Monday 29 October 2012

City Lights (1931)

Byens Lys
I have previously in various places mentioned Charlie Chaplin’s movies and what I think of them. I believe I have commented that “Modern Times” was my favorite of his movies. Correct that. From now on it is “City Lights”. Yes, “Modern Times” have the fantastic scene with the feeding machine and a number of other fantastic gags, but it is not a complete movie the way “City Lights” is. As a comedy it works all the way through. It is consistently funny and move from one comedic setup to the next in a rapid pace, but without losing track of the story or the poignancy of the love story the film revolves around. It is in every meaning of the word a masterpiece.

Yesterday I had to go to town and brought my little portable DVD player with me in the bus. I must have caused many glances as I laughed my way through “City Lights”. I was having a blast. I noticed that in many ways Chaplin acts and reacts like my 2½ year old son and I figured that he might like the movie as well and true enough, when I got home and put it on the big screen he loved it. Well, it passed the big test.

The story is fairly basic, but becomes rather convoluted because of the erratic ways of the little tramp and especially his eccentric millionaire friend (Harry Myers). Chaplin falls in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who thinks he is rich and not the tramp he really is. Because of his infatuation he gives her all he can afford and goes to great length to help her when she needs it. The ability to help her comes from the eccentric millionaire whom Chaplin saves from committing suicide (almost killing Chaplin in the process) making him his new best friend. At least when he is drunk, because as he sobers up he completely forgets about the tramp. Fortunately the millionaire is a thirsty, despairing man who frequently drowns his sorrows so the tramp is invited in and kicked out and invited in again in rapid order. When they are friends Chaplin has the ability to help the girl, when they are not he is left to his own pitiful abilities. This comes to a head when the girl and her grandmother are about to be evicted unless they pay outstanding rent and at the same time a doctor is in town who can cure blindness. Chaplin really needs money and when his attempt at a boxing career fails he fortunately becomes friends again with the drunkard and gets sufficient money to save the girl, only to risk losing them again when burglars assail the millionaire causing him to sober up while Chaplin is caught red handed with 1000$ in his pocket. Chaplin escapes and saves the girl, but is then arrested and put away for a while. When he is back the girl can see again and has made herself a successful flower shop. The question is, will she recognize and love the tramp now she can see that he is not a rich man?

That ending is so elegantly made with such tenderness that it almost hurts. I have to say that it is one of the most perfect end scenes I ever saw, so raw and bittersweet, full of hope but unresolved. The question is readable in Chaplin’s face as she answers “Yes, I can see now”. So ambiguous, but in a good way.

And all the way through I did not even mention the comedic elements. To do that would exhaust me, there are just so many. The boxing match is rightly so a classic. That may be the funniest boxing match ever. But I also love the party at the restaurant where we get slapstick at full throttle as Chaplin breaks every convention of proper behavior. Even saving the drunkard ends in comedy as the drunkard and the tramps simply cannot stay on the dock, but keep pushing each other into the water. The opening scene itself is high comedy as the high and mighty of the city are gathered at the revelation of the new town monument, only to find the tramp sleeping in the arms of the statue. A kazoo is elegantly used to tell how pointless their speeches are and their aghast expressions to find the tramp defiling their monument is priceless.

Like the recent movie “The Artist” Chaplin insisted on making silent movies at a time when the rest of the world had already changed to talking movies. Chaplin was convinced that the tramp was a silent character and he was right. Because of the tramp character he got away with it and created the best silent comedy ever made. I do not know if his contemporaries appreciated that, but I sure do. I can see this movie again and again and will many times over the coming years.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Frankenstein (1931)

The university in my hometown (University of Aalborg) has a faculty of bioengineering. One of their specialties is to develop prosthesis controlled by electric signals in the functioning nerves. You should basically just think that you want to move and the prosthesis moves. You can volunteer for their experiments in which they will send electricity through your body and it is supposed to be rather painful. In order to advertise for new students to the faculty they made a commercial video featuring Frankenstein crying “IT’S ALIVE, IT’S ALIVE!” while electric current pours into his animated monster.

