Opaque Thai movie

I really wanted to like “Mysterious Object at Noon,” a very low-budget, 2000 experimental , black-and-white Thai film, because I am interested in Thailand, because I have seen few (3) Thai films, and because its creator (he does not think he should be credited as “director”), Apichatpong Weerasethakul is an interesting guy. Indeed, his own story, as he tells it in what is keyed as an “interview” on the DVD, is more interesting than the story of the film. Weerasethakul, who calls himself “Joe” in English, grew up in a small town in northeastern Thailand (Issan). He wanted to be a filmmaker, but studied architecture to please his parents. Then he went to film school at the Chicago Art Institute for three years.

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He is interested in mixing fact and fiction and has made two sort of traveling-around-Thailand “documentaries” that are, he says, “about nothing.” (The other’s American title is “Blissfully Yours.”) He is a founder of the Bangkok-based Kick the Machine, an artist-run film production and distribution company focused on young experimental film-makers, and codirector of both the Bangkok Experimental and Short Film and Video film festivals.

The idea for the film came from a French surrealists’ game called “e

” in which one artist drew something on paper that was folded to make what he’d drawn invisible, and the next continued a line from the first, the third from the second, and so on. The game was also played by surrealist writers with either the last word or the last sentence of one contribution visible to the next contributor. “Object” begins with the view through the windshield of a vehicle driving through Bangkok with the radio tuned into some soap opera. Then there is a woman telling a standard rural-born Thai horror story of being sold by her father (for bus fare) to an “uncle” who prostituted her. Weerasethakul is not interested in her story and asks her to tell or make up the beginning of a story.

She starts to tell the story of a boy in a wheelchair and his lovely young tutor named Doghafr. Weerasethakul then has some nonactors play the part, alternating with the talking heads of those who continue the story. Weerasethakul is even less interested in psychological motivation and realist narrative than Jean-Luc Godard at his most audience-flouting 1980s movies, yet he is showing people telling stories and interested in stories.

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The Thai title is “Dogfahr Ni Meu Marn” (Doghafr in the Devil’s Hand). Dogfahr is the tutor, but my only guess of what the reference to the devil’s hand might be is that it is her storytellers. I am sure that Weerasethakul told the storytellers he chose (by whatever criteria of selection he used) that there was a tutor named Dogfahr and a boy paralyzed below the waist.

The “mysterious object” of the English-language title is a ball that rolls out from Doghafr’s skirt while she is fainted (or dead) on the floor. It is an extraterrestrial being that takes on the guise of first a boy then a duplicate Dogfahr. The story gets even weirder when some schoolchildren take over and add a “witch tiger” and a magic sword.

Then there are credits…followed by nearly ten minutes centering on children playing soccer by the edge of a river. Weerasethakul is so perverse that it seems possible that the ball will not go into the river. It does (sorry if that’s a plot spoiler for you! but I’ll leave open the question of whether the soccer game turns into water polo…).

Although the primary influences (Godard and surrealists) are French, some of the arbitrariness and peculiar camera setups resonate with the often maddening procedures of postmodernist Taiwanese film-makers, especially Tsai Ming-Liang, and, most especially, “The River.” In both “Object” and “Blissfully,” a woman brings her elderly father to a female physician for a consultation that includes considerable bickering between daughter and father in front of the professional… and mysterious neck and ear ailments like those of the son in “The River.”

The medical consultation is the best part of the film; it has no discernible relationship to Doghafr or the storyline. Maybe the Devil’s Hand is responsible for the neck ailment? Weerasethakul also intercuts for no particular reason, a television interview of parents of an infant who survived a plane crash, protected by amulets that were lost in the crash…

So there are bits of Thai culture (including fish sauce refills, rebuilding spirit houses, and some working elephants), but I can’t imagine anyone learning anything about Thai culture(s) from a journey which mixes swings south of Bangkok with swings north after the initial driving within the capital city. I realize that the viewer is not supposed to know where s/he is, and that the film is intended to be “about nothing,” but, alas, the film is a journey I cannot recommend, though fans of “Mulholland Drive” who don’t care about production values might feel differently. For instance, Elvis Mitchell, wrote in the New York Times that “you’re likely to be utterly enchanted by this unique dish of entertainment that may be the beginning of a new art form: Village Surrealism. Mr. Weerasethakul’s film is like a piece of chamber music slowly, deftly expanding into a full symphonic movement; to watch it is to enter a fugue state that has the music and rhythms of another culture. It’s really a movie that requires listening, reminding us that the medium did become talking pictures at one point.” (A fugue state of mind, yes, but deft?)

