Monday, February 23, 2015


Whenever it gets super snowy and chilly as it has recently I think of DREAMCATCHER (2003), the unreasonably maligned gonzo sci-fi disasterpiece from the collected pens of Stephen King, William 'Adventures in the Screen Trade' Goldman and Lawrence 'BIG CHILL' Kasdan. Sure it's not great, maybe it's not even very good, but it's got a lunatic recklessness that transcends so many traditional horror and science fiction cliches I can forgive it near about anything, and that's what the 10 REASONS series is all about. It may miss the ball a few times, its CGI may at time touch 80s video game pixelation, but at least its swinging for the parking lot instead of just trying to bunt its way out of the dugout.

For an example of contrast, right now for example I'm half-watching THE GIVER (2014), a movie so hungry for a piece of the current teen dystopia market it may as well have been written by a computer that was fed every sci-fi teen-targeted movie and book of the last 20 years. I wanted to see it to continue my teen dystopia thread from a few months ago and see what kind of magic Jeff Bridges could whip up out of such hack ingredients, but it's so glaringly simplistic I feel cheap just for having it on in the background. And so I exhumed this piece from my drafts folder instead, for there's no doubt that DREAMCATCHER is written by humans.... who freely aim not for the teens, or the adults, but middle-aged stoners in the middle of their fourth midlife crisis. How can I, fitting that bill, not salute such far-out willingness to ride the courage of its own batshit crazy convictions?

1. ESP altruism in children - The boys get their talents by first rescuing a bullied 'special needs' human named Duddy who shares his unique ESP power with them, and together they use their powers to locate a missing girl. The dreamcatcher isn't a Kruger-style truant officer or some tacky South Dakota souvenir but a visualization of the web that connects them. Each of the boys develop a psychic special power and remain connected by the threads of their psychic energy, which gives them a collective courage as well as abilities to find lost girls. I felt my heart soar when the littlest kid in the bunch picks up a rock and says hell yeah I want to fight, even if the bullies are way bigger. It doesn't matter - seeing their leader torturing poor Duddy behind the woodshed makes the little kid furious. He picks up two rocks and is ready to go down swinging because he's sickened by their sadism. This group of good kids are so badass they promise to run home and tell one of their gossipy moms if the boys don't stop. No hesitation about ratting the bullies out, never considering making it a playground thing rather than a genuine offense. I subscribe to the adage in Over the Edge that a kid who tells on another a kid is a dead kid, but assault perpetrated by a bunch of big kids on a small special-needs kid is a different than ratting out your dealer to get off on possession charge. 

Most these sorts of films, Stand by Me and so forth, are about growing up as "normal" outcast kids, i.e. types--the one fat dork, the thin little nerd, the older hunk with a drunk single dad, the token black kid with no real personality other than being black, etc.--all harassed by bigger evil sadistic bullies (King must have been bullied as a kid as there's bullies in nearly every book her writes. But the four dudes we see in Dreamcatcher flashbacks to their formative elementary collective ESP Dead Zone moments, are genuine badasses, not normal 'types' at all, and so don't have to put on familiar outcast cliche masks. We see through them how sticking up for someone weaker can give you lion's courage, the sort unavailable for ordinary self-defense, and the result is world's away from most of the rote bullying we see in other King adaptations). I don't mind if the film is exploring very familiar Stephen King territory (the ESP or psychokinesis of The Shining, Carrie, FirestarterThe Dead Zone etc.), cuz it's also Hawksian!

2. Donnie Wahlberg as the magical mentally challenged / psychically savant Duddy - Unlike so many other magic mentally-challenged kids, Duddy is never depicted as 'backwards' so much as 'sidewards,' i.e. once you 'speak' his language you realize he's a genius. And I know how firsthand how such kids can trigger psychic awakenings, because one happened to me with this kid, Victor. Cuz I was high on acid at the time I met him, I got what he was trying to say and he got all excited because most strangers couldn't understand his garbled syntaxes, but I could --in my LSD-opened state. He'd be in paroxysms of happiness that someone understood him, and in return he cast some weird mystic spell on me - where I knew as long as I avoided negative thoughts and my first thought each morning was positive I would exist in this state of transcendent bliss. (One morning I woke up with a cold and my first though was "I feel sick," and thus the streak--which had lasted three weeks!--was over). 

Donnie W.  really disappears into the role giving Duddy a comprehensiveness as a character that's worlds away from "Gotta watch Wopner" or "Life's a box of chocolates." idiot savants of other, better-reviewed movies. Figures he wouldn't be recognized for it - such unshowy genius seldom is.

3. Goofball Resolve - the whole thing with Lewis inside his inner filing room shouting out the window as the alien who possessed him sets about eating people isn't going to please anyone. Some people might call that a way too literal reading, but I say hey, this film is going for distance (1), and it doesn't care if you think it's dumb. A lot of horror movies work better in an audience, but I can imagine seeing Dreamcatcher with the BAM crowd being a pretty miserable experience as all the exasperated sighs and confusion take hold. But without snarky critics in the room, and no drive time outlay, its weirdness can stretch its legs, unperturbed by things like second thoughts. Commercial breaks probably help, too. 

