Saturday, June 28, 2014

This Gun for Hire (1942)

Director: Frank Tuttle                                     Writers: Albert Maltz & W.R. Burnett
Film Score: David Buttolph                             Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Starring: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Laird Cregar and Robert Preston

One only has to look at the statuesque Joel McCrea next to Veronica Lake in Sullivan’s Travels to realize how much better she was teamed with Alan Ladd. At only five feet six, Ladd was much more proportionally appropriate for the four eleven Lake. This Gun for Hire was the first of the three onscreen pairings for the couple, and though Ladd had played dozens of bit parts and un-credited roles going back a decade earlier this was his first starring role. The scenes with Ladd and Lake are great, but the film as a whole is somewhat lackluster, which is the case with all of the duo’s films. The story originated with the novel by Graham Greene and was set in Great Britain. The screenplay was adapted by Albert Maltz, who was nominated for two Academy Awards, and the great crime novelist W.R. Burnett who was also nominated for an Oscar. David Buttholph provides a serviceable film score and the great John Seitz is behind the camera.

The film opens with Alan Ladd waking up to his alarm clock in the afternoon, and establishes his character immediately. He has to make a delivery, with a gun. The cleaning lady who tries to shoo his cat away gets her dress torn and a few choice words thrown at her before he chases her out. The man he’s working for is being blackmailed and as soon as he has the letters he kills both the blackmailer and his girlfriend. And he almost shoots the crippled little girl on the stairs, but decides not to at the last minute. When he meets with Liard Cregar at a café the audience learns that Cregar is just the middle man, but he’s recognized by a customer and gives Ladd at least some clue to his identity. Cregar then pays Ladd off in marked bills and goes directly to the police to implicate him in a staged holdup with the hopes that the police will kill him an all the lose ends will be tied up. Meanwhile, Cregar is auditioning talent for his nightclub and sees Veronica Lake perform a singing magic act and hires her on the spot. But she is just a plant, it turns out, for senator Roger Imhof who’s trying to make a case against Cregar for spying.

To link everything together further, Lake is dating Los Angeles police detective Robert Preston. He’s up in San Francisco to investigate the hold up and when Ladd spends some of his money to buy the cleaning lady a new dress he narrowly escapes. So Ladd goes after Cregar and both he and Cregar and Lake wind up taking the same train to Los Angeles where the big finish happens. Ladd’s character is a fascinating one. On the one hand he is a completely amoral killer who has absolutely no remorse for what he’s done. But along the way he is faced with certain choices where he expresses a morality that is certainly not imposed from without. He doesn’t kill the little girl, and he has some sort of inner need to protect Lake. And while he has no compunction about killing a police officer so he can get away, he’s deeply troubled by accidentally killing a cat. Lake’s character is equally mysterious. She has to lie to Preston about the work she’s doing for Imhof, and while she clearly cares for Ladd, she leads the police right to him.

Laird Cregar brief but memorable career in Hollywood appearing in over a dozen films in five years, dying unexpectedly at the age of 31 from complications due to the extreme weight loss he undertook for Hangover Square. Veronica Lake would do some good work during the war years, but after a dismal performance in The Hour Before the Dawn her career never recovered. Ladd, on the other hand, would go on to have some of his finest performances after the war, most memorably in Shane. But a similar downturn in his career let do his early death at age fifty. Robert Preston, of course, would go on to everlasting fame as The Music Man and had a lengthy career in Hollywood. The only other actors of note are Tully Marshall who plays Cregar’s boss, confined to a wheelchair but no less powerful for it, and movie mobster Marc Lawrence as Cregar’s henchman. This Gun for Hire is extremely enjoyable for the performances of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, but as a film noir it suffers in comparison to other crime dramas of the period.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Glorifying the American Girl (1929)

Director: Millard Webb                                    Writer: Robert Dillon
Music: Irving Berlin                                        Cinematography: George J. Falsey
Starring: Mary Eaton, Dan Healy, Edward Crandall and Gloria Shea

The Ziegfeld Follies had their heyday in the late teens and early twenties. The brainchild of Florenz Ziegfeld, his shows were one of the most popular tickets on Broadway at the turn of the twentieth century and continued up until his death in 1932. Glorifying the American Girl is not an actual Follies production, but instead a few numbers inserted into a film of that name to capitalize on Ziegfeld’s popularity at the time. He had recently built his own theater in 1927 and put on productions of Rio Rita and Show Boat, both of which were made into films in 1929. Essentially the film is a simple backstage drama, like the 1929 Academy Award winner for best picture, The Broadway Melody, and so many of the Warner Brothers musicals from the thirties. It follows the story of a would-be singer and dancer and her round about route to the Follies. Not only did it make use of early sound technology, portions of the Follies section were filmed in Technicolor. The film is a weak one and primarily remembered today for the first screen appearance of Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic swimmer who would go on to screen fame as Tarzan in the MGM series based on that character, and pales in comparison to review films like Universal's Technicolor King of Jazz from the following year.

The film begins with some special effect shots, people walking across the United States to get to New York, and the clock being turned back to 1919 and moving up to the present. With wheels of cars rushing by in the street and people walking down the sidewalks, beautiful women with regular occupations are superimposed over the scene and transformed with ornate gowns and backgrounds. The first hour of the film is a lengthy prologue called “No Foolin’” that begins in the sheet music counter of a drugstore where Mary Eaton sings songs for customers and Edward Crandall plays the piano. At the company picnic there are a series of acts, beginning with Dan Healy and Kaye Renard as a comedic song and dance team. When Healy sees her dancing to the music he offers to get her into show business, much to the consternation of boyfriend Crandall, and soon she heads out West with a vaudeville troupe. All of this leads to her been seen by one of Ziegfeld’s scouts, getting an audition back in New York, and performing in the follies. Though it tries to be dramatic at times, the actors are of decidedly low quality, which makes for a tedious time.

Once the review begins, the film is surprisingly not much more entertaining. After the chorus line performs a tableaux of a fantasy seaside scene is shown, complete with mermaid. The camera takes a slow pan back and forth, but no one on stage moves. The same could be said for Rudy Vallee who walks out and sings the song “Vagabond Lover” like a department store mannequin. Next is a tune from Show Boat sung by Helen Morgan, which is followed by a production dance number featuring Mary Eaton. Eddie Cantor’s comedy routing is next, and though the conceit of the film is that it is being performed in front of an audience, it feels a bit odd with no laughter. The finale features Johnny Weissmuller and a nude woman representing Adam and Eve figures. This is one of those unfortunate situations where the complete film itself has never been released commercially and thus the only available prints have been compromised in two ways. First of all they have been censored to eliminate the nudity that was part of the Follies, cutting almost nine minutes of that part of the show. Weissmuller’s part is cut out almost entirely except for a long shot at the very end of the film. Second, the Technicolor footage is shown in black and white. There are portions of it, approximately two minutes worth, on YouTube, but it is only bits and pieces of the color sections. Glorifying the American Girl may be the closest thing to a real Ziegfeld Follies performance but, saddled with the backstage drama, it’s not a very entertaining film.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Hold That Ghost (1941)

Director: Arthur Lubin                                      Writers: Robert Lees & Frederic I. Rinaldo
Film Score: Hans J. Salter                              Cinematography: Elwood Brendell
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Richard Carlson and Evelyn Ankers

While Abbott and Costello’s first film for Universal, Buck Privates, was in post-production the studio already had them working on their next feature. Hold That Ghost is an old dark house spoof aimed at cashing in on the success of Bob Hope’s The Cat and the Canary and The Ghost Breakers over at Paramount, and at the same time redeeming the studio’s reputation in that area after its previously poor showing in the dreadful The Black Cat earlier that year. But when Buck Privates turned out to be a smash hit, the film was temporarily shelved so that the studio could release In the Navy to capitalize on the popularity of the team’s previous service comedy. But there was another reason for the delay. The two service comedies had used the Andrews Sisters and the studio felt that there was now an audience expectation to see them in any Abbott and Costello film, so the crew was reassembled in to shoot nightclub scenes featuring the Andrews Sisters as well as Ted Lewis and his Orchestra to open and close the film. Evelyn Ankers returned, along with future Universal sci-fi star Richard Carlson, to be included in the closing scene, and finally Hold That Ghost appeared in theaters that August.

