GEORGIA ON MY MIND: MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL (1997)

October 11, 2016

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Clint Eastwood’s improbable late career run continues with Sully, an exquisite multi-perspective rendering of Sully Sullenberger’s “Miracle on the Hudson” emergency plane landing. Replaying the pivotal moment over and over, from the point-of-view of the plane crew, air traffic controllers, and Coast Guard, Eastwood displays how Sully’s heroism was the result of dozens of professionals working in concert. Eastwood took a similar approach to Midnight in the Garden Of Good and Evil, his box-office failure from 1997. Adapted from the phenomenally popular true crime novel by John Berendt (at the time it was the record holder for longest time spent on the New York Times bestseller list – 216 weeks), it is a portrait of the vices and virtues of an eccentric Savannah community – and how those interlocking society pieces led to the murder of an errand boy. Digressive and character driven, Eastwood’s film spends a leisurely 155 minutes to reach an ambiguous Rashomon-like conclusion. In the wake of Sully’s critical and box office success, it is worth revisiting Midnight, which was just released in a fine-looking Blu-ray by the Warner Archive.

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Eastwood became aware of the project when screenwriter John Lee Hancock, who wrote the script for A Perfect World, showed him his stab at an adaptation. The book was considered unfilmable, due to the proliferating number of characters and the labyrinthine details of the plot. Hancock did a lot of condensing, collapsing four murder trials into one while excising characters. According to Eastwood’s interview with Michael David Henry (published in Clint Eastwood: Interviews), Warner Brothers was considering turning the property into an outright comedy, but he convinced them to go with Hancock’s script, which he would direct. Being able to include one of his favorite songwriters (Savannah’s Johnny Mercer) all over the soundtrack probably helped goad him to take the job.

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The story circles around Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey), a nouveau riche Savannah socialite and closeted homosexual who kills one of his employees and lovers Billy Hanson (Jude Law) after one of his famed Christmas parties. He claims self defense, but the police believe the scene to have been contrived, and that Billy was shot in cold blood. Into this mystery steps freelance writer John Kelso (John Cusack), in town to churn out a puff piece on the party, but who sees a much bigger story in the killing. Williams grants Kelso access into his world in return for a free exchange of information  – and the two form an uneasy alliance. Kelso is the Berendt and audience stand-in who stumbles around Savannah getting to know the city’s  people, including nightclub singer Mandy (Alison Eastwood, Clint’s daughter), the drag queen MC Lady Chablis (playing herself – she passed away earlier this year), and voodoo priestess Minerva (Irma P. Hall).

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The film was shot on location in Savannah, and starred some of the real people from the story – most significantly Lady Chablis plays herself, and she sashays away with the film. In an interview with The Advocate close to the film’s release, Eastwood discusses the casting of Chablis: “I thought, why go beyond the real thing when the real thing is any good? This is Chablis’ whole life. She lives this day in day out, so she can play it effortlessly. I didn’t want the film to have the usual gay cliches. I wanted the gay element of Savannah to have a reality to it and not be some straight guy’s interpretation.” Lady Chablis had been disappointed in straight guys’ interpretation of the drag lifestyle before, telling The Advocate , “I don’t enjoy movies like To Wong Foo. I do not like anything stereotypical at all. In To Wong Foo, Wesley Snipes was just like big old Wesley Snipes in a dress — making fun of, you know, people who do this very seriously.”

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Lady Chablis is a very serious performer, a slinky acid-tongued presence that seems to bend the film to her will, suspending narrative time to make room for her act. In her scenes with John Cusack, who does his fine hesitating everyman routine, Cusack becomes just another spectator, watching as she extemporizes folk wisdom (“Two tears in a bucket, motherfuck it”), or tears up the dance floor at a black cotillion ball. Eastwood clearly loved working with her, since he grants her whole sequences that have very little to do with the central narrative, including the trip to the cotillion, in which she shows up in a tight sequined gown and dirty dances with one of the straitlaced male guests. Eastwood said he could have “easily dropped” this sequence, “but for me, such details, the way they compose an atmosphere, are what makes the film more than a straight court drama.”

It is perhaps these details, the focus on local color and sense of place, that soured critics and moviegoers. There is little traditional tension and release here. Kevin Spacey’s character is a charismatic, sympathetic figure, a collector of beautiful things whose sexuality made him a curiosity as long as it was an open secret. Once it became an open fact, all his friends faded away. But there is no clarity to his crime, as he offers two different versions of events at different parts in the film, never revealing what is the real truth. It was either self defense or cold blooded murder, but either way he will get his comeuppance in the next life. Spacey has made a career out of these smoothly insinuating egomaniacs, and he is wonderful here, his Williams has compartmentalized every aspect of his life so well he has become naive – shocked that his “friends” leave him after his arrest and seemingly blissfully unaware of the dangers that face him.

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The murder is replayed many times in re-enactments that keep shifting the more the story is told. Unlike Sully there is only one surviving perspective, that of Williams, so there is no certainty, no closure. Where Sully finds heroism in the everyday execution of work, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil only finds mystery. Perhaps it is this ambiguity that doomed Midnight, or maybe it is the film’s loping sprawl, allowing star turns from Lady Chablis and extended cameos from dogs both invisible (a porter takes a long dead canine on a daily stroll) and of local fame – the Georgia Bulldog mascot Uga makes a memorable extended cameo huffing and puffing down a Savannah park.

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Eastwood told Michael David Henry his theory for the film’s failure: “What amuses me is the state of confusion this country’s critics are in. They keep complaining that we are not making character-driven films like in the 1930s and ’40s, but on the other hand they rave about action-driven movies that are devoid of any complexity. I think the influence of television has transformed the way movies are perceived. There is a whole generation, the MTV generation, which wants things to keep rolling all the time. You never linger, you never revisit anything. Whatever the case may be, I can’t worry about it. I filmed the story that I wanted to film.”  I would be curious to hear Eastwood’s opinion on the glut of contemporary “prestige” television programming, and whether that has brought back an appreciation for his kind of character-driven films. In any case it’s a pleasure to watch Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil now, the normal courtroom drama trappings subsumed in an exploration of the gay community of Savannah, Georgia, standing as a tribute to the dynamic presence, humor, and humanity of the late Lady Chablis.

