Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Blossoming of Judy Jones: FOUR FRIGHTENED PEOPLE (1934)

A cherished lump of stocking coal for Cecil B. DeMille devotees, FOUR FRIGHTENED PEOPLE (1934) is remarkably lapse on realism for being such jungle-set escapade: no one seems to actually move through the jungle, or deal with any real danger, i.e. dehydration, tigers, or malaria. The frightened four's trusty guide whips up a camp with ladders and tree houses latched from vines and trees every night and the next day the men are free to mope after the 'blossoming' Claudette Colbert. A chimp (in Malaysia!) steals Claudette Collbert's clothes while she showers in a waterfall--the big DeMille money shot of 'did we or didn't we see something' prurience--and her emergence in a costume made of leaves, like an amazon queen, is greeted with slack-jawed approval by the now lusty journalist and irritated Englishman. It's fine, but it's not TARZAN, or RED DUST, or even art. So what is it? A portrait of a beat-down librarian who finds her groove in the jungles of Malaysia? You betcha.

Even in the days of the pre-code, nudity was a very rare commodity. One needed an excuse for the censors, and enough doubt and blur to cover all 'ahem' bases; the best excuse was 'naturalism' - i.e if you want to show naked women, go to remote locales where scanty (or no) clothing are the norm.  D.W. Griffith's THE LOVE FLOWER and THE IDOL DANCER (both 1920) starring Griffith's then love, Carol Dempster, are prime examples. The legitimate stage meanwhile was dank with productions like Rain and West of Zanzibar. And into this mess comes Four Frightened People. It was originally a novel, but was then adapted by Bartlett Cormack (writer of plays like The Painted Veil and The Racket) and Lenore J. Coffee, turning into something far more like a play, which suited DeMille's silent film-bred ambitions. Old Cecil liked to lens elaborate tableaux as opposed to kinetic action so we move from a scene of the lovers tied to a tree and surrounded on all sides by shadowy black figures moving closer--the lovers romantic and enraptured as they face certain deathn-- to being back with our island matron who's enlisted the entire female population of some remote Malay village in a proto-Planned Parenthood. No one actually ever moves anywhere, except off or onscreen.

So while not officially an adaptation of a play, FOUR FRIGHTENED PEOPLE makes sense when you imagine it in this context. We must read the palm of this film like a reverse fortune teller: one went to the theater in the 1920s to see what silent cinema couldn't give them, a story wherein people actually speak, and to see hot live girls in sarongs so the menfolk in the audience could lust after them via opera glasses. Jungle films allowed, nay enforced, a strict dissolution of the then extreme moral code. One simply couldn't sleep in separate bedrooms when on the jungle floor with snakes and tiger and lusty skulking natives all around. It was too hot to wear a corset, and good luck trying to keep your full-body swimsuit intact should you stumble on a swimming pool or waterfall.

Now you get the picture, and it's one that's been clouded in the misty waterfall of modern society. Who cares about waterfalls and chimps swiping your threads these days? Now you can be gay and interracial in public; now you can sleep with a girl in a hotel room and not need a marriage certificate or have to worry about the hotel detective barging in; you don't have shotgun-toting fathers dragging you to the all-night justice of the peace; you don't need to be lost in the jungle or stranded in a remote corner of the tropics to be 'free' to let your hair down, take your glasses off, or fall in love with... gasp... a poesy-spouting Herbert Marshall.

There's a great gag where the rich old matron is taken hostage for a sack of rice equivalent to her weight (which is why they chose her instead of Colbert's Judy Jones, with her skinny but shapely arms) to be delivered in a month (or they eat her) - and the matron might give you the impression she's a pushover, but she's a saint! I've never agreed with a crazy old society committee type before, but I'm all for planned parenthood, and it's a nice bit of inverted morality (going against the code by implying the need to use protection if you're going to be tumbling in the jungle rather than just lecturing against it). The matron also gives Judy her makeup bag before she departs (with her little dog too) and as the remaining three move closer and closer to Edenic savagery, Judy Jones stumbles on lipstick, eyeliner, facials, and, one imagines, contact lenses. Out of nowhere come wooden cups and things that might take one some little time to make if they didn't have a massive crew of technicians just out of frame.

So while the BLUE LAGOON / CASTAWAY fantasia has been forgotten in the last 20 years thanks to loose morals, it may in the future re-emerge as our fantasy of life without cell phones  Now that we've so overrun the globe that 'getting away from it all' isn't an option even in fantasy, the only way to imagine getting out from under the suffocating flag of debt and demand is to bring the whole edifice down in an apocalyptic crash, so you might be free to roam, hunt, and take whatever junk you can find without worrying if you can afford it, living debt-free, and most of all, shooting back and shooting often, fishing without a license, and drinking and driving, all without guilt or anxiety.

Until all that happens, we still have these relics, these outstretched palms ready to predict the past, this breadcrumb trail down through the years to an era when fantasy was attainable merely by escaping from a plague-stricken ocean liner in the dead of night. The funky aroma of the jazz age lingers all over FOUR FRIGHTENED PEOPLE, and if it seems static, just imagine you're watching it on Broadway, and the close-ups are seen through your trusty opera glasses. Now maybe you understand the appeal that silly waterfall scene might have onstage. Now that's a blossoming, am I right, bud?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Casey Anthony and the Hollywood Stoners

In THEY WONT FORGET (1937) a frenzied mob takes the law into their own hands after the hottest girl in town is murdered and the ambitious local D.A. (Claude Rains) spurs it all on the with the help of an unscrupulous journalist. The murdered girl Lana Turner in her film debut and the camera catches her every tight sweater bounce as she struts through the blindly celebratory Memorial day crowd before her death. Audiences remembered that bouncing sweater, not so much the grisly murder, just as it is forgotten within the film as lynching fever takes hold and right there one must shudder at America's cold, lusty, lethal gaze. How implicated are we in the audience via the fact Lana's sweater bounce won her fame and fortune via the ultimate in sacrificial volcano virgin unwilling martyrdom?

