Sunday, 30 June 2013

A Day in the Country (Un Partie de Campagne) (1935)

En Landtur
”Partie de Campagne” is something quite unusual on the List. It is an unfinished film elevated to stardom by the ranks of critics. As far as I know this is the only such film on the list. To attain such an acclaimed status an unfinished film must be something truly special.

I have seen it twice now and read a few reviews on it and frankly I am not entirely sure about this film. Yes, I see there is a bittersweet taste to it which is quite delicate but is it enough for critics to go totally into self-escalation over this film? I just do not know. So far I am still undecided.

My problem I guess is that the film seem a bit schizophrenic to me. On the one hand we have a group of people straight out of a cartoon. They are basically caricatures. The Parisian ironmonger of course in his big brutish ways and even more his idiotic son in law Anatole, who belongs in an asylum, but also the four core characters Madame Dufour (Jane Marken), the mother, Henriette (Sylvia Bataille), the daughter, Henri (Georges D'Arnoux), boatman no. 1 and Rodolphe (Jacques B. Brunius), boatman no. 2 are false in flavor to me. I find it hard to really sympathize with them and they seem more like symbolic characters than actual people.

On the other hand the story of a break from reality where Henri and Henriette can discover love in a little bubble of their own world is quite exquisite, especially when the spell is broken and reality with its harsh and boring face returns. It is neat and it is poignant, but is it enough?

It is obvious that Henri and Henriette are the ones we are supposed to sympathize with and if I put on my friendly glasses they are deeper and more sympathetic than the rest. Henri at first is not interested in hitting on the guests and appears to be the more responsible and less of a jackass than Rodolphe. He seems play along merely out of boredom as the alternative is just to languish in the sun. He even tries to talk Rodolphe out of the scheme. However when contact is made he quickly zooms in on Henriette and edges Rodolphe out. I do not know if it is because of genuine interest in her of just to protect her from Rodolphe. In any case he quickly turns from being second pilot to actively court the Parisian belle.

Henriette is portrayed as innocence incarnate. Her playing on the swing is a reference to childlike innocence for sure and her reactions in general in the first half do not point toward a deeper character. Only when in the boat with Henri do we see a sadness and a longing to escape a life apparently cut out for her. She wants to embrace this dream but is afraid to. This leads up to the “oh-no-oh-no-take-your-hands-off-me-but-yes-yes-I-changed-my-mind” scene on the bank of the river. I know this is the highlight, where she is giving in to the dream, but yes, I am laughing.

That is as much as we know about them and it is probably enough, but I still feel a bit cheated. I would like to know some more and maybe I would if Renoir had finished his film. As it is we just get a glimpse of them.

Meanwhile Madame Dufour and Rodolphe embrace their little break with abandon, Rodolphe with his ridiculous moustache and unhidden intentions and Madame who openly plays along now that her husband does not care for such adventures anymore. In a sense they are far more frank about this than Henri and Henriette. This is not about love and life, but simple unabashed fun. We even see Rodolphe give it as satyr, complete with a ballet-like gait and a double whistle. It is obvious that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas and when this is over both can return to their lives without worrying about what happened.

Not so with Henri and Henriette. They are marked for life and unless they get each other (which they do not, sorry) they will live unhappily ever after. Just to top it off, in Henriette’s case with the idiot Anatole.

This all sounds very sweet and I guess it is but it also leads me back to the beginning. Had I only cared for any of these people. They seem stupid and generally unlikeable and try as I may I just cannot mobilize enough interest for Henri and Henriette and actually end up rooting more for the scoundrel Rodolphe and silly Madame Dufour as they are at least honest with themselves.

I think I see why people tend to like this film and I really really tried this time, but this will probably never be my favorite Renoir film. I will take “La Regle du Jeu” and “La Grande Illusion” any day.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Vredens Dag (Day of Wrath) (1943)

Vredens Dag
Followers of this blog will know that I am following the original edition of The Book. However my copy is a Danish edition with a few alternative entries. So far the lists of the two editions have been identical, but now it is time for the first divergence. As film number 159 “The Man in Gray” is in the Danish version replaced by “Vredens Dag” (Day of Wrath).