4. The film starts in the middle of a covert alien war, sparing us all the doubt on the part of the military's willingness to accept what's going on. And I dig the alien invasion in the snow motif, which recalls Hitler's big Battle of the Bulge campaign, i.e. wait until it gets super snowy to make your move, thus catching them all unawares.

5. It's like reading a real Stephen King novel:  

With twists and turns and each character doing their thing, and encountering a military presence in the midst of another skirmish, lots of snow and New England charm, all very Kingly. And rather than constant crosscutting it plays little mini-chapters between characters. It takes it's time and spreads itself over two hours and fifteen minutes, which since it's on streaming is just fine as it can be watched like a Stephen King novel... in chunks where you occasionally put it down, but it keeps you reading because you have no idea where it's going next except deep into the blood-strewn snow of King's New England. Like most of his fiction it might be a little overwrought at times, and it may not have a strong ending, but more than any of his other filmed works, DREAMCATCHER really captures the internal monologue conversations, pop culture references, prosaic four letter New England cut-the-crap-itude, and the pressure cooker fear generation so intrinsic to his enduring popularity.

6. The aliens can do just about anything. They look like Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors on crystal meth when they're not in The Thing x Invasion of the Body Snatchers disguise. Plus, they are not without a self-aware sense of mordant humor, talking in a clipped posh accent, like they're the bad guy in a James Bond film. What an odd choice! And they can come right up your ass or down your throat like a combination tape worm / moray eel / ALIEN face hugger, and plant not just one little monster egg, but a writhing legion, inside you.

7. Lawrence Kasdan bringing wily, witty profane 'Big Chill'-ish dialogue and black humor to a zippy script. 

8. Duddy's mom: 

Rosemary Dunsmore creates a nice aura of loving gravity and courage around her son in her one big scene. She knows her son is dying and that he might be dead by the end of the weekend, but she's aware that he's called upon in service of something higher, even if she can't quite understand what that is."Okay, go save the world," she says as they mount their stolen military black Humvee. How rare is it that a mom can be so chill about sending her critically ill, special-needs son off into the freezing cold to battle some abstract alien menace on what will certainly be a one way trip? Kasdan and King are fans of horror and know just when to have characters step up to the Hawksian heroics plate even if it flies in the face of Hollywood's treasured 'logic of the heart' and all its tedious inside-the-box sanctity. Mrs. Duddy knows this is a boy's movie, so don't bother trying for BSAO, just stand the fuck back and let the kids play through. It's the most heroic gesture in a movie full of them and it gets me crying every time, cuz it's fucking true - every moment of it, every foot of their house, down to the dusty board games in the closet.

9. The great cast also includes: Jason MALLRATS Lee; Timothy THE CRAZIES Olyphant; Thomas THE MIST Jane; Donnie SIXTH SENSE Wahlberg; Damian HOMELAND Lewis; Tom THE RELIC Sizemore (his grudging acceptance of Jane's psychic outlandish mission is the most incredulous part in the film and Sizemore pulls it off) and frickin....

10. the Zu Warrior eyebrows of Morgan "Passin' Water" FreemanThere's usually a sense that either the military is good or bad depending on the political orientation of a film, but here they are both good and bad (ala THE CRAZIES) and the natural likable gravitas of Morgan Freeman is cast against type as a man who's been dealing with these aliens for the last 25 years and is thinking globally to the detriment of the infected locals, all of whom he wants to kill off to be sure the disease doesn't spread (not an injudicious thing to do, as Caspar Gutman would say).  His less draconian superior is called in and so there's two military factions --one good and maybe wrong --and one bad but maybe right. There's a great moment when the aliens are acting all childlike and innocent with their hands raised psychically talking to the soldiers in childlike voices and Freeman's like doooon't trust them. He might be wrong but he's so very right, just like DREAMCATCHER itself!

Last but not least is the groovy snow blanket over the whole film. creating just the right mood of preternatural stillness. Add it all together and you have a flawed gonzo classic I enjoy a lot more than the critically acclaimed 'kids together experiencing weird small town events' King adaptations like STAND BY ME. Capturing the loopy flashback-laden, middle-of-the-action, slow boat-to-nowhere structure of one of King's novels, there's a weird and wondrous cast and a plot that, like other 'Ten Reason' entries THE THING (2011), GHOSTS OF MARS (2000), and DOOMSDAY (2008) ping-pongs past so many genre cliche bumpers it becomes a whole new kind of lunatic pastiche perfection... so 'catch' it!