Nobody will even for a second wonder about this reference. Show me someone who does not know of Frankenstein and I will claim you found him in an ice crevasse, frozen down for centuries. The story of Frankenstein and his monster is iconic beyond the usual usage of the term and is not at all outdated today. I am only wondering why Hollywood in its craving for easy surefire plots has not made a remake since 94 of Frankenstein. Not that it is necessary at all. I am quite satisfied with the original from 1931.

Of course I love the above mentioned scene where the monster gets animated. It is every bit as satisfying as its iconic status promises. All those gadgets frying with electric current, tesla balls and all, and above a thunderstorm raging to set the stage. Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein and Boris Karloff as the monster are perfect in this scene. Colin Clive is full of insane fire and has that wild look in his eyes. Perfectly believable. And Karloff owned that monster.

In fact these two actors carry the movie all the way through. The general performance of the cast is very mixed. I am not too fond of Frankenstein’s girlfriend Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) or his friend and many of the extras are outright annoying. I am a bit undecided about Edward van Sloan’s Dr. Waldman. While certainly better than van Helsing in “Dracula”, there is still something artificial Teutonic about him that I cannot come to terms with. Dr. Frankenstein’s father, the baron on the other hand is superbly played by Frederic Kerr. His no-nonsense straight talk and attitude is a perfect counterweight to the lofty and rather insane attitude of his son. Though is very Irish manner may be clashing with he supposedly Germanic origin

But no matter, this is a movie entirely borne by the two leads.

The comparison with “Dracula” is unavoidable. They came out shortly after each other and are both iconic horror movies. They even have some of the cast in common. The difference between the two is that Frankenstein works and Dracula does not. James Whale managed to set the exact right gothic ambience right from the opening with Frankenstein and his assistant, the hunchback Fritz (Dwight Frye) rummaging through a cemetery looking for leftover body parts. I just cannot think of a better opening to a gothic horror movie. Also the tower used as Frankenstein’s laboratory is a perfect pick. Dark and damp stones, yeah! Light years ahead of “Dracula”. But also in the direction here works so much better. While “Dracula” suffers from being uncomfortable with the sound technique, “Frankenstein” uses the technique instead of being afraid of it, the action flows much more naturally and is not limited to a simple stage with people coming in and going out. No, Frankenstein survives even today.

The eternal question when it comes to “Frankenstein” is if the monster is truly an evil character begotten by an unholy experiment or if he is a misunderstood and mistreated child in a giant’s body, forsaken by his creator. The film generally takes the former opinion. Dr. Frankenstein is repenting his deeds and the monster is vilified as a murderous monster and hunted down by a mob with pitchforks and torches and finally burned alive to stamp out this evil.

But Karloff suffuses the monster with empathy and childlike attitudes. It is primal in its fears and anger and joy and when it is sitting by the water with the little girl we see that it is just a kid with too big a body. It terrifies and saddens it that the girl is afraid and drown, but he is confused, does not know what to do and runs away.  

This position becomes a lot in focus in the follow up, “Wife of Frankenstein”, but more on that when it gets time for that movie.

The monster seeks his maker, but he rejects it and wants nothing to do with it, which of course angers the monster. That is also a classic theme.

Frankenstein as the irresponsible scientist is a warning that there is a limit as to how far you can go, but I think more a lesson to be responsible and stand by what you do. He created the monster, it is his responsibility. To just abandon it is the real crime here.

One day I should go over to the bioengineering department and see if they are truly creating a monster and if they will be more responsible than Dr. Frankenstein.

Saturday 20 October 2012

His Girl Friday (1940)

What exactly does this title mean? Not a clue really. Probably I am missing something. I was mystified by the title before I saw this film and I still am.

But who cares? What matters is the movie behind the title and that is a lot clearer to interpret.