“Vredens Dag” is made by the by now familiar director, Carl Th. Dreyer. He was the man behind the entries “Vampyr” and “La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc”. Only this time, probably due to his confinement to Denmark because of the war, he is making an entirely Danish film.

Since this film is not on the original list I will supply a short synopsis of the story.

“Vredens Dag” takes place in the seventeenth century at a time of witch hunt and harsh puritan convictions. We follow a little family consisting of a middle aged priest Absalon Pedressøn (Thorkild Roose), his very young wife Anna (Lisbeth Movin), his mother Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam) and his newly returned son Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye) of his first wife. In the opening sequences we follow the hunt and prosecution of an alleged witch (though her only crime is to know of healing herbs) and that sets the tone for the film.

The real drama however is within the little family. Merete, the old hag hates Anna. Absalon cares for Anna as a father and only late realize that maybe she is too young for him. Anna however quickly falls in love with Martin and while he returns her love he is also worrying about what would come out of their tryst. Anna on the other hand loves Martin with abandon without a care for the future.

This is one of those films where you can see 20 minutes in that everybody are heading for disaster. It is not a question of if it will happen, only of the magnitude of the disaster. Such movies are always difficult for me to see. It is like staring down the barrel of a gun and I actually had to fight my way through this one.

In another age this crisis could have been easily defused. The priest caring for both son and wife could let them have each other and be a father to both and all would be happy. But this is where the period becomes important. In this most puritan of ages the laws of life are most rigid and any deviation from the righteous path is fraught with danger. In this environment an affair between Anna and Martin is dynamite.

Everybody is to blame for the disaster, no one are innocent.

Absalon is not a bad person but he is so much a subject of his laws and religion that he forgets to think. Instead he is on autopilot as when he condemns Herlofs Marte for witchcraft. He took Anna as a wife without asking her. It was his duty and he did not question what Anna wanted and when he finally realized the error he was impotent to do anything about it. Only death could release her.

Anna herself of course ignited the bomb by starting a relationship with Martin. In another age we would say that she was following her heart and did the only right thing, but in this environment it was the very thing that could (and would) destroy the entire family. I cannot blame her for feeling as she does, but the total abandon with which she embraces it ignoring all warnings and common sense is irresponsible. She did not bewitch anybody, but in the puritan world love and lust is witchcraft and failing to realize and acknowledge that is her crime.   

Martin could have stopped the entire thing before it developed. He knew what they were doing, but was too weak to take the consequences either way. In this there are no half solutions. His betrayal in the end does not speak to his benefit either.

Finally there is Merete, easily identified as the only actual witch in the entire film. Her words are poison and she nourishes a dangerous atmosphere in their home. But even though she is a hateful being she did not cause the disaster. If anything she warned against it. She did however propel the disaster up into an entirely different and more deadly realm with her final accusation.

Guilty as they all are they are in fact not the real villains. That honor belongs to their puritan community with its laws and rigidity and zealous punishment of anything outside the narrow path.

This is a lot about guilt and sin and fear of God. The beautiful Anna with her unbridled love and willingness to break the rules is the personification of the “evil” these people try to stamp out. Evil in this respect being synonymous with witchcraft.

I am not sure if I really like this film. Dramatic though the story is I feel the inevitability of the conclusion to be a weight that makes the film very difficult to watch. I just know this will end badly. The acting and filming is as slow as a silent movie and the dialogue is so slow and articulated, theater-like, that it looks as if the characters are sleepwalking. There may be a point to this, because it supports the feeling of being trapped, but it also casts a dullness to the film. If you like the pace of “La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc” you will be quite at home here with “Vredens Dag”. The themes are not too far off either. Women crucified for their beliefs by intolerant representatives of a zealous society.

