Saturday 29 December 2012

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Madame bliver forelsket
After a swath of social critique films with a slant on the heavy side I finish this Christmas special with a film much more suited for a New Year celebration. Away with all the concerns of the world, let us delve for a time in the world of the rich and careless, where you can get away with the most outrageous scams and laugh all the way to the bank.

“Trouble in Paradise” has to be one of the most charming films on the list. It is so difficult not to love it. I found myself chuckling all the way through it. Not slapping-my-knee-laughing, but a quiet chuckle and a big smile. It is that kind of movie.

It is a scam/heist story and so fall into a category that has been explored to death over the years. Usually their quality has been the complexity (Oceans Eleven), the action (The Italian Job), the comedy (The Pink Panther) or the insanity (A Fish Called Wanda). In the case of “Trouble in Paradise” the quality is Charm (capital C!). I just do not recall a more charming set of characters than what we get here.

Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) and Lily (Miriam Hopkins) are high society crooks who use their very well developed charm to insinuate themselves into the confidence of the rich and the über-rich and get away with a lot of money. Usually. The opening of the film is the story of how they met in Venice, pretending to be a baron and a countess and intending to rob each other. They succeed outrageously, revealing each other as crooks to their mutual pleasure. They draw out items they have plundered from each other and climax gloriously when he take out her garter. You just have to wonder how that happened, wink wink.  

In Venice we are also introduced to one half of the comedic sidekick, Francois Filiba (Edward Everett Horton). He and the Major (Charles Ruggles) are excellent all the way through. In Venice he has been robbed of 20.000 franc by Monescu, pretending to be a doctor examining his tonsils. We get a glorious scene where he is trying to explain the incident to the local Italian police. Every (short) explanation he gives becomes loud, elaborate and very heated in translation and the agitated discussions result in simple, short questions. This is of course a comedic jab at the Italians, but I can testify that it is exactly how it is working in Italy. Everything takes twice as long and requires at least 10 decibels extra to explain in Italian.

But I am digressing. The core story is about Monescu and Lily trying to rob the rich (and stunningly beautiful) widow Madame Colet (Kay Francis), owner of Colet and Company (perfumes), for a fortune. Using his extraordinary charm Monescu very quickly becomes Madame’s secretary and confidant with a love affair brewing on the horizon. Meanwhile Monescu and Lily, passing as Monescu’s (or La Valle as he calls himself) secretary, are arranging for 850.000 francs to be placed in her mansion, ready for the taking.

While Madame Colet is totally taken by Monescu there are a number of people who are less impressed. The aforementioned Francois Filiba and the Major are both courting Madame and fighting a hilarious battle to get her attention while discrediting each other. Both are way below her (and Monescu’s) standard which they eventually realize at which point they become allies against this greater threat. Filiba is almost remembering where he has seen Monescu before and his attempts at recollection are a highlight in itself. He will show up, stand there with a puzzled expression and then withdraw with an even more puzzled expression. And you know that the moment he remembers the scam will come crashing down around Monescu’s and Lily’s ears.

Also the chairman of the board of directors Monsieur Adolphe Giron is unhappy about the new secretary. For years he has been getting away with embezzling millions, but a crook recognizes another crook and Monescu catches him with the fingers in the cake box just as Giron uncovers Monescu’s real identity.

But the greatest threat to the scam is Monescu himself. Or rather Madame Colet, because the charm is mutual and they fall in love in each other to the chagrin of everybody else including his partner Lily. So besides being a scam story it also becomes a saucy love triangle drama.

I will not reveal here how it all works out, but the keyword is charm. Full throttle, overdrive charm.

A winning feature of this picture is that I love all the characters. Lily is so sassy, Colet is stunning, absolutely stunning and Filiba and the Major are priceless. My only problem is Herbert Marshall himself. He is so over the top sleek and suave that he gets sticky. With his sleek hair and immaculate suites and a demeanor of the most exquisite connoisseur I would run away screaming. Of course it was a different age and I am not a woman, but really? Isn’t he just a bit too much? He is totally charming however and he does win me over as well so I root for him, but he does make Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond look like an uncultured hobo.

If you are planning a romantic New year’s eve in the company of two you should NOT watch a movie. If you did however, you could do worse than picking “Trouble in Paradise”.

Thursday 27 December 2012

I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

Jeg er en Flygtning
We stay in the department for social indignation with this next movie: “I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”, the grandfather of all prison break films. I know, I could hardly have made a poorer selection of pictures for the holidays, but it is good to sober up a bit after gorging for days on end in the lap of the family (hmmm.. not sure if that expression works in English…).

If you ever wondered where all the prison break clichés come from, well this is it. Later film on the theme all refer to “I am a Fugitive…” to some extent and some even shamelessly like “Oh, Brother where art thou”. Since “I am a Fugitive…” was the first they are not clichés at all but a reminder of how much we are indebted to the old masters.

Again we are talking about a movie that takes up a social injustice, here the chain gang system, and exposes it for all the cruelty and dehumanization it entails. Warner did a whole series of social critiques in this period and this is the one I have seen that works the best. In fact this movie was instrumental in a reform of the prison system I am told, so it served its purpose. I would not have a clue if the chain gang camps were as bad as depicted here, but if they were I would say the US beat the Germans by a few years in establishing KZ camps.

I like this picture and that actually has nothing to do with the relevance or social indignation element, but because the story is fundamentally interesting and is told with the right pace and attention to detail. Paul Muni is an intense actor and when he stares you feel his eyes bore into you and sense the fight and sadness behind those eyes, yet when he smiles he is most charming but without losing that sadness. Considering the hell his character James Allen is going through, first wandering around searching for a job, being unjustly convicted to a 10 year sentence on a chain gang, brutalized, then escaping and getting back on top just to end up back in the chain gang, well that would do nasty things to a man. And Muni conveys all that bitterness and frustration.

This picture also holds and entire gallery of despicable characters.

Reverend Robert Allen (Hale Hamilton), James Allen’s brother is a pathetic self-righteous son of a bitch whom I feel an urge to punch in the face. Listening to this asshole drone on about that James belong in a boring factory job and better know his place or urging him to stay put while they work to get him out of prison makes my teeth grind. He has that lecturing movement of his hand and self-satisfied look that makes me want to kick him in the groin.

