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Bad Girl (1931)
Note: some scenes described in detail.
As usual for Borzage, this is full of sentiment, and the details of the plot are deadly. Never was the development of misunderstandings between two inarticulate people more aggressively, one might say more ruthlessly, pursued. When they're not playing "Gift of the Magi" (he giving up the dream of his own radio store for the big apartment he thinks she wants), they're busy each thinking that the other doesn't really want the baby. And how could Borzage resist milking the maternity ward scene, with its inevitable ethnic cross-section, older woman, and troubled mother. And here's another version of that typical pre-Code era film pair, the beautiful girl and the unhandsome blow-hard boob.
All that said, this is still a very good film in spite of itself, certainly deserving of its Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Borzage constantly redeems himself at the worst moments. A prime example: the evening before the baby's due Jimmy goes out to fight four rounds of preliminaries at $10 a round to pay the doctor. Sally is lying at home, convinced that he's with his drunken friends, or worse, and no longer loves her. Dunn's opponent is a mean-looking, cynical, paunchy guy who's about to knock him out in the second round. Oh, the ironic cross-cutting: he's getting the crap beat out of him, while she lies in bed, anxious and bitter. But, in a clinch, Jimmy begs the pug not to knock him out because his wife's going to have a baby. Why didn't you say so, says the obliging pug, I've got two of my own. In an amusing moment they chat away while pretending to lambaste each other. This takes the curse off the sentimental plot maneuvering.
And there are a lot of other fine sequences, too. The film starts with Eilers in a fancy wedding gown, being attended to by a dresser. She's so nervous, she tells best-friend Gombell, who's dressed as a bridesmaid. As they do the formal bride's walk through the phalanx of bridesmaids, in the corner of the screen one sees part of a tray of dirty dishes being carried by a waiter. Gradually the camera pulls back to show that they're modeling the gowns for a bunch of lecherous buyers. Then they go to Luna Park (nice shots of the park). Throughout these early scenes there are plenty of sharp pre-Code wisecracks about how men only have one thing on their minds. Funny, breezy stuff. They meet Dunn on the ferry on the way home, the first guy that doesn't make a pass. The scene shifts to the couple sitting at the foot of her rooming-house stairwell. As they talk, an old hen-pecked lush comes down the stairs, and an older woman uses the hall phone to tell her sister that their mother has just died. That may be pouring the milieu on a bit thick, Borzage style, but this scene is beautifully played by Eilers and by the older woman and is quite affecting. Later, when Eilers stays in Dunn's room (no hanky-panky, it seems) and he asks her to marry him, her brother kicks her out of the house, and Gombell, the brother's gal, walks too. (Single-mom Gombell's little boy is a terror. In the morning he won't scram: "I want to see Dotty get out of bed.") Sally is sure that Jimmy will desert her at the alter, and that's the beginning of all the tear-jerking plot elements.
But the film goes beyond those elements with a richness of detail, a generous painting of daily life in the city during the Depression. And, when all's said and done, what really makes the film, and where Borzage ultimately redeems himself, is in the performances. Eilers, who somehow never got the recognition she deserved, is beautiful and gives a strong, sensitive, emotional performance--for my money a more appealing one than most of Janet Gaynor's work for Borzage. Gombell, another undervalued thirties player, is really fine as the tough but good-natured pal, who doesn't let Dunn's dislike of her color her opinion of him as a good husband for Eilers. Her performance goes beyond the requirements of the script in very subtle ways. And Dunn, well, he plays the typical early-thirties boob of a husband, but even he has a bravura scene when he breaks down while having to beg the expensive doctor to handle his wife's childbirth. Borzage films are always full of sentiment, but not always honest sentiment. This scene with the doctor is full of sentiment, but it's honestly handled, and one can say the same for the whole film.