OTHER GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933: GIRL MISSING (1933)

September 20, 2016

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In the first scene of Girl Missing (1933), Guy Kibbee tries to seduce Mary Brian with the line: “I don’t feel fatherly, I feel…hotcha!” And so begins this randy, money-grubbing, mystery-solving pre-code starring Brian and motormouth Glenda Farrell. They are two out-of-work chorus girls indulging in some gold-digging to leach cash from old lechers. But in the wildly convoluted plot that races through 68 minutes, they get roped into the murder of a mafia bookie and the disappearance of a society dame (or so she seems). It’s a trial run for Farrell’s tamer post-code Torchy Blane (nine films between 1937 – 1939) movies, in which she played a sassy investigative newsgal sans sexual innuendo. In Girl Missing Farrell machine-guns her dialogue to mow down con-men, con-women, and anyone else who has the misfortune to walk past her in the frame. It airs tomorrow on TCM at 6:15AM, and is also available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

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Girl Missing was the first film that Robert Florey directed for Warner Brothers after a tendentious run at Universal (he was removed from Frankenstein after extensive pre-production work) and a short one at independent studio K.B.S. Florey’s career continues to fascinate – he was a French born artist who worked as an assistant director to Louis Feuillade, Chaplin and von Sternberg who made a name for himself with the experimental short The Life and Death of 9413 – A Hollywood Extra (1928, watch here), directed with Slavko Vorkapich and Gregg Toland. A mournful satire of an artist getting chewed up by the movie business, Florey would go on to have a long career in the Bs and then on television. He acclimated to WB’s quick and snappy style, finishing shooting on Girl Missing in thirteen days at a cost of $107,000, per the AFI Catalog. It is no surprise then, that his work pleased studio boss Darryl Zanuck, who sent Florey a memo after viewing an early cut: “a very fine job…in record time. I am certain that the picture will cut up into a fast moving melodrama with a lot of swell comedy and a lot of unusual angles.”

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Zanuck is not far off the mark, although there are no unusual angles – the expressionism that Florey was identified with from his work on Murders in the Rue Morgue is not on display, as there couldn’t have been time for any elaborate set-ups – plus the scenario didn’t lend itself to elaborate stylization. This is a film about speed in front of and behind the camera, and Florey does his job obligingly. He received his next assignment, Ex Lady, within days of finishing Girl Missing. Zanuck called him at 3AM to be at the set in a few hours. Florey responded that he “wanted to know if it was a comedy or drama; who was the star of the film; and perhaps I could get the script…or was it too much to ask?” He finished shooting that in 18 days – and I wrote about that one here.

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Girl Missing concerns the disappearance of Daisy Bradford (Peggy Shannon), who was due to marry the super-rich Henry Gibson (Ben Lyon). Kay Curtis (Glenda Farrell) and June Dale (Mary Brian), are out-of-work chorines not above digging for gold who stumble into a plot to bilk Gibson out his cash.  They recognize Daisy from their hoofer days – she is not the society dame she presented herself as, and a whole conspiracy begins to unravel at their feet. Girl Missing loses its tempo when Farrell is off-screen, which occurs far too much in a film barely over an hour. There is a lot of futzing about with the rich Henry Gibson (a deadly dull Ben Lyon), which had me checking my watch until Farrell stalked back on-screen with her sassy Sherlock Holmes routine.

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Farrell had yet to be paired with her acid-tongued blonde counterpart Joan Blondell, but Mary Brian is game as her gamine accomplice. Their early setup works with Brian as the bait and Farrell as the staller, the one who keeps the old horndogs from getting too handsy. Farrell is the bane of Guy Kibbee’s existence (my main complaint with the film – not enough Kibbee), putting everyone off with pungent dialogue (credited to Ben Markson). There are such gems like, “Working for a living’s old fashioned, but on the other hand so is starving to death.” Or her reaction to Daisy’s nuptials: “When I think of it I could bite a battleship in two.” Joan Blondell described Farrell’s working methods for Hollywood magazine in 1936:

“When she goes into a scene she never follows the script to the sacrifice of her naturalness. She acts just as she would if the same situation arose in her every-day life. In other words, she suits the part to her personality instead of trying to suit her personality to the script. She handles dialogue the same way and never tries to twist her tongue around expressions foreign to her own way of speaking. Before we go into a scene, we go over our lines together and revise them, without changing their meaning, until they fit our mouths.”

Everything is a little snappier when it comes out in Farrell’s nasally purr. We should be thankful she was around for the pre-code era, which gave her the freedom to make these B movies faster, funnier, and more like herself.

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OPIATE OF THE MASSES: SILK STOCKINGS (1957)

August 9, 2016

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Silk Stockings (1957) is remembered less for what it is than what it represents – the end of the Golden Age of MGM musicals. It was adapted from the last musical Cole Porter wrote for the stage, contains Fred Astaire’s final leading performance, and was director Rouben Mamoulian’s farewell feature film. Viewed outside of that melancholic context, the film is a peppy Cold War burlesque that turns the ideological battle of Communism and capitalism into a decision between cold logic and effortless entertainment (guess what wins). Astaire reunites with his Band Wagon co-star Cyd Charisse to solve East-West relations through dance and expensive undergarments. An enormous hit in its time, it was the highest grossing musical to ever play Radio City Music Hall, but its reputation has suffered since. Silk Stockings deserves a better fate than to be an answer to an end-of-career trivia question, and  Warner Archive is helping by releasing it on Blu-ray. It will also screen on TCM this coming Sunday, August 14th, at 6PM.

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Since 1939 Arthur Freed had run a musical production unit inside MGM that made the studio famous, but at the time of Silk Stockings he was no longer under contract. He formed Arthur Freed Productions, and Silk Stockings was the new entity’s first film, to be distributed by MGM. They had invested in the 1955 Broadway musical of the same name, which had a book by George S. Kaufman, Leueen MacGrath, and Abe Burrows and music by Cole Porter. It was itself based on Ernst Lubitsch’s 1939 film Ninotchka and Melchior Lengyel’s story that inspired it, pitting Hollywood producer Steve Canfield  (Astaire) against strait-laced Russian commissar Ninotchka (Cyd Charisse). In the film she is sent to Paris to retrieve composer Peter Boroff (Wim Sonneveld), a Russian icon who Canfield is wooing to write the music for his next film, a “loose” adaptation of War and Peace to star Peggy Dayton (a loopy, wonderful Janis Paige). Canfield has to convince the straitlaced Communist to allow Boroff to participate in this capitalist enterprise, and perhaps open her eyes to the pleasures of the decadent Western lifestyle.

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It essentially transposes the high-art/low-art divide of The Band Wagon onto the Cold War. The pretentious Faust opera of The Band Wagon is now the Russian symphony of Boroff’s “Ode to a Tractor”. Both need to bow to the easy spontaneity of Astaire’s more approachable, personable art. There is little difference in the Freed Unit’s conception of high art and Communism, both are depicted as self-obsessed ideologies that ignore pleasure in favor of sterile, elitist thought.

The character of Ninotchka is broken down from a fiercely independent bureaucrat into a silk-stroking, conspicuously consuming wife. The flirtation that leads to this point is awfully entertaining, including her come-ons like: “The arrangement of your features is not entirely repulsive to me.” Ninotchka trades in her mind for more awareness of her body, most spectacularly in a sinuous pas de deux with Canfield during “All Of Me”.