FURY (1936), THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (1943), and THEY WON'T FORGET (1937) were recently shown back-to-back on TCM, a lynch mob triple feature; it may be some wise old programmer's subliminal nod to the crazy mobs outside Casey Anthony's trial. Just as in the stacked deck of rube eggin' in OX-BOW, with Fonda in his pious 12 ANGRY MEN lecture mode:  "Hangin's any man's business that's around," in Casey's case it's everyone's business regardless of being around. Old Henry delivers his OX-BOW recitations well, but I actually preferred old Ma Joad (here the bad guy) to the blubbering lynch victim: "Keep yer chin up. You only die once, son."  Yeah, don't we wish?

Did people outside of the liberal media elite (Oscar voters) ever want to see these films? What's the hook in lynch mob message pictures? Even the media elite shouldn't want to actually pay money to sit down in a theater and learn how skeezy and easily led the throngs around them in the audience are. If there is a fire in the theater you begin to suspect you would surely get trampled on your way to the exit. But at the same time, they are riveting, compelling viewing, and that's the answer: nothing gets us feeling personally involved, gives us the feeling something is at stake, than an abused, missing, or murdered child. Hollywood films aren't crammed with revenge against sleazy pedophiles and ruthless kidnappers for nothing. When films like THEY WON'T FORGET come around they're like Hollywood's chance to preach against what the studios themselves practice, the anti-liberal backlash mob action they both cause with their rabid headlines and tut tut with their sober message movies.

Lynch mobs seem less abundant in an age where we don't need a marriage license to check into a hotel room and are allowed to marry people of other races, but the repressed, frustrated ugly main street populace still haven't fought for the right to party, and still get mad at those who do. Now, instead of Claude Rains' fame-hungry D.A. we have Nancy Grace, tireless in her hounding the accused mom, Casey Anthony. When a child's involved it's the business of any accusatory hysteric that's around, and when it's a dead blonde girl child and the mom looks good even in the harsh overhead lighting of the courtroom; and--something even more shocking for the strictly sober Christian wives out there--you can show pictures of her orgymongering, that's where careers like Grace's are made. 

The three anti-vigilante violence films TCM screened all get a royal four stars from the obedient Leonard Maltin, which is not surprising. They're all well done enough to be solidly entertaining despite the sermons but the liberals of the Hollywood media aren't necessarily right just because they can make a movie about people being wrong. The liberal media has never hid its contempt for the red state working man. Just show an American flag, some jeans, a cowboy hat, an endangered toddler, a sixer of beer and, as far as New York's advertising elite are concerned, the suckers are hooked.  The game is just as fixed in FURY as it is on Fox News, as fixed in Stanley Kramer's films as it is at a carnival pitch game.

Still, my rage at these cretins FURY director Fritz Lang depicts is so blazing it threatens to engulf me, even though I know it's a fixed game, even though I know that Lang hates them more than I ever could, and if my rage is so easily inflamed, how much better am I than the mob? Just because I am more 'educated' and 'debauched' I may feel I am free to join Fritz Lang in his cosmopolitan revulsion towards the provincial reactionaries of these films, whom he considers little better than the Nazis he left behind in Vienna, whom he considers as sheepdogs for whom the law is like a leash, roping them by the neck to a master they hate and fear. With the leash comes off they only answer to the general consensus of the rumor mill which is by nature predisposed towards exaggeration and a common enemy, and which has no sense of future responsibility.

And nothing blinds oneself to one's own faults quite like rage, awareness of one's own inner struggle is the only way to survive it. How many of our evil transgressions were done to impress someone, even if they only spoke to us through radio or TV? How much are we owed, we think, for the stress we feel assuming responsibility for events that have nothing whatever to do with us? Next time, let us think of Claude Rains in THEY WONT FORGET, a man smart enough to know that mobs don't want truth, they want blood, and who gives it to them. Let us try, in the heat of the moment, to never cast even the second stone... without first stoning... ourselves... let us not condemn drugs until we have tried them. Let us not condemn the mob without first knowing the terrifying thrill of bloodlust belonging.

Monday, July 25, 2011


1932 - ***

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. fares well in Clark Gable hair and soul as Jimmy the gossip hound in this ultra-typical (in the best of ways) WB film of the era. As a columnist who tangles over Francis Dee with generic gangster Lyle Talbot, Fairbanks races around and seeks counsel from fellow reporters Lee Tracy and Ann Dvorak who are hep enough to know their boy's getting taken to the cleaners by slumming Dee, but keep their yaps shut like a true pal.

There's nothing quite like this film's ambitiously cynical ending, the sort of loose-ended defiance of the crime-must-pay adage only possible in pre-code conditions.  Dialogue is pitched at such a darkly cynical height that censors ears weren't young enough to hear it: "Looks like you been up at Sing Sing looking at a burning!" Sex is everywhere, as when Tracy and Dvorak are out at a nightclub eating dinner and she says "if you loved me half as much as you love that steak I'd break down out of self-pity" (meaning throw him a sympathy fuck, yo!) Fairbanks describes Dee--to her face!--as having "a beautiful can." and that she's "as pretty as a little red wagon." Lots of phone calls are made and received. The TCM print looks real nice. Can't go wrong with a rooftop in the rain spying on murders that you thought about committing yourself, and now don't have to... that's pre-gode cold!

