Saturday 27 April 2013

Cat People (1942)

Cat People
One of the main problems with old horror films is that they are not really scary. I mean, they are usually more “horrible” than “horror”. So when I see them they need to be good for other reasons. Ambience, dialogue, plot or something like that. “Cat People” is one of the first films from the list that has no such problem. It is genuinely suspenseful and scary. It really works as intended even today, or at least on me.

Instead of using blood, gore and chock effects it builds up a terrifying feeling that something terribly bad is about to happen and it almost does several times. Each time we breathe out in relief, but the danger is not over, just postponed. When disaster strike it is exactly as terrible as we feared, though the target may be a surprise (well, maybe not if you apply a few solid Hollywood conventions…).

The film owes a lot of its efficiency to the film noir elements so pronounced here. There are lots of night scenes with deep shadows and a lurking darkness. The evil in the dark is hinted at, visually with shadows and in the dialogue, but rarely do we see anything actually materialize. Besides being a very efficient tool to scare the viewer as our imagination willingly fill in the blanks it also supports the question of imagination versus reality, which I will return to in a bit. Two highlight is Alice(Jane Randolph) walking the empty alley at night with footsteps approaching and suddenly they are gone and we only see a rustling in the bushes and secondly the swimming pool scene where the shadows on the walls becomes terrifyingly alive. Where is the danger coming from? It is all around her and closing in. Brilliantly done.

Another element of the film noir genre is the fatalistic gloom. It starts on a down and it just gets worse. There is no way out for Irena (Simone Simon), she is caught in her fate and the question is just how many will go down with her. Even in the happiest moments like her wedding is there a shadow hanging over her.

A long way into the film we do not know if Irena is a mentally troubled woman of if she really turns into a panther in moments of lust and passion and that is a really strong point of the movie. In the beginning she strikes me as a woman with a bad depression. She feels unworthy and less than perfect and uses the cat issue to pommel herself. She feels she needs punishment and so she inflict it on herself with the restriction and doom the cat story gives her. Later however it sounds more like schizophrenia, almost a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde case, where her normal state is very restrained and controlled, lacking any sort of emotion except for a fatalistic sadness, whereas her “cat” phase is unrestrained emotion; hunger, lust, hatred and passion. Those things are believed dangerous and run amok like here they are really lethal. Irena hates that and fear it and as a result she bars it away with the result that it explodes when it comes out. The changes being so violent that it is a complete personality change.


Or is it so? The other explanation is that she is right, that the fantastic story that she is a descendant of some satanists in Serbia who turns into big cats at night and therefore prone to the same condition, is true. It is entirely unrealistic and that is also the course the film takes, yet the suspicion sneaks in on us that maybe, just maybe there is something to it. The fact that we do not really see anything leaves us guessing.

Unfortunately at some point we do see the panther and if we are supposed to believe what we see the answer to the riddle is given. That opens up for a dramatic end, but at the sacrifice of some of the mystery. Personally I would have preferred to be left guessing. She could still have mangled and killed the psychiatrist even if she was just her crazy self.  

------END OF SPOILER-----

Yet despite this the finale is still powerful enough to keep me in suspense and leaves me quite satisfied with the movie.

That is not to say that the film is faultless. I am particularly questioning the sudden relationship between Irena and Ollie (Kent Smith). We are to believe that he is magically attracted to her and she is despite herself reaching out for another person so in a split second they are married. That is a very very thin basis for a marriage even in 1942. It may be that he feels some need to help her, but really, she need a friend more than she need a lover and true enough it becomes their undoing and therefore I feel that the marriage is a tool for the story rather than a natural course of events. Contrived really.

Also the psychiatrist (Tom Conway) is not entirely believable as a psychiatrist. He come about rather arrogant with some easy answers and seems quickly to give up on her. If it really is a mental illness they need to talk and talk and talk and he has to accept that she will be protecting the story to the end. On top of that it is highly unprofessional that he gets emotionally involved with his patient. That is a huge no-no.

Those are details and if the basic horror element had been lacking they could have been problematic. As it is I forgive them. The film works in its primary function and that is what counts.