The film begins with the comedy team as relief waiters in a nightclub where Ted Lewis and the Andrews Sisters are performing, dishing out their usual wordplay and physical humor. Mobsters are at work in the club too, and William B. Davidson as the big boss is being shaken down by Marc Lawrence who threatens to tell the police about his last big robbery unless he gets a cut of the action. But Davidson isn’t telling where he hid the money. Meanwhile the boys are thrown out of the club and go back to their job running a gas station. But when Davidson shows up and has to make a quick getaway from the cops, the boys are trapped inside the car. Davidson is killed in the shootout and leaves everything to Abbott and Costello. Everything, winds up being a broken down hotel. Convinced that the hotel is the location of Davidson’s hidden cash, the mobsters arrange for their transportation to the hotel, along with other passengers including bookworm Richard Carlson, the beautiful Evelyn Ankers and comedian Joan Davis, and abandon them there while Lawrence looks for the money. But Lawrence is nabbed by a pair of creepy hands in the basement and disappears, the first of many “supernatural” events follow.

Production took longer than normal on an Abbott and Costello picture because Lou Costello was ill during the first half of the filming. Once he was back on the set, however, the production then had to deal with bad weather and a fruitless search for a suitable gas station set, which Universal finally gave up on and built themselves. And, of course, the entire production had to deal with the off-screen antics of the comedy team, as Ankers relates: “In looking back I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how they ever got a picture finished. They must have kept the local bakers very busy, for a typical vaudeville pie fight was soon a weekly event or when their friend Jack Pierce, the makeup genius who made all the monsters in his magic laboratory, and his assistants would come down to the set for lunch there would inevitably be a food fight.” Director Arthur Lubin was a regular Abbott and Costello director, helming the first five pictures for the boys before moving on to other things, and the film score was written by Universal horror composer Hans Salter and is equal parts humor and horror.

Abbott and Costello do a solid job with their usual shtick, the “Blue Danube” waltz being particularly funny. It’s interesting to see Richard Carlson in his pre sci-fi days, still playing a doctor but a very nerdy one. Evelyn Ankers, as the love interest in her first Universal film, is beautiful as always, and while Ankers falling in love with Carlson is about as realistic as the rest of the antics on the screen, it’s the only time they would work together. One of the great ironic in-jokes of the film is Joan Davis’s role, playing a radio/film actress who specializes in screams. As she and Ankers are about to head upstairs in search of the missing Marc Lawrence, Davis grabs hold of a post in the doorway and says, “It’s just like the scene in The Case of the Haunted House. I had a great part in that one, though. Five screams.” But before the two reach the top of the stairs, Ankers demonstrates why the studio had dubbed her their new “Scream Queen.” Davis becomes so frightened that she can’t utter a sound, and that’s when Ankers cuts loose with an impressive blood-curdling scream. Hold That Ghost is standard Abbott and Costello hokum, but enjoyable enough if you’re in the mood for that.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

Director: Mervyn LeRoy                                  Writers: Irwin S. Gelsey & James Seymour
Music: Harry Warren & Al Dubin                      Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Warren William, Joan Blondell, Ginger Rogers and Dick Powell

The success of Warner Brothers’ musical 42nd Street happened before the film had even been released. The final production numbers choreographed by Busbey Berkeley were so distinctive and exciting that the studio held up release of the film until a sequel could be put into the works. These films paved the way for a string of backstage musicals featuring the work of their star choreographer. The sequel was called Gold Diggers of 1933, featuring nearly the same cast and crew as the original. In many ways, however, this is a more satisfying musical than the previous film. The opening number is a full dress performance, while rehearsal numbers are integrated into the film much more naturally, and the production numbers spread throughout the film. And where the first film labored under the overdone performance of Warner Baxter, this film benefits from the more subdued style of Warren William. And yet this was not a new story. Avery Hopwood’s play, The Gold Diggers, had been used for a silent film in 1923 and the musical Gold Diggers of Broadway in 1929, and would inspire several more films in the franchise.

The film begins with a musical number, “We’re In the Money,” with Ginger Rogers singing lead and chorus girls dressed in coins backing her up. But soon the cops come in and close the show on account of unpaid bills. It’s a situation mirrored by theaters all across New York: no money, no show. The out of work chorus girls, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler and Aline MacMahon are desperate for a job. When Rogers comes to their apartment and gives them a lead, Blondell heads out while Keeler hears Dick Powell across the way writing songs. When Blondell comes back with producer Ned Sparks, he tells them that he doesn’t have the money to put on the show. But when he hears Powell’s songs and wants to put them in the show, the wealthy Powell agrees to bankroll the production. During rehearsals it’s clear that the juvenile lead, Clarence Nordstrom, is not very good but Powell refuses to take his place for reasons that are very mysterious. When Nordstrom’s back goes out, however, Powell does the right thing and the show goes on.

The numbers follow the set pattern for production numbers in the Berkeley films. The first is a sexually suggestive song called “Pettin’ in the Park” that features Powell and Keeler with dancers on roller skates and Billy Barty as a baby. The background goes through the seasons of the year with some pre-code elements like the chorus girls undressing behind a backlit shade. The second song is “The Shadow Waltz,” with Powell and Keeler, female vocals, and the chorus girls in hoop skirts playing neon violins. The big finale is always a march, this one called “Remember My Forgotten Man.” The number begins with Blondell talking her way through the lyrics about the men who went off to World War I and were promised bonuses in the form of a savings bond redeemable in 1945. But with the Depression hitting so hard thousands of veterans marched on Washington demanding their money immediately. The scene then shifts to a tickertape parade for the men coming home segueing into those same men in bread lines before the men and women gather onstage for the ending.

Dick Powell and Joan Blondell are the standout performers. Though Ginger Rogers is featured in the opening number, she has a relatively small part. Ruby Keeler has always been a puzzler for me, a goofy actress with a nasal singing voice and an awkward style of dancing, I’ve never been able to figure out why she was so popular. Aline MacMahon is the comedian, though I actually prefer Una Merkel from 42nd Street. Warren William doesn’t show up until halfway through the film as Powell’s brother, as does Guy Kibbee as the family’s lawyer. Sterling Holloway has a bit part as a delivery boy and there’s also an early appearance by the distinctive Charles Lane as a reporter. Director Mervyn LeRoy with the great Sol Polito behind the camera do some excellent work with close-ups in the office scene while the troupe is waiting to get the money, as well as some nice moving camera work in the hallway of the apartment building. The songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin in the production numbers, like those in 42nd Street, are instantly forgettable, but the opening “We’re In the Money” has become a standard for good reason. Gold Diggers of 1933 is a terrific follow up to Busbey Berkeley’s first film and one of the best in the series of musicals Warners produced in the 1930s. Well worth the price of admission.

Guilty by Suspicion (1991)

Director: Irwin Winkler                                     Writer: Irwin Winkler
Film Score: James Newton Howard                  Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Starring: Robert De Niro, Annette Bening, Chris Cooper and Sam Wanamaker

Guilty by Suspicion is a story of the House Un-American Activities Committee and how it glommed onto Hollywood as the only real way to make the point that communists were infiltrating American life. Unable to find any real communists in government other than Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, they had a much easier time going after media personalities which culminated in the witch hunts and blacklists and the Hollywood Ten, those artists who refused to name their friends as having communist ties. Robert De Niro stars as sort of a composite suspect, a popular director who has communist sympathizing friends but doesn’t realize it until it’s too late. But he also doesn’t realize the lay of the land, and thinks that simply telling the truth will be enough. It isn’t. The committee wants names and if he doesn’t give them what they want they’ll arrest him. They don’t care about the truth, only about proving their point. And once the suspicion falls on him, no one will be able to associate with him, let alone hire him.

