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18 out of 19 people found the following review useful:
"And if I felt half as good as you look, I'd go out and kill myself while it lasted.", 29 January 2009

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I saw LOVE IS A RACKET at the Museum of Modern Art on a dismal, rainy, slushy winter day, and it is exactly the bubbly pre-Code cocktail I would have dreamed up as the ideal entertainment for such a time. The plot—some nonsense about a "milk racket" and a flock of rubber checks—is merely a flimsy scaffolding for all the fun stuff. This flick has everything: non-stop slang and snappy patter, great music and settings (many scenes take place in Sardi's, or a reasonable facsimile thereof), gratuitous leg art, a practical-joke-loving goon, and a gotten-away-with murder. Loath to waste time on exposition, the movie just plunges us into a world of racketeers, Broadway babies, and reporters who wake up at 5 pm, go on the town, and come back to do a little furious two-finger typing before dawn.

If this is a pre-Code movie about reporters, then logically it must feature Lee Tracy. Sure enough, though he isn't the star, he's the hero's best pal, and he's at his shamelessly scene-stealing best. He gives every small moment a riveting flourish: juggling a telephone and a shaving brush; body-checking another reporter to get to the phone; declaring his love for Ann Dvorak through a mouthful of steak ("Say, if you loved me half as much as you love that steak I'd surrender just out of pity," she replies tartly); hamming up the agony as he climbs into a cold bath in his pajamas to win a $50 bet; delivering lines like, "Well I'll be a double-jointed son of a...Bulgarian acrobat." But Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. holds his own in the lead, helped by a perfect profile, a twinkle in his eye and a sense of mischief. He has some sexy moments and also some very funny ones, like when he curtsies to a "pansy" dress designer, or announces that he's "going to get what was known among the ancient Athenians as 'swacko.'"

Ann Dvorak's role gives her little to do besides hang around vainly hoping Doug will notice her, but she does get some nice, biting lines, as when she replies to her rival's polite how-do-you-do, "Oh, fine. Just a slight touch of leprosy." Frances Dee looks luscious and wears the cat-with-the-cream expression of a girl who knows her face will get her whatever she wants. Lyle Talbot, dressed as usual in black tie and a light coating of slime, plays the gangster who runs the milk racket, and delivers the movie's best line (see the subject line above) when he makes a heavy play for Miss Dee.

The most mind-blowing scene is set in a ravishing art deco penthouse where hot jazz plays on the radio ("Hittin' That Bottle") while the hero discovers a corpse and covers up the murder in a shocking, ruthlessly clever way. Under the froth, this is an astringent movie. Fairbanks's reporter has zero interest in taking on corrupt forces for the public good; it might be bad for his health, or at least his ability to get a good table at Sardi's. A cold-blooded murder is shrugged off because, after all, the guy deserved to die. And Fairbanks concludes the film with a brilliant speech about why "Love is just a mental disorder": it makes you waste your money, lie awake at night worrying, wait two hours for dinner when you're "hungry as a toothless timberwolf," and generally make an errand-boy and a fool of yourself. He vows that he will never again fall for one of these lady "racketeers." Somehow, with Ann Dvorak standing by, I have trouble believing him.

15 out of 15 people found the following review useful:
The Kobayashi-Nakadai partnership continues in this somber, atmospheric nocturne, 23 September 2008

INOCHI BO NI FURO means "We give our lives for nothing," and I would award the highly competitive prize for ludicrous English re-titling to the person who decided to render this as "Inn of Evil." For American lovers of Japanese cinema, however, the indignity of silly international titles pales beside the sheer difficulty of getting hold of brilliant movies by great directors. Only three of Masaki Kobayashi's films are readily available on DVD in the U.S. (I don't count THE HUMAN CONDITION, which will set you back around $300), but I was lucky enough to scrounge up a decent copy of INOCHI BO NI FURO. It's a fascinating film, as dark and intricate as its marshy, nocturnal setting, and it richly deserves to be seen.

After taking muddy, visceral realism to the limit with THE HUMAN CONDITION, Kobayashi embraced traditional Japanese aesthetics; his period films combine denunciations of feudal oppression with austere formal beauty, creating a tension between explosive emotion and serene ritual. HARAKIRI (his masterpiece) and SAMURAI REBELLION have a spare, clean look, with many scenes set in white, rectilinear tatami rooms or raked-sand courtyards. INOCHI BO NI FURO is stunningly different look at the past. More than half the scenes are set at night, and the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography creates a breathable sense of place: a small island in the marshes, home to the Easy Tavern, a hideout for a band of smugglers. The camera explores the rambling, shadowy wooden building and peers through screens, wooden grilles or tall, waving reeds, visually evoking the mysterious privacy of the island, where strangers are made very unwelcome by the criminal inhabitants.