1934 - ***1/2

One of my favorite pre-code discoveries of late, this is saucy pre-code progressively feminist Warner Brothers at its best, covering the gamut of comedy, melodrama, gangster action and social commntary. Ann Dvorak and Aline McMahon are peerless as a pair of sisters running a remote desert gas station "sort of an auto camp" all by themselves, with Aline sporting no make-up and doing the grease monkey stuff "better than any man" and enjoying being an autonomous semi-butch small business owner rather than a gangster's moll (as she was in Tulsa); Dvorak is her sweet young sister who works the restaurant portion of the place and longs to be one of the people passing through, like a big family of Mexicans who they've let camp out back, a McMahon-smitten local sheriff, and--to better riff on its Petrified Forest-ish cleft note--Lyle Talbot as a shaky safecracker and Preston Foster as his smug, cooler-headed gangster partner who just happens to be McMahon's ex -boyfriend from when she was an adventuress out in Tulsa; they're on the run, the smitten sheriff is sniffing around, and they're laying low back of the auto camp. McMahon stays rock solid but Dvorak gets the most pre-code juice when she returns from a dance at dawn, dumped on the curb by the town's most notorious womanizer; her face puffy, her lipstick long ago kissed and licked off; limping in her tattered dress... and when Aline comes in to berate her, Dvorak cries "you're too late, anyway!!" There's no code needed to decipher what that means...

And if that's not enough: Bang! Bang! And the heat lightning is no mere metaphor. Frank McHugh adds beery acumen as an easygoing chauffeur for two bespangled divorcees (Glenda Farrell, Ruth Donnelly) who become stranded on their way back from Reno since he's tired of driving and good at faking car troubles. At one point they're drinking Cokes and complaining the rumors must be false, 'cuz they don't feel the effects of the 'aspirin' in it (1), so they switch to beer; the Mexican family sings 'round the fire to provide a cozy background ambience; the heat lightning crackles in the distance; Talbot whispers nervously to Foster, playing on her womanly sympathy, and the police radio crackles with news of the escaped bandits. Don't worry, McMahon has it all under control. One of the guys dies and his last words are "ah, who cares?" I do! I've seen it six times!! If you've ever driven across country, maybe you too have been so glad to see an open gas station, after almost run out of gas driving hours through the middle of nowhere with no stops or gas for hundreds of miles, then you too might find the film very soothing. It's also quite refreshing in its jaundiced view of love, seeing sex and desire as some kind of vile disease that infects even strong-willed women trying to shake it, like alcoholism (I love all the beer drinking going on, too, mmm I love a proxy cold beer on a hot hot night, even if it can only be just via the movies). I also think the lesbian community should be fully aware of this movie if they're not all ready. McMahon is a great early example of a fully gender-integrated female --her male characteristics as on the surface and extroverted as the female. With that legendary long hair hanging like a gossamer black curtain when she finally lets it down, she's a powerhouse, she's Lady Death of the Desert..

1934 - **
An informal little Vitaphone crackler that seems more dated and hokey than the year would seem to allow, but hey, there's Bette Davis, still stealing scenes as a perky counter girl pining (god knows why) for straight edge pharmacist Charlie Farrell, who's too busy getting roped into counterfeit drug manufacture to notice her. The roper is a mobster (Ricardo Cortez) who needs a new line of work since the repeal of prohibition. He's looking for a new product to make with all that leftover equipment, so why not bootleg pills he can shake down unwilling druggist throats? Seems a stretch and Farrell's a bore as always but Glenda Farrell (no relation) is great as a cat-fightin' moll. Neither she nor Davis get enough screen time to liven things up, though, so the only glimmers of termite originality occur via Cortez's breezy fondness for his mug underlings, all played by WB stalwarts like Allen Jenkins, who's scared of the drug business, 'cuz his brother's in jail for 20 years "and he only had two decks of coke on 'im."

See, before they took the cocaine out of Coke (tm) they didn't have that problem: Coke should have coke in it, anything less and it can't be 'the real thing.' It's false advertising! What a fucked up system! And if they hadn't made beer illegal in the first place, mugs like Cortez would never have gotten their first taste of big business. That's not part of the implied moral here, but it should be, as there's little else to go on if you're immune to Farrell's pipsqueak integrity. Niven Busch was a screenwriter, which probably explains the moments of gang camaraderie and business insight.

1931 - **1/2
Monroe Owsley specialized in sleazy gigolo bad guy roles (see: CinemArchetype 13). Here he even wears an odious greasepaint mustache and his ex-wife Kay Francis is a constant victim of his two-bit blackmail schemes. She's "happily" remarried to an older man who's terribly rich and jealous, to the point he hires gigolo detective George Brent to follow her on her trip to Cuba to catch her in the act and/or seduce her himself to validate his geriatric paranoia. The supporting roles couple are played by Brent's pal Allen Jenkins, who you may remember from THE BIG SHAKEDOWN) and Ruth Donnelly (HEAT LIGHTNING) as a schemer who thinks Jenkins is the rich one. The problem is, Brent is so annoyingly full of himself that halfway through the film you start to appreciate Owsley who at least displays some self-loathing. In fact you can't really scrape a single human character worth saving out of this mess, but Francis does look amazing in those Orry-Kelly feathered hats and capes, and and it's nice to see a pre-Castro 'free country' (when that meant no prohibition) Havana. It's 'intoxicating,' even if it's all rear-projected and drenched in overlapping nightclub montage.