The story begins with Chris Cooper sweating it out in closed session before members of the committee. He has already said he will tell them what they want to know, but when faced with doing it he doesn’t want to. And though the scene then shifts to the opening credits, it’s clear that he will be naming names. Robert De Niro is a big time director, called back to Hollywood from Europe to meet with Ben Piazza as Darryl Zanuck. He wants his director to meet with a lawyer to clear his name with the committee before starting his next project. De Niro is mystified, of course, and when he meets with Sam Wanamaker and Tom Sizemore he becomes indignant. But what they were offering was a private session with the committee, just like Cooper’s. His refusal of that will result in his being subpoenaed before the committee in public hearings. In addition, all of his work has suddenly been suspended. Cooper’s actress wife, Patricia Wettig, was also named by her husband and she has her child taken away. And though De Niro is divorced from Annette Bening, they have a young boy and being ostracized is almost more than her good natured character can take. Worst of all his best friend, George Wendt, is caught in a lie by the committee and wants to name De Niro just to appease them.

The character is said to be loosely based on Edward Dmytryk. But this story is set in 1951, after the Hollywood Ten had already been arrested. The part that’s similar is that he’s portrayed as someone who always cared about work more than people and when Dmytryk finally gave in to the pressure and named names, no one who knew him was really surprised. But this film takes a slightly different tack at the end, one that is still in keeping with Dmytryk’s initial refusal to give the committee what they wanted. Writer-director Irwin Winkler had been a well-known producer in Hollywood for years. Clearly this was a pet project of his, and the first film he decided to direct. It’s a valiant effort, and an important story, but somehow the whole film comes off as too generic. The most impressive thing about the film is the production design, but Winkler seems too concerned with getting all of that on camera than digging deep into the characters. There’s a superficiality to the film as well because none of the characters really talk to each other in any meaningful way about what’s going on. It’s an unfortunate flaw. De Niro is solid, but limited by the script, and Annette Bening’s characters seems entirely too nice. But she’s still very much in love with him, another aspect of the story that isn’t developed enough. Having Sam Wanamaker in the cast is a nice touch, as he was on the blacklist himself, while George Wendt was a bad casting move any way you look at it. Guilty by Suspicion is an interesting look at the plight of Hollywood during the McCarthy Hearings, worthwhile for the subject matter but lacking in the kind of character development needed to make it great.

Give Us This Day (1949)

Director: Edward Dmytryk                                Writers: Ben Barzman & John Penn
Film Score: Benjamin Frankel                          Cinematography: C.M. Pennington-Richards
Starring: Sam Wanamaker, Lea Padovani, Kathleen Ryan and Charles Goldner

Give Us This Day is an adaptation of Pietro Di Donato’s novel Christ in Concrete, which is actually more of an autobiography about an Italian immigrant’s son whose father died in a construction accident. This British production of Edward Dmytryk’s film was suppressed in the United States because of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s blacklist of the Hollywood Ten. Dmytryk had refused to answer the committee’s question as to whether or not he had been a member of the Communist Party. As a result, no one in Hollywood was willing to risk investigation themselves, or worse, and so hundreds of people were unable to work for years afterward. The star of the film, Sam Wanamaker, had been blacklisted as well and so the film was made in England. Studio sets were made for the New York exteriors, but rear screen projection effects were used to fill in the skyline during the few long shots of the city. Dmytryk won an award for the film at the Venice Film Festival the following year but received poor reviews in the United States. The title was changed to Christ in Concrete and was given very few opportunities to be seen.

The film begins with a noirish street scene at night. Sam Wanamaker stumbles to the front of a tenement building. He climbs the stairs to the top floor but can’t get into his apartment. He breaks down the door and his wife, Lea Padovani, tells him to leave, to go back to “her.” Then his three children rush out to sing happy birthday to him, but she tells him to leave again and he does, stumbling back to the apartment of Kathleen Ryan where she tries to comfort him. Wondering how his life became such a mess, the story flashes back to a time when he was working construction laying bricks on a New York City skyscraper. An accident almost pushes him off from forty stories, but his co-worker, Charles Goldner, saves him. The year is 1921, and wanting his life to mean something he finally asks his girlfriend, Ryan, to marry him. But she turns him down, not wanting to be the wife of a lowly bricklayer. Having seen a picture of a woman from Italy, Padovani, that Goldner knows, he decides to marry her instead. The wedding is great, and the reception scene is one of the highlights of the film, but their marriage starts out on a lie.

Padovani wanted a house and Wanamaker said he had one. But he didn’t, and it’s a rude disillusionment for her. After a beautiful three days in the house she thinks is theirs, they have to move back to the tenement. They put a down payment on the house and begin saving, but by the time the Great Depression rolls around the couple have four children and the money they saved to move into the house is going for expenses because Wanamaker can’t find work. Every day Padovani’s house gets further and further away from her. Like all people in similar circumstances, the decisions they make are not always the ones that are right, and the consequences of going against ones integrity can be worse than the physical deprivation. The most striking thing about the film is the screenplay. Reminiscent of a film like Force of Evil, there’s a poetry to the dialogue that is unique even in the highly stylized films of the time. And the style is not for everyone. One of the criticisms of the film is that it fails to really show the desperation of the characters, but I’m not sure that realism was really the goal. There’s a sense that the nobility of these ordinary people is reflected in the sanitized version of their lives.

While the look of the film is certainly that of the film noir style, this is a family drama, a social drama, a workers drama, an immigrant story more than anything else. Dmytryk uses all of the skills he learned from his years making actual films noir, though in this picture it is just a convention, a stylistic choice that frames the story in an unusual way. The score by British composer Benjamin Frankel is also part of that unique quality, emphasizing dissonance in the frame story, but a lush romanticism elsewhere. Sam Wanamaker does a solid job, but lacks the kind of charisma necessary for film work and, in addition to the suppression of the film and his blacklist status, went almost immediately into television work after this. The rest of the cast was half American and half British, and no one really has a distinctive Italian accent except Lea Padovani, who was Italian and learned some of her lines phonetically, and some of the supporting cast. There are some Marxist elements in the film as well, particularly the idea that Wanamaker brings trouble upon himself and others by becoming a foreman, as well as the idea that in that position he has no choice but to endanger the workers, but they don’t detract from the story. Give Us This Day is certainly not Edward Dmytryk’s best film, but it is a fascinating character study and well worth taking the time to see.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Dracula's Daughter (1936)

Director: Lambert Hillyer                                   Writer: Garrett Ford
Film Score: Heinz Roemheld                            Cinematography: George Robinson
Starring: Gloria Holden, Otto Kruger, Irving Pichel and Edward Van Sloan

After The Wolf Man, this is probably my favorite of the Universal monster films. Dracula’s Daughter has a unique atmosphere and a unique kind of story that seems unlike any other Universal horror film. This is also the last great horror film of the first cycle that began with Dracula and Frankenstein because Great Britain instituted a ban on horror films, which greatly reduced the profitability of those films due to the elimination of that ready-made English speaking audience. As a result, horror films went on something of a hiatus until World War Two began several years later. That ban also emboldened groups in the United States who were protesting the graphic images in horror films, and so that had an effect on the type of film this would become as well. The original screenplay by John L. Balderston was rewritten by R.C. Sherriff and reads like something Hammer films would produce nearly twenty years later with a lengthy prologue showing the origins of the vampire Dracula, and featuring Lugosi. But due to objections from the production code office, all of that was jettisoned in favor of the supernatural thriller written by Garrett Ford.

