Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Babes in Toyland (1961)

Walt Disney's slick, overproduced adaptation of the Victor Herbert operetta is a charmless and lifeless affair, devoid of any sense of fun despite the obvious resources poured in to its production, directed with all the sincerity of a network TV commercial. Despite his superficial attempts to re-create the magic of the classic 1934 Hal Roach production with Laurel and Hardy, Disney's version falls far short. Its drawn out, loud musical numbers (featuring unnecessary new and updated material in addition to the Herbert originals), candy-colored, garish sets and costumes, and overblown special effects are merely a distraction from the absence of genuine charm and heart that made the earlier version such a favorite.

That Disney obviously modeled his production on the Roach version can be seen most glaringly in his Laurel and Hardy substitutes played by Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon, who pale in comparison with the real thing. Calvin does at least a serviceable job as the corpulent, gentlemanly Hardy stand-in, while Sheldon, ostensibly meant to resemble Laurel, rather brings to mind a weird cross between Harry Langdon and Harpo Marx in his mute, zany characterization. To be fair, they try their best with the material they are given, but it is, of course, an impossible and utterly pointless task to try and re-create the chemistry or comedy genius of Laurel and Hardy.

Annette Funicello and Tommy Sands, as the romantic leads, lack any of the innocent charm of Charlotte Henry and Felix Knight. Indeed, Sands' wooden performance as Tom makes Knight's performance in the original seem positively dynamic in comparison! The only real standout in the cast is the wonderful Ray Bolger as Barnaby, but even he lacks the real sense of menace and over-the-top villainy so superbly acted by Henry Brandon in the original. Bolger is clearly having a lot of fun with the role, and demonstrates his fine singing and dancing skills, but he is such a likable, delightful performer that he just can't seem to muster up the threatening tone that the role requires in order to be really effective. Ed Wynn as the bumbling, bombastic Toymaker is amusing enough doing his usual comic shtick, and at least adds a bit of fun to the proceedings with his presence.

The finale, with the parade of the wooden soldiers, has none of the dramatic urgency of the corresponding sequence in the Hal Roach version, and by the time it finally occurs, feels like just one more overdone special effects set piece (even lacking the quaint charm of Roy Seawright's stop-motion effects in the original). Compared to Hal Roach's timeless classic, which continues to delight new audiences 80 years after its release, the Disney version is instantly dated camp, with its concessions to contemporary fashion.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Luke's Movie Muddle (1916)

Typically rough, knockabout early Harold Lloyd "Lonesome Luke" one-reeler, with Luke running a movie house. The cinema setting provides a fun backdrop for the comedy, with Luke finding time to flirt with his pretty female customers while interacting with a parade of eccentric moviegoers who cause him no end of trouble.

Snub Pollard -- Lloyd's frequent co-star in these early comedies and later a star in his own right -- lends fine comic support as the projectionist, and there is a clever moment when Pollard furiously overcranks the projector, causing the film-within-the-film to race by breathlessly. Generally, though, the gags feel routine and uninspired, showing no real flashes of the brilliant construction that would mark Lloyd's mature work. Lloyd was cranking these comedies out at a staggering rate while still learning the craft and developing his character. He was still basically aping Chaplin at this stage of his career; despite superficial differences (a split mustache, a loose-fitting jacket), many of the mannerisms and gestures are reminiscent of Chaplin. It would be another year or so before he'd find the character that was to become his trademark, and another year or two after that before he really found his style as both a performer and filmmaker. Early shorts like this provided Lloyd with his training ground, and can still hold surprises in their fast-and-furious gagging.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Six of a Kind (1934)

Delightfully zany, madcap comedy that serves as a vehicle for no less than six fine comic talents, the charming domestic comedy of Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland, the verbal nonsense of George Burns and Gracie Allen, and the great character humor of W.C. Fields and Alison Skipworth. For its freewheeling, loose 62 minute running time, the plot is actually rather complicated: Bank clerk Ruggles and his wife Boland are setting off by car on their second honeymoon, and have advertised for another couple to travel with them to help share expenses. To their horror, they get stuck with Burns and Allen, who intend on riding with them all the way to California and proceed to turn the trip into a nightmare. Meanwhile, a fellow bank clerk has stolen a small fortune and smuggled it out of the bank in Ruggles' suitcase, and follows the couple on their journey in pursuit of the loot. The characters and situations all run into one another in a small-town hotel, run by Alison Skipworth and watched over by W.C. Fields as Sheriff "Honest John" Hoxley.