1933 - **1/2

Edited together from a 12-chapter serial, this blessedly incoherent jungle ramble finds Buster Crabbe a pretty buff Tarzan, but he has a yell that sounds more like a man getting a prostate exam than Weissmuller's archetypal yodel. Julie Bishop, aka Jacqueline Wells (THE BLACK CAT), is the sweet young thing at the heart of it all; her dad discovered a lost tribe of ancient Egyptians led by Mischa Auer (who holds a candle eternally at his chin so his eyes look spooky), and now she's got to find him. One of her evil white guides steals a gem from the Auer's tribal idol (he mispronounces sacrifice as in "prepare him for sacrifiss" --did that used to be pronunciation?), and the chase is on. The action goes by so fast with so many cuts to stock footage fauna that it's soon all just a meaningless stream of pith-helmeted actors running back and forth; stunt doubles who look nothing like the actors they're covering; rifles being aimed; animals, idols, Tarzan swinging to the rescue; some more running; storm cloud shots; animal fight stock footage; and the chimp. The two evil hunters are continually allowed to tag along even though everyone knows they're their true intent (one presumes 'cuz white folk need to stick together in Africa). It's a thing I dislike in all these movies, where even the life of even the worst white man is more valuable than those of a dozen natives. But in true serial fashion, the good guys keep letting the bad guys go so they can regroup and betray the good guys all over again. 

 Giddy with action and scenes of Egyptian ceremonies, eventually TARZAN THE FEARLESS runs over so much ground so fast, with such a diverse surplus of stock footage and mismatched stunt doubles that it devolves into incoherence. The best way to take it is as some post-modern found art collage, free of all narrative limitations and imposed meaning. TCM showed it as part of their Arabs in Cinema series, because some Arabs show up with a sexy sultana (Carlotta Monti, long-time mistress of W.C. Fields) as their leader. Halfway through the film these Arabs just disappear, but whatever. It's so fun and fast and strange by then you could probably watch it twice in a row and not even see the same film. 

1. Cocoa-Cola used to have cocaine in it, and was during this brief wondrous period (1886-1929), truly the 'real thing.'

Friday, July 22, 2011

God bless the Orgiast / who's brought his own: SIGN OF THE CROSS

Cecil B. DeMille's SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932) mixes pre-code decadence with stilted odes to the Lord of Dullness, have mercy. It makes a great exhibit A for the case against the prudes, as this was a Catholic-sanctioned favorite yet is far more lurid than anything they might condemn. Like much of Hollywood it quietly snickers at these prudes and rubes for treating it like some holy writ. DeMille loves to slyly  mimic his own audience in the lengthy final coliseum scene and its vast array of naked women tied with garlands being offered to giant gorillas, and even Amazons vs. Pygmies.

While ostensibly being something that could be shown in Sunday school, THE SIGN OF THE CROSS harbors such a pre-code phallic yen for lurid orgies and grotesque spectacle it's like sneaking an EC horror comic into church and having no one know the difference. The lurid tableaux that get the Romans howling and leering are the very reason after all, that we're watching this film, not the wearyingly Christian dialogue. While posing as a saintly preacher telling the sad tale of Christians being thrown to the lions, De Mille is really our own delighted Nero (here played by a false-nosed Laughton, set to medium-low) and the movie audience is really the slavering Roman crowd, turning away in horror from the spectacle while peeking through their fingers, leering and judging and gasping all in one emotional outburst of repressed desire. The Christians, as depicted here, are very uninteresting. We wait for the lion's jaws the way kids with shaky legs wait for church to finally fucking end.

Maybe that's because decadence is cinematic and Christianity is not. Jesus didn't understand the joys of a circus. But that kind of three ring showmanship is where De Mille's heart is really at. His story may preach meekness but, aside from their suicidal tendencies, these simpering Christians are strictly like from Dullsville. De Mille never shows any spark of life in them: they just pose like old paintings and drone on at their secret meetings until violent Roman intervention is all but begged for by an impatient theatergoer. Even the saintly and sanctified Ann Harding even seems to be rolling her eyes at her dad's endless sermonizing and terrible fake beard (below).

And besides! These Christians may preach a good game, but in a short millennium or so they'd be torturing and burning astrology-minding pagans just as viciously as they're being tortured by them now. Where's your messiah now, see? M'yeah!

But as long as we're not stuck alone in a room with Ann Harding, things are pretty lively in SIGN OF THE CROSS. A great moment is when Frederic March is racing his chariot to the secret Christian meeting and goes plowing into his clandestine lover Claudette Colbert's carriage; De Mille cuts from the calm and seductive Colbert to March, racing to the finish and clutching the reigns like a boy told to take out the trash right at the climax of some special film, if you know what I mean:

Besides, who wants a whiny virgin Christian with a water pitcher when you can have sexually experienced Claudette Colbert in a milk bath? Only a fool! Only a man young enough that his acting style is one long John Barrymore impression (March actually played the man, more or less, in 1930's THE ROYAL FAMILY OF BROADWAY), a dramatic choice probably explained by his lack of guidance from DeMille, who was notorious--even Lucas-like--for his lack of direction for his up-close actors. De Mille's lack of dramatic subtlety can make even the most bitterly pious of small town prurients choke on their smuggled-in pint of Dr. Silver's Golden Elixir. At least I hope they'd choke, and not completely miss the point of all life. For as Oscar W. notes in An Ideal Husband (which I caught yesterday on TCM): 
"Do you really think it is weakness that yields to temptation? I tell you that there are terrible temptations that it requires strength, strength and courage, to yield to. To stake all one's life on a single moment, to risk everything on one throw, whether the stake be power or pleasure, I care not -- there is no weakness in that."

