November 27, 2012

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One of the advantages of being home for the holidays are the huge gaps of time that open up when work and other daily annoyances fade from view. In the lazy hours surrounding Thanksgiving I hunkered down in front of my family’s DVR and monolithic tube TV, searching the TCM schedule for something to while away the hours with. One particular item caught my eye, an early morning screening of Gregory La Cava’s Bed of Roses (1933). The description mentioned steamboats and female con-artistry, two of my favored subjects, so I clicked record in sweaty anticipation. The film turned out to be far more than an amiable time-killer, but an astoundingly subversive pre-code with some of La Cava’s finest lowdown dialogue. Wondering what other gems lay hidden in early 1930s La Cava, I also tracked down The Half Naked Truth (1932), which was a looser but still uproarious bit of scam artist screwball.

The Half Naked Truth was the fifth film Gregory La Cava directed for RKO, and the third straight produced by David O. Selznick. Following two dramas on which he didn’t receive a screenwriting credit (Symphony of Six Million and Age of Consent), La Cava was handed The Anatomy of Ballyhoo, the 1931 memoir of press agent Harry Reichenbach. Filled with outrageous incident, La Cava and Corey Ford’s script is a marvel of escalatingly elaborate scams, testing the limits of American gullibility, although much was probably re-written on the set. In a 1937 letter proposing La Cava be hired as a director-producer, Selznick wrote: “La Cava would drive me crazy as a director with the rewriting he does on set, for as you know I don’t like any projection-room surprises or shocks, but if he were his own producer we could take chance that he would shock himself.” Selznick never made him producer, but conveyed the kind of on-set improvisation that led to La Cava’s freest movies, which crackle with possibility.

Changing the name to The Half Naked Truth, the movie follows Jimmy Bates (Lee Tracy) on his rise from carnival barker to Broadway impresario. Eager to prove that not only is there a sucker born every minute, but probably every second, Bates invents outrageous backstories for his gal Teresita (Lupe Velez) and pal Achilles (Eugene Pallette) at every stop, from scorned orphan to Turkish Princess, and it makes him money every time. He states his position to the carnival owner: “the world wants excitement, sensation, baloney!”. Part of a spate of comic con man movies that flowered during the Depression, including Hard to Handle (’33, with James Cagney) and The Mind Reader (’33, starring Warren William), The Half Naked Truth made light of the fact that the only possible way to make a living was to lie, cheat or steal.

Lee Tracy is ideal casting as the motormouth promoter (despite later being sued by Selznick for repeatedly showing up late to the set). He spits out hilariously ridiculous lines with a mix of bravado and self-absorption, as when he tells Lupe Velez to, “stick with me baby, the next stop is Broadway”, as the fair burns down behind him due to his previous scheme’s spectacular failure. By the time he brings a lion into a hotel room or invents a nudist colony that parades through NYC, it becomes clear he can sell anything to anyone.

After directing the bizarre liberal fascist fantasy Gabriel Over the White House (1933, read J. Hoberman’s An Army of Phantoms on that one), La Cava was assigned another scamming Depression-era character in Bed of Roses (1933), this time a cynical prostitute hustler played by Constance Bennett. The original script by Wanda Tuchock was spruced up by La Cava and Eugene Thackrey (both receive “dialogue” credits), and is a boozy dip into the world of drunk-rolling Johns and blackmailing rich patrons. Lorry Evans (Bennett) is a jaw-droppingly amoral character who uses her formidable sexual allure to rob a boll weevil exterminator and cotton barge captain (Joel McCrea), before having herself installed in high-rise luxury by publisher Stephen Paige (John Halliday).

While Jimmy Bates bent the law to climb the ladder of success, Lorry is an out and out criminal, and Constance Bennett’s buzzed, almost slow-motion performance makes it seem positively alluring. The strengthening Production Code had just begun, and some were concerned about the film’s tone. In April of ’33,  Studio Relations Committee head Dr. James Wingate urged the film’s producer Merian C. Cooper to, “show some positive qualities of retribution and regeneration that will counter-balance this apparent glorifying of an unscrupulous adventuress.” It is unknown what changes were made to the original script, although later scenes of Lorry living an ascetic lifestyle to “prove” she could go straight were likely added due to urgings such as these.