This fast-paced road comedy is directed with characteristic skill by the great Leo McCarey. It's the kind of leisurely--paced comedy where the plot can be put on hold for several minutes at a time while W.C. Fields regales long-time stooge Tammany Young with his rambling story of how he came to be known as "Honest John" (due to his returning a man's lost glass eye), or while Gracie Allen explains to George Burns that her niece has three feet (since she last saw her, she grew another foot). Rather than distracting from the plot, these isolated sequences provide some of the film's biggest highlights. Even with these interludes, the pace and energy never lag thanks to McCarey's expert direction, and when the routines are this good, who cares about the story?

Although he doesn't appear till nearly the last third of the film's running time, Fields very nearly steals the picture. This film was made during the height of his creative powers at Paramount, when he was alternating between his own series of starring vehicles, and appearances in ensemble comedies in which he shared the stage with other fine talents. His assured performance provides so many really funny moments, many of which appear to have been improvised or at least suggested by Fields, that he becomes the most interesting part of the film to watch. It's a tribute to the Great Man's talents that he was able to find so much to do with this role, which amounts to little more than a supporting part, and to inject so many memorable bits of business into his scenes.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Private Life of Don Juan (1934)

A playful, tongue-in-cheek romantic farce -- about an aging Don Juan faking his own death in order to take a rest from his romantic conquests -- directed by Alexander Korda with a deceptively light but evocative style reminiscent of both Lubitsch and Sternberg (especially THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN). Douglas Fairbanks, in his final film role, stars as the title character, and plays the legendary lover with a decidedly vigorous approach. His Don Juan is a weary, wiser take on the character, which works quite nicely here, and suits Fairbanks at this late stage of his career. It's probably Fairbanks' finest sound film performance, coming across as more relaxed and at ease than in his other talkies. He certainly exhibits the old Fairbanks charm, even if he is a perhaps a bit more subdued than usual, and still gets the chance to show off some impressive physical feats, such as leaping over a staircase railing, with incredible grace. Overall, it's a fine and fitting swan song for the great silent screen swashbuckler.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

A lyrical, dreamlike Gothic horror classic, exquisitely directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced with real imagination by Val Lewton. A nurse comes to the island of St. Sebastian in the West Indies, to care for the catatonic wife of a wealthy plantation owner, but it soon becomes apparent that the situation between the owner, his wife, and his young half-brother is far more complicated than it first appears. As the nurse learns more about both the family's history, and the islanders' belief in zombies and voodoo practices, she comes to believe that such a ritual may be the only hope to rescue the wife from her state of living death.

Val Lewton's B-horror films, produced for RKO in the '40s, are famous for their minimalism and their ability to conjure up real horror and suspense using the barest of elements in highly creative fashion. This may be the most effective film of the group, both for its literate screenplay (loosely based on the premise of "Jane Eyre") and for its poetic, ethereal style, evoking a dream experience that moves lucidly and mysteriously. The sequence in which the nurse and the owner's wife make the trek across the island to attend a voodoo ritual is an especially masterful exercise in atmospheric horror, with the symbols of the skulls, hollow gourd and hanging goat, the sound of the wailing wind and rustling leaves, and the contrast between light and darkness creating an unshakable sense of dread.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Man I Love (1947)

Superb romantic musical melodrama, directed by Raoul Walsh for Warner Bros. at the peak of his career. Ida Lupino stars as a New York nightclub singer who travels to Long Beach to spend the holidays with her family but finds that they are all embroiled in their own personal dramas. She gets involved with an unscrupulous nightclub owner (Robert Alda) while falling in love with a tormented but brilliant pianist (Bruce Bennett), haunted by painful memories of his ex-wife.

THE MAN I LOVE is the work of a director who had developed his technique to a point where there is not a shot, not a single moment, out of place. It is an incredibly atmospheric piece, enhanced by the artifice of its studio-bound sets, rear projection and stylized dialogue that combine to create something really special -- a fantasy that is simultaneously grounded in realism. The mood is heightened by the evocative score, which features velvety, haunting arrangements of several pop standards (including the title song). It is a supreme example of the stylish entertainment that the Hollywood studio system, at the height of its powers, was capable of producing.

