Tuesday, 26 February 2013

L'Atalante (1934)

I have this gap I need to fill between movies I have seen and movies I have reviewed. This gap is now down to 26 films (not counting all those modern films I have not even gotten to yet) and I am struggling to close it. It has been about a year and a half since I saw them so I need to see them again in order to write some decent comments. Otherwise it just becomes some bland “yeah, I liked this” or “no, this one sucked” comments. Usually these reruns are fun since most of the films are good, but there are also those of them that I did not like very much and I dread having to see them again. “L’Atalante” is one of those.

L’Atalante belongs to my download collection and when I travel it is easier to just watch movies from the harddisk and this one is, well, next in line. I actually bought it on DVD back then, but directly from France and it turned out that the subtitles included were only in French and Italian. Now, I do not speak either so I had to find a download with subtitles I could read and after all that work the film left me rather disappointed.

With those much reduced expectation it may be no wonder that I liked it better second round. Not the movie or story itself, mind you, that is still somewhere between incomprehensible and lame, but some of the characters are very interesting and there are a number of redeeming elements, which I will shortly get back to. If I should sum up the reasons to watch L’Atalante it is a single name: Michel Simon.

The two leads, Jean (Jean Dasté) and Juliette (Dita Parlo) generally annoy me. The story is briefly that they get married and immediately set off on Jean’s barge. When they get to Paris they have a fallout, get separated and then reunited. That is about it. Juliette obviously married Jean as a ticket out of her village to see the world. She is naïve and it is hinted at that she was lured into the marriage by grand promises from Jean. When finally she gets to Paris she is easy prey for the vultures lurking there and seems even to actively seek them out. Jean is a very jealous husband. Now that he has won his wife she is his and his alone and he is prone to violence when he sees his possession being threatened.

So, we see these two people madly in love, then shouting at each other, then having passionate sex, then some more shouting and so on and on. It basically makes me resign and think “whatever”, which is a problem since their relationship is the core of the story.

Instead I found myself enjoying Michel Simon as the rough old sailor Pere Jules. Simon is always a pleasure to watch and this is the best performance I have seen from him. He is grimy and crude and frankly rather disgusting, but gradually we (and Juliette) see sides of him that are both tender and interesting. In his cabin on the boat he has and builds all sorts of paraphernalia and keep countless (and adorable) cats. He at least is very convincing and stays in character throughout. Everything he does is consistent with Pere Jules, tough on the outside, soft on the inside and lonely all over, yet self-reliant.

I also liked the set on the boat. It is always interesting to confine a small group of people in limited space and see what happens. I would say some 70% of the film takes place on the barge and truly there is something romantic about drifting along on the canals from dock to duck.

The most annoying character however is the idiot they meet at the dancehall (Gilles Margaritis). At first I was annoyed with Jean for getting provoked by him but soon I felt like punching his face as well and be cross with Juliette for not seeing him for the scum he is. Sic.

Finally you may notice that they serve Moules et Frittes at the dancehall. That is just delicious and I can recommend that to anybody. The movie however only if you are a diehard Michel Simon fan.


On an entirely different note I am now in Tokyo, Japan, and man, I feel watching Lost in Translation again. So, watch out for that review coming up soon. There may be some location shots included.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Duck Soup (1933)

En Tosset Diktator
There is no denying the genius of the Marx Brothers. They did to the talking comedy what slapstick did for the silent. Their anarchistic and outrageous ways founded numerous styles in comedy, from stand-up to the crazy-comedy of Police Squad and there is hardly any comedian today who does not owe something to the Marx Brothers. They are that big.

I have not seen all of their work, but Duck Soup seems to be a particularly anarchistic example. In a period where the world were slowly warming up to war part two and nationalistic vibes were sounded again the Marx Brothers tear it all down and ridicule the entire statecraft business. In the film someone (Mrs. Teasdale, the always good Margaret Dumont) got the entirely idiotic idea to replace the president of the imaginary state of Freedonia with the moron Rufus T. Firefly, Groucho Marx himself.