The story begins right where Dracula left off, with Edward Van Sloan driving a stake through Lugosi’s heart. But David Manners and Helen Chandler are nowhere to be found. Instead a couple of bobbies, Billy Beven and Halliwell Hobbes, catch Van Sloan and arrest him. Of course the head of Scotland Yard, Gilbert Emery, doesn’t believe in vampires and so Van Sloan is held on a charge of murder. Rather than a lawyer to defend him, he asks for psychiatrist Otto Kruger to come to his aid. Meanwhile a woman comes to the jail and steals the body of Dracula, burning it in a strange ceremony in the countryside. The woman is Gloria Holden and she is the daughter of Dracula, convinced that with his destruction she will be free of the curse of vampirism. But her hopes are dashed when the next night she is compelled to go out into the London night to feed on another victim. Kruger is brought back to the city by his secretary, Marguerite Churchill, and while he wants to believe Van Sloan he has his doubts as well. Once the body of Dracula is discovered missing, however, it’s a moot point and Van Sloan is freed. The two plotlines come together when Holden, hoping that her vampirism is psychological rather than physiological, seeks the help of Kruger to cure her--making Churchill very jealous in the process.

The film went through several incarnations in pre-production, outlined in detail in Philip Riley’s Dracula’s Daughter: An Alternate History, with as many directors tabbed for the production as there were screenwriters. The great James Whale was even considered at one point to film the R.C. Sherriff version. Ultimately the film was given to Lambert Hillyer who had just finished a successful shoot with both Karloff and Lugosi on The Invisible Ray. As they would do later with the Sherlock Holmes series that they purchased from 20th Century Fox, Universal updated the sequel to the present day, thereby cutting costs and enlivening the production with modern telephones and cars and airplanes, as well as modern psychological theory. There are still some great atmospheric touches however, both in the beginning and the end, as well as at the Whitby jail. There is also the requisite London fog in the street scenes and the eerie ritual burning of Dracula’s body. The film also benefits greatly from a complete score by composer Heinz Roemheld. It’s not as iconic as Franz Waxman’s score for Bride of Frankenstein the previous year but it is definitely suited to the action and has a wonderful main theme.

Gloria Holden is magnificent as one of the few female villains in horror film history. This was only her second film after an appearance in the comedy Wife vs. Secretary, and she went on to have a solid career in films as a supporting actress. Her lack of emotion and deep sadness are perfect for the role. Though much has been made of her seduction of Nan Gray, it’s important to note that in the context of the film her first victim is a male, thereby emphasizing that the blood is what’s important to her, not the individual. Otto Kruger is great too, but in a very different way. He can almost be seen as the prototype for the kinds of characters Peter Cushing would play in the Hammer horror films, a scientist who is not afraid of the supernatural at all. The screwball comedy romance with Marguerite Churchill, however, does border on the tedious at times. Edward Van Sloan has more breathing room in this film than the original and uses it to good effect. And the other great star is the distinctive Irving Pichel as Holden’s assistant. He had been a tremendous presence in early thirties films as an actor, but lesser roles like this no doubt led him to turn more toward directing in later years. Dracula’s Daughter may seem weak in comparison to Universal’s other horror films, but given a chance on its own it is a powerfully forward looking film that can’t fail to impress.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Meet John Doe (1941)

Director: Frank Capra                                      Writer: Robert Riskin
Film Score: Dimitri Tiomkin                             Cinematography: George Barnes
Starring: Gary Cooper, Barbara Sanwyck, Edward Arnold and James Gleason

Meet John Doe continued Frank Capra’s string of pre-war hits. Gary Cooper, who had starred in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town for the director is back, this time as an out of work baseball player. It would be Capra’s last film before going to work for the government producing the Why We Fight series. He had already taken on government corruption in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, so now he was taking a new angle, the corruption of individual people. Joining Cooper, Capra eventually decided on Barbara Stanwyck. It’s not the kind of part she was best known for, but having done a romantic comedy for Preston Sturges, The Lady Eve, and being one of Capra’s regular leading ladies of the thirties, it was obvious she could do the role and she was effective, slightly more edgy than Capra’s favorite leading lady of the time, Jean Arthur. Capra’s first choice, however, was Ann Sheridan who seems even more of a stretch, but she had conflicts with Warners and the studio said no. Then Capra went in the opposite direction and entertained the idea of Olivia de Havilland but she turned down the role. In retrospect, Stanwyck seems the perfect choice. Cooper, on the other hand, had always been the director’s first choice and had accepted the role without even reading the script.

The film begins with the newspaper owned by Edward Arnold getting a new editor, James Gleason. Part of his job is to lay off a bunch of employees, including Barbara Stanwyck. Though she begs, Gleason turns her down, saying that the newspaper needs fireworks. So for her last column she makes up a letter from “John Doe,” an out of work man saying that he’s going to commit suicide by jumping off the government building in protest of all the corruption in society. After a lot of fireworks do go off, she manages to convince Gleason to run with the story. But they need a real John Doe. Fortunately dozens of men have come to the newspaper looking for the job he’s been promised. They finally settle on Gary Cooper, a homeless ex-baseball player. He’s set up in a hotel, taking pictures for the paper, ordering room service, all to the disgust of his friend, Walter Brennan, who insists that all of this is leading to his being hooked into the system, losing the freedom and ease he had when he was homeless. All Cooper wants, however, is an operation on his arm so he can play again, and maybe a chance at being with the widowed Stanwyck, so he goes along with the gimmick.

It’s difficult not to see this film as a practice run for It’s a Wonderful Life, but then there are parts of every Capra film that feel that way. But with the Christmas time ending, the protagonist attempting suicide, and the Mr. Potter-like presence of Edward Arnold, this film probably comes the closest. Robert Riskin’s screenplay was based on a film treatment that had been written in 1939 by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell, who would go on to win Academy Awards for best original story. There’s also a strong sense that Capra knew the country could not stay out of the war for very much longer and the idea espoused in the film would be a necessary one for the country to think about as that happened. In that sense the Edward Arnold role, with his insistence on discipline and dictatorship seems the perfect analogy to the right-wing fascism that had swept Europe and embroiled the continent in war. If there’s a downside to the film it’s that it’s speech heavy and the speeches are, in the words of Stanwyck herself, full of platitudes. Unlike the singing rhetoric of It’s a Wonderful Life, or the stinging indictment of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, there’s not a lot to hang onto in the speeches and it’s probably the reason the film is less popular than other Capra films.

Capra’s veritably stock company is also on hand. The standout, however, has to be James Gleason. Most well known for his performance in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, he has a sizeable role that allows him a lot of room to demonstrate his skills. Walter Brennan is an interesting choice as Cooper’s sidekick, but seems to be the real voice of reason harkening back to the idea in You Can’t Take It with You. And Spring Byington is great, as always, as Stanwyck’s mother. The other memorable performance is by Regis Toomey as one of the “John Does,” and delivers one of the better speeches in the film though, again, it seems to go on without really saying much. Capra apparently struggled with the ending, at one point having five different versions in circulation to preview audiences, but had no idea what to do until a preview card suggested that Toomey come back as the impetus for the resolution. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is typical for those he churned out for Capra, utilizing plenty of standard national songs to give the picture an American feel. In the end Meet John Doe is an odd film, even for Capra, and while it remains popular it is definitely a lesser work in the director’s canon.

The General (1926)

Director: Buster Keaton                                  Writers: Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman
Film Score: Carl Davis (1987)                         Cinematography: Devereaux Jennings
Starring: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender and Jim Farley

Reassessment is a wonderful thing. In his book on silent film, An Evening’s Entertainment, author Richard Koszarski makes this point about the differences between Chaplin and Keaton during the twenties. “To put it bluntly, Chaplin was a god to film intellectuals of the 1920s, while Buster Keaton was often considered a likable, if limited, performer with nothing very much to say.” And while that position hasn’t completely reversed today, it seems clear that Keaton has shot past Chaplin in critical terms, especially to those more concerned with cinematic art rather than popularity. The same thing has happened in the horror genre as well, with the dominant Karloff being surpassed critically by the much maligned Lugosi, to the point where author Gregory William Mank reversed the order of the “billing” on the revised version of his book on the two stars, now listing Lugosi first. I must confess myself to be clearly in the Keaton camp in terms of silent comedy (and I’ve always preferred Lugosi to Karloff). Nearly everything about his films demonstrates an originality of thought that can be measured in fairly objective terms: while Chaplin had many imitators, no one could copy Keaton.