1. "Going for Distance":  a common drunken Syracuse treehouse expression from 1987-91, i.e. to puke as far away from oneself as possible, while standing, head held high, rather than bent over a toilet like some common scrubwoman - but then also extending to mean not holding back in general, burning up all your stashes and telling your old lady to go home and go to bed because you're staying up all night, all the next day, and forever, until -'poof' magically you wake up on some floor or couch somewhere. An example of going for distance might be Lennon and Nilsson's "Lost Weekend" 

Monday, February 16, 2015

William Powell's Retrograde Psychedelic Amnesia: CROSSROADS, I LOVE YOU AGAIN

Amnesia is always a great topic for the movies, furnishing a built-in self-reflexivity vis-à-vis the movie watching experience itself. We all start any movie an amnesiac (unless it's a sequel or based on a book we've read), instinctively sizing up clues as to what's what and who's where and why when. As far as narrative identity, we start the film lacking the whole backstory of each character, and we could wind up identifying with, rooting for, or against, nearly anyone until finally the good and bad pieces sort themselves out.  But we root for William Powell no matter what. He's one of the few actors able to be witty, wry, composed and elegant without seeming British, and he plays an amnesiac in two very different and worthwhile films from the early 40s. In the comedy I LOVE YOU AGAIN (1940) and the noir mystery CROSSROADS (1942) he plays a guy who we only gradually learn has been suffering from amnesia, and undergoing a radical personality change because of it, ever since he was hit on the head, ten or so years before the films begins. Now he's a staid stalwart and sober citizen. But then - BAM! he takes another hit. The past self, the complete opposite of his then-established paragon of dull virtue, now fades in favor of his previous incarnation as a louche con artist. As in LOVE, William Powell's characters' initial conk-on-the-head-amnesia ten years earlier has ushered in sobriety, loyal decency and, this time, success as a diplomat, but he's far from a bore or windbag. When Basil Rathbone shows up alleging he's an old con artist crony, we never know for sure if he's telling the truth. To give away more would spoil them both, spoil the post-modern amnesiac cinema frisson provided by seeing them as a double feature, ideally at the same time, opposite each other, reflected onto mirrors.

I'll tell you something about LOVE, my friend: Powell starts out as Larry Wilson, a small town tea-totaling bore on a cruise who gets a conk that knocks him back to Nick after rescuing drunken McHugh (still staggering around the liner where Powell left him back in 1932's ONE-WAY PASSAGE). When Powell wakes from his conk in his stateroom the next morning it's not as old staid Larry but his original self, George Carey, a charming, quick-thinking grifter much more like the William Powell we love but a stranger to his current load of friends, co-workers, and soon-to-be-ex-wife (Loy). Realizing his interim self, Larry--about whom this new Powell, George remembers nothing--might be rich, George's eyes light up, his body careens around the stateroom--recruiting McHugh--who turns out to be a fellow grifter and immediately has the good sense to latch on for the ride--to help him loot his own bank account. It doesn't make sense, but it feels familiar.

pre-conk - '85
Post-"conk" - '86
I love this early stateroom scene because it captures exactly my first psychedelic awakening, in sophomore year of college, wherein all my old worries and dull habits were wiped away (see my Larry self, at senior prom, left). Pacing my dorm room while the sun came up, much as Larry paces his cabin in the film, my old comic book-reading depressive warmonger self like a cocoon husk kicked under the bed, a paisley butterfly from my cracked-open third eye, I felt towards my possessions and moneys as if I had found them all in a treasure chest that didn't really belong to the new me, but I could loot and give away. I once walked out of my dorm and left the building, with my door unlocked and wide open, music still playing on my turntable, all lights on, so free was I of all concern and attachment to possessions. Naturally, I wasn't robbed. I was so aligned with the tao I was invulnerable to harm.

That didn't last of course. My old Larry self came creeping back, no conk needed, and eventually the two--psychedelic 'shabby-chic-sham-shaman' and the surly awkward nerd--kind of blended together.

I had forgotten all about those times, that total instant post-conk transformation, until I saw Powell exhibit that same aliveness in his turn from Larry the dull sober moralist to George, the fun drunk con artist.

Returning to Larry's home town in order to get at that bank book, McHugh poses as Larry's doctor to explain why "Larry" must have lots of rest and be excused if he acts peculiarly, as in not recognizing Myrna Loy waving at him when he gets off the train, explaining that for his treatment to work, Larry "must have lots of alcohol!" Larry's ten years of sobriety as Carey was surely good for his liver. Now he can get back to processing THIN MAN-level toxins! But will George's attraction to Loy get in the way of this noble plundering and deep elbow-bending?

It's pretty funny when he meets her on the dock and can't tell who she is, the wife, girlfriend, random stranger, fan, or does she just thinks he's hot, the way Kay Francis did in ONE WAY PASSAGE? It turns out Loy's in the process of divorcing him because his old self was so sexually inhibited and boring. She's unaware he's changed so drastically, to the point he's this other character from before they even met who hasn't met her either. George is everything Larry wasn't, but he can't tell her he changed lest she wise up and deny him Larry's riches (a detail I love because if he thought it through he'd realize she can't deny him the riches - they are his, irregardless. But it feels like he's stealing, like he's moving into some easy mark's action, which--if he can play it cool--holds no barriers between him and the plunder. I know that feeling too, to a tee- the post-conk/trip butterfly you are now bears so little relation to your old straight-edge caterpillar cautious fearful comic book-collecting nerdy self that you wonder if your mom will even recognize you when you come home for Christmas, won't let you into the house or even pick you up from the train station once she sees how long your hair is. It's absurd of course, but that's how it feels. And then, once home, you have to play the game without letting on that you've been 'activated' through mushrooms or whatever, that you're now more than human. Can you display your enhanced self without coming off like a pompous tool? Or will you lose your new perspective and fall back into old behavior like prison stripes? 