The Famous Ferguson Case (1932)
Typical Entertaining Warners Film of the Time
This is not "dull, trite and talky" as noted at the time by Variety, but a typically engaging 1932 Warners drama. The murder of a wealthy man in his country home is big news, especially since his wife seems to have quarreled with him that night about her boy friend. Two camps of reporters descend on the small town; the yellow journalists and the more responsible press. Joan Blondell is one of the bad crew, and is Kenneth Thomson's girlfriend, at least until the small town girl takes a shine to him. There are some nicely done scenes, particularly Blondell's cynically telling her rival what to expect from Thomson. She really belts it out in her inimitable style. Nearly as good is where Thomson himself tells the new girl what to expect; that he's an alcoholic and a manic depressive. It's good because he's pretty much telling the truth at the same time he's handing her a line. Tom Brown doesn't leave much of an impression as the local cub reporter, and the story cheats a bit on the solution of the murder. But the reporters' milieu, the good character-player line-up, and the general energy and pace of the production certainly make this worth seeing.
He Was Her Man (1934)
Fine, Subtle pre-Code era Film With the Stars at Their Best
I'm really glad to see the many thoughtful, positive comments about this film on IMDb, because it's one of my favorite pre-Code era films. The film books don't give it good marks: Halliwell ("not quite smart enough"), Hirschhorn's Warner book ("pallid stuff"), Homer Dickens ("not a very good film"), Maltin ("disappointing"). Don't believe these folks! Perhaps part of the problem is that this sentimental tale, while not an unfamiliar story, is nothing like the Cagney action films and comedies that preceded it. It just isn't what critics and viewers would expect. Interestingly, one critic, Howard Barnes, writing at the time the film was released, comes a little closer: "It is James Cagney's gift to execute a characterization with such clarity and conviction that (the film) becomes exciting and engaging through his participation ... he moves with fine restraint and assurance, making the screen drama a rather effective hodgepodge of melodrama and sentiment." Effective it is, but far from being a hodgepodge, the story is constructed unusually well for Warners at the time: no padding, no abrupt truncated bits, each sequence weighted properly in terms of the others. The melodrama is kept to a bare minimum: one can imagine a big action shoot-out scene at the end, with Cagney dying in her arms, and numerous other chances for standard melodrama, all avoided. Certainly, a key to the success of the film is Cagney's immensely subtle, nuanced performance; always charming, but never for a moment not a heel. As with the similar character in CEILING ZERO, Cagney knows to play the role as though he's a good guy and let the story tell the truth about the character. Blondell's performance, too, is extraordinary; the usual archetypical brassy blonde is here unexpectedly vulnerable. But the script is a full partner in these characterizations. Blondell's past is not glossed over: "I met him right here in this hotel, he was in the big city for a good time, the bellboy introduced us, you can figure it from there." There's Cagney's predatory request for sex in their first scene, taking advantage from the first moment of the fact that she likes him and that she's almost obligated and really has little choice. Of course, one looks ahead and can assume that Cagney will probably be killed and she'll marry Jory. But there are so many possible bad paths to this conclusion, and none taken here. In fact, it's a measure of the film's success that there's considerable tension built, and one isn't really sure during the watching exactly how it will play out. Not only is the story well told, but the dialogue is excellent, with the characters speaking their mind, though often indirectly. Exposition is masterfully integrated with the characterization in the dialogue. There's a large cast of fully drawn minor characters, too. Perhaps some would find Jory's Portuguese fisherman a bit much (though I am glad to see the IMDb comments are generally very favorable), but in the context the character works. And it's so nice to see Jory not the villain for once. What I love about the better early-Thirties films is that they don't point the viewer to an obvious interpretation of each scene, and their structure is fluid and not predictable in its details. The subtle moments don't call attention to themselves and may be missed by viewers used to a more straightforward style. This is a fine film with outstanding performances from Cagney and Blondell, and if you avoid it because of the "experts" you'll be missing a rewarding film.
A.K.A. Doc Pomus (2012)
A Great Documentary about a Fascinating Talent
I found this film an incredibly rich experience. As a documentary--a document--it's an extremely thorough and detailed examination of Doc Pomus's life and work. Pomus is a fascinating person, a major musical talent of his time, and it's also obvious he changed the lives of many who came in contact with him. A wide range of Pomus's cohorts and family members are interviewed, and the archival footage and recordings are incredible. It's densely packed with strong images, and every one has a reason for being there, furthering the narrative, adding to the mosaic in a meaningful way. But beyond the documenting of Pomus's life, this film stands on its own as a work of art. It flows like music, it has an emotional narrative in addition to the linear one, which isn't forced but is there naturally. As critic Ken Eisner says, "The overall feeling the film leaves you with is joyous, not elegiac." There's no substitute for having the tenacity to collect all the material, taking the time and care to put it all together meaningfully, and then having the talent to make the whole more than the sum of its parts. I can only think of one documentary that compares with this and that's Terry Zwigoff's acclaimed CRUMB. I hope this film gets wide distribution and the recognition it deserves.