 

©2003, Stephen O. Murray

 

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1943 rom-com with Jean Arthur and John Wayne

In 1943, when Columbia’s legendarily despotic chief Harry Cohn lent his top female star to Republic to make a romantic comedy with its rising male star John Wayne, Jean Arthur had a string of successful and very funny comedies (The Devil and Miss Jones, Talk of the Town, The More the Merrier), as well as having played the female lead in two of Frank Capra’s best-loved movies (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Arthur exerted a pixieish charm with an odd mix of the prim and the brassy.

As the title character in “A Lady Takes a Chance,” she plays Molly Trousdale, a stylish New Yorker. She is first seen—wearing a very large hat—boarding a transcontinental bus. Each of her three suitors brings her presents and bid her very reluctant adieux. With such ardent male attention, her seatmate is puzzled about why she is leaving. The back stories of her three relationships is never filled in, but it seems more that she is not in love with any of them than that she can’t make up her mind. But maybe she is taking a trip to see the country to clear her mind and make a choice.

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Within ten minutes of the opening, the bus tour members are at a rodeo. Molly is at the edge of the stands trying to take a snapshot when a cowboy is thrown over the fence and lands on top of her. The cowboy (and the “chance” of the title) is John Wayne, called (in this movie and offscreen) “Duke.” He is drawn to her, but is used to rodeo groupies and saloon denizens and doesn’t know how to talk to a “lady.”

He takes her to a saloon, where many female friends flirt with him and Molly looks dignified, if pained. They try again and he wins $238 playing craps with her blowing on the dice. Listening closely to dice she is given to roll herself, she realizes they are loaded and reduces the all-or-nothing bet to $1. The Duke is impressed. He is also impressed by her downing a potent drink called “cactus milk.” Soon there is a barroom brawl, followed by offending Molly after she has missed her bus.

The brawl, the bandiage, the offenses, etc. are all standard issue 1930s and 40s Hollywood issue. The high point for viewers and the low point for Molly is a night on the desert, freaked out by coyote howls and being so cold she steals Duke’s horse’s blanket.

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In a motel that is remarkably well stocked with everything Molly needs to whip up a romantic candlelit dinner, Duke recoils at being snared by domesticity—drawing the line at wearing an apron to help with washing the dishes. He is a “don’t’ fence me in” man who enjoys many woman, not (he thinks) a “one-woman man.” Indeed, his “better half” (the Duke’s label) is Waco, one of those grizzled, maternal cooks so common in midcentury westerns. Waco is played by Charles Winninger who created the role of Cap’n Andy in the original stage production of “Show Boat” and repeated the role in the 1936 film version. Screen formula requires Molly to supplant Waco, though actually speaking of it as a “divorce” as the Duke does, borders on risqué for that era.

The role of Duke makes few demands on John Wayne, who is charming and restive enough. Although he was a star already in 1943, he was a star in formulaic westerns churned out by a third-rate studio (Republic). The films that would make him a superstar (The Angel and the Badman, Fort Apache, Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Sands of Iwo Jima) were all made after World War II…by which time Arthur was free of her Columbia contract and very choosy about roles and directors.

“A Lady Takes a Chance” has some stock rodeo footage and cheesy studio sets. There is nothing notable visually. The screenplay (by Robert Arsey) is formulaic sitcom, directed by journeyman William A. Seiter, who directed more than a hundred movies I’ve never heard of along with the Astaire-Rogers vehicle “Roberta,” the Marx Brothers’s antics in “Room Service,” and “One Touch of Venus,” Ava Gardner’s first leading role.

Molly must have been very skilled at packing, since she has only one small suitcase and many outfits (need I add that they emerge without a wrinkle?), as well as at motel haute cuisine.

 

Arthur and her western sidekicks are charming, but were in better screen vehicles.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

Jean-Luc Godard’s most likable film

Though far from being a conventional romance or gangster picture. “Bande à part” (Band of Outsiders, 1964) is Jean-Luc Godard’s most accessible film. Although there are more overt references to American cultural artifacts in many of his films and an Americans lead (Jean Seberg) in his first one, “Bande à part” is probably the one liked best by American audiences.* The movie’s plot derives from a pulp American novel (“Fool’s Gold” by Dolores Hitchens, published in Gallimard’s popular crime imprint). Godard discarded the motivation for the characters in the novel without supplying any of his own.

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The two overaged boys whom Odile (Ana Karina, Godard’s wife at the time, in a role bearing his mother’s name) meets —in a totally improbable English class** — Arthur Rimbaud (the thuggish-looking and -acting Claude Brasseur) and Franz (the very suave and strikingly handsome Sami Frey, whose face reminded Godard of pictures of Kafka) are competing with each other to impress her, but mostly seem to be acting out fantasies of “coolness” built on excessive consumption of gangster movies (as Don Quixote’s sallies were built on consuming too many romances of chivalry).