The role of “unscrupulous adventuress” was a departure for Bennett, with The Motion Picture Herald describing it as, “quite different from Connie’s usual society stuff”, and Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times wrote in his review that it was, “disconcerting to see her emerging from a reformatory”. But Bennett seems to relish the opportunity to go slumming, with a shoulder raised and back arched, as if a bow pulled taut before flinging itself at its target. Bennett is aided in her tawdry crimes by Pert Kelton, who plays the even seamier Minnie with a spot-on imitation of Mae West, her suggestive nasal drawl and thunderous hip swagger enough to bring a few middle-western rubes to their knees.

What gives Bed of Roses an emotional kick, however, is the no-nonsense romance between Lorry and the cotton barge captain, Dan. Their meet-cute has Dan fish Lorry out of the bay after she escapes from the cops, with Lorry then tossing him into the drink for impugning her virtue. The romantic climax is no top of the Empire State Building affair, but a charged exchange of sharpened words in a shabby tenement.

The mix of McCrea’s open-hearted sweetness and Bennett’s world-weary resignation elicits not sparks but genuine warmth, and their courtship is without illusions. Neither care for past improprieties – Dan brushes off the revelation of Lorry’s whoring past with a shrug – both are only concerned for what the present may bring. It’s a tough and loving and uproarious work, and should be placed alongside My Man Godfrey (1936) as Gregory La Cava’s best. And after forcing my parents to watch it the day before Thanksgiving, my mother would agree. She said it was her new favorite movie.


March 29, 2011

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In the third and final short film in Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Vanquished (I Vinti, 1953), a youthful British strangler walks out of a double bill at The Saffron theater. The headliner is the Esther Williams musical comedy Skirts Ahoy (1952), with Jacques Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown (1950) as the “B” picture. Aubrey (played by Peter Reynolds), is the fame-seeking young poet exiting the cinema, ready to commit his so-called perfect crime. But did perky Esther Williams or the avuncular Joel McCrea make him do it? I encourage one and all to stage your own version of this twofer and see if any homicidal rage bubbles up. Please report in the comments. But alas, Antonioni doesn’t answer this pressing question in The Vanquished itself. What is undeniably true is that both The Vanquished and Stars in my Crown both received recent DVD releases, from RaroVideo and the Warner Archive, respectively. It’s a dreamlike bit of capitalist coincidence, and one of those secret joys of cinephilic pursuits.

RaroVideo is a cult Italian DVD label that initiated a North American wing earlier this month, starting out with Fellini’s I Clownsthe Fernando Di Leo Collection and the pretty 1974 horror film The Perfume of the Lady in Black. Today they drop The Vanquished. In the ever-shrinking DVD market, they are an idiosyncratic godsend, plucking high- and low-brow gems from Italian film libraries.

The Vanquished is an omnibus film, containing three short films of teenage rebellion and murder in three different cities: France, Italy and England. Released the same year, 1953, as Marlon Brando’s leather-clad rebellion in The Wild One,  it was partaking of the worldwide paranoia regarding juvenile delinquency that would peak with Rebel Without a Cause two years later. Adapting three real-life crimes, the production was hit with official protests, and severe changes were made to the script before production. It was Antonioni’s second feature, following 1950′s Chronicle of a Love Affair, and without any leverage he had to bow to their demands. Because of imposed re-shoots and other post-production difficulties, The Vanquished was released into theaters months after The Lady Without Camelias, which is often credited as his second film as a director, although it was the third he shot.

The French section was modeled after the “Affaire J3″, in which a young man, Alain Guyader, was killed by his schoolmates during a picnic in the woods near Paris. Google Books has made available an article on the murder in LIFE magazine from June 4th, 1951. Through the years of rationing during and following WWII, “J3″ was the government’s code for cardholders from the ages of 15 to 18. The anonymous writer notes that now, “the term has become the symbol for a tragic story of adolescent intrigue, confusion and murder”, opining on the “fearsome look the trial provided into the curious dream world in which these adolescents lived and played at adult affairs.” That is, they acted like they were in a movie, this time a WWII French Resistance film.

