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”…

Saturday 17 November 2012

Rebecca (1940)

I have finally received the next batch of movies and can now continue my quest down the list with entry number 133, ”Rebecca”. And what a movie to continue with! This is one of very classic movies: A Alfred Hitchcock AND David O. Selznick AND winner of two Oscars including Best movie film.

Well, I am suitably impressed by “Rebecca”. I sit back with a “phew, that was some movie” feeling, although thinking back on it the story is fairly run of the mill pulp standard. I guess the combination of Hitchcock and Selznick was able to turn the story into a suspenseful thriller with an unusually chilling touch. There were a number of moments where I had to stop the movie for a few moments to calm myself over something silly as like how will Max react to her dress. It takes some skill to turn that into adrenaline!

Joan Fontaine (the sister of Olivia de Havilland) is a nameless English girl visiting Monte Carlo as hired companion of the delusioned gossip Edythe van Hopper (Florence Bates). Here she encounters the severely depressed English nobleman Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). Maxim and the girl soon find themselves attracted to each other as she brings new life into his tormented soul. Maxim’s late wife we learn died under mysterious circumstances in a boat accident and Maxim never really recovered. Until now. The girl is as much a nobody as de Winter is a celebrity and I suppose it is her way of accepting and seeing him as he is and not a celebrity icon that makes him love her and let him be Maxim and not Mr. de Winter.

We have a sub story around van Hopper, the wealthy hag of a gossip who desperately craves the attention and recognition of Mr. de Winter while behind her back her hired companion is actually dating him. This part is funny and witty and the scene when van Hopper realizes that her assistant has bested her is priceless.

These were the happy days of innocence.

Then the stage change for the second act and also the mood, from light to oppressive.

Mr. and now Mrs. de Winter arrive at his ancestral home, the famous and imposing Manderly. Here I am getting a bit confused. The moment they name the place Manderly (happens in the first line of the movie) I am thinking “Dammit, I know this place!”. Either I have seen this movie before and forgot all about it or Manderly has gone and become an iconic place and I know it from somewhere else. I find the latter more likely but I cannot put my finger on exactly how and it bothers me mighty.

In any case life at Manderly is everything life in southern France is not. Slow, oppressive, hidden truth and possibly ghosts, namely that of the late Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca. Her presence is everywhere. Items are arranged as she liked them, her rooms are locked down, but maintained as if she still uses them and her initial “R” is everywhere from letterheads to pillows. The presence of the late Rebecca seems particularly promoted by Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), the housekeeper, who is bent on mentioning Rebecca in every second of her sentences and disdains the new Mrs. de Winter with a vengeance. We get the impression that Rebecca was something of a paragon and nobody, least of all a nobody like the new Mrs. de Winter, would be able to take her place. Maxim frets every time he is reminded of her and the new Mrs. de Winter soon finds herself a fish very much out of the water.

This whole affair is soon getting to her and she more and more looks like a nervous wreck. Maxim is equally falling apart and it all comes to a head at a costume party held at Mrs. de Winters insistence, where she, encouraged by Mrs. Danvers, shows up in a dress exactly like one Rebecca used to wear. The anger of Maxim almost undoes her and we get a terrifying scene where Mrs. de Winter faces the possibility of a deadly jump into the fog with Mrs. Danvers whispering fuel to the desperation consuming her over her shoulder. Our suspicion that Mrs. Danvers will go to great lengths to keep Mr. de Winter a single widower is thus confirmed and she is truly frightening. Hire her as a nanny and your children will spend the rest of their life and the family fortune on shrinks.

Only the sudden emergency of a ship sinking off the coast breaks the spell and we move on to the second crisis: While saving the sailors a second ship is found and onboard a long dead woman, Rebecca, and Maxim looks like the guy who murdered her.

This is the third act, a crime story that includes blackmail, secret identities and adultery. Juicy stuff indeed and with several unexpected turns. I will not delve into this part as that would be too much of a spoiler, but the grand finale is the utter destruction of Manderly and the deadweight it symbolizes on the shoulders of Mr. and Mrs. de Winter.

There are so many aspects of this movie that impresses me.

The structure of the movie with three distinct acts playing expertly with our emotions. The gaiety and carelessness of act 1, the horror of act 2 and the suspense of act 3. I fell for it entirely.