Every alcoholic, once he's been sober longer than he drank for, can't help but wonder the same thing, albeit in reverse.

It would be very easy to start again... it's stopping again that might not work.

In the end, if the new George is a much closer approximation to his savvy souse of the THIN MAN movies than a noble bore, he should be the very man for Loy's weary near-divorcee. But let's face it, having such a drunken rogue as a husband requires indulgence, tolerance, and her own level of booziness not to get mighty fed up. One can only imagine what the nights are like when there's no murder to solve. If Nick's hollow leg is anything like mine, he can drink anyone under the table and still pass for sober when needed, but for just so many years and then - Booom! Done. Once that hollow leg is finally filled, it can never be emptied. One drink becomes an impossibility. A single shot can launch you right into withdrawal sickness if another one doesn't follow immediately.

It's interesting too because both Loy and Powell are getting older; her no-longer-patient wife is less able to embody the tolerance for Nicky's antics she showed in the first film. Her elfin sparkle has dimmed. And you can tell their rapport is strained because they have such affection for each other as actors it hurts them to hurt each other as characters. It hurts her to be mean to him, to force him to re-examine his notion of himself as an adorable souse. Drinkers his age have tough choices: slide into sobriety, moderation, a coffin, or an alcoholic ward. They seldom get a second chance to detox their liver for ten years before they, as we say in AA, turn from cucumber to pickle. In a sense, his new con man self has lost a decade of youth but gained a decade more of drinking. He looks older but can drink like an 18 year-old. For Loy, an actress who's been granted-- or perhaps burdened--with excessive MGM-brand dignity, it's enough to make her romance with either version of Powell believable. Loy's had to mellow and compromise, the hard way, being one person in one body. Together in AGAIN they seem like Nick and Nora if Nick joined AA and got super boring and preachy for ten years and Nora was so sick of how unfun he'd become she filed for divorce and started dating the local Bellamy. But then Nick relapsed, so she loves him again and hence the title! Alas, his co-dependent stammering and soft-shoeing and trying to get her drunk makes for a sad, weak wooing. But, then it it all starts to work, as the magic of booze always does, until it finally doesn't. Sure, once it finally has you in its iron grip, booze takes off its loving mask to reveal the cold sadistic demon laughing at your pain, but who can't forgive hours of torture if it first provides even a moment of true bliss?

I Love You Again (1941)
Love Crazy (same year; same dress?)
This movie is awesome so it begs the question, why haven't I seen it sooner? I've drunk more bourbon watching THIN MAN on my duped VHS in the 90s alone than most people drink in their entire lifetime. But I got I LOVE YOU AGAIN confused with the far lamer LOVE CRAZY, another Myrna Loy-William Powell comedy of remarriage, which I watched back before I had read Stanley Cavell and knew what to look for and so disliked it. I still haven't been able to get into DOUBLE WEDDING because I was so bummed out by LOVE CRAZY. I thought all non-THIN MAN Loy-Powells were as wartime watered-down as Garbo's TWO-FACED WOMAN (also 1941). I shouldn't have been so brittle. I could have been drinking to this all along! Shrooming, too. For LOVE YOU AGAIN's giddy stateroom awakening from stale Larry to foxy George is as about as succinct an encapsulation of my old dorm-at-dawn sophomore year peaking as I've seen in some time. Oh my god, did I write about that already? Did I mention already Frank McHugh staggering around the ship bar in the opening scene shortly before falling overboard, Powell noting McHugh appears inebriated to the bartender. "Wha'd he say?" asks Frank McHugh -- "ee-nee-brated," the bartender says. "Oh he did, did he?" McHugh asks appalled--- and you realize "ee knee-brated" seems like some byzantine bird-flip or bodily insult, as in "he neebrated all over your stool"? Fuckin' brilliant, man. That's Lederer gold.

Also: some snazzy rousting of Herbert (Donald Douglas) Loy's dimwit new boyfriend while she and Larry are in the midst of divorcing, and man, what good, dirty writers could do with the old trope about 'coming upstairs to look at my snapshots' or in this case, taxidermy ("I'll never stuff another squirrel as long as I live!") In some ways it's like the screwball en verso of BIGGER THAN LIFE!!

Getting back to Myrna and Bill's legendary screen chemistry, now faded and strained, with every sparkle coming only with moderate effort. Each glimmer of the old charm adds a vibe of sadness. We come to see them as if we are their adult children perhaps. We've come to rely on Nick and Nora's sophisticated co-dependent chemistry to invigorate our ever-threatened conceptions of marriage, so now what do we aspire to? We loved how Nora would pretend to be sore at Nick for his constant drinking and how relieved we were in she smiled that wry pixie nose wrinkle half-smile to indicate she was just ribbing him. We all knew the drab buzzkill wife sermons so common to lesser romantic mysteries (such as in RKO's attempt at the THIN MAN formula, the buzzkill code-strangled STAR OF MIDNIGHT --see "Without a Slur"). Alcohol had long beeen the spinach for this marriage's Popeye; its absence has left their love near dead from iron deficiency. It becomes intrinsic to George's future happiness to inflate the old give-and-take back to life, to avoid being bumped on the head again, certainly, and most of all to strike it rich with a phony oil deal and to convince Myrna he's changed permanently before enough Larry creeps back he starts gets all small town noble.

