Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Brassy Tacks and Jump the Tracks

Theodora Goes Wild (1936)
directed by Richard Boleslawski
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

No movie today would ever let a heroine like Irene Dunn's Theodora push the envelope so far. She declares her independence from the small-minded ways of Lynnfield, Connecticut, then finds that the object of her very public affection is scared to commit. An apology is expected to the biddies who raised her, but Theodora travels to New York instead in order to make a mess of things in the life of Melvyn Douglas's Michael, the man she loves. We expect some comeuppance at Theodora's expense, but she put up with enough when Michael first came to town. She piles embarrassment upon embarrassment, makes a mockery of male hierarchies and of men, and doesn't blink once.

That she does this for the right reasons is not lost on the people who respect her: her playboy uncle; the forward-thinking editor of the Lynnfield Bugle; even her aunts. They stick to Theodora and continue to encourage her. There is no scandal so unfair as the denial of two true hearts, and worries are for spinsters with cats. Not that I've told you half of it, or even the premise. There are dog tricks and dances, done-up apartments and downtown drunks.

Thomas Mitchell's Jed Waterbury (editor) should be better known than his Diz Moore (friend to Clarissa Saunders). Mr. Smith was a sap, but Jed is wise to the small-town ways of his readership, and noble enough to want more of the wide world, however tawdry it might seem, for his readership's kids. A man of the people, so in love with rabble-rousers, anarchists, and dreamers, that he hires a band on the day that Theodora returns to play her from the train like a queen. Which she is.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Red-Headed Heart of Esteban Vihaio

You Were Never Lovelier (1942)
directed by William Seiter
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Rita Hayworth, in fact, was lovelier in Only Angels Have Wings and The Lady from Shanghai, and a knockout in Gilda. The role of Maria Acuña, alternately old-fashioned, frivolous, and ice cold, was supposedly her favorite, but Fred Astaire was twenty years her senior and Maria has nothing for his Robert Davis but winning, silly smiles. She's a dreamer, and her father, the Buenos Aires businessman Eduardo Acuña, takes her indifference to marriage as a challenge to pen her anonymous love letters (!). He hopes to match one of the dull young faces at his parties to the words he cribs from British thesauri, but Robert - pestering the man for work at his nightclub - trips flat into the middle of it.

In the screenplay - on paper - the father's romantic but controlling personality is tempered by Bob's insouciance. Maria falls in love with the man in the middle. Onscreen, Bob's behavior is dishonest (he goes along with the charade until Maria cannot differentiate between fiction and reality) and cowardly (petty jealousy is finally the source of his action). The Machiavellian side of Acuña Sr. wins out over his heart when the patriarch's desire to marry his daughters off in chronological order trumps his concern for Maria's feelings.

Still, there are surprises at the periphery. One is Acuña's gay secretary, Fernando, the frequent victim of Acuña's outbursts. Fernando's crush on Robert Davis earns the dancer the slack he needs to win Maria's dowry, and Fernie knows it. The second surprise is Seiter's insistence on awarding the Acuñas a Welsh heritage, as if Hayworth herself would never stoop to playing the daughter of Pittsburgh-born, South American-set Adolphe Menjou.

In a different world, the two sisters (Leslie Brooks and Adele Mara), keepers of the movie's promised spark and charm, would have more to do than ape the worst American stereotypes about women who want to be brides. As it is, they float at the edges and wink at one another's smiles and no doubt flee to other rooms for acts of unspeakable unwed perversion. Astaire, the lifelong Republican, ignores this for a joke with a horse in the courtyard before stealing away the woman he didn't dream of. He'll make her unhappy, in the end.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Neon at McCarran International

Dark City (1950)
directed by William Dieterle
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

"Most war romances need a lot of understanding," says someone, either the nightclub singer Fran or honest Captain Garvey. It means that Dark City is a war movie at the fringes, which is right where war movies ought to be. Charlton Heston started here, as good guy Danny Haley, disillusioned with the system and susceptible to corruption that doesn't suit his conscience. He and his chums (including Jack Webb) lure an alcoholic into a dishonest card game. When the alcoholic hangs himself from guilt, his psychotic brother seeks revenge.

But the psycho stays largely in the shadows, outside a world where we see things like a line cook wolfing down his own meal between shifts. Danny moves from New York to Los Angeles to Las Vegas, encounters women with sad stories and has one of his own to tell in small rooms. He's in love with the nightclub singer but unable to say so; she says things like "Hit me please" when he gets a job as a casino dealer from a man with his own ghosts to carry.

Fran wears the same dress to sing in several nights in a row, and I don't think I've seen that before. She looks good, but you notice the repetition, and you realize that she's prettiest in the seedy rooms where she makes a living. It's important to see what cheap glamor does to lives lived without glamor at all - that it adds something no one has to feel sorry for.

