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

Friday, December 04, 2015


It's been my personal experience (and its obviously informed by Hollywood) that (single white, straight upper/middle class) European, Canadian, and South American women are, sexually-speaking how American (ala the USA) women are only on Halloween and New Year's Eve (unless they are outside US borders, or drunk), and if that makes no sense to you then you never noticed how in Guys and Dolls Jean Simmons is a quintessentially American girl, dumb enough to initially cut handsome Brando loose since he's not exactly the square dude she's fantasized about as a child, yet she's able to loosen up with a drink in her system and her system in Cuba --a double permissive whammy. South American and European women tend to date who they like, and like sex, so it's more musical chairs than hunger artist. They do not view their sexual ballot as some kind of swing state vote for the checklist of male traits they condone. They fool around without guilt or shame, the 'walk of shame' concept is itself offensive to them in its puritan connotations. And they don't need the mutually agreed on bacchanals of uptight USA single girls, New Year's and Halloween, to let loose.

Non-American women know that if Brando's gambling addiction doesn't meet their expectation of good Sky Masterin' that's their problem, not MGM's and not Skye's. For European and South American women (a sweeping generalization I know, forgive me) the idea of sexual behavior not 'counting' on certain nights or under certain moons, seems like an infantile workaround of a distinctly Puritan problem. What are American women --in films and in NYC in trendier circles of dating--waiting for? Do they believe the ads and code-enforced mores their heads are saturated with that they must hold out for Mr. Right? Do they really believe in princes with lots of money and no vices just waiting for them to round the corner, waiting to say 'thank god you waited.'?

The question pre-code (and post-code sometimes) Hollywood loves to ask though, remains: Why are dull-as-dishwater Christian-mingling "white women" from the USA so highly prized amongst "the Orientals" (sic) --when it's so clear that white American straight Christian (missionary) women are shallow, self-entitled and sanctimonious and as 'locked up' in their nether regions as Fort Knox?

The answer is something so lewd only the lewdest of prude censors can even imagine it. The well-laid writers amuse themselves tying sexually embittered censors up in knots with these miscegenation fantasias, getting away with murder in the margins by conjuring llewd Chinese slavers under every innocent cherry blossom Babs Stanwyck wafts by. A parade of gibbering slavering stereotype foreign men traipse past the windows of our innocent missionary figures, falling only for the white woman whose repressed id/sexuality is so bottled up the only way she can uncork is via some loathsome heathen having his way by force (or at least after she puts up some token resistance). She's the censor stand-in, a figure MGM supposes is worthy of lionization and trust, but the writers conjuring her sneer at even while delivering. The result? A whole new front of masochism, since Hollywood demands the heathens die for the sin of even trying to bust a move. Even played--as they inevitably are--by a white man, a single kiss might topple an empire, or cause riots south of the Mason-Dixon line.

By which I mean, TCM recently showed the always alluring and shockingly racist (it gets more odious and racist with every passing year of dawning social awareness), Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and also West of Shanghai, (1937) a film I'd never seen thanks to mediocre ratings and its post-code date, but actually it's much better at linear momentum and minutiae than the more glossily ornate and sexier, but dumber Manchu. It's even more racist, and sexist, and raunchier!

 Even if, like old Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), West turns out rather like Houdini drowning in a vat of water while trying to wrestle loose from the handcuffs of racist censorship, it's got a few tricks marking it different: there's a slightly gay twist courtesy the resolutely unappealing and boxy dyke vibe of the missionary object of everyone's obsession, Jane Creed (Beverly Roberts); repeated fake-out firing-squad based tests of homoerotic male bonding between General Fang (Karloff) and the dashing wildcatter Jim Hallet (Gordon Oliver); big business intricacies (business deals with revolutionaries are worthless if they don't win, and even if they do since even business laws are all temporarily subject to --heh heh--
"interpretation") and a zig-zagging first half ripe with good screenwriting.

In some ways, it fakes out our narrative expectations better than a Tarantino movie. First it seems like it's going to be Shanghai Express: there's tje Chinese Civil War backdrop, and disparate first class passengers saying their station farewells, boarding the train and settling into compartments. We then might think at first that it's going to be about the duplicitously jolly interrelation between foreclosing banker Douglas Wood, his slightly less-leaden daughter Lola (Sheila Bromley), and Ricardo Cortez's big oil man Gordon Creed (shades of General Died at Dawn) but They're all heading out to Hallet's discovery field in the titular direction, getting accidentally caught between Karloff's existential warlord Wu Yen Fang and the well-intended but stretched-thin Chinese army (Bitter Tea of General Yen). We soon learn Creed isn't just heading west to get Oliver's oil but also visit his boxy missionary wife Jane (Roberts), who's in love with Hallet -though Hallet only has eyes for oil. Creed doesn't want her but damned if he's going to give her up if she has any value he's not seeing.