Odile, who is dressed in pleated checked skirts and with her hair in braids to look childish and/or slow-witted, seeks to impress the boys by telling them of a cache of cash in the room of a tenant in her guardian’s house on an island near Jonville. Arthur decides to rob the place before his even more thuggish uncle does. The robbery is a series of absurdities, though absurdities with fatal consequences. Killing time before the robbery, the trio do a line dance (having some relationship to “the Madison”), smoke and flirt in a bar, and dash through the Louvre (to break an alleged American record for fastest time through it. . . though if killing time is the point, they could easily kill more of it by looking at some of the contents of the museum). Waiting by a canal (or a river with no discernible current), the boys read news reports of crimes and international atrocities to each other. (In the interview with Anna Karina included on the DVD, she says that reading the newspapers was padding to get the film over the ninety minute mark, though the movie’s duration would be ninety minutes without the three news reports).

Godard thrusts his usual load bande-a-part-harry-caresse-fashion-1.jpgof allusions into the mouths of the leads (heavy on surrealists—Aragon, Breton, Queneau—plus Verlaine and a Fritz Lang movie title). Odile quotes T. S. Eliot in the class about to embark in an extended dictation from “Romeo and Juliet”, Franz tells a Jack London Story (“Nam-bok”) and one from André Breton that is attributed to Raymond Queneau’s early novel “Odile”, a roman-à-clef in which Breton is one of the thinly fictionalized characters. The DVD has a “visual glossary” explaining these references. That is, it lays out what the references are. It does not attempt to explain why any of them are there in the film, or how they help the audience to make sense of the actions of the movie or the movie’s characters.

None seems indispensable to me. I don’t think the references and stories reveal character or that Godard intended to use them to make the characters more understandable. Rather, I think they are just works and writers Godard happened to be thinking about while he has making this movie in a hurry (25 days), knowing that intellectual audiences would ponder them and concoct interpretations of what the cultural bric-à-brac must mean, leaving no time to wonder whether Godard could tell a story or develop characters instead of making collages of images and stray remarks.

 

Despite such distractions (and Michel Legrand recycling songs he wrote for “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” on the soundtrack) from the inertness of the image of the three leads through the windshield of Franz’s battered convertible, there is much that looks striking and still feels fresh more than a third of a century later in Raoul Coutard’s photography around Paris, in the bars and cafés, the Métro, and the house where Odile lives. Under the great New Wave cinematographer’s supervision, the sharp images were restored for the 2001 Rialto re-release that is preserved on the Criterion DVD. (There is also eleven minutes of Coutard speaking, one of the DVD extras. He explains that the weak winter light of Paris sufficed for the exterior shots, but that additional lighting was used in the interiors.)

“Bande à part” does not have the abstruse camera angles and jump-cutting for which Godard was famous back when Godard was famous (when he could identify himself as cinema, as in the credits to “Bande à part”). Most of the scenes, Karina, and Frey look striking in melancholy (post-existentialist, pre-Maoist) ways. Brasseur and Frey manage to continue to look hip dancing; Karina visibly enjoys herself, both dancing on alone after the boys drop out and at other junctures. At some other junctures, she looks cowed, and though she is the least bright of the three main characters, she is the one who recognizes the robbery is not going to work out according to Arthur’s confident plans.

“Bande à part” is more fun than other Godard films: exuberant, if not quite light-hearted. Legrand’s wistful, jazzy score and Coutard’s photography can easily induce nostalgia, even for someone who never saw Paris in the early 1960s. The endings (which I don’t want to reveal) are very apt. There is a notably funny fight, earlier on. Although one would be hard pressed to answer the question “Why is this here?” for many pieces of the film, none (even the “minute of silence” that lasts 35 seconds) lasts long enough to provide serious annoyance to viewers able to understand the romance pulpish/noirish movies that animate the three leads and their director. (Godard famously pronounced Howard Hawks’s “Scarface” the greatest film of the sound era.)

In addition to the eleven-minutes of Coutard and the eighteen-minute “glossary,” there is eighteen minutes of Ana Karina reminiscing, five minutes from a 1964 French television documentary on New Wave film-makers that includes Godard talking and shooting two scenes of “Bande à part”, the three-minute silent movie “Les fiancés du Pont MacDonald” with Karina, Frey, and Godard that was in Agnès Varda’s “Cléo de 5 à 7,” a booklet with some musing by Godard on the three lead characters and a rapturous essay by poet Joshua Clover, and two very similar trailers without any spoken words. Seeing the trailer first is useful for setting expectations of silent film comedy. Despite Godard’s wry voice-over (in the very knowing tradition of Cocteau film, I think), and all the high culture bandied about in the film, most of the dialogue could be thrown away. What is important is what one sees (“pure cinema”). The last shot is, as Godard confirmed, an homage to Chaplin (“The Immigrant”); the climax, and particularly the reaction shots to it, might have been filmed by D. W. Griffith.