Everyone's lonely in a movie like this, with no one to ask for advice. "You're not asking if I forgive you," Fran tells Danny. "You're asking how much a woman would forgive." In a Hollywood convertible, even the helium balloons bob gently along in the breeze. There's a great scene at the Griffith Planetarium, as that familiar music falls away and the program recedes into a sky full of stars. "You forget how beautiful things can be," a woman whispers, meaning the fake lights on the inside of a wall. But she's talking about movies sure as Fran is talking about forgiveness.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Bowling Alone

Screwballs (1983)
directed by Rafal Zielinski
rating: 1 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Less the "grandfather of 80s sex comedies" than an old man masturbating just outside school property, Screwballs is historically interesting - for about one second - as one of the first big hits on home video. Maybe someone else is qualified to talk about the social ramifications born of the cultural segue from drive-in exploitation features to sneaking smut onto TV when friends are over and parents are in bed. Not me.

Zielinski, a Canadian, reportedly based the color scheme of Screwballs on Archie comics, but that implies an awareness that the endless parade of sexual harassment simply doesn't support. I'll summarize it anyway: five delinquents at Tafts & Adams High School ("T & A is proud to say / that T & A goes all the way") team up to humiliate the one girl on campus who hasn't undressed for any of them. They're helped by Purity Busch's sex-crazed co-eds, and since everyone (boy and girl alike) can't stand her, their mutual bad behavior... sort of balances out? Just kidding. It's an embarrassment, although I did like this exchange:

"I heard you're going out with my brother."
"Probably! Who is he?"

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bludgeons for Bobbies

The Bed Sitting Room (1969)
directed by Richard Lester
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

A three-minute nuclear war leaves a dozen or so survivors to tramp around ruined England and comment satirically on such dull British tropes as: Class; Cuckolding; Death; Honor; Police; and, of course, Daughters in Miniskirts Sneaking Around Subway Stations with Handsome Boys. At one point a family stumbles through the same over-saturated volcano that a holocaust survivor climbs in Akira Kurosawa's Dreams, which makes me think that Kurosawa wasn't so much putting his visions to film as forgetting some of the movies he'd watched twenty years before. Fifteen years ago, I liked Monty Python as much as the next guy, but there's a limit to how much Anglophile Absurdism a 21st-century American can take.

I liked the Beatles, too, and I still like A Hard Day's Night. But this isn't that because The Bed Sitting Room is, above all else, a movie about adulthood and its failings. The closest Lester gets to the youth of Shaggy George and Ringo is a bit of physical comedy involving a sea trunk, a well, and a mine shaft. Someone scores a pratfall, the dust settles, and we think back to the sight gag with the glass and the bottle of wine. Surrealism wins every time.

Friday, September 16, 2011


Community - Seasons 1 and 2 (2009-2011)
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

In episode 2.13, Pierce decides to steal the spotlight at an anti-drug rally and in doing so makes himself the only character that an audience of "at-risk teens" enjoys, the point being (I thought) that D.A.R.E.-like programs are stupid. But that's not the program that Annie, ever a well-intentioned former pill popper, wanted to direct, and she's sad that the selfish old man went and ruined her effort to get a message across to kids. So far so good.

The gang, inevitably, decides to right Pierce's wrong. But instead of Jeff chiming in with something like, "Let's finish the play the way Annie wrote it so that she feels good about herself," he rallies the troops by arguing that any kid who leaves the rally thinking marijuana is "cool" will wind up as a meth addict someday. Implying, I guess, that kids who take drugs in high school are more or less junkies by graduation.

The teetotaler angle is a trend. Not two episodes before, Troy turns 21 and his study group takes him out for a drink. Mean things are said over the course of the evening, Troy learns that booze robs the fun from friendship, and a gay stranger has the temerity to try and pick up Abed by starting a conversation about Farscape.

I find Community weirdly moralistic and oddly conservative, and the lessons that Dan Harmon insists on imparting each episode, however sweet they might seem, are more often superficial and saccharine. Jeff Winger is the root of the problem. He is almost never allowed to be the heartless egoist everyone says he is, and a better show would make his unflappable self-regard the straight man to two seasons of hilarious comeuppances, instead of a trait that comes and goes with the wind.

If anything, the second season is worse than the first, when by my charts (I have no charts), shows I support trend in the other direction. Which isn't to say Community isn't funny, but just that I hear a lot of people praise it and not enough criticism. Most often I look to characters like Professor Duncan or Dean Pelton for the low-life charm that Winger's A-team sadly lacks (except Pierce, comfortably the bad guy). But when all else fails, play paintball, right?

Speaking of the good life at the bottom of the barrel, let me spare you a separate post on True Blood and say that I wish all of Season 4, which I enjoyed, had been as great as the last episode. To 2012!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tarantula Baths in Shifting Sands

Timbuktu (1959)
directed by Jacques Tourneur
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

Chronologically, Timbuktu comes closer to the end of Tourneur's career than any of his other directorial efforts I've seen, but only two years after Nightfall and Night of the Demon, both wonderful. So I won't make excuses, or argue some grand case about artistic decline. Timbuktu is convoluted, with a plot that involves a kidnapped Muslim cleric, independence from French Sudan, and Victor Mature as an expat gun runner in love with Yvonne De Carlo, wife of a French officer.