The General is arguably Keaton’s finest film. It’s his homage to the Civil War and made with such care and attention that silent film historian Kevin Brownlow writes in the narration of Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, his documentary on the great comedian, “He recreated the period so carefully that, for many modern audiences, this is the Civil War come to life.” And while Brownlow said of him that “he was a totally intuitive artist,” Keaton was also a consciously brilliant filmmaker, keenly attuned to not only what audiences liked, but what they liked about his character. “Buster had an instinctive way of working with film,” said his wife Eleanor in an interview at the time of the release of the documentary. “He had a way of seeing things that other people didn’t see. He knew before he filmed something whether it would be funny. He didn’t have to wait for the preview.” This was also Keaton’s favorite film because he came up with the subject, a real event from the Civil War, and had complete creative control including the location. As there was too much modern infrastructure built up around railroads in the South, he decided to shoot the film in Cottage Grove, Oregon.

Keaton is the engineer on a train called the General. His other love is Marion Mack. After the train pulls into Marietta, Georgia, he goes to visit her and when the news comes that the South has ceded from the Union, her father and brother enlist. But when Keaton tries they won’t take him because he’s too valuable to be a soldier. He doesn’t know this, however, and despondent he sits down, beginning one of the best sight gags in the film as the train begins rolling while he goes up and down on the drive rod. A year later Union Army raiders decided to steal a Confederate train and burn all the bridges behind it while they head north. Of course the train they take is Keaton’s, and naturally Mack is onboard. When he stops to pick up a cannon on wheels, this leads to one of the funniest sequences in the film both times he tries to fire it. Unable to stop the enemy in his train, he takes refuge in a house in enemy territory and accidentally overhears the battle plans for the next day. Armed with this information, even Mack won’t be able to deny his heroism.

The great irony of this film is that it had so much bad luck. In the first place, production costs were high because of the location shooting, and when a fire started accidentally the production had to be shut down until a rainstorm could clear away the smoke. The film didn’t lose money, but didn’t make as much as expected. Critics were tepid about the film and that kept audiences away. As a result, Keaton lost his independence and was never able to work on his own in Hollywood again. If there’s a bright spot, however, it was that Keaton lived to see the film reevaluated in the 1960s and his unique gifts given the recognition they long deserved. In comparison with Chaplin’s The Gold Rush from the year before, there is no comparison. Where Chaplin’s film was a string of gags held together by a thin premise, Keaton’s film was a wonderfully fleshed out story, all the more impressive because the basis of it was true. The bulk of the motion picture, shot on moving trains, is breathtaking, and the gags are impressive while still remaining subservient to the story. And the best part about it is that Keaton never panders to the audience for laughs. The General is certainly one of the high points of silent cinema as well as being one of the great film classics of all time.

This is one time The A List gets it right, and with an essay by Roger Ebert of all people. Ebert gets right to the heart of why this film is so great. He begins with a lengthy description of the opening in Marietta, with Keaton being followed by two boys and Marion Mack. When he finally sees her, “the moment would have inspired an overacted double-take from many other silent comedians. Keaton plays it with his face registering merely heightened interest.” This is a mannerism that would be repeated to great effect twice more, when he loses a boxcar on the way. Though we can appreciate him for this so much now--“he seems like a modern visitor to the world of the silent clowns”--that’s also why he wasn’t as popular with audiences of the day as he clearly should have been. Ebert also points out the magnificence of a chase on trains, something that doesn’t seem as if it should work and yet Keaton comes up with brilliant ideas to make it essential to the piece. Unlike Chaplin, Ebert goes on, “although they’re filled with gags, you can rarely catch Keaton writing a scene around a gag; instead the laughs emerge from the situation.” It’s a worthy tribute to The General, a worthy film made by a comedian worthy of all the praise we can give him.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Invictus (2009)

Director: Clint Eastwood                                 Writer: Anthony Peckham
Film Score: Kyle Eastwood                             Cinematography: Tom Stern
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Adjoa Andoh and Tony Kgoroge

Invictus seems a rather strange project for Clint Eastwood, a combination biopic of the presidency of Nelson Mandela with the comeback of the South African rugby team in the 1995 World Cup. The plot is based on the book Playing the Enemy by John Carlin and centers on the transition from the white government of de Klerk to the Mandela led government after his election in 1990. At the same time the national rugby team, the Springboks, were suffering a bad season and many in the new government wanted to abolish the team and start from scratch, as the old team was primarily supported by white Afrikaners and to many blacks still represented apartheid. Morgan Freeman was the natural choice to play Mandela and does a pretty good job, though he struggles with the accent. Why Matt Damon was selected is not quite as clear. He was much smaller than most rugby players and looks odd on the field with the much bigger players. But he was a box-office name and earned himself an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. Freeman was also nominated, for best actor, but neither won.

The film begins with the election of Morgan Freeman as Mandela and the expectation by most whites that he would clean house and there would be no room for them anymore. And many blacks, even those serving the new president, were of a mind to do exactly that. But Mandela was looking beyond the immediate future to the long-term success of the country. And to do that he would be dependent on whites in many areas including law enforcement and the economy. Meanwhile Francois Pienaar, played by Matt Damon, is the captain of the national rugby team and his father tells them that everything is going to change for the worse. To top things off, the team is having a horrible year and sportscasters are calling them a national embarrassment. When a vote comes by the ruling party to do away with the rugby team, Mandela intercedes. He does not want to alienate all whites, and he calculates that keeping the team may be just the thing to placate them. But how he gets the blacks in his country, who hate the whites, to get behind the rugby team is every bit as ingenious.

In terms of the history of the period, the film is certainly an important one. The mix of sports and politics is unexpected, and something unknown to most Americans except during the Olympics. And in that way the ending of the film does resemble Miracle, especially with the All Black team from New Zealand mirroring the dominance of the Russians in the Olympic ice hockey film. In terms of drama, however, Invictus suffers. And it’s not just that we know how the film is going to turn out; Miracle has that too. There’s an over-earnestness to the production that seems to drag it down, as though everyone knew just how “meaningful” the film was as they were making it, and couldn’t bear to see it fail. But they needn’t have worried, as it’s a very popular film. Adjoa Andoh as Mandela’s chief of staff, gives a powerful performance. And in a subplot to the film, Tony Kgoroge, Mandela’s chief of security who must integrate former white bodyguards into his staff, is equally good. The music, by Eastwood’s son Kyle, is another major flaw in the film as it has been ever since the two Eastwoods began writing film scores, but that’s a negative side of Eastwood’s new aesthetic that we’ll just have to deal with. Invictus isn’t a particularly good film, but it is a valuable one, an important story that is worth experiencing.

Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)

Director: Sharon Maguire                                Writer: Helen Fielding & Andrew Davies
Film Score: Patrick Doyle                               Cinematography: Stuart Dryburgh
Starring: Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant and Jim Broadbent

Bridget Jones’s Diary is a frothy little romantic comedy that, while quite popular in its day, seems to feel a bit dated nearly fifteen years later. Renée Zellweger also seems a rather odd choice for the title role. Considering that hundreds of actors from the British Isles have donned American accents to work in Hollywood, why not go for someone who already has the accent? But when you look at the British actresses that were under consideration at the time, Helena Bonham Carter, Cate Blanchett, Emily Watson, Rachel Weisz and Kate Winslet, it turns out she probably was the best choice after all. Her ability to go convincingly from ditsy comedy to deep emotion had already been displayed to great effect in Jerry McGuire and it works perfectly in this role. In addition, she has a strong supporting cast with Colin Firth and Hugh Grant, as well as Jim Broadbent to assist her. Her work with a linguist to nail the British accent seems spot on, at least to this American, and her subsequent work speaks for itself in terms of quality.

