Thursday, January 20, 2011

Movies 1942-1950

Love them and extol them as my favorite era in cinematic history though I do, I actually have not even seen that many of the classic films of these years. Today's group includes three I had never heard of previously and another that I had confused with something else. So I was pretty excited at the likelihood of discovering at least one unsuspected pleasure in the bunch, which kinds of pleasant surprises of course grow more infrequent with the inexorable advance of age.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

This is the one I had confused, thinking of Blackboard Jungle, the famous film about 50s juvenile delinquents who came to school chewing gum, flashing switchblades, and generally not bearing a mindset conducive to effective learning (Thank goodness we have gotten those problems under control). The one is a film noir directed by the legendary John Huston, with whose work however I am just beginning to become acquainted. Indeed I am just starting to distinguish his career from that of fellow legend (and John) John Ford, with whose work I am even less familiar, though the latter's legend is if anything even bigger at the highest levels of cinephilia than Huston's is--doubtless at this very moment some avant-garde Japanese director with pink hair that I have never heard of is declaring with complete sincerity that John Ford is one of the major influences on his work. Back to Huston, last year I watched and reported briefly on The African Queen, which came out the year after this, and which I was entertained but not much absorbed by. Some years ago I saw 1948's Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which I remember, albeit hazily, as more substantial, and probably great. I also saw his 1987 version of Joyce's The Dead even more years ago, which at the time however did not strike me as adding anything to the original story. My feelings on The Asphalt Jungle are again somewhat mixed--I have yet to make that connection with Huston's peculiar vision, or genius, that makes one an especially devoted admirer.

As noted, The Asphalt Jungle is another film noir, of which genre we have been on a bit of a run these past few years. Huston also made The Maltese Falcon and Key Largo, which I have not seen but which I take to be in the film noir spirit, though as they featured actors who were A-list stars at the time and had bigger budgets and promotion they are sometimes not included among the classic B-movie, harshly lit, ugly mug strain of classic film noir. This one had lots of ugly mugs and no established superstars (though it did feature several people who later on became stars, including, most notably, Marilyn Monroe), so it is often considered the most purely noir picture Huston made. Film noir story arcs all being largely the same, the style, characterization, idiosyncratic plot elements, sex appeal of the women, etc, etc, of this family of movies are especially important. These elements in Asphalt Jungle are not terrible, but they are not on the level of Double Indemnity or The Third Man, both of which have more evocative settings and sophisticated characters (and consequently dialogue), somewhat more developed criminal schemes, more interesting clothes and other props, as well as (to me) more appealing women. Of course both of those screenplays were written by celebrated literary authors (Raymond Chandler and Graham Green), a connection I had previously failed to make, and the significance of which clearly shows in these instances.
I have written before that I am not the greatest Marilyn Monroe fan who ever lived. She plays what most people would think of as a prototype Marilyn Monroe character in this movie. She is 23 or 24 here, and even I her detractor grant that she is eminently squeezable. There is nothing else in her persona here that particularly excites me however. The humor and warmth that she allegedly brought to her later celebrated roles is yet in evidence. She and the other main female character, played by Jean Hagen, are perhaps illustrative of a general transition in the depiction of womanhood as the 40s moved into the 50s, certainly in the realm of film noir. Both of the women in this are rather passive, weak and stupid compared to their mid-40s noir counterparts, either the famed femme fatales, who were hard, scheming, usually unsentimental agents of destruction, or, if they were virtuous, intelligent and forceful enough to assert their personalities with some effect against the evil that threatens to engulf them on all sides. The change I am describing is probably exaggerated here--from what I have seen and heard of Huston, he was a man's man whose genius did not lie in his depictions of women or male/female relations--but I most people have always sensed that something of the sort did broadly occur.

Sterling Hayden, who I just saw recently further on in his career in The Godfather (he's the Irish cop who gets it in the Italian restaurant), was the lead in this. He was six foot five, which is unusually tall for a movie star. He's not one of my favorites either. It's not clear whether he is really kind of dense, or if he just got assigned to play a lot of dense characters. In any event, he played them perhaps a little more literally densely than was called for.