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Judge Priest (1934)

Judge Priest
Some of these old films come with a dismal sound quality. Add to that a heavy southern accent, even dialect, and a lot of mumbling and I get desperate for subtitles. Unfortunately “Judge Priest” is all that and my copy did not come with subtitles. I put it on the big television for the first 45 minutes, but it was hopeless. The ambient noise around me meant that much of the dialogue was a blur of which much of the meaning was derived through interpolation and most of the subtle details were lost on me.

I then changed to the laptop and a headset and suddenly I actually understood what everybody were saying. What a difference that made! Cause this film is all about the dialogue. Will Rogers as Judge Priest is having a running conversation with just about everybody including himself and is saying a lot of wonderful things. Missing that is missing the movie. I am not sure I am doing the movie justice as I strongly suspect it is better than what I got out of it.

John Ford was apparently nostalgic disposed. In his movies he tends to look back on a past long gone with a longing and nostalgia that said period may or may not deserve. So far I have commented on his “How green was my Valley” and “Stagecoach” and while all three pictures are very different they have that in common. “Judge Priest” does not have the action saturated pace of “Stagecoach” or the melodrama of “How green…”, but is a much more low key and unassuming portrait of an idealized south at the end of the nineteen century that could have been. This is a very harmonic community, where the problems are small and can be handled by a friendly talk, where people live peacefully together, black and white, rich and poor and those who think otherwise are obviously pompous, stupid people who can be punctured with the right remark.

It sounds a bit silly and I guess it is, but it is also very charming and as a whole a heartwarming film. I found it curious that the entire community including the black segment could rally around the confederate cause and use that to solve all other problems. I mean, a group of black musicians playing Dixie with a passion and thus promoting a cause that kept them in slavery sounds entirely odd to me. But then, I am not American and much less Southern, so I guess I am not supposed to understand that.

At the center of the action is Judge Priest (Will Rogers), who represents a pastoral, common sense with an easy relationship to just about everybody. A good example is the initial court case against Jeff Poindexter (Stepin Fetchit), where Jeff sleeps and Priest reads a newspaper through the pompous speech of the prosecutor Senator Maydew (Berton Churchill). Priest dismisses (I think) the case, find out that Jeff fishes for catfish using chickens for bait and so they go fishing together.

The drama (or excuse for drama) of the film comes from two separate subplots that get tied up in the end.

Priest nephew, Jerome Priest (Tom Brown) has just returned from law school as a lawyer, young and full of energy. He is in love with the neighboring girl Ellie (Anita Louise), but that relationship is sabotaged by his pompous mother (Brenda Fowler), who despises the girl for not knowing her father and actively promotes a marriage with the bland daughter of Senator Maydew. Judge Priest does his best to help the youngsters including scaring away a potential (and disgusting) suitor and engaging the senator’s daughter so Jerome can run off and be with Ellie. He also does his best to disarm his sister and I love his remarks to her. When she comes, all puffed up in righteous anger, and complains to him he asks her if she has been too long in the sun. See, that is exactly what she deserves.   

The second subplot is the case against Bob Gillis (David Landau). He is a quiet blacksmith whose origin is unknown and is thus considered a stranger in this community where everybody know everybody. The local ruffians decide to get him down after he punched the aforementioned suitor in the nose for insulting Ellie. Three of them gang up on Gillis and in that scramble he pulls a knife and stabs the suitor. Now the entire community is up against this outsider whose case seems lost from the outset. Jerome gets the case defending Gillis and gets an ally in his uncle.

How they end up turning the case around and get Ellie and Jerome united I will leave unsaid. The resolution is less important than how it comes about.

Every character in this community is a caricature, which of course heightens the fun, but it is also a bit disturbing. Jerome is so naïve, the neighbor daughter is so pretty, Gillis is in fact an over the top brave war hero, the disgusting barber is indeed gross and the Senator is pompous beyond belief. For a minute there I thought it was W.C. Fields playing the senator. On top of this are all those loonie veterans running around as if the war was still on while the blacks community is represented by oversize singing black mamas and the halfwit Jeff Poindexter. This is all playing on prejudices, which are not all too healthy. Particularly Stepin Fetchit has taken some smoke for his stereotypical simple minded character. I do not know if this is offensive, I mean, he is funny and it is the pompous white folks who get crucified here, but still, playing with stereotypes is a minefield.