The foreclosing banker's daughter likes Jim Hallet too, and is the better bet, in my opinion, but hey, each according to his own closeted tastes. Karloff's rebel General Fang may want them all anyway and seems most in the position to get them. He starts with Jane, using a slow boil seduction strategy that occurs over real time until we're invited to feel her mix of excitement, dread, and curiosity. How is he going to bust his move?

He's a real practiced Romeo is our Fant. Sensory bewitchment ala the "Oriental" decor, and Fang's practiced tact makes it pretty clear that all Jane will have to do is not scream or run and she'll be in bed with an Asian by the end of the night. Accorded A-number one mistress status on account of her white skin, she'll probably be dumped off at some Peking brothel once her bloom fades, or when he finally realizes she hasn't one to begin with, it was just the novelty. Gorgeous Asian women are a dime a dozen it seems, while boxy, repressed white chicks are apparently more precious than entire empires.

This may be perhaps just a grass-is-greener thing, but I always wonder how long these women would stay so valuable if they weren't so damned racist, or if the censor demographic (the kind of old broads who drag Sullivan to that wheezy triple feature during one of his early Travels) suddenly all dropped acid and had an orgy. But maybe it's a fantasia they cultivate through their own frigidity? Either way it's intricate business for an allegedly lurid and exciting slice of adventure hokum.

Playing his general like a weird mix of Charlie Chan and Willie Fung with just the right amount of General Died at Dawn's Akim Tamiroff-style poker faced existential brinksmanship to keep it all from collapsing into high camp, Karloff's at half-sail but infinietly bemused, especially lighthearted compared to Warner Oland's similar role in Shanghai Express, and Nils Asther's in Bitter Tea of General Yen (both 1932)

Once could read them all as racist caricatures, but that would be narrowminded itself. The missionary men in the women's lives don't come off much better. At least the generals have some keen interest in displays of macho honor rather than in just pompous rank and skin color displays. For these Asian military men, the measure of masculinity is how calmly one stands up to the intensity of a firing squad, or torture. If his hand isn't shaking when he lights the last cigarette, if he pontificates in typically post-WWI sardonic hipster √©lan about death instead of pleading like a weak-livered carpetbagger, then he's (or she's) earned respect. For a world still recovering from the wholesale slaughter of trench warfare, already dreading the next world-wide conflict, casual ambivalence about facing a firing squad is such a righteous mark of cool it's worth betraying your country just to get the chance. It's like boarding a first-class train to that shore no traveller from returneth, and no evil general may stoppeth: do it with enough self-sufficient detachment you don't think twice about leaving your bags on the platform, and you may get to stay on as conductor. When a woman earns that same respect, ala Shanghai Lilly ("I believe a word of honor would mean something coming from you") she's elevated far above the merely ornamental HTG status of their peers.

Another reason I veddy much like West of Shanghai: despite the pidgin English, the Asian characters are actually far more complex than the whites, and played by actual Asians for a change (Karloff aside). Chester Gan as Karloff's #1 henchman is a former Chicago gangster who speaks in streetwise slang; Richard Loo is the portly officer who christens the feisty Jane 'Little Dragon' after she takes umbrage with the way he distractedly bats her around; as a nationalist general who's killed on the train in the opening reels, Japanese actor Tetsu Komai talks in the steadied and eloquent but succinct, polite and honest style of English as a second language as spoken by an educated and intelligent person. Happy to be in the company of so many white people he doesn't know in his first class car (they're more trustworthy than his scheming soldiers --he says), his polite dignity sets an early high water mark for dialogue and characterization that no other character in the film ever matches. His death leaves a sad mark, as if the potential for a happy resolution for this conflict and for a much better film, is a given not to happen.