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The Broadway tunes by Cole Porter were deemed “unacceptably vulgar” by the production code and had to be cleaned up for the film, robbing the meta-Hollywood parody “Stereophonic Sound” of the lines: ““If Zanuck’s latest picture were the good old-fashioned kind, / There’d be no one in front to look at Marilyn’s behind.” Porter would pen two new songs exclusive to the feature: “Fated to be Mated” and the fascinatingly lame rock pastiche”The Ritz Roll and Rock”. Freed had the songs, but he had some difficulty convincing Astaire to return to the screen. The debonair actor was concerned he was too old to play a leading man (he was 57, Charisse was 35), and he had never met Mamoulian before. Freed made the unpopular choice of hiring Rouben Mamoulian to direct, who had done groundbreaking work in the musical at the start of his career with the sound collages of Applause (1929) and Love Me Tonight (1932). But those were long ago, and he hadn’t directed for nearly a decade, not since the Mickey Rooney flop Summer Holiday (1948).

July 1957: Film star dancers Fred Astaire (Frederick Austerlitz) (1899 - 1987) and Cyd Charisse (Tula Ellice Finklea/Lily Norwood) as they appear in 'Silk Stockings' which opens at the Empire Theatre on August 1st 1957.

Freed still had enough weight to push his choice through, and Astaire, was initially reluctant until Mamoulian met him in person. Mamoulian told Astaire that (as quoted in Hugh Fordin’s M-G-M’S GREATEST MUSICALS: THE ARTHUR FREED UNIT), “I see all the young actors today on the screen and none of them can match you in charm or romantic appeal. So, for heaven’s sake get off that peg – you’re not too old!”. He also sketched out his vision for the film to the actor, “I think we can introduce a new element-pantomime-in place of extended dialogue. We’ll have high comedy with the three Russian commissars and a love story that is believable and touching.” Astaire was convinced, writing to Freed that, “I’m so pleased with his viewpoints on the picture.” With star, subject, and director locked in, the film was shot entirely in Culver City from November 1956 to January 1957. Astaire’s dances were choreographed by Hermes Pan, the rest of the Broadway show choreographer Eugene Loring.

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One of the “Three Russian commissars” that Mamoulian mentions is Peter Lorre, on the downswing of his career but still a pungent screen presence. His apparatchik has fallen hard for the Western lifestyle, and is a regular customer at the Folies Bergeres, his froggy face lighting up at its mention.  It is remarkable to watch Lorre’s uncanny features and lumpen legs work their way through a musical sequence – with Loring giving him one little joke to work wit – he does the Russian Cossack dance (the squatting kicks) – but only when propped up on two items (tables, chairs, pianos). He goes at it with a deadpan stare and mechanical efficiency, and is hilarious. I would advise keeping your eyes on Lorre in the long shots inside the CinemaScope frame, he’s always reacting, flinching, or rearing.

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Silk Stockings is a bizarre, fascinating, and perversely entertaining, a film where Cyd Charisse belts out the phrase “bourgeois entertainment” during this most bourgeois of entertainments. It presents Charisse at her most cutting and funny when she is at her most anti-capitalist, and at her most beautiful and free when she has caved to the pleasures of the flesh. The only way out is to go into the movies, as one of the loveliest dances, “Fated to be Mated”, which Porter wrote for the film, has Astaire and Charisse twirl through a series of backlot sets. The song title sounds like a threat, but in the dance and in Mamoulian’s framing they are given balanced space on screen. Equality at last, only in the movies, only until the end of the song.

INJUSTICE DEPARTMENT: HIDE IN PLAIN SIGHT (1980)

May 31, 2016

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In June of 1967, Thomas Leonhard’s children disappeared. They vanished along with his ex-wife and her new husband. A year later Leonhard would learn that they were given new identities as part of the FBI’s Witness Protection Program. A cement mason in Buffalo, New York, Leonhard spent the next eight years in State and Federal courts trying to win the right to see his two kids. This remarkable story became the subject of Leslie Waller’s true crime novel Hide in Plain Sight, which James Caan would adapt for his directorial debut in 1980. Caan wanted the film to be a “cinema verite kind of thing”, so he shot the film on location in Buffalo, with most of the film unfurling as a low-key docudrama, sticking to the everyday details of Leonhard’s life. United Artists considered it too arty and a money loser, so it did not receive the full support of the studio, despite largely positive critical notices. It has been available on DVD from Warner Archive for a few years, but what led me to Hide in Plain Sight was the Buffalo News’ list of the top ten films shot in Western New York. Buffalo is my hometown, and it hasn’t had much luck on the silver screen, aside from Vincent Gallo’s idiosyncratic Buffalo ’66 and some turn-of-the-century Edison shorts (I am partial to A Trip Around the Pan-American Exposition  (1901)). Locals have always been most proud of The Natural (and its use of Parkside Candy Shop), but for me, Hide in Plain Sight presents a more complete view of the city, from the bars to the factories to the zoo.

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In the film Leonhard’s name is changed to “Thomas Hacklin Jr.”, and in Spencer Eastman’s screenplay his job is changed from a cement mason to a rubbery factory worker, for reasons unknown. Caan plays him with mumbling, under-his-breath casualness. Pauline Kael complained that Caan “can’t express anything but ‘huh’”, but Hacklin is a mild-mannered, keep-to-himself kind of guy who keeps his emotions buried down deep. It’s a nuanced, sensitive performance from Caan, which works well against the stellar cast he has assembled. Kenneth McMillan plays  police detective Sam Marzetta with sympathies for Hacklin’s plight, but he’s too busy to do anything about it. Marzetta is a like a beached whale with deli cake crumbs perpetually stuck to his moustache. Then there is Hacklin’s pal  Matty (Joe Grifasi), a hatchet-faced co-worker who offers Hacklin the pleasure of inane chatter. Hacklin spends most of the film in a haze, confused about his children’s disappearance and running up against an apathetic bureaucracy. It’s only when his new girlfriend Alisa (Jill Eickenberry) hooks him up with a competent lawyer (an intense Danny Aiello) that he begins to make some progress. The movie gives Hacklin more of a hero’s ending, including a fight scene where he thwacks a guy with a shovel  (which, Leonhard said, he never did).

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Leonhard was fine with the film and its factual liberties. He was just happy to get his story out, telling the New York Times that the important thing was “getting his story told, so it won’t happen to anyone else.”  Not that he did it for free, since he was making $250 a week at the cement factory. He received $20,000 to give up the rights to his story, and one percent of the producers’  net receipts. He became a local celebrity, becoming “one of the biggest heroes in Buffalo since O.J. Simpson.” Caan does a fine job detailing the day-to-day life of Leonhard/Hacklin, starting the film with an impressive crane shot as workers leave the rubber factory, settling in on Hacklin and Matty as they make their way back home. All the markers of Buffalo life are here – there is an old sign for Iroquois Beer when Hacklin goes on a blind date. It was a local brew that traces its opening to 1842, but after a series of mergers and buyouts, the last Iroquois would be bottled in 1980, during the film’s shoot. Then there is the shot of a Bocce’s pizza box, which Hacklin’s ex-wife Ruthie (Barbara Rae) is bringing to her mobster boyfriend. Bocce’s was founded in 1946 and is still in operation today, continuing to feed the mobsters of tomorrow. There are also trips the the Buffalo Zoo, Delaware Park, and a dingy eatery called Gulliver’s on Allen St. This is where Hacklin first encounters Marzetta about the whereabouts of his family. Marzetta sits like a lumpy stone, ham sandwich in hand, refusing to answer questions to Caan’s insistent, desperate dad, Yankees cap firmly set on his head.