The idea of letting the Marx Brothers sabotage something as lofty as the leadership of a state and a self-important one to boot is brilliant. A classic Marx Brothers theme. They did that to several esteemed institutions like the opera or the races. I cannot help to think of this as a reference to countries like Italy or Germany where nutcases had been installed in power due to the apparent failure of their predecessors. Though it is probably just me applying the unbearably bright clarity of hindsight.

In any case Rufus T. Firefly soon makes a mess of everything, insults everybody insight and throws the country into war, though he was likely duped by the rival country.

The plot however is not so important. This is really about how much sabotage the three of them (Zeppo, the pretty boy does not really count) can do and all the witty and absurd jokes they can fire off. And they pack it pretty dense. Chico and Harpo are supposed to be spies from the rival country, but that plotline sort of wash out and they generally just harass everybody, though it does lead to the highlight of the film where they are stealing the battle plans of Freedonia dressed up as Rufus in nightgown, glasses and moustache.

Now comes the big question: Was it funny?

I should immediately say yes, and assure the reader that this is definitely good stuff, but the truth is that I only laughed twice throughout the movie. This ought to be right down my lane. I absolutely love insane comedy. Black and anarchistic (and deadpan to really kick it into gear). Slapstick is also fine with me, even silly stuff. So what on Earth is going wrong here? I have been wrecking my brain over this question since I saw “Duck Soup” first time a year and a half ago and I think I touched upon that issue in my comments on “A Night at the Opera”. My conclusion so far is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the Marx Brothers themselves. It is the reaction of their victims and the consequences of their actions or the lack of it that is the problem.

When Groucho Marx throws insults at his surroundings or behaves entirely inappropriate he does not just get away with it. It usually seems as if his victims or the onlookers in general hardly notice and that makes the jokes go dud. The moments that are funny are when we do get credible reactions. The insulted ambassador is a good example. His taking offence makes Groucho funny. Mrs. Teasdale’s stunned expressions is a good response too and the peanut stall scenes makes me laugh (laugh #1) exactly because the poor victim reacts exactly like you expect, with anger and exasperation and eventually futility. His look of defeat when Harpo finally jumps up and takes a foot bath in the lemonade tank is priceless and makes Harpo funny.

But there is way too little of this. For me the entire parliament and nobility should have been in an uproar and a state of chaos. I would have loved to see some results of their jabs. I had a hearty laugh over Laurel & Hardy’s “Sons of the Desert” because their actions trigger the right reactions from their wives. In “Duck Soup” I miss those reactions. Margaret Dumont could have done much more, which she also finally did in “A Night at the Opera”, instead she easily becomes just another sap.

The second laugh came in the nightshirt scenes. The three of them running circles on each other all dressed up as Groucho is just hilarious, culminating in the glorious mirror scene. That is excellent physical comedy. It cannot be described but has to be seen.

In a later age the group around Leslie Nielsen did a number of comedies (Airplane, Police Squad, Naked gun) along similar lines. While Leslie Nielsen was never as sharp as Groucho Marx the anarchistic style was harks right back to Duck Soup. And also their problems. It is not enough to be funny. You need to be funny against reality. Like a hammer needs a hard place to hit.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

High Sierra (1941)

High Sierra
I find it a bit strange that the List places “High Sierra” AFTER “The Maltese Falcon” when chronologically it was the other way round. “High Sierra” leads up to the “Maltese Falcon” in several ways. First of all through Humphrey Bogart himself. “High Sierra” was his first starring role in an A-list film, so in many ways this was his breakthrough and in a movie that did well too, both critically and at the box office. However Bogart was still typecast as a gangster so he got this part mostly because he fit the bill and since none of Warners other gangsters were available.

He is a hard man, Roy Earle, and Bogart plays him with an iron spine and a hard gaze but also with a soft spot and a tenderness that I have some difficulty seeing in James Cagney or Edward G Robinson. That may sound like a contradiction to combine those qualities in the same person, but I actually think it makes Roy Earle a complete person and not some gangster caricature. I believe in Bogart’s Earle and I am willing to root for him even though he is a criminal who readily shoots and talk freely of killing people.