If you are different, be very very careful.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Frankensteins Brud
Where ”Frankenstein” was a pioneer in gothic horror, ”Bride of Frankenstein” must be the pioneer of the horror comedy. The darkness has to a large extent been replaced with a giggle and I for one find it both appropriate and amusing.

The original “Frankenstein” was a huge success for Universal, but the inevitable follow-up took some time. This was primarily because the director, James Whale was reluctant to return to the story (according to various sources). When he finally did the sequel he chose a radically different approach, which essentially dispensed with its self-importance and instead added an element of humor. You can say that it created a distance to the story. The smart thing about doing that was that it in that way it would be difficult to compare it to the original, and that despite that the story follows right in the tail of “Frankenstein”.

I just realized that this is almost exactly what the Book says about the film, but I guess this just comes through very clearly in the film, so I am sorry for repeating the obvious.

The comedy elements are many, some subtle and some less subtle. The two most obvious examples are the obnoxious Minnie (Una O’Connor) and Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger).  Right from the beginning Minnie’s shrill voice (and soon after her piercing cry) sets the tone. She is just wonderfully awful. Any pretense of being a serious or realistic movie is gone at this moment and it is just a question whether the film can lift the task of being a comedy. Seeing her running around as a half-crazed idiotic crone is just hilariously funny.

Dr. Pretorious is the new character and while being essential in bringing about a new round of fiddling with the dead he is also an agent of comedy. Partly by his shear presence. Has anybody ever seen a more over the top representation of the mad and sinister Dr. Dead? He is funny, but the comedy element gets that little push too far when he drags out his collection of creations. Those little people are just ridiculous, and if we had any doubts before we can certainly now apply the big stamp of comedy on this menagerie. I for one could have been without them. They are just not funny enough.

All is not hilarity in this film. The monster is loose, killing people (although with an abandon that is, well, comedic) and Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is trying to recover from his close encounter with death (in multiple forms). His struggle between sanity and his perverse fascination with animating the dead is interesting and a highlight of the film. It is still fun, but with a layer underneath that is quite serious. This is a very ill man with burning eyes and a dangerous passion and he his fully up to his mad scientist part from the first “Frankenstein” film, but now with doubts.

The monster himself (Boris Karloff) has a far more prominent role in this film than in the previous film. He is also changed and not in a comedic sense. Instead he has been made a lot more human. He now has regular feelings and cravings and his actions are all very human. He misses and seeks human company; he feels compassion and wants basic things like food, music and simple indulgence (cigars!) like any other person. His humanization reaches a peak when he meets Obi-Wan Kenobi (or his clone) in the shape of O.P. Heggie in a hut in the forest. He is blind and therefore does not judge him on his appearance. Instead he befriends him and we see how the townspeople in their witch hunt rage have failed to see the sensitive child inside the brutal monster. Instead he is now presented as innocence itself and the Christ analogy is topped off by his crucifixion when they bring him into town to kill him for their sins. If Dr. Frankenstein is playing God, then the Monster is the son of God and the townspeople the people of Palestine who in their ignorance wants to kill him.

The allegory may seem farfetched and I am not sure what that makes Dr. Pretorius, but it illustrates how the film seems to point in many directions at once.

The objective of “re-animate the dead part 2” is to create a female monster to match the male monster. I am not really sure why. Only relative late in the process the monster appears and demands a friend and not necessarily a female one. My suspicion is that the reason is simply to do something else and a female monster would be cool. If you watch this movie for the sake of a female Frankenstein’s monster you may however be disappointed. She only appears for the last 5 minutes or so and her chief achievement in her short (re)life is to look at the monster and shriek in horror. Even she, foul as she is to behold, cannot see past the monstrous appearance of the monster.

Saddened by all this very human torment the monster decides to terminate the experiment and let dead be dead including the nefarious Dr. Pretorius. Boom, big explosions.