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This was something of a passion project for Caan, and the way in which United Artists refused to support it soured him on directing – it would be the first and only feature that he directed. While promoting Michael Mann’s Thief in 1981, he vented his frustrations to the New York Times:

I spent two years of my life doing it, and some jerk at United Artists -who’s been fired, thank God – said, ‘This picture isn’t commercial.’ Well, it wasn’t. There were no sharks.Plus I had to listen to speeches like, ‘I’ve been watching rushes for 40 years, and you have to do so and so.’ I’d say, ‘everything’s changed in 40 years. Peanut butter’s changed in 40 years. What are you telling me?’ ‘I mean, the guy put music into my film when I wasn’t there. I said, ‘I don’t want music, I’m shooting a cinema verite kind of thing, so why the hell is the Fifth Symphony coming out of the candy store, all of a sudden?’  He won’t direct again, Mr. Caan says, because ‘everybody wants to do ‘Rocky Nine’ and ‘Airport 96′ and ‘Jaws Seven’ and you look and you listen, and what little idealism you have left slowly dwindles.’

Though the score was imposed, the film seems otherwise unscathed, and Caan imposes some unorthodox maneuvers. During a pivotal argument between Hacklin and his ex-wife, in which she admits to marrying her mobster boyfriend, Caan starts pulling back their increasingly heated exchange until the dialogue becomes inaudible, flooded by traffic sounds. This avoidance of drama, subordinating it background noise, fits the ethos of this whole film, meant to be not just a ripping yarn but a portrait of a Rust Belt city in the midst of decline. I was born the next year, and well-paying factory jobs like Hacklin’s had disappeared by the time I was of working age.

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The movie, as real as Caan tried to make it, avoided the difficult truths of the case. Leonhard was reunited with his children, now teenagers, for a summer. But they decided to move back in with their mother in Reno. After nearly a decade of searching for them, they had grown up too much without their father by their side. With great equanimity, Leonhard said, “We still love each other, but I was new to them, I was a stranger, and we didn’t have that closeness of everyday things that parents normally have with their children, things like taking your son to a ballgame, or seeing him graduate from high school, or seeing your daughter’s first date, or watching her dress up for the prom.”

HYPNO-MURDER: SECRETS OF THE FRENCH POLICE (1932)

May 17, 2016

Secrets00006Secrets of the French Police is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink oddity that flings together police procedurals, adventure serials, and a horror villain with hypno-murder powers. Never settling into one genre for more than a few scenes, it’s totally incoherent and bizarrely entertaining, as it absorbs influences from the famous French Inspector Bertillon to Dracula and The Mystery of the Wax Museum. This RKO programmer from 1932 is now on DVD as part of the Warner Archive’s Forbidden Hollywood Volume 10, and is recommended for those with attention deficit disorder.

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Alphonse Bertillon was a turn-of-the-century French detective who pioneered modern investigative techniques, including ballistics testing and criminal identification, which he systematized through a series of biometric measurements. RKO was keen to adapt his story to film, and their text was the series of articles written by H. Ashton Wolfe for American Weekly Sunday Magazine, arranged under the title Secrets of the Surete. Wolfe claimed to be a pupil of Bertillon’s, and was promoted as a “famous British investigator,” but his expertise would come under scrutiny. Per the AFI Catalog,  RKO discovered that Wolfe was a fraud and “wanted on swindling charges in France and England at the time of this production.”

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The timing of all this is unclear, but it is reasonable to assume they discovered Wolfe’s dissembling in pre-production, whereupon they had writer Samuel Ornitz (a devoted leftist and  future member of the Hollywood Ten) do surgery on Wolfe’s material. Ornitz took two of Secrets of the Surete stories, involving a mad sculptor who embalms his models in his art and a deformed thief who steals jewels through hypnosis, with chunks of his unpublished novel The Lost Empress, about the Princess Anastasia. These are improbable, impossible elements to combine into one script, but Ornitz plowed forward, and RKO approved. Presumably the timing was tight and they needed something, anything to film, so voila, here we have Secrets of the French Police, directed by Edward Sutherland.

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The Wolfe character is turned into St. Cyr (Frank Morgan), a Bertillon-type who uses newfangled technology to track down killers, including a facial recognition technology that provides one of the more striking images of the film. He is investigating the kidnapping of flower girl Eugenie (Gwill Andre), who is being held by the mad Russian-Chinese hypnotist/sculptor Hans Moloff (Gregory Ratoff), who speaks in an unexplained Dracula-accent. Moloff’s plan is to hypnotize Eugenie into thinking she is Princess Anastasia, thereby gaining access to her royal fortune. And yes, he kills and embalms models inside wax sculptures as a hobby. Eugenie’s boyfriend Leon (John Warburton) is an infamous thief, but he teams up with St. Cyr to rescue Eugene and take down Moloff.

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Despite writing the above paragraph, I have no idea what happened in this movie. It is all packed into less than an hour of runtime, so when we are ready to settle into a police procedural with Frank Morgan as your amiable Sherlock Holmes knockoff, it turns into a baroque horror movie with secret underground chambers and evil laughing madmen. Time is relative inside Secrets of the French Police, as characters are introduced and then immediately killed off (or just forgotten) —  at a certain point inside Moloff’s torture mansion I forgot St. Cyr was still investigating a murder. It’s a pleasurable collision, a Frankenstein’s monster of mismatched movie parts. But what parts!

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Frank Morgan does a fine pantomime drunk routine while trolling for information at a rooming house, and then strolls into his super-cool crime lab as his beehive of assistants assemble a gigantic portrait of Eugenie from a hodgepodge of descriptions. It is the most striking image of the film, a romantic portrait conveyed in giant puzzle pieces of cardboard on a police station’s wall. St. Cyr could be a superhero if he only had the powers; he already has the acting chops and the sweet high-tech lair. And Moloff could be a formidable villain with his mesmerizing eyes and murderous sculpting powers.  He is no great shakes at long-time planning, however, as there is no plausible endgame to his Anastasia ruse. Why would the Romanov family ever believe that this narcotized Parisian flower girl was their relative? Moloff would have been better off hypnotizing bank prison guards and robbing the vaults. But I digress. What Moloff IS very fine at is murdering models and embalming them in wax casts, a routine suspiciously repeated that same year in Michael Curtiz’ Mystery of the Wax Museum. One suspects that RKO execs or Ornitz read the Wax Museum script and incorporated some elements from it into their already overstuffed feature.

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Moloff’s most impressive killing is neither of the hypnotic or sculpting variety though, but an insanely elaborate back projection illusion set-up on a country road. Moloff’s goons set up a back projection rig inside of a billboard on a country road. When a car comes near, the projector is triggered, throwing up a gigantic image of a car bearing down directly toward oncoming traffic. The target, thinking there will be a head-on collision, makes a hard right turn, and crashes off a bridge into a stream. A needlessly elaborate way to kill someone, perhaps, but incredibly impressive all the same. Moloff is the king of all media when it comes to murdering people. Secrets of the French Police is an impossible film and a lovable one, displaying all the ingenuity and limitations of the studio system. Faced with a looming production deadline the RKO writers and technicians had to throw something on-screen, so faced with an impossible task, they made an impossible film.