When I finally changed to the headphones and discovered the depth and wit of the dialogue this little film won me over, until that point I felt I was wasting my time. What a difference.

Saturday 20 April 2013

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

At være eller ikke være
It takes a lot of guts to take a difficult, current tragedy and turn it into a light comedy. In hindsight it might not sound so bad, but imagine being in the midst of the Second World War and dare to come up with the idea of making a comedy that takes place in Poland featuring a theater troupe impersonating Adolf Hitler and the Gestapo. This could very easily come down as very tasteless and not funny at all.

Instead Ernst Lubitsch comedy “To Be or Not to Be” is hilariously funny and instead of being tasteless it feels exactly right. There is something very satisfying in taking these pompous Nazis and making them look ridiculous. It is the same argument Stanley Kubrick used for “Dr. Strangelove”. With a comedy you can sometimes communicate a serious issue deeper than with a drama. Certainly “To be or not to be” manages to make the Polish and their cause look sympathetic and the Nazis as idiots, evil but dumb, that you can (and should) actually fight.

To me “To Be or Not to Be” is very similar to the brilliant, but far more recent tv-series “Allo Allo”. The humor is the same. Lots of impersonating nazi brass, confusing missions and agenda’s, jealous spouses and even an airman in hiding. I loved “Allo Allo” and for the same reason am very happy with “To be or not to be”.

Central to the story are Mr. and Mrs. Tura (Jack Benny and Carole Lombard) both stars of a Warsaw theater ensemble. Joseph Tura is a quintessential prima donna for whom personal pride and adoration is always at the fore. Maria Tura is not much better. Her main vice is her love of flatter and adoration of dashing young men causing Mr. Tura to be the jealous husband. The third central player is the love struck airman Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), hopelessly in love with Maria.

Without going too much into details on the storyline it suffice to say that the troupe gets involved with the resistance after the German invasion of Poland and when a the resistance leader, Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) turn out to be a Nazi collaborator everything goes haywire and the troupe has to act the part of Nazi brass to extricate Maria and a list of names on Polish resistance leaders from the Gestapo headquarters.

This is hilariously funny. On the one hand they are very good at it. They look and act the part. However they are also totally ridiculous as they scramble to save more and more impossible situations and let their personal follies get in their way. Joseph Tura’s jealousy is again and again causing some close calls and at some point there is one too many professors. The dialogue is great, but that is only to be expected from Lubitsch. It is the comedic timing that sets this film apart. The skill with which the comedic situations are set up and resolved is just amazing. In that respect this is way ahead of Lubitsch earlier comedy “Ninotchka”, which is funny but does not enter the borderline farce territory of “To Be or Not to Be”.

That zone, which so easily tilts and become stupid, is navigated very well so we laugh but can still be engaged in the film.

There are so many excellent scenes in this film, two of my favorites must be Mr. Tura impersonating Colonel Ehrhardt, the head of the Gestapo, having a more and more worried professor Siletsky in audience. He is stalling for time repeating the lame comment “So, they call me concentration camp Ehrhardt”, which just get more and more strained. Later Mr. Tura is impersonating Siletsky visiting the real Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman). Here Ehrhardt turn out to be just as lame as Mr. Tura played him, which means that he actually played him very well, even repeating the idiotic line.

Lubitsch himself was a German Jew and while the Jewish plight during the war got shameful little attention in the media while the war went on, Lubitsch managed to insert his own little comment when lets a Jewish actor of the troupe be arrested by mock German soldiers and speak the famous lines of Shylock “Do I not bleed…”. This of course is presented as the gravest insult to the Germans, but also a reminder to the audience of the atrocities against regular people of blood and flesh that the Nazis were just then committing.

I thoroughly enjoyed “To be or not to be”. I laughed and chuckled all the way through and marveled at how well this film has aged. Surely this is a film I will not mind seeing again.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

The Black Cat (1934)

The Black Cat
One of the things I like about the list is that it is not an elitarian project, though some might claim that it is. While the movies have been selected by critics and not by popular vote (and thank God for that!) the editors have had an eye for picking out movies that are noteworthy for other reasons than being high quality/highbrow critique favorites. There are a generous dose of quirky, odd films that few would describe as “good”, but still has a lot of entertainment value or may be representative of interesting genres overlooked at the big festivals or award shows. The Black Cat is such a movie.