The white set of passengers by contrast--white missionaries and wildcatter capitalists--are as a whole painted rather crudely. In their haughty colonialist arrogance they view the brutal civil war strife going on around them as just another Chinese excuse for slow room service. This is particularly well-drawn in the scene between Jane and Fang (Karloff) after Oliver is hauled off to the brig for punching a guard (in defending the lady's honor). Though Fang is seductive and charming in that seduction scene I started to mention, I should wind my way back to the frightening indication--beyond any racist simplification, that there's the clear indication she's bereft of alternatives, other than suicide or murder (via the pistol he's left on the table). "If I want," Fang says, "I take you. It veddy easy." The scene is rather chilling, and we feel the protean echo of the violent savaging women were enduring in mainland China at this approximate time (1937) at the hands of the Japanese Army.  The only way out of it is for our Androcles Oliver escapes his captors and rushes to the rescue where he's recognized by Fang for a thorn-out-the-paw favor he did back when Fang was just a wounded nobody rebel.

Still, we're glad to be spared any further dismay over why such a slick operator would be attracted to this boxy blank broad, grateful she won't be assaulted, and grateful we can spend the rest of the film enjoying the the weird head games Fang employs as he runs along a silken edge betwixt outright menace, Solomon-style problem solving amidst his ranks and prisoners, and macho existential last cigarette firing squad-style cool, sufficient to earn him a ladder rung between Dietrich's at the end of 1932's Dishonored (see: Decadence Lost) and Walken's "one shot" at the end of 1978's The Deer Hunter.  

(1933) Dir. Edgar Selwyn

"A man and a wife should never live in the same house," Warren William says to his expensive absentee spouse Hedda Hopper (she comes to town only to snap $100K checks from his fingers like AA tokens). Indeed, William avoids houses altogether, living above where he works and mixing business and pleasure so seamlessly together all distinction ceases. A tycoon of towering ambition and ruthlessness, William's big ambition is a skyscraper monument to his own ego, one that dwarfs the Empire State. But. as so often happens, especially in Warren's Warner Bros. pre-codes, a white woman gonna lay him as low. Skycraper follows the blueprint of high-test William vehicles like Employee's Entrance and The Mouthpiece, mixing his brand of infectious big business wolfishness with a Little Red Riding Hood secretary or client naif waterloo as counterpoint. He falls for her and ends up going straight... usually to jail or the morgue. He can scale capitalism's summit in a bounding leap, but flash some naive integrity his way and he's in over his head. The naif here is Maureen O'Sullivan at the height of her sparkling gamin loveliness. She lays us low, just watching her climb drunkenly into his bed. Veree Teasdale, as Williams' mistress and personal assistant, is both jealous and protective of this young innocent (she runs the secretarial pool). As with all the best William films, the last chunk might be ham-handed kowtows to bumpkin decency, but the first swath is pure giddy carnal Mr. Wolf's wild ride. Usually that means an uninterrupted stretch of 'real time' at Williams' side during office hours. This time we see him problem solving and merrily bull-charging through a steady stream of assistants, clients, bankers, lovers, and the wife, all while still in his robe upstairs in his apartment: finagling investors is done in the lower level steam bath; appeasing the foreclosing bankers (after he 'borrowed' thirty million from the kitty) is done upstairs in his office; accruing endomorphic industry titan Norton (George Barbier) as a partner is done in a booze-and-babe-stocked penthouse. It all flows from day to early morning in a seamless pre-code rush. The practiced ease with which the great William lies and connives his way out of appointments with two different mistresses in order to seduce O'Sullivan, first telling her to stay late downstairs at the office and type a second copy of some report he doesn't need, then plying her with champagne upstairs--only to have her hang onto the less intimidating jolly old prospective client Norton!

Hmmm.... one can't just cockblock a desired investor outright, but that doesn't stop a big bad wolf like William. Just means he has to be extra conniving...

Feeling as if it's unfolding in total real time from the moment we see the peak-of-pixiedom Maureen (that sexy frock at left rivaling her deerskin Tarzan and his Mate) in the workday afternoon all the way through to him walking her out of the building in the early dawn, his catch-and-release seduction is so pure pre-code, so truly sophisticated and lecherous it rivals only a similar film (clearly a blueprint for this one), The Mouthpiece.

ALAS, this isn't Warners, this is MGM, so these reels of seamless business-during-pleasure fusion are offset by a lame working class romance in the lobby coffee shop and elevator, i.e.. the usual MGM bow to the sort of provincial moralism and hick sentiment that scrappy Warner Brothers or champagne and opium Paramount had expunged from their psyches when they moved into the sound age. 