LOST AND FOUND: THE MAN AND THE MOMENT (1929)

May 3, 2016

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The light comedy The Man and the Moment (1929) was considered lost until a dupe negative was recently discovered at Cineteca Italiana di Milano. This part-talkie from First National Pictures was restored in 2K by Warner Bros. at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Bologna, and was released on Warner Archive DVD last month. A charming proto-screwball comedy, it’s about a marriage of convenience between a rich playboy and an impetuous adventuress that ends up destroying planes, boats and nightclub aquariums. Made during the transition to sound, it exemplifies the stereotype of that era’s stiff, static line readings. It has snap and vigor in the silent sequences, and grinds to a halt for dialogue. This is not aided by leading man Rod la Rocque, who is a debonair charmer in the silent sequences and a wooden statue during dialogue. His co-star Billie Love is more of a natural, and she waltzes away with the film.

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Adapted from an Elinor Glyn best-seller, The Man and the Moment finds Jane (Billie Love) and Michael (La Rocque) at a personal impasse. Jane has a passion for flying, but her strict guardian forbids her to continue her training in the air. Michael, a rich bachelor, is being blackmailed into marriage by the slinky Viola (Gwen Lee). They meet when Jane crash lands her plane into one of Michael’s “Polo Boats” (he plays polo with sea crafts rather than horses – as he is super rich and super bored). They realize that they can solve both of their problems with a quickie marriage. Jane will gain independence from her guardian and Michael can undermine Viola’s scheme. So together they agree to wed, with the understanding it is purely a business arrangement, and that they will divorce soon after. Nothing goes as planned, of course, as Michael instantly falls in love with Jane, and Jane skedaddles, sick of his advances. Jane ends up at Viola’s house, where the various strands of the plot converge and tangle in a wildly convoluted finale.

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Variety wrote that director George Fitzmaurice, “has diluted the Glyn molasses so that the screen version avoids most of the love licorice and dwells on the comedy situations.” Agnes Christine Johnston adapted the story into a script, while the spoken dialogue is credited to Paul Perez. The inter-titles set the tone of the decadent milieu, one reads that Michael’s yacht was “lit by electricity – the guests by noon.” Michael is introduced playing “boat polo”, driving a motorboat with a woman on the stern trying to hit a beach ball towards a goal. It looks insanely dangerous, and Fitzmaurice anchors a camera to the back of a speeding polo boat to emphasize the needless danger of the enterprise. The opening inter-title of the film states: “No person ever dashed their brains out playing Polo Boat – because no person with brains every played polo boat.” Michael is thus introduced as a self-destructive decadent frittering away his wealth on near-death experiences.

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Jane is something more of a mystery. Johnston’s script cuts out any explanatory backstory, so what we are left with is a stuffy guardian (the status of her parents is unknown) and her love of flight. Despite this lack of characterization Billie Dove invests Jane with a winsome ebullience. She is fearsomely independent and lonesome because of it. Most of her identity is wrapped up in her plane. In one telling sequence she blows off Michael by manipulating elements of her plane, knocking him down with wing flaps and blowing him into the water with the engine. She feels strongest when in control of the machine. She loses control of herself when she is accepted into Viola’s circle, and is invited to an “Under the Sea”-themed party (from “8pm – Blotto”, per the invite), complete with giant human aquarium. There she tests out her flirtation skills against Viola’s (impossible, for Gwen Lee is a superb vamp, a sinuous haughty cigarette smoking machine aimed at rich bachelors), and ends up in the tank with a fellow inebriate. Michael can only get her out by smashing the whole thing to smithereens, depicted through the use of endearingly fake miniatures.

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Michael and Jane’s jealousy is now destroying private property, and they need to work things out on their own. Unfortunately this means more dialogue, which Fitzmaurice and his team are ill-equipped to handle. The film’s audio was shot on Vitagraph disc, providing sound effects for the entire feature, and dialogue for a select few. The surviving source was re-cut for silent exhibition, and, as the stated before the feature, “some of the dialogue sequences were truncated. Inter-title cards in place of the missing footage have been inserted into the feature.”  This means the inter-titles appear during the dialogue sequences, a disorienting necessity to maintain synchronization. Regardless, La Rocque is audibly uncomfortable with the dialogue, speaking in monotone as if reading the phone book. Fitzmaurice keeps the dialogue scenes almost exclusively in long, static two-shots, with no sound editing to massage the rhythm. I’ve always found the “static” early sound film to be a canard, as there was intense experimentation going on with the new sound technology at the time, audible in how Von Sternberg uses off-screen space in his contemporaneous film Thunderbolt (1929). But The Man and the Moment is just trying to get the sound-on-disc and move on as quickly as possible. Billie Dove comes off the best in the dialogue sequences, as she has an inviting, conversational tone. Though working with flimsy material, Dove conveys an appealingly clumsy flirtatiousness while La Rocque barely sounds present.

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But even with the technical drawbacks, The Man in the Moment provides a diverting evening at the movies, mainly due to Billie Dove and some outrageous set-pieces. How much you enjoy it may depend on your enjoyment of late ’20s/early ’30s fantasies of wealth (I have a high tolerance). The New York Times reviewed it and wrote: “The Man and the Moment seems designed for those who do not think Mrs. Glyn’s plots fatuous; who like love in airplanes, in yachts and among the members of high society; who would prefer thinking themselves on the beach at Monte Carlo, and who believe that the Four Hundred go to cocktail parties in silk pajamas.” If you check off all those boxes like I do, do give The Man and the Moment a spin.

BLU-RAY BLUES: I CONFESS and WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS

March 8, 2016

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Blu-ray is dead. Long live Blu-ray. Last month a new home video format was released to replace it: Ultra HD Blu-ray, which offers quadruple the resolution of regular old BD. Compatible only with 4K televisions and UHD players, the new format is likely fated to become the niche of a niche. The original Blu-ray was never ensconced in most Americans’ living rooms, instead becoming the choice of collectors, cinephiles, and home theater geeks. DVDs were still too new and cheap, and the rapidly expanding accessibility of streaming video made the relatively expensive Blu-ray an afterthought.  Today Blu-ray and DVD are considered as interchangeable formats, lumped together in narratives of physical media’s decline (according to DEG combined sales dropped by 12% in 2015 – though it is still a six billion dollar business). Anecdotally, it is remarkable how few of my film friends own a BD player, even though their prices have dropped to DVD levels these last few years. As audiences seemed to shrug at BD, Hollywood studios became wary of investing too much in the format. They were nearly twice as expensive to author, so new releases made it to Blu-ray, but library titles would have to wait. It has taken a few years, but the Blu-ray dam is leaking a bit, if not yet broken. Take for instance, the recent releases of Otto Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (via the Twilight Time label, only available for purchase through Screen Archives), and Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess, released courtesy of the Warner Archive.