Marie Woods (Glenda Farrell), the land lady renting a room to James, but end up keeping him hostage. The bitch finds out he is a fugitive and blackmail him into marrying her so she can milk him for money and when he finally break with her she is the one turning him in. She is one cold, mean bitch.

The representatives of the Georgia penal system whether it be attorneys, judges or the staff of the prison camps, who see James Allens escape and critique as a person affront and will do their damnest to get back at him. Brutality has been seen both before and since in so many variations. What stands out here is the pettiness of it. They are brutal because they can and because it makes them feel powerful.

The sympathetic characters are almost exclusively the fellow inmates. This is actually a problem as it is hardly creditable that all these convicted criminals are actually good and jovial fellows if a bit on the tough side. If we are to believe the story the tough criminals ought to be a bit more… criminal.

In any case the South is as usual a place where you really do not want to go to prison or mess with law enforcement. Or to quote Eric Cartman: “Respect my authoritaya!”          

Tuesday 25 December 2012

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Vredens Druer
You know those films that you fear seeing, with a story you are not sure you really want to hear, but know you should and are awfully glad when you have because it was an important story? “The Grapes of Wrath” is exactly that film. In a sea of movies meant to please, this is the necessary one that tells the story you need to hear, unpleasant as it is.

This is a story of the Depression. Maybe even The Story of the Depression. But that does not make it outdated at all, it is far too universal and particularly in this day and age we can find large chunks of the story happening all around us. It is awfully easy to close the eyes, but this is a movie to open them and hence the discomfort.

John Steinbeck’s legendary novel and John Ford’s equally famous picture from 1940 is about the Oklahoma farmers that got rooted up by the dust bowl and speculation and had to leave their homes for (rumors of) work in California. It is a tough story where we follow a particular family who loses everything that does not fit in their derelict truck and are reduced to be a scourge scorned by the surrounding society. It strains the cohesion of the family, which slowly falls apart. This is of course bad and the film is rightly praised for how well it depicts what such a crisis does to people on a personal level.

What I see in the film are the machinations of the crisis and the unfairness of it because this is also a politically agitating story. Not the over-the-top propaganda of Eisenstein, Bunuel or Riefenstahl, but the agitation you get when you reveal a social injustice so rampant that you just got to do something about it. Because very little if anything is exaggerated in this story, neither in the depiction of the fate of the migrant workers of the thirties nor in the analogy to migrant workers of today.

The Dust Bowl was a natural disaster (severe drought) exacerbated by poor land management (lack of shelterbelts and protection of topsoil) and combined with a financial crisis forcing the owners of the land and the banks to squeeze everything out of their assets including forcing tenants off the land. The tenants had no security at all and none was available for them and soon many of them were job and homeless. That sounds awfully familiar today in the present financial crisis but even more so when you consider third world farmers leaving their homes for the cities and wealthy western countries.

For the Joad family there is nothing to do but to hit the road and that fact causes the first casualty as grandpa Joad breaks down when they leave and never recovers. They are a sorry bunch, but they have heard that work is available in California. Plenty of work with generous pay, and so they are on their way. Again this sounds awfully familiar. I have been around the world and heard what is said about Europe and Scandinavia in particular. Many hopefuls out there buy into a fantasy that does not exist and end up being very disappointed.

The Joads cross the country and for a while the movie becomes a road movie, where we cross our fingers that they will make it to the land of milk and honey. In the eyes of the locals in the towns they pass through they are reduced to something akin to vermin and treated as such. Only occasionally they are treated with sympathy and respect even though they insist they are no beggars asking favors.

As they reach California this sentiment becomes rampant. The Joads are not the only Oklahoma farmers trying their luck in California and the invading horde is seen as exactly that. To be contained and neutralized and preferably evicted. There are camps (refugee camps) where the migrant families are setting up shanty towns and they are generally considered a burden and a scourge. Except by the ranchers and plantation owners who see the migrants as even cheaper labor than the already available workforce. A labor force that will work without question and can be abused at no costs. Which is exactly what is happening (again that familiar ring), both to the Joads and to all the other migrant workers.

Obviously the migrant workers are free game. They have absolutely no rights and no protection although they deserve all our sympathy and help. They want to be respected and live respectable life, but are treated as if undeserving of that. The authorities in the form of the police is not protecting the migrants against hostility and exploitation but instead enforce the blatant exploitation and become a tool for the brutality and xenophobia of the locals. Any defense of the migrants is considered communism and the work of “Red” (read un-American) agents. It is this unfairness which is at the core of Steinbeck’s and Ford’s story. These are fellow citizens. Just because they came on hard times they deserve to be treated with respect and given an even chance.

The movie gives its own (partial) solution in the form of the government camp where the migrants are treated as humans. This gives them a chance to regain their self-respect and treated well they behave well. With a flat command structure and a collective responsibility this is very much a social-democratic solution and part of the New Deal program that sought to alleviate the impact of the depression. Here it comes as a Godsend and saves the family in their deepest crisis.

This is a film of epic format, both because of the story, but also in production; just consider the sheer number of actors involved. The list of the cast just kept rolling, not to speak of all the extras. Henry Fonda as Tom Joad makes his character strong and wiry, but also a man of convictions who does what he got to do. Yet it is Jane Darwell as Ma Joad who steals the picture. She is very much the character that glue the group together, the epicenter around which the story progresses. And she does it with conviction and a realism that not for a second we doubt that she is the character. Only later as I started writing did I realize she got an Oscar as supporting actress. It is so very well deserved and the only surprise is that she did not get it for best actress. There is no other woman above her in this movie.

Migrant workers of the world, unite and take over!

Sunday 23 December 2012

Boudu Sauve des Eaux (1932)

Da Boudu blev reddet op af vandet
It is time for this year’s Christmas Special: “Boudu Sauve des Eaux” (Boudu Saved From Drowning).

A real Christmas movie is soft and sweet and usually have a morale like: “if you do well/behave/are generous, you will get greatly rewarded and Santa will give you nice presents”. “Boudu Sauve des Eaux” is the direct opposite. If anything it is an anti-Christmas film. Christmas is not even mentioned and it takes place during the summer and generosity is rewarded with insult and ridicule.

