Tuesday, June 12, 2012

More 50s Movies

I may have to ditch the movie columns if I can't find a way to write them more quickly.

I got in a few more movies from the 1950s--making it all the way back to 1954--but the workings of my listmaking dictate that I will be at least temporarily returning to more modern times after this set.

Carousel (1956)
I had forgotten about the possibility of seeing any of the old Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, as I thought even the middlebrow critics tended to discredit them nowadays, but someone still likes this. The main impression it made on me, who am inclined to be more generous than otherwise, is that it is strange, discomfiting even. It has more attitudes and assumptions about the world that are blatantly outdated than the (better) stuff from its time, which is what I have gotten accustomed to seeing. It also has things like obviously fake sets, a plot that in spite of my efforts to find something reasonable about it is flatly absurd, it doesn't bear even a passing resemblance to either the time (1873) or place (coastal Maine) in which it is supposedly set. There is a very odd depiction of the afterlife where the male lead, who was accidentally killed by the point of his own knife in a botched robbery attempt, is dressed in a tight turtleneck hanging up five-pointed glass stars in a room painted blue from ceiling to floor (this I actually kind of liked, but it still belongs far more to the realm of cheese than to anything having to do with advanced style). I can't say I didn't like it a little, in a sad, nostalgic way, though heaven knows most interesting people were eager to usher the world it was representative of out the door as rapidly as possible, and while I wouldn't have been clever enough to figure out that society could be meaningfully changed, I probably at least would still have been dissatisfied and unhappy, albeit for the wrong reasons. It is not a great movie however.

One problem is that I don't love any of the songs in this, though several of them are pretty famous. "You'll Never Walk Alone"--perhaps better known these days as the anthem of the Liverpool football club--I take to be the big number, though in the movie it is sung in an operatic style that I have never really warmed up to. "If I Loved You", which was another popular hit from this show, also suffers in my opinion  from the overly operatic treatment. The sequence for "June is Busting Out All Over", shot on location in the celebrated fishing and boating village of Boothbay Harbor, Maine, which I have never been to--maybe this summer! but probably not--anyway the song is one of those choreographed dance numbers with 200 people in it, livelier than most of the tunes in this movie but of its kind nothing special. There is a long ballet sequence near the end that I kind of like, though I don't know anything about ballet and have not the least idea of any of the sources of the excitement which are produced in serious ballet fanatics by this art. I guess I thought the insertion of it must have spoken to something aspirational, as far as the audience was concerned, and found it touching. The dancers in the movie were apparently serious ballet people, many of them from Europe itself. I wonder what they thought about this segment.

Though I have not written much about it, I had been on a good run as far as the DVD commentaries of these classic movies go, to the point that for several months if there was one I was almost automatically taking the time to watch the film a second time while listening to them, and the quality was consistently pretty high. The one for Carousel had the now elderly Shirley Jones and some British fop who seemed more interested in fawning over her than he did in revealing any great insights into the movie. So while it was not one of the better commentaries, it did manage to hold my interest enough to make it all the way through. As fans of the "Partridge Family" have probably discerned, Shirley Jones is not a deep thinker; however she does not seem to have any pretensions towards or anxiety about not being one either. She mentions at one point without a trace of embarrassment that as a young music student she avoided studying opera because she didn't want to have to learn foreign languages. She maneuvers her way around the discussion of some plot points and lines of dialogue that appear outrageous to contemporary sensibilities, such as the part where her character, who it is suggested is frequently abused by her rather boorish husband, claims that when one is in love such blows don't hurt at all, by saying with a shrug in her voice that she really didn't think anything of it at the time. On a more trivial note, during one of the Boothbay Harbor scenes Shirley and the co-commentator both agreed that this town was located somewhere between Portland and Kennebunkport, which obviously is false; I will bear in mind in the future that the commentaries are apparently not edited and may contain egregious factual errors.

If you are interested in generational theory Shirley Jones (born 1934) is a textbook member of the Silent Generation, the group who were teenagers and young adults from the mid-40s to the early to mid 60s. These people were very deeply and proudly American, not in a mindless way, but in their identification with a certain positive idea of the culture and life of the country which has not been as strong in the cohorts that came after them. They could be a little overly wholesome (though obviously most of the icons from that time were anything but)--Shirley Jones's characters in her early roles are almost fatally boring, and her brief reign during the late 50s as perhaps the face of the big budget musical seems puzzling in retrospect--anyway they're all in their 70s and 80s now. No new movie stars or ballplayers or scientists or authors or political leaders left to emerge from this group. Their stone bearing their record is nearly set.