And that brings up the second issue where this predates “The Maltese Falcon”. “High Sierra” is so film noir before the genre has really been defined. In that sense it has a lot more in common with “The Maltese Falcon” and its kin than the gangster flicks of the early thirties. It is almost less important that Earle is a gangster. It is just what he happens to be and with fatalistic gloom he has a job to do and like the doctor tells him, he is just racing to his doom. We know going in he is not going to make it, we just do not know exactly what it is that will bring him down. Is it the amateurs he has to work with (Alan Curtis and Arthur Kennedy as Babe and Red)? Or the two girls, Velma (Joan Leslie) the innocent girl he falls in love with or Marie (Ida Lupino) the tag-on to the gang and his essential soul mate. Or maybe the alleged cursed dog? Yeah, the gangsters always go down, but the style, fatalism and gloom is essentially film noir.

I would have loved to have seen “High Sierra” before “The Maltese Falcon”. It would have prepared me better and I could better have seen Bogart as the new star without the falcon in fresh memory.

But I did enjoy watching “High Sierra” and not just because of Bogart. Ida Lupino was top-billed as the star of the film, which may be odd in hindsight, but she was a true joy to watch and not just because she is a pretty girl. She did really well here. Joan Leslie probably did her part just as well, it is just a much less sympathetic character and we are made not to like her, though in a sense she is just being honest. Nobody asked Earle to pay for fixing her foot and it would be quite unfair if the price tag would be marriage to an essential stranger. The relationship was mainly a product of Earle’s imagination.

Another element to enjoy is the technical quality of the film. It is a general thing of the period that compared to the thirties movies have technically become much better by the early forties. That is all the way round, sharpness in the picture, excellent sound quality, crafty use of shadows and speed and timing in the action sequences, not least the car chase up the mountain. Speaking of cars, I fell in love with the car Earle is driving around in. It is totally awesome. I know you can get these gangster cars today, I once rented a Chrysler Cruiser (which for the record was terrible, it needed an entire parking lot to turn), but this one is so much more right. I want one of those.

The only glitch I can see really is near the end. Earle sends Marie and the dog off to Las Vegas on a bus before his own appointment with destiny. On the way Marie learns that Roy is trapped on a mountain by the police. A person in her right mind would think A) Better get as far away as possible B) Earle has enough to worry about as it is, do not add to it and C) Do not hand the police another weapon to catch him. If they announced that they had his girlfriend he would yield to protect her. Instead she returns and blunders right into the party. Roy Early would have lost anyway, but now she became the trigger. The problem for the movie is that it portrays Marie as a smart girl and hard boiled enough to do the right thing and what needs to be done. So to me, by returning in such a clumsy fashion she breaks character. That is annoying and unnecessary, but also the only blemish I can find on an otherwise excellent film.

As I wind my way through the movies of the forties I just know that I am going to enjoy it and particularly Humphrey Bogart.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

She Done Him Wrong
Back in the thirties Mae West was known as depravity incarnate. She would insinuate sex, not the loving kind, but the raw version and she was a walking, talking scandal. At least that was her reputation. After the production code went into force her acting got more restrained. “She Done Him Wrong” is just before that happened and as far as I understand this is the film that largely created the reputation of Mae West.

“She Done Him Wrong” is not a bad film at all. I like the idea of this woman who works like a magnet on all men and juggle them partly by inviting them in and by fending them off. While taking care of her many admirers, some more dangerous than others she genuinely helps people around her that need help and has to keep her balance as the people she rely on turn out to be master class crooks. This is all good basis for an interesting film and certainly one where a woman gets the chance at glory.

There is just one problem: Mae West. The character Lou is the hottest thing under the sun, but to me Mae West is the creepiest thing to come out of a third class brothel. I know the film is from the thirties and that it is supposed to take place in the nineties and that tastes in both those eras where different from today, but really she looks like a horror show and acts like street hooker from a particularly rough neighborhood. In fact she reminds me of a spider with her web to draw in her prey (the men) which she sucks dry (of diamonds) before she discards them and moves on. That is in a sense okay if Mae West was not so entirely lacking elegance. She wrote the script herself as a showcase for herself, but I really wish she would have given her part to somebody else. I would have loved to see a true hottie like Barbara Stanwyck as Lou. She could have done a combination of “Stella Dallas” and “The lady Eve” and I would have believed why all the men of the story go nuts about her. Another interesting option would have been Aline MacMahon. Or maybe Marlene Dietrich in a combination of “Der Blaue Engel” and “Shanghai Express”.