The characters of act 2 feed the mood of something very very wrong extremely well. Not only, but particularly the truly scary Mrs. Danvers. The picture of the two women in the same frame, cold and scary Mrs. Danvers and frightened and fretting Mrs. de Winter in juxtaposition is a true gem, wow!

We also get this more English than English attitude with understatements, politeness and the stiff upper lip covering an undercurrent of threats, warnings and hints of disaster. It is the unsaid that carries the direst of threats.

My only real complaint is that our two leads seem almost too caught up in their own misunderstanding of the situation and each other. Had they spelled out theirs fears and worries right away much of the drama could have been avoided, but that is a classic discussion that not only applies to “Rebecca”. Here it can certainly be excused by this entire culture of suppressive English upper class mannerism. Yet these two people represent the antidote of that culture and so should exactly be able to talk it out early on.

Well, you cannot have it all and I still think they do a splendid job as Mr. and Mrs. de Winter. I much prefer Laurence Olivier in this role to that of Heathcliff in “Wuthering Height”. In Rebecca he is far more believable as a troubled soul.

This is the best Hitchcock movie so far and now I am really looking forward to the next one.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Triumph des Willens (1934)

Viljens Triumf
Okay, I think I have just seen the scariest movie on the list so far and frankly I do not think it gets much worse than this.

The first question one must ask watching “Triumph des Willens” is: Why on Earth are you watching this movie? Well, for me the answer is rather simple: It is on the list.

But that is only a lame excuse really. The real answer is that this is a very important document of where the greatest evil of the previous century started. Everybody ought to see this movie really, partly as a warning and partly because it explains so much.

Whereas Leni Riefenstahls other entry “Olympia” is recognized as a technical and artistic masterpiece that discussion entirely disappears when it concerns “Triumph des Willens”. Oh, I suppose it is very well made, but it is the content and the message that shines through.

I see two ways to look at this film.

One way is with the hindsight of what all this led to. That is a view full of horror and warning. Seeing Hitler speaking to the crowd, the soldiers marching and the adulation of the crowd gives me the shivers.

What the film does is sending a message of unity. The Nürnberg rallies were basically about tying the German people together for a common cause. All the speeches, all the demonstrations and all the vows are about forming a single unit with a common purpose. What this purpose is is as yet obscure, but whatever it is it is intended to lead Germany to greatness. Well, we know what it led to, but the people in Nürnberg did not. Instead they a happily got carried away and seemed to be craving to be shaped into this unity.

The symbols of unity are everywhere. The common purpose, the flag representing the party, the uniforms everybody seems to wear that makes the individual part of the group. All the marching (and there is a lot of marching!) are in super tight formations, everybody moving as one unit, and the mass ceremonies, whether it is for swearing fealty or commemorating Hindenburg has the function making the participants part of the bigger picture.

Another technique used, though less in the movie than I expected, is to declare enmity to outsiders. The classic trick to find a common enemy to unite the people. The Nazi’s did that plenty in other respects and the monster is also visible here. Foreign countries, the enemy of WWI, racially different people, opposition to the party etc.

All this unity, this mighty instrument which is the people with a common purpose, is played right into the hands of Hitler. Even if he was not insane already it is no wonder that he could not help using this tool so willingly provided him for all his misdeeds. It is as if the people are begging him to be abused.

One of the very scary aspects of this is that all this demonstration of unity is not uniquely nazi. This is just the most extreme case I have ever seen of it. We see it at election campaigns, we see it at sports events and there are still political movements around who actively pursue a strategy not unlike what we see in the movie. If I was not already suspicious of right wing groupings and uniforms in general “Triumph des Willens” would definitely do the trick.

The message is simple: Either you are with us or you are against us.

There is a second way to see the film as well, one that is much harder because of what we know happened later on. That is to see it from the perspective of the Germans living back then in 1934.

The aftermath of WWI was very hard on Germany and the Germans. It was the pursued policy of the victors of the war that Germany should be punished, never to be able to rise again. Of course when you get right down to it WWI was a common mess up with everybody equally guilty, but in this way the victors could promote the idea that it was the Germans fault. They badly needed a scapegoat.

Germany had a series of weak governments and suffered hunger, hyperinflation and it was in Germany the depression hit the hardest in Europe.

On to the stage come the Nazi.

They preach strength, progress, wealth, pride, all the things the German people were desperately craving and not least scapegoats. If you can blame somebody else life gets so much easier. And most importantly; they could deliver.