Slick But Not Very Cinematic
This is a pretty good looking silent film. The sets and the crowd scenes are fine, the acting's adequate, the elaborate back-lighting's all there. There aren't really that many titles, but the story IS all told in the titles. After a while, one realizes that one hardly has to look at the pictures, just keep alert for the titles... so the pictures recede dramatically in importance. In the end, it's a journeyman job, with a lack of respect for the viewer's intelligence. For example, when a character tells other character about events we've already seen, the titles carefully spell it all out, or the scene is shown again, just in case the audience forgot. It's the tale of a poor violinist taken under the wing of a painter and tutored by a has-been violinist. When his granny cracks him on the bean, he actually travels up those ethereal stairs to the pearly gates where St. Peter tells him that he'll only be a great artist if he doesn't mess around with women. But does he listen? One can't blame him for breaking training with Russian princess June Novak, who's hot stuff in soft-focus close-ups. When he and the princess find themselves in the middle of the Russian revolution, he has a sword fight with a revolution leader--his old violin instructor!--and is clearly killed dead on screen while thousands of revolutionaries look on. Nevertheless, he manages to end the film in a clinch with his sweetie. It's all entertaining enough, but lacking the visually sophisticated storytelling techniques that Hitchcock (screenwriter and art director on this film) would employ when he became director, even in his first films.
Histoires extraordinaires (1968)
Malle's Homage to Cocteau's Les Enfants Terribles
It's interesting that no IMDb commenters seem to have caught Malle's significant homage in "William Wilson."
Malle makes Wilson far more sadistic that Poe's character. In the opening school sequence, Poe's Wilson is, to be sure, a leader of the other students: "the ardor, the enthusiasm, and the imperiousness of my disposition, soon rendered me a marked character among my schoolmates, and by slow, but natural gradations, gave me an ascendancy over all not greatly older than myself." Any sadism is, at most, implied: "If there is on earth a supreme and unqualified despotism, it is the despotism of a master mind in boyhood over the less energetic spirits of its companions." In Poe, Wilson does not try to strangle his doppelganger, nor is he expelled from the school. He approaches the other's bed at night, apparently sees his own face on the sleeping boy and "passed silently from the chamber, and left at once, the halls of that old academy, never to enter them again."
In Malle's film, Wilson is torturing another student as a snowball fight rages in the background. The doppelganger makes his first appearance by hitting Wilson with a snowball. The snow fight, the torture, the significant hit by a snowball, the expulsion from school are not in Poe's tale.
But all these elements ARE in Jean Cocteau's novel LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES. The snowball fight not only is featured in Jean-Pierre Melville's film of the novel, but Cocteau filmed the scene earlier in his own BLOOD OF A POET. The torture is briefly in Melville's film, but described more fully in the novel: "By the spasmodic flaring of the gas lamp he could be seen to be a small boy with his back against the wall, hemmed in by his captives...One of these...was squatting between his legs and twisting his ears...Weeping, he sought to close his eyes, to avert his head. But every time he struggled, his torturer seized a fistful of gray snow and scrubbed his ears with it." As the snow fight continues, Cocteau's iconic character Dargelos throws a snowball that hits another student and puts in motion the events of the novel/film.
Dargelos is the same sort of malignant leader of his schoolmates as Malle's young Wilson. The headmaster calls his influence on his classmates unhealthy, and after an outrageous act he is expelled from the school. Even more to the point, Dargelos has a doppelganger in the form of the character Agathe. In Melville's film Dargelos and Agathe are played by same person, and their mysterious resemblance is important to the story.
All of these added Cocteau elements are so strong that one assumes that Malle intended viewers to recognize the reference.
Chelovek s kino-apparatom (1929)
Where is the five-year plan?