It is really a shame. I had braced myself to watch this again as I did not like it the first time round, but found that the film really had a lot of potential if I did not get the shivers every time Mae West swung her hips or drew her lips in an invitation. Yics.

Well, that happens a lot in “She done him wrong” as the entire film revolves around her. All other characters are only there because of their relationship to her. We get to see a very young Cary Grant, which in itself is interesting. Unfortunately he does not have the screen presence here he would later develop and which would make him maybe the biggest star of Hollywood. Instead he appears pale and unseasoned and not enough the interesting mysterious man that would catch the attention of a vamp like Lou. But hey, who am I to criticize the great Mr. Grant. He is my favorite actor at the moment and cannot ruin a film.

The other actors do a good job in creating the bottom side of New York in the 1890’ies. Especially Russian Rita (Rafaela Ottiano) and her friend Sergei Stanieff (Gilbert Roland) are excellent suspect types and Owen Clark does a good job as Chick Clark, Lou’s desperado boyfriend who breaks out of jail to get back to her bosom.

No, I really wish Mae West were as good as her reputation. That she was a hot sex bomb that would give a guy wet dreams. Instead I am just feeling nauseous and shaking my head in incredulity that all the men of the film fall for this third rate prostitute bedecked by diamonds.

And then I read that Mae West apparently was a really nice woman who did a lot of good work for many people including supporting minorities. Ah, well…

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Dumbo (1941)

The first memory I have of Dumbo is an album for collecting stickers from the Dumbo film that my grandmother had. The stickers you would find in Rich’s coffee packages, a particular brand of coffee substitute on the Danish market in the years of coffee shortage during and just after the war. That would place the age of the album to somewhere between 1946 and 1954. No American films reach Denmark during the German occupation.  Even back then in the late seventies and early eighties this album felt ancient.

I used to leaf through this album when I was a child. I had little comprehension of the story from the stickers, but I was fascinated by the little elephant with the big ears and his little mouse friend.

Then for years Dumbo would remain a film I felt I knew of but could not really tell what was about.

That changed shortly after Christmas when I brought home a Dumbo DVD along with a new batch of films from the List. The explanation is simple: My son loves Dumbo. No, “loves” does not cover it. He is absolutely NUTS about Dumbo. I must have seen that film at least a dozen times over the past month and those are just the times where I was watching it with him.

It is entirely amazing how this cartoon does not age. As an adult I find it adorable, touching and beautifully made. As a child of 3 years my son shouts “oh no!” when the pyramid of elephants collapse, he plays with his train during the train scenes, the pretends he is hammering in spears with the work crew, he dances with the pink elephants and he is laughing like berserk when Dumbo blows bubble (okay, my son is also nuts about bubbles in general). I know no other film that engage him like this, not even Pinocchio, his former favorite.    

Dumbo himself is super cute. This tiny elephant with big big ear breaks your heart. There is motherly love from Mrs. Jumbo, both when she defends him against harassment (from an equally big eared idiot of a boy) and when she comforts him in a cradle made of her trunk. That scene in itself is pure Kleenex. Not an eye is dry.  We also get real friendship between Timothy the circus mouse and Dumbo. An odd couple, but it works beautifully.

But Dumbo is facing so much adversity, primarily due to his big ears and the intolerance they generate in others. Besides the heartbreaking confinement of his mother for defending him there are the mean aunts. Those other elephants are behaving in an all too human and heartless way, deriding him, freezing him out and blaming him for all the trouble facing them and his mother. We feel so sorry for Dumbo.

His career in the circus is also a deroute. He is relegated to mockery in the clown show. They are actually funny the clowns and they actually do recognize that their success is due to Dumbo, but he is not included in their camaraderie.

Instead Dumbo and Timothy are having their own party accidentally drinking champagne resulting in the aforementioned bubbles and the most peculiar scene of the film: the surreal parade of the pink elephants. The first time I saw this scene I was thinking “what the f…?”, but I have come to love this part. This is an extraordinary psychedelic trip. There are lines back to the classic Busby Berkeley musical with surreal formations, but the scene has itself also been referred, notably by Pink Floyd in “The Wall”. I can understand if children got scared from this scene, I know I would have been, but my son takes it in stride and dances with the elephants.