In this case the 'decent guy' after O'Sullivan down in the lobby is a pushy little adenoidal mouth breather played by Norman Foster. One of the most annoyingly 'romantic' Madison Avenue-style ground floor lovers ever (an antecedent to Elliot Reid in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) he's a type that's thankfully disappeared long ago from the national register of romantic male archetypes: the smug, overbearing ad man, pipe in mouth, granting himself the innate right to annoy cute girls at their place of work. This would only be tolerable if he wound up arrested, served with a restraining order, or barred from the building, but his overbearing come-ons actually work on Maureen, which seems to condone boorish stalker behavior in a very unhealthy way (1). He actually stopped me from watching the rest of the movie on two separate occasions. Thank God I finally just realized I could FF past his scenes without missing a goddamn thing (though even I don't like to see his life's savings lost in stock rush boondoggle).

The rest of the 'vertical Grand Hotel'-ish cast includes Jean Hersholt as a Jewish (vot else?) fashion designer smitten by one of his 'party girl' models (Anita Page). At least he's smart enough to not lose every cent of his money in the same boondoggle that wipes out Foster.

Guess who makes a killing on that same boondoggle? Damn right.

(1939) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Our final oversize capitalist brinksmanship-swindler torpedoed by an innocent white girl gamin is the great Charles Laughton in Hitchcock's unjustly sidelined JAMAICA INN (1939). Cursed with decades of terribly murky prints, it was hard to tolerate no matter how stout the Hitchcock seafarer, that is... until last week when it showed up on TCM finally looking drop dead gorgeous in a cleaned-up new HD deep black transfer which made me instantly forget the dismally depressing time I had trying to watch it on public domain VHS over the last few decades. This new transfer is so good, by jove, I've changed my whole costume drama tune (I used to hit 'stop' at the first sight of petticoats, tricornered hats or powdered wigs, 'ceptin on rare occasions as it were, sonny). It looked so good on TCM that I put the Cohen BFI Blu-ray on my bleedin' Xmas wish list and started shouting "Chadwick!" in a worshipful impression of Charles Laughton as the British gentry/local constable. Unfolding over a few dark nights, set on a big tract of foreboding moors and cliffs along the windswept Irish (?) coast near the titular inn (a more Gothically delicious set-up you'll never find), it's basically yet another tale of an innocent beauty bringing her antiquated morality to bear upon a scene in which she is but a tourist and in the process felling some smitten tyrant or other, but it's far different in tone than the other two in this list. The wreckers at work here are genuinely evil--a truly murderous bunch of cretins--and in this case the beauty is a very young Maureen O'Hara in her first film. Who wouldn't choose to topple?

The stormy adventure eventually coheres into an extended thrilling chase as Maureen is pursued all over the adjoining properties, sea caverns, roofs, mansions, hills and dales, providing a fine example of Hitchcock's ever-evolving flair for  comedically-leavened suspense. What I remember most though is the genuinely fine mix of unique character actors as the wrecking crew, so full of rich slangy elocution and colloquial dialogue they rival of the unsavory crew of MGM"s 1935 classic Treasure Island (a personal favorite), none more than the crazy-eyed and haired Leslie Banks as Maureen's uncle-in-law. And, as might be supposed, Laughton--sneakily oscillating between gluttonous British lord swagger and conniving, homicidal greed--is at his nimblest, toying with O'Hara and the role as if a cat eager to make a mouse continually think it's almost gotten away. And for her part it soon cuts both ways: initially letting her woman's trust in signifiers of paternal power get the better of her, she comes around when it counts. Plucky, warm, brave, going to any length to save lives, even that of the no-good uncle-in-law (Banks) on account of her devoted aunt (Marie Ney), she practically leaps off the page of the screen, a fiction heroine of our imagination come to robust life. Now that there's a restoration wherein we can savor the beauty of the coastline and the deep horror film / mischief-night ambience, the dirty faces of the wreckers and the shadowy corners of the rooms, Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn has become a sploshing wave of thrilling old dark inn suspense, lovers-on-the-run mystery, colorful black comedy, and ripping action - jolly good show. And--what's this here? Could it be? Robert Newton is the romantic hero? Well strike me colors and call me ChadWICK!

1. see CinemArchetype 2: The Skeevy Boyfriend.
2. My father always said he originally wanted to name me Chadwick, but my mom stopped him.

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