“His Girl Friday” is an adaptation of the monster Broadway hit “The Frontpage”. It is the story of Hildegard “Hildy” Johnson (Rosalind Russell), a newspaper journalist who is about to leave her job and very demanding boss (and former husband) Walter Burns (Cary Grant) to retire to a married life in Albany with her fiancée Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Walter does not want her to leave the paper (and him) and does everything in his power to prevent her from going and when a major story breaks out involving the possible execution of an (sort of) innocent and political shenanigans by the mayor, she is her herself not so difficult to talk into talking this last job before heading north to get married.

Cary Grant, my current favorite actor, is as usual stunning. He is speed talking, charming and cunning like he always is, but there is an unscrupulous twist to him here. He has no qualms or restraints in what he asks of the people around him and what he will do or say to get his way. That means that a lot of people are getting hurt by him and that is what ruined his and Hildy’s marriage in the first place. It also means that for all his charms it is a bit difficult to root for him, as much as I want to. He just does not care for the people around him. He need to get the story of the dude who killed some guy and the mayor who wants him dead because it was a black guy who got killed and executing this clearly insane man will get the mayor a lot of black votes in the upcoming election for office.

On top of the story about getting the story, Walter is also trying to sidetrack Bruce, the insurance guy and clearly the dork compared to worldly Walter and Hildy. This is not just to get the story, but just as much to take out a rival to his attempt at winning Hildy back. This is probably a redeeming trait that makes Walter more palatable, but I am not convinced.

Hildy is the hard boiled reported who had enough of journalism and especially of Walter and have found the exact opposite in Bruce Baldwin. She really really wants to catch that train with her fiancée and his mother (sic) so she can get married, but she is snared in by Walter and soon has to juggle the story, Walter and her concern for Bruce, who is clearly out of his depth dealing with Walter Burns. She would seem as the hapless victim of the manipulations of Walter had it not been for the fire that the story and all its prospects lights in her. She is not at all ready for a retired life and blossoms when she gets her hands on a juicy story.

That leaves Bruce. He thinks he is getting married. He thinks he has found a nice simple woman to settle down for a quiet life with his mother in Albany. Instead he ends up in prison thrice, every time framed by Walter, and his mother gets abducted before it gets through to him that maybe Hildy is not coming along. Hildy hates Walter for doing these stunts, which she knows he is perfectly capable of, and yet ends up in his arms.

I love the dialogue of this film. It is verbal fireworks of premier caliber. The timing is always excellent and all the principal actors deliver a first class performance. This I have come to expect from Grant and Bellamy but this is the first time I have really noticed Russell, and although I found her a bit weak in the beginning she gets better and better as the film progresses.

My problem with “His Girl Friday” is how Hildy returns not just to the job (she is obviously cut out for it) but also for Walter since he obviously is not exactly improving the behavior which caused the divorce in the first place. His only attack of gallantry is when he is giving up on having her write the story and encourages her to go on and meet Bruce at a time when she is basically already won over. To me it feels more as if she has again been snared by Walter and Walter is, as is his habit, getting his way again.

I am not sure if that is really a serious argument against the movie, but it makes it less satisfying than a number of very similar movies.

The one that particularly springs to mind is ”The Awful Truth”. Not only is it featuring Cary Grant and Ralph Bellamy in very similar roles (Irene Dunne was first choice as Hildegard Johnson), the story and wit of dialogue is quite parallel. The couple is divorced, fighting a war of wit. She gets a new fiancée (Bellamy) who is a dork and through the events unfolding the couple realizes that they should not split up after all. The newspaper setting is practically all that sets the movies apart. And that little detail about Grant’s character being so flawed that, though incredibly charming, you have to be an equally ruthless journalist to really fall for him. And that difference is probably the main reason why I prefer “The Awful Truth”. And of course the fact that second time is rarely as good as first time.

It should however not prevent anybody from seeing this movie, if nothing else then for the dialogue. According to the extra material on the DVD the actors improvised quite a lot and it shows. Two notable examples, both from Grant, is when he describes Bruce Baldwin as looking like that famous actor Ralph Bellamy. Or telling the mayor that the last person who tried to get him down was Archie Leach, and he failed. Archibald Leach was Cary Grant’s original name.