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Twilight Time was founded by Nick Redman and Brian Jamieson, two studio employees  who used their connections to license classic movies and start their own label. Redman works as a consultant for Fox restoring film music, and Jamieson was the Senior VP of Marketing for WB Home Video International for 30 years. They release their films in limited edition Blu-ray runs of 3,000 units, with some of their titles selling out within minutes of release. They only sell their Blu-rays through Screen Archives or their own site, so they never receive the discounts of a big chain like Amazon or Barnes & Noble. This causes some grumbling from the buying populace, but if you can get your hands on it,  Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) is a gorgeous B&W transfer, filmic and detailed. Director Otto Preminger made it right after his hypnotism noir Whirlpool, and it maintains that film’s somnambulant dread, and returning star Gene Tierney. She is paired with Dana Andrews, reuniting the haunted duo from Preminger’s Laura. Here Andrews plays disgusted police detective Mark Dixon, a proto-Taxi Driver who wishes he could wash the scum off the streets. Except unlike Bickle, he has legal backing to do so, so he takes his inner violence out on the beat.

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Dixon is repeatedly accused of abuse and harassment, and these violent outbursts keep him from being promoted. While interviewing a dopey witness to a mob murder conducted by Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill), Dixon pops the witness in the mouth and accidentally kills him. The victim is the estranged husband of Morgan Taylor (Gene Tierney), a department store model who thinks she can soften Dixon’s hard edges. This is a cold and hard movie in which Dixon, the purported hero, is a rageaholic killer who is coming apart at the seams. Dixon has to cover up his murder, so he investigates as normal and tries to pin it on Scalise – a supercilious gangster who worked in the mob with Dixon’s late father. The film uses a series of repeated low-angle camera set-ups to emphasize the how fate is slowly sneaking up behind Dixon. The crime has to be walked through by the investigators, so he sees everything again, pushing in his own lies when necessary. But in this movie the camera doesn’t lie, and Preminger uses looming close-ups of Andrews’ gradually tightening face of a man imploding in on himself. Twilight Time has also released Preminger’s devastatingly decadent drama Bonjour Tristesse (1958) and the paranoid child kidnapping thriller Bunny Lake is Missing (1965).

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Warner Brothers has been reluctant to license their films to third party distributors, and though they have released a ton of their library onto their Warner Archive line of manufactured-on-demand DVDs, they had not done a ton with their back catalog for Blu-ray. That is starting to change, as their releases of The Big Sleep, Key Largo, and The Wrong Man would attest. Another of their recent Blu-ray releases is Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953), which I watched for the first time this past weekend. Hitchcock considered it one of his weaker films, calling it “rather heavy-handed…lacking in humor and subtlety.” It is a resolutely Spartan production shot in Quebec City about a priest (Montgomery Clift) who hears the confession of his handyman Otto (O.E. Hasse), who admits to the killing of a local lawyer. The priest must abide by his vows and remain silent, but the circumstantial evidence gathered by the police points to him as the main suspect. The priest acts as if he has absorbed and taken on Otto’s guilt for him. The style is as pared down and restrained as Clift’s performance, in which he barely emotes. One has to imagine the thoughts dancing around in his head, of how much anger and anxiety is suppurating in there. But Clift, and Hitchcock, give nothing away. The priest remains an impenetrable cipher throughout. Whether you find this enervating or transfixing depends on your opinion of Montgomery Clift’s eyes. Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol wrote that: “In this story, in which the lips of the hero are voluntarily sealed, only these looks give us access to the mysteries of his thought. They are the most worthy and faithful messengers of the soul. We are not to be blamed if the tone of our commentary is somewhat inflated. The majesty of this film invites as much, and leaves little room for humor.” iconfess04

Where the Sidewalk Ends and I Confess were released rather late in DVD’s lifespan (2004 and 2005, respectively), and it took Blu-ray equally as long to get there (I would place the UHD ETA for these in 2046). But with studios like 20th Century Fox and Paramount licensing to boutique distributors like Twilight Time, and Warner Brothers continuing to mine their library through their “Archive”, we are entering a secret golden age of Blu-ray releases. In this fallen age of physical media, I will take what I can get.

ACCUSED: THE WRONG MAN (1957)

February 9, 2016

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The Wrong Man was promoted as Alfred Hitchcock’s first film based on a true story, and the director went to great lengths to secure its authenticity. To shoot the story of Manny Balestrero, who was falsely accused of robbing a life insurance company, Hitchcock shot the film on location in NYC, and cast supporting parts with many of the actual participants in the case. The movie strives for “reality”, and much of it plays as a heightened kind of docudrama, focused through Balestrero’s POV as he is arrested, processed, and put to trial. Manny’s world of Manhattan night clubs and his Jackson Heights home shrinks to the space between his shoes on the ground of his jail cell, seen with impressive clarity on the new Warner Archive Blu-ray. Manny’s resemblance to a hold-up artist has undone the life he had built over forty-three years, as his wife suffers a nervous breakdown from the stress. For no reason at all, a void has opened up and swallowed him whole.

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The screenplay by Maxwell Anderson and Angus MacPhail was based on a 1953 LIFE magazine article by Herbert Brean, “A Case of Identity”, which laid out Balestrero’s story. A steady bass player at Manhattan’s Stork Club, with a wife named Rose (Vera Miles) and two children, he had a penchant to play the horses but no debilitating vices. Needing money to help pay for his wife’s dental work, Manny went to his life insurance company to see if he could borrow money off of the policy. While there, a few employees become convinced that Manny is a dead ringer for the man who previously held up their office. They call the cops and Manny becomes the prime suspect. Then a handwriting sample sort of matches, and more witnesses give positive IDs. The case seems insurmountable until he is saved by intrepid grocery owners who capture the real thief, Charles J. Daniell, who soon confesses to be the real purveyor of  the Jackson Heights heists. But Rose cannot handle the stress of the trial, and suffers a nervous breakdown. She is moved to a psychiatric facility, and remains there at the end of the article, though the film has a more qualified happy ending.

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Brean described the evening of the arrest as having “the somnambulistic quality of a bad dream” that, “became a nightmare.” The film hews closely to Brean’s text, from the tone to the performance style. Henry Fonda plays Balestrero as something of an ashen sleepwalker, paralyzed by fear into zombiedom. Brean writes that “Balestrero is a timid man, by his own admission afraid of his own shadow. He has never been in a fight in his life, never carried a weapon, never been arrested, never even received a traffic ticket. As the net of evidence tightened, his mind spun and he did not know what to do or say. ‘When things happen like that and you’re innocent’,  he has said since, ‘you want to shout and scream but you can’t. I don’t know how many ways I tried to say to them I was innocent. They acted as if I was guilty and wanted me to say so.”