Tatsuya Nakadai, Kobayashi's favorite actor and personal discovery, stars as Sadashichi, nicknamed "Sada the Indifferent," who impresses and terrifies the rest of the band with his vicious temper, ruthlessness and enigmatic gloom. With his snake-quick reflexes and knife hidden in his kimono sleeve, Sada is reminiscent of Nakadai's pistol-packing villain in YOJIMBO, but he's even more closely related to the icy, dead-eyed killer Nakadai played in SWORD OF DOOM (a runner-up in the bad re-titling sweepstakes.) But unlike either of these heartless men, Sada is vulnerable and deeply wounded: he broods over his mother, whom he lost as a child when she was sold into prostitution, and he nurtures a baby sparrow, pathetically hoping its mother will return to claim it. After he brutally stabs a policeman who comes to search the tavern for illegal goods, an incredible spasm of horror, weariness and sorrow passes over his face. When Nakadai acts he really ACTS, but he's so good he gets away with it. He's a bit flamboyant here, but just try to take your eyes off him—his serpentine grace, haunted eyes, fierce anger and monstrous sadness are mesmerizing.

The proprietor of the tavern, a man with the calm face of a Buddha, sounds like an enlightened social worker when he talks about his "boys," whom he sees as emotional cripples unable to survive in society and starved for sympathy. Kobayashi the humanist makes these crude misfits (one stutters, one has tuberculosis, one is an ex-monk teased for his bisexual proclivities) much more appealing than the police who plot against them, who are nothing but cold bribe-hungry thugs. (This gets a little too obvious when the camera dwells on the swastika crests on one cop's kimono.) The film pivots on a rather implausible change of heart when the smugglers, led by Sada, decide to risk their lives to help a young fugitive who is trying to raise money to keep his fiancée from being sold to a brothel. Sada's own tortured psychology makes his sudden desire to help the young man convincing, though the eagerness of the other bandits to become do-gooders is a little hard to buy. They're basically just followers, but several other characters are well developed. Shintaro Katsu, as the only outsider allowed to drink in the tavern, spends most of the film doing a slobbering-drunk act in the background, but finally gets a chance to tell his own story, which he carries off with poignant, dignified restraint. The proprietor's daughter, a sweet girl who harbors a growing love for Sada, embodies the film's conscience in her simple belief that no one is worthless, every life is worth fighting for. The young couple taken up as a cause worth dying for are ordinary, imperfect people; the victory sought is an average, peaceful life. Most of Kobayashi's films are about resistance to authoritarian power, but the enemy here is rather selfishness and indifference, which can be defeated only through self-sacrifice.

The climax comes in a spectacularly beautiful battle when an army carrying paper lanterns attacks at night; the glowing spheres flow across the dunes and float above the water like fireflies. I won't give away what happens, but ironically, despite its title, this is the only Kobayashi film I've seen which does NOT end in futility. The heroes give their lives "for nothing" in that they seek no personal gain--but not in vain.

9 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
How much does it cost to buy back your soul?, 23 September 2008

GOHIKI NO SHINSHI bears all the hallmarks of film noir: a labyrinthine plot involving crime and betrayal, gritty urban settings, expressionistic black-and-white camera-work, and a hero seeking redemption for his sins. The film begins with Oida (Tatsuya Nakadai) in prison for killing a man and his daughter in a car accident. He didn't mean to do it, but the fact that he was distracted by an argument with his bar-hostess girlfriend, whom he was about to dump to marry his boss's daughter, increases his sense of guilt and our sense that he might be a selfish, opportunistic man. A few days before he is to be released, Oida attracts the attention of another prisoner, Sengoku, when he risks his life to help capture a knife-wielding inmate. Learning Oida's story, and that he has no life to return to (he lost his job and fiancée because of the accident, and has no family), Sengoku makes him a proposition. The payoff is big; no questions are allowed. He is to assassinate three men for a share of 30 million yen.

Oida drifts into accepting the deal but soon has second thoughts. He meets the first man, Motoki, and comes close to pushing him off a dock while he's drunk, but can't quite do it. When he leaves him briefly, Motoki is killed by two mysterious, trench-coated gangsters. Oida tracks down the other two men on his list, not to kill them but to warn them that their lives are in danger. He also becomes the reluctant guardian of Motoki's orphaned daughter, the adorable pigtailed Tomoe. He obsessively tries to uncover the secret behind the strange colliding vendettas: why do both Sengoku and the gangsters want the three men dead, and what happened two years ago at a train station? (We have some idea, having seen a heist, stylishly shot in negative, over the credits). Each of the three men tells a story about how he slipped into crime: one is a former cop who fell in love with a criminal's wife, another a boxer who had his arm broken after he refused to throw a fight. Everyone is sad and desperate, including Sengoku's girlfriend, a bar hostess who says, "We're all prisoners on death row," and the widow of the man Oida killed, whom he meets backstage in a cabaret, still burning with hatred for him.

This is not Ozu's Japan. "Seamy underbelly" hardly does justice to the film's settings: grimy docks, industrial warehouses, junkyards, prison yards, deserted amusement parks, alleys, strip clubs and cheap bars where two hostesses have a vicious cat fight in the bathroom. Amid this squalor the elegant, beautiful Nakadai moves like a fallen angel, spellbound by melancholy and remorse. Slowly he comes to life as he finds a purpose in protecting Tomoe, who follows him like a lost duckling, calling him "Oji-san" (uncle). He lets Sengoku think he killed the men as instructed, planning a double-cross of his own. When Tomoe is kidnapped, fate provides him with a chance to redeem himself—but it won't be easy, since the newly-released Sengoku cares as much about money as Oida cares about his buying back his soul.