There is a trope in the movie that each of the characters in on the heist has a weakness that ultimately leads directly to his downfall. I thought this was a rather hokey element that didn't really add anything to the movie, especially the Sam Jaffe character, who is the mastermind of the operation but is supposed to be an incurable old lecher who gets mesmerized watching a girl dancing to a jukebox in the kind of roadside tavern I am always searching for in my own travels and ending up shuffling into Friendly's twenty minutes before closing time after several fruitless hours of searching. I am coming off as down on the movie, but it has its good points, and it is fun to talk about. It did not grab me as great however.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

I am going a little out of order due to the way the pictures arranged themselves in the loading.

There is a considerable amount of awesomeness in the myriad parts of this movie, which, if they do not perfectly cohere into a completely staggering whole, still make for a uniquely great film after a manner. This was made in the midst of the war and is nominally a propaganda movie, but it is more sophisticated than the usual specimens of that genre. Colonel Blimp was a newspaper caricature which was supposed to represent the chauvinistic, tiger-hunting, war and empire-loving, intellectually obtuse, conservative element of society whose attitudes were relics of the increasingly remote Victorian era--i.e., he was not conceived with flattery in mind. The irrepressible, up to date, and rather brilliant filmmaking duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, whose work I am encountering for the first time, decided to make this restless and generally likeable (at least to people with some affection for the old British ruling classes), though frequently clueless creature the hero of their wartime epic; and it worked. The story, after a jazzy opening sequence in the (1943) present which is repeated and clarified at the end of the movie, finds the aged though still commisioned Colonel Blimp (who actually is a general and is named Clive Candy in the film) in the Turkish bath at his London club, where in the midst of a tussle with a young whippersnapper who has come to play a prank on him, we are transported back to the same scene 40 years earlier, when Blimp is a dashing young officer. Colonel Blimp, by the way, is played by the superb actor Roger Livesey, who was apparently a last second replacement for Laurence Olivier. Olivier's presence is not missed, which should give an idea of how good Roger Livesey is. We then follow Blimp/Candy through the ensuing forty years, which include numerous scenes of interest including a rollicking beer hall and a duel in imperial Germany, an abbey in World War I France, a dinner party at Blimp's house in 1919 with a (now) ridiculous gallery of pompous guests with important titles, and a visit to the underground bunker housing the BBC's wartime studios. Gaps, or, as Christopher Fry more elegantly put it in one of the bonus materials, lacunae, in the story, usually the periods between wars, are marked by a striking device which is remarked upon by every commentator on the film, in which the heads of the victims of Blimp's hunting expeditions throughout the British Empire appear, following the sound of a rifle shot, mounted upon the wall in his study, accompanied by a placard with the name of the country and the year of the kill. The study was actually looking like a pretty cool place to hang out by the latter stages of the movie.

This is a Criterion Collection film, and as such features a pretty good commentary, by Martin Scorcese and Michael Powell, the director of the picture himself. Powell died in 1990 at age 84, so his portion was evidently recorded some time back. He sounds quite aged in it. Scorcese's part is a little too film geekish for me, but Powell's is most enjoyable. Though he refers to his origins as middle class several times in the course of the monologue, he comes across as one of those old timers who was deeply educated and immersed in the European art tradition from an early age--perhaps that is an upper middle class signifier. While there is some technical movie directing talk, he also talks a lot about his Savile Row tailor, the fashions in ladies' hats through the early part of the 20th century, the etiquette of duelling in Germany, and things like that. When discussing actors, he noted that Deborah Kerr (pronounced "car") was intelligent, which was unusual in that profession. He did not say this in a perjorative way however, as we have being accustomed to take such statements, but as if there were numerous qualities of equal value that a good actor, or a good person, could possess. He clearly held the abilities of Richard Livesey, to whom he attributed the quality of unusual honesty, in high regard, though he did not praise him as intelligent, this the more pointedly as the discussion of his honesty came within five minutes of the comment about actors generally not being intelligent. There is a part at the end where he lucidly explains the impressiveness with which the Austrian actor and refugee from Nazism Anton Walbrook--I can't believe he wasn't intelligent--carries off a long speech, in English, a foreign language for him and in a different tradition, which makes Scorcese's and all contemporary people's gushings and conversation on interesting matters seem utterly inarticulate.

