Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Last Picture Show (1971)

I watched this one for the first time tonight and was not prepared for how it moved me. Bogdanovich's film is set in a small town in Texas, and is an evocative portrait of a group of young people on the cusp of adulthood as they struggle to come into their own. Having grown up in a similarly small town myself, it certainly struck a chord with me as one of the best depictions of the sense of malaise and directionlessness endemic to that milieu.

It deals fundamentally with America's present by reflecting on its past -- how did we get here from where we've been? Watching it in 2014, it inspires further reflection on the fact that it's impossible to imagine a film like this being made today.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Mammy (1930)

Excellent Al Jolson vehicle and pre-Code musical drama, from the Irving Berlin play, about romance and intrigue behind the scenes of a traveling minstrel show. Al, the troupe's endman and star attraction, is in love with manager's daughter, but finds himself accused of the attempted murder of the company interlocutor after real bullets are substituted in his prop gun during the act one night.

Berlin's hit songs include "Across the Breakfast Table, Looking at You", "Night Boat to Albany", "Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle?", and "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy", all performed with great gusto by Jolson. Louise Dresser turns in a touching performance as Al's mother. Directed with snappy pacing by Michael Curtiz, and featuring sequences shot in 2-color Technicolor, capturing the atmosphere of the minstrel show with a vibrant sense of immediacy and authenticity.

Clarence Cheats at Croquet (1915)

A pleasant and genteel little comedy, produced by the Thanhouser company in New Rochelle, NY -- one of the many films produced by this pioneering studio in the early days of motion pictures. The premise is standard stuff, centering around a croquet match between two opponents squaring off for the affection of a young woman.

Nicely photographed and deliberately paced with mild slapstick and subdued characterizations. Of special interest now as an example of the wide range of short comedy subjects being produced at that time outside of the major comedy "factories" like Keystone.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Hatchet Man (1932)

Bizarre, lurid pre-Code melodrama, directed by William Wellman and starring Edward G. Robinson as Wong Low Get, the "hatchet man" (a highly-respected assassin) for the warring Tong factions in San Francisco's Chinatown. When he is dispatched to kill his closest friend, Wong Low takes charge of the man's daughter. Years pass and Wong Low marries the now-grown daughter (Loretta Young), but she is in love with another man, and this discovery causes Wong Low's life to fall apart around him. When he learns that the other man has dishonored his wife and sold her in to sexual slavery, Wong Low sets out to seek revenge.

The absurdity of seeing stars like Robinson and Loretta Young playing Chinese characters in yellowface is worsened by the insensitive, simplistic characterizations and awkward, uncomfortable cultural stereotyping (with characters frequently either speaking in proverbs or engaging in barbaric fighting), and is representative of the inherent racism in the "Yellow Peril" trope so prevalent in Hollywood films -- and American culture in general -- during this time.

One of the lesser films that Wellman made during this prolific and interesting period of his career for Warner Bros., his normally subtle and economic directorial style too often lapses into heavy-handed symbolism and other effects that call unnecessary attention to themselves (such as filming Robinson's murder of his friend in silhouette). Despite the obviously problematic nature of his role, Robinson's performance is otherwise characteristically sensitive and restrained, while the rest of the cast-- which includes Leslie Fenton, Dudley Digges, Edmund Breese, Tully Marshall and J. Carrol Naish -- fares far less well in their parts.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

English Without Tears (1944)

Dry British romantic farce -- by Terrence Rattigan and Anatole de Grunwald -- about a wealthy, eccentric amateur ornithologist (delightfully played by Margaret Rutherford) who travels to the League of Nations on a mission to protect the rights of English birds at home and abroad. Her campaign is interrupted both by the outbreak of war, and a budding, complicated romance between her daughter and the family butler, now an enlisted man in the British army.