This is a blockbuster film with popular, but hardly good actors, a suspenseful and for its time action packed plot and a hefty dose of mystical mumbo-jumbo. Sounds familiar, does it not? Sure, Hollywood never stopped producing films of this type and it is curious to see that what works today also worked in 1934.

I could go really harsh on “The Black Cat” for all its inconsistencies, plot holes and odd acting, but the thing is I actually like it. Of course it not a good film, but it is fun and entertaining and it is amazing how much it has influenced later films.

Try listen to this: a newlywed couple on their honeymoon has an accident and seeks shelter in a fabulous mansion inhabited by freaky satanists. Did I hear anybody murmur “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”?. How about settling the fate of the prisoners with a game of chess? Or the bad-ass satanist playing Bach on his organ? Yes, I know Lon Chaney did the organ scene in “Phantom of the Opera” in 1925, but that was a silent movie. The sinister trope of this scene definitely originates from “The Black Cat”.

Universal had some success with Frankenstein and Dracula, so how do you top that? Well, you merge them. Set Bela Lugosi up against Boris Karloff in a showdown of unprecedented gloominess. Yeah, let them fight it out. Alien vs. Predator. King Kong vs. Godzilla. Well, at least they invented some new characters for the two of them in this case, but it is difficult not to see a glimpse of their type cast characters in their appearance. Bela Lugosi is just himself, which actually works here with his half insane character and intent stare. And he is a Hungarian playing a Hungarian, Dr. Vitus Werdegast who occasionally speaks a few lines in Hungarian. I like that. Nothing worse than local place and character names being abused by a very bad accent. Boris Karloff may not have the same authenticity as an Austrian architect gone satanist, but he is an infinitely better actor and positively spooky as Hjalmar Poelzig. Still, there is no two ways about it, that dude looks like Frankensteins monster!  

There are lots of veiled and not so veiled threats and danger lurks everywhere in this palace built, not on an ancient Indian graveyard, but on the mass grave of thousands of killed soldiers of the Great War. There are dead women in perfect condition hanging on display in the basement and a maid in captivity. And of course to top it off a juicy satanist ritual complete with human sacrifice and all.

Yes, we got all the classic ingredients, which are classic because they hark back to this very film. The set is fantastic with hyper modern design that look cool even today and a sound track ahead of its time. Unfortunately it all plays out with all the corn and kitsch of a B-movie. If you accept that then this is a lot of fun. If it grates on you this is positively painful. On my second viewing I had resigned to accept the corn and actually enjoyed it.

Three things I cannot help mention. This movie obviously takes place in a country called Europe, populated with Europeans with European names. That it is all messed up is quite funny. Hjalmar is a Nordic name, the train attendant speaks French (in Hungary!), the Russians initially invaded Hungary in WWI, but was soon pushed very far back and what on Earth is an American newly-wedded couple doing here of all places?

Secondly, what on earth is the point with the cat and Werdegast’s fear of them? That has absolutely no impact on the plot and seems to just be an excuse to borrow an E.A.Poe title for the film. The kitty is actually sweet!

Finally, notice the chauffeur from the hotel in the beginning. I think they borrowed him from Hotel Atlantic, “Der Letzte Man”.

Saturday 13 April 2013

Casablanca (1942)

This is one I have been looking forward to. “Casablanca” is as legendary and classic as movies get and my expectations were sky high. It has been so many years since I saw it last time and that does strange things to the memory of good things.

Let me say right away that I was not disappointed. To use a phrase from my favorite TV-show “My Kitchen Rules”, it was cooked to perfection.

The setting is Casablanca, Morocco during WWII making this a contemporary film (already there it gets a plus in my book), an almost neutral place controlled by the French Vichy government, officially a vassal of Germany, but in reality fending for itself. Casablanca has at this time become a waypoint for refugees escaping the German occupation on their way to the safe haven of America. Wealthy or important refugees it seems because there is a certain style and class over the international crowd in Casablanca. Unfortunately it is difficult to move on from Casablanca. The next leg is a flight to Lisbon and this requires the highly coveted exit visa. These are notoriously difficult to get. Simple ones can be bought on the black market, but for anybody with a name the only way to get one is through the local police Chief Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains). That is, until two super-visa mysteriously appear (coincidentally with two dead German agents…).