Without the humorous elements I am afraid “Bride of Frankenstein” could have become very pretentious. The religious analogies are even more pronounced than in the first movie and really, a long way this is all just an excuse to throw some more sparks and electro-magnetic energy into corpses. But by making it a horror comedy it becomes fun and worthwhile to go through the procedure again. I enjoyed it.


Friday, 21 June 2013

1 Year Anniversary

1 Year Anniversary

Happy anniversary to me!

It is now one year since I started this blog and what a year it has been. This blog started almost as an impulse that took on a life of its own. I was just playing around with Blogspot, wondering if I could do it. I had never thought it would be this fun to write about movies and I have been very well received by the community. Thank you guys!

Over the past year I have covered 46 entries on the list, starting with 114. The Adventures of Robin Hood up to and including 159. The Man in Grey last Tuesday. This is less than my stated target and previous average of 50 films per year, but in the past year I have also had to cover the gap of the first 113 entries. This is going very well and I am only 11 entries from closing the gap. Also I have covered 4 movies far ahead of schedule mostly due to the blog club, so the total reviews amount to 152, which is really okay.

As I am slowly closing the gap I am also slowing down in my pace. There is more to life than watching movies, especially with small children around, and the requirement I have imposed on myself that I want to actually buy the films on DVD if possible means that there is an economic concern as well. Yet a movie per week or so fits me very well.

There have been many highlights over the year, both in the form of excellent films, but also in wonderful responses to my pitiful writings. “Casablanca” was all I remember it to be, but also “The Maltese Falcon”, “The Grapes og Wrath” and “Only Angels have Wings” hit the mark spot on just to mention a few. But the biggest surprise may have been “L’Femme du Boulanger”. Out of nowhere it struck home exactly in the heart with a warm and witty story perform with so much love and skill. See, this is why I do this.

Of course there have been less fantastic experiences as well. I managed to completely miss the point of “Citizen Kane” when I missed the Rosebud hint and must forever live in shame. Also films like “Babes in Arms” or lately “The Man in Grey” have been difficult to get through. But those are the risks I take and that is not really so bad.

So, starting on my second year I wonder where on the list I will find myself next year at this time. What I do know is that there are a lot of titles coming up that look very promising, especially a lot of film noir, but also a lot of blanks that really could be anything, good or bad and THAT is really exciting!.

See you folks in the next season.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The Man in Grey (1943)

The Man in Grey
After a series of excellent or at least interesting films on the list it is now back to one of the inevitable disappointments. I hate to say it, but “The Man in Grey” was not a good experience.

I went into this one knowing absolutely nothing. It is not on the Danish edition of the list as it features a Danish entry in the slot occupied by “The Man in Grey” in the original edition. So far I have seen only few of the 1943 entries, but unless some utter cinematic disaster awaits me further down the list “The Man in Grey” seems like an excellent choice for replacement.

My problems with this film are many. I suppose it qualifies as a “chick-lite” film in the respect that it caters to women by feeding them a romantic melodrama so stuffed up with clichés that it makes telenovellas high art. Already at this point I have begun rolling my eyes. The setting is pre-Victorian upper class in a sort of Austin tradition, except that it entirely lacks the developed characters of an Austinian drama. I am not crazy about that setting either.

But the real culprit is the extremely cliché and predictable storyline. This is about women who a subordinate the strictures of society and end up in unloving marriages. Then of course true love drops by and lo, observe the rigors of breaking free of the bondage to realize your true calling. Add to that the intrigue of a snake of a woman that does her best to make things complicated for everybody. Jane Austin meets Dynasty. This is a very well-known recipe, certain to bring a lot of women to the cinema and just as certain to bring a number of boyfriends in tow.

Sometimes a cliché film is only cliché because it was so big a success that it has been imitated a hundred times since then (Little Cesar, It happened one night etc.), but “The Man in Grey” cannot use that excuse. It is just one more film following this endlessly repeated plot.

