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

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Myrna Loy: December's Salve

The holidays is a time for joy, giving, family, religious or cultural iconography, cold, boredom, old people smells, excited new dogs, alcoholism, despair, sunshine, candy caning, and-- saving every cold, old dying soul from the terror of time--there's Myrna Loy. She's the ultimate salve for a wounded bloody and so very bowed end to the year, century, mankind, era. She was in THE THIN MAN, Myrna Loy, and FU MANCHU. That heavenly vixen so able to embody exotic blends of counterespionage agents, sexy sadists, loving witty and wry detective wives, good-natured prostitutes always willing to testify against the mob if it means saving an innocent whatever, and vamps with secret hearts of gold. Button-nose cute, too, with a twinkle in the eye so pronounced it's like looking into an ice-packed highball on a country club veranda as the sun sets...

TCM digs it, so Fridays they're pulling out the stops, it's Loy Fridays all month, and Acidemic has culled from its totterirng archives to tell you which ones might well be missed (post-code gender straitjacket re-donning) and must be watched, taped, adored, applied.

FRIDAY 12/9:
(1932) - ***1/2
MGM's contribution to racist sensationalism, this great punchy little film plays like a massive headrush serial, with elaborate exotica sets: opium dens, expressionistic corridors, eerie operating rooms, lightning, crocodiles, spiked crushing walls, ear-drum bell torture, mind control and above and best of all, Myrna Loy as Fah Lo Suee, the sadistic-kinky daughter of the exonerated Fu Manchu (Karloff). As if that wasn't enough, one of the 'good guys' is Karen Morely, who insists she come along on the expedition to rescue ancient Chinese artifacts (the sword of Genghis Kahn) from the Chinese (i.e. Fu), who'll use them to stir a revolt to "kill the white man, and take his women!"
(for more: Free Fu and Fah Lo).

(1932) - ****

I haven't written much about it in the past, but I love this, for if he never made another film, this would make me a big Maurice Chevalier fan. A musical perfect even for those who dislike the genre and Jeanette MacDonald's trilling operetta singing. Here she's pretty sexy as is sister Loy, but not in a winky way - it's knowing and wry without being tawdry (and my favorite spoken song lyric, "you're not wasted away, you're just wasted." Amen. Myrna--playing a sex-starved sister trapped by her moral father at the family estate where no man is under 60, is alas mostly cut out due to being too sexy even for 1932. Every time I see it I long to crawl inside the screen and hurl myself into her welcoming boudoir. France, monsieur, ah France. The quest to find the footage of her singing her verse of "Mimi" while in lingerie in her boudoir is one of the great undertakings of the 21st century. All we have is the above still for now, but one day a pre-release print will be unearthed and the sky will crack open.

(1933) - ***1/2

Long unseen due to a rights dispute with author Antoine de Saint Exupéry's estate, Night Flight (1933) might not give Loy more than a scene or two but turns out to be quite the dreamy-poetic meditation, full of great cool midnight moments all its own. Unfolding over one long night in the early days of night flying over the Andes down in Argentina, a very dangerous and historic period in post-WWI aviation--when planes were still open cockpit single propellors unable to get over the peaks, so they have to kind of wind their way through on instruments and one strong wind can blow them off course and straight out to sea or into the face of a mountain--it has curious poetic-noir fairy tale qualities-- a film spent in the pajamas, if you will, occurring in a land where most everyone else is sound asleep, recalling They Shoot Horses Don't They? and, sadly nothing else. So there's Clark Gable--isolated in his pilot seat--a radio operator in the cockpit down below him passing up notes up on weather and direction and the sublime moment he clears the fog and emerges into a clear night sky. A full moon above, he loosens up on the wheel, leans back in his seat, tunes in Buenos Aires tango music on his headphones, and looks up at the dreamy moon and stars like they're a girl he's about to kiss for the first time. His smile is so wide and the moment is precious and so pure you understand the appeal of risking one's life in a rickety biplane just to deliver mail. But that's no guarantee he or any other pilot in this film is going to survive the night. Of course, if anyone dies it won't be dopey William Gargan. All I can do when I hear him is remember how he goes on and on about how great "Babs" is (Mary Astor) while she's off shagging Clark Gable in Red Dust! And now he's got the divine Myrna Loy waiting at home, and he leaves her for a week to ten days without so much as a radio. Meanwhile another isolated wife played by Helen Hayes is talking to Clark Gable over a late supper, but he's not there, is he? Her maudlin insanity is worrying to the maid and any viewer averse to overly theatrical acting.  (See: Andes Hard)

(1932) ***

Myrna Loy may be gliding through her then-typecast parts as Asian or half-caste femme fatales but she's still got Loy star powers, so evil or not,you'll be rooting for her vendetta against a now-married and settled down pack of girls' college alumni racists, all the way (unless you're a prom school snob who's never felt the sting of a snubbing yourself), even if it would stung more and been more daring if Georgie was played by Anna May Wong instead, i.e. actually Asian or half caste. The racism would have some real bite, then, but one understands if not forgives perhaps these pre-code baby steps, and if you love Loy as I do you have a special spot in the dark of your heart for her early Asian vamp roles. What she lacks in the warmth and wit of her later persona she makes up for in slow measured cobra staring, taking full advantage of the unwritten rule where a vamp could get away with all sorts of verboten sordid sadism, as long as she was at least a half-caste (for full review - here)