Finally Dumbo meets the crows, a bunch of characters living a free life on the outskirts of society. This is a clear reference to black culture, complete with lingo, dance and song, to an extend I doubt would be considered political correct today. But these characters are happy and though initially spiteful, they become true friends and help Dumbo learn to fly and thus get back at all his adversaries. Thus again help and support is found from the most unlikely side.

The drawing is outstanding. It may not be as beautifully detailed as in Pinocchio, but the watercolors used gives the pictures a beautiful and gentle hue. That helps the atmosphere immensely. It is also notable that the animals are all drawn in detail with a lot of personal character, while the humans are faceless extras with the exception of the idiot boy who is clearly a villain. It is an interesting angle.

The music of Dumbo is also outstanding, both the general circus theme music and the individual songs. “Elephants on Parade” of course stands out but my personal favorite is “When I See an Elephant Fly”. I find myself humming it unconsciously. Pure brilliance.

I am not sure if this is the best Disney Classic so far, personally I like Pinocchio better, but if you ask my son there can be no doubts: Dumbo rules.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

Gold Diggers
You have a right to change your standpoint and there is no shame in evolving tastes and opinions. Indeed one should take some pride in being able to do that. It means that you have not entirely petrified yet.

For me working my way down the list, particularly this second time round, has meant that I have had to reconsider my default opinions on several topics and genres and I believe I have become a tiny bit more open minded (odd to say that after having just trashed “Sergeant York”…). The musical is one of the genres I have mellowed toward. Just two years ago (and probably in my early entries) I would have said that they are not for me and I would try to skirt them if I could. Not so any more. The good ones I really enjoy and they put me in such a good mood. “Gold Diggers of 1933” is not top of the line. Not even close. But seeing it this second time I have to admit that it is better than I remember and I enjoyed myself watching it.

Quality wise it place itself in between its sisters “42nd Street” and “Footlight Parade”. It is Busby Berkeley and that means that the overall story is about putting up a show, three lavish musical pieces pretending to be on a stage that would never hold or do honor to the scale and angles of the piece and a core of actors including Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers and Guy Kibbee as a dirty old man.

While not anywhere as good as “Footlight Parade” I think it plays out better than “42nd Street”. Not so much because of the musical pieces. They are okay; “Pettin’ in the park” is perhaps the most catchy of them and “Remember my forgotten man” is a good finale. A powerful song, but not as strong a production as “42nd Street”. It is the story and its execution that makes “Gold Diggers” better than” 42nd Street”.

Not that the story is particularly big or convoluted, but it is fun and charming. The theme of this musical is the Depression. This could easily have become gloomy and, well, depressing, but by focusing the story on good natured gold digging show girls it becomes a fun watch. This is mainly due to Joan Blondell and Aline MacMahon as Carol and Trixie, two out of three roommates (the last being Ruby Keeler as Polly) who scramble through the depression eager to jump any show coming up or rich patrons that can be milked for all they are worth. When Lawrence Bradford (Warren Williams) and Fanuel Peabody (Guy Kibbee) step in to drag Lawrence’ brother Brad (Dick Powell) out of show business  and the matrimonial claws of Polly, the showgirl, Carol and Trixie go full throttle gold digging. And that is entertaining. There is comedy in these two vixens to carry an otherwise weak plot through and it was a delight to watch their antics. Joan Blondell would go on to deliver a master performance in “Footlight Parade”, but Aline MacMahon have not appeared in any other film on the list so far (I believe some will show up later), which is a shame. She is outstanding.

Besides following the girls fighting for an outcome we see the Broadway musicals in crisis. They are taken off even before they are put up and funding is very limited. It is a scramble to get this one up as well and it only works because Brad pitches in. The musical they are trying to set up is about the depression itself, which is only recognized in the last song. “Remember my forgotten man” is about the WWI veterans who are now the victims of the Depression. An interesting counterpoint to “Sergeant York”, my previous entry. The veterans who gave the country their best years are now forgotten and sinking deep in the mire of the Depression. This lends a very sobering end to an otherwise witty and light film.