In short the German people were ripe for the nazi and from their point of view this was a glorious celebration of this fantastic new world that would heal all that was wrong with pre-nazi Germany. In that light you can almost understand why they so gladly embraced Nazism. Almost. Even as deprived as the Germans were before the nazi it must have frightened at least some all this marching and hard men in uniforms and talk about sacrifice for the common good. The signs were really not good.

Beware of men in uniforms preaching strength and unity. Beware of nationalism. And be very much aware of people who tell you it is somebody else’s fault.

Sunday 11 November 2012

Footlight Parade (1933)

Footlight Parade
The List features three Busby Berkely musicals back to back in 1933. As several reviewers before me has noticed this seems like a massive overkill as the three musicals are very similar in setting as well as format. They are musicals about making musicals and feature a storyline ending with three back to back staged songs. While I am not at all sure of the historic order of the three musicals (“42’nd Street”, “Golddiggers of 1933” and “Footlight Parade”) I would say that the two first are practice runs and the last, “Footlight Parade”, is the grand finale where everything comes together. Thus the two first mainly have interest as the story leading up to the real masterpiece and really could have been skipped. Every year the editors have to make room for around 10 new entries. These two are obvious candidates, but have not yet been touched.

In any case, Footlight Parade is a masterpiece, there can be no two ways about that. The storyline works surprisingly well as a story worth delving into, the cast can really act with James Cagney in his best role I have yet seen him in and, not least, the three songs (and especially the two last ones) are simply gorgeous.

Today I revisited “Footlight Parade” as a nice Saturday afternoon treat and while I feared that my sweet memories of my first viewing might set my expectation to high I really had nothing to fear. My wife liked it as well, which rarely happens with these old movies I watch and my son waking up for the songs were captivated by them and when we were done we went back and took the last two songs again. The verdict was unanimous.

Thinking back a year when I went through these movies the first time, I believe it was “Footlight Parade” that changed my attitude towards musicals from mildly overbearing to fondness. This was truly a milestone. I was waiting for a plane in Beijing and to my surprise having a blast watching this on my laptop. Now I see all these musicals in a much more positive light.

As I already mentioned “Footlight Parade” is about setting up a show, but in this iteration the story is far more complex than that. Chester Kent (James Cagney) stage musicals, but with the advent of talking motion pictures he sees himself out of business. Instead he starts making prologues. So, what is a prologue, you might ask. Apparently prologues were used as eye-candy before or between movies to make the audience choose a particular theater to watch their movies. Frankly I never heard of that concept before so if it really existed I believe it must have been only for a short time. In any case Kent gets the idea of making a whole bunch of traveling prologue troupes making tons of shows all over the country. He has to come up with new ideas all the time and he seems to have a finger in everything going on. In fact his business suffers from the typical ailment of companies grown big without simultaneous development in the management structure. In short Kent is over-worked and only the fire that drives him and his jewel of a secretary Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell) keeps the boat afloat. There is a multitude of things happening at the same time:

1.       New ideas for prologues have to be developed non-stop. We particularly follow the cat idea to the chagrin of his dance instructor (It can’t be done!).

2.       The competing company Gladstone has a mole in Kent organization and keeps stealing their ideas.

3.       Kent’s partners and financial backers are deliberately cheating him of the profits, claiming all gains go back in the business while they both cash in hefty sums.

4.       An obnoxious relative of Gould, one of the partners, keeps forcing Kent to accept her protégés for the shows. Scotty (Dick Powell) turns out to be a gem, Barrington however is a disaster.  

5.       Bea Thorn (Ruby Keeler) transforms herself from uptight secretary to musical lead and she and Scotty embark on a bumpy love affair.

6.       Vivian Rich, a gold digger and acquaintance of Nan, shows up, endears herself to Kent and only Nan’s (jealous) intervention and circumstances involving Kent’s former wife makes him realize what a fake she is and saves him from marrying her.

7.       And finally Kent can get the ultimate prize to win the concession for the Apollo circuit if he can dazzle Mr. Apolinaris by setting up 3 over the top prologues, as if he was not busy already.

This could easily get really messy. There are simply too many subplots for any ordinary film, but this is no ordinary film and the subplots mainly work to portray the Kent and Nan as the eye of the hurricane around them. While we occasionally follow the other characters they mainly serve as sidekicks and it is Cagney’s and Blondell’s brilliant acting that carries this story until the big show. And then comes the big surprise: Cagney, the actor typecast as a hardboiled gangster, is actually a brilliant singer and dancer! Truly this must be his best performance ever.