But first many areas of small town life are milked for comedic goofiness, including a Boy Scouts award ceremony and a department store razzing (for Larry's Jack Benny-level cheapness). It's a firm reminder we did the right thing by moving out of the suburbs; how glad we are now that we live in a place where no one ever knows our name and an American is judged not on the color of his Elk's Club tie or his ability to sublimate sexual desire into tiresome Norman Rockwell Americana, but on his wit, virility, and in-the-moment alacrity.  That said, finding our own Nora on is like looking for a diamond on the floor of an OTB.

In LOVE, Powell the grifter wakes up from a nine year coma of being Powell the staid bore; in CROSSROADS (1942) that same (but more sophisticated) bore's a diplomat in Paris who woke up with amnesia after a bad boat accident ten years earlier, and so can't account for anything of his past (he was never claimed, so to speak), but he's been his new self long enough he's married a gorgeous European gal (Hedy Lamar, never prettier), and become a trusted success. When a letter arrives requesting money owed by his old shady self, a self he has no memory of, the intrigue begins. Just as each personality didn't know anything about the life of the other in I LOVE YOU AGAIN, here we have the grifter emerge only in the court depositions of the old molls and jakes who come out of the woodwork to be cross-examined in what may be the most intelligently written court scene ever (Parisian, naturellement). By jove, there's none of the excess legal jargon that clouds the pens of lesser hacks. Claire Trevor is the savvy showgirl grifter shadow to Lamar's playful Grace Kelly-esque younger wife; then there's Basil Rathbone nosing into the proceedings, leaving us to wonder if blackmail's just another word for 'you owe me money but you don't remember.' How convenient.

Right off the bat, CROSSROADS lets us know we're in strange country: a lecture hall where Powell is dissertating; a brazen student at Powell's witty lecture seduces David (Powell) into a car. It later turns out she's his wife, a fun jest he picks right up on that casts a weird glow over the rest of the film (a dark mirror to the scene where Powell doesn't know who Loy is on the dock when he gets off the boat, and tries to fake it), letting us know in very well written language that film is an amnesiac experience -- until the dust settles after the first reel, they could well be meeting for the first time. He could be playing the same game on the audience and his friends from the get-go, just faking being noble to get access to some safe in a long long con. A lawyer here is even smart enough to ask how long an actor might stay in character before he officially becomes that character, as in common law marriage or naturalization! At an hour or less (ala Lamar's taxi ruse), it's just sparkling play amongst sophisticated people; at over an hour its theatrical acting; at over a month it's dissociative identity disorder (DID); at over five years it's retrograde amnesia. Longer than that, it's who the person really is! Now the old, original self is the act. One might thus legally go to jail for robbing oneself.

Helping matters is the out-of-time feel of the figures from David's past (when he was Jean Pelletier). Lamar seems modern like a Velvet Underground-moderne version of Grace Kelly in REAR WINDOW but the mysterious woman claiming to be Jean's old flame (Claire Trevor -left), wears her hair piled high like she just drifted in from the 19th century; and in her shadows lurks the aquiline silhouette of mighty Rathbone, stalwart heavy of Victorian mellers. The wet soundstage impression of a noir Paris muddies and blurs (maybe its TCM's print) like ink gouache across a....oh, man, but Heidi's pretty.

Sig Ruman shows up at the trail playing a bad doctor. Frank Bressart plays a good one, and the language and class barriers are--a rarity for Hollywood--vividly rendered. The script is maturely engaging and thought provoking without needing to rely on cheap thrills  or sudsy sentiment. David regularly makes smart decisions we normally don't see his brand of noir protagonist make, and we sympathize.

The mature noir chain to LOVE YOU's bouncy Runyon pendant, CROSSROADS might not be as lively but it's got its own weird midnight beauty and might have my favorite Lamar performance. And to think I avoided both films for years because I got them mixed up with DOUBLE WEDDING and LOVE CRAZY! It's understandable, though.

Without the THIN MAN structure, the chemistry of Loy and Powell often overflowed and swamped lesser vehicles, dragging them under by frilly post-code censorship and daftly interchangeable, meaningless titles. They never quite caught on, like Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda or Barbara Stanwyck did, to the correct vibe for screwball comedy. LOVE CRAZY was made after I LOVE YOU AGAIN, with a similar comedic plot (acting insane to prevent a divorce). But with Lamar as his more demure opposite, CROSSROADS followed, more serious amnesia formula, further adding to my split self confusion upon reading the blurb (i.e. mixing up LOVE YOU AGAIN with LOVE CRAZY, then LOVE with CROSSROADS, even now I'm confused. Have I even seen DOUBLE WEDDING, except in passing? Maybe I saw it only long enough to note its 40s MGM streamlined short hair sentiment and slyly ant-feminist parabolism (her success in business requires Loy to be a bitch). So many MGM films of the period were so similarly bludgeoned by Louis B. Mayer's bourgeois sentiment and censorial hatred of feminism it's hard to keep them separate, or want to see them more than once.