 

* In a special feature included on the DVD, Ana Karina, says that “Une Femme Est Une Femme” is her Godard film most liked in Germany; “Vivre sa Vie, Bande à part” and “Pierrot le Fou” in Japan, “Alphaville” in England and Brazil, and “Pierrot le Fou” most everywhere else. She does not specify what the American favorite is, but I doubt that it is “Pierrot le Fou”. My own favorite (since she was not in “Masculine/Feminine”) is “Alphaville”, but from naming his production company A Band Apart, one may infer which is Quentin Tarrantino’s (along with his homages onscreen to “Bande à part”.

 

** The teacher declaims Shakespeare in French which the students are supposed to translate into English. None of the students is writing nearly fast enough and the Arthur’s note to Odile shows he cannot manage to write even “To be or not to be, that is the question”, let alone an extended dictation spontaneously translated back into Elizabethan English. Then the teacher is going to correct all the students’ translations during a ten-minute break. Everything about this exercise is improbable, though it serves to get some romantic poetry into the movie early on and provide fodder for weighing Arthur as a Romeo, Odile as a Juliet, and Franz as a Mercutio. This is the kind of invitation to speculation that made Godard movies catnip to 1960s’ intellectuals and made him seem unbearably pretentious and inept to others.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Roxie Hart x2

I was delighted with Catherine Zeta Jones and Queen Latifah in the 2002 “Chicago. directed by Rob Marshall. Renée Zellwegger and Richard Gere were good, too. Not only the choreography but also the camera angles screamed “Bob Fosse.” Fosse choreographed the 1975 musical by the song-writing team that wrote “Cabaret.” “Chicago” is, perhaps, more stylized even than “Moulin Rouge.” The songs and dances are spliced up not quite as much as “Moulin Rouge,” but more than “Cabaret,” though “Cabaret” pioneered extending the songs in the cabaret being intercut with scenes from outside it. No really memorable songs, but some memorable dances, especially Richard Gere tap-dancing and the female murderers recounting the reasons the men they killed deserved to be killed.

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Seeing “Chicago” sent me back to the 1942 (second) movie version of the 1927 Maurine Dallas Watkins play (a silent film version was released in 1927), with Ginger Rogers playing Roxie Hart, the adulteress who shot the man who had promised her a shot at a show business career in the lawless Chicago of the “roaring ’20s” and was defended by a publicity-mad attorney, Billy Flynn, who specialized in keeping female murderers from being executed. In the current incarnation, I thought there was too much of Renee Zellwegger’s Roxie, too little of the other accused murderesses who could outsing and outdance her.

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Despite the title character’s would-be dancer being played by Ginger Rogers, “Roxie Hart” is not a musical, so that it does not matter that no one in that movie’s cast could outdance or outsing Rogers. There is one real dance number and some other smatterings of dance steps exhibited, and no songs. There is even more of Roxie in the movie named for her—again too much in my view. Iris Adrian’s Velma has a much lower proportion of screen time than Catherine Zeta Jones’s incarnation does, and no other accused murderesses appear at all.

“Roxie Hart” only runs 75 minutes, too much of which is wasted on a frame of remembering the case from a Chicago bar in 1942 (bar-tender William Frawley (I Love Lucy, My Three Sons) was on the jury, and reporter Robert Montgomery was smitten by the story and the woman Roxie. All the roles are caricatures rather than characters. Rogers is the most grating, because she is on screen the most, but also because she overplays the most. Maybe she needed Fred Astaire to tone her down? Maybe she needed better lines.

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As Billy Flynn, the experienced cynic/hypocrite Adolph Menjou (The Front Page, Morocco, Paths of Glory) is funnier than Roxie. Long before “Sgt. Bilko,” Phil Silvers was already accomplished at playing a cynical manipulator, here a newspaper photographer in and out of the courtroom. Frawley got to look besotted at Roxie throughout the trial. The judge (George Lessey) makes sure that he is in every photo, and the prosecutor (Lynne Overman) who is seeking the death penalty also rushes to pose in most of the photographs of witnesses, including Roxie. Sara Allgood as Mrs. Morton, the Cook County Jailhouse matron and Spring Byington as human interest columnist Mary Sunshine have a few moments of being funny, but most of the movie is Ginger Rogers mugging for the camera and/or the judge and jury. Zellwegger is considerably more subtle, though she gets to sing and dance and Rogers mostly did not.