As is typical of chick-lite films the characters are cliché as well. In this case almost cartoonish. The heroine, Clarissa (Phyllis Calvert) is blond and pretty and so goody good that she is borderline saintly. She is Snowwhite, perfectly innocent and lovable and without a hint of guile. She even hands out sweets to her friends in the beginning! And even at the end she is totally unsuspecting of the betrayal by her best friend.

Hester (Margaret Lockwood) on the other hand is the witch. She is black haired and of a surly nature. When she smiles it is calculated and self-satisfied and she is constantly scheming. Again and again we are told what a foul character she is, there is even a gypsy fortuneteller spelling it out to us. She is the Alexis of Dynasty that we must despise and cry out to Clarissa that she must beware of the snake she is nurturing at her bossom.

The men are uniformly one-dimensional. Lord Rohan (James Mason) is the cold and calculated nobleman set up to be the “evil guy”. We only learn that his honor is precious to him and that he has a violent nature. Oh, and that he is ruthless in getting what he wants. Other than that we just get a lot of James Mason scowling. He is the Man in Grey.

The hero is young and handsome and perfectly romantic inclined. He is also honorable, but a scoundrel character, well at least nominally. Considering he is supposed to be a jack of all trades, including actor and mock highwayman he is actually disappointingly bland and one dimensional. He is the result of a girl in pink tasked to describe her dream prince. In a different age this would be Matthew McConaughey. In this case it is the dashing Stewart Granger.

There is even a child (Toby, Harry Scott) acting as the funny sidekick, except that he is not funny and mostly annoying in his blackface.

“The Man in Grey” does have some redeeming factors. The production standard is pretty good considering it was made in war time Britain and it is up to par with Hollywood. Also it always a bliss to get real British accents instead of fake ones and the ending is at least interesting with general disaster striking everybody. However that is quickly cancelled out by the oh-so-romantic notion that a few generations later their descendants can get what their ancestors were denied, sigh…

No, I did not care much for this film. I think the main quality of this movie was that it was the movie that introduced James Mason. And of course that it was something of a blockbuster, but that does not necessarily mean quality.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Mytteri på Bounty
”Mutiny on the Bounty” is big. Like really big. In many ways this was the “Titanic” of the thirties.

·         It was monstrously expense for its time (2 million $) yet it became a big financial success.

·         The sets were exotic with a beautiful tall ship as the centerpiece, but also a South Sea island and although most of it is a studio creation there are still wonderful outdoor shots.

·         The cast stars Clark Gable (without moustache), the DeCaprio of his age plus an excellent supporting cast.

·         Finally, it was nominated for six Academy Awards and although it only won one, it was the big one.

When Hollywood flexes its muscles and rolls out its big production machinery it is difficult not to be impressed and swept away. Usually when you then dip into the substance I often find it wanting and it makes me a bit suspicious, but on the other hand when Hollywood gets a good story I appreciate that the funding and care is spent on making it a grand experience. I would say this is one of those cases. There are a few places where I sigh and think that they are only getting away with it because it is such a grand film, but mostly I am surprised at how captivating it is and how well it maintains its illusion of reality.

“Mutiny on the Bounty” is essentially a road movie on the high sea. We get a brief introduction to the essential characters, including some hints that Captain Bligh might not be an easygoing type, and then it is off to sea. From the point when they leave port they are basically left to themselves. It is indicated that they visit some ports on the way, but we never see it. These men are isolated from the rest of the world, a micro-cosmos of a social experiment, which eventually will get out of control.

Clark Gable may be top billed but it is Charles Laughton as Captain Blight who steals the picture. That little man with a hat way too big for him looks every bit as sinister as a Darth Vader. Every time he appears you can feel the temperature drop a notch, even in the sweltering heat of the South Seas. It is soon clear that he is at heart a sadist who enjoys punishment for his own personal gratification, almost as if he has declared war on the world to compensate for his low stature. His luck as the story goes is that a captain is an undisputed king on his ship and vested with these powers it becomes his personal objective to break his men into groveling animals. I have rarely seen as brilliant a performance as a sadistic villain and the only actor I can think of as being able to get close would be Peter Lorre. Charles Laughton was nominated Best Supporting Actor along with Clark Gable, but lost out to Victor  McLaglen of “The Informer”, a movie not even on the List.