The scandal of it all was that these children were from solidly bourgeois families, so the usual bromides about violence originating in poverty couldn’t be trotted out. This was something new, and newly ascribed to this generation being raised during a world war, inured to bloodshed. They are what the film’s tacked-on introduction describes as the “burnt-out generation”. This group of teens played at being black marketeers and revolutionaries: “When studies seemed unexciting, they created their own excitement, hatching plans to organize a great new Maquis [a rural guerilla bands in the Resistance]  if the Russians would come. They would make a fortune in the black market…and would run arms to the Middle East.” This adolescent cell grew tired of Guyader’s boasts, including his declarations that he was “a man of his times” as well as made up love affairs with other members of the group. Setting up a mock trail, the Maquis declared “he was too vain and would have to die.” They scripted their own drama.

This episode in The Vanquished was the subject of a “defamatory press campaign” and protested by the family members of the “J3″ teens. The French Ministry of Commerce refused to grant an export visa, blocking the transportation of the negative to Italy. Although it eventually got through, France still banned the film until 1963. Antonioni’s handling of the material is anything but exploitative – opting for a talky naturalism, with long-take group shots of the kids joining and breaking-up in endless waves. It skimps on the details of the murder in favor of a disconcerting reverie. The group has already decided to kill, so they spend their time gallivanting through the verdant woods, talking of their lame parents and fickle crushes. It is indebted to neorealism, with its use of real locations and unaffected performance,  but Antonioni’s penchant for intensely psychologized spaces and architecture crops up in the final scene. The murder takes place in the ruins of a castle, reflecting the fractured fairy tales cycling through these embryonic Red Brigadeers’ heads.

The Italian episode was hacked to pieces. The original scenario, as described by Stefania Parigi, was to follow a “hotheaded fascist who sets up his own suicide in such a way that the blame seems to lie with the Communists.” This was based on the story of Achille Billi, a young fascist who was murdered and dumped into the Tiber River. The April 25th, 1949 issue of Life magazine has a photo of the funeral, captioned FASCISM REVIVES. The photo shows an overflowing crowd (credited as over 5,000) giving his coffin the Fascist salute. The producers gutted the scenario, first changing the main character to a violent leftist who bombs an arms depot (this version is presented as an extra on the disc), and then removing politics entirely, requiring re-shoots to change him into a small-time smuggler. The result is a rather ridiculous, neutered scenario – a high schooler ends up  bossing around a grizzled bunch of black marketeers. But it certainly looks stunning, filmed mostly at night in low-light chiaroscuro by Enzo Serafin.

The final section, with our beloved Aubrey, was based on the crime committed by 19 year old Herbert Mills, who strangled an older prostitute in the suburbs of London, “for no apparent reason” (Parigi, liner notes). This section seems to have been left untouched, and in an Antonioni anomaly, is a rather straightforward Hitchcockian mystery. Reminiscent of Robert Walker’s epicene character in Strangers on a Train, Aubrey is after the perverse pleasure of getting away with murder, a decadent Raskolnikov. It becomes clear early on that he is guilty, the question becomes how he did it, and whether he’ll get away with it. Peter Reynolds, playing Aubrey, is a self-deluding delight as the muckracking murderer, who smirks his way to the newspaper as he trumps up publicity for the crime he just “witnessed.” Maybe Aubrey saw Strangers on a bill right before Stars in My Crown, and wanted his own slice of notorious fame and fortune (Antonioni might have had this short in mind during Blowup, with its concluding shot of a tennis match).  J. Hoberman, in his Cold War histories,  would say they were just participating in the violent dream life of nations.