Hideo Gosha was a master of genre, making a slew of chambara (swordplay) and yakuza (gangster) films. He's principally a stylist, and at times the style overtakes the substance and gets a bit rococo (he loves startling cuts and long-drawn-out fights.) Nakadai said that the director often cared more about the images than the story, but called him an "impassioned" filmmaker. GOHIKI NO SHINSHI is a fairly standard thriller, impeccably entertaining, and the combination of powerful acting and authentic locations give it a special weight. What lingers most is the weary, lyrical evocation of a world full of hurt, where moments of gentleness are rare and precious. The only flaw is a musical score than tends towards cheesy cocktail jazz, nudging some scenes close to sentimentality. And what was it with the harpsichord in 1960s Japanese films?

NOTE: GOHIKI NO SHINSHI is a truly untranslatable title: it means "Five Gentlemen," but "hiki" is the counter word used not for people but for small animals: so the five "gentlemen" (presumably Oida, Sengoku and the three targets) are also animals in the urban jungle.(Thank you to my Japanese-speaking friend for explaining this to me.) However, surely a more coherent English title than CASH CALLS HELL could have been concocted.

15 out of 15 people found the following review useful:
"Each man kills the thing he loves", 20 September 2008

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, was built in 1397 and treasured as one of the most beautiful buildings in Japan. To a young monk named Goichi Mizoguchi (Raizo Ichikawa) it is a transcendent ideal of beauty; it will never change, he says reverently. "Idiot!" a cynical friend retorts: "People, history and morals all change." In the wake of World War II the Japanese had good reason to know that even buildings are ephemeral. Kyoto was spared from bombing, but in 1950 the Golden Pavilion was burned down by a mentally disturbed young monk. This event inspired a novel by Yukio Mishima, which in turn inspired the film CONFLAGRATION. Both imagine the back story behind this incomprehensible act, but from very different viewpoints.

The film follows the events of the book fairly closely but changes the emphasis, one might even say the point of the story. The Mishima novel is dense with explications of Zen koans and abstruse theories about the meaning of beauty. Director Kon Ichikawa replaces philosophy with psychology and sociology, and shifts the book's elevated tone to one of dark satire, dissecting the protagonist's inferiority complex and the economic and spiritual poverty of postwar Japan. To Ichikawa, the Golden Pavilion was an implicit symbol of the feudal past and "everything which oppressed" Mizoguchi, but his destruction of it is also the ultimate expression of his own self-hatred and sense of unworthiness.

Mizoguchi is tormented by self-doubt, a bad stutter and a vulgar, grasping mother. As a child he witnessed her adulterous affair, and his cuckolded father, attempting to console him, planted in his mind an ideal of pure beauty, the Golden Pavilion. As a novice at the temple, Mizoguchi sees it defiled both by tourists (including an American G.I. who comes with his pregnant Japanese girlfriend) and priests who are money-grubbing and fleshly (the head priest has a geisha mistress) and he becomes obsessed with protecting its sanctity. When he violently bars the pregnant girl from entering, the G.I. is thrilled because she falls downstairs and has a miscarriage, solving his problem. He rewards Mizoguchi with a carton of Chesterfields. Materialism, hypocrisy and nihilism pervade the film. The policemen who interrogate Mizoguchi (forming the framing sequence for a complex flashback narrative) keep talking about whether the temple's destruction will hurt the tourist trade, speculating on how much it will cost to rebuild, and pompously referring to it as a "national treasure."

The well-meaning but weak head priest, who sees Mizoguchi as a possible successor, pays for him to go to college. There he befriends the club-footed Tokari (Tatsuya Nakadai) who is both his opposite and his doppelganger. Embittered and malicious, Tokari is also keenly intelligent and as articulate as Mizoguchi is helplessly mute. Alienated by his deformity, he is a serial seducer of women, manipulatively using his lame leg to gain sympathy. Like Mizoguchi he is the son of a Buddhist priest, but he dismisses temples as "just buildings that escaped the bombing." He cruelly mocks Mizoguchi's naivite and tries to shatter his illusions, but beneath his bravado Tokari is more like his lonely, insecure friend than he can admit. When his second girlfriend, an ikebana (flower-arranging) teacher, insults him as a cripple, his vulnerability is laid bare in his hysterical response. But despite his destructiveness, he can also create beauty: in addition to arranging flowers he plays the shakuhachi (bamboo flute), producing exquisitely pure, otherworldly music. When Mizoguchi finally sets fire to the Golden Pavilion, the film cuts from the massive spectacle of the blaze to a wordless scene of Tokari playing a mournful tune on the flute, as though somehow sensing or participating in the tragedy. The fleeting beauty of the music outlasts the monumental beauty of the temple.

Nakadai, at the start of his career, attacks his role with scene-stealing gusto. He is charismatic, vicious, funny and pathetic, sometimes all at once. Like Lon Chaney he makes his crippled body riveting and its tortured movements perversely vigorous, bringing to life Mishima's description: "His walk was a sort of exaggerated dance, utterly lacking in anything commonplace…Physically he was a cripple, yet there was an intrepid beauty about him..." Nakadai's electricity complements Raizo Ichikawa's introverted performance, which creates a painfully convincing portrait of adolescent confusion, desperate because he can't communicate, because (the universal adolescent tragedy) "no one understands." He destroys his ideal, but not before it destroys him.