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After the police officers walk him from the front door into the police car, the film’s POV becomes severely restricted, Fonda getting suffocated by the law. While in the car, Hitchcock and DP Robert Burks have Balestrero looking right and left, confronted with extreme close-ups of the arresting officers, their impassive mugs impossible to read. While their faces obscure most of the frame, in one shot the blurry silhouette of his wife Rose (Vera Miles) is visible, indicative of his past world that will now be left behind. Hitchcock said “I enjoyed making this film because, after all, that is my greatest fear — fear of the police.” The famous story goes that as a six-year-old, his father sent him to the police station with a note. He had apparently committed some sin, because the cop locked him in jail for five minutes, with little Hitchcock unaware of the reason why, or if he would ever get out. Whether it’s apocryphal or not, it compactly conveys the sense of free-floating terror that motivates many of Hitchcock’s heroes, their mistaken identities or fractured psyches.  Through incompetence or animus the police are able to take your life away. You can see the personality draining out of Balestrero the further he is pushed through the penal system. And already a quiet man, he seems to become stiller, in a permanent state of stunned silence.

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Hitchcock told American Cinematographer that “I want it to look like it had been photographed in New York in a style unmistakably documentary.” He shot on a number of real locations from Balestrero’s story, including his home in Jackson Heights, the Stork Club where he worked, the 110th and Roosevelt Avenue police stations, Ridgewood Felony Court, and the actual courtroom used for Manny’s trial at Queens Felony Court. The Greenmont Sanitarium in Ossining, NY, where Rose Balestrero was sent following her breakdown, is used as a setting for the final third of the film, with Rose’s real nurses hired as extras. Now, as scrupulous as Hitchcock is as at researching the events of the story, at no point does it feel like it is presented in documentary style. There are too many composed shots, including the POV material which crops out most of the world outside Manny’s eyes. Hitchcock is too interested in getting inside Balestrero’s head to stick to an objective reporting of the facts, instead conveying the existential crisis of the Balestrero family. For Manny the world outside the prison has been cropped out, but for Rose her whole life has been blotted out. Her psychiatrist says, “She’s living in another world from hours…a frightening landscape that could be on the dark side of the moon.”

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Henry Fonda had a personal connection to this material. His second wife was Frances Ford Seymour, who he married in 1936, and with whom he had two children: Peter and Jane. Frances suffered from severe depression, and took her own life at the age of 42, in 1950. Fonda biographer Devin McKinney reads the film as a “transfer of anxiety from himself [Manny’s] to his wife. The film’s ‘personal’ element passes from Hitchcock to Fonda, our focus from the director’s passive observation to the character’s encounter with his wife’s depression.” Hitchcock wasn’t happy with this transition, telling Francois Truffaut that “The first weakness was the long interruption in the man’s story in order to show how the wife was gradually losing her mind.” But this transition is one of the film’s great artistic strengths, the terror not isolated or controllable in Manny but spreading outward. Rose starts laughing when all of Manny’s alibis turn up dead, their lives turned into a cosmic joke. She soon shuts down emotionally, convinced the world is conspiring against her family. The terrifying part is that there is no conspiracy, it is simply an average everyday mistake that has evacuated meaning from her life. There is nothing left to believe in, so she disappears inside herself. The pain on Fonda’s face flickers with recognition.

PRE-CODE COMEDIES: FIFTY MILLION FRENCHMEN, GOLD DUST GERTIE, AND HER MAJESTY, LOVE

February 2, 2016

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In 1931 the vaudeville circuit was dying out, and Hollywood was poaching its performers and routines. Needing content for the new sound technology, studios would string together comedies around a collection of old stage bits. Anarchic, chaotic, and scattershot, these films will do anything for a laugh, and they occasionally get them. The Warner Archive has just released three of these pre-code sketch films on DVD, all from 1931:  Gold Dust GertieHer Majesty Love, and Fifty Million Frenchmen. They feature actors who cut their teeth in vaudeville, including the comedy duo Olsen & Johnson, one-liner artist Winnie Lightner, and W.C. Fields, who made his sound film debut in Her Majesty Love.

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Fifty Million Frenchmen (1931)is a showcase for the antics of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, who had been working as a duo since the late teens. Their act didn’t really have a straight man, with wiry neurotic Olsen facing off against the rotund giggling softie of Jonhson.They were known for their boundary dissolving stage shows which strung clotheslines from balcony to balcony to dry their wash, had cows falling from the ceiling, and dubbed Hitler into Yiddish. This kind of madcap deconstruction wouldn’t show up on film until Hellzapoppin’ in 1941, but there some evidence of their insanity in Fifty Million Frenchmen. Originally intended to feature Cole Porter’s songs from the Broadway show, these were cut after the audience rebelled against the glut of musicals released after the coming of sound. Director Lloyd Bacon strings the gags along a slender thread of plot –  in a Paris bar Michael Cummings (John Halliday) bets Jack Forbes (William Gaxton) that he can’t win the love of blonde bombshell LuLu (Claudia Dell) without using any of his family’s money. Jack wins if he successfully woos LuLu only on what he can earn doing odd jobs. Cummings hires Olsen & Johnson to watch Forbes – to make sure he follows the rules of the bet.

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This is the excuse for a series of sketches: like when Johnson mixes a cocktail inside a passed out fat drunk’s mouth, or when both Olsen and Johnson model women’s underwear in the hopes of selling them to an American tourist. Forbes gets a job as a tour guide for English speakers, and one of the best recurring gags involves a woman (Helen Broderick) who hires his services, looking to be “shocked, you know, insulted.” She is nonplussed when he passes her a photo of a nearly-nude strongman, and when Forbes asks her where she’d like to start the tour she responds, “From the bottom, you’re only young twice.” There is also a Bela Lugosi sighting as a short-lived magic act whose routine is usurped and botched by the incompetent trio of Forbes, Olsen & Johnson, who cause a near riot. The latter duo ends up in a Keystone Cops chase through the Paris streets, over the tops of cars and through newly laid tar, in which the chase bogs  down into slow motion.

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Olsen & Johnson also appear in Gold Dust Gertie (1931), but the name above the title is Winnie Lightner, a wiseass who specialized in sassy gold digger roles, most famously in Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929). The opening of the film shows her marrying both Olsen and Johnson, and the film kicks off by her pursuit of their alimony payments. And the only way to get those bums to pay is to get them raises at their bathing suit company (whose conservative “Carrie Nations Fit” is not selling). So Lightner insinuates herself into the company, woos the ancient president Arnold (Claude Gillingwater), and convinces him to produce a more contemporary, risque style of suit. Along the way she runs into a few more ex-husbands from whom she’s still chiseling cash. A money-grubbing dynamo, she is getting what she can while the getting’s good. Lightner has a wonderfully expressive face, one that can flip you off with a sneer. In 1931 Picture Play magazine called her “the only feminine star of rough house comedy”.