This is obviously by far the best film in the rather limited genre of the "city tone-poem." The pacing is excellent, the editing is really stylish, and, for the most part, the subjects selected are interesting, either intrinsically or because of the editing. But what's more amazing than the quality of the film is the subject matter, because, with the exception of a shot of Lenin's portrait, this seems not just neutral politically but positively bourgeois in outlook. There ARE sequences of industry in action, automated machines twisting and turning, great steel furnaces, and girls on an assembly line making packets of cigarettes, all of which remind one of those American industry-distributed films of the 'fifties that were shown on rainy-day school lunch-hours. This isn't so surprising, since the Soviet view of industry regimentation seems to have been similar to the West's at the time. But the rest of the film is really amazing in that it is almost exclusively concerned with decidedly middle-class people at play. At play! Why aren't they out working on the latest five-year plan? Contrast this to Grigori Kozintsev's contemporary films: the party in THE NEW BABYLON (1929) is shown as wicked in comparison to the drudgery of the workers supporting it, and the girl in ALONE (1931) is admonished for her selfish desire to have a happy home life with a husband when there are Siberian children to teach. But here we see pretty girls in stylish clothes, middle class families out for a ride in carriages and *gasp* autos, beauty shops with manicurists (engagingly cross-cut with the film editor at work), Sunday at the beach, a magician entertaining children, merry-go-rounds, spectators having fun at a motorcycle race, very non-regimented basketball and soccer games, people at a reducing salon, relaxed couples drinking and eating at a bar, posters of entertainment films (and the audience of the film we're watching, trooping into a fairly plush theatre and enjoying themselves thoroughly), etc. The film is a celebration of life as it is, with bums waking up on their benches at the start of the day seen as a poetic celebration of life. Bums in the workers paradise?? In one sequence, happy mothers of newborns, old women in grief in a cemetery, and young people getting marriage licenses are contrasted, in an intended tapestry of life. The emphasis is on the emotions of the individual. There's a wry commentary on the young to-be-marrieds: some look as though they're not well matched; one woman covers her face when the camera intrudes. Affectionate, ironic, even satiric, comment on the human condition is the obvious purpose of the film. Typical is a sequence contrasting a young female nude long-distance swimmer applying grease to her body, with another young woman with a perm applying lipstick to her mouth. How did this paean to pleasure seeking and personal fulfillment, this hymn to individualism, ever get made in Russia in 1929?
The Lemon Drop Kid (1934)
A Fine Little Film
This was released in September 1934, so even the announcement of pregnancy has to be done in inaudible whispers in the ear, but it still has the essential element of the pre-Code era, that open style and loose narrative structure that doesn't try to "lead" the viewer. This isn't a "comedy," a "romance," or a "drama." It has elements of all three but it's a film to be taken as a totality that goes from one moment to another in unexpected ways and doesn't have a predictable plot. At first we see Lee Tracy at the track, trading wisecracks with the law and fleecing suckers. When the cops are after him, he takes off with an aging drunk, Henry Walthall, to his home town. There Tracy meets Walthall's daughter Helen Mack, and they fall in love. Tracy settles down with a store job and things seem fine. Tracy good-naturedly chafes at the job, but this isn't one of those tales about the footloose guy who loves the gal but can't settle down. Tracy's a guy in charge of his life; he understands that Mack is worth settling down for, and does what's necessary without it clipping his breezy nature. But then she dies in childbirth. There's a an amazing scene after she dies that demonstrates the range of the Tracy persona, which always had depth of character under the wisecracks. He stands there in shock, alone with the baby, and muses, "What's it all about?" There's just so many great things about the film, starting with Frawley. Frawley was said to be acerbic and unpleasant in person, but it's hard to believe he was all that bad, his performances are so detailed, zesty, affectionate, and real. Here, he plays a race-track sharp, but with a stylish command of language that gets him through any scrape. At one point he sits at the piano and does a wonderful rendition of "Carolina in the Morning" for Baby LeRoy that brought applause from the Film Forum audience. (It's said that he claimed to have introduced the song in "The Passing Show of 1922" at the Winter Garden.) Minna Gombell, an underrated performer of the era, is fine as Frawley's girlfriend/wife, and the other supporting players are uniformly good. Tracy uses track slang throughout, and at one point uses classic rhyming slang, the very same heard in British working-class films of the sixties. There's another musical sequence when Tracy and Mack have a party to celebrate being married for six months. It's a large, happy, raucous party which is another indicator that Tracy has adjusted to married life but is still his spirited self. Eddie Peabody does a banjo solo, and then he and Tracy play a banjo duet, each strumming on one banjo and playing the chords on the other. The way they're sitting you barely notice that they're intertwined like that. Very high energy numbers. The film as a whole, though, is rather low key, not intent on proving anything, but just telling out its tale. The comedy, the romance, the drama are all done with a rare good nature. The closest thing to a nasty character is Clarence Wilson as the owner of the retail store where Tracy and Mack work, but it's a reflexive sort of nastiness that no one bothers about too much. Today's audiences might be puzzled by this film that never tells them what to think or to expect, but it's a fine little film.