I did not look forward to see “Boudu Sauve des Eaux” again. I did not like it the first time and even though I am better attuned to it now I still do not like it. The problem is that there are nobody to root for in the movie. Everybody are deeply unsympathetic and this is not a “Bad Santa” movie where scumbags become good in the end. People are who they are and do no suddenly turn nice. You might say that this is a refreshing outlook and very different from Hollywood template, but dammit it makes it difficult to like this movie.

In a sense this is the opposite of a “My Fair Lady” story. The tramp Boudu (an always excellent Michel Simon) is saved from drowning by the bookseller Edouard Lestingois (Charles Granval ), who then takes him in and decides to do the right thing and help Boudu get on his feet again. If this really was the story we would expect an ugly duckling story where Boudu becomes a real gentleman and shows his gratitude to his benefactor and we get some laughs as this oaf attempts to maneuver in the world of the bourgeois. Nothing could be further from this story. Boudu is an asshole of a tramp that does not care shit about anything or anyone except to follow his basic (low) instincts and do and say whatever he feels like with a total disregard to other people’s feelings. He did not wish to get saved, he do not care about his benefactors and he chafe under the restrictions of the bourgeois. In short, a mockery of the “My Fair Lady” plot.

But this story is not the one director Jean Renoir wishes to tell. Boudu is an agent, but not the focus of the story. Instead this is an exposé of the hypocrisy of the middle class bourgeois. A quick glance at the portfolio of Jean Renoir should make this obvious as it always figure as a theme in his pictures. Boudu is the agent that allows us to see all the double standards of the Lestingois household.

Edouard Lestingois wants to save and help the poor tramp, but he absolutely does not listen to him. He did not want to get saved, he does not want to be gentrified, but Edouard considers this the most natural thing in the world. Nice cloth, polished shoes and table manners and you are a gentleman. All the while Edouard has an affair with the maid Chloe (Sévérine Lerczinska) and treats his own wife Emma (Marcelle Hainia) with scorn.

Emma cannot see why on Earth Edouard wants to keep Boudu in the house and far into the story it seems that a primary reason is to annoy his wife. She is positively upset about this savage, until the point when Boudu throws his (fleeting) sexual attention on her, at which point she becomes his protector.

Chloe, the maid, seems for a while to be above the hypocrisy. She gently refuses Boudu’s advances on her and is (rightly) upset about the mess he creates. That Edouard is hitting on her I suppose is part of the reality of life for a maid. However when Boudu suddenly wins 100.000 Francs she totally falls in love with him and they quickly get married. His money are soooo charming.

We get a few other examples as well. In the park in the beginning of the movie Boudu losses his dog and everybody including the police ignores him and send him on his way. However when a respectable lady loses her expensive dog, everybody fall over themselves to help her. The double standards of society. The crowd watching Edouard drag Boudu out of the water praise Edouard for his heroism and give him a medal. For Boudu himself they could not care less.

In the end Boudu exploits the opportunity to escape the chafing bonds of the middle class when his boat capsizes on his wedding and he returns to the freedom and careless life of a tramp.

There is a certain amusement to the utter disrespect Boudu is showing for his benefactors as he trashes their lives and I did laugh a few times, but mainly I just felt disgust for everybody in the movie. Stepping back a moment from the story itself I was most impressed by Marcel Simon. That man was a genius actor. He deserves a lot of recognition. Nobody can play scum like him. Not even Billy Bob Thornton.  


Friday 21 December 2012

The Bank Dick (1940)

Bankrøvernes Skræk
I have been watching a lot of W.C. Fields. When it became time to see “It’s a Gift” I bought this massive box set with an estimated 20 W.C. Fields films. “The Bank Dick” is the last DVD to watch, so this could well be a summary of the career of Mr. Fields.

When you see this many W.C. Fields movies you will notice that he is always the same character with the same acts, gags and lines. I know it is his signature, but when the story is lame you become aware that you have seen all this a few times before and it stops being funny.

“The Bank Dick” is one of his better pictures, though by no means a master piece, and unless you really love W.C. Fields the best way to see it is by making it your first W.C. Fields picture. Then you will not get that tired feeling of being on repeat.

If I forget that I have seen it before it is actually funny. He is (as usual) a lazy, loud and harmless bum of a man with (as usual) a bitching wife, a hateful mother in law and disrespectful children. He likes his drink (as usual), tells wildly exaggerated stories (yeah yeah…) and his work and action are more likely to turn disaster than anything good. You know, good ol’ W.C. Fields.

The storyline is strangely disjointed. We get some family infight, Mr. Sousé (Fields) get hired as a director of a movie because the previous director is even drunker than Fields, Sousé then trips a bank robber and is rewarded with a job as bank detective. Coincidentally the bank where Sousé’s son in law to be, Og (Grady Sutton) is working. Just as Sousé has talked Og into “borrowing” some money from the bank for a dubious investment (Beefsteak mines shares) the bank examiner J Pinkerton Snoopington (Franklin Pangborn) shows up. Sousé now gets busy delaying the examiner for a good four days until Og can get his bonus. He does that with considerable skill, but Mr. Snoopington is a zealous examiner and will not be distracted from his work. In this moment of crisis the shares turn out to be good anyway (juhuu…) and the bank gets robbed again (bummer). The bank examiner is forgotten and now it is all about a wild car chase.

This entire, well, story is just a vehicle for W.C. Fields to launch into his monologues, to be rolled over by family, friends or bank robbers or just get a drink or 10. It is occasionally funny. Actually quite a few of the scenes are funny, but just as often I am moaning that this man really needs some new gags. The best part is when he has to distract the bank examiner and takes the drugged fellow back to his hotel in a state that closely resembles a serious bender. Remind me never to have a drink with that man.

Had this been my first Fields movie I would probably have laughed uproarishly from his general demeanor and very jaded attitude to for example the bank robber or his skill at getting himself in trouble or a drink or both. As such this is not a bad film. I am just a bit fed up with W.C. Fields.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Queen Christina (1933)

Queen Christina
I have encountered three Greta Garbo films on the list. “Ninotchka” I already wrote about and “Camille” is yet to come. The subject of the entry “Queen Christina” is in my opinion the best of the three. In fact, having been through an entire box set of Garbo films this one is the best of the whole lot.