Minstrel Man (1944)

Above-average PRC musical drama about a blackface minstrel (Benny Fields) who abandons his newborn daughter after his wife dies in childbirth. He leaves the infant in the care of his best friends and disappears from her life for years until he learns that his daughter, now a teenager, is set to star in a revival of his old "Minstrel Man" show on Broadway, and is reunited with her on stage.

Aside from singing some pleasant songs by Paul Webster and Harry Revel, crooner Benny Fields does not make much of an impression in this, his only dramatic starring role. He seems ill at ease playing the dramatic scenes, though the reservation in his performance probably works to the advantage of some of the moments of high melodrama -- such as receiving the news of his wife's death, or encountering his estranged daughter -- which are actually rather nicely understated. When he's given the chance to sing though, Fields shines.

Stylishly directed by Joseph H. Lewis (who took over from Edgar G. Ulmer, who reportedly directed the first several days of filming), there are some interesting camera moves, including a particularly well-executed crane shot on a pair of dancers in the Havana sequence and an effective high-angle shot in an early theater scene. Lewis' direction is a fine example of the craftsmanship that makes even a Poverty Row quickie like this visually compelling.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The King of Comedy (1983)

Like all great satires, Martin Scorsese's THE KING OF COMEDY has only become more prescient and relevant with age. The film is partly a wry comment on the cult of celebrity, and partly a dark character study of a delusional schmuck named Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) who imagines himself a comedy genius and whose eventual appearance on a fictional "Tonight Show"-type of program seems to embody Warhol's idea of 15 minutes of fame. "Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime", Rupert proclaims at the end of his act.

Rupert -- like all of life's losers who build their identities and derive their self-worth from basking in the reflected glory of people more successful than they (in this case, by collecting celebrity autographs) -- doesn't have much going on in his life. He lives in his mother's basement in one of the outer boroughs of New York City, where he holds imaginary conversations with cardboard-cutouts of celebrities like Liza Minnelli and Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), the host of a wildly-popular, self-titled nightly TV talk show that can make or break new comedy talent. Of course, it's pure fantasy, one that seems galaxies away from the reality of Rupert's pathetic existence. 

That is, until, fate lands him a seat in Jerry's limo after the show one night. Riding a few blocks from the studio to Jerry's apartment, Rupert takes the opportunity to pitch himself to Jerry as a potential guest for his show. In order to get rid of his personable but rather unbalanced passenger, Jerry tells Rupert to send a tape of his act to the show's producers for consideration. This chance encounter plunges Rupert into a wild fantasy in which he becomes convinced he and Jerry are best pals, and that his future as "the king of comedy" has been handed to him on a silver platter.

De Niro's performance as Pupkin strikes a masterful chord. He and Scorsese wisely avoid making him a caricature or an object of ridicule. Even when we want to laugh at his delusional behavior, ridiculous as it may be, there is a layer of real pain and sadness not deep beneath the surface. Scorsese only hints at Pupkin's past, and even what we see of his personal life is limited largely to his fantasies. His mother, for example, is only ever heard as a disembodied voice, shouting down into the basement for Rupert to go to bed or turn down his music as if he were still an adolescent boy. The most we ever learn about Rupert's childhood is, tellingly, through the anecdotes he delivers in his standup monologue, though even these -- at least one of which (involving his mother being dead for nine years) is directly contradictory to what we know -- are infused with a level of fantasy. What Rupert's jokes do reveal -- when we finally hear them -- is that he seems to use self-deprecating humor as a way of dealing with an unhappy childhood (through jokes about his abusive and alcoholic parents, bullying classmates and indifferent teachers). We get a further hint of this earlier in the film, when Rupert imagines his old high school principal publicly apologizing to him on television for the way he and the students treated Rupert.

Indeed, it seems that what Rupert wants more than anything in being famous is just to be loved and adored. Though he treats Jerry like a buddy and an old pal, it is conceivable that he could also see in him something of a father figure, someone who can give the affection and approval that Rupert has always lacked. But that would also imply that Rupert realizes he could learn something from Jerry. Instead, he seems to view Jerry purely opportunistically, as someone whose fame and fortune can rub off on him and who will get him to where he wants to be. Of course, Langford is hardly a perfect role model himself; you don't get to the top by being a nice guy. That said, Lewis and Scorsese are careful not to portray Langford merely as a belligerent jerk or egotistical bastard, which would undercut the character. Langford is clearly a hard-working and dedicated show business professional who has paid his dues to get where he is, but has become jaded by his experiences in dealing with hangers-on and phonies. If he is impatient or demanding, it is only because he expects of others what he expects of himself. Ultimately, he is portrayed neither as a monster or a towering genius but -- as Langford says of himself in one scene -- a human being.