Special thanks to Glorious Trash's Joe Kenney for recommending the DeMille box set! My natural inclination to avoid anything with Christians in it has until now prevented me from seeing any  DeMille pic--even the non-Christian ones, just to be safe--but SIGN is hardly a biblical epic at all but rather a horror film, similar to one of my top five essentials, Todd Browning's DRACULA (1931). Like that film, directed by Tod Browning, the hissing oceanic quality of early sound adds an extra frisson, as if the air itself is being photographed and recorded and is in its own way even thicker and more nurturing than the bottom of a dark ocean. Like DRACULA, CROSS even ends with lovers marching out of a deep cellar's steep stone steps into the wrathful sunlight, hand in frickin' hand.

In DRACULA it's the still-human survivors going into the dawn after staking the count, but in CROSS it's the reverse! It's the doomed Christians walking to their deaths at the hands of the pagan idolators!  For though Christians are 'reverse vampires' (drawing crosses in the sand, making them out of sticks) they're still outsiders, the cast-offs, the lost, the elderly and fearful, the desperate for salvation, and they can be hypnotized, tricked, by any good cult leader into dying and killing and blood-drinking with alarming ease.

The thing is, can actors be tricked so easily? Can they look up from their private life Gomorrahae long enough to feel the burn of that cross upon their forehead, to suffer through another deadening sermon from that old Catholic Legion of Decency? Hell no. In two years from this film's release the production code would end all this fornication and savagery with enough intolerant patriarchal force enough to make Nero's tyranny seem restrained.

The most heartbreaking scene for me was when March kicks out his big Fellini-esque dinner party--including the always delightful Ferdinand Gottshalk, who gets off all the wittiest and Wilde-iest cracks--at the behest of his buzzkill Christian girlfriend. You see these huge slaves carrying huge kegs and ice buckets leading the way down his marble steps and away from his pad - Nooooo! It's so painful any drinker will be clearly rooting against the Christians from then on--we've all had stick-in-the-mud crabby girlfriends like that, girls whose sole aim is to get us away from our friends and make us miserable, alone with them and their cat and their stupid tales about who they saw in church who just got engaged--and so I say: go get 'em, Nero! Let the lions rend Wilde-jailing buzzkills everywhere. Two hundred pieces reward for every Christian turned in! Free Oscar Wilde and send in Joe Breen to fight the pygmies! PS - He'll lose!!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Great 70s Dads: Claude Rains in CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA (1945)

"Caesar doesn't eat women. but he does eat girls... and cats."

His manner like a doting father who brooks no weakness, iron with courage as the rock under his feet, a man who'd talk directly to the sphinx, and be not ruffled when it talks back as a 'divine child,' a glorious advisor/sponsor/teacher for Cleopatra (played by Vivien Leigh like a panther cub on her first kill), such is Caesar as embodied by Claude Rains and emboldened by the lashing and-oh-so British pen of George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Gabriel Pascal, Caesar and Cleopatra is an underrated Technicolor masterpiece (for the most part) and the most expensive film made up to that time in Britain, and made right after WWII. I swooned upon stumbling onto it, halfway through, on TCM recently, recognizing from the gorgeous deep dark grays and dusky velvets the hand of legendary Technicolor artist Jack Cardiff. The dark red of Roman capes and trim has never seemed so wild and sexy. As Caesar notes, it all seems like a beautiful dream... and for Cardiff fans an extension of the haunting, painterly beauty in Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death, The Barefoot Contessa, and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.

Like any great 70s dad, Caesar rules shrewdly but without pomp or sanctimony. Unlike the less civilized historical version, or the lusty brigands of De Mille, this Caesar is too British to even try and get Cleopatra into bed. He understands that true love is free of all prurience (if he does sleep with Cleo, he doesn't let Shaw and Pascal find out). Yet others' perversions are not condemned by him unless they violate the golden rule of do unto others, for he is no provincial moralist. He has lived enough of life to know better, killed enough to know death well and to respect it and to all the more value life, even in peacetime. He has drunk enough wine to know the value of sobriety, but his is a sobriety that retains love and respect for drink and drunkards. He hath turned towards kindness and tactical benevolence as inevitably as night follows day, but kept his wit and force unbowed. He hath transcended lust and its accompanying folly, but keeps his carnal momentum in constant play.

So often in ordinary men of power doth wisdom turns to dull dogma, leadership to tyranny, goodness to ranting on about how bad everyone else is. A true Caesar avoids such pitfalls, and so earns the loyalty even of his enemies, the adoration even of his exes.

When he's insulted by the throngs of Alexandria, for example, Caesar doesn't grow overly indignant, but merely reveals his waiting armed reinforcements, blocking all exists, with deadpan theatrical flourish. Outwitting his rivals at every turn, Caesar never loses his good-natured love for them, even as he may kill them. In true 70s dad style he has given up the most enticing vice of all, hatred. And in true 70s dad style can present himself as an ogre and the prince that dispels the ogre simultaneously. Such a man is impervious to barbs and a great teacher of amoral, wicked young ingenues like Cleopatra. Like all the 70s dads of Bernard Shaw's rogues gallery, he preaches sin but practices morality, thus confusing the shit out of people, albeit in a most advantageous (to him) kind of way, exposing in the process the core of what most people in authority are, the sad reverse.

We see this love in his fatherly advice to Cleopatra before she realizes who he is. She doesn't yet know he is anything but an ordinary wanderer in the night, and so shares her anxiety over meeting this legendary emperor, and Caesar is amused and delighted to continue the charade, advising her as a life coach with all the beautifully silken intonation Rains is beloved for: "Cast out all fear, and you will conquer Caesar. But if you quail..."