I cannot dislike a movie with Cary Grant and by Howard Hawks so of course I like this one too. Just not as much as I would have liked to.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Dracula (1931)

If you have been following my blog or my comments on fellow blogger’s pages you may already know that I am not overly fond of Todd Browning’s “Dracula” from 1931. I have not exactly made a secret of it.

Now it is time for me to give my official comments on it after watching it a second time last night.

I am afraid my opinion has not much improved.

“Dracula” actually starts good. A carriage arrives at a lonely inn in Transylvania and the locals are quite convincingly speaking Hungarian and seem genuinely terrified of the vampires. Renfield (Dwight Frye) the ignorant traveler is continuing up to the pass where a mysterious carriage will take him to Count Dracula’s castle. This is convincing and well done, maybe even better than Murnau’s Nosferatu.

Then Renfield arrives at the castle and meets our friend Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and the quality level drops. I am sorry, I know Lugosi is the quintessential Dracula, but I cannot take that man serious. He seems a caricature on himself and instead of sinister he appears funny. It does not help that the castle looks like something from the haunted house in a theme park and come on: armadillos? Are they the harbinger of doom and decay?

Renfield and Dracula travel together to England (London or Grimsby, I cannot really figure it out), Renfield now possessed and half crazy. I kind of like him like this. He is the only character who is half-convincing at this stage. Dracula moves in at the local ancient ruin, next to a sanatorium, which happens to be where Renfield is committed. The sanatorium is run by a Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston) and his two daughters Lucy (Frances Dade) and Mina (Helen Chandler) soon fall victim to the Count’s special attentions.

It is a bit odd; Lucy seems to die or disappear, but it is hardly mentioned or the concern of anybody. Mina on the other hand is the one everybody are fighting so hard to save and protect, including the possessed Renfield. Talk about a favorite daughter!

The next 40 minutes or so or more than half the movie takes place in a few rooms in the home of Dr. Seward. People enter and people leave and generally do a lot of (pointless) talking. Obviously due to the limitations of sound technique, but it makes for a very static movie. Dracula comes and goes with impunity and it seems all a bit artificial. Other people to come and go are John Harker (David Manners), Mina’s fiancée and Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who is in particular a cartoon character with his Teutonic mad scientist clichés.

I will not tire you with the conclusion of this charade, except to say that I got a bit confused as to the resolution and that we have the imbecile Harker warning the Count during his and Van Helsing’s sneak attack on Dracula’s hideout by shouting Mina’s name.

Suffice to say that the resolution causes as much groaning as the rest of the movie.

What I kept thinking was how much I would rather watch “Nosferatu”. Max Schreck is far more sinister than Bela Lugosi and for me that will remain the real and original Dracula film.

Todd Browning’s version on the other hand belongs in the department of kitschy B-movies.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Tabu (1931)

With Tabu we are back to one of my favorite silent movie directors Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. Unfortunately this is not his best movie, but it is still sufficiently different from other movies of the era that is deserves some special mentioning.

First of all this is still a silent movie despite it being from 1931 and thus long into the sound film era. This may seem odd, but is linked to the peculiar story behind Tabu.  This movie started several years before when Murnau in his new yacht cruised around in the Pacific Ocean and fulfilled a childhood dream when he gathered a film crew to make a movie with and about Polynesians. At this time sound movies were very new and the technology was not anywhere near ready to be taken out of the studio and certainly not ready for outdoor recordings on a Polynesian island.

To me, already deeply embedded in the sound era it is odd to go back to a silent movie, especially when the music and particularly the sound effects added seem pasted on and artificial. Especially during partying the sound is more reminiscent of a saloon dancehall, complete with shouting and stamping, than natives on Bora Bora.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Tabu indeed takes place on these Polynesian islands and revolves around a young couple who start out as the happiest and most careless people in the world in their tropical paradise. Soon however an emissary from the Über-boss arrives declaring the girl, Reri (Anne Chevalier), a sacred virgin to be consecrated for the gods and thus tabu. Reri is not at all happy about that and the boy, Matahi, abducts her from the ship and together they escape in an open canoe.