In this hellhole devised by Blight we find Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) as the representative of decency. He is first mate and thus second in command, but so opposite Captain Blight that they soon fall out with each other. I am the first to admit that Christian’s position is difficult and his dilemma is at the core of the film, which I will return to shortly, but I am not as happy with Clark Gable as with Charles Laughton. He is altogether too much the hero. Smiling his hero smile, dashing around, working himself up into righteous anger. These are the antics of a movie star, not a first mate of the Royal Navy. Therefore he may be super sympathetic, but not really believable. Franchot Tone as Midshipman Byam suffers the same problem, but since he is only supporting cast (and is supposed to be young and naïve) it is easier to eat.

The central part of course is the mutiny and this is a very interesting and worthy story. So good in fact that it has been used numerous times in various disguises. The dilemma is which imperative is the more important: The sea laws by which the navy operates and really cannot function without or the humanistic imperative that you must do what you can to protect your fellow men from injustice and harm. When is enough enough? Is there any excuse to dispense with the laws and rebel against them? The movie wisely presents both positions. Though the balance may be tipped in Christians favor the film also makes us aware of the problematic in conceding to Christian. It is obvious to us that Blight is a monster and it is obvious that many will die unnecessary if he is not stopped. But there is good reason why the captain is king on his ship. Unless you have iron discipline on such a ship with too many people sharing too little space in an environment of hardship and deprivation the entire ship will just dissolve. This is so much truer of a warship such as Bounty. Combine that with the fact that much of the crew was pressed into service and found among convicts and you get an understanding for why the navy was so obsessed with discipline.    

So is it okay or not okay to commit mutiny? I am undecided and the principle of that dilemma is such a good story that a movie needs little else.

But we do get more than that story and I am not altogether happy with that. I already mentioned that Christian is setup as a real old-school movie hero, while less would have suited him and the story. Laughton ends up dirty and grimy in his longboat, but Gable hardly even sweats. Also we get all these side-stories and characters that a big Hollywood production always must include: The obligatory love story, the (totally unnecessary) “funny” sidekick (the captain’s steward), the heartbreaking story of the lowest crewmember who was forced to leave wife and infant son at home etc. Really, we do not need this. The story is strong enough as it is and all these detours just unfocus the story or even detracts from the realism.

Not that this is a true interpretation of the real events to begin with, the film admits to be based on a novel, not the factual event, but it strives so hard to give us a realistic story and takes us so far that I can almost taste the saltwater and feel the whiplashes that I wish it had left us with that.

This is the third of the nautic films of the thirties and by far the smelliest, dirtiest and most brutal of them. As such it is a pinnacle of nautical films only rarely surpassed. It is worth noticing that two later remakes never met with the same acclaim as this original and while I never saw the Marlon Brando version, I did not care much for the Mel Gibson version. But then again I do not care much for Mr. Gibson.

Sailing on a tall ship in the old days was not altogether fun after all. Maybe it is better to stay on land.  

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Fires were Started (I Was a Fireman) (1943)

London Brænder
I do not remember if I have mentioned it before, but I am something of a sucker for documentaries. It is part of what I like about old movies or actually films in general. Even the most fictional piece is still a document of its time and place. Even heavily edited pictures still tell a story of the people who made them, their agenda and their perspective. No matter your political inclination Eisenstein did show a reality, even if it only existed in ideologists of the Soviet Union and a period piece often tells more about the time in which it is made than the time it portraits.