When the curtain goes for the three musical acts the character of the film changes entirely. Gone is the realism and forgotten all the tension and intrigues. Now it is all about dazzling the viewer. And we are dazzled.

Honeymoon Hotel featuring Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell (the “stars” of one of the subplots) is a catchy song with a lot of risqué references to what goes on on a honeymoon.

Secondly we have By the Waterfall, again with Keeler and Powell, but also with scores of bathing nymphs. This is a truly gorgeous song with and even more over the top display of bathing nymphs in formation swimming. The human waterfall is eye-candy that I just cannot believe is from 1933. Even today it would be difficult to get away with this stunt.

Finally we get Shanghai Lil, where Cagney has to stand in for the no-good Barrington and do the song with Ruby Keeler. This song is even more catchy than the two other and I am still humming it “I’ve been searching high, I’ve been searching low, looking for my Shanghai Lil”. It also involves a stupendous amount of extras, this time soldiers doing formations, but it is the bar part that really takes the price here and we even get a bit of tap dancing and a bar brawl.

I recently declared “Footlight Parade” one of the 10 best movies of the thirties and I stand by that statement. If you are going to see just one musical of the thirties, make it this one.

Thursday 8 November 2012

Love Me Tonight (1932)

Prins for en dag
Here starts a long streak of early musicals. When sound came to the movies making musicals seemed the way to really exploit this new technology the same way 3D technology is buried in rollercoaster rides. The Book has a lot of musical entries from this period, but apparently they were even more prevalent than the Book indicates and very popular too.

Despite being the first American musical entry in the book (there are two earlier French entries) “Love me tonight” is not a bad representative at all. It is sweet, silly and full of stereotypes, but this is also in many ways what makes musicals loved by those who really care for them. I am the first to admit that I am not one of those, but I am starting to revise that opinion. The more of these old musicals I see the better I like them (with a few exceptions, see “Babes in arms”, 1938) and here we get tons of sugarcoating. Hey, even the DVD box is pink!

The story is a classic: A Parisian tailor (Maurice Courtelin played by Maurice Chevalier) finds out that his big scoop of a client, the Viscount Gilbert de Varèze (Charles Ruggles) turns out to be entirely destitute leaving him with a whole bunch of unpaid suits and subcontractors screaming for money. Maurice decides to go to the chateau of this notorious debtor and claim his money.

On his way there he has an odd encounter with Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald). I am not sure how it comes about but he immediately declares his love for her and she runs away in chock from this madman.

At the Chateau the Viscount has gotten his plea for more money refused by the old godfather himself, the Duke (C. Aubry Smith), so he and his sister (equally broke) are stuck there. The chateau is boredom itself with the highlights being bridge while asleep and three yapping aunts sounding like chickens or small dogs. When Maurice arrives the Viscount is terrified that the old man will find out Maurice is a creditor so he presents him as Baron Courtelin. This makes him immediately accepted among the high and mighty.

The Princess immediately recognizes him and gradually warms to Maurice undeniable charm. During a most hilarious hunt where Maurice ends up nursing the scared deer, he and the princess gets most cordial. The Duke has decided that the Princess can only marry an eligible suitor of which there are only two in the country: one is 89, the other almost 12. And possibly the hopeless (and hopeful) suitor Count de Savignac (Charles Butterworth).

Unfortunately all good comes to an end. When Maurice cannot resist improving the new riding suit of the princess he is a little too good and has to admit that he is no baron but just a tailor. This becomes a horrified chorus all through the chateau: The son of a gun is nothing but a tailor!

Maurice leaves in disgrace (without the money), but of course that is not where it ends. You get only one guess as to what happens next and you are quite right and they lived happily ever after.

Now, this is a musical and should be judged based on the songs rather than the story. These vary in quality from the truly inventive to the trivial. The opening is something special. The sounds of Paris waking up become music in itself and morphs into the song of Maurice going to work. I immediately thought of Lars von Triers “Dancer in the Dark” and frankly it works much better here in the original. There are also a number of song themes that carry from character to character like “How romantic” or “Nothing but a tailor”. It is very well done. The songs themselves I am not too crazy about, but that is something with the style in general.