Delightful Film of its Time
I really loved this film for its total assurance in utilizing all of the film grammar of its time, a way of looking at images that's now totally lost. In ways similar to the great French films, it has the ambiance, the use of sound and editing, of light and shadow, the music, the style of acting, the meandering story told through anecdotal detail, all woven effortlessly into a seamless, enchanting whole. And like the Scandinavian films of the period, it mixes tawdry realism with mystical elements. It's not that it's derivative so much as that all these directors were breathing the same cultural air, the cinema atmosphere of the time. So it's filled with wonderful arty touches: the opening of dancing shadows on a screen; raindrops falling in a glistening puddle used as a narrative bridge; the long tracking shot of the outside back corner of a moving car, with the thoughts of the unseen girl inside whispered on the sound track; the wind blowing the abandoned wedding dress; the scream of the landlady who finds the hanging suicide overlapping the scene where the other girl reads the delivered suicide note. The story: two girls kick around the music hall circuit. One is made pregnant by a nasty producer, and is blackmailed by him when she has an abortion. The other, the lead character, an attractive blonde, has a crush on the headline singer in the show. When she readily sleeps with him he finds it disturbing. So when the show closes she goes on tour and has more ups and downs until the satisfying ending. It's not a truly great film, but it's quite wonderful anyhow.
Aka SPOOKS or THE GHOSTS or ANXIETY.
An Ideal Husband (1947)
Enjoyable, not really great
This film doesn't have a very good reputation, e.g., "slow moving" (Maltin) and "a slight, stiff play is swamped by the cast" (Halliwell). IMDb comments are mixed. Well, it does have the limitations one would expect from Korda filming a period play in lavish Technicolor. It is pictorially static, with overly bright colors. For the most part, the actors' voices are animated but their bodies are strangely inert. But in general I thought this wasn't that bad an adaptation, somewhat better than the trendy 1999 version, if only because Korda understood the period he was filming. It seems to me that Wilde's plot complications have been smoothed out a bit here (his name is not even on the credits!) so that the solution follows the problem too quickly and the whole thing can be over in 96 minutes and still have a spectacular recreation of crowds in period costume at the Ascot races. (Perhaps this is an unfair comment since IMDb notes that an original version was a half-hour longer.) With the casting and the spirited performance of Goddard, Mrs. Cheveley becomes the most animated and virile character in the film. Lady Chiltern's conception of morality should stem from a vigorous, naive idealistic vision. She should be a dynamic, slightly-otherworldly treasure with a fairytale view of the world and be the core of the film, for the plot hinges on her vision of purity. The casting and somewhat stodgy performance of Wynyard in the role weakens the story. The character becomes merely an upright, slightly stuffy moralist. Hmmm. Perhaps the criticisms directed at the film are justified. In spite of this, I quite enjoyed this, my third go-around with the play. The Importance of Being Earnest is perhaps more witty and amusing, but this story has a much more provocative drama at its core, with interesting things to say about ethics, morality and idealism. I find it odd that it is universally described as a comedy. Certainly there's a lot of pithy, epigrammatic dialogue, and some light moments, but the basic story is a clear-cut moral drama. The anguish of Sir Chiltern and his wife is real, the stakes are high and virtually life-threatening, and the moral decisions are agonizing.