The "evil" emir who agitates for the future Republic of Mali is at odds with his cleric, a prop for colonial propaganda. The emir is played by John Dehner, every inch an American, and he brings out the boxes of spiders to torture his enemies with the zeal of countless Hollywood villains before him. Mature loses his shirt - he was famous for it - and navigates a series of convincingly exotic sets, shadowy doorways, and windblown caravans, without a doubt the highlights of the picture.

Tourneur takes the time to make the Emir's guards sympathetic and elevates De Carlo's character by putting her in the middle of a half-sincere love triangle staged to convince the enemy that Mature can be trusted. In one confrontation, she tells her husband frankly that she won't be able to resist Mature's charms forever; her husband, realizing he's lost her already, pushes her into her tightrope act of statesmanship with a kind of noble cruelty that is more emotional than the script deserves.

The image that stayed in my mind was one of a train of men through the sand. Tourneur employs a kind of floating reflector to illuminate the faces of the men on horseback, and it has the effect of a drifting will-o-the-wisp or guiding djinn. Or Tinker Bell! Deserts are under-utilized in movies today. There are things you can do with a field of stars and a campfire in the dark far creepier than faces in the sand.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Duets Are Made for the Bourgeoisie

The Story of Temple Drake (1933)
directed by Stephen Roberts
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched on YouTube

Miriam Hopkins was born in Savannah, Georgia, and was married, at different times, to an aviator, a movie director, and a war correspondent. She's a shoe-in for Temple Drake, and she excels in the scenes that stay closest to the lurid heart of Sanctuary. One could argue that Jack La Rue is the movie's revelation, since his highly sexualized Trigger is a complete fabrication that inverts the impotent Popeye. Adaptations are best when they do something new.

The Story of Temple Drake belongs to the title character, same as Sanctuary did, which is a reason I love the book. Temple, for better or worse, is the hero. But the movie doesn't go nearly as far as Faulkner did to convince you that she doesn't deserve the accolades. There's the same graffiti on the bathroom wall and a seedy suit of pajamas in a Memphis brothel, but onscreen Temple is an active agent in her own redemption, allowed to confess in the courtroom and clear Lee Goodwin of Tommy's murder.

La Rue plays his close-ups like a somnambulant dreaming the same dreams that bring Miss Drake to the Goodwin ruins amid a thunderstorm, with Tommy talking like Mose Harper in his sleep. That's the picture's best moment, before Temple is undone by her lousy date and compelled to protect the attorney she loves from the man who raped her in a barn. Pre-Code heroines weren't always so light on their toes. To understand what Faulkner brought to Hollywood, you only need to read the beautiful, salacious trash he published ten years before he made it out to LA, and see how the system that produced the well-intentioned The Story of Temple Drake could only be improved with his kind of talent around.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Easy Living

If You Could Only Cook (1935)
directed by William A. Seiter
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Bill Seiter lets the month ride on the shoulders of one more remarkable Pre-Code blonde. Jean Arthur's Joan is out of work, and Herbert Marshall's Jim - an auto design genius beaten down by his own board of directors - takes her up on a happy scam she concocts at the park bench where they meet. Movies being what they are (great and gentle things), Joan is unaware of Jim's deep pockets, and Jim, in need of a change, pretends he's a butler in need of a job.

Employment, in other words, is only available to married couples. Joan can cook, and a retired bootlegger with an appetite hires them on. It's the escape Jim wants, not least from a pending marriage to a girl with a name but no real money. By day he buttles, and by night he slips over the balcony from the porch where he sleeps and picks up pretty uniforms for Joan.

Everyone falls in love with Joan, Jim and the gangster Rossini both. Neither wants possession as much as he'd like to see her happy. But a girl like Joan can't love a man who lies to her (her Henry Ford as John Lloyd Sullivan), and next to handsome Herbert Marshall, a crook with a heart of gold just can't compare.

Rossini's man Friday, Flash, is at the center of his family's redemption, encapsulated in a scene where Flash and Rossini witness Joan's broken heart. Seiter shoots a close-up on Joan's tears, holds it, then does the same for Rossini and Flash in turn. The men don't cry, but they stumble. They're not criminals, but good eggs, and there isn't a moment when Seiter once asks the audience to care for money or high society, next to a couple of goobers with guns.

When Joan catches Jim in his deception, she is outraged and offended. That broken heart guides her true but suffers no fool to blow hot and cold with words. She deserves the very best, and in Seiter's world the very best is simply time to raise a drink with friends and lovers. That, and maybe a prank on the cops, who listen in greedily as two scowling gangsters impersonate a husband and wife in matrimonial bliss from the well-tinted back seat of a limo. Ladies love outlaws and no romance should be without them.