Here is some footage from the swinging 60s of the Liverpool fans belting out "You'll Never Walk Alone". The tradition goes back a while.
Lola Montes (1955)

This was nothing like what I was expecting it to be. As one of the more celebrated films, as well as I believe the last, of the master pan-European director Max Ophuls, whose reputation, as far as I could make out, places him decidedly in the difficult and cerebral wing of the mansion of cinematic history, I was resigned that that which was most important in his work most likely operated on a plane so subtle and penetrating as to be  well above the heads of all but the most advanced audiences. Andrew Sarris, the acerbic and influential longtime critic at the Village Voice, proclaimed it the greatest movie of all time. After being poorly received at its premieres at both Paris and Berlin (if they didn't get it, what hope in the cosmos did the likes of me have?) the film was promptly butchered by its panicked producers and re-released, the full original version apparently never being seen in America (though various attempts were made by cinephiles and scholars over the years to present versions more true to Ophuls's) until 2008. This history of blatant philistinism doubtless played some part in the passion which the film, or for a long time the idea of it, was able to arouse among the serious film community. None of this boded well for my chances to get much out of  the film, and in truth, given the character of most of its champions, I still have to suspect that on the level of comprehension that is hitting these largely volatile and contemptuous people so intensely I must not have understood anything. This is not to suggest that the movie is anything less than great--it is excellent--the movie I saw however did not strike me as the sort of thing that would be the all time favorite of anyone sympathetic to the worldview of the Village Voice, and its myriad sister publications around the cosmopolitan world.

Lola Montes, the 1955 Franco-German movie about a beautiful woman who has love affairs with many great and powerful men including Franz Liszt and King Ludwig of Bavaria and ends up as a circus act recounting her sinful past for the titillation of vulgar audiences, was an accessible story told with great skill and a lavish, baroque beauty--I had no idea before it started that the movie was even in color--that appeared to me on initial viewing to be unironic; the more simple, austere beauties and joys that are usually celebrated in art films, if they are found here, are not prevalent. The story unfolds very much like a well-done classic Hollywood movie. It has a superb structure and the flow of the scenes from one to the next is so natural that many of the choices made in its execution, such as the subject itself and the various directions in which to take narrative in terms of chronological time and episode and returning again to the present, appear obvious and easy, when in truth this is exactly the basic point on almost all movies flounder. I probably admire this above anything else in the film, and vis-a-vis other classic films this seems to me to be its outstanding quality.

But there has to be more. Thus I settled down to take in the commentary, having been, as noted earlier, on a  hot streak with commentaries. Within ten minutes, I was forced to abandon this plan, as the commentary, which was done by a film scholar named Susan White, stank. Ms White was a representative of an especially repellent strain of academia, characteristically though of course not exclusively female, marked by its blithe humorlessness, reflexive pedantry, and obsession with confirming the credentials and established reputations both of the subject matter before one and one's colleagues in the field before offering any kind of personal judgement. She seemed incapable of producing an interesting idea on her own, and had the effect of making other people's idea seem markedly diminished by the circumstances of herself relating them. There are two things every idolator of Ophul's work in this film feel compelled to point out; the first, that the producers were inexperienced and incompetent, and the second, that Martine Carol, the actual star, was awful in the title role. Susan White was all over both of these standard opinions, which she gave no evidence of demurring from, within the first five minutes of the commentary, as if to re-emphasize just how much dead weight the gods of art had dropped on the exquisitely refined head of poor Max Ophuls, who nonetheless was able to rise above all of this and produce a masterpiece. With regard to Martine Carol, who seems to be regarded as something like the Jane Russell, of 1950s French cinema, our guide offered what sounded to me like a quotation, that the kindest thing that could be said about Milady was that "she sensed her own inadequacy". While it is true that this lady did not demonstrate a Meryl Streep-like repertoire of acting skills, I had not myself, with my considerable eye for such matters, detected either this supposed inadequacy or her sense of it. If it is there--and the maxime-like quality of the quotation suggests to me a French or highly Frenchified continental origin--it is of a much different quality than the English word, as used rather dismissively, by Ms White, suggests. Martine Carol is certainly beautiful enough to play anybody, and her bearing is at least French enough to have been adequate to convince me that she was capable of arousing the interest of musicians and princes beyond the ordinary run of women. But for Max Ophuls and an artwork of this caliber, apparently, the standard for performance is a lot higher than what Martine Carol brought to it. I turned it off before, as doubtless happened, Ms White could express her approval of the work of the great Anton Walbrook, our old friend from Colonel Blimp, who apparently could not only act at an appropriately high level, but could do so in all the major western European languages, and who played King Ludwig of Bavaria here. I love Anton Walbrook too; he is excellence in his field personified. I didn't feel the need to be assured of his greatness by Susan White's banal regurgitation of the standard praises of him, especially when compared to Michael Powell's elegant and wholly unpedantic explanation of Walbrook's brilliant rendering of various scenes in Blimp. There seems to be a lot of exhausting intellectual huffing and puffing with this film where the critics are concerned that doesn't amount to much.