In addition to his relationship with the celebrities he worships, Rupert is also incapable of real friendship with other people in his life, no doubt a result of his social awkwardness and also of his extreme narcissism (it quickly becomes clear that Rupert's favorite, indeed only, topic of conversation seems to be himself). He seems to have a kind of love-hate relationship with an even more unbalanced celebrity stalker named Masha (Sandra Bernhard, in a brilliant performance) -- though their relationship is never made clear, it doesn't seem to be sexual in any way, but it does seem to be co-dependent on often borderline sadistic behavior toward each other. Around his fellow autograph hounds, Rupert sees himself as superior, telling one of them that collecting is "not my whole life", suggesting that he views the others as pathetic, while his purpose in collecting is more noble. When he rekindles an acquaintance with Rita, an old high school crush, Rupert seems to only be capable of viewing her as another character in his life story that he's mapped out, going so far as to give her his own autograph as a gift, since it will no doubt be worth a lot of money someday, and fantasizing about the two of them being married on live television. Even in his fantasies about Jerry, Rupert frequently imagines Jerry groveling toward him (begging him to take over the show for a few weeks, and telling Rupert how envious he is of his genius) rather than imagining any kind of real friendship between the two of them.

Rupert's illusions about that friendship come crashing down when he takes Rita out to Langford's Long Island home, where -- he assures her -- Jerry has personally invited them to spend the weekend (he has, of course, done no such thing; the invitation was purely the product of Rupert's overheated imagination). When the pair show up unannounced, Jerry has to cut his golf game short to come home and deal with the intruders. Mortified, Rita apologizes and insists on leaving (but not before pocketing one of Jerry's knick-knacks as a memento). Rupert, however, insists Jerry has mis-treated them and makes veiled threats, whereupon Jerry has them both thrown out of the house. This is the breaking point for both men -- Jerry tells Rupert exactly what he thinks of him in no uncertain terms, and Rupert concocts an incredibly dangerous and foolish scheme to get his big break in show business that will have lasting consequences on the rest of his life.

It is revealing in this scene that when Rupert does get a glimpse of Jerry's private life, it does not turn out to be the glamorous atmosphere of schmoozing and hobnobbing with other celebrities that Rupert has no doubt envisioned. Instead, Jerry spends his Saturday relaxing with a game of golf and enjoying the peace and quiet of his home, enjoying the leisure time he has earned and re-charging his energy before another tireless week of performing. Jerry has to waste precious free time out of his weekend dealing with Rupert, who wants Jerry to drop what he's doing and listen to his tape, to which Jerry snaps, "I have a life" -- a life he has worked very hard to build for himself, and the kind of life Rupert feels entitled to just by wanting it.

Indeed, that is perhaps the ultimate tragedy of Rupert Pupkin. As his climactic standup act shows, he is not without some talent. But he is unwilling to work hard to achieve his goals. He is more interested in talking about being a comedian than ever actually going out and being one. Like so many wannabes, he waits on the sidelines for that "perfect opportunity" that may never come, rather than taking the bold first steps toward his goal, because he knows it can never live up to the results about which he he has fantasized many times. As Jerry tells Rupert during their first meeting, the comic timing and interplay that appears so natural and relaxed on his show is the result of years and years of hard work and practice, and that the old axiom happens to be true -- you have to start at the bottom. Similarly, Jerry's producer helpfully tells Rupert after listening to his tape that he has potential and should hone his act for a while on the nightclub circuit, where he can develop and perfect his material, before auditioning to appear on network TV. All sound advice, but not the easy answer Rupert is looking for. 