In Stars in My Crown, the dream is of an idealized past. The whole film is a flashback reminiscence of John Kenyon (Dean Stockwell), whose voice-over forthrightly idealizes the small Southern town of Walesburg that he grew up in. Jacques Tourneur famously took a pay cut to direct this modest triumph, and it was the favorite of his films. What is immediately striking is the unreliability of the narration – which is focalized solely through Kenyon’s perspective. In his opening voice-over, he states, “According to the words of the song we are promised a city of gold in the hereafter. I used to think that was a long time to have to wait. But I know now that there is a city of gold right here on Earth for every one of us. The city of our youth.” We can return to our memories of childhood to construct our vision of heaven. The story to follow will be an act of Kenyon’s imagination, his personal Utopia.

Joel McCrea is the Pastor who raises Kenyon, a folksy preacher who can joke and fish as well as read the gospel. He is a man of the world as well as a man of God, and his wife Harriet (Ellen Drew) is equally wise, beautiful in body and soul. McCrea is a jovial oak, laying down roots with every stride of his giant frame, bringing the community around him in the tight medium-shots that Tourneur frames the majority of the film inside. These frames are egalitarian spaces in which any member of the town can take center stage, from the half-wit Chloroform (Arthur Hunnicut) to Uncle Famous (Juano Hernandez), the African-American livestock farmer who has acted as the entire town’s generous godfather.

The relationship between the Pastor and Harriet is one of the most genuinely loving depictions of marriage ever put on film. One scene, and a few gestures, stand out. Kenyon contracts Typhoid, and the adoptive mother and father take turns watching over him. Pastor tells Harriet to take a rest. She goes to her bed, and fights back a sob, wondering aloud if the boy understands how she loves him like her own. McCrea, standing above her, silently lets her work through her emotions. Then, he notices her taking out two hairpins, to get ready for bed, as she continues her monologue. Without a word he takes over this ritual, silently plucking out the remaining pins, and then straightening her hair as it tumbles down. The Pastor’s gestures allow Harriet to allow her entire body to grieve – he has seamlessly taken over the practical rituals of her evening in order to let this take place. It is both comfort and freedom, and an indication of the complex density of their bond.

Antonioni and Tourneur present nightmares and dreams of youth in this impromptu double bill. If you’re feeling frisky, you can also add Tourneur’s Days of Glory (1944), just released by the Warner Archive. Released in the short window of Hollywood pro-Soviet propaganda towards the end of WWII, it presents a bustling anti-Nazi resistance cell in Russia, led by Gregory Peck in his first starring role. Saddled by a ponderous script and the Manichean dictates of the propaganda machine, it’s a minor, frustrating work, but Tourneur still manages some striking scenes of communal living. Managing deep focus in this makeshift hovel, he establishes multiple planes of action as the group oils their guns, boils their soup, and plots for Soviet victory. It’s a canned, albeit elegant, dream of romantic revolutionaries, the flip side of the canned nihilistic violence in THE VANQUISHED. STARS IN MY CROWN is the only fantasy here that is worth believing in.


February 9, 2010

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The top image is from High Sierra (1941), of Humphrey Bogart slugging Alan Curtis in the jaw with his pistol. The bottom image is from the same scene in its remake, Colorado Territory (1949), of Joel McCrea knocking out James Mitchell with a meaty right hand. Both films were directed by Raoul Walsh – the first a gangster movie, the second a Western. Historically speaking, High Sierra is more important for its crystallization of the Humphrey Bogart persona: mulish, bitter, doomed. His good-bad guy Roy Earle was originally slated to be played by both Paul Muni and George Raft, until their queasiness with the script paved Bogart’s way to stardom. And so, it receives a fine DVD transfer and continuous play on TV and at repertory theaters.  Colorado Territory has no such claim to history, except as a superior piece of genre filmmaking, so it receives a beat-up, fuzzy transfer in the Warner Archive. So it goes.

It’s fascinating to compare the two films in how they approach narrative, set-design, and performance. Let’s get the basic story out of the way (spoilers!) before I chart some of the divergences: a feared heist-artist gets out of jail, and is hired for one more big job by his aging, sickly boss. On the way to his target, he falls in love with a fresh-faced gamine, who eventually rejects him for a younger guy back home. Taking up with the salty dance-hall girl who loved him all along, he tries to escape with his latest haul, but gets chased into the mountains and gunned down from afar.