As the film begins, Renée Zellweger is visiting her parents for the holidays. There she meets Colin Firth, a stuffy barrister she hasn’t seen since they were children. Back home she is a mass of depression on New Year’s Eve, and decides to keep a diary. That, at least, is the conceit and gives the excuse for a modicum of voice-overs by Zellweger but isn’t really necessary in terms of plot development. She works in a London publishing house for editor Hugh Grant who represents everything that can be wrong about a man. In spite of herself, however, she wants him anyway. She decides to make her move at a release party and her friends give her all kinds of advice that she doesn’t need to make Grant lust after her. The advice does work, however, on someone else attending the party: Colin Firth. Though he is dating a leggy fellow barrister, he now sees Zellweger with new eyes. At the same time there is some decidedly unfinished business between Grant and Firth, which Grant has told Zellweger was because Firth slept with his fiancée. How things resolve is as predictable as it is enjoyable to watch.

That being said, there are some problems with the film that keep it from being achieving greatness. The first has to be the screenplay. There’s an over-emphasis on the zany that, while funny, wears thin after a while and reduces the protagonist to a cliché so that by the time we get to the real romance it has made the viewer wary. When Zellweger tells her diary that Grant is all of the things she doesn’t want in a man and pursues him anyway, there’s no reason to believe that what results is genuine or has even the possibility of lasting. Grant is a liar and a player and she knows this going in, so how are we to believe anything he says? Which makes her belief in him disappointing rather than surprising. My second problem with the film is the direction, especially when it comes to Colin Firth. There’s too much open disgust with her in the beginning to make that relationship believable. In a sense, the whole thing is like a mystery story, but where Grant is concerned the audience is given plenty of clues and the fact that Zellweger doesn’t pick up on them is annoying. With Firth there are no clues at all in the beginning, making that part of the story feel like a cheat.

None of that, however, is bad enough to destroy the film. Zellweger is sprightly and funny and one wishes there were more of the diary in voiceover, something similar to the beginning of The English Teacher, to provide a counterpoint to the action onscreen. Some of the scenes she has are inspired, her rendition of Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” is terrific, as is her sprint through the snow in her underwear at the end. Hugh Grant is terrific as the cad, but comes off much more one-dimensional than when he plays the love interest. Likewise, Colin Firth isn’t given enough time with Zellweger onscreen to make us want them to get together the way we should. The direction by Sharon Maguire is solid, however, and moves along at a nice pace. There is also a nice film score by Patrick Doyle to make the pop songs that much more meaningful. Bridget Jones’s Diary is definitely a light-weight romantic comedy, but was popular enough to spin off a sequel and, given the right frame of mind, isn’t a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Gold Rush (1925)

Director: Charlie Chaplin                                  Writer: Charlie Chaplin
Film Score: Charlie Chaplin                             Cinematography: Roland Totheroh
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Georgia Hale and Tom Murray

After cranking out dozens of short comedies in the teens and early twenties, once Chaplin moved into features his output slowed to a crawl, making only nine films after this one, his second feature. The Gold Rush was an inspired bit of filmmaking, but it was expensive, time consuming, and very nearly a disaster. He wanted to shoot the whole thing on location in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains and so he took the whole crew up to Truckee, California. But quickly he realized that the expense was going to be prohibitive, especially if he wanted to make back his costs, so with the independence of running his own production company he simply moved back to Hollywood, constructed sets in his studio, and resumed shooting. One thing that had happened in the meantime, however, is his marriage to Lita Gray, who had starred with him in The Kid, had dissolved and he brought in a new leading lady to replace her, both on camera and off, Georgia Hale. Ultimately the studio sets are very well done and the viewer doesn’t really miss the lack of real locations.

The film begins with the shots from Truckee, the long line of prospectors walking through the pass. Chaplin appears skirting a cliff with his hopping turn, followed by a bear and eventually running into a storm. The only shelter is a cabin harboring fugitive Tom Murray as Chaplin enters. Mack Swain, also trying to escape the weather, finds his way there too. After several days the men are starving and they draw to see who will go for food. Murray loses and leaves, while Chaplin prepares a “Thanksgiving dinner” for Swain consisting of a boiled shoe. It’s the first of the classic bits from the film that have become iconic in cinematic history. When the storm is over Swain finds that Murray has moved in on his claim. The two battle and Murray gets away with the gold . . . but not for long. Meanwhile Chaplin sells his equipment in town and meets Georgia Hale at a dance hall, where he tries to protect her from the unwanted advances of lady’s man Malcolm Waite. But while Hale dances with Chaplin, she and her girlfriends are simply toying with him and don’t show up to the dinner he makes for them. That doesn’t stop him from imagining what it would be like, and here we have the other iconic moment from the film, the dance of the rolls.

If there’s one downside to the film it’s the lack of a story, at least the kind of story that was evident in The Kid from four years earlier. By comparison, this film feels more like a string of gags that revolve around a central theme. A subtle distinction, perhaps, but next to the sustained artistry of the previous film this is something of a let down. Nevertheless, it was one of the top grossing films of its day and still remains a silent comedy classic. Chaplin’s gift with gags is evident right from the start, and he wrings a lot of humor from the situation inside the cabin. Though not all of the comedy hits with the same strength, the overall effect is powerful. Watching the film it’s not difficult to imagine a real give and take between Chaplin and Keaton, as gags seem to be borrowed from one another. The wind that whips through the door of the cabin and won’t allow Chaplin to leave is clearly something that inspired Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr. after he changed his disaster from a flood to a cyclone. And when Chaplin is desperately trying to avoid the business end of the gun that Swain and Murray are fighting over it vividly brings to mind Keaton trying to avoid the cannon that is tied to his foot in The Navigator from the previous year.

One thing that sets the film apart is the use of special effects, far more sophisticated that the simple stop-motion that Keaton used on Three Ages. In addition to the matte shot that opens the picture, there is a dissolve with Chaplin becoming a chicken that Swain wants to eat. The most impressive effects, however, are when the cabin is about to fall off the cliff. Miniatures, stop-motion animation, and both of them combined with matte shots are used. The modern reconstruction of the film is outstanding and is really the only version worth owning. This also includes the 1942 version that Chaplin revised with sound effects and narration for modern audiences. It definitely has its own charm, but has nothing like the authority of the 1925 restoration. That restoration also contains the music Charlie Chaplin composed for the reissue, re-recorded and extended to fit, which really makes it the definitive version. The Gold Rush was Chaplin’s favorite film and it does exude a lot of confidence. It may not be my favorite, but there’s no denying its artistry.

The Rainmaker (1997)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola                        Writers: Francis Ford Coppola & Michael Herr
Film Score: Elmer Bernstein                           Cinematography: John Toll
Starring: Matt Damon, Claire Danes, Danny DeVito and Teresa Wright

After hitting it big with The Firm, author John Grisham slipped a little with books like The Pelican Brief and The Client. But when he really got back on track was with The Rainmaker. The novel was impressive enough that Francis Ford Coppola took an interest and decided to produce the film. And it’s a terrific story. Grisham was never a lawyer for any length of time and his best stories are about law students graduating and finding their way in the legal community before ultimately leaving the profession. It’s a storyline that parallels his own career. Once Grisham made the deal for The Firm, his second novel, he immediately quit. Coppola's film isn’t nearly as gripping as the novel because of the need to jettison much of the subplot involving the legal firms that the protagonist hass interviews with, as well as a far more in depth understanding of his landlord and his partner. But the parts that remain are well chosen. It also has an all-star cast and sports a magnificent blues-based score by Elmer Bernstein, all of which go together to make The Rainmaker a great film.

Matt Damon plays a Memphis law student who has just graduated. He has a difficult time finding a job and winds up going to work for Mickey Rourke, the mob lawyer of the owner of the bar where he works. There he meets a fellow ambulance chaser Danny DeVito who shows him the ropes, part of which includes haunting the hospital for possible clients. But Damon has two clients already that he met while doing a law seminar. One is Mary Kay Place, the mother of Johnny Whitworth who has leukemia and the insurance company won’t pay. Teresa Wright is his other client, an old woman who wants to cut her children out of her will. While Damon is studying for the bar exam at the hospital--Rourke wants him there so he can sign up clients--he meets Claire Danes, a young girl who is being physically abused by her psychotic husband, Andrew Shue. It’s a convoluted plot with the four elements weaving together simultaneously, his job, his relationship with Danes, the leukemia case, and the will for Wright, with whom he’s also living above her garage. But it all fits together well and is easy to follow.