NOTE: The Golden Pavilion, which burned several times in the course of Japan's violent history, was reconstructed yet again in 1955.

7 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
When a woman ascends to independence, 10 July 2008

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In its dissection of Japan's traditional feudal values, Japanese cinema has created some of the most searing accounts of the oppression of women. As the lowest rung in the feudal hierarchy, women were expected to serve, sacrifice, and resign themselves to lives of deprivation and humiliation. In films, when they're not being raped by soldiers or kidnapped by bandits, they're being forced into arranged marriages, neglected by their husbands, exploited by their families, or reduced to supporting themselves as prostitutes or bar hostesses. Filmmakers like Naruse and Mizoguchi showed admirable compassion for women's suffering and turned an admirably sharp eye on the weak and selfish men who cause it, but rarely offered hope that things could change. It is a surprise and a pleasure to discover a movie about a woman who refuses to accept her lot, and who not only fights back but wins.

The astonishing Hideko Takamine plays Oshima, a woman who is rough around the edges, spunky and indomitable. UNTAMED is the episodic tale of her attempts to find a place for herself in a world that has little use for her. But this world is a Japan in transition, and the gradual embrace of Western modernity is an undercurrent throughout the film, mirroring the heroine's gradual climb towards independence. The film opens in 1912 (the first year of the Taisho period, an era of openness and modernization), with Oshima being married to a domineering, uptight shop-keeper (Ken Uehara). Her rebellious nature is already evident: she ran away from a previous arranged marriage on her wedding night, and she bears a scar from the time her mother hit her with a hot iron. Nonetheless she works hard and tries to please her husband, who goes on "business trips" to see his mistress, a smugly conventional beauty. Oshima is likeably forthright and down-to-earth, but still childish and unformed. Confronting the other woman, she is humiliated by her own plainness and lack of polish. Her husband habitually insults her and finally throws her out of their bedroom after an argument, causing her to fall downstairs and have a miscarriage. Quick divorce ensues. Throughout the film, adultery and divorce are ubiquitous and seemingly carry little stigma.

No one wants to give Oshima a home, so she is sent to the mountains in Hokkaido to work as a maid at an onsen (hot spring) to pay off her brother's gambling debts. There she begins an affair with the married owner (the elegant, melancholy Masayuki Mori), who is gentle and appealing but incorrigibly weak and ineffectual. She refuses to let him support her as his mistress, and drifts first to another onsen, then back to Tokyo where she boldly moves from doing hand-sewing at home to working on a sewing-machine in a small factory where she is the only woman. Determined to move up in the world, she sells her trousseau to open her own tailor's shop, teaming up with the homely manager Onada (Daisuke Kato), whom she marries. His laziness dooms their first venture, and they have violent fights, but she sticks with him and eventually their third shop succeeds. He grows a moustache and starts wearing Western suits; she dons dresses and hats, rides a bicycle and passes out advertising handbills; a Victrola appears on the tatami mats.

When Oshima discovers that her second husband—a vain, petulant buffoon—is also two-timing, she decides to leave him and set up shop on her own. Not only does she declare her independence in the final scene, it also seems that her reward for enduring a string of disappointing men will be the young, drop-dead-gorgeous Tatsuya Nakadai (whose first appearance prompted wolf-whistles from the audience with whom I saw this film.) He's an employee in the tailor shop, and Oshima simply claims him—over the telephone, our first glimpse of yet another symbol of modernity—summoning him to a hot spring to discuss the new business venture. Talk about taking charge! In his brief cameo Nakadai doesn't have much to do except stand around looking handsome, but he was at the start of a long and very distinguished career in which he successfully avoided typecasting as a pretty boy. Already visible here is his irresistible enthusiasm, an inner fire that leaps through his almost too perfect face and shines from his soulful eyes.

All of the acting in UNTAMED is flawless, but Hideko Takamine effortlessly dominates. Contradicting the demure and graceful stereotype of the Japanese woman, she has a slouching posture, a slightly coarse voice and a kind of dynamic clumsiness. When drunk she crashes through a painted screen, and she engages in several punching, kicking, biting, rolling-on-the-floor brawls, first with her husband and then with his mistress. We constantly see her at work: rolling up her skirt to walk through rain or snow, standing barefoot in a stream washing clothes, running along a hallway polishing the floor, sewing and doing sums with an abacus. She is a very ordinary, and at the same time extraordinary woman; her resilience, bravery and unquenchable spirit reveal themselves gradually and always credibly. The episodic structure of UNTAMED can be hard to follow, and at first the film feels slightly glum and aimless. But as it builds steam (like the trains that appear with increasingly frequency) it becomes deeply involving, capturing the rhythm and texture of daily life. As Oshima stumbles and rebounds, she engages the sympathy so strongly that the film becomes suspenseful as we wait to see what will happen next. The last third has a comic, outrageous mood, but the final shot of Oshima walking in the rain has the grace and inchoate melancholy of a woodblock print. Calm and mature, the woman who has never fit in finally looks at home.