There is some satire of the public’s gullibility and hunger for sensations served up by news media (radio as well as newspapers), preening lawyers eager to be celebrities (not that Flynn’s greed is underdeveloped!) and there are flashes of wit, but too much of the movie is Roxie flashing the all-male jury glimpses of her knees and phony smiles at anyone she thinks might help her, especially the judge.

 

In one of the many, many dubious choices that are the history of the Oscars, Rogers had won one in 1940 (for playing the title role in the tedious melodrama “Kitty Foyle”). After 1942, in which she appeared as the second title character in Billy Wilder’s relatively silly “The Major and the Minor,” Rogers’s career declined. She continued to make movies, including one more with Fred Astaire (“The Barkleys of Broadway” in 1949), but the only really good movie she made after 1942 was “Monkey Business” (1952) directed by Howard Hawks in which Rogers had a relatively peripheral role as Cary Grant’s wife and an emerging star by the name of Marilyn Monroe was more memorable. Rogers’s memorable screen performances were as the foil and partner of Fred Astaire in 1930s musicals and as choosing between “Tom, Dick, and Harry” (1941).

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Howard Hawks’s film of The Big Sky

The place of Howard Hawks (1896-1977) in the pantheon of cinema auteurs is universally acknowledged. He made great films in many genres, including several great westerns (Red River, Rio Bravo). He showed he could make a great movie from a bad book (To Have and Have Not), and thereby showed that “the book was better” is not an invariable rule. Alas, the only time he took on making a film of a great novel (A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky, the first of a Montana trilogy), the results are not very satisfying.

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As is so often the case in adaptations of major novels, in Hawks’s 1952 film of The Big Sky there are character names, semblances of the novel’s characters, and some incidents. What is missing is the point, the perspective, and the voice (even though there are voice-overs, which are mostly redundant besides not carrying the novelist’s voice or the novel’s perspective).

The movie might be more enjoyable for someone unfamiliar with the book, though it seems a fairly routine portrait of a difficult journey with external dangers and submerged internal conflicts. Circa 1830, restless young Kentuckians Deakins (Kirk Douglas clad in blue jeans) and Boone (Dewey Martin clad in black leather pants and a fringed leather shirt prefiguring his later tv series Daniel Boone) go west in search of Boone’s uncle Zeb (Arthur Hunnicut in a grizzled beard and possessed of a voice hard to distinguish from that of Hawks regular Walter Brennan). Zeb is “somewhere west of the Mississippi” and by a miraculous coincidence they land in the same jail cell with him in St. Louis.

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The very large French captain of a “keel-boat”, Jouronnais (Steven Geray) bails them out. Zeb speaks Blackfeet and is familiar with the country up the Missouri River; the youngsters seem able-bodied and willing. The boat is carrying a Blackfeet “princess”, Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt), forbidden fruit for both of the lusty young Kentuckians to fall in love with. Boone and Teal Eye nearly kill each other, so the audience, especially one used to the male-female antagonism that signals “love” in Hawks movies, know which male will win. Teal Eye and Boone nurse Deakin back to health after he is shot by the band of thugs hired by “the fur company” (that it is the Hudson Bay Company is not specified) to keep other traders away from what would become the northwestern United States.

The river (ostensibly the Missouri, but I think all of the scenes are on the Snake) provides challenges and the Crow Indians, stirred up by the fur company, and the fur company thugs provide others. The movie’s length (140 minutes) is epic, and it is all very photogenic, including the romantic leads Hawks thought he was launching to stardom (Martin and Threatt). Arthur Hunnicutt was nominated for an Oscar for the folksy Brennan-imitating Zeb and played many variants on the role (as Douglas did on his), but the careers of Threatt went nowhere, and Martin’s didn’t go far.

Russell Harlan, who photographed many Hawks movies (including Red River, Rio Bravo, and Hartari!) and some other striking images (To Kill a Mockingbird, Hawaii, Run Silent Run Deep) got an Oscar nomination for shooting the mountains, the river, the forest, and Dewey Martin’s light-reflecting and well-filled leather pants beautifully (in frequently luminous black and white).

Dimitri Tiomkin’s musical score is sometimes overwrought, but generally effective and not marred by a pop ballad like so many 1950s westerns or as bombastic or cloying as some later Tiomkin scores (The Alamo, 55 Days at Peking, A Town Without Pity).