Of course, in Rupert's case, he eventually does get the "perfect opportunity" he's been waiting for -- when he and Masha resort to kidnapping Jerry and holding him for ransom in exchange for a coveted guest shot on the show -- but by that point, it is clear that Rupert can no longer see the division between real life and fantasy, and indeed, by the end of the film, neither can the audience. Rupert's act is, surprisingly, not awful, and -- we are told -- that after serving a short stint in prison, during which time he has honed his comic material, he writes a best-selling book about his escapades (about to be turned into a major motion picture), and enjoys the fame and adulation he has always craved. Scorsese leaves us wondering how much, if any, of this is true. It doesn't matter. Either way, Rupert's success -- whether entirely the result of his delusional imagination or the result of a sated public willing to applaud anything put in front of it on television -- is an empty one.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Two Weeks in Another Town (1962)

Vincente Minnelli's follow-up to his 1952 Hollywood insider tale THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is a stylish, colorful melodrama that dissects the poisonous and mercenary underbelly of the film business, set against the glamorous, jet-setting world of early '60s Rome. Jack Andrus (Kirk Douglas) is a self-destructive Hollywood star whose bad behavior has practically destroyed his career and alienated everyone around him. He is summoned to Rome by Kruger (Edward G. Robinson), a director and mentor with whom Jack had once been close but eventually had a falling out. With their association rekindled, Jack believes he is to star in Kruger's new film, but learns that instead he will be helping to oversee the dubbing process. The production is plagued by problems, including a tight-fisted producer who doesn't care if the film is any good or not since he gets paid either way, and a wild and unpredictable young star (George Hamilton) whose erratic behavior threatens to bring the production to a halt. Amid the chaos, Jack falls back into his own bad behavior -- drinking, womanizing, and fighting with those close to him. However, Jack has a rude awakening when Kruger suffers a heart attack, but he sees a chance for redemption by taking the reins and bringing his old mentor's film to fruition -- an act of dedication and commitment that nearly ends with tragic consequences.

Whereas Minnelli's earlier film was set in the final days of the old Hollywood studio system, TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN confronts the changes that had taken place in the industry over the intervening decade. Kruger's battles with his producer, for example, indicate the problems of independent financing, and the often unreasonable demands that come along with it. Even the technical process of filmmaking has become fraught with challenges resulting from the language barrier, from the difficulties in communicating with the Italian cinematographer, down to the long-drawn, laborious dubbing process necessitated by the multi-national cast. There is a wry comment on the differences between Hollywood and Italian attitudes toward filmmaking when Jack, stuck for an idea on how to photograph a scene, asks for a suggestion from the cinematographer, who replies that Jack is the first American director to ever ask him for his opinion.

In depicting the decadence and debauchery of the international jet-set in Rome, Minnelli wisely does not try to undercut its glamor and appeal, instead allowing the viewers to become seduced by it themselves, which makes the exposition of the ugliness, cruelty and superficiality beneath the surface all the more effective. It's a stunningly photographed film, too, lensed by Milton Krasner with bright, vibrant, at times almost hallucinatory colors that perfectly express the delirious, fantastic atmosphere of that milieu.

When Minnelli made THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL in 1952, the studio system -- a system headed by ruthless, practical men with extravagant visions -- had already started to crumble. A decade later, that system is in its death throes, straddling a new world in which the act of making the film seems to be secondary to the extravagance that continues long after the cameras have stopped rolling. Art, Minnelli seems to be saying, has no place in this world.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

365 Nights in Hollywood (1934)

A rather weak, meandering story about a washed-up director, reduced to working at a rip-off acting school, and his new pupil, a young hopeful newly arrived in Hollywood. They get their opportunity to work on a new film together, which turns out to be an investment scam cooked up by the crooked acting school manager to swindle a young rube of his inheritance money. The show must go on, however, and all is set right in the end.

Of interest mainly for a very early starring turn by Alice Faye, who strongly resembles Jean Harlow here with her platinum blonde hair. Her performance is a bit reserved and awkward during the dramatic scenes, but in her musical numbers there are glimpses of the playful charm and personality that would make her one of the biggest stars of the decade on the Fox lot. James Dunn as the director turns in a characteristically pleasant if over-eager performance. Though the script brings them together in the end, Dunn and Faye are given little opportunity to establish much romantic chemistry throughout the film, leaving the ending feeling rushed and underdeveloped.

George Marshall -- normally a competent, reliable craftsman with a talent for comedy -- seems unsure and hesitant in his direction here, particularly in the handling of the slapstick scenes, which feel under-rehearsed and awkwardly staged. These problems are not helped by the loose, sprawling script which moves from scene to scene with little rhyme or reason. The film only really comes to life during the musical numbers, with their Art Deco sets and inventive effects. It's an interesting time capsule of early '30s Hollywood, but beyond that there's little to recommend it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Rembrandt (1936)

An exquisitely directed and photographed historical biopic about the celebrated Dutch painter, REMBRANDT reunited Charles Laughton and director Alexander Korda after the success of their previous collaboration, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII (1933). Like that film, REMBRANDT is less concerned with being a highly-detailed biography of the man, instead capturing the spirit and conveying the essence of the artist and his work. Its depiction of its subject is more introspective, less bawdy than HENRY VIII, with Laughton's contemplative performance conveying a quiet intensity. By depicting key moments in Rembrandt's life, his public and private triumphs and tragedies, Korda crafts an evocative portrait of a man driven by his need to create, even when that need has left him penniless and destitute.