16 out of 17 people found the following review useful:
Love triangle with rich noir shadows, 13 May 2008

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The Preminger Paradox has often been noted: Otto was a notorious tyrant on the set, but his films are like courtrooms in a good way. Everyone gets a fair hearing. The keynote of Preminger's movies is moral ambiguity; they never turn on a simple axis of good and evil, and they feature few characters who are entirely sympathetic or unsympathetic. And despite his legendary tantrums, he consistently drew subtle, tamped-down performances from the actors he terrorized. DAISY KENYON displays all of these virtues and uses them to complicate what would otherwise be a conventional love-triangle plot. The film is impressive in its nuance, complexity and ambivalence. It's not completely satisfying, but perhaps that's the point. By the end, you realize that no possible outcome to the story can really be a happy ending.

It's trite but tempting to say that this is a Joan Crawford movie for people who don't like Joan Crawford. Despite her central, eponymous role, Crawford as Daisy is never as interesting as the two men in her life, Dan O'Mara (Dana Andrews) and Peter Lapham (Henry Fonda). Neither Andrews nor Fonda wanted to do the movie, presumably feeling that they would be playing second fiddles to the female star, but they outshine her. Crawford wanted desperately to do the movie, and it's easy to see why: at 40-something she gets to play an attractive young career-woman being fought over by two very attractive men. (Some predicament! I guess that's why they call this a "woman's picture.") However, girlish dresses with lace collars don't make Crawford look any younger, and the shadowy lighting allegedly designed to hide her wrinkles only adds to the inappropriate sense that she might be about to reach for a carving knife. Crawford is great in MILDRED PIERCE, SUDDEN FEAR and POSSESSED, all made around the same time. Here she's not only too old but too strong and too alarmingly intense for a character who should be softer and more likable.

Daisy is a successful commercial artist involved with a married man. She loves him but knows it's a dead-end relationship, so she agrees to marry another man whom she doesn't love, but who needs her badly. This is pretty standard stuff, but in detail it's oddly persuasive. Dan O'Mara is a glib, high-powered lawyer, spoiled and overconfident, a man who cheats on his wife and treats her with cold contempt. He's a heel—and yet Dana Andrews makes him not only sexy but somehow sympathetic. (This was the third of four films Andrews made with Preminger, a quartet that gave him his best roles and made brilliant use of his gift for ambivalence.) Everything comes too easily for Dan; he knows he's smarter than the people around him, and his charm is irresistible, despite his slick habit of calling everyone "honeybunch" and "dewdrop." His daughters adore him, his secretaries adore him, maitre-d's adore him. Then everything goes wrong: he loses the first case he ever really cared about (defending a Japanese veteran dispossessed of his land), he loses his daughters to divorce, and then he loses his mistress. The bleakness that comes out in his face feels like it was there all along, under the smirk. Dana Andrews had the most haunted eyes in Hollywood. Here they're haunted by self-knowledge.

Peter Lapham is a lonely, psychologically wounded veteran and widower. He's gentle and low-key; his vocation as a yacht-designer hints at something graceful and fine in him. But there's something creepy about him too; he declares his love for Daisy on their first date, then forgets to call her, then sets up surveillance and follows her home. "The world's dead and everyone in it is dead except you," he tells her unnervingly. Peter is obviously the more deserving man, but his method of pursuing Daisy is sneakily passive-aggressive, and they are never as convincing a couple as Daisy and Dan. You can't tell up to the last minute which man she will end up with, or even which one you want her to end up with, which is the film's triumph.

DAISY KENYON has been released on DVD as part of Fox's Film Noir series, which is misleading, but there is something hard to place about the film. The look is typical forties high-gloss (Daisy lives in a ridiculously palatial "Greenwich Village" apartment, which her lover refers to as a "hovel," on an eerily deserted studio street), but the shadows are as dark as any noir. And there is an undercurrent of unpleasantness throughout the film—nightmares, child abuse, racism, adultery. This too is typical of Preminger, who did more than anyone to force Hollywood to grow up and face the facts of life. The shadows aren't only in the cinematography; they don't just fall across the characters but spread from inside them.

15 out of 15 people found the following review useful:
Two ladies show they can take it like men, 28 April 2008

In The Silent Clowns (a book it is difficult to refer to without the adjective "magisterial"), Walter Kerr suggests that there were no important comediennes in the silent era because actresses were handicapped by the requirement that they be pretty, which, he suggests, prevented them from being really funny. Maybe Kerr never saw A PAIR OF TIGHTS. Anita Garvin and Marion Byron, in their third pairing, take their share of pratfalls without sacrificing their allure. The teaming of tall, statuesque, sultry Anita with tiny, cute-as-a-bug Marion was Hal Roach's attempt to create a distaff Laurel and Hardy, with Anita as the bossy Ollie and Marion as the hapless Stan. Their first effort, FEED 'EM AND WEEP, borrowed heavily from L&H's FROM SOUP TO NUTS (in which Anita has one of her finest moments as the nouveau-riche hostess defeated by a wobbly tiara and an elusive cherry), with everyone falling face-first into trays of food and Marion waiting tables in her underwear. The girls' gameness is impressive—and they really were girls, Marion just 17 and Anita all of 21—but the material is pretty shopworn.