However the historical element becomes far more condensed when we talk actual documentaries. I have mentioned before how early documentaries hardly deserve that label by today’s standard, but there are many sorts of documentaries. They are always made with an agenda and there is no such thing as pure objectivity except for math. Reconstructed documentaries are also a necessary shortcut used today, so I do not reject that either. “I Was a Fireman” is both, but it still feels very real and that realism as far above anything I have seen from the period. In fact in many ways it mimics or more correctly anticipates the style of documentaries of a much later age.

Let me say right away that I sucked in every bit of it.

“I Was a Fireman” was released in 1943 at the height of WWII and at a time when England in general and London in particular had been bombed indiscriminately for two years. It tells the story of the real heroes of the time. Not perpetrators of war, but those who have to clean up the mess. Those people who at the risk of their own life have to save others when the bombs are falling and fires spread: The Firemen.

The way it does that is by telling the story of regular blokes who does what has to be done. These are not your iron men, those are probably out at the front somewhere, but people who raise themselves above themselves to perform and notably not by taking insane risks in some one-man army heroic stunt, but simply by doing their job. We see them wash their fire engines, eat their meals, regular camaraderie and the usual complaints. It is all very relaxed and you can even forget there is a war on. Until hell breaks loose in another night of German raiding and the entire team shifts into gear and becomes very professional.

Does this sound familiar? I think that is the recipe for a modern documentary indeed, but hardly what I would expect from 1943.

What strikes me is the machinery efficiency of the entire thing. It is all so well organized. The chaos of the infernal blazes is met by an organized effort that knows exactly what it is doing and orchestrates the firefighting units as chess pieces, except that no pawn is to be sacrificed, but it is the organization itself which is going to see to it that all hazards are met as well prepared and backed up as possible.

And everybody is so cool. Phone operators taking messages precisely, but politely. The officers are sending units this and that way. The firefighters themselves are setting up equipment and station at the hit structures and although improvising do that with a coolness that shows that they know what they are doing and are up to the task. You may call it propaganda (and it probably was) or the fabled British stoicism, but the understatement and coolness with which this is all played out is very impressive. At some point it takes ridiculous proportions as when a bomb explodes close to one of the watch rooms and the phone operator simply sits up with a wound on her head and continues the messaging with no comment or even a hint to her predicament. Or the fireman who secures a wounded colleague to a lift at the cost of his own life. I choose to disregard these instances as artificial, though effective, but it does not detract from the general impression of realism supported by the fact that the cast were not actors but real life professionals.

All this professionalism takes its toll when the job is done. You hear no hurrahs or smiles at jobs well done. Just exhaustion. Deflated ruin from smoldering buildings to lost lives or limbs. These people are not victorious heroes. They are just men and women doing their jobs night after night and there is no glory in that, just hard, dangerous work.

This is the impressions I get from this film and I am pretty sure this was also Humphrey Jennings objective. The DVD I got includes a number of his war time documentaries like “Listen to Britain” and “Diary for Timothy” and they all convey the same message. They are portrays of a nation and a people at war. Not their soldiers, but the people at home, those who do not win medals at the front but still live with the reality of war. Not as a chance at glory, but as a hardship that takes its toll but also brings out unknown strengths in regular people who set up a normality in the midst of this very not normal reality.

As such I believe a war time audience would be able to recognize themselves in these films in a way they would not in blatantly nationalistic and feisty propaganda. These people are heroes not out of want but out of need and I think that is how most people like to think of themselves. I am sure a lot of contemporaries would be able to relate to the firefighters and the entire organization and be impressed with them and thankful for their effort, especially because their heroism is as downplayed as it is. I know I would go over to the local fire station and say thank you for what they are doing and buy them a beer.

Beside the story itself this film also shows amazing footage of war time England. From vehicles to fashion, jargon and food, this is a window into a world long gone, but even so not so far away. I drink in all of this and enjoy every moment.

I would not hesitate to call this one of the best war time documentaries I have seen. A must see for anyone interested in the subject.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Top Hat (1935)

Top Hat
Do you know the musical ”Top Hat”?