This movie was made in gorgeous Technicolor. On one of my old posts I wrote that I had never seen a British film in color prior to 1965 or so, and was only aware of the 1951 festival-commissioned The Magic Box, which for some reason is not available in North America, as having been shot in it. Evidently British Technicolor films constitute an entire genre of cinephile fetishism. Scorcese, in the most interesting observation he made on the movie, noted that British Technicolor films were widely considered more beautiful than Hollywood's offerings of the same, because the muting effects of the continually overcast English light made for a more delicate and striking effect, and after seeing this, I am inclined to believe him. Why don't they make movies in Technicolor anymore? Is it expensive? Because when done well, it looks better than whatever kind of color treatment is usually used now.

Deborah Kerr, best known among us for such 50s Hollywood classics as From Here to Eternity, The King and I, and An Affair to Remember, was, for lack of a better word--I am too tired to come up with one at the moment--a revelation to me in this movie. She played three different girls, one in 1902, one in 1918-19, and one in 1943. Her 1919 persona was pretty fetching--I like the style of that time too--but the 1943 version of her as Colonel Blimp's driver just about laid me out. It's the hair. There is no amount of exposure to 1943-44 women's hairstyles that is possible to weary me of them--and if you can believe it there are many creditable people who think those were the absolute worst years for women's hair in the whole 20th century!

One of the sites which had posted this picture noted that redheads look best in technicolor.

To further emphasize my point about the style and spirit of the babes of World War II (Anglo-American version) the women drivers employed by the British military have been much celebrated in literature and movies. One has to think they contributed not a little to the triumph. Perhaps I am exaggerating, but I feel like this is the 3rd or 4th time in the last few years I have come across this. The Pamela Flitton character in Anthony Powell, although not a sweetheart, entered the story as one of these drivers. She inspired fanatical, even insane, love in dozens of men, was vigorous, and certainly was not intimidated by the Nazis. I cannot remember any other examples right off hand--I believe Evelyn Waugh's characters in Brideshead were driven about by men, though of course Julia was a great motorer in the 20s. I will definitely be alert to it in the future.

Among the many delights of this film, there are a couple of brief sequences shot from a moving car on the real streets of 1943 London, the area around Hyde Park, Marble Arch, Berkeley Square, the street that runs along the north end of the park, which I believe is Bayswater (evidently this neighborhood was spared major bomb damage). If you have been reading about between-the-wars London, and especially this part of it, all your life, but have never seen any vintage color film of it, it is practically breathtaking. The traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, in the movie, is probably artificially much reduced from what it normally would have been, even in wartime, but the real reason the effect is so gorgeous of course is because of the absence of all the postwar architecture which mars and bludgeons the charm of most of the city now. If I could freeze architecture at any point in history and spend the prime years of my life in that environment, I would probably actually pick 1928, but 1943 would still be acceptable (John Ruskin would have gone with 1418).

This movie had the coveted weekend before Christmas slot on my schedule this year. It was a winner.

Letter to Three Wives (1949) This movie has an unorthodox construction and overall feel to it which are interesting though not exhilirating. It was directed by Joseph Mankewicz, whose hand we saw at work recently in another unorthodox picture, the later Sleuth, and who is probably best-known for All About Eve. I had not paid much attention to his career before, but I suppose I should be alert to him whenever he pops up from now on. The premise is that the three wives, who are all friends in the prosperous small city where they live, and not only they themselves are friends but their respective husbands are all friends with all the other wives and husbands as well though all are from disparate backgrounds and have widely disparate careers and interests, are spending Saturday chaperoning a bunch of girl scout types on an outing which requires an hour long ride each way in a ferry, after which they will all be meeting up with the husbands for some big dinner dance that is taking place at the country club. This apparently is how people lived at the time. As the boat is about to leave for the outing, a letter is delivered to the three wives as a group from a fourth woman, a glamorous type who also formed part of their social circle, informing them that she is running off with one of their husbands, the unlucky victim to learn her fate when she arrives at the club that night and her husband is nowhere to be found. Each of the wives in turn then flashes back to scenes from the marriage looking for clues/proofs as to whether her husband is more or less likely the scamp who is absconding. Some of these episodes are better than others. Kirk Douglas, at that time not well-known, has a rather ridiculous role as one of the husbands, a culture-loving but impecunious English teacher whose wife outearns him writing melodramas for the radio--the other two guys are a lawyer from an already wealthy family and the owner of a chain of successful department stores, so his ego is getting battered from all sides. He goes on a rant against the low quality of radio serials as opposed to Shakespeare and Mozart, which is rather bizarre in that this screenplay is certainly nearer in substance and ambition to a radio soap opera than it is to the tragedies of Aeschylus. The third episode, featuring the courtship and marriage of the furniture magnate, who is rich but rough-edged, with the equally rough-edged but socially ambitious stockroom girl who lives five feet from the railroad tracks, probably on the wrong side of them, is the best one.