This is in no small part because the role as Queen Christina is as made for Garbo. She fit it like she was born to it, something I cannot say about her character in “Camille”. Queen Christina is haughty, powerful and dominating, but also passionate and longing and these traits are all inherent in Garbo. Even when the role does not require it she exudes these qualities. Not exactly the young courtesan, but definitely the queen. Add to that that she is actually Swedish and I could not imagine a better actress for the part.

She plays alongside John Gilbert and that is a curiosity in itself. Gilbert starred some early sound movies with sound quality so bad that he was libeled unsuited for talkies and so like a dinosaur of a past age was destined to go extinct. His heyday was with “The Big Parade” in 1925, but by 1933 he had become unwanted. Garbo had a thing going with Gilbert and so insisted that he get the part as Antonio. He proved that he was fully suited for talking pictures and does an excellent job here, but alas it was too late. He soon succumbed to alcohol and died in 36. It is not entirely unthinkable that the “The Artist” was modeled on John Gilbert. Jean Dujardin even looks like John Gilbert.

“Queen Christina” is a historic drama telling the story of legendary Queen Christina of Sweden, particularly the climax around her abdication in 1654. As is always the case with Hollywood interpretations of historic events the actual circumstances have been pimped up, but in this case not as much as I would have feared. I have checked a number of background details and they are surprisingly correct. An example is that Christina rides for the border at the end of the movie. My first thought was, aha, there is no border between Stockholm and Helsingborg, but in fact there was. The peace agreement at Brømsebro in 1645 only gave Halland to Sweden, whereas Skåne where Helsingborg is located was only ceded in 1658 in the Roskilde treaty. Christina did indeed leave Sweden by the way of a ship in Helsingborg and it was no trivial affair for Swedish royalty to cross through hostile Denmark to get to the ship. It would have been easy to gloss over this, but the movie does not and I applaud it for it.

I have not been able to verify if a meeting really happened at an inn with the Spanish envoy shortly after his arrival, but he is a historic character and she was indeed infatuated by him and created an order of knighthood around him. One of the rules of the knighthood was to never get married. Christina herself was indeed known for going around in men’s attire and a supporter of the arts. She eventually ended up in Rome as a patron of the arts and is one of the few women to have been buried in the Vatican crypt. Her weaknesses however are glossed over. She was wasteful with resources as beside waging expensive wars she doubled the nobility class in Sweden granting land and resources from the royal coffers far beyond their capacity. Also she took little interest in the actual ruling of the country leaving Axel Oxenstierna de facto ruler of Sweden. In Garbo’s version she is entirely the responsible leader, not afraid to take action, and very concerned with the costs of waging war.

Well, I suppose I cannot blame director Rouben Mamoulian for embellishing the story. For a movie from the 30’ies these modifications are quite modest.

Apart from the historical element “Queen Christina” has number of interesting features. I love the mistaken identity scene at the inn. The two peasants coming up to the queen asking her to settle a wager: Did the queen have 6 or 9 lovers in the past year? To which she declares that it was 12! How rare to have a female lead brag of being quite a, well, stud. The play between Gilbert and Garbo is also delicious both before and after he realizes she is actually a woman. And his expression is priceless when he realizes he has been bedding the queen herself.

Although the supporting cast appear rather wooden and theatrical they are still believable, maybe because the scenery with them in the castle look like so many old paintings. There is a certain tableau quality to the scenography.

Finally it is refreshing with a female protagonist, especially one as strong as Garbo, not a dainty flower to be tossed around but a force to be reckoned with. Too bad that love is made to be her undoing. Such a character deserves better than a cliché fate. Well, queen or not, to Hollywood she was first and foremost a woman.

Saturday 15 December 2012

The Mortal Storm (1940)

The Mortal Storm
I do not know if I have mentioned how much I am enjoying this. Watching the movies on the 1001 List and writing about them. I have seen about 140 of them on this mission and just passed 100 reviews and I can certainly say that it has been a treasure throve of movie experiences I never knew existed. I readily admit that my knowledge of early cinema (and we are talking pre-70) was close to zip so almost every movie until now has been a first. How often do you get that on an average evening in front of the television?

Last night was another interesting experience with an old, but for me new film. “The Mortal Storm” is in many ways a rather unique film. Let me give three examples:

1.       The storyline is multi-dimensional and not following typical templates. A family in Bavaria, Germany in 1933 is feeling the intolerance from the Nazi party newly installed in power. The family is headed by Professor Roth (Frank Morgan), who is “non-Arian”, whatever that means (Jewish?). Besides not being of the right race he also insists on tolerance and peoples right to think what they want and, oh horror, he insists that there is no difference in blood type between Arians and other races. This is not the party line. Because of this the family suffers harassment, prosecution and isolation and finally has to flee Germany. While this is simple enough, the circumstances are quite complicated: Two of Professor Roth’s sons (from his wife’s first marriage) join the Nazi party. His daughter Freya (Margareth Sullivan) ends her engagement to her fiancé since he totally ignores her reservations about the party line and instead hooks up with childhood friend of the family and outcast Martin (James Steward). The Professor gets arrested just before leaving and (Spoiler!!!) dies in prison and on the way to Austria Freya is detained for smuggling out the Professor’s manuscript containing the heretic claims about blood types.


2.       The movie is an ensemble movie rather than having a single or two leads. One can say that the story is the lead and the characters fit their place in the story. James Stewart being the megastar of the film is thus relegated to a secondary part and the lead we have followed intensely the first 20 minutes (Professor Roth) is killed half way through the film. In fact the story have no qualms what so ever in killing or removing important characters and I am sure this is against all Hollywood rules. After the initial discomfort this is actually refreshing and keeps you on your toes. Nobody is safe. I also like that the story gets the proper emphasis instead of just being a vehicle of some star actors going through a standard pattern.


3.       We have seen a ton of American movies telling the story of the horrors in Germany under Nazi rule, but they are all in retrospect. This is a contemporary film. America is not even at war with Germany yet and will not be for another year and the picture of what is going on in Germany is yet rather unclear. Still this movie treats Germany as an enemy. There is nothing neutral about the portrayal of the Nazi’s and their actions. It also looks with genuine sympathy on the refugees of prosecution at a time when borders were closing. There is a clear message in this movie that the world (America) needs to wake up and realize that the Nazi menace needs to be dealt with. You leave the movie with a rage against the evil bastards that kill innocent good people and feel little sympathy for a people that so readily adopt a political agenda that set them up against family and friends. It is curious that the “The Mortal Storm” could also be an indirect criticism of the McCarthyism raging through America 10 years later when great people like Chaplin left the country.