The screenplay -- by Carl Zuckmayer and June Head -- follows Rembrandt's personal and creative struggles that begin when he expresses his contempt for the wealthy patrons who have commissioned him to paint a group portrait. This is followed shortly by the death of his wife, which leaves him emotionally shattered. As his debts mount, and his relationship with his new lover, Geertje, falls apart, Rembrandt retreats into his art.  His only support in the house comes from his youngest son, Titus, who dreams of being a great artist like his father. However, both Rembrandt and Geertje admonish him from pursuing this dream, pointing to Rembrandt's own failures as evidence of the fruitlessness of an artistic career.

There is a poignant irony to the sequence in which Rembrandt hires a beggar off the street to pose as a king for his latest painting, a session which is interrupted by Geertje's shrill insistence that Rembrandt go to the Prince to apply for a grant to subsidize his lifestyle. Rembrandt and the beggar go to the palace gates, whereupon the unfortunate man teaches the proud artist the most effective methods of begging for coins. When Rembrandt finally secures a coin for himself, he gives it away to another unfortunate soul.

A transformative moment occurs when Rembrandt, in need of some time away from the city and from his family, goes to stay at his father's mill in his hometown, where he is confronted with the fact that he no longer belongs there. He visits a tavern, and his advances to an attractive young local girl are met with hostility by the other men, who resent Rembrandt's returning to town after having abandoned them years earlier, and accuse him of an unwarranted sense of superiority.

Following this incident, Rembrandt struggles with carrying heavy bags of grain to the top of his father's mill. When he becomes short-winded after making it only halfway up the stairs, his father and brother look upon him with disdain, and he realizes it is time for him to return to Amsterdam. The artist is an eternal outsider, out of place in the life he has made for himself, and unable to return to the one he left behind.

The experience marks a turning point in Rembrandt's life. Upon returning to Amsterdam, he strikes up a romance with the new maid, Hendrickje (Elsa Lanchester, in a brilliant performance), who expresses an interest in Rembrandt's art, and he comes to see her as a kindred spirit. When he announces his plans to marry Hendrickje, it sends Geertje into a fit of rage, bringing charges against the poor woman that lead to her being excommunicated from the church. Still, Hendrickje is a loyal and supportive lover, quick-witted and courageous, and it is with her that Rembrandt finds true happiness.

Happiness is fleeting however, and before their marriage is to be finalized, events take a tragic turn when Hendrickje dies from illness, and with her dies Rembrandt's hopes for the future. We last see the great artist as a greying, broken down old man, wandering the streets in search of food. He is taken to an inn by a group of young aristocrats out for a good time, who view him as little more than a funny old man, and treat him to food and drink in exchange for amusing them with his stories. However, when they realize who their guest is, they are hushed with awe. Given a small subsidy to help pay for food, Rembrandt immediately takes the money to a local merchant, where he spends it on a new set of paints, so that he can continue to indulge his need to create -- his greatest source of satisfaction and personal fulfillment.

Artistically, REMBRANDT succeeds as one of Alexander Korda's finest productions, certainly one of the best that he personally directed. There is imaginative lighting and camera movement by the great cinematographer Georges Perinal, and brother Vincent Korda's set designs create a strong sense of period detail and atmosphere. As with Alexander Korda's other historical films, its greatest strength lies in its ability to evoke the humanity behind an iconic figure.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Lights of New York (1928)

Famous for being the first 100% all-talkie feature film, LIGHTS OF NEW YORK is actually a rather tepid little crime drama, about a young, small-town rube who gets mixed up with big city bootleggers and is framed for the murder of a cop. The plot is the stuff of stock melodrama, so naturally everything turns out alright in the end.