A PAIR OF TIGHTS takes a different and much more promising tack. Instead of trying to be Laurel and Hardy, the girls play themselves, and deal with uniquely feminine problems like lousy dates. Here they are ravenous roommates stuck with a couple of tightwads (see the title) who don't want to take them out to dinner. When the men arrive, Marion canoodles with boyfriend Stu Erwin while Anita subjects Edgar Kennedy to a withering deadpan glare. In a long, long, long take, Kennedy squirms and fidgets under Anita's stony, disgusted gaze, before finally managing to open with, "So, how are you?" This is a perfect example of how total inaction can be funnier than people falling on their butts—which is exactly what Anita does when Kennedy gets up off his end of the piano bench where they're sitting.

The four set out for a drive, and Kennedy agrees to spring for ice cream cones. The rest of the film follows Marion's efforts to carry four cones through a set of swinging doors—she is hit from behind, from the front, attacked by a dog, and finally tormented by a horrid freckle-faced boy—while the three in the car get into a dispute with a cop who forces them to drive around and around the block, with Anita still glowering at her date. The film concludes with one of those escalating street battles that were a specialty of the Roach lot, following the exponential spread of quid pro quo as pedestrians start ripping each others' pants off or pasting each other with pies.

Anita and Marion never made another film together, which is a shame because they're both delightful and deserved to be in the spotlight. Anita Garvin will always be remembered by Laurel and Hardy fans for her menacing, vampy performances, while Marion "Peanuts" Byron is best known as Buster Keaton's leading lady in STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.

One last thought: just what WAS that stuff that passed for ice-cream, pie filling and pretty much any other foodstuff in silent comedies? I sure hope it was good for the complexion.

The Fan (1949)
27 out of 29 people found the following review useful:
The critics, the audiences and the director were all wrong about this one--it's excellent, 20 January 2008

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

When I got home from a screening of THE FAN I sat down to re-read "Lady Windermere's Fan," and came to the conclusion that the film is significantly better than the play. I don't think this opinion is as heretical as it sounds. Wilde's literary reputation rests largely on his exquisite aphorisms and his one perfect work, "The Importance of Being Earnest," my nominee for the funniest play ever written. Before he hit his stride with "Earnest," Wilde's plays were an awkward hybrid of sophisticated comedy and stilted melodrama, with creaky plots that heavy-handedly flogged their worthy message of tolerance. There is always a woman with a past, an acidulous dandy, a shameful secret, and a self-righteous young man or woman who has to come to terms with that secret.

Otto Preminger seems like a poor choice to interpret Wilde. He did not have a light touch, and anyone expecting sly, frothy comedy from THE FAN will be disappointed. (Watch the Lubitsch silent version instead.) Preminger downplays the comedy-of-manners aspect without eliminating or destroying it, but he succeeds in translating the cardboard melodrama into something subtle, complex and moving. Preminger's gift was for creating ensembles in shades of gray, with no black villains or white heroes. Here the whole cast is tamped-down and naturalistic: there is no mannered camp about the comedy and no teeth-marks on the scenery after the dramatic peaks.

The first half of the film is original, setting up the situation that the play lays in our laps in its first scene. To begin with there is a framing device set in contemporary post-war London, where the octogenarian Mrs. Erlynn (Madeleine Carroll) discovers the fan at an auction of unclaimed property from bombed buildings. In order to reclaim her property she has to prove ownership, so she tracks down Lord Darlington (George Sanders), now a doddering "museum piece" living in a remnant of his former home. We learn that Lord and Lady Windermere were killed in the Blitz; that the two worldly, ambiguous characters have survived the pure couple feels appropriate to a changed world. The frame gives the costume-drama portion a wistful edge; instead of the usual Hollywood gloss, here the past gleams through nostalgia like a flower buried in a paperweight.

The flashback unfolds as Mrs. Erlynn relates her story to the reluctant and skeptical Lord Darlington. George Sanders might seem like almost too obvious a choice to play this role. Some of the dialogue ("As a wicked man I am a complete failure. In fact, there are some people who say I have never done anything really wrong in my life. Of course, they only say it behind my back") might have been written for that inimitable dry-sherry voice, at once rich, acid and smooth. But Sanders, like the rest of the cast, does not lean on wit, delivering the bon mots casually, almost under his breath. Instead, he comes as close as I've ever seen him to suggesting raw feeling behind the polished facade of disdainful boredom. As Lady Windermere, delicate Jeanne Crain turns the tiresomely shrill, uncompromising puritan of the play into a fresh, gentle innocent, a young woman of innate but untested fineness. It's like watching a paper doll come to life.