While prurient interests might wonder where the love affair that was hinted at in previous versions has flown, Shaw cares not for such prurient nonsense, and so mighty Caesar is instead pleased to dangle the idea of Marc Antony--a warrior Cleo had a crush on when he blew through town years before--as a kickback for her deal with Rome. Caesar can accept her attraction for a younger man as effortlessly as he accepts her wide-eyed adoration, both just sides on a coin with his own Roman face on it. In Shaw's philosophy, Viagra would surely be labeled yet another albatross along the route of spiritual advancement as the bucking horse of desire is finally demounted. What progress on the torturous ascent up Buddha's mountain path can there be when hotties like Vivien Leigh are speeding down past you on Technicolor powder blue, v-shaped sleds and bidding you to drop your weary pouch over the ravine and jump on? I can only marvel at the grace with which Rains' Caesar accepts Cleo's shock at his baldness after taking off his laurels: "Cleopatra, do you like to be reminded that you are very young? Neither do I like to be reminded I am... middle-aged." Like England itself, this Caesar accepts insults with grace, and gives back only shrewd kindness and canny observations.

It's no accident after all that this film was made in 1945 by a nation that had just been bombed halfway to shit and was now victorious and in control of its enemies' people and half its territories and had learned the rather hard lesson from WWI to not be vindictive and petty in triumph. Rains' Caesar seems to have been halfway imagined as a wisdom-enriched manual for the military police controlling the borders of major cities like Vienna and Berlin, where politics were a daily matter as Russian, British and American police swapped prisoners, disputed borders, and enforced curfews on a beaten, broke, hungry populace. In his role as conqueror, rogue, and rascal, Rains' Caesar is the model for how to celebrate your victory without crushing the fragile spirit of your vanquished subjects. When his enemies lose, everyone wins.

But no man can be a good leader of conquered people if he has not first conquered his own desires. Such a man is free to hate no one, and so fears nothing, and naturally shows mercy to his conquered subjects, even to the extent of freeing his demons back across the dividing line of consciousness, letting the trogs and gollums sink back into his hidden inner marshes with the promise that they will come to work for him the next morning, in suits and ties, and take their place along the assembly line as loyal charges of the empire (ala the hitherto thuggish Robert Newton in Shaw's Major Barbara). Shaw's revision of Roman history sometimes seems a bit too delighted by itself, enamored of its own distinctly British wit, and the stretches between the juicy conversational bits are leadened with marching and walking around the vast sets, the painted pale blue matte skies are often sickly if representing  'day' but the setting sun murder scene is a stunner, as is a scene in a very eastern chamber with a harp, the marble stone step and wall colors rife with rich elaborate red and purples, floors awash in myriad green hues. At night and in shadow, the colors turning deep, dark, and dusky, Cardiff's skill frees the mind of all weariness and ushers in carpets of delight. With Shaw's dialogue inspiring and profound even as it has you smirking like a gin-drunk Ernest Thesiger; if nothing else, it all suggests that Rains' merry police captain was the true heart and soul of Casablanca. Why no dorm room posters of Claude Rains? Why no posters... of Caesar?

Friday, July 15, 2011

In the Oui Small Hours: SOME CAME RUNNING (1958)

A brilliant but troubling film that gets both better and worse with repeat viewings, SOME CAME RUNNING (1958) is cited by Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli), a screenwriter-for-hire in Godard's 1963 CONTEMPT. Paul's in the bathtub but wearing his hat nonetheless, "like Dean Mar-Tan in Sum Cah-eem Ran-Neeng." Dean never takes his hat off either, you see.

One of those small town hypocrisy critiques that were very popular after WW2, it's based on the novel of the same name by the hot bestseller author of the moment, James Jones, who also gave the world such great titles as FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and THE THIN RED LINE. SOME is almost like the sequel to those films (I've not read the books), a 'post-war vet butting heads with his hypocritical small hometown' novel, with a little sex in it. It's hard to imagine now, when American soldiers are expected to be saintly family-style Christians, but after the Second World War those brave boys wanted to get home and get laid, drunk, and...have some pals pour him onto a bus out of town, where he wakes up from a stupor and groggily tries to find his wallet. He mainly wants to drink, sleep for the first time without 40 guys in the room, and, well, get laid and drunk. Depending on where they were from (and where they served) they found provincial small town morals from the post-code 1930s awaiting them at home--curfews, old lady gossip, bars that close at midnight, and they had to get out, stat, and lo, they could because they knew how to build quick easy housing and there were a lot of unemployed guys eager to do so. And lo! The suburbs began, and lo, a plethora of books and movies savaging--with a glee I heartily approve of--the American small town moral hypocrisy that was left behind (PEYTON PLACE, etc.)

But SOME CAME RUNNING has an extra shot of venom as a chaser; a mean hangover hovers over all the actors, dragging things down after a transcendent opening stretch. It begins with Sinatra arriving by bus in the early, early dawn, now fairly hungover, realizing he needs to sending off the floozy (Shirley MacLaine) he picked up back in Chicago or wherever he's coming from, before word or her gets out with the roster of hypocritical small town types he's there to unnerve. The prodigal son come home to rattle the chains binding his upstanding banker brother (Arthur Kennedy), his shrewish country club wife (Leora Dana), a schoolmarm inhibitionist who knows his earlier writing (Martha Hyer), and a sexually precocious millionaire's daughter (Betty Lou Keim) he has little interest in. The irony is, he judges them even more harshly than they in turn judge the sexually active, hard-drinking rififi of their small Indiana town, such as Dean Martin, the coolest cat in the movie except he's a misogynist who calls girls 'pigs.' Between these camps Frank Sinatra's oscillates. But does a finger pointing at a finger pointing make a right? His seething disdain for "the literary crowd" who admire his past novels butts uneasily against his sense of superiority; he'd rather hang with people who either dislike him or he dislikes, so he can stay snide and removed. Personally I don't know any writers who would feel that way and be worth a damn; it smacks of a kind of rude fakeness on pair with Agnes' monotonal nonstop bourgeois country club social calendar babble, brilliantly accented by Kennedy as her lap dog husband.