The crowd waiting for an exit visa or stopped by the lack of means to get one flock around the local, classy waterhole: Rick’s Café Americain. The first half hour establishes this environment and atmosphere in Casablanca and particularly in Rick’s Café. People from all of war torn Europe are whispering, plotting, despairing or trying to have a desperate good time in every corner. This is so expertly done that you can feel the tension and danger, but also style and class. This is the romantic, old school version of Chalmuns’ Cantina in Mos Eisley (Star Wars). Above this island rules Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) a disillusioned, cynical American who keeps a strictly neutral business-only demeanor. That is probably the reason this café works so well in the first place.

 The atmosphere is slowly built up and unless you have seen the movie tons of times or just recently you do not realize exactly when the principal story emerge from the background buzz. When Ugarte (Peter Lorre), a greasy and suspect character approaches Rick to entrust him with two super visa it feels so much in line with everything else happening in Rick’s Café Americain.

A number of things happen now that throws Rick into the eye of the storm. A famous Czech dissident Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid) shows up as one more refugee trying to get to America. The Germans want him badly and have sent Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt, the somnambulist guy from “Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari”!) to make sure he does not leave Casablanca. This makes for some fencing between Major Strasser, Captain Renault and Lazlo, most of which takes place in Rick’s café. We are supposedly on neutral ground, but the threats are thinly veiled. This is an explosive, highly potent situation in which murder and betrayal is not to be ruled out. Lazlo is an idealist and though kept in high esteem by the resistance movements all over Europe he seems to be too naïve and noble for the underhand ways of Casablanca. It is however the company he keeps that makes the eyes pop: Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund! Not only does she make a striking figure, she also has a history with Rick, one that explains why he is in Casablanca and why he has become the person he is. He thought he had forgotten her but “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine”.

This sets off the great romantic story of Casablanca. We hear Sam (Dooley Wilson) play “As time goes by”, learn how Rick and Ilsa were a couple in Paris and how she never showed up at the train station leaving him broken. The dialogue between the two of them is legendary. Do they still have a thing for each other and why is she now with Victor Lazlo? I will not spoil this too much, just say that this is the stuff legends are made of and seeing them together, hearing “As time goes by”, sends shivers down my spine.

Rick is in a crucial position because he holds the two magic exit visa. Somebody will get off this island, but who will it be? Rumor has it not even the cast or director (Michael Curtiz) knew until the last days of shooting  as the script was changed on a daily basis and some of the magic uncertainty in the expressions of the characters are supposed to come from real uncertainty. The twists the plot takes also take the viewer by surprise, well the virgin viewer, and a lot of heartbreak.

Every second line in Casablanca is a classic line today: “Round up the usual suspects”, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”, “Play it, Sam” and so on. In fact, watching Casablanca you realize how many also lesser known Hollywood tropes originate from this film, making it not only a master piece in itself, but also hugely influential on cinema basically ever since. Take a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark”. Its description of (pre)war North Africa is straight out of Casablanca. And yet Casablanca feels very different from other films of its time. It is romantic, but less melodrama. It is more open ended in its conclusion and leaves a number of questions unanswered.

Casablanca is also made with a dazzling cast who do theirs to make this movie so enjoyable. Bogey was never better although he is totally recognizable. He is just totally awesome. Bergman is striking and supremely good and her fame is well deserved. It is said that it was her who made Bogart a romantic hero and not just a tough guy and that is probably correct. I am gaining a lot of respect for Claude Rains who is so good as a French officer that I can hardly believe he is the same actor who played Dr. Jaquith in “Now Voyager”. He is very believable. Peter Lorre, always the suspect, almost perverted character. If you wonder why I seek out his films read my comments on “M”. I am less a fan of Paul Henreid, but I guess his aloof style fits the character of Victor Lazlo, yet I would have loved him to be a bit less wooden. He is after all the romantic rival of Bogey.

I am still humming “As time goes by” and watching a bunch of extra material on Casablanca and I feel this “Casablanca” buzz still going through me. Maybe I should see it again, soon. Play it, Sam.