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My favorite gag in Gold Dust Gertie, also directed by the industrious Lloyd Bacon, is a moment of bedroom farce. At one point the president invites Lightner, Olsen, and Johnson onto his ship. He has already declared his love for Lightner, unaware that she has already married and divorced every guest on his yacht. Eventually Olsen & Johnson bully their way into her stateroom, hoping to blackmail her with the news of yet another of her ex-husbands, but she neatly twirls them around her little finger with some flirtation and a bottle of booze. But then the president knocks on the door, and Olsen & Johnson are thrust outside the porthole window (after some requisite pottery smashing), getting thrashed by the waves while Lightner continues her seduction of the president. It is a perfectly tuned and timed bit of humiliation, and one of her multiple triumphs of male manipulation.

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Her Majesty, Love, is the most polished film of the three, directed with a roving energy by William Dieterle. This was the second feature Dieterle directed in Hollywood after being imported from Germany (the first: The Last Flight (1931)). It is an adaptation of the German film Ihre Majestät die Liebe, directed by Joe May earlier in ’31. It takes place in Berlin and follows Fred von Wellingen (Ben Lyon), heir to his family’s ball bearing factory fortune. Instead of cultivating the board of directors’ favor, he spends his time in a nightclub, becoming smitten with bartender Lia (Marilyn Miller). His family forbids their marriage, and will only give him the reigns to the company if he agrees to break off their union.

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The central drama is stilted, but there are pleasures at the margins. Dieterle and his DP Robert Kurrle use a circling camera in the nightclub sequences, creating an air of drunken revelry, where everything is spinning in a joyful blur. This is Broadway star Marilyn Miller’s third and final film appearance (she would die in 1937 from a botched nasal surgery), and you get an inkling of what made her so beloved on the stage. She has a relaxed, insouciant charm that makes it believable that her father in the film is played by W.C. Fields. Fields plays a barber and indulgent father who is a born entertainer. At Fred and Lia’s engagement dinner, he can’t sit still for a few seconds before he’s catapulting with his spoon or juggling dishes to the gasps of his table mates. It is his first sound feature, and his movie voice is not fully formed, that plummy nasal whine not fully ripened. And yet he is the clear star of the movie, despite his truncated screen time. One wishes for Fred to disappear and for Lia and her father to put on a show of their own.

GIRLHOOD: ANNE OF GREEN GABLES (1934)

January 19, 2016

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The books of my childhood have no hold on me, no permanent perch in my imagination. I was immersed in the boys-solving-crimes genre of The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown as a lad, and today I couldn’t dredge up a single plot point from the dozens I read. My wife, however, is continually revisiting the worlds of Laura Ingalls Wilder and L.M. Montgomery, with Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables deepening for her over time. They evoke a rambunctious, adventurous girlhood as well as a very tactile sense of place. The forbidding tundra of Little House’s upper midwest and idyllic Prince Edward Island of Anne are landscapes that she has incorporated into her being. If she ever goes starry eyed, she has probably escaped to the Ingalls cabin in her mind. As a selfish male, I desired access to this secret girls club. But as a lazy one, I haven’t had time to read the novels. So instead I viewed the 1934 adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, newly on DVD from the Warner Archive. It’s a polished RKO production that softens the book’s tragedies, but still captures the stumbling energies of Anne’s incorrigible youth.

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Lucy Maud Montgomery’s mother died when she was two, and she was raised by her strict Presbyterian grandparents in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island, where, according to her biographers, she never felt truly wanted. Anne of Green Gables was written by Montgomery and first published in 1908, becoming an instant success. Soon after its release Mark Twain wrote Montgomery, saying that Anne was, “the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice.” Anne Shirley is a flame-haired orphan who is taken in by the brother and sister spinsters Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert of Prince Edward Island. The Cuthberts requested a boy from the orphanage to help out around the house, but Anne’s creativity and klutziness endears her to them, and they keep her around. She then embarks on a series of episodic misadventures, motivated by cute schoolboy Gilbert Blythe’s chaotic pursuit of her affections. It is something of a picaresque adventure, at least until the melancholy close. Margaret Atwood, in the Guardian, wrote that “Montgomery was an orphan sent to live with two old people, but, unlike Anne, she never did win them over. Marilla and Matthew are what Montgomery wished for, not what she got.”

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The movie was filmed by RKO in 1934, and marketed as “A Picture for the Millions who Loved Little Women.” George Cukor’s Little Women was a hit in 1933 for the studio, so they quickly turned around the similarly themed Anne. It had been filmed as a silent in 1919 by William Desmond Taylor, but this would be the first sound version. According to the AFI Catalog, Alfred Santell was initially slated to direct – he had helmed the girl-focused Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm in 1932 – but was removed upon insisting he shoot on location in Santa Cruz. RKO replaced him with George Nicholls, Jr., who used the rear projection shots they preferred, doing Prince Edward Island on the cheap.  The whole production has a rushed feel about it, with the screenplay collapsing entire arcs into a few scenes, such as Anne’s romance with Gilbert or Matthew’s illness. So much has been removed from the book that Montgomery described the film’s third act in her journals as, “a silly sentimental commonplace end tacked on for the sake of rounding it up as a love story.”  All of the book’s melancholy is replaced with false uplift, which betrays the pain Montgomery poured into her novel.

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It is a compromised film, but it holds wonderful performances. Child actor Dawn O’Day won the role of Anne Shirley, and in a publicity stunt legally changed her name to that of her character. She is credited as “Anne Shirley” in the film’s credits, and she sustained the stunt through the rest of her career, which included parts in Stella Dallas (’37, for which she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination) and Murder My Sweet (1944), her final film before retiring at the age of 26. Shirley plays Anne as wide-eyed and spazzy, a destabilizing force in the Cuthbert home. Matthew (O.P. Heggie) is a pushover, immediately charmed by Annie’s awkwardness. The Australian Heggie has a ready-made bemused twinkle in his eyes for all situations, and eases into each scene with a sideways lope, fingers locked under an overall strap. He is the picture of laid-back fatherliness. It is Marilla (Helen Westley) who is the harder nut to crack. Westley was a Brooklyn actress with extensive stage experience, and she inhabits Marilla as a starchy spinster all tucked into herself. Her hair is always pulled tightly back, with no loose ends detectable on her body. She is perpetually on guard against Anne’s cuteness. So she immediately suspects Anne of stealing her amethyst brooch when it goes missing. But when it turns up attached to her shawl, revealing Marilla to be a bit of a scatterbrain herself, the barriers fall, and Marilla admits that she loves the kooky girl.

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It is a movie of great warmth and tenderness thanks to these performances, but it is missing the melancholy that makes the books endure. Atwood claims that, “the thing that distinguishes Anne from so many ‘girls’ books’ of the first half of the 20th century is its dark underside: this is what gives Anne its frenetic, sometimes quasi-hallucinatory energy, and what makes its heroine’s idealism and indignation so poignantly convincing.” This energy is missing from the film, hacked away in the hurried attempt to put it on the screen. In its place is a corny heart-tugger that resolves all of Anne’s problems at the end of  78 minutes. It is closed off where the book runs loose, unafraid to present children with images of irrevocable loss. But Anne will live on, in the books and in the imaginations of women like my wife, entranced with the image of that wild, lovable girl, who could wrap an entire island around her little finger due to the force of her untamed intellect.