Maurice Chevalier is not just the lead, but the person who carries the entire film. All others, including Jeanette MacDonald, dwarfs next to him simply due to his screen presence. He is over the top French and gets away with probably because he really is French even if it becomes cliché. I can easily imagine the women of the early thirties swooning over him; he has that knock-them-off-their-feet presence.  

This is not a movie to convince you that early musicals are really your thing, but if you like the genre you will enjoy this one.

Saturday 3 November 2012

Vampyr (1932)

From various reviews of ”Vampyr” I can see that this movie is not much loved and certainly ranks lower than Dreyer’s earlier Jean d’Arc movie. I just finished my second viewing of “Vampyr” and found I actually liked it and better this time than first time. It is what I image a vampire movie made by David Lynch would would look like. Very little dialogue, few things explained, but a lot of mystic, troubling scenes and a lead who is more an observer than an actual protagonist. Yes, very Lynch’ish.

The story itself is, like in the case of “Passion of Joan of Arc”, of minor importance: A man arrives in a little French village and strange things start happening around him. A mysterious man appears in his hotel room giving him a package to open not before the man is dead. The man sees shadows, disconnected from any bodies, having a party and hears children and dogs, yet there are none. And he meets the mysterious Dr. Death who is the custodian of the local Count Dracula (here in a female version, though you could have fooled me).

At the local manor he witness the killing of the very man he saw in his room and, failing to save him, meets the steward of the manor (the real hero of the story) and the man’s daughters of which one of them is the current victim of the vampire. She is getting frequent visits from her dark master who drains her lifeblood and makes her more and more of a raving lunatic. When Dr. Death arrives to kill the girl with his poison our lead, Allan Grey, prevents the killing as the almost only active intervention of his throughout the movie.  Up to this point he has only been an observer. An example of this is his dream in which he sees his own death and burial at the hands of the doctor and his Vampire.

Finally the steward takes action, goes to the graveyard to find the tomb of the vampire and rams a rod through his heart. This breaks the spell of the vampire and the steward moves on to dispose of the doctor at the local mill. His death under a mountain of grain is particularly gruesome. The possessed woman is now free and she wanders off with Allan Grey.

No, it is not for its basic plotline that this movie wins. It is the way it comes about it. Like in his Jeanne d’Arc film Dreyer is very concerned with the people involved and the intensity of the pictures. The ambience is goth beyond goth. Every second picture is to remind us of the sinister aspect of what is going on: The man with the scythe, the grave digger digging backwards, the sign on the hotel, the shadow of the one-legged soldier, and the skulls in the doctor’s office. I could go on and on. There is a lot of German expressionism is the way shadows are used, not just as ghosts but to create a supernatural place of twilight between real and nightmare. Don’t tell me Lynch did not see “Vampyr” more than once.

Yet maybe where this movie really stands out is in the use of the actors. In general they act rather than talk. This may be a leftover from the silent era, but it also allows the actors to express themselves in non-verbal ways and doing it without overacting. In fact none of the acting feels really forced. Instead it takes place in a slow-motion, sleepwalking pace that emphasize the dreamlike nature of the story. Allan Grey, played by Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg (the financial backer of the movie) is walking through the film in a daze with hardly an expression except lazy bewilderment. He is the observer and so he is like us the audience a witness to what is going on. Therefore he is not really a hero or vampire killer, no van Helsing. He reads the book the owner of the manor left him in his hotel room and here we get a lot of background info about the vampires in general and some tips to how to get rid of them, yet he has only little part in that, that is mainly left to the steward, an earthbound practical man who does what needs to be done.

Dr. Death (Jan Hieronimko) is kept really scary, mostly by saying very little, but also his countenance is frightening as well as his spooky study. The vampire (Henriette Gerard) is very enigmatic. We see her rarely and indeed I thought at first it was a man. Her features are very forbidding, and while she is at the crux of the story she seems to work her evil at a distance, so that she is more like a frightening presence of evil than an actual character.

This may be the earliest movie with a real capacity to scare the viewer, though I fear that most are just left in bewilderment because of its inaccessibility, but watching it a few times it really gets under the skin. I would not compare it to the other early vampire movies, this is not a Dracula story, but a unique story of the occult, like “Twin Peaks”, which happens to use vampires, a creature sadly abused in countless productions since.

Finally I should mention that this is truly an international production: It is a movie in German, taking place in France using a largely French crew but with a Belgian lead playing an Englishman. And oh, the director and screenplay writer were both Danish. That just has to have been messy. A few years later this just could not have been done.  

Sweet dreams…