Its slight construction can probably be attributed to the fact that it was originally planned as a two-reel dramatic short subject, which was later expanded to feature length. More interesting to observe is the staging of shots for the infant medium of sound film. Actors are frequently grouped together in close proximity to the microphones concealed on the set. Closeups and other cutaways are used sparingly, only occasionally achieving a real fluidity in the editing. Likewise, the performances are stiff and stilted, the dialogue often delivered with deliberate over-enunciation, which renders the gangland slang almost laughable at times (most notably when crime boss Wheeler Oakman ominously intones to his henchmen, "take him for...a ride"). The quality of the sound recording is quite good, but overall the staging is greatly restricted by the limitations imposed by the technology (though filming the scene of the policeman's murder entirely in silhouette is an interesting stylistic choice that takes advantage of sound effects). The film only really comes to life during the nightclub musical numbers -- particularly "At Dawning" performed by Harry Downing -- which brim with energy.

Though it is primarily an historical curio now, the film -- with its gritty urban backdrop, gangland slang dialogue, and "backstage musical" numbers -- often feels like a prototype for the kind of movies with which Warner Bros. would become identified during the early '30s.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935)

MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE is a masterpiece of construction and a comic study in frustration that must rank among the very finest of W.C. Fields' screen vehicles, produced at the height of his creative powers at Paramount in 1935. Fields plays Ambrose Wolfinger, a henpecked family man whose only desire is to take the afternoon off work (for the first time in 25 years) to attend a wrestling match for which he's scrimped and saved to buy a front row ticket. What begins as a white lie to get out of the office for the afternoon quickly snowballs into total chaos, bringing Ambrose's world crashing down around him. Aside from possibly IT'S A GIFT, this is Fields' most minimal comedy in terms of plot. The simple set-up -- based on a story by Fields and his good friend Sam Hardy -- provides an endless parade of indignities, frustrations, setbacks and humiliations, which make the well-fulfillment ending -- when the worm finally turns and Fields' antagonists get their comeuppance -- all the more satisfying.

It is perhaps only less successful than IT'S A GIFT in its use of larger-scale gags, such as Fields chasing a tire down the street and across a train trestle (a sequenced either aided or marred, depending on your perspective, by patently phony back projection), which lack the poetic simplicity of the sleeping porch sequence or the shaving scene in the earlier film. The best moments are the smallest: Fields wracking up four parking tickets in quick succession, his interaction with his hostile family at the breakfast table, and his seemingly endless preparation for bedtime. But Fields and director Clyde Bruckman so expertly escalate the events into a comic crescendo that they take on a kind of epic quality. The deliberate pacing allows the frustration produced by the situations to simmer below the surface, brewing uneasily like the calm before a storm.

Fields is also greatly supported by a fine ensemble cast that deserves special mention: Kathleen Howard as his shrewish wife, Mary Brian as his sympathetic daughter, Vera Lewis as his harridan of a mother-in-law, and Grady Sutton as his lazy, oafish brother-in-law, all of whom contribute immeasurably to the film with their fine performances. One can see, too, the affection Fields clearly had even for writing minor characters and giving expert character actors the opportunity to flesh them out and turn them into memorable roles in their own right, such as Oscar Apfel as the blustering boss, Lucien Littlefield as the toadying manager, Lew Kelly as the weary beat cop, and Walter Brennan and Tammany Young as a couple of bumbling burglars. There was no such thing as a small part in a W.C. Fields comedy.

MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE was a remake of Fields' earlier silent comedy, RUNNING WILD (1927), and a comparison between the two films reveals the developments he had made with his screen character in the intervening decade. His Elmer Finch in the earlier film lacks the depth of Ambrose Wolfinger, and Elmer's transformation from lamb to lion is brought about artificially through hypnosis, whereas Ambrose finds the courage to assert himself due to the onslaught of indignities he has suffered over the course of the film. As a result, Elmer's ferocious turn of character, in which he is hypnotized to believe he is a lion, feels forced because it is so out of proportion to what has come before, and also has the effect of making his character unsympathetic. Significantly, Ambrose's climactic outburst of anger only occurs when his daughter's well-being is threatened, rather than his own, revealing a paternal, protective instinct that enhances the humanity of his character as well as justifying his outrage.