The second part of the film, called “Paradise Lost” transpires on another island where Reri and Matahi have found refuge. Matahi is an accomplished pearl diver, but without any sense of money he throws big parties and indebts himself over his head. When the emissary, Hito, shows up here as well they must escape again, only they do not have the money to go. Matahi breaks another tabu by diving for exceptional pearls in shark infested waters. He finds his pearls but too late, the girl is gone.

Except for the ending, which is not exactly Hollywood friendly (though probably to Murnau’s taste) the story in itself is not so exceptional. It is a fairly simple story. The interesting elements here are the cinematography and the story behind the movie.

It was a novelty to make a movie placed on tropical islands, not some studio creation, but really to go there and film it with a local cast. This could easily have become another “home video”, but Murnau, being a perfectionist, got the natives to appear as actors. Their actions do not seem forced and the pictures are beautifully made. Floyd Crossby, the cinematographer, did get an Oscar for his work, but I would credit Murnau for this success. Being an old master of German expressionism he knows a thing or two about using the pictures to convey a message and reduce the use of intertitles to a minimum, partly by using letters written or read to tell us what is going on, partly smart use of light and shadow and body language.

Having said that, he does not reach the heights he achieved in “Der Letzte Man” or “Sunrise”, but less will do.

Behind the camera the drama surpassed what went on in front on the camera. Murnau had initially brought Robert Flaherty into the project and formed a production company together with him to film “Turia”. Flaherty had experience from Tahiti and knew an old local legend Murnau wanted to film. Flaherty was a well-known documentarist (Nanook of the North) and thought to be an asset. Arriving on set however the two of them turned out to be a very bad match. Their ideas of how to make the film conflicted thoroughly. Flaherty wanted to make a naturalistic documentary, Murnau wanted to make a cinema movie in the German tradition. When their sponsor went broke in the big crash of 29, Murnau redefined the movie, threw in his own money, changing the name to “Tabu”, sending home much of the Hollywood crew and made the new movie entirely to his own liking. Flaherty was sidetracked and resented that greatly. Murnau’s own cameraman, originally just an assistant to Flaherty, ended up filming most of the movie. An interesting consequence of the much reduced budget is that Bill Bambridge, the film technician would also double as the policeman of the movie, and shedding his coat, the local musician and entertainer.

Despite Murnau’s “westernization” of “Tabu” I still think it carries a very authentic nerve. Maybe it is just that this island paradise fits our prejudice of what it should be, but it looks right. Those people look so charming and happy there on the island and the culture chock on the pearl diver island also seem very authentic. A nice detail is that Murnau does not shy away from showing the native women’s breasts during the festivities. Anybody with even a glimmer of experience with native Polynesians will know that this is how it is and that there is nothing sexual in it. I just wonder if that was allowed to get through to the final American release. The DVD sports a PG disclaimer saying that the film contains natural nudity and that some scenes are unsuitable for small children. In the way it is shown in the movie I would say it is particularly suitable for small children and that it is their parents that might have a problem.

Returning from the islands Murnau bought out Flaherty and sold the movie rights for a pittance. “Tabu” was not a box office success, but Murnau would never know. Before the premiere in New York he was involved in a car accident and died from his injuries.

Thus ended the story of one of early cinema’s greatest directors. I wonder if he too became a victim of the Tabu?

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Finishing the Thirties

Finishing the Thirties
With Wuthering heights I finished the thirties. Or rather, I finished watching the movies from the thirties; I have yet to comment on them all. That will come in time. Yet this is a milestone and will allow me to sum up on the past decade.

I started blogging long after I entered the thirties so I never go around to sum up the twenties so it will be difficult here to ignore that decade entirely. It took me a while to cover that decade, mostly so because I also watched a number of box sets during that period. With the thirties the pace picked up and it took me about 16 month to cover the approx. 80 movies making up the thirties. Still slow, I know, but at least I am not getting fed up with watching them. For personal reasons the pace is now slowing down again. There is a lot happening in my life right now, so the coming decade might take a really long time to cover.