For all these strengths I can live with that the acting is strained at times with an overdose of pathos and melodrama. Some of the characters become a little too cliché. The professor does not have a single fault in his life except perhaps the vanity that he hoped somebody would remember his birthday. Elsa, Martin’s sister is a hysteric wreck that looks like she should cut it down to say three Red Bulls a day and Bavaria is thick with girdles, beer and quaint villages. Well, that is an image American movies have kept in all the years since, so I guess it is unfair to blame the movie for that.

However even though the Nazi’s are depicted very black and evil the movie is not even going far enough. No exaggeration would take it even close to reality which the world would soon find out. Compared to reality the SA mob here is almost gentle and polite and the family is getting a surprisingly long leash.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that Maria Ouspenskaya appears as Hilda Breitner, Martins mother and is as usual excellent. She keeps popping up in the movies on the list and must have been very busy or just had a lucky hand in picking her roles.

Yet another movie I am happy to have seen. Again I send my deepest gratitude to the List.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Zero de Conduit (1933)

Nul i opførsel
For some reason The Book is very excited about Jean Vigo. This French director has two movies in the Book, but I am less than impressed with any of them (Zéro de Conduite and L’Atalante). I may be too plebeian to recognize his genius, but I suspect that the real reason for his fame is the fact that he died young. That usually works as a catalyst for fame.

In the case of Zéro de Conduit (Zero for Conduct) I am left with an uncertain feeling of what the purpose and message of the movie really is. This of course places it right up there with the Nouvelle Vague films of a much later age and I cannot rule out that this contributes to its fame. A few things are clear though.

Obviously Vigo is less than impressed with the old black school. The idiocy and futility of that school system is constantly exposed. This is seen in the strict but futile discipline of the dormitory, in the random punishment issued mostly to demonstrate the power of the teachers, the pedophile science teacher and a curriculum that is not even mentioned. From the children’s point of view they are sentenced to a prison with the only purpose to oppress them. The attitude of the school is symbolized by the very small headmaster with the far too big beard.

To highlight the petrified school the new teacher Mr. Huguet (Jean Dasté) is the open-minded liberated type who shows some sympathy for their situation and gives them some slack to the horror of the established teacher class.

The boys, for they are all boys on the school, on the other hand are as unruly as they get and are entirely bent on rebelling on anything relating to the school. They readily break any rule and even counting in the excuse that the school has certainly pushed them in that direction, they are taking it far.

So far this good. This theme we have seen in other movies and will usually end in some sort of rebellion. The problem here is that the necessary rebellion is very unfocussed. The rebellion is mostly for the sake of rebellion and does nothing to improve their or their friend’s situation, but is pure sabotage too easy to dismiss as the product of unruly boys. Their achievements can be summed up in a massive pillow fight and the bombardment of the celebration of the annual commemoration day from the roof while displaying a pirate flag. Hooray for defiance!

If anything the movie shows that this sort of school system is not really working. Power corrupts the teachers and in their little kingdom they rule undisputed. For some children this school system is a total disaster and they should never be there in the first place.

To take it a bit far this could be a criticism of fascism, but the school is just too ridiculous to qualify. It is just a plain stupid place.

I am also uncertain whether this is a comedy or a drama. Some things are so far out and ridiculous that it tends toward comedy, but it never becomes funny. Likewise the pranks the boys are pulling are just too desperate and futile to be really funny and amusing.

It leaves me indeed with a very unresolved feeling. I am just happy I did not attend that school. In fact my school was a public day school, run by the municipality and open for anybody regardless of gender, wealth or qualifications. We turned out quite well and nobody went to the roof to throw garbage at anybody.

Monday 10 December 2012

Pinocchio (1940)

Here is one I have been looking forward to more than usual. It has been so long since I saw Pinocchio that pressed hard I do not think I could swear that I actually did see the entire movie before though I believe I have. Bits and pieces are very familiar, if for nothing else because “When you dream upon a star” and “I’ve got no strings” are featured in the annual Disney Christmas show I grew up with. But seeing it now a lot of it feels new to me. New and familiar. Like an old friend I have not seen since childhood.

It is totally amazing that “Pinocchio” was made only 3 years after “Snow White”. Technically the Disney studios came a long way in those 3 years. The small annoyances are gone, character drawing is less superficial and the flow of the story is so much smoother. Of course with “Fantasia” we saw what they could do now, but there they did not have to tell a story. That they do in ”Pinocchio”.

And what a story it is.

Even with the usual heavy dose of Disney sugar coating this is a gruesome story. We have got toys coming alive (nope, not Chucky), kidnappers of children, child slavery, deportation, children turned into animals, smoking and beer drinking children, monstrous whales and death.

Presented with this list I am not sure I would have let my son watch this movie. In fact I do not think anybody would get away with making it in this day and age. But then, 1940 was a very different world and while frowned upon I do not think many people back then were shocked to see cigar smoking children or a kuk-kuk clock with a child getting whapped in his butt by his mother.

My son took it in full stride and enjoyed it all. He was very impressed with the whale. It is biiig, he said making flying moves. After my initial surprise I also quickly enough fell into the movie and accepted it, but occasionally glanced at my son, checking up on how he was doing.

Pinocchio is a sweet boy, innocent and happy. So is Geppetto, Figaro the cat and Cleo the Fish. Jiminy Cricket, our narrator and appointed conscience for Pinocchio , is exactly as human as he needs to be. In this sugar sweet Disney world it is refreshing with a character with human weaknesses and sentiments even if he is a tiny cricket. That is also needed to counter weight the other perfect leads.

As is usual the case in this sort of films the villains are the real stars. Honest John and Gideon, the con men who twice lures Pinocchio off to trouble, are great and colorful. Sneaky and mean, but also wonderfully arrogant. Stromboli is in indeed a volcano and fireworks to look at and listen to and even the whale, Monstro, has wonderfully choleric traits.

But when all is said and done it is the music which is the real star of Pinocchio. Not just the two signature songs, but all the way through. These are classics now and work excellently also without the movie. Nothing puts me in a mood for the holiday season as “When you wish upon a star”. I can almost smell pine and cinnamon.

