wonder that they finished the thing in a mere two years, to be honest.
In addition to the craftsmanship is the sheer skill in terms of film making. Walt Disney was once asked about making movies only for kids, to which he replied that he did no such thing, pointing out that, "If I only made movies for children, I'd be severely limiting my audience." I suppose a cynic would see this as an early sign of Disney's quest for domination of the world's minds. I see it a bit more as a storyteller who just wanted as many people as possible to hear his tales. He and the crew that he assembled showed it in the outstanding films that they crafted in those early decades of work.
A few of the details. In hearing some commentary from Disney aficionados, I realized that my dubbing of the Disney Pinocchio character as "a dope" and "a dunce" may be a touch mean. A better word may be "guileless." Still, it doesn't do any more to attract me to him or make him any stronger a character.
One final piece of trivia: a very young Mel Blanc, the late, great voice actor known the world over as the voice of nearly every major Warner Brothers character, actually provided the voice of Gideon, Honest John's companion in Pinocchio. However, it was decided that the Gideon character was going to be a mute, so Blanc got edited out of the entire audio, save for a solitary hiccup. If only they'd known.
That's a wrap. 21 shows down. 84 to go.
Coming Soon: The Lady Eve (1941):

The final screwball comedy on the list. At least it has Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in it.
Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Film #20: The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch (also directed Ninotchka)

Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: none

20-Words-or-Fewer Summary (no spoilers):
In Hungary, an intelligent, sensitive & semi-stoic leather goods salesman finds love with mystery pen pal.

The Story (a detailed blow-by-blow, with spoilers. Fair warning):

In Budapest, Hungary, Alfred Kralik (Jimmy Stewart) is the top sales clerk at a high-end leather goods store. He is bright, pleasant, and the only man in the store with the ability and backbone to stand up to the quixotic nature of Mr. Matuschek, the owner of the shop. Kralik is excited about a running pen-pal exchange with an anonymous woman who seems to share his love of literature and romantic ideals, and with whom he soon plans to meet.

Just as we learn all of this, Mr. Matuschek hires the attractive and somewhat desperate Miss Klara Novak as a new sales clerk, much to the chagrin of the finance-conscious Kralik. Due to this rocky beginning, Novak and Kralik remain icy towards one another, never missing a chance to jab one another in their similarly passive-aggressive ways.

At the store, owner Matuschek begins to act ever-more erratically, eventually letting Kralik, his best and longest-standing worker, go. That evening, when a downtrodden Kralik is meant to have his fateful first meeting with his mysterious correspondent, he learns that she is, indeed, Miss Novak. Rather than completely reveal himself, he talks with her, picks her brain, dances around the truth, and leaves her at the café to wonder when her knight will appear.

The three most prominent players, left to right: Novak, Kralik, and Matuschek

At the same time back at the store, we learn the cause of Matuschek’s anxiety. He has suspected his wife of having an affair with Kralik. He learns from a detective that he has been half right: she has been having an affair with one of this employees, but with the obviously unscrupulous Vadas rather than the forthright Kralik. Upon learning of his grievous mistake, Matuschek attempts suicide, only to be stopped by the store’s delivery boy, Pepe.

Matuschik goes to convalesce in a hospital and rehires Kralik as the acting manager of the store, just in time for the Christmas Eve shopping blitz. Kralik gladly returns and fires Vadas with impunity. Afterwards, Kralek visits Miss Novak, who has become “psychologically ill” as a result of the crushing silence from her pen pal. That is, until a letter appears once again and puts her soul at ease.

Christams Eve arrives and Kralik sees the store to its greatest sales day in history. As the evening closes, he takes the chance to coyly tease Miss Novak about her dreamed of “fiancĂ©.” After misleading her for a few minutes, he finally reveals himself as her mystery correspondent, and they fall into each others’ arms.

Merry Christmas, every one!

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after one viewing & before any research):
This film was like aloe on my movie-watching soul.

I was skeptical before watching, however. The summary of the film pointed out how it had been remade recently into the rom-com You've Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Upon seeing this, my expectations went off a cliff.

I really needn't have worried, though. A mere ten minutes into the film, I realized that this was going to be the type of Jimmy Stewart movie that I liked. While I'm not a major fan of his "American boy next door" roles (The Philadelphia Story, It's a Wonderful Life), I have found that I like him best when he is a bit dark and edgy, such as in the Hitchcock films Rope or Vertigo. In The Shop Around the Corner, he plays a really pleasing mid-point between the two. Alfred Kralik is a cool and effective intellectual at work, and a soft romantic outside of the workplace. The character is very well-rounded and Stewart plays him perfectly.

The interplay between Kralik and Novak is often scathing and humorous, in well-balanced turns.

This might be one of the best Christmas movies I've ever seen. Not that Christmas is the focal point, but the grand finale on Christmas Eve left me with the feeling that I presume one is meant to get at the end of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", yet I have never felt for that age-old classic. There are moments of playfulness, romance, and a touch of darkness through which you must travel in order to come into the light and feel a sense of relief and joy at the end. The fact that the setting is the far-off country of Hungary, and that it is a 40s black-and-white only add to the sense that you're watching a fairy tale unfold.

Back to the acting. Stewart was certainly the stand-out. Maragaet Sullavan does admirably, as she's certainly pretty enough and handles the character well, though I feel that there was nothing singular about her performance. The supporting cast is fine, if all rather 1- or 2-dimensional, but let's face it - that's the way most films were back in the day. Exhibit A in this film is the Ferencz Vadas character, an obvious scumbag with zero redeeming qualities. It doesn't take a very astute viewer to figure out that he's "the bad guy." I guess every fairytale needs a bald-faced villain.

I suppose if I had to narrow what I liked about the movie so much down to a word, it would be "balanced." The serious parts aren't too serious as to weigh down the lightheartedness of the tale, the clever parts aren't trying to be too clever (a la His Girl Friday), and the more obvious moments of humor never spill over into the absurd or slapstick.

The Shop Around the Corner is not a trailblazing masterpiece. It is not Citizen Kane, The Seven Samurai, or The Godfather. It won't challenge any of your core values, open new worlds to you, or dazzle you with artistic creativity. It is, however, a masterfully crafted and executed film that is a pleasure to watch. I'll certainly look forward to next winter, when December rolls in and the snow begins to fall, as I now have a new film to add to the short list of solid Christmas movies that complement the season.

Nearing the end of the film, Kralik's feelings start to blossom into touching sorrow, though Novak still doesn't know who her admirer really is.

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

The Shop Around the Corner, being a fairly fancy-free movie devoid of literary sophistication, does not demand a ton of analysis and research. In fact, the original 1940 TIME magazine review uses some amazingly accurate word choices in describing the film. I especially like this trifecta of adjective phrases: "...completely unimportant, highly entertaining, expertly carpentered...". The other gem of the review is, "James Stewart walks through the amiable business of being James Stewart." They certainly had that one nailed - and that was a really early "James" Stewart role.

Richard Schickel's more contemporary review echoes the sentiments of the movie's lack of any grand depth or meaning. Yet he, too, is under the film's spell.

Of final note is just how timeless this admittedly "unimportant" film has been. Originally a play called Parfumerie by Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo, it has been remade and retold in the form of The Shop Around the Corner (1940), the musical film In the Good Old Summertime (1949), the musical She Loves Me (1963 and 1993), and the more familiar You've Got Mail (1999). Like any good dish, it seemingly never gets old.

That's a wrap. 20 films down. 85 to go.

Coming Soon: Pinocchio (1940):

What better way to usher in the very first color film on the list than a classic Walt Disney film, I ask you? This one should be interesting...

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