But when they shine, brother, they shine.

So there you go the whole story of two films about assumed identities and fading marriages rekindled by lively alter-egos, and me, a viewer so confused by their bland titles that I waited to see them until this latter period in my film watching life, now that I too have no memory and keep repeating myself. Don't make the same mistakes I did!! Don't let fuzzy blows to the head or drugs to the pineal fuzz your roll into the split screen duplicate machine. Powell makes the jump with mere conks to the noggin. Can you do less? The screen shall split you whole if you don't mind first surrendering your individuality in the service of a grand war. Does that mean relapse, or just a feigned slur? Sometimes drunkenness isn't the same thing as not being sober -- it's called the movies.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015



1931 - Dir Michael Curtiz

TCM finally showed The Mad Genius (1931), a film I've wanted to see for so many years I all but gave up and figured it was a myth, but now... at long last, here it is, filling a gaping hole in my heart, providing the sordid pre-code Barrymore 'impresario-and-theatrical protege' cross strut between the same year's more cinematic and dreamy Svengali (here)and 1934's Twentieth Century. Indeed they all follow the same plot, one more than familiar to show biz types: a middle-aged but still dashing impresario (Barrymore in all three) seeing the potential in dopey young bumpkins and dragging it out of them while meddling in and/or dominating their love lives. In this case it's man-on-man action, with Barrymore as Tsarakov, the club footed son of a ballet dancer and a Russian duke (who doesn't claim him), tortured with genius and longing for dance. We first spy him doing puppet show ballets in the rain before the thighs of little Fyodor (Frankie Darro)) leaping away from his abusive Cossack father (Boris Karloff) catch his eye. Tsarakov and his long-suffering assistant (Charles Butterworth) spirit young Darro off in their gigantic carriage to conclude Act One. It was originally a play and you can tell by the way the dialogue spells out the big ambitions, triumphs, and chicanery, rather than just illustrating them in little insert scenes. But who cares since Barrymore's measured yet over-the-top Russian accent mellifluously spouts it, the expressionist sets are by Anton Grot (who also did Svengali's) and the dialogue is psychopoetically self-aware, in the best scathingly myopic Broadway tradition? 

The second act takes place fifteen years later after Darro's delivered from Karloff, and all pledged greatness has already come to pass, sparing us any boring training montages. Darro's grown into that perennially sulking leading man Donald Cook, now the greatest male ballet dancer of his time, and our once-bedraggled Tsarakov is drenched in fur and ladies. Tsarakov keeps Fyodor supplied with women and champagne but is always on the look-out to stop him falling in love with some naive marriage-minded innocent. And when Marian Marsh turns out to be just that type, craving the kind of wedlock and fealty which pleases the censors (invariably the type crept in, like a fungus harbinger of the code to come). Tsarakov must end it! For, as Lermontov well knew in The Red Shoes, putting romantic love ahead of art is death, but to fight it is a losing battle. The best Tsarakov can do is dog Fyodor's steps and remind Marian Marsh of the third act of Camille before sending her off into the diamond circlet-proffering mitts of some louche lord.

Sure it's an age-old story but the censorship-as-nature's-tyranny parallels are nonetheless clear: these innocent lovers are the harbinger of the Nazis, of Joseph Breen's racist, sexist draconian code rubric, of goddamned Norman Rockwell-cheeked mailmen and freckled youngsters and blandly healthy age-appropriate lovers singing 'sweet' style-songs (you know, the half-pint Irving Berlin-on-Benadryl imitations for the Christians who thought Glen Miller too risque). Gone will be the debauched old givers of diamond bracelets and fame in the classical arts! In with husbands and fey pianist neighbors. Out with scimitar-brandishing demimondes and in with wives in bobbed hair making breakfast while the baby cries and the man heads off to menial labor, laundry on a line stretched across the window --all the crap that so appalls poor Humbert in the final act of Lolita.

Lolita sells out to biology's pedestrian fascist squalor
But though there's some of that in The Mad Genius, it's still too early for it to swamp the decadent expressionistic corruption. Barrymore, outside the stuffy bourgeois costumed towers of MGM, soars sans all restraint or inhibitions. His Tsarakov doesn't mope when his star runs off, just gets royally blitzed on champagne and takes up with the newest chorus trollop (Carmel Myers, above) in a long, hilarious scene. 

I'm a big fan of Marian Marsh due to her Sgt. Pepper era-predicting look in Svengali: the oversize gendarme coat, her long straight blonde hair and Dame Darcy bangs, her sweet pixie face so perfect for hypnotizing... with Svengali a Manson-level manipulating pied piper. Here in Mad Genius that anachronistic hipness is gone. That great blonde straight hair cropped unflatteringly in the style of the time and she's got big gangly legs when she dances, like she's been studying the bowleg flapper wobble of Ruby Keeler instead of a swanky Ballets Russe pirouette. Carmel Myers (above) reminds me of one of my own past Trilbies, though, so I'm a fan, for the debauched libertine life has treated me well. The having kids and laundry lines thing pays dividends I'm sure, which we playas never care to imagine until it's too late to get them, and just as the shelf life of a dancer is very limited, and the life of a pre-revolutionary Russian dance impresario with a rolodex full of debauched libertine nobles doomed to die on the altar of art, so too louche bachelors inevitably wind up lonesome old men shuffling to and fro from the Strand, while family men bask in the alleged comfort of grandchildren.