Do you know the song “Cheek to cheek”? You know, the one that goes like “I’m in Heaven, I’m in Heaven…”.

 Yes, that one! Of course you know it. It is from “Top Hat” along with a line of other excellent tunes.

That is how it is when songs outlive their original context. I would not say “Top Hat” has been entirely forgotten, but this is one of those tunes that stays around and pops up now and then to sneak up on yet another new audience. A few years ago it was revamped and included on an issue of the Hotel Costes compilation and certainly not as the poorest contribution. That one is an ear hanger as there ever was any. Irving Berlin had an excellent day when he made this one and almost make me forget that this is not the only great tune to come out of “Top Hat”.

Even aside from the music “Top Hat” is a delightful musical and it does get top marks from me. The center of any musical would be the music, but with their excellent dance routines Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers adds another element that makes this a very watchable musical. I am not a big fan of dancing and generally fail to grasp what is so wonderful of watching people dance, but I sort of forget that watching Astaire and Rogers sweep across the floor as if they are floating on air.

With such music and dancing I could even forgive the producers for wrapping this show in a silly or dull story to serve as a vehicle, but I actually love the story as well. It is not deep, but it is a fun comedy of mistaken identity with a host of actors who delivers.

Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) has arrived in London to appear in a show, but it a big secret and his impresario Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton) will go to great lengths to keep his presence a secret. Meanwhile Jerry has an encounter with a displeased neighbor Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers). He falls in love with her and she believes Jerry is actually Horace. Dale is friends with Horace wife Madge Hardwick (Helen Broderick) and when she finds out Jerry is Madge husband she gets somewhat upset.

Dale goes to Italy to meet Madge and brings her suitor Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes), a pompous cliché peacock of an Italian who refers to himself in third person. Jerry with Horace in tow is in close pursuit and catch up on Dale and Madge in Venice. Madge wants to introduce Dale to Jerry and match them up to Dale’s horror since she thinks Jerry is married to Madge. Meanwhile Horace is suspecting Dale is some sort of spy to reveal the presence of Jerry and has put his man servant on her tail. He has a little secret of his own about a girl he has met in the zoo. Fairly innocent, but his wife must not find out.

All this leads to a lot of confusion and hilarity and it plays out very well. I simply love the scene where Madge is nudging Dale and Jerry together, winking at them to make out while Dale looks horrorstruck that Madge would throw her into her husband’s arms. The look on her face is priceless and I had a very good laugh.

I know this story does not sound like much and I suppose it is not, but it is actually plenty when it is as well executed as in “Top Hat”. Edward Everett Horton as Horace has all these terrific expressions and reminds me of W.C. Fields on a good day as he has his good natured clashes with his man servant Bates (Eric Blore). Where actually does this cliché come from about the British butler with this particular look? Compare this with “Sullivan’s Travels” and “Trading Places” and you will see what I mean. I would not be surprised to learn it started with “Top Hat”. Well, actually Blore played the same part in “Sullivan’s Travels”, so there is part of the explanation right there.

If I should have something negative to say about “Top Hat” it would be two particular items:

I singularly dislike films where the characters spontaneously break out in song. It is just so unreal. And where does the music come from? It is really more like a dream image than anything else and a convention with musicals that this can be done. Though in this case I will let it rest. I like this musical too much to let it bother me.

Secondly somebody should pay for the crimes committed by the set designers for their version of Venice. This is just ludicrous. Here I am, trying to cope with the fact that the characters may break out singing with music coming out of nowhere any moment and they add this sugarcoated Disneyland of a Venice to the mix. They are really pushing it! It was possible for Hollywood to make a good Venice set. Ernst Lubitch did it with “Trouble in Paradise”.  This one just looks too much like a stage from a Barbie commercial.

Again, I will try to ignore that and just focus on all I loved about this film. This is 100 minutes of good times, good music, good laughs and splendid dancing. Pour some champagne, darling and let’s burn some tap-shoes.