I am pretty sure I am going to see this one a few more times over the next weeks, willingly or unwilling. So far I do not mind.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

Dance, Girl, Dance
With ”Dance, Girl, Dance” we are in the light comedy genre. This is not a particular great or big film and certainly the story is fairly predictable, but it is told with skill and charm and quite enjoyable. It is I suppose a “chick-lite” film anno 1940.

This is a classic Cinderella theme about a girl who dreams of the glory of dancing, but reality is performing in cheap and seedy bars. From here she goes on to be the stooge of the sassy Tiger Lilly (the jealous step sister) in a burlesque club all the while her fortune is just within reach if she could only see it. Which of course in the end after much hardship she does.

Maureen O’Hara is Judy O’Brien, the Cinderella girl or ugly duckling, who is self-effacing and shy, but also feisty and protective when provoked. In one of these seedy bars she meets the wealthy James Harris (Louis Hayward), who is going through a bad divorce and is desperately looking for diversion. He takes a liking to her, but she is quickly out maneuvered by Bubbles, the star of the troupe. Bubbles (Lucille Ball) is the cynical seductress. She uses men to get ahead and she is good at it. There is nothing self-effacing about her and she has that sassy sex appeal that is wanted by the clients of the troupe to make her the star of the show. From the beginning she has a thing with Judy. It is important for her to be superior to Judy in everything. When Bubbles becomes the star of a burlesque show she brings in Judy as the clown (stooge) that makes the crowd call for Tiger Lily, Bubble’s stage name.

So when Harris reappears at the shows and again takes a liking to Judy, Bubbles moves in and marries him while on a bender.

But somebody else is also looking out for Judy. Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy) is the manager of THE dance troupe Judy dreams of but she does not know that. To her he is just a very persistent stalker she is trying to get rid of. Ah yes, the girl does not know what is good for her. And in the end when the burlesque show, Judy, Bubbles and Harris all end up in a meltdown he extricates her and restores her to glory.

The most interesting thing about this movie is that we witness the story from Judy’s viewpoint. There is something as rare as a female director behind this movie (Dorothy Arzner) and it shows. The relationship between Judy and Bubbles is in focus all the way through and the men are merely supporting cast. Even the star Bellamy is reduced to a fairly one dimensional prince on the white horse. Instead we get a lot of facets on Judy and Bubbles. The standard Hollywood movie of the era would be the other way round.

It is funny to see Bellamy as a young actor. He was in “His Girl Friday” as well and was one of the staple hunks in Hollywood in the forties. I looked him up and realized he actually was Randolph Duke in “Trading Places” as an old man in 83. Amazing.

Another interesting character is Maria Ouspenskaya as Madame Lydia Basilova. In her previous roles she was always the stately, beautiful woman as for example in “Dodsworth”, but here she is a wizened old hag of a former Russian ballerina. Ah, the wonders of make-up and costume.

The burlesque scenes are quite entertaining and interesting. As a direct opposite of the kind of dancing Judy dreams of this is a stage of cheap appeal to the more basic functions of men. Yet, this being a decent family movie during the reign of the Hays code everything is kept at an innocent level and the seediness is only hinted at in manners and song but we never actually see anything. That could easily have become a bit lame, but Lucille Ball is excellent at hinting at sex in a way that would make Mae West proud, but a lot more convincing than Mae West ever was.

This is a light movie. One should not think too deep on it and just accept the premises of the movie. If you do that it is quite sweet and enjoyable and thankfully the dancing this movie is all about is kept to a minimum.

Sunday 2 December 2012

Alphaville, une Etrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965)

My first association when I saw "Alphaville" was a commercial for coffee. The commercial I have in mind is very dark, strange and very French ending with the line “Do you think this is black? Then you should try Café Noir”.

Of course the commercial is a spoof on arty and dark French movies, but here in “Alphaville” we got the real thing. Very dark, very arty and, well, French.

Mind you, I do not have a problem with either of those elements, but after having been entrenched in the thirties and early forties so long I was not really prepared for an opaque, new wave film so I felt quite lost at times. I was constantly left with the feeling that I must have missed that short bit that was the key to understand what was going on.

I think I got the bigger picture. Well, sort of.

The story takes place in Alphaville, claimed to be a city on a remote planet. The city is ruled by a computer, Alpha 60, who in turn is operated by a group of engineers. Alphaville is a queer sort of place. It is supposed to by ruled strictly by logic and that policy is enforced by rooting out any freethinkers by killing or brainwashing them.

Only, there is nothing futuristic about Alphaville at all. It is a current (well, in ’65) French city that appear very bleak and oppressive mainly due to the very dark and often grainy filming. Even the technology is very 65 and it all frankly look like Paris turned North Korean. I frankly do not understand this pretense of this taking place on a distant planet in some unknown future when the pictures show this obviously not to be the case.

Another weird thing about the city of Alphaville is that for a place that swears to logic it is a very illogical place. A lot of the happenings is outright strange like the execution of freethinkers who are shot in a swimming pool and then stabbed to death by 4 or 5 swimming girls to the applause of an audience.

Alphaville is also hell bent on world domination.

The citizens of Alphaville are zombielike brainwashed, almost robotic people, all under control by the main computer.

Into this world comes Mr. Johnson alias Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine). He is the almost cliché hardboiled, grumpy agent type, complete with trench coat, hat, gun and day long stubble. Johnson/Caution is travelling undercover as a journalist to contact to opposition in Alphavile, those who can still think outside the box, kill the chief engineer behind Apha 60 and destroy Alphaville. Yeah!

In the process he meets Natacha von Braun, a citizen of Alphaville and apparently daughter of the chief engineer. She is as zombie as any other citizen, but underneath the conditioning she is struggling to break free. She is played by the gorgeous Anna Karina and at times I felt that it was her alone that made it worthwhile to see the movie.

All this would make for a spectacular action movie. Instead it is film noir with emphasis on noir. The dialogue is obscure in the extreme. Often I simply have no clue to what they are talking about. Somehow poetry is intertwined in the dialogue and I suppose it is to symbolize the freedom of mind, but often it just becomes blabber. Actions taken by the characters happen out of the blue. Suddenly people are killed, suddenly there is urgency and running or people appear without any explanation. That all contribute to that unsettling feeling that I think I know the overall picture but the detail of the story is blurred into obscurity.