(1933) ***1/2

This was the one that made critics and audiences perk up and go whoa, this girl is a frickin' star - it just took us awhile to catch on as she was trapped under all those faux-epicanthic folds and exotic headdresses. Warner Baxter is the typical mob lawyer with a secret heart of gold and a shocked butler - and Loy is a party girl his grateful mobster client (Nat Pendleton) hooks him up with, who then winds up helping him get the goods on a dickhead rival mobster who offed Myrna's roommate (Mae Clarke). Either way, she's resourceful, fearless and genuinely touched when he doesn't molest her the night she first sleeps over. You can actually see Loy's wings come out of her back and expand as her character realizes this guy's no naif-in-the-woods, but at the same time no douche, and so, now she doesn't have to get tiresomely noble like Clarke in Waterloo Bridge or resort to her old exotica spellbook. She sees the chance and blooms, and flies clear away with the picture. Nat Pendleton smiles like a helpful marriage counsellor, and it's that even-keeled honesty about character and innate nobility over labels, social standing and circumstance that prevail, leaving up feeling pretty optimistic about the future and smitten beyond words with little twinkly-eyed two-fisted Myrna.

(1933) - **1/2
Of course she still had a bunch of MGM contract parts to fill, and those miscegenation fantasies were big business - here it's the reverse where she's liberated from stodgy British marriage (she's half-Egyptian but--like Zita in The Mummy, Egyptian royalty, so it's okay) by a smoov tour guide gigolo (Ramon Navarro) who's thing is seducing rich bored British wives. (Like Svengali, we first meet him saying goodbye to one, and immediately setting out after another). At first she's just sport, but then he's so fed up with Loy's resistance he abducts her out into the desert, whips her, bathes her and ta-da, it turns out he's the son of a rich sheik on walkabout, so it's okay. As I wrote while in a pervious incarnation: "If you imagine what it would be like if MUMMY star Zita Johan went off into the MOROCCO ending winds to endure SWEPT AWAY-style whipping and dominance head games at the hands of General Yen, well you'll find the erotic Myrna Loy bathing scene to be approximately sexier than Claudette Colbert’s milk bath in SIGN OF THE CROSS, which if these things matter to you, is nowhere near as awesome as Maureen O’Sullivan's nude swimming in TARZAN AND HIS MATE. Frankly I’m ashamed of myself for knowing all this, and so is Ramon Navarro, or will be, once he’s caught by Myrna’s coterie of harrumphing Enlganders." (pop the full capsule here)

That concludes the 9th. Coming up the following Friday (the fightin' 16th), most of the morning and afternoon are those quality but inert post-code MGM triangulated weepers that bottom out Loy boxes but then:

(1934) Dir. Sam Wood

I must preface this recommendation by saying I'm personally no fan of the inescapable soap peddler George Brent. A holdover from the pre-Gable kind of pursed-lip romantic acting which seems today as gooey as a molasses spill, so that he's the bumbling American tourist (allegedly) who knocks the sublimely urbane counterspionage super spy Fraulein Doktor off her heels is a kraw-sticker in this otherwise enjoyable addition to the many pre-code movies made about either Fraulein Doktor or Mata Hari or some fictional combination, ala X-27 (Dietrich's DISHONORED). Why? Maybe it's the weirdly condescending trill in his voice, the way he talks to every girl like she's six and just skinned her knee, or his stupid face that kind of leans out with his nose like a self-satisfied anteater, or his wholesale buying into terrible romantic lines. He was made for woo, and his behavior here would today be hopefully labeled as stalking.

Here, as Doktor, Myrna Loy is in slinky and exotic mode (probably close to the last time - she had just made THE THIN MAN) and wears a fabulous dress in the climax, a big finale which leaves us with the notion, at least for awhile, that ardent Loy-wooer George Brent has been shot by a firing squad. Hinting at the steep 'price one must pay' as a hot female spy in Austrian counter-intelligence, she starts the movie ratting out Mata Hari for falling in love with a Russian officer --fatal for a femme fatale, we know from her strident position on the subject (and since Ben Hecht isn't writing it) that 'Fraulein Doktor' has doomed herself. Too bad for us it's the naive whimsicality of George Brent that woos her away from trapping double agents, and he treads all over her sublime machinations with his muddy American bungler feet.. (full)

Friday 12/23
Merry Xmas!
Trippy musical numbers evoke a time before TV or 3D movies, when the eye was courted as if an indulged royal baby. Or maybe I was just super strung out from a terrible weeklong fever last time I saw it (see: Flo, the Great and Powerful: THE GREAT ZIEGFELD and the Ludovico Flu)

(1941) - ***1/2
Loy and Powell are by now too old for the previous meet-ups' debonair sparkle; Loy's no-longer-amused and patient wife is now debating wether she has the energy to waste time yelling at him. And you can tell their rapport is strained because they have such affection for each other as actors it hurts to see them play characters who hurt themselves by 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 Loy's 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 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 of true bliss? (more: William Powell's Psychedelic Amnesia)

Sorry loyal readers if my output late has slowed - I'm writing, but finishing things has become difficult - Diffused, scattered, trepidatious is my heart, even my usual pre-apocalyptic black humor is failing me. BUT things are coming, soon. Crom bless us, every one. fejjpfpdew[

PS - I missed the 1930 advocation of May-December romance, THE TRUTH ABOUT YOUTH, it was on last week, before I knew it was Loy month, but it will come again... and is avail on DVD... R

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