Sunday 7 April 2013

It's a Gift (1934)

When I got to this film on my quest to watch the entire list back in late 2011 I bought an entire box set. Since I eventually would get to “The Bank Dick” as well I figured this would be a bargain. I have not counted the number of films included but the total is probably around 20. “It’s a Gift” was the first I saw and I figured, this is not so bad. The fellow is quite funny as he is harassed by basically everybody and tries to get his little space of quiet with his sarcastic yet wimpy comments.

A box set later I return to “It’s a Gift” and the gags are not half as fun as the first time I saw it. The reason is that I feel that I have seen basically the same film 20 times over. The setting may vary, the names (outrageously inventive names) are changed and some actors replaced, but the characters are much the same, the plot similar (W.C. Fields trying to get away with some scam but faces opposition on all sides except from his bartender) and the man himself going through the same gags over and over.

Yes, a number of the situations are potentially very funny and I am quite sure W.C. Fields had and still has a fan base out there who thinks this is absolutely hilarious. I admit that I chuckled a few times and seem to recall doing more than that the first time I saw it.

W.C. Fields is playing his usual character, this time by the name Mr. Harold Bissonette (on his wife insistence it must be pronounced “Bisson-a-y”), a slightly corpulent man, enjoying the small things in life and fighting an uphill battle against his family, neighbors, customers, well, basically everybody. If they cannot complain about something he objectively did or did not do, they will assume he did or did not do something and blame all the trouble in the world on him anyway. Basically the world is being terribly unfair to him.

He is not entirely innocent though. As usual he has some wacky, hopeless schemes going, in this case an orange farm in California he is pursuing, and even with hard facts and confessions thrown in his face he refuse to reconsider but walks straight into disaster. One might also claim that he just does not listen to his surroundings, but the way everybody treats him his only real alternative to actually stand up against them is to bend and let it pass and thus ignore all the garbage thrown at him.

So on the one hand we are feeling sorry for him, on the other he is pretty good at taking a beating and with his inflated self-confidence he is not entirely innocent.

Not much is really happening in the film.

The story can be reduced to five scenes:

1.       The morning ritual with Harold trying to shave

2.       The story with impossible customers ruining everything, ending up with light bulbs and molasses all over the floor, a ruined door, a fired assistant and angry customers stomping out.

3.       Harold trying to sleep on the porch with all sorts of interruptions.

4.       The ride to California including a picnic in a private park

5.       Arrival at the Orange farm only to discover that it is a dump. Then a little twist…

See, that is not really a deep story and that I think is also the point. The scenes are basically set-ups for Fields to run through his program, look miserable, and come up with some sarcastic one-liners and a bit of slap stick. Whether this works is all down to if you find this funny or not.

To me it feels rather painful. The porch scene is a good example. By the time the insurance salesman shows up I am ready to shoot him myself. It is simply drawn out too far for my taste. I know that is what is supposed to be funny, piling trouble onto trouble and seeing Fields squirm under the load. It just does not work very well for me. Or maybe I have just seen this too many times.

Comedy is very much a matter of taste and personal perception. While tragedy is universally understood, comedy is tied to cultural and personal tastes. The curious thing here is that I could compare the typical W.C. Fields character to the typical John Cleese character, especially his Basil Fawlty and find that they have so many things in common. But where I love to see Cleese squirm in Fawlty Towers I just wish Fields would get on with it.

Thursday 4 April 2013

Now, Voyager (1942)

Under Nye Stjerner
I have a tendency to get very involved in the story of the films I watch. That can get quite embarrassing at times when I feel the pain or joy or embarrassment of the characters involved and I often have to put a lid on myself in the cinema. I take the story seriously and I guess I expect it to take me seriously as well. This is why I tend to be overly critical to stupid or manipulative movies. It also makes me wish for the best for the characters involved, that they get their issues sorted out and avoid the worst of disasters.

“Now, voyager” is a movie that leaves me torn on that account. On the one side it is a really wonderful movie, romantic, with interesting issues and stellar performances. On the other I get annoyed that the characters seem to create their own problems more or less out of nowhere for the dual purpose of creating drama and torture me. This film could have been resolved 45 minutes in with an obvious conclusion that would leave everybody happy, (except for a few people who do not deserve it anyway) and save everybody a lot of anguish.

Anyway, I am getting ahead of myself.