For this and other reasons, Minelli gives us little reason we should care about this boozehound "writer" played by Sinatra, especially if he needs a Dogville's worth of hypocrites just to look knightly by comparison. His brother may be a henpecked phony, but isn't even that better than just sulking over the fact that the one girl in town trying to hold onto her virginity won't put out on the first date? Frank, why are you hanging out with these people? You don't need that grief. Pick a class and stick with it, or else stop posturing. If your brother wants to marry a rich shrew and put his kid brother in an orphanage, just never return. Coming back never seems to register as a necessity, 

But again, luckily (for the most part) there's Dean Martin, an insouciant gambler who befriends Sinatra since he's good at poker. Even indoors or in the presence of a lady, Dino never takes off his hat, inspiring Michel Piccoli to do the same five years later in the aforementioned CONTEMPT. I don't mention that film just to sound snooty. In fact, it's worth comparing the two films as both are about smarmy writers: Piccoli's character is actually a lot more like Sinatra's bitter brooder than Dino's breezy gambler, but all of them coast along on a river of women whom they disdain, while pursue things they don't actually want: Michel never 'gets' why Bardot suddenly feels contempt for him, but he's felt it for her right along; Frankie never 'gets' why he must snap at anyone who suggests he's a good writer, while at the same time anointing his hotel room with artfully uncracked copies of Steinbeck. And like it or not, MacLaine is his girlfriend, the teacher doesn't even like him, though for Frank that means you're engaged. That's the reality of it. Uncertain men wind up with the girls who grab them and not the ones they hesitantly reach for like a stranger's ringing phone.

That's why the best scenes in SCR are the earliest: Frank alone, drinking in the wee hours of the morning in a hotel room, effortless evoking his cool Vegas stature with the bellboy while checking into the nowhere town's shabby Main street hotel as the sun cups up. Minnelli's brilliance shines through in these scenes: Frank alone in a room with a bottle and a window as the sun comes up.  It's a feeling some of us know well. It feels in those precious solitary cracking dawn moments. Suddenly it's like the world is yours, serene and sublime and empty, and you get to fall asleep when everyone else is waking up, which is a joyous thing.

But then, when you wake up, around lunch time, the street below is a bustling and honking and glaring sunshine nightmare.  Frank tries to be a good sport--it's only when he's around the phony country club types his veneer gets sour--but he won't leave them alone, so he's sour all the time.

Dean Martin, by contrast, is a breezy nonchalant rogue with no need for validation or labels like 'writer' (though I abhor his term 'pig' to describe his women). As such he may be an inspiration for both Sinatra's and Piccoli's onscreen characters but neither Martin or Sinatra are French enough to swallow the pill all the way. Sinatra just expects Martin to give up drinking since it's 'doctor's orders' - in real life I don't think either James Jones, Sinatra, or Godard for that matter, would expect Martin to do anything but be true to his bad boozy self, to the unwilling-to-slow-the-momentum Jake Gideon-style end, even if that end is mere weeks away. And Michel's writer in CONTEMPT never seems to realize he can just say no to Palance's egomaniacal American, regardless of the check amount. If he could do that, then Stumpy could take the bottle away. 

Still we stick around, because Martin and Sinatra have laid-back chemistry in their macho backroom poker sessions. It's worth it just for that. Is anything more uniquely poetic and American than Sinatra with his tie loosened, nursing a tumbler of blended whiskey and a cigarette while bluffing a high stakes hand? Or Dean with his morning cup of bourbon to which he gingerly adds a dash coffee? The score by Elmer Bernstein is boozily thunderous and makes ugly Americana into something that still has depth and tear-stained class even as it wallows in overwrought emotions that only Sirk or Almodovar can really make fly. Walking away from this movie you may feel, as I do, frustrated and annoyed. It's the same frustration and annoyance I used to feel every time I went home to Bridgewater, NJ,with nothing to do but drive around and brood and make up excuses to my mom for my boozy, cigarette smells and staying up to the oui oui hours. Packed with that Minnelli eye for detail, it's never the same movie twice, but then again, neither are you.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


(1947) Dir. Douglas Sirk

For some of us, the name Lucille Ball produces shudders. Her long-running TV show was in constant late night reruns, and when nothing else was on TV we'd watch it, and so began to associate it in our minds with a feeling of trapped isolation. That's what's kept me away from LURED (1947), all the while, which is too damned bad, for it's a grand tale of Sherlock Holmes x The Lodger atmosphere and foggy mystery, gamely directed by Douglas Sirk, with Ball as a tough, sassy distinct individual far more resonant than the the proto-Cathy "waaaa" housewife married to some slow burn Cuban bandleader she'd later become. Laden with Hitchcockian drollery and pluck, it's stocked with some of my favorite supporting and leading actors: George Sanders is a semi-cavalier playboy who gets all schoolboy-ish over Ball's moxy and red hair; Boris Karloff mugs deliciously as deranged red herring fashion designer stuck in the 19th century (the DVD cover can make you think the whole film is set in the 19th century but it's just because they use an image from one of Karloff's scenes); Alan Mowbray and Joseph Calea are coded white slavers (the fate of the abducted girls is disguised for the censors ala the "classy dips and burglars" in SHE DONE HIM WRONG). Charles Coburn (Piggy himself) is the head of Scotland Yard who recruits Ball as a deputy to go undercover as a taxi dancer; George Zucco is Ball's cop shadow. His sussing out crossword clues from random things Ball says is the dumbest thing about the film, but it's great to see him playing an easy-going cop under a watchful -list eye like Sirk's, instead of another PRC heavy, not that there's anything wrong with that, either.