It’s the typical David vs. Goliath story and it’s also very inspirational. Damon is the rookie who has to rely on a bunch of luck going up against the insurance company lawyer Jon Voight. In addition to DeVito he’s also helped by a sympathetic judge Danny Glover and star witness Virginia Madsen. Mary Kay Place is terrific as the white trash mother whose son is dying, and Mickey Rourke is impressive as the mob lawyer, his last major role before he dropped out of major motion pictures and reemerged in The Wrestler. Also rediscovered in this film was Virginia Madsen, who had been relegated to B movies prior to this. The film paved the way for her reemergence in Andrew Payne’s Sideways a few years later. Danny DeVito is a riot as the “para-lawyer” who hasn’t passed the bar exam in six tries. But then the part was really written that way in the book, and it was inspired casting by Coppola. The other ringers in the cast are Dean Stockwell as a cantankerous judge, country music star Randy Travis as a juror, and the great Roy Scheider as the insurance company CEO.

Only Francis Ford Coppola could command that kind of star power, with many of these actors willing to work in what is essentially an ensemble cast, with only Matt Damon the real star in the picture. John Grisham called the film the best adaptation of any of his books, which is something considering how good The Firm was. In monetary terms, though, the film didn’t make back as much money as the studio had hoped, earning only about five million over budget. But this makes sense. Where The Firm was a heart pounding thriller with an incredible chase scene at the end of the film, this picture is a courtroom drama with the only real threat of death coming from Danes’ psychotic and abusive husband, Andrew Shue, as she and Damon try to get her things out of their apartment. But that doesn’t make the film any less powerful. The Rainmaker is a terrific story and a fantastic film, a must for devotees of courtroom drama and essential for Grisham fans.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Director: D.W. Griffith                                    Writers: D.W. Griffith & Frank E. Woods
Music: Joseph Carl Breil                                Cinematography: G.W. Bitzer
Starring: Lillian Gish, Henry Walthall, Ralph Lewis and George Siegmann

Sigh. Okay, we have a racist film here that perpetuates blatant stereotypes and outright historical lies, denigrating blacks and making heroes of the Ku Klux Klan. On the other hand we have a film that displays a technical mastery of the medium that, over the years, has commanded respect. How are we to judge? The Birth of a Nation by cinematic pioneer D.W. Griffith has long resided atop best film lists for decades due to its innovations in the use of film grammar and the way that it created our modern sense of the motion picture. Critics have been happy to rationalize their admiration for the film by giving perfunctory apologies for the racism before launching into their laudatory assessment of the film. Thankfully, that is beginning to change. Not all at once, but there’s an increasing sense that, as critics, we can admire the mechanical mastery of the film without raising the film as a whole to some exalted status, that when considering a film for commendation relative to other films that taking into consideration the subject matter of the film is equally important. As such, I would like to see this film taken off those lists and replace by another, less offensive, Griffith work, feeling free of course to mention the innovations in this film and the way they manifest themselves in a picture more deserving of overall praise.

Before the picture even starts Griffith makes one of the most disingenuous disclaimers I have ever seen, stating in part that the film shouldn’t be censored because “we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue.” But all this really does is point up his complete ignorance about the film he made. Take a film like American History X, now that’s a film about racism that does “illuminate the bright side of virtue” by showing “the dark side of wrong” in the way the main character comes to realize the error of his ways. But The Birth of a Nation doesn’t do that; in fact, it celebrates that dark side without offering the slightest glimpse of virtue. The film begins by setting up a juxtaposition between two families, the Stoneman’s from Pennsylvania and the Cameron’s from South Carolina. The two Stoneman brothers, Elmer Clifton and Robert Harron, go south for a visit and Clifton falls for the oldest Cameron daughter, Miriam Cooper, while the oldest Cameron son, Henry Walthall, becomes infatuated with a picture of Clifton’s sister, Lillian Gish. And this sets up the standard melodramatic premise of Civil War romances.

The lies and rationalizations begin almost immediately, as the Stoneman patriarch, Ralph Lewis, apparently can’t keep his hands off the half-black housekeeper, Mary Alden, and his actions will evidently “blight a nation.” The blacks in the south are stereotypically exaggerated in terms of their servile and buffoonish behavior. Lincoln declares war, all of the brothers march off to fight, and then the narrative skips ahead two and half years. Of course, the first troops we actually see fighting are black soldiers from the North invading the Cameron home and behaving like animals as they set fire to the house with the girls trapped inside. The Confederate soldiers, naturally, come to the rescue. The younger boys are killed in the conflict, survived by Clifton and Walthall, who finally meets Gish in a Maryland hospital. The first part of the film is a rather banal summary of the Civil War. The second part begins with more rationalization, Griffith using the racist history by then president Woodrow Wilson, a racist himself, to preface the section on Reconstruction and give it legitimacy. In fact, the second half is sickening to watch as lie upon lie is perpetuated, justifying the actions of the Klan and those like them. The most ironic title card states that the Northerners are deluding the ignorant, when it is Griffith who is delusional and the ignorant are those who believe him. While Griffin did pioneer many of the devices used in the film, such as night shooting, iris effects, panoramic battle scenes and such, his stationary camera is maddening at times, especially in the interior scenes, not to mention the fact that Raoul Walsh and others were using moving camera techniques during the same period to great effect.

In The A List essay by Dave Kehr we find yet another apologist for the film. So be it. I’m sure he feels he’s demonstrating his intellectual objectivity by tossing off a sentence proclaiming it “perhaps the most virulently racist imagery ever to appear in a motion picture,” leaving him free to then gush over the film for the rest of the essay. In it he emphasizes the male/female opposition as one of sexual conquest either tamed or uncontrolled. But of course blacks take the brunt of the negative portrayals while the whites from both sides come off as the paragons of virtue. Never once does he take the idea of oppositions that he has raised and point out the fact that by the second half of the film all of the blacks are portrayed as evil--with the exception of those still loyal to their slave masters--while all whites from either side are good. Griffith in one breath spouts off about peace and yet sows the continued seeds of racial hatred in our “united” country. Kehr also gives in to the implied myth that cinema would not have advanced without this film, ignoring or oblivious to the fact that other directors had already outstripped Griffith’s talent by 1915 and that change was inevitable. The Birth of a Nation is an embarrassment to cinema, but at least it was only made once. The film is a continued embarrassment to film critics who continue to laud its construction and creator while ignoring its racist message.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Super 8 (2011)

Director: J.J. Abrams                                    Writer: J.J. Abrams
Film Score: Michael Giacchino                       Cinematography: Larry Fong
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler and Noah Emmerich

Written and directed by J.J. Abrams, director of the new Star Trek and Star Wars series, Super 8 is a love letter to films like Poltergeist and E.T. Set in the late seventies, it features a group of kids who discover something supernatural going on and are the only ones who will be able to stop it. There’s also an element of Alien as well as Predator here where the thing, whatever it is, doesn’t really make an appearance until well into the film. It’s the kind of suspense that filmmakers don’t use anymore and it’s incredibly refreshing. Lastly, the kids making the movie--hence the title of the film--is a tribute to a Disney TV movie called Mystery in Dracula’s Castle. All of that said, the film does labor under its own aspirations and never quite makes it out in one piece. But Abrams is a resourceful director and if there had been more input on the writing end the film might have fared a bit better. The special effects are good and, as always, Abrams uses them minimally and resourcefully, maintaining as much of the real settings as he can without resorting to CGI for everything--though the entire train wreck sequence was overkill.

