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

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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