But this is Madeleine Carroll's movie. All too often relegated to decorative roles, here she gives a nuanced performance as a complicated woman: flirtatious, scheming, unscrupulous, but ultimately brave and compassionate; proud but stricken with inconsolable regret. She manages the mother-love scenes with compelling emotion, never sliding into sentimentality. As a young woman Mrs. Erlynn left her husband and child for another man, breaking her husband's heart. In middle age, still relying on youthful allure and trailing a scandalous reputation, she returns to London. She is not above blackmailing her daughter's wealthy husband, Lord Windermere, who gives her large sums of money to spare his wife from learning the truth about her idealized mother, whom she believes is dead. Gossip turns this transaction into an affair, and Lady Windermere is devastated when she believes her handsome young husband has betrayed her.

Interestingly, the film shows Lord W. initially attracted by Mrs. Erlynn, suggesting he is no plaster saint. But he hardly deserves the agony of having to choose between losing his wife's trust or destroying her illusions about her mother. Meanwhile, Lord Darlington seizes on the alleged infidelity to declare his love for Lady W. and beg her to leave her husband for him. Would he really have devoted his life to her, or would he have abandoned her after a year, as Mrs. Erlynn suspects? We're never sure, but we believe that he still regrets losing her. This must be one of the few cases in which the movie version of a literary work has a less happy ending than the original. The elimination of Mrs. Erlynn's last-minute marriage suits the darker, sadder, more mature tone of the film—and since we see her in hale old age we know that she landed on her feet somehow. There is the faintest hint that she and Lord Darlington might make a December-December match, but it's not overplayed.

Few films have done a better job of hiding their stage origins; this one never feels static or talky, and the interpolated activities like a fencing match and a shopping trip feel natural and evoke an elegant lost world. THE FAN has more warmth and tenderness than many of Preminger's films, and if it doesn't belong with his very best, it certainly belongs with those, like DAISY KENYON, that deserve greater exposure and appreciation.

15 out of 15 people found the following review useful:
Brother, can you spare a nickel?, 12 January 2008

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A few years ago the New Yorker magazine, in a breathtaking lapse of taste, published a fashion spread inspired by the iconic photographs of Dust Bowl migrants. Much as I deplored the sleek models in $400 distressed cardigans pretending to thumb rides along a dusty highway, the project tapped into a phenomenon I am hopelessly susceptible to myself: the mystique of the Great Depression. I'm attracted to the cultural products of the time: music, movies, fashion, architecture (why did the world have such thrilling elegance in a time of so much suffering?) But I'm also drawn to the zeitgeist: a profound disillusionment, ranging from wry to bitter, which stands out sharply from America's traditional optimism and innocence.

Please forgive this personal digression, but I think it is relevant to my appreciation of WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, one of the most vivid—and least glamorous—depictions of the Depression I've ever seen. It's easy to romanticize freight-hopping, but this film, while thoroughly enjoyable, conveys just how awful homeless wandering was. At the same time, it helps explain the dignity that elevates those photographs of the Depression's victims—so foreign to our own graceless era. The key to every character's response to hardship is stoicism: a desire, above all, not to be a burden on others.

The film opens at a high-school dance, where the girls wear evening gowns, the kids dance to the Shadow Waltz (Warner Bros. never lost a chance to cannibalize its own products), and there are some pre-Code jokes about hanky-panky in the backs of cars. But signs of the Depression already creep in: one boy doesn't have 75 cents for admission, and when the main characters come out, they find someone has stolen the gasoline from their car, so they blithely siphon some from a handy convertible. They are Eddie (Frankie Darro, the junior Jimmy Cagney), a pugnacious but tender-hearted boy, and his best friend, the more retiring, sleepy-eyed Tommy (Edwin Phillips.) Tommy's fatherless family is already on the skids, and Eddie promises to help out, until he learns his own father has been laid off, and they too are soon on the verge of being evicted. Eddie bravely sells his beloved jalopy, then decides he and Tommy should seek their own fortune, leaving two fewer mouths to feed.

Step one, of course, is to hop a passing freight. They meet a girl their own age, Sally (adorable, freckle-faced Dorothy Coonan), a tough cookie traveling alone dressed as a boy. They are soon part of a community, with hundreds of bums crowding onto the trains and trying to evade the railroad cops who wait in every freight yard. Realizing they have the cops outnumbered, they decide to put up a fight, pelting the police with eggs and fruit. When they find out that a brakeman (Ward Bond) has raped another of the girls traveling in boys' clothes, they mete out vigilante justice. It's easy to imagine audiences cheering at these assaults on law and order. In a later, even more shocking scene, the cops come to clear out a shanty-town where the young vagrants have been living; again they fight back, but the cops turn fire hoses on them. Things get even bleaker when Tommy is run over by a train and loses his leg. Edwin Phillips is poignant without mawkishness as he tries to shrug off his loss, as he broods over being a drag on his friends, and as—in the film's last scene—he miserably watches Eddie turn handsprings down the street. Frankie Darro does his usual Cagney impersonation (in a hilarious touch, when he runs into a movie theater a Cagney film is playing) but shows real talent and presence. Sadly, none of the three young leads went on to prominent careers. Dorothy Coonan (a spiffy tap dancer too) took the role of Mrs. William Wellman.