“Now, Voyager” is really two stories: A psychological drama about narcissistic dominating mothers and their victimized daughters and secondly a melodramatic love story about an unconsummated, “impossible” love affair. To my mind the first is far more interesting and the one I really care about.

Old Mrs. Vale (Gladys Cooper) is the undisputed queen of her very wealthy and conservative Boston estate (as old school as you get in America). She has a number of adult children, who have all left home except the youngest, a late child that she is now projecting herself upon. Without it being actually mentioned. Mrs. Vale suffers from a mental state normally referred to as the narcissistic mother. She practically runs the daughter’s life, makes all her decisions, dresses her as she would herself (old, modest, plump) and generally treats her as an extension of herself. The means of suppression is tyranny and guilt games, effectively destroying any spark of confidence and independency in the daughter. Mrs. Vale also is deeply concerned about appearances and needs attention which she primarily demands from the daughter.

Not surprisingly the daughter, Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) is quite a wreck. It is symbolized by her drab appearance and manifested in hysteric attacks. Her mother, entirely unable to consider her own hand in this is convinced it is some sort of disease and so together with Charlotte’s concerned sister has sent for a doctor (Claude Rains and Dr. Jaquith). Thus begins Charlotte’s voyage to free herself from the oppression of her mother and that is one interesting story. This is also the meaning of the title as “Now, voyager” are the opening words of a Walt Whitman poem about embarking on a voyage of freedom into the unknown.

To begin with I found Bette Davis way too melodramatic and frantic in those opening scenes. It seemed to me that such a life would have made her more seclusive and broken; instead she is feisty and almost aggressive. Yet later as I thought it over it did make some sense. There is desperation in her as if this is the last chance to finally escape. As she “recovers” she balances between an extreme counter reaction to her repression and a frightened shyness to the world. This is perfectly understandable and Bette Davis does it well.

Later we get a very similar situation between Tina (Janis Wilson) and her mother, the unseen Isobel. Tina likewise being the unwanted and unloved child of her mother. This time Charlotte is watching the wretched girl from the outside and recognizes herself in the girl. They create a bond of care, sympathy and eventually love between them even before Charlotte finds out who Tina really is as Charlotte helps Tina on her own voyage out of the shadow of her mother. This part is also very good and in my opinion where Bette Davis shines the most. There is nothing to make you heal than by helping others.

I could have wished for little more from this story element. A more active revolt against the mother, a more clear placing of the blame on the mothers to make the children realize that their predicament is not their own fault. Instead the film seems to defend the mothers as if it is the mother’s right to ruin their daughters if they so please. I cannot agree with that sentiment.

The second story is the love story between Charlotte and Jerry (Paul Henreid). Transformed to a swan (amazing what money can do) Charlotte takes the voyage part rather literal and take a boat ride to South America. On the boat she meets Jerry. Jerry is married with children, but immediately strikes a friendship with Charlotte that in my eyes is a lot more intimate than I would expect from a married man. Jerry is described as extremely chivalrous and dutiful, something that causes them endless trouble and yet with those qualities he court her quite blatantly. Of course the story is that his marriage has gone sour and that should explain his need, but he is also playing two horses throughout the film. Charlotte and Jerry fall madly in love, their intimacy symbolized by the sharing of cigarettes (oh, the forties!) and the story could basically have ended there if Jerry had ended his marriage to his sulking wife. She keeps him in misery and Charlotte gives him an opportunity to get out of the marriage to the benefit of his children, but he does not take it. Better to be in misery and feel chivalrous.

This part of the film I feel less good about. The melodrama is played too hard to my taste, but I suppose we need the drama to get a film and this stuff sells tickets. I keep thinking what this film would have been with more focus on the mother-daughter conflict and less on the love story.

Still there is a romantic sweetness to the entire story that makes it very watchable and it was very heartwarming for me to watch Tina blossom. I do have a weakness for lonely children and there Charlotte becomes my own proxy.

You cannot always get what you want, but the film you get may still be good. Let us not ask for the moon. We got the stars.

Monday 1 April 2013

King Kong (1933)

King Kong
It is quite obvious why King Kong made it to the list. With at least two major remakes and a score of spin offs it is one of the most referred to monster films ever and it is also one of the few pre-1940 movies I knew before going into this project.