The shift in time-period (from contemporary to turn-of-the-century) completely changes Walsh’s visual palette. Most of High Sierra takes place in bland indoor spaces: a cabin hideaway, a grubby motel room, a swank hotel lobby. These are spaces of transit, areas that Earle can abandon at a moment’s notice. The only semi-permanent space is the suburban home where his club-footed teenage crush resides (played with sickly sweet naivete by Joan Leslie), where a rather unendurable stretch of doe-eyed sentiment lands, running completely counter to Bogart’s cynical demeanor in the rest of the film. It is not one of screenwriter John Huston’s finer moments, and drags down the film for me as a whole. The author of the novel, W.R. Burnett (Little Caesar), was brought on for rewrites to satisfy Paul Muni, but I think most of the blame for the clunky structure can be placed on Huston. This section excepted, however, the sets emphasize impermanence, banality, and lassitude, which Bogart slides into with ashen brutality. It’s an incandescent performance, but the film doesn’t hold up around him.

Colorado Territory is the inverse. McCrea is a competent, but much less nuanced performer, so Walsh invests Bogart’s menace in the set design, compresses the storyline to emphasize his athleticism, and opens up the visual space for more propulsive action. He builds around him – and creates a much more complete work of art. McCrea’s Wes McQueen is truly defined by the landscape here, where in High Sierra Bogart is left adrift in a sea of John Huston’s exposition.

The main settings in Colorado Territory are a  decrepit Spanish mission town, a moving train, and a more extended stay in the mountains (shot in and around Gallup, New Mexico). The mission town is abandoned, just a complex latticework of collapsed roofs, beams and crosses (the art direction was by Ted Smith, the set decoration by Fred M. MacLean). It’s a far denser space than Earle’s cabin hideaway, and potently expresses the sense of imminent destruction that High Sierra mainly locates in Bogart’s brilliant broken down mutterings. And where Bogart’s heist takes place in static medium shots for a hotel safe-cracking, McCrea’s occurs in a thrilling moving train takedown – a hurtling sequence that pushes the pace forward through the end of the film. It telescopes Earle/McQueen’s crush on the young girl into a few sparkling scenes (moved along by Dorothy Malone’s more mature, flirtatious performance), introduces a melancholic backstory with a few well-placed lines (the memory of a lover’s face), and emphasizes his physicality with a gruesome bullet-plucking scene. Virginia Mayo rips it out with suspicious skill, a clever way to fill in her previous life with nary a word spoken. Her dance hall gal  is conflicted and fiery throughout, unlike High Sierra’s Ida Lupino, who switches from bad girl to agreeable wife material with one slice of the editor’s guillotine.

Wes McQueen is thoroughly subjugated to the nature around him, a speck on the locomotive at his successful heist and a dot in the valley before he’s gunned down. High Sierra pulls a similar comparison, but with less narrative compression. There are detours into a city park as he moonily stares at the sky, and to his old family farm where he talks catfish with a young boy – excess scenes that exist merely to fill in backstory. In Colorado Territory, Walsh finds a way to squeeze in these details in the midst of the action – making for a spring-loaded, densely told tale, crisply shot by Sid Hickox, who Walsh called “the best and fastest cameraman of them all.” (and who also shot White Heat the same year). Walsh valued speed above all, having directed near 140 films in his astonishingly varied career.

This post has been mainly about contrasts – but I’ll end with similarities. These films were shot 8 years apart, but Walsh uses some of the same setups to remarkable effect. First there is the introduction of the respective dance-hall girls – who are first shown obscured. Ida Lupino is hidden behind a tree, and then Walsh cuts to a shot of her feet before panning up to her suspicious face. Virginia Mayo is also introduced seated, her head down as she musses her hair, before another dramatic head-raiser, eyes blazing.

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Then there is the final shoot-outs, which are both remarkable for their extreme long shots from the killer’s POV, emphasizing the distance and ease with which the deed is carried out. Their murder is impersonal, enacted by a stranger, almost as if the land was reclaiming them for itself. The top two are from High Sierra, the bottom two are from Colorado Territory:

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