With the dark moody feel to it combined with the dystrophic sci-fi story I really want to like it, but when not even subtitles help me in understanding the pictures I feel a bit lost. You might call it a Lynch moment, but with Lynch at least I feel it can be decoded if I put my mind to it. Here it just becomes strange.

The second association I had watching this film was to Blade Runner. The 40’es style detective, grubby and tough, up against a bunch of almost human robots in a dystrophic future setting. He meets the daughter (maybe) of the big creator who is or is not human enough to be saved. Here Tyrell has become von Braun or professor Nosferatu (?!) and the cold wet city that kill the human spirit is Alphaville. It is not a complete analogy, but surely Ripley Scott saw Alphaville before making Blade Runner.

A third though: If Jim Jarmusch has made Blade Runner it probably would have looked like “Alphaville”. “Alphaville” is definitely stranger than paradise.

Friday 30 November 2012

A Night at the Opera (1935)

Halløj i Operaen
The Marx Brothers were more than just an ensemble in showbiz. They became synonymous with disrespectful anarchy and chaos in the most positive and exasperating meaning of the words. Even today The Marx Brothers are frequently used as exponent for those concepts: “Who did I hire? The Marx Brothers?” Without a doubt the icon of the Marx Brothers will long outlive the memory of the films they made.

Before starting this voyage through early cinema The Marx Brothers were one of the few familiar names on the list. I had seen this one before and also “A day at the Races”, but it was a long time ago and I cannot say I remember much. What I do remember very well are the characters: Groucho, Harpo and Chico. They had real, more mundane names, but the world will always know them under their stage names and their unfailing looks that they carried from movie to movie. There were two other brothers, but they do not appear in “A Night at the Opera”.

As indicated above the style of the Marx Brothers is utter anarchy. You find something refined and pompous and the brothers will take is apart. In this movie it is the opera. What more refined backdrop can you find? They need such a stiff, inflexible opponent as counterweight to their shenanigans otherwise it does not work. Groucho Marx is funny when he runs corners on Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) or Gottlieb (Siegfried Rumann) exactly because they are uptight and inflexible. Had they been smiling, easy people Groucho would not have been half as fun. That is also why Dumont is sometimes considered (at least by me) the extra Marx Brother. She is always there, the prime victim of their pranks. And she is excellent.

Groucho Marx is Otis B. Driftwood, a particularly sleazy and opportune agent, currently engaged by Mrs. Claypool (just consider their names again: Driftwood and Claypool, priceless!) to promote her into society. She has a lot of money and do not know what to do with them, prime victim. Driftwood actually accomplishes the task somewhere in between a flood of hidden and not so hidden insults by introducing her to Gottlieb, the manager of the New York Opera. She is to sponsor the opera so they can hire the famous tenor Lassparri (Walter Woolf King) in Europe and bring him in for the new season.

Lassparri is a self-obsessed prima donna and thus a first class victim for Fiorello (Chico) and Tomasso (Harpo). He also has the hots for a female singer Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) who in turn is in (mutual) love with the chorus singer (and hidden gem) Ricardo Baroni. Fiorello is a friend of Baroni and arranges to become his agent.

When Driftwood learns what sort of money Lassparri can get per show he maneuvers to become his agent. He finds Fiorelli and they agree to share in being his agent in one of the most ridiculous contract negotiations ever. The clauses are all “the first party, known as the first party” mumbo-jumbo and they end up tearing the contract to pieces obviously having no clue what it says. Well, soon enough Driftwood realizes it is Baroni not Lassparri he has signed.

The whole ensemble travel by boat to America and here we witness the funniest scene of the movie. Gottlieb, who has already take a dislike to Driftwood has installed him in an ultra-tiny cabin. There is barely room for Driftwood’s oversize suitcase. When he opens the suitcase he finds Fiorello, Tomasso and Baroni inside. They need to go to America as well because Rosa is going and they have no money. They are hungry however so they talk Driftwood into ordering food. It ends up being an enormous meal with a lot (!) of hardboiled eggs. While waiting for the food the maid comes to make up the bed, the plumber to fix the pipes, the cleaner to mop the floor, two women to give manicures and probably I forgot some. When the food arrives the three waiters manage to get in as well somehow, but when Mrs. Claypool shows up all come tumbling out the door like a flood. The scene is impossible to describe, it has to be seen.

In America the three stowaways are illegal immigrants and as such being chased by the police, notably Sergeant Henderson (Robert Emmett O´Connor) resulting in two spectacular scenes.

First the three of them are disguised as three famous airmen and are received with music and speeches and are required to make their own speeches, which do not go down very well.

Secondly they manage to drive the poor sergeant crazy when he visit the place they live in. By moving the furniture around continuously they confuse him so badly he just gives up.

But the glory moment is when the three Marx brothers turn the glorious premiere of the New York Opera in to a circus. The opera is so utterly profaned that you do not know whether to laugh or cry. All to the end of ruining Lassparri and Gottlieb and placing Baroni in the lead. Never has Il Trovatore been abused to this extent and to such amusing end and again it is the refined setting that makes the Marx Brothers funny.

While the story thus allows for scenes that in themselves are funny, it is also largely a vehicle for the anarchistic comic of the brothers. Groucho cannot open his mouth without a pun, an insult or just an insane statement. Chico plays well up against Groucho and Harpy is, well, just anarchy. A big child causing endless havoc.

Of the two Marx Brothers movies on the list I am tilting toward this one (the other one being Duck Soup). Primarily because of the backdrop. It is the self-styled pompousness of the opera world that makes the gags so funny.

Sunday 25 November 2012

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The Philadelphia Story
If you have Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart in the same movie it cannot go wrong. No two ways about that. But you can also say that even a cliché, worn to pieces story can get reinvigorated if you just make the cast strong enough. If you then add a witty script you can even forget that you have seen this story a hundred times before. Et voilà, The Philadelphia Story.

I am so happy I got married in Denmark. Close to 40 years of watching American movies and TV series have made me fear that moment in the wedding ceremony when the attendants can object to the marriage or forever keep quiet. This is a most dangerous moment where roughly 2 out of 3 film weddings are called off or the cast is suddenly changed. Going into an American wedding must be the ultimate test of a relationship; you have no idea if you will actually get married and with whom. Fortunately this part is not a part of the Danish wedding ritual, neither in church nor at civil weddings so this is a safe place to get married.