The story is packed with incident and sprinkled with comic relief, some from Sterling Holloway, but it's not really a story as much as a portrait of a time, a people, a predicament. It's amazing and yet completely credible how quickly two middle-class boys turn into ragged panhandlers (they don't even ask for dimes, just nickels), one a cripple, one stooping occasionally to petty theft. The hobo community is painted warmly, maybe sentimentally, as loyal, diverse and supportive (blacks and girls are treated as equals). But no one is having any fun; they're not wild, just bone-weary. Eddie, Tommy and Sally wind up in New York, living in a garbage dump; here their fates take a turn for the worse and then an improbable turn for the better. The kindly judge who lectures them on how things are going to be better now, they are going to get a fresh chance, as the camera pans up to the NRA ("We Do Our Part") poster over his head, will likely prompt eye-rolling today. But the audience probably cheered for this too: think how badly they wanted to hear it. The last-minute idealism fails to dull the force of the movie, which approaches the biting austerity of Woody Guthrie anthems like "Hard Traveling" and "I Ain't Got No Home in this World Anymore."

26 out of 27 people found the following review useful:
From Warner Brothers, another Depression Special, 22 December 2007

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

It has been said that Joan Blondell's career suffered because she never got "Stanwyck parts." With BLONDIE JOHNSON, she got just that, and not even Stanwyck (before whom I bow down) could have done it better. Blondell is her usual wisecracking, tear-jerking, tough, funny, sexy self, but the film gives her more dramatic scope than usual and an edge of bitterness lacking in her wised-up-but-good-hearted sidekick roles. In the halcyon days of pre-Code Hollywood, it was no big deal for a movie heroine to be much, much smarter and more hard-headed than any of the men around her, as it was no big deal for a Japanese-American actress to a play a role in which—with one humorous exception—no mention is made of her ethnicity. (As part of a con game, Toshia Mori dresses up in a maid's uniform, but she's really a fur-swathed gangster's moll.)

The film opens with a five-minute prologue that sums up the Great Depression with such raw intensity you can practically taste the despair. In a Welfare Office, the bedraggled Blondie Johnson (Blondell, wearing no make-up and a drab suit) pleads for aid. She has been evicted and her mother has pneumonia; she lost her job in a laundry because she resisted her lecherous boss, and her younger sister died after becoming pregnant at fifteen. When her mother dies too, Blondie decides that only one thing matters: "dough—and plenty of it." A priest reminds her that there are two ways of making money. "Yeah," she replies, "The hard way and the easy way."

The next time we see Blondie, she's wearing a snappy velvet suit and conning suckers out of $10 bills by pretending to be a damsel in distress. She's aided by a friendly cabbie (Sterling Holloway); their friendship is sealed when they realize they have both been trying to chisel each other. Though she's not above batting her eyelashes at the chumps, for Blondie the "easy way" has nothing to do with latching onto a sugar daddy. Fiercely protective of her virtue, Blondie is determined to use her brains to get ahead, and while she teams up with a racketeer named Danny (Chester Morris), she holds him at bay (he tends to "talk with his hands") even though she really likes him. It's just that she has big plans, and "the one thing that doesn't fit into them is pants." Her plans involve deviously plotting against the big boss and working some deliciously clever confidence tricks. Ultimately she rises to be head of the "corporation," all the while denying her true feelings for Danny, even to the point of ordering him rubbed out when she thinks he's squealed. You know where this is going, and it goes there, but despite a limp "we've learned our lesson" ending, it's a great ride.

BLONDIE JOHNSON is obviously derivative of the previous year's BLONDE CRAZY, but here is a case where, in the words of Mae West, "too much of a good thing is wonderful." The only flaw is that Chester Morris is no Jimmy Cagney; he is convincing as a rather dim bulb and shares none of the chemistry with Blondell that lit up BLONDE CRAZY. The supporting cast helps fill the breach, with Allen Jenkins earning a laugh at his first appearance just by being Allen Jenkins; Mae Busch as Jenkins's world-weary girlfriend; the lovely and sardonic Toshia Mori; and the inevitable "other woman," Claire Dodd. (Blondell would memorably kick Dodd's butt—literally—in the next year's FOOTLIGHT PARADE.) Blondell effortlessly fills the central role, deepening the mystery of why she didn't get more starring parts. Matthew Kennedy, author of a new biography (I heard him introduce a glistening new print of BLONDIE JOHNSON at the Museum of Modern Art last week) suggests that Blondell was simply too reliable; she was so good at elevating mediocre material that the studio saw no need to give her better scripts.

BLONDIE JOHNSON is a typical assembly-line product, predictable in the best possible way. From the art-deco lettering of the opening credits, so familiar from the Busby Berkeley series, to the courtroom finale, everything is just what you expect from Warner Brothers in the early thirties. The wisecracks go off regularly as popcorn popping. The music is dance-band jazz, the decor is pure deco, and Blondell sports some eyebrow-raising, peek-a-boo lounging pajamas. Society is indited for turning the underprivileged into criminals, and we are invited to enjoy their blithe crimes before they are dealt a half-hearted slap on the wrist. Blondell lends the lightweight yarn a core of gravity. Her wariness and cynicism cut through the fluff, even as her delectable looks, warmth and sly humor provide the necessary fizz. As Danny repeatedly tells Blondie, she's "a fresh dame." Seventy-five years later she's just as fresh, and she'll never go stale.

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