The film begins in the aftermath of a funeral in the dead of winter. Joel Courtney’s mother died in an accident at a steel factory. Sitting outside, he watches his dad Kyle Chandler, a deputy sheriff, take Ron Eldard to jail when he tries to come inside. Four months later school is out and they are in the middle of working on Riley Griffith’s movie. He’s entering it in a competition and wants it to be as good as it can so he tries to beef up his zombie story by asking Elle Fanning to be in the film. But when they go out that night to the train station something happens and an entire Air Force train derails, nearly killing them all. Courtney had seen a truck drive onto the tracks on purpose, and the driver, Glynn Turman, tells them they can’t talk about being there or they will all be killed. Before they leave, however, Courtney takes a piece of the cargo, a strange, cube-like object. Courtney also saw something escape from the train and it’s roaming the countryside between the small towns in the area. Electronics from microwave ovens to car motors are all disappearing, people are disappearing, and dogs are running away. And when Courtney spends the evening at his mother’s gravesite, he sees it in the cemetery garage next door.

Noah Emmerich is the Air Force colonel in charge of the clean up. He knows what escaped from the train and is trying to catch it before anyone else knows. He’s also kidnapped Kyle Chandler because the deputy knows too much. And to top things off, Fanning has been taken by the monster as well. There’s an innocence to the film that reflects the seventies ethos Abrams was going for, but it loses something in the translation. In those films the great part about them was the kids being able to elude detection or capture in order to continue their quest. This film takes too much of a millennial spin by having them make impossible escapes, which diminishes the impact of what they’re doing. The rest of the film is built around relationships. The primary one is the love interest between Courtney and Fanning. There is also the relationship between Chandler and Eldard who both loathe each other. And finally there is the intricate relationship between the five boys in the group, one of whom is Gabriel Basso who was so impressive in The Big C but is given too little to do here.

Though it lacks what one would hope from this kind of homage, it can still be a compelling film in a nostalgic sort of way. Naturally the set up is far more interesting than the payoff because it’s very difficult to figure out an original way to end these sorts of stories. One only has to look at James Cameron’s The Abyss to know that. In terms of originality the film’s a definite failure, and so making an assessment of it’s worth has to be a personal one. The invocation of the past can be a good thing for some. I have to admit it made me smile in place. For others it will be a real yawner because it’s all been done before. I think I come down somewhere in the middle. I found it charming on the whole, more for the nostalgic value than anything intrinsic in the story or the camerawork, and the acting is solid and has plenty of B list talent to help things along. Super 8 is a valiant effort at capturing a cinematic time gone by, something Matinee attempted and The Artist absolutely nailed, but it never really lives up to its potential.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Birth of a Rationalization: Celebrating a Racist Film

It’s time to stop apologizing for D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Film critics seem to follow a predictable pattern when dealing with this film. Yes, they cry, it’s a racist film made from a racist novel, as if to absolve themselves from their love of the film, seeming to say now that we have that out of the way we can be justified in talking about how great this movie is. Who else does that? If the lyrics to Handel’s "Messiah" were a racist diatribe would we still be talking about how great the music is, you know, apart from those pesky lyrics? I doubt it. And if that’s the case with music, why not with film? One answer to that question can be found in a cartoon that appeared in The New Yorker. A film critic sits in a theater thinking to himself as he watches a film on the screen: “The acting, the direction, the photography, and the script are all beneath contempt, but the cutting has a certain inexplicable yeastiness.” There’s not just a willingness to allow, but the expectation that a film critic can simply throw off what he doesn’t like about a film and praise what he does despite the holistic meaning and overt message of the film, a practice that in real life doesn’t work.

There’s a beautiful scene in the film The Savages that demonstrates this very phenomenon. After the two grown children in the film (Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman) move their father (Philip Bosco) to a nursing home, they sit with him one night as he picks out his favorite film for the residents and guests to watch. It’s The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson. Toward the end of the film, before his climactic performance, the black members of the audience are made visibly uncomfortable by Jolson donning blackface in his dressing room. And Linney and Hoffman are equally uncomfortable as their father, blissfully ignorant, lost in the glow of his own reminiscences and associations the film has for him, foists this racism on others in the name of entertainment. Can a claim of artistic significance really trump the overt racism of a film? I don’t think it should. And yet I’m guilty of the same thing myself, though I hope it’s in a way that makes my position clear. Whenever I feel forced to make the caveat “if you can overlook the racism in this film,” I always follow it with, “and I’m not even suggesting that you should.” If someone wants to denounce the artistry in a film because of the obvious negative message of the piece, I’m the last one who would try to talk him out of it.

What makes this kind of criticism so troubling is that there’s clearly a double standard. You don’t hear modern critics raving about the comedic antics of Harry Reems in Deep Throat, because that’s just not done. After all, it’s only a porno film. But what’s the difference between saying that and saying, after all it’s just a racist polemic disguised as an historical drama? I would argue that there is none. Granted, when mainstream pornography like Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones first appeared in the seventies, there were critics who tried to grapple with the artistic merits of what was little more than a peep show--to use its derogatory meaning. But no modern critic will go near films like this today. And yet Deep Throat was an independent feature film, one that was highly influential at the time, and one that has a place on IMDb where films like Beaverly Hills Cop and Sex Trek are denied that recognition. While it might seem crass to equate a “genius” like D.W. Griffith with a purveyor of pornography the real question we need to ask ourselves is why. What makes the denigration of a race any less insidious than the objectification of women?

The problem for me is the designation of “genius” in the first place, as if that gives an artist license to do anything, however badly, and by virtue of the that fact it falls beneath the protective umbrella of that genius it is somehow transmuted into something good. Terrence Malick is the director that comes to mind, but whether you’re talking about “Piss Christ” or free jazz, I don’t think that’s enough. A work of art should be able to stand on its own, and be objectively judged apart from its creator. Instead of a genius it would be better to call Griffith a pioneer. And like so many pioneers, just because they were the ones who first created something doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the best at it. Not only do I not think that The Birth of a Nation is one of the greatest films in cinematic history, I don’t even think it’s the best film of 1915. Even with my limited knowledge of silent era films that distinction would go to Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration. I find the visual style in Walsh’s film much more artistically satisfying, especially his moving camera work. By contrast, Griffith’s camera work seems positively dated.

One trend that I have noticed lately on best film lists is authors opting instead for Griffith’s Intolerance, an obviously much more politically correct film than The Birth of a Nation. In some ways, though, this is a copout because it sidesteps having to deal with the earlier film by completely avoiding it. But this is still a giant leap forward compared to older criticism in which not only was Griffith not called to task for his racism, but was actually praised for it. Michael R. Pitts, in his book Hollywood and American History, is typical of this kind of misguided reading of the film. “Griffith was obviously not afraid of controversy and the theme of racial mixing and inter-marriage underlie much of the plotline of the film . . . That Griffith chose not to subdue this topic is admirable.” He then goes on to patronize his readers by claiming that “Griffith did not consider himself a racist and, in fact, he had a great love for the Negro people” (64). But the most damning comment about the filmmaker again comes in the form of praise, “Griffith believed in the conception of paternalism. This notion simply meant that the Negro people as a whole were not capable of totally looking after themselves and needed to be guided by whites. Although this is undoubtedly a subliminally racist notion those who practiced it did so with no overt hostility toward blacks” (65).

In the end, I’m not sure it really matters whether or not Griffith himself was racist. His film clearly is, so if he couldn’t see it what does that say about him? I don’t necessarily believe that Griffith was attempting any "overt hostility toward blacks," but like the U.S. President at the time, Woodrow Wilson, he did believed in the Southern gentleman’s agreement that blacks were naturally inferior to whites. What else could lead a man to spend so much time and expense producing a film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan? Bob Dylan was once quoted as saying, “The biggest criminals of all are the people who see wrong, know that it’s wrong, and turn away from it with no regard for the suffering taking place.” I’ll leave the decision as to whether or not Griffith was a criminal to Mr. Dylan, but there’s no denying that Griffith’s film perpetuated those beliefs at a time when lynching of blacks was causing enormous suffering among that population, especially in the South. So I think it’s time to stop venerating that particular piece of “art” and see it for what it is. There are plenty of other Griffith films that display his considerable talents without having to rationalize its existence with yet another, “Yes it’s racist, but . . .”