In the Philadelphia story we for a change do not get to that moment, the last minute change in cast happens about 10 minutes before the usual critical moment, but otherwise the story fit the bill:

Woman is getting married for the second time. The ex shows up and brings the third guy along. In the proceedings the woman finds out (in the last minute) that she is marrying the wrong guy and the question is now if the groom will be replaced with the ex or the third guy and if the change of cast will be at that crucial moment in the ceremony or if they make up their mind before that.   

Now it is time to groan. Goddammit, not again, haven’t we had enough of those stories? I am personally fed up with this theme and this may be a major reason for me to avoid chick-flicks, the domain of this scenario.

Now enter our glorious trio of Hepburn, Grant and Stewart and a witty script and the nightmare turns into one of those happy moments where I can say that I really enjoyed the film. As much as I like James Stewart, the duo of Kat and Cary is so electric that they can get away with anything and they steal this show as well. Frequent readers of this blog will know that Cary Grant is my current favorite actor and while Katherine Hepburn has not been as frequently appearing on the list, the cases have been noteworthy. I loved her in “Bringing up Baby” and while her character in “The Philadelphia Story” is quite different, there is enough mischief and sassiness in it to fit the Kat. She is a force of nature in the Garbo caliber, but more enjoyable.

Tracy Lord (Hepburn) is getting remarried. She is of the old wealth families in Philadelphia, a haughty and aloof woman who divorced her former husband C.K. Dexter (Grant), a man of equal old lineage, for some vague fault involving drinking. Now she is marrying George Kittridge (John Howard), a successful man who worked himself up from obscurity to management in the Lord family corporation. He is also a wooden man, strictly adhering to form and utterly without a sense of humor.

Tracy dislikes the gossip tabloids with a vengeance so when Dexter arrives at the family estate shortly before the wedding for his obscure purposes it is with two representatives of that despised media in tow. Macaulay Connor (Stewart) is writer of fiction turned journalist to put bread on the table and Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) is his fellow photographer, who work for similar reasons. While Macaulay is fretting under the insidiousness of his job, Elizabeth is resigned to do what it takes to secure an income. They gain unprecedented access to the Lord estate through a blackmail scam involving exposing Tracy’s father’s escapades with a chorus girl.

What happens next is a little unclear, but through witty and very fast dialogue Dexter charms his way back into the family, Tracy discovers that Macaulay is actually a decent writer and Macaulay uncovers the true nature of Tracy which is just as human and faulty as the other person. This is a surprise to Tracy as well and a little late the trio realizes that George, who sees her rather as an ornament and a goddess, cool and correct, is hopelessly wrong for her.

So what then? Is the wedding off or will somebody else take the place of the groom?

Surrounding the main characters is a host of interesting figures. Tracy’s sister Dinah hopes for Dexter’s return and adds the own incitements to the participants. Tracy’s mother, living on/off with her husband is a bit of an enigma. She seems to accept her husband’s escapades, yet supports Tracy in her new marriage. Uncle Willie is the house clown, brewing moonshine in the basement and hunting women (in particular Elizabeth) when above ground.

I enjoyed this movie for the actors and the dialogue while I saw it, though in hindsight I am a bit surprised. This is not a movie I ought to have liked at all. Thus the power of a good cast.

Friday 23 November 2012

Fantasia (1940)

And now for something completely different!

“Fantasia” is something else entirely. It is not quite like anything else I ever saw and since I never saw it before I went to it with some very vague idea of what it would be like only to find that even that was way off.

Basically “Fantasia” is a merger of classical music and animation, a sort of music video anno 1940, but that does not quite describe it. For two hours we get a number of sequences of music accompanied with different types of animation. Those animations range from definite stories of the classical sort (Mickey pulling water, then with a wizard hat on causes havoc when the magic gets out of control) over silly themes (like the dancing hippos) to simple visual impressions of the music in the form of colors and geometrical shapes.

The music is played by a classical orchestra and we see them in silhouette between each sequence while a narrator is introducing the next piece. It gives the impression of being present in the concert hall and as the music starts we close our eyes and see the animation unfolding before our inner sight.

This is not a film to sit down to watch with the family as a movie. It is far too disjointed and incoherent for that. But it is something to relax to. To see a few sequences, while buzzing out. I believe I read somewhere that “Fantasia” was a favorite to see on LSD (along with 2001:A space odyssey). I can believe that but less will do.

Frankly I thought it would be more like traditional cartoons, with lots of Mickey, so I had invited my 2½ year old son to join me watching it. He is going through a Mickey Mouse phase. At first I was disappointed that this was not so. This is much more advanced and adult, really, in format and I thought my son would quickly tire of it. Instead the opposite happened. He totally loves it! And not just the Mickey part. Now he want to bring our portable DVD player everywhere so he can see “Fantasia” from he gets up till he goes to daycare and again from he comes back till he goes to bed. I think he likes it better than I do.

Now, I do not dislike it at all, I just tire more easily. I am falling in love with several of the pieces, partly because the music is excellent, after all these are some of the most well-known classical pieces around, and partly because at least some of the animations have a lot of charm. My personal favorite is the ballet. Just try and imagine vain ostriches, shy hippos in small skirts, feather light blue elephants and a bunch of crocodiles in capes all performing a ballet. It is exactly as silly and charming and totally sweet as it sounds like.

At the other end of the spectrum the sequence with centaurs and cherubs is way over the top kitsch. Here is so much sugar coating that the animation is totally sagging under its own sweetness. Not a favorite of mine.

Then there is a lot more spice in the parts with the history of animal evolution with big roaring dinosaurs and the end sequence with Satan and his hordes. Again the pathos is almost getting the upper hand, this is Disney after all, but as counterweight to centaurs and pegasi it is rather welcome.

Throughout the whole affair my wife kept asking me when this is from not quite believing this to be from 1940. Of course my version has been through some massive restoration, but it is still quite an achievement for 1940. I think much of it could pass for a much more recent date.

I have a feeling I will get to see “Fantasia” quite a lot over the coming weeks and I will probably grow weary of it, but that could be a lot worse. My son could have fallen in love with “Cars”…