So what were the thirties like?

It was a decade that covered a lot of ground technically, artistically and politically. Films are a barometer of the sentiment of society as well as practically any other development and covering an entire decade like the thirties allow you to appreciate this development.

The end of the prohibition at the opening of the decade gave rise to a string of gangster movies and the hardboiled type had his first heyday. He would come back many times in the coming decades, but with the gangster menace in fresh memory this hit a node in those first years of the thirties.

Then came the Great Depression. You would think that would generate a number of social realistic and political movies supporting the victims or explaining the causes of depression. But there were very few of those. Chaplin’s and Renoir’s were the only ones I can think off off-hand. No, when times are tough you want to get happy when you go to the cinema. You want escapism and happy endings, singing and dancing and beautiful people. And that could be the keywords to a whole swath of movies crowding the early to middle years of the thirties. All those Busby Berkely or Fred Astaire musicals or silly comedies of the age are clearly a reflection of this. You go to the cinema and you want to forget your miserable life. With the Hay’s Code placing a secure lid on what you could show or say, the cinema was fairly harmless.

As the decade progressed and things lightened up a bit the movies got better and often more serious and even able to deal with difficulties in society. “Make Way for Tomorrow” and “Stella Dallas” are good examples of this move and as we reach 39 we get a fireworks of pictures of all sorts. Serious and silly, historic and current. Adventure and realism. There may be a war on the horizon, but it is difficult to see from the movies in America.

In Europe we get some of the same trends, but also differences. German film had its heyday in the mid to late twenties before the blossom of German movie industry moved to America to boost Hollywood to new heights. But the very best is actually of the thirties: “M” by Fritz Lang.  But then it stops. Clearly reflecting the ascension of the Nazi regime the only quality films we get out of Germany since 33 are the documentaries of Leni Riefenstahl. To think that the country that once gave us the best movies changed into a place that burned books (and many other terrible things!), that is just so sad.

French film on the other hand blossomed. On the list it is particularly Clair and Renoir which are represented, but they are also very well represented. Unlike the American filmmakers they seemed not to have qualms portraying the hardships of life in the thirties. But then Renoir was also known as a very political director.

Technically the decade went through a massive development. Sound film was new in 1930 and the use of it generally primitive. There were notable exceptions like “All quiet on the Western Front” and “M” but mostly the quality was poor. The misery was compounded by the technical limitations imposed by the use of sound. Since dubbing was not yet used sound was recorded concurrently with the image, meaning that all the action had to take place in a studio under very restricted conditions. But the technique quickly developed. By the late thirties sound was not a problem but an instrument to be used like any other and there seems to be no limitations left set by sound.

Restoration can save almost any movie so it is difficult to say much of the picture quality and most of the advances in the filming itself had already been done in the twenties. Yet there is a development through the decade, though more subtle and that has probably mostly to do with the direction. A picture like “Gone With the Wind” would have been unimaginable in 1930, well frankly even in 1939, yet it is there and it is not just because of the colors that it is so impressive. The use of cameras had become better and better. Renoir’s “La Regle du Jeu” is another such example.

So which movies were my favorites?

Why, but there are so many! That is what the list is all about.

A rough list of the top notch movies on my personal list would include:

“M”, supreme in so many ways

“All Quiet on the Western Front”, the first really good (anti)war movie

“The Footlight Parade”, the first time EVER I like a musical movie

“It happened one night”, a romcom that is way ahead of any recent romcom I can think of

“Modern Times”, the peak of Chaplin and a really intelligent slapstick comedy

“Le Grand Illusion”, my favorite Renoir (even including “La Regle du Jeu”) and a very humanistic war movie

“Make Way for Tomorrow”, one of the saddest movies I ever saw

“The Awful Truth”, Cary Grant is currently my favorite actor and he is glorious in this one

“La Femme du Boulanger”, an entirely perfect comedy

“Only Angels have Wings”, Cary Grant rules!