But we're not talking real life here. These are the movies. 

And director Michael Curtiz knows we didn't come for sappy young love or Frankie Darro or regret, we came for Barrymore and blondes, and Curtiz is one of the best at zeroing in on what we want to see--in this case Anton Grot's trippy art direction (including a great pagan god stage show finale), pre-code luridness, and Barrymore's crazy eyes. For example we get Tsarakov's junkie stage manager/conductor Sergei (Luis Alberni) cracking up before the big show, trying to get Tsarakov to give him one of the envelopes of smack (or cocaine) he keeps on his person at all times, delivering a raving Dwight Frye-esque rant, the expressionist Anton Grot mood pouring the pre-code horror all over him, on and on ranting about the incessant screaming of his frayed nerves playing the same music over and over, the thud of dancer's feet, etc. Tsarakov gives him a pretty strong lecture about the joys to be had once cold turkey is endured, but then we see Sergei snort it up in the shadows and suddenly he's striding out onstage ready to go on with rehearsal as calm as a cucumber! It got a huge laugh out of me, and probably out of the play's sophisticated audience. It's a very rare moment of joking about heroin and/or cocaine addiction. Soon addicts like him would be as verboten as sleeping your way up the social ladder or getting away with murder. . 

Ach, these Philistines! The squares always get the girl in the end while the mad geniuses die crucified on the altar of their own grandiosity. So best make sure Anton Grot makes the altar for you, and let Barrymore loose upon his part like a hungry socialist wolf upon the neck of old world Europe. Let the moral majority suck up the banal happiness of the romantic age-race-gender 'appropriate' pair bond while they can. Ben Hecht cometh and Lily Garland is no Trilby, or my name isn't Oscar Jaffe


1931 - Dir. James Whale

From a play by renowned Algonquin wit Robert E. Sherwood comes a startling, touching saga that has a great kinetic stream-of-rainy London nighttime momentum, atmosphere thick with James Whale's signature mix of midnight expressionism and cozy warmth. Roy (Douglass Montgomery) is an inexperienced Canadian soldier on his way to the front; Myra (Mae Clarke) is on her way down to the prostitution gutter. They meet while trying to help a dotty old Apple Annie-type down into the air raid shelter. Soaking wet, confused, cold, lonesome, feeling the warmth of each other's kindness, they share some food in her cold water flat while the colorful landlady (not Una O'Connor) hovers outside waiting for Myra to convince Roy it's his own idea to pay her rent . He's so excited to meet an American during an air raid and they get along so swimmingly that the whole first chunk of the movie flows almost in real time. Mae Clarke especially has never been better, tackling Sherwood's complex creation without resorting to Vivian Leigh ostentation or Harlow harshness. Love blooms quickly, after all, in wartime: marriage and combat pay making sure he doesn't die a virgin and she doesn't end up a streetwalker.

It's hard to fathom, but there it is, she meets his folks and they're rich- so the second act is all about an American struggling with the pressures of a class thing. "Some of us are lucky and some of us aren't," Roy says. "That's just the breaks?' He's Canadian, so why the hell would she want to get class-conscious with a man who will most likely die a virgin otherwise? It all makes her that much hard to bear when she starts acting noble, believing the bullshit patriarchal line about her own lack of worth. Clearly Whale doesn't believe it, nor Robert Sherwood --they love this girl and we do too. The soldier's also a surprise depth-wise: the way Montgomery plays him is years away from the usual smirky adenoidal morons of the pre-code era so often embodied by, say, William Gargan or Charley Farrell. You can tell Whale really sussed out these actors' characters for them, and their attraction feels real, like it's happening right there on screen. It's Mae Clarke's big show all the way, though, and we see how easily she might have become as iconic as Stanwyck or Harlow if the material stayed this good. Her voice crackling with alternating currents of tenderness and bitterness, body recoiling from the sordid ease with which she bilks the kid out of his bankroll, Clarke is totally stunning, and that Myra's shady past is alluded to without direct stating fits perfectly both Roy's genuine innocence and her jaded gifts with the female art of deception.

It's interesting she played the 'good girl' for Whale in FRANKENSTEIN the same year. In a sense, she's the monster here, though she's the only one with a pitchfork. It was BABY FACE and RED-HEADED WOMAN a few years later that would declare the girl didn't have throw herself into the path of a dropped bomb to spare herself the shame of having to tell her lover she's no good, just no good that's all. The great fez-wearer Frederick Kerr (above left) is also carried over from FRANKENSTEIN (or was it the other way around?) for some welcome comic relief as a semi-deaf duffer in the country estate. Bette Davis is in the 'cool younger sister-in-law' mode, who likes Myra just fine. Director Whale and Sherwood were both veterans of the WWI trenches, so there's some savvy of the slow grinding spiral of daily death-wading folded into the British fog.