Blame for draining away the tension between the heroes and most everything original from A. B. Guthrie’s great novel goes to Dudley Nichols (who wrote the numbing screenplays for “The Long Voyage Home”, “The Fugitive” (the John Ford film of The Power and the Glory) and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and the overrated one for “Stagecoach” and “The Informer”). The slack editing didn’t help and it is easy to see why distributors lopped off twenty minutes.

 

There are not many movies about such early western expeditions, but for drama I would recommend Hawks’s portrait of another thousand-mile journey, “Red River,” or Guthrie’s tragic vision in his Big Sky trilogy.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

Hollywood pre-Code women

As San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle writes in Complicated Women (2000), the sexual power and freedom of women in many movies from the early-1930s was greater than in movies since then.

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At the end of the silent era, Mary Pickford was the biggest star. “America’s sweetheart” was an eternal virgin, and, indeed, generally played the part of a child. There were also sirens bringing doom to men, the archetypal “vamp” being Theda Bara. The vamps were sexual, but did not seem to find much joy in sex: they didn’t enjoy sex as much as they enjoyed turning men into sex slaves and destroying them. Cast in the vamp mold in her first American movies, Greta Garbo turned from destroying those who loved her into being a martyr for love. For Garbo’s lusts, everyone in the vicinity suffered, herself most of all.

LaSalle’s model of the transformation from the good girl/vamp dichotomy involves Garbo remaking the vamp role and Norma Shearer transforming her screen persona from wholesomeness to sexual freedom. “A Free Soul” is the title of one of the vehicles of Shearer’s onscreen emancipation. (LaSalle suggests she was acting out fantasies of sexual adventures partially with energy not absorbed by her sickly husband, MGM production chief Irving Thalberg. LaSalle does not claim to know what she thought about sexual freedom for women offscreen, but she was eager to seize roles pushing the envelope onscreen, fighting her husband to get the parts that must have made him uneasy rather than being handed them because she was his wife.)

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In “The Divorcee” (for which Shearer won an Oscar), she played a woman who listens to the news of her husband’s infidelity and his demand that she accept it by going out and having sex with his best friend. Her husband’s modern attitude does not extend to the wife having equal freedom to take other sexual partners (what is good for the gander is not allowed the goose). Rather than being “modern,” he maintains the venerable double standard about marital fidelity applying only to the wife. The viewpoint of the movie is that when fidelity is broken by one partner, the other partner has the same freedom, a viewpoint that remains audacious today. (LaSalle compares the restraint Julia Roberts must exercise in “Something to Talk About.”)

LaSalle gets carried away in his enthusiasm for early-1930s Shearer films. Her gowns were as slinky, clinging, and revealing as he says, but her gesticulations were excessive, and her characters mostly did not find happiness or acceptance. “Private Lives” (from the durable Nöel Coward play) is something of an exception in that her character recouples with her divorced husband played by Robert Montgomery. The social acceptability of this is vitiated by the fact that both are married to new spouses, though perhaps in the Catholic view of divorce and marriage their divorce is illegitimate and they are returning to their vows after recognizing their divorce and second marriages as a mistake (and possibly adulterous to “what God has joined together”).

Meanwhile, Garbo moved from playing the prostitute title role of her first talkie, “Anna Christie,” to the bisexual/transvestite “Queen Christina” who trades her throne for love. Christina dresses as a man and has relationships with both men and women, but she cannot have/keep it all and (yet again) sacrifices all for love.

Garbo was the only female superstar who made a successful transition to superstardom in talking pictures. Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford were stars whose wattage increased, while less-known players like Constance Bennett, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, Loretta Young, and Myrna Loy emerged from the background, Marlene Dietrich was imported from Germany (where she had enslaved and broken Emil Janning in “The Blue Angel” that was filmed in both German and English). From the New York stage came Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Harding, Claudette Colbert, Joan Blondell, Miriam Hopkins, Bette Davis, and, a few years later, Katherine Hepburn and Mae West. “They became famous, most of them, for playing ‘loose women.’… At the beginning of the era, the fallen woman was the movies’ favorite character [while] even relatively innocuous films took on sexy titles to lure in audiences.” Helen Hayes won an Oscar for playing a prostitute (Madelon Claudet) and other surprising women of the streets included Myrna Loy and Claudette Colbert. As for la Dietrich, “one almost has to search her early filmography for a movie in which she was not a prostitute, and yet every picture was on her side, and each one defined her as an honest woman” and, in the instance of “Blonde Venus,” a devoted mother. As the notorious “Shanghai Lily” in “Shanghai Express,” it is Doc’s lack of faith in her that is the problem: “The movie is not about her becoming worthy of him, but about the journey of faith that allows him to become worthy of her. Shanghai Lily doesn’t need to change. Her boyfriend needs a new attitude.”

