Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Friday, December 04, 2009

Idiot's Delight (1939)

Who are the idiots?
There must be some word.
I want them all.
I want all the idiots."
--Riffs' leader if "idiots" was substituted for "warriors" (THE WARRIORS, 1979)

And that's just what MGM does here. "Warrior's Delight" would be a much better title, because all the local soldiers at this Alpine border want to do is bomb some stuff, and stranded traveler Burgess Meredith gets all self-righteous about it: "Ten thousand tons of flaming death and none of you want to stop dancing!" Why doesn't someone shut that pacifist up, you ask, mootly, at the screen? Gable and Shearer are trying to play screwball and the soldiers are trying to dance with Gable's devoted les blondes, and the pacifist wants to rain on the parade. Live for today, tomorrow we die of boredom listening to spittle-flecked lectures on the brotherhood of man, the exact same nonsense that allowed Hitler to build up his armies unchecked in the first place. But this is all based on Robert Sherwood's anti-pacifist tract, with the Nazi influence toned down to the typically vague fascism of the Hollywood era.

The best thing about this play/movie is how transparently it reveals anti-war modernist tracts to be self-defeating. Now that an annoying sanctimonious tub-thumper like Burgess' pacifist has expressed all these humanist sentiments, humanist sentiments are suddenly very uncool. Once you hate the haters, you just switched sides. If only our modern agonized bleeding hearts could savvy this complex message. Sherwood fought in the trenches, so it's not like he was an armchair general like our red staters. He saw Hitler and he just knew the writing was on ze wall.

Two big MGM stars were Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer. Both having been MGM top talent since the silent age, Garbo was basically retired by 1939 (though she came back the same year in NINOTCHKA), but Shearer was only slightly the less for wear, a little paunchy maybe, but bravely, brazenly--for endless pages of campy but gleefully nihilistic dialogue--willing to alternately satirize, celebrate and lovingly impersonate Garbo, at times coming off like a drag queen with shrill monotone satire, other times like a legit and loving sociopath who "vonts to be alone" and loves to imagine beautiful Englishmen being dragged underneath tanks. And then, when you're just about ready to press stop, Clark Gable busts loose in his big number, mocking both Fred Astaire and the whole concept of song and dance men in his hilarious "Puttin' on the Ritz." It's worth watching just for his facial expressions, which are pure Groucho Marx impersonating Maurice Chevalier in MONKEY BUSINESS.

Edward Arnold is pretty ballsy as the ruthless arms magnate (Shearer's his arm candy). He explodes in a big burst of anger when she's cynical about his genius at sewing death. "If someone's going to be so petty as to take up arms they deserve to die! I help humanity by getting rid of them!" Or something like that. No argument from me, brother, population control advocate that I am. Probably not from MGM either, with scrappy little Burgess Meredith's hysterical outbursts all but meant to be mocked. The self-appointed "prophet" spreading brotherly love and peace, he's the lynch pin by which to measure and hang the rest of the cast. Gable and Shearer's doomed couple ultimately transcend it all since they're not too terribly afraid of death. That's what true love is, after all, a kind of painful form of living death, in and of itself, like enlightenment, and death is just another station on the endless spinning dial. I guess that's chivalry. I been there. It's just that love makes you feel invulnerable, it's the one thing that transcends fear.

In short, there's far worse examples of that Barton Fink feeling than this adaption of Sherwood's typical-for-the-time anti-pacifist play. Simmering with cross purposes, it fairly begs to get a post-modern de-adaptation by the Wooster Group. I can see Kate Valk acing the Garbo by way of Shearer MGM elocution accent, and Willem Da Foe a psychotically chipper Gable, acting out love scenes in front of a screening of some confiscated Third Reich Alpine nature documentary footage and psychedelic bomber shadow explosion light shows. And the conscience represented by Burgess Meredith in the film could be one of Godard's deadpan commie sermons playing on an old reel-to-reel, before it's finally replaced by the smooth no worries shine of Compakt Disk.

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