(1932) Dir Alfred E. Green

The best thing about the early First National-Warner's stuff is, you just never know--up to a point--what's going to happen next, especially when the focus is on an array of things going on in a train station, a scene so crowded with extras so good at seeming like they're hustling for trains we can't tell if it's not real, not a documentary. We're treated to an array of comings and goings and bag checks, all centered around two genial vagrants on the make, one of whom (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) magically winds up with a drunken Frank McHugh's bag, which happens to have a suit in it that fits Fairbanks perfectly, and a wad of bills in the pocket, and the only reason he got that was because he had lifted a train conductor's coat, literally, via a stick through the men's room window. So a chain of events is underway and neither he nor we know where it's leading.

So now Fairbanks Jr. and his pal Guy Kibbee are doing pretty well, to the point Doug attracts a chippie, then shines her off while eating a nice steak dinner, which we really feel since he's been so hungry a few beats ago. Anyway, circumstance all coheres around a counterfeiting plot and a nice violin case MacGuffin, and there's a white knuckle finale train yard brawl, Fairbanks leaping down on his quarry from atop train cars, and men being continually judged on their clothes and wallet instead of what's in their heart and fist. There's also some pre-code slams, especially when Blondell goes with Fairbanks to a private room, ready to sleep with him for train fare even though it's her first such transaction. Her fluttering mix of fear, desperation, and feigned élan is like nothing you've ever seen before or since. She also has a pretend-blind stalker pawing his way along after her, and that plus the counterfeiter getting his wallet lifted make it nail-baiting enough I shouted curtly at my girl when she tried to talk about bacon preparation right at a key moment. And I love bacon.


(1934) Dir Phil Rosen

Melvyn Douglas stars as a bit of a rogue in a publishing concern that--and this would be considered uncool by the early code--is co-ed-owned and operated by a group of men and women, sharing duties equally, mixing business and pleasure and turning it all into a kind of cocktails and ritzy MAD MEN-style client seducing constant. The women don't have to choose between career and romance as it's all seamlessly interwoven, noted with some interest by their best-selling author client, an Agatha Christie-type who's visiting New York to sign a contract. A blown radio tube leads to conversation about a missing chunk of cash meant to be a retainer for a different author, but the cash disappeared awhile ago and they've been avoiding dealing with it. Eventually the truth comes out but maybe sleeping dogs should lie, and maybe they still can.

One wonders, though, in the end, what the point of it all is. Did playwright J.B. Priestley need to subtextually validate why he stayed in the closet or chose not to public with his mistress? Either way it's all very mature, the idea of women being totally men's equal in every facet of their shared business is marvelously progressive, and the romantic roundelay of everyone married to the wrong person all comes to the fore pretty fast. Luckily the cast is up for the challenge and then there are numerous twists and the ending is a gotcha of the sort I normally don't approve of, but which works here as a kind of suggestion that killing yourself might just involve 'skipping' into alternate dimensions, gradually becoming immortal by living several variants of your own life all at the same time, and death just shrinking the number of available dimensional planes down farther and farther, until one's next lives have already begun so you can let the last one of the old ones go, i.e. quantum suicide.


(1930) Dir. Roy Del Ruth

With her weird Betty Boop-shaped head, Joan's sister Constance Bennett has been a weird kind of side-bet star. Always had a rare who-gives-a-fuck ease with sex and cinematic luxury, more than a hungry stage door hanger like Joan Crawford, she suggests a girl who actually lived in the manner and custom of posh art deco decadence before acting in i. She's clearly the older of the two sisters,  and they exhibit - as siblings will -- diametrically-antithetical personae. Aloof where Joan is sweet, remote where Joan is accessible, and cool where Joan is warm, etc). Here Constance uses all that older sister elan as a WWI counter-espionage double agent, posing as the wartime fiancee of the lord's killed-in-action soldier son (saying they met overseas, etc). But she's really there to open the safe and get news of how many American soldiers are coming into the war to lift France and England's sagging spirits, and when what ship will be leaving which harbor. Her handler is Erich Von Stroheim, on the scene as a butler.

Once all the fake tears and tosh manners are aside and everyone's supposedly asleep, we get some tense and sexy scenes of Bennett snooping around the mansion in the dead of night in a foxy nightgown, all very velvety in Barney McGill's black and white cinematography--with all the windows and giant doors and pin drop quiet -- the whole middle of the film sustains a delirious subtle poetry.

When they eventually talk, Erich and Constance display perfect prep school diction, speaking perfectly... clearly.. for the primitive sound equipment of 1930. Not sure the silents and the days of masochistic groveling are over, poor Erich commences his debased confessions of love to Constance, and we don't blame him. Who could resist her in all those fine glistening silks, bosom and hips heaving in the studio moonlight as Englanders in their dowdy pajamas stir into action at the strange noises she's made cracking the safe? Best of all, there's no mention made at the end or elsewhere about the daffy young English officer who professes his love for her; he's forgotten as soon as the mission is complete. Director Del Ruth wisely focuses instead on the tragic arias of Erich--in a role perhaps heralding his eventual iconic bit as Norma Desmond's butler in SUNSET BOULEVARD--and the Hurell-like shimmer of Bennet's magnificent legs as she peels off her silk stockings after a hard night spying.

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