Many of the males in many of the pre-Code movies had difficulty adjusting their attitudes, while the women plied other professions than the allegedly oldest one. Kay Francis played physicians, Crawford and Stanwyck specialized in sleeping their way from entry-level jobs to penthouse-suite positions (e.g., in “Grand Hotel” and “Baby Face”) and managed to have careers continuing beyond the imposition of censorship in which they shot or slapped men, connived and became successful in business (though in the late-1930s and through the 1950s they frequently surrendered power to males, not always choosing male partners wisely or trusting the trustworthy…)

 

LaSalle praises the work of a number of women whose careers did not survive the imposition in mid-1934 of preproduction censorship of sex (even marital sex, let alone extramarital sex) and female independence such as Miriam Hopkins, Ann Dvorak, Ruth Chatterton, Dorothy Mackaill, Mae Clark, and Ann Harding. He provides acute analysis of the truncated careers of Jean Harlow and Mae West, though I think he fails to do justice to the emotional power of Marlene Dietrich’s performances for Joseph von Sternberg (particularly in “Shanghai Express”). Moreover, the movies he advances as particularly daring, such as “Baby Face” and “Female,” end with the women surrendering their gains and their autonomy to me, every bit as much as the post-World War II propagandizing for getting women out of the labor force back “where they belonged,” entirely focused on being wives and mothers.

As good as is his sympathetic analysis of the pre-Code women-centered films made between 1919 and mid-1934, LaSalle’s account of the imposition of censorship may be even better. He exposes the subversion of his employers’ interests by Joseph Breen, who worked with the US Roman Catholic hierarchy to threaten to forbid Catholics attending any movies (a ban that was laid down by the bishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal Dougherty) in order to gain advance control over what could be filmed. Breen suppressed a study that showed box office receipts increasing when the Catholic Legion of Decency (an organization of which he was the secret parent) condemned a movie. The Breen office prevented pre-Code films from being rereleased, and the pre-Code films with emancipated women were too sexually forthright for television when old films started to air to tv audiences after World War II. LaSalle’s contention that censorship was primarily focused on preventing representations of independent women is well supported. Indeed, that “the Code liked dead women” is hard to argue. LaSalle concluded that

“although the Production Code administrators brooked no lewdness or nudity, their main goal was to censor ideas. The censors were absolutely fixated on the messages movies transmitted. For example, crime had to be punished—period. There was no leaving it unpunished subtly…. Women got the worst of it. Under the Code, it wasn’t only crime that didn’t pay. Sex outside of marriage didn’t pay. Divorce didn’t pay. Leaving your husband [no matter what the provocations on his part] didn’t pay. Even having a job often didn’t pay. The Production Code ensured a miserable fate—or at least a rueful, chastened one—for any woman who stepped out of.

“Accordingly, every female character in movies got her virginity back. If she lost it again, she was in big trouble. The price for nonconjugal relations was either death, permanent loneliness, or a profuse protracted, and degrading apology. At the same time, women became the humble protectors of marriage. If a husband strayed and wanted to return, a wife not only had to take him back, she had to smile as she did.”

—-

LaSalle is sometimes overinsistent and somewhat oversells the quality of the early talking pictures, but the well-illustrated text moves along swiftly until the somewhat diffuse final two chapters on more recent revivals of Garbo and Shearer traditions suppressed by the Christian equivalents of the imams and ayatollahs imposing their views of what people can watch and hear from 1934 through the late 1960s. (It is also clear that anti-Semitism was common currency in the Breen/Catholic hierarchy plotting to seize control over what Americans could watch: “Breen wanted to save America from the movies and the movies from the Jews,” as LaSalle puts it.)

 

I wanted to read the book before seeing the one-hour 2003 documentary based on it . The documentary, narrated by Jane Fonda, shows LaSalle, Molly Haskell, and some survivors of the era, has some of the book’s best lines and some of the scenes described in the book. The chronology is much clearer in the book, though I’d highly recommend the documentary, too.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

Jules Dassin: “Brute Force,” et al.

I was underwhelmed by the “legendary” 1947 prison movie “Brute Force,” directed by the “legendary” director Jules Dassin, who was blacklisted in Hollywood a few years later and went to Europe to make some critically acclaimed films. It’s hard for me to fathom that “Brute Force” was considered “shocking” and “gritty” in its day. It does not seem “gritty” now. Indeed, the inmates jammed into cell R-17, where about half the movie takes place, are preternaturally considerate of each other. They are like one of the diverse platoons in World War II Hollywood propaganda movies, getting along so well despite their divergent backgrounds. They even agree on a particular picture of a calendar girl to hang in the cell and absorb all the inmates’ loves for women they remember on the outside. (It’s flashbacks that provide roles for women in the movie, though these dissipate the tension of the prison storylines.)