Both a comedy of manners and a mild satire on British wartime attitudes, with amusing dialogue and a good performance by Rutherford that showcases her considerable gifts for playing comedy. The cast also includes Michael Wilding, Penelope Dudley-Ward, Lilli Palmer, and Albert Lieven, under the direction of Harold French. AKA HER MAN GILBEY.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Hello, Sister! (1933)

Erich von Stroheim's first talkie -- and final directorial effort -- was this surprisingly frank and grim pre-Code romantic drama, based on an unproduced play by Dawn Powell, about a young couple struggling to find happiness in Depression-era New York. Originally titled WALKING DOWN BROADWAY, Stroheim had his version of the film taken out of his hands by Fox producers Winfield Sheehan and Sol Wurtzel, who re-worked it with new footage shot by a team of directors reported to include Alfred L. Werker, Raoul Walsh and Alan Crosland (though the final film contains no directorial credit), and released it as HELLO SISTER in 1933, which was a commercial failure. That failure, combined with the wild and untrue rumors surrounding the production regarding Stroheim's supposed excesses (in reality, he brought the film in on-budget and ahead of schedule), spelled the end of his career as a filmmaker. Stroheim's original cut of the film was destroyed, and even the theatrical release version was long thought to be lost until a print was recovered by William K. Everson in the 1970s.

Seen today, it's a fascinating and frustrating work. It is disappointing that Stroheim's original cut has not survived, but what remains -- even after the studio tampering -- is an exceptional film in many ways. It is -- despite the multitude of directors involved in its final incarnation -- an astonishingly personal film, too, filled with Stroheim's stylistic and thematic touches that are startlingly powerful and brilliant in their simplicity. James Wong Howe's cinematography is exquisite as usual; there is one camera move in particular -- a slow tracking shot on a mural of "The Last Supper" -- that is breathtaking for its sheer perfection. The fine cast includes earnest and sympathetic James Dunn, the lovely Boots Mallory, tough, sexy Minna Gombell, and most effectively, ZaSu Pitts in an intriguingly offbeat and quirky performance that one wishes there remained more of in the final film. Overall, a flawed but noble end to Stroheim's remarkable filmmaking career.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Outside the Law (1930)

Edward G. Robinson stars in this tough pre-code crime drama -- directed by Tod Browning -- about a crook and his girlfriend who double-cross a local crime boss when they attempt to pull off a high-stakes bank heist in his territory at Christmas. A remake of Browning's 1921 silent film of the same name, this was his second talkie, and his first in a three-picture deal with Universal (the story -- by Browning and Garrett Fort -- would be filmed for a third time, also at Universal, in 1946 under the title INSIDE JOB).

It's interesting to see Robinson playing a gangster a year before his breakout performance in LITTLE CAESAR, and indeed, his "Cobra" Collins here seems like a prototype of Rico Bandello, especially with his distinctive delivery of gangland slang. Robinson is always a delight to watch, as he struts around like a rooster with his cocksure posturing, looking impeccably stylish and puffing on a cigar. It's easy to see the qualities here that brought him to the attention of Warner Bros. and would make him a star. Robinson is one of those actors for whom the sound film medium seemed to be invented; like Cagney, he's endlessly fascinating in how he uses his voice and body in subtle but highly expressive ways, and that is evident even in this early role, where he commands attention every time he is on screen.

Unfortunately, things get deadly dull when he is off-screen, especially in the second half which spends long stretches of time with bickering crooks Mary Nolan and Owen Moore, neither of whom seem particularly at ease in their roles. The plot drags interminably through their scenes together, taking place in a single, claustrophobic apartment set, only picking up a bit at the end during their final confrontation with Cobra, but by this point any tension in the drama has fizzled, and the ending is dramatically unsatisfying as a result.

Still, it's nicely shot by Roy Overbaugh, with some effective high-contrast lighting in the bank heist scenes, and filled with some of Browning's trademark flourishes, especially his emphasis on certain props to reveal character details, and his affinity with sideshows and dime museums (in the form of a bizarre "living art" exhibit). Browning's talkies are frustrating experiences because they are largely stagy, static affairs, yet often contain tantalizing traces of his distinctive visual style that made his silent films so interesting even when the plots were absurd. This one is no exception, but it makes an interesting counterpart to his earlier filming of the same story.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

So This is Love (1928)

An enjoyable if decidedly minor romantic comedy, about a timid dressmaker and a brutish prizefighter battling it out over the affection of a charming delicatessen girl. Pleasantly acted by Shirley Mason, Johnnie Walker and William Collier Jr., and skillfully directed by Capra with characteristic sincerity and verve. His handling of the climactic boxing match -- both well-staged and tightly-edited -- is especially effective.