Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

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 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, the opposite of our beloved rogue Nick Charles. 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.

In LOVE it's a second bump on the head that prompts a sudden return to his past bounder self --who's far more fun to be around; in CROSSROADS, the bounder past returns to find him, as he also is a paragon amnesiac, this time cool and married to gorgeous Hedy Lamar. Either way, if split-self compartmentalization be the music of a sober AA paragon constantly re-telling tales of his wild and drunken past, split on.

I LOVE YOU AGAIN was such a big hit it apparently launched a brief Powell amnesiac trend. And deservedly, for it's a rollicking, clever-as-fuck comedy co-written by Hecht drinking buddy Charles Lederer, featuring Powell reunited his perfect cinematic mate, Myrna Loy and perfect director director W.S. Van Dyke, ingeniously playing off our Nick-Nora expectations while the drab wartime fashions and broad gray small town palette sheathes them towards banal small town virtue. CROSSROADS, on the other hand, is a Hitchcock by way of Sirk noir melodrama, all deep dark midnight blacks, glistening satins and murky Parisian pulp plotting, all the better to cushion the velvet dark-eyed beauty of Lamar. Like LOVE, William Powell's characters' initial conk-on-the-head-amnesia ten years earlier has ushered in sobriety, loyal decency and 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, his eyes light up, he sets his body careening 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, which he isn't sure is legal.

pre-conk - '85
Post-"conk" - '86
I love this early stateroom scene because Powell plays it like I used to feel during those first psychedelic trips, wherein all my old worries and dull habits were wiped away (see my Larry self, at senior prom, left) with a single tab. 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, something new emerged like a paisley butterfly from my cracked-open forehead. 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 couldn't be harmed as long as I was so aligned with the Tao, though of course it lasted only a few weeks before the 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 now this other character from before they even met. George is everything Larry wasn't, but he can't tell her he changed lest she wise up and deny him Larry's riches. Although it's hilarious to think he would think that. I know that feeling too, to a tee- the post-conk butterfly bears so little relation to the old self you wonder if your mom will even recognize it, that she'll 'know'! Can he meld the two and become a less chicanerous but not boring whole self? Can he, in short, drink moderately? Every alcoholic, once he's been sober longer than he drank for, can't help but wonder.

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

In the end, if Gorge 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 gal in LOVE YOU AGAIN. 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, you can drink anyone under the table and still pass for sober when needed, but for just so many years and then - booom! You're done. Once that hollow leg is just filled, it can never be emptied.

It's interesting too because they're both getting older, so Loy's no-longer-patient wife is less able to embody those tolerance tropes. 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 to see them hurt themselves hurting each other. It hurts her to be mean to him, to force him to re-examine his notion of himself as an adorable souse. Drinking men their age slide into sobriety, moderation, 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. For an actress who's been granted-- or perhaps burdened--with excessive MGM-brand dignity to make her romance with either version of Powell believable, Loy's had to mellow, and so they seem like Nick and Nora Charles 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 relapses, so she loves him again and hence the title! His co-dependent stammering and soft-shoeing and trying to get her drunk makes a weak wooing combo, but it all starts to work, as the magic of booze always does, until it finally doesn't, and takes off its loving mask to reveal the cold sadistic demon beneath. But who can't forgive a little torture if provides even a moment the 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, and still haven't been able to get into DOUBLE WEDDING, which I was so bummed out by LOVE CRAZY, I got confused and 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! 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 "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.

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, adding a vibe of sadness. The film makes us see, like their children perhaps, that we've come to rely on Nick and Nora's sophisticated co-dependent chemistry to invigorate our ever-threatened conceptions of marriage. We loved how Nora would pretend to be sore at him for his constant drinking, how relieved we were in she smiled that wry pixie nose wrinkle half-smile to indicate she was just as pro-alcohol as he, after prepping us for one of those 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"). So it breaks our heart here in 1940 tosee how that pixie glimmer has gone from her eyes. Alcohol is the spinach for this marriage's Popeye, and its absence has left their love near dead from iron deficiency, so it becomes intrinsic to George 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 match.com 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 coolest 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, 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, and 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 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.

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! Did I say that already?

Hey, it's not my fault, it's the dumb titles and similar plots. 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). CROSSROADS followed, more serious, sans Loy, but with a similar 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 enoug 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 and let fuzzy blows to the head or drugs to the pineal fuzz your roll into the suicide 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.

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