As fast moving and fun as a London fog murder movie can get, there's great termite bits like Karloff spying the camera in the mirror and breaking the fourth wall to tell us in the audience "I'll be with you in a moment!" in that full creepy/wink voice of his. Ball's natural gift for working girl 'take no shit' toughness and fearless snooping makes it also very feminist; the way she seems wowed by Mowbray's offer of a trip to South America only to trick him into giving her the name of the boat, or the way she intentionally fools us as well as the suspects into thinking she's dumb, then springing the trap, or growling at Sanders like a hungry dog, ruff!

 Things get suspenseful, and then they get looser in that vein similar to Hitchcock's, where suspense doesn't slacken even as the wit and winks fly. Sanders' presence even makes it connected to REBECCA in its tale of an ordinary girl destined for ritzier things due to her surplus of character, figure and intellect, but best of all she starts out way tougher and more self-confident than Joan Fontaine. Ball can be charming as needed, well who can't? But she can also relax, like a real woman, right there onscreen, smoking and knocking back cakes with her big feet up on her day off. It's such a rare thing to see, a warts-and-all portrayal of a real live woman, unafraid to let it all hang out, that it's priceless to see. Like a whole new version of striptease, Ball's character can shed her fake personae as easily as a nightgown. Yeah, but anyone can take off their clothes! Who can take off their mask all the way, to the hairy human animal beneath, with a whole film crew and blazing hot lights breathing down your neck yet--and still be a knock-out?

I know of a few (Stanwyck, Davis) but never thought Lucy was one, til now...

(1942) Dir. Elliot Nugent

With deep shadows from a roaring bonfire, the camera low, his shadow large and Wellesian sinister, crypto-fascist Eugene Pallette shouts "Fight! Fight!" while humanities prof Henry Fonda and his acolyte look through round Leninish spectacles, aghast at the horror of mob mentality in action. No, it's not TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, it's homecoming week at Beardsley College! The always durable and ready Jack Carson is the All-American football hero who dated English professor Fonda's wife before Fonda, and if you, as a cinema blog-reading smartypants, ever sneered at the sporting events of your college, city, or state, you'll enjoy THE MALE ANIMAL. It has a kind of Capra-ish ending with Fonda reading a letter from anarchist Vinzetti against massive public outcry, but it's hard to take such clear-cut fascism seriously when it comes from Eugene Pallette, the wondrous bullfrog who played Fonda's dad in THE LADY EVE. Here it's dopey Fonda who's the smart one, but Palette get's the film's last and best line as they march in a parade in honor of Fonda and Pallette notices a troublemaking student isn't cheering, "What's the matter with you?" he barks. "You a fascist or something?"

1957 - **1/2

Jean Simmons is a virgin secretary-teacher who helps kids cheat at geometry and sexy bespectacled dancer (Neile Adams) cheat at baking contests. So she must be okay. Wait, what? Well, the nightclub environment they work in is cozy and cute, with everyone more or less nice to each other, a rarity for these types of things, and occasionally the club floor is lit in an almost Sternbergianly chthonic nest of curvy shadows. Tony Franciosa is at his sweaty, grinning best as a taut nightclub manager struggling to stay free in the face of marriage's inescapable vortex (to Simmons). The other reason to see this Nellie Adams, a scrappy brunette-bobbed bombshell who comes across like a curvier, smarter, black-haired Shirley MacLaine, with cute glasses and, shortly after this film was released, the power to lure Steve McQueen into marriage. Hubba Hubba! Alas, she didn't do much other than some TV shows after this, having two kids to keep her busy. Steve McQueen, you dick! You stole a gal who could have won the heart of a heartless, cynical world.

1937 -Dir. William Wellman ****

If you're a screwball fan, or Ben Hecht fan, or both, you probably saw NOTHING SACRED first as a crummy public domain dupe, with its primitive three-strip color washed near to mud. It's still hard to see a good copy today, for this and other reasons. On TCM it looks okay, but the colors still make everything seem kind of muddy/ Plus, I don't think Frederic March is ideal for Ben Hecht's dialogue; he just tosses it off when it could use some John Barrymore-style ballyhoo. All that said, this film only improves on repeat viewings, with great bit players like Max Rosenbloom as a slugger from circulation ("It's me, Moe! Yer brudda!"), Sig Rumann as Dr. Emil Egglehoffer; John Qualen as a Swedish fire chief ("Yumpin' Yimminy..."); the music of Raymond Scott's bouncy quintet; Owlin Howlin (baggage), Margaret Hamilton (matron), and Troy Brown Sr. as a rotund phony maharaja.

Credit William Wellman with his keen eye for earthy detail and Hecht for his flash-frozen cynicism, which stains even the most seemingly mundane of dialogue a frosty black, and Carole Lombard as Hazel Flagg, paraded around the city like a Joan of Arc on slow-glam burn, and the way Frederic March falls in love with the sound of his own sorrow. As a kid who often faked illnesses to avoid sports and school, I can relate with the horrible guilt Flagg experiences, writhing in her first class suite as maids fret over her (including Hattie McDaniel, uncredited). Good old Hecht, you come away basking in the warmth of the evening star, the spectre of death--momentary or eventual--still hanging over everything, the lure of fascism, sentimentality, phony morals, sensationalism, and tawdry exploitation dangling like a anglerfish's lantern luring, luring us all into our cold Stygian comfort zone.

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