The nice thing about making such a list is that I do not really have to defend it. These are not objectively the best movies, but simply those that I liked the best.’

Let us see what the forties bring.

Saturday 6 October 2012

Wuthering Heights (1939)

Stormfulde Højder
Wuthering Heights is another one of those classic stories I am going into entirely ignorant. It is a classic novel by Emily Brontë from 1847, a movie from 1939 and a remake from 2011. And I never read or saw any of these, before now. Well, the explanation is simple enough. With a derogatory label I would call this a Girls movie, with capital G, about big love, not the blissful and sweet kind, but the all-consuming, bitter and destructive sort of love. Frankly I do not have too much patience with this sort of stories, so I have never really been tempted to see it.

I have the Book to thank for taking me through this sort of movies now. They make up a fair share of the entries and the List forces me to sit through them. And thank you for that, because most of them are worth seeing even if I would not have picked them myself.

In this case I thus go in to this classic story with fresh eyes and cannot say if it is true to the novel or if it is better or worse than the modern remake, but can comment on it entirely based on itself. I have had a lot of those experiences with the early cinema, which frequent readers of this blog will know and I really enjoy that feeling of novelty, though to true connoisseurs of classic movies I may appear an ignorant amateur.

Enough rambling, back to the movie.

Wuthering Heights take place in Yorkshire, England, on the moor in the middle of the 19th century. A stranger arrives in a snowstorm to the lonesome house of Wuthering Heights and asks for shelter. The hosts are not particularly friendly and soon he is hearing ghosts. The master of the house runs out into the snow and the old maid, Ellen, starts telling the bewildered guest the tragic story of Wuthering Heights.

On Wuthering Heights lived a brother and sister, Hindley (Hugh Williams, as adult, Douglas Scott as a child) and Cathy (Merle Oberon as adult, Sarita Wooton as a child). One day their father brings home an orphan he found in Liverpool and makes him part of the family. The child is Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier as adult, Rex Downing as a child). While Cathy takes a liking to Heathcliff and makes him her best friend, Hindley hates him with a vengeance and treat him like dirt. When the father dies Hindley becomes the master of the house and Heathcliff the stable boy. Yet Cathy and Heathcliff’s friendship turns into love and they swear each other eternal fealty.

Cathy however is torn between the love she feels for Heathcliff and the lifestyle she crave which is way beyond what he can provide. When they sneak peak at a ball at the wealthy Linton estate they are caught and Cathy, recovering from a dog bite, gets a taste of what life can be. When she returns to Wuthering Height she has a new love in the life, the wealthy Edgar Linton (David Niven). Her resolve is not particularly strong however and she suffers quick changes in mood and affection: Edgar, Heathcliff, Heathcliff, Edgar. If Edgar was an ass it would be easy to claim that she was torn between her heart and her wallet, but except for a certain amount of aristocratic arrogance Edgar is a gentleman and actually a nice guy.

On the night that Edgar proposes to her Heathcliff overhear Cathy calling Heathcliff names and declare her love for Edgar. When she moments later changes her mind ad declare her love for Heathcliff it is too late. Heathcliff is gone. Cathy runs after him into the storm (it always storms at Wuthering Heights, they ought to get some wind turbines there) and is almost dead when the search party finds her on the moor.

That settles it. She marries Edgar and forgets about Heathcliff.

Until Heathcliff returns, a wealthy man.

Heathcliff is a bitter man who never forgets. Hindleys torment of him is repaid by buying up Wuthering Height and reducing Hindley to a pathetic guest in his house and Cathy he is gaining access to by using Edgar’s sister Isabella’s (Geraldine Fitzgerald) infatuation in him.

What a mess.

Edgar loves and is married to Cathy.

Cathy loves Edgar and Heathcliff, but since she is married to Edgar she has to turn away Heathcliff

Isabella loves and get married to Heathcliff

Heathcliff is married to Isabella but has only eyes for Cathy. In fact everything he does is for her and caused by a resentment against everything and everybody that keeps him from her.