No, this is not the highlight of the List, nor is it the best musical around, but it is not so bad either or I would not have had such a good time watching it. Hey, I like musicals these days!

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Sergeant York (1941)

Sergeant York
I fully understand why ”Sergeant York” is on the List. I also fully understand why it won two Oscars and was nominated to a heap of other Oscars. It makes perfect sense.

To me however this is a terrible film.

There are a number of story/plot elements I find problematic in general and “Sergeant York” seems to be overflowing with them. I am terribly sorry if I am offending anybody with my views, I certainly realize they are not shared with everybody.

This is the story of the average, simply fellow who does not want any trouble, but is upright and work hard to get what he wants, which are decent things like a better outcome for his family and wife to be or later in the film, to save his outfit in the war. This is so cliché American Dream stuff and so tailored to an American audience that as an outsider I can only feel bemused.

Then we have a massive religious element. I am not a religious person and the emphasis on religious imperatives grates on me. I am perfectly fine with Alvin York having trouble killing people. I think most people have their concerns in that respect. I even do not mind that his reservations come from religious reasons. I know that the intent is to depict Alvin York and his community as a good Christian and God fearing community and that would certainly strike a chord with many people. To me it becomes an expression of the hardships these people live through. There are only two options. Either you succumb to despair, drinking and idleness or you find support in the religion and the congregation to keep you afloat. There is no middle ground.

The patriotic element: I can understand why people may feel very patriotic about their country and I actually do not have a problem with that although the concept of dying for your country has gotten a bad ring to it with suicide bombers and the like.  The trouble here lies with the argumentation that Thou Shall not Kill unless you do it fighting for your country. Alvin York does some soul searching and arrives at the conclusion that that sounds fair enough. Notwithstanding that the fighting takes place in Europe in a war witch is the result up the biggest diplomatic fuck-up ever. Nobody have a clue why they are fighting except to kill the other guy and the people in charge of the carnage are too far removed from it to realize its absurdity. To claim that you are fighting for a good cause and to protect your country is bogus beyond belief. No matter who won in Europe they would be no thread to the freedom and way of life in the US. This was no fight against an evil empire like in WWII, but a very violent squabble between trigger happy European powers. But York buys it and sacrifices his religious and quite human convictions on that altar. Well, that offends me.   

Then there is the description of the war. We do get a massive slaughter. It is difficult to describe WWI without that, but the image is toned down. This is not the devastating innuendo we see in “All quiet at the Western Front” or “The Big Parade”, but a single (stupid) charge where York single handedly shoots and capture several hundred German soldiers. I am not saying this is a lie. Apparently the film is based on the true story of Alvin York. But it paints a very different and glorious picture of a war with real heroes who make a difference and not the senseless slaughter that was the real war.  

When Alvin gets back he gets parade, offers and tons of gratitude including a new house on his plot. This is what you want to see. The country showing its appreciation of the sons who sacrificed much for their country in the war. That may have happened to Alvin York, but reality for the majority of the returning veterans was and has always been very different. They came home to unemployment and a country who soon forgot about them. The List has countless films to that effect.

A final objection to the film is to the storyline. This is a 2 hours and 13 minutes long film. The cover boasts of fighting and shooting and lots of action. An hour into the movie we are still learning about this fellow who tries to make an outcome on his poor plot of land, tries to save money for a better parcel and find his religion. I was thinking that all this hardship might be what causes him to join the army. Nope. This story reaches a happy conclusion where Alvin gets his girl and his land as a sharecropper and lives the life he wants to live. End of part one. An hour and 10 minutes in an entirely new film starts with the US joining the war and Alvin getting drafted. So I get two very different films with only the lead actor in common. If the purpose was to establish the character that could have been done in 20 minutes. Instead I was wondering if I was actually watching the right film. I had to check a later scene to be certain.

“Sergeant York” is a film with the very clear intent, to prepare the population in the US for WWII. It is clearly, even shamelessly, aimed at hitting a note that the average population can relate to, giving them a hero they will like and showing them that such heroism is well rewarded. And people loved it! The heap of Oscar nominations and the massive success at the box office is a testament to that.