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It’s not that I was seeking violence, but the boys all seem to get along so well… Elsewhere there is terror and the execution of a “stool pigeon,” and there is a vicious, power-mad official increasing his control, but the cell is a surprisingly happy family. Another surprise is the lack of rivalry between clique leaders (a young Burt Lancaster and the eternally gruff Charles Bickford).

The two main storylines are prisoners planning an escape attempt and the sadistic de facto overlord of the prison, Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn) consolidating control with the approval of the state bureaucracy. Munsey’s methods are opposed sporadically and ineffectually by the warden (Roman Bohnen), seen through and criticized by the alcoholic prison doctor (Art Smith) who has good relations with the prisoners in general and Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) in particular. The doctor advocates humane treatment, but the devious bully’s harshness is what the state wants more of.

There are some compelling sequences with bravura editing, especially the one in the machine shop and the prison breakout when it finally occurs. Cronyn chews up a lot of scenery as the fascist bully. Lancaster clenches his jaw and is determined to play the irresistible force to Cronyn’s immovable object. Smith provides a liberal alternative to identifying with the main antagonists. The other characters are underdeveloped, and a lot of dialogue is stilted.

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No doubt, the censors limited what could be shown, particularly, possible endings. Perhaps, as later in From Here to Eternity, the censors required that the sadistic captain and the mistreatment of prisoners be portrayed as anomalous. However, I don’t think the awkwardness of the overall construction and the boringness of more than a few scenes can be blamed on the censors.

Dassin had a fine cast (including Whitt Bissell, Jeff Corey, Howard Duff, Ann Blyth and Yvonne DeCarlo), an above-average musical score from master film-composer Miklós Rózsa (Double Indemnity, Spellbound) and a dead proto-Nazi, Richard Wagner. The great cinematographer William H. Daniels, who won an Oscar for shooting Dassin’s “Naked City” the next year, provided a cinema noir look—when he got outside cell R-17, the warden’s office, and the doctor’s office (which was not often enough!). At least one of the backstories is within the corrupt urban milieu (mined with femmes fatales) of cinema noir, but this is a prison movie, not a noir, despite what the box says!

I think that if Dassin had thrown away the backstories and focused more on the break-out that “Brute Force” would have been better. Much of the Dassin legend derives from the meticulous filming of the heist in “Rififi” and the best part of “Topkapi” is similarly the break-in rather than the development of the motley group of characters. At least there is not the pseudo-hip stating-the-obvious narration of “Naked City,” an even more overrated Dassin police drama with the curdled charm of Barry Fitzgerald on display.

For those not interested in assessing the oeuvre of Jules Dassin or the history of prison movies, the interest of “Brute Force:” might be in the supporting actors or in the showcasing first lead role of Burt Lancaster. Having recently seen or seen again Cronyn in Lifeboat, People Will Talk, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and the Seventh Cross, I realize that he had bigger and better roles in 1940s movies than the British actress he married and worked with on-stage and on-screen from 1944 until her death in 1994, Jessica Tandy.

Other Dassin films

“The Canterville Ghost” (1944) is a silly movie with a very hammy Charles Laughton that bears little relation to the story on which it is based.

“The Naked City” (1948) does not seem at all fresh to me. It plods along alternating between ersatz knowingness (the narration) and ersatz charm (Barry Fitzgerald, who is not quite as hammy as Laughton).

Thieves’ Highway” (1949), a noir about truckers and the San Francisco produce market starring Richard Conte

“Never on Sunday” (1960), which made Melina Mercouri an international star, playing a cheerful prostitute, and launched the theme song as an international pop hit. Dassin himself plays an American professor who needs to be shown how to live and plays it badly.

“Topkapi” (1964): I think the movie and Mercouri are supposed to be charming, but didn’t charm me, though the movie is fitfully amusing (Peter Ustinov) and the main event is suspenseful.

“10:30 P.M., Summer” (1966), which is awful, with Mercouri flailing and for a time sheltering a fugitive.

It’s been a long time since I saw “Rififi” or the noir shot in London with Richard Widmark, “Night and the City.” I have positive memories of both and, perhaps, if I saw them again, I might be less willing to challenge Dassin’s exalted rank (Once upon a time, I also liked his “Phaedra” with Mercouri in the title role and Anthony Perkins as the stepson for whom she lusts.)

©2018, Stephen O. Murray