This is the kind of movie where the man will be sitting in a chair reading the paper, on Saturday afternoon, wearing a tweed jacket and a tie, and his wife will come in and scream at him, "Aren't you going to get dressed? The company will be here in an hour."

I am going to talk about the actresses a little, because I like to do that.

Jeanne Crain is the most obviously my type, wholesome, All-American, still has good 40s hair even though the fashion was starting to change by '49. She is supposed to be from a farm in Kansas or somewhere is this movie--the other women have to teach her how to dress and put on make-up. Due to the stress of her new social condition for which she is unprepared, she tends to drink too much at the country club parties and make a wholly adorable spectacle of herself (This is bad?). Other Notable Roles: Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) & State Fair (1945). My Love Level: High. 9.89 or so. I would like to see a little more distinctive personality or mental acuity, but the way she played the drinking, I have to say, was a major turn-on.

Here we have Linda Darnell. She's the one who married the furniture store owner. I was not initially too excited about her but she does a good job in the movie and she grew on me a lot as being sexy, the way she talked and smoked, mannerisms, etc. I wonder whether actresses were coached more in these kinds of nuances more in the past or if they simply had more of these alluring qualities to begin with. This woman knew in what forms and dosage to dole them out. Other Notable Roles: My Darling Clementine, The Mark of Zorro (1940) My Love Level: Pretty high, but guarded. She's still got that tough exterior, and don't believe she won't use it. 7.93.

I don't have a picture of Ann Sothern, the third wife--Kirk Douglas's--in the film. She had a platinum dye job that made her look 10 years older than probably actually was. When the camera panned in you could tell that she still had good skin, a youthful glow in her eye, and a nice bosom. I don't remember much else specific about her voice or speech, though in the movie she was supposed to be the smart one of the group. Other Notable Roles: Panama Hattie? Crazy Mama? My Lovel Level: 7.24. Good-looking enough, but I need to see something more.

The love levels for Deborah Kerr in Blimp, by the way: 1902 Deborah--9.68. 1919 Deborah--9.90. 1943 Deborah--10.00.

Roxie Hart (1942) A short movie that was a remake of the 1927 silent farce Chicago! about a dancing girl who advances her career by pretending guilt in the murder of her husband's mistress and basking in the attendant publicity. The story has been successfully revived on at least one occasion since. I thought this version was essentially silly, though it was not a chore to get through and like most Hollywood productions from the 40s had some period touches, such as the scenes at the bar, the juke box, the setting for the courtroom scene, that were able to hold my peculiar interest. It had quite a cast. Ginger Rogers, in a non-dancing role, was the star, though without Fred she really is too brassy and low class for my liking. The great Adolphe Menjou, who was actually from Pittsburgh, puts in an appearance as Roxie Hart's celebrity lawyer. William Frawley, who went on achieve fame as Fred on I Love Lucy, plays the bartender. Phil Silvers, the TV personality of the 50s and 60s, is also among the players, though I don't really know who he is, the reruns of his TV show not having been in heavy rotation in my youth. The director is William Wellman, who, while he doesn't seem to be legendary, made a lot of films of which the titles are recognizable to me. As I have not seen any of them however, I will refrain from forming any kind of thesis about him until some future time.

The final shot, which involves a car with about seven children in it, in their 1942 kiddie outfits, none of them in car seats, several sitting in front and one sitting on the driver's lap, with the announcement that a bigger car will be needed next year--I thought it was charming.

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