This of course ends in misery for everybody. Cathy dies, Heathcliff keep obsessing over her and who knows what happens to Isabella and Edgar.

Now many years later Heathcliff dies in the snowstorm following the call of ghostly Cathy and they are reunited in death. Sorry if I spoiled it for anybody.

This is a movie for the BIIIG emotions and it aims high. So high that it frequently breaks under its own pathos. I have not seen as much overacting and melodrama since the silent era. I suppose it belongs in this sort of movie, but it is rather off-putting to me. These people are reeeeally serious. Heathcliff in particular is wearing his emotions on the outside and the bitterness he is exuding is so dark on venomous that he is outright scary if it did not become almost comical in its intensity.

That said, even I had to wipe a tear in the end when the conclusion had played itself out for max effect.

I was very interested in seeing Laurence Olivier and David Niven in this movie. They already were and became even bigger stars over the coming years. Olivier got an Oscar for Wuthering Heights as did his girlfriend at the time Vivien Leigh for Gone with the Wind making them the biggest thing in Hollywod. However I mostly enjoyed Merle Oberon as Cathy and even more so Sarita Wooton playing Cathy-as-child. They were both a bliss to watch.

But man, what a mess.

Friday 5 October 2012

Me and My Gal (1932)

Me and My Gal
The past two weeks have been very slow for my movie commentaries. I have been in Brazil on a job and it has been a busy time. Somehow movie reviews get a lower priority when the alternative is hanging out on Copacabana or swimming in Florianopolis. Airport time however is perfect for watching movies, especially lighter ones and few are lighter than “Me and My Gal”. That does not mean it is stupid, oh no, for that you just need to take a glance at my recent post on movies on planes. No “Me and My Gal” is quite a smart film, in fact it is all the wisecracking that is really driving the movie because the story is paper thin.

Danny Dolan (Spencer Tracy) is a new policeman on the quays. He is an easy going type, saving dogs and bums out of decency and friendliness. Soon he is also making friends with Helen (Joan Bennett) the waitress at the local chowder house. Their banter takes a more serious turn when Danny is called in to deal with a party gone out of hand only to find that it is Helen’s sister Kate’s (Marion Burns) wedding and that they are just having a jolly good (Irish) time.

Kate however has a dark past with a relationship with Duke Castenego (George Walsh), a gangster recently escaped from prison. She is under pressure from the rest of the Castenego gang and when Duke shows up she is forced to hide him in the attic.

But of course Danny catches the bad guys and get the girl and everybody are happy.

No, it is not the story that sells this picture.

It is the dialogue.

The characters, even the minor ones, can hardly open their mouths without firing off wisecrack and jests. They are way too cool for their own good, especially Helen and Danny, which gets them in trouble as well as in each other’s pants. Some of those wisecracks are dated and lame by today’s standard but most of it actually holds up even today. I had a few laughs and Helen gets outright sassy when she wiggles her popo to the music.
The classic scene is of the two of them making out in on the sofa saying one thing while thinking something else as we listen to their thoughts. To keep up their pretence at coolness they stick to their jests and wisecracks instead of speaking their mind and end up in a fight. But do not worry, that is easily enough solved in the next scene when they let down their guard of coolness. 
The biggest laugh however belongs to the sidekick, the drunkard. He keeps entering the picture and he is outrageous every time. Picking fights against shadows, falling into the harbor and claiming to save the two policemen who jumped in after him. Going to the same policemen with the complaint that the fish stole his bait and as a grand finale hitting another drunkard in the face with a fish. It is slapstick and it is silly and stupid, but it is also very funny.

Apparently this movie flopped big time back in 1932. According to Wikipedia it set an all-time low attendance record at the Roxy Theater in New York. I must also say that first time I saw this film I did not really get why it is on the list. It did not really seem a strong enough picture for this exalted spot. Second time however I got it. It is really about leaning back and enjoy the dialogue and not think too much of the story. Then the movie lightens up by its own vocal firework.