It is not just that such obvious propaganda leaves a sour taste with me, it is the effect such stories and films have on people who do not know better. I cannot help thinking of the teacher in “All quiet on the Western Front” who encourage his student for whom he has a responsibility to go out and give their lives for the fatherland and glorious battle. War is ugly business. It always was and will be and any attempt to describe it otherwise is bogus and bound to backfire.

I will however not let my comments end on a bad note. Gary Cooper is excellent as Alvin York and Joan Leslie is adorable as his girlfriend Gracie Williams. Alvin York is very likable and I suppose he was a hero worth celebrating. Especially since his “heroic act” was not for his country or the war but to save his friends from being killed.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Sons of the Desert (1933)

Gøg og Gokke på Vulkaner
I grew up with Laurel & Hardy. Or “Gøg og Gokke” as they are called in Denmark. I must have seen a ton of episodes, but only few that I actually remember in detail. That is partly because it was long ago and I was a child, but also because the stories are subordinate to the antics of the duo. Story apart the duo is iconic to a degree where a silhouette of them is recognized in a split second by just about everybody and they are a widely used by-name for clumsiness.

So, of course I do not need to introduce them.

The scandal here is that they only get one entry on the list, though the answer is obvious. With the plot being of minor interest you just need to pick a representative film and the label “Laurel & Hardy” is covered. That is the list’s common procedure for comedians. Why W.C. Fields gets two movie and Laurel & Hardy only one beats me. It ought to have been the other way round.

The one item selected to represent Laurel and Hardy is “Sons of the Desert”. Personally I would have picked “The Flying Deuces”, but “Sons of the Desert” is not a bad pick. If you grew up in the wilderness somewhere and never heard of Laurel & Hardy, “Sons of the Desert” is certainly a nice film to get acquainted with them.

The Sons of the Desert is a fraternity lodge composed of men wearing fez and having a jolly good time. The Exhausted Leader of the lodge has made all the brothers swear an oath that they will all attend the lodge convention in Chicago. That is all good and well, except that Oliver’s (Oliver Hardy) wife, Mrs. Hardy (Mae Busch) has planned a trip to the mountains. Despite all his cockiness he is NOT the king of his castle so he and Stanley (Stan Laurel) embark on a complicated, ridiculous and ultimately disastrous scheme to attend the convention without the wives finding out.

Hardy is as always the smart guy whose clever schemes always backfires and Laurel the simpleton who gets away with ridiculous feats, though more by luck than clever design.  Certainly Hardy consistently underestimates Laurel and overestimates his own cleverness. This leads to countless comedic situations, both slapstick, situational and dialogue sorts. I love their scheme with the veterinarian they hire to diagnose a bad case of Canis Delirious (crazy dog, or dog madness), for which the only cure is an ocean voyage to Honolulu. The scene where the wives, thinking they went down with the boat from Hawaii, suddenly see the two airheads making fools of themselves in a newsreel from the convention in Chicago, is simply priceless.

But those are just two of the many many hilarious moments. They are literally back to back as Laurel and Hardy cannot do a single thing without screwing it up.

“Sons of the Desert” would not be half as fun without the wives. They are only identified as Mrs. Hardy and Mrs. Laurel (Dorothy Christy), but in no way they are beneath their husbands. In fact these are two tough women. Not mean like W.C. Fields wives always are, but strong and determined and not willing to take any crap from their men. This is of course what makes it so funny when Ollie and Stan try and fail to run corners on them.  Stan’s wife is an upright woman who goes duck hunting while Stan is a crying wimp who breaks down as soon as she looks at him. Yet they do get along because Stan accepts this.

Ollie on the other hand keeps trying to outsmart his wife. Not by confronting her, because he is mighty afraid of her, but by lying and sneaking around, which pisses her of in a really bad and loud way.

I know I should feel sorry for the two clowns, but they really have a talent for getting themselves into trouble and watching them squirm is just hilariously funny.

Laurel & Hardy was a favorite when I was a child and they have not lost their power. This is comedy that never grows old and I was having a grand time re-watching this one.