Along with IT'S A GIFT and THE BANK DICK, MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE stands as one of the greatest of all W.C. Fields' comedies.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Big Eyes (2014)

With BIG EYES, Tim Burton demonstrates again his knack for telling stories about outsiders operating on their own wavelength. Scripted by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski -- the screenwriting team behind Burton's 1994 masterpiece ED WOOD, BIG EYES is an intriguing examination of the relationship and subsequent legal battles between artist Margaret Keane, whose portraits of big-eyed children became a phenomenal success in the early 1960s, and her husband Walter, who fraudulently claimed credit for her work for decades.

Amy Adams turns in a fine performance as Margaret, managing to depict the character as sympathetic without being pathetic. As Walter, Christoph Waltz delivers a tour-de-force performance that must be seen to be believed, deftly veering between impeccable charm and absolutely off-the-rails lunacy with expert precision. I was not familiar with Waltz's work prior to his performance in Tarantino's INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, but on the strength of his work for Tarantino and now for Burton here, he has emerged as one of the most unique, offbeat -- and undeniably, immensely talented -- actors in recent memory.

When we first meet Walter in BIG EYES, he is so perfectly charming that it hints at something darker beneath the surface, due to its sheer unnaturalness. As little details begin to emerge that give lie to his story of his past -- studying art in Paris, a failed painting career -- there is an overwhelming sense of dread at what else might lie behind the facade. Slowly his sociopathic behavior emerges, and by the time he goes fully off the deep end -- nearly setting fire to the house and alienating his wife and daughter for good -- Waltz elevates the performance to a level of unbridled lunacy that is at once hilarious and terrifying. His scene in the final courtroom sequence, in which he acts as both a witness and his own legal counsel, recalls Woody Allen's similar turn in BANANAS -- except that this is based on real incidents, making it even more ludicrous.

From this description, one might assume that Amy Adams has little to do with her role in comparison, but far from being overshadowed by Waltz, she handles her character with remarkable control and compassion, expertly playing in contrast to the madcap energy that Waltz exudes. Adams -- and the script -- wisely avoid portraying Margaret as a complacent victim. We can almost understand why she would accept her husband's early explanation of why he is taking credit for her paintings, since it is his gift for self-promotion that makes them a hit in the first place, and any misgivings are understandably eased when the money begins to roll in. However, by the time it becomes clear that Walter's apparent promotional strategy is actually a symptom of a much more insidious intention to build his entire reputation as an artist on his wife's work -- driven by delusion about his own failings -- it is too late for Margaret to claim her rightful credit without exposing the entire scheme as fraud, and facing the potential legal consequences of such a revelation (not to mention the loss of their financial stability). Still, there is a real sense of tragedy beneath the surface in Adams' portrayal of an artist whose work is enthusiastically embraced by so many, but who must toil away in secret, unable to enjoy the accolades and recognition she deserves.

Stylistically, the film is one of Burton's most subdued in recent memory, which is not to say it's not visually distinctive. Only that compared with the fantasy worlds of some of his most memorable work, the period throwback of BIG EYES is understated and restrained in comparison. The sprawling northern California suburban neighborhood that features in the film's opening shot recalls the similar neighborhood in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and, as in that film, seems to exist in a kind of time warp due to the self-conscious stylization of the period setting. Indeed, much of the film -- though the years in which it takes place are explicitly stated on-screen -- seems to exist in that kind of twilight zone between the '50s and the present that Burton uses so effectively in other of his films, most notably PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE.

Indeed, it is this stylization of both the design and the acting that makes BIG EYES so unique, and that allows it to work as well as it does, as it provides just enough sense that we are one step removed from the universe of the film to view it with a sort of detached bemusement. As in ED WOOD, Burton celebrates an artist obliviously but sincerely working outside of the accepted notions of talent and taste, and indeed seems to make the point that it doesn't much matter what others think of the work as long as it fulfills the artist's desire to create. In one scene, an old-school art critic dismisses Keane's paintings as "Kitsch", but of course, that is precisely what Burton seems to love about them, and what he makes us appreciate in them, too.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

The Trip to Italy (2014)

This sequel to 2010's THE TRIP follows Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as they embark on another all-expenses-paid tour to write restaurant reviews, this time through major tourist destinations in Italy. It's pleasant enough -- though at 108 minutes rather overlong -- with Michael Winterbottom's direction nicely showcasing the beautiful scenery, but overall it feels like a rehash of the material from the earlier film, particularly with Coogan and Brydon's celebrity impressions. Part comedy and part travelogue, it's often amusing and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, though infused with a sometimes melancholy and reflective tone on such topics as family, aging, and success that adds a poignant undertone to the humor.