Seeing it now for the second time in this process there are a number of other features besides sheer reputation that I note explains its status.

The horror element is striking. The island the expedition goes to is just packed with monsters. Everything you can imagine that may come big and with teeth is there: Giant gorilla, serpents, T-Rex, Nessie, lizards, pteranodons and lots more. I later learned that a number of deleted scenes about doubled the number of monsters. All these creatures are vicious killers and we get to see it all. People are getting eaten, trampled, thrown away and torn apart with lots of screaming and panicked expressions. The only thing lacking to match a modern equivalent are some gory entrails. Frankly I was surprised that it was possible to go to this length in 1933 and even I, a jaded movie viewer of the 21st century am getting my cup full.

Another daring move is the sexual references. Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) is included on the boat ride by producer Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) to give his films some sex and we get our money’s worth. She is the classic Damsel in Distress, but more than that. The scene where Fay Wray is tied to the alter as an offering to King Kong is undisguised bondage sex with Kong representing the big, strong masculine force dehumanized into a monster and Wray is the captured feminine element waiting to be taken. Adding her fear and screams sends this right into an Amsterdam dungeon. Later when Kong starts taking off her clothes with a clearly lustful expression we get an extra measure. Again, come on, this is 1933!

Finally King Kong clearly broke new ground in the special effects area. While by today’s standards the stop motion animation and rear projection looks primitive and crude this is a big step up from its contemporaries. Compare for a second the bat in Dracula with T-Rex in King Kong. You get my point?  

Yet all this said what strikes me about King Kong is how incredibly stupid it also is.

That goes for so many levels.

On the larger scale we have the entire premise for the story. An expedition heads off to an exotic destination, not for science or the general expansion of knowledge (well, maybe a marginal presence at discovering new things), but for commercial gain, simply to make some cool pictures that will sell tickets. Something with dangerous animals and maybe hostile natives. The girl Denham finds is brought along for this very purpose as it works well at the box office with a screaming woman in peril.  This is something I cannot fault the movie for, but is a combination of the age and human/western folly in general. A typical National Geographic tv show is based on much the same premise.

Denham got all he wanted, but not on film. Plan B is to bring home the monster. That just must go wrong. That gorilla has absolutely no business in the city at all, chains or not. Lots of monster movies later we of course no that that is a very bad idea, but man have brought home spectacles throughout history so, well, why not?

The foolishness becomes more specific when it comes to the dialogue and story elements themselves. A few examples:

1.       The captain of the ship speaks the local language of the island, although he has never been there before and the island has been isolated for hundreds or thousands of years.

2.       Driscoll (Bruce Cabott) suggest using a plane to fly by Empire State building to pick up Ann. I know these are slow, old planes, but even at 100 km/h he would be ripping her apart if he actually caught her

3.       The island is stuffed with mega fauna from several incompatible geologic periods. The dinosaurs cover the better part of the Jurassic and Cretaceous period while a primate like a gorilla (not to mention a giant one) would only emerge at the earliest in the Miocene, certainly the later part of the Tertiary period. It is like the Flintstones, matching dinos and Stone Age man. Talking of mega fauna, on small islands mega fauna becomes really small, not really big. There is nothing “dwarf” about any of the animals on this island.

4.       Where is Mrs. King Kong? Or his siblings? Is he really the last of a proud race? If so, the expedition is right on time to kill off the last of a species.

5.       The sheer arrogance of the expedition toward the “primitives” or the fauna of the island. Some scenes remind me of South Park: “It is coming right for us – bang bang!”. The fauna is there to be killed or exploited, not to be marveled at.

The hunt for King Kong and captive Ann costs the lives of 12 sailors, but since both Driscoll and Denham survive it is a success and the 12 victims are hardly missed. Any other expedition costing the lives of so many members would be immediately called off, instead the sorry remains of the expedition endeavors to capture Kong. Fortunately Kong’s rampage through the village only kills off natives and maybe a few more henchmen so, no worries, and the villagers are probably happy enough getting rid of their god.

Watching King Kong for me is an alternation between marveling at the technique, guts and imagination that went into it and shaking my head in misery over the shortcomings of this film. Let us just say that it is a terrible film that impressed me much.