Susan White also caused me to have a fight with my wife, which is another reason she is on my dirt list. As often is the case, I was wandering about the house one day plotting in my mind my strategy for taking apart Susan White in this post, and I guess my brow was furrowed and I looked very angry. Of course my wife asked what in the devil was wrong with me and I explained the cause of my fervor, namely that I was taking up an argument with a film scholar who had got on my bad side. As this was dismissed as somehow ridiculous, I pleaded, as I often do, my desperation to engage in the world of art and ideas which seems for whatever reason to be closed to me. This led to my wife's saying that she thought a lot of film scholars would like to have my life. This must have struck me as an impossibly odd thing to me, for my immediate and automatic response, thinking as I ever do only of people who are regarded as smart by other smart people, with real careers, and who are actually good at something, and thinking not at all of my actual domestic situation, which is actually a highly fortunate one, was "Who would want my life?" after which I predictably spent the rest of the afternoon in the doghouse.

One critic who seemed to me to be a professional--unfortunately I can't find it now--thought Ophuls was overly obsessed with 19th century European social customs at the expense of penetrating psychological exposes of his characters. 19th century European social customs are one of the very few things in the entire world, it seems to me, worth being obsessed about.

The link below is for the criterion trailer for the movie, which is excellent and highly enjoyable even for people who have limited ability to detect anything that is not on the surface, in spite of its forbidding reputation.


On the Waterfront (1954) 

I hadn't seen this for about 20 years, so I figured was due for a reacquaintance. Most of these movies I watch at the end of the day when I really tired, am having a last drink and snack before bed, at which times I watch about an hour or so before turning it off and finishing the next night or two nights later or whatever. On the Waterfront is one of that increasingly small class--most of which, to be honest, are Hollywood films of the 30s through the 60s--that I am entertained and distracted enough by to want to sit through all the way in one sitting, the extra hour of sleep be damned. As with most films I suppose, but this one especially, the greatness of it is in the aesthetic details of it much more than the story or politics. It has been described, not I think in a complimentary sense, as having a "Life magazine realism". This of course is mainly what I find attractive about it. It was filmed on location in New York and New Jersey in the winter, so all the actors' faces look like what those of us from the northeast think of as natural. And it's all such a long time ago now. That world is dead dead dead. Brando is dead, and was old when he died. Everybody praises Brando, obviously, but there really is something like genius in his performances. This is not a great role as written, and the role itself never becomes great as a matter of fact. Brando as always does a lot of great things within the confines of the role that make watching him compelling.

These are my people (working class Irish Catholics) here I guess, though with the exception of the genially lovely Eva Marie Saint (more about her later), not exactly the most flattering depiction.

I didn't last long with the commentary on this one either. Richard Schickel, who is the critic at Time magazine and I guess is pretty well known and is personally intimate with the likes of Clint Eastwood, was one of the people doing it, along with another Los Angeles-based writer. Schickel did the commentary for another movie I saw; he is terrible at it. He is probably similar to Susan White in that his mind is not inherently interesting or well-constructed, and therefore he has nothing to add to the conversation about the movie but facts gathered at second or third hand, which invariably miss the point. There are good commentaries by scholars (I don't know about critics), though the movie also has to suit that particular approach. The commentary for Les Enfants du Paradis was so dense with explanations of symbolism and allusions and its reference to the contemporary situation and so forth that it could scarcely keep up with the pace of the film. There was no time for inside Hollywood-type gossip (the boring kind; a good commentator such as Michael Powell or Malcolm McDowell will actually give an anecdote about someone that is worth hearing) or the excessive technical discussions that some analyzers get bogged down in (some technical talk is all right if some unique facet of a scene is pointed out in passing and clearly explained, but detailed discussions of which camera lens was used in each shot are more than most people will care for). Enthusiasm and a strong feel for a director or a time period approached in the spirit of sharing rather than jealous possessiveness also usually goes a long way towards helping the non-industry professional connect with the audience.

There is also a half-hour documentary on the bonus features dedicated solely to the 'I could have been a contender" scene, but life is not that long, so I passed on that one.

On the Waterfront dominated at the Oscars in '54. Looking over the competition now it wasn't a tremendous year. The Caine Mutiny, which I do think is a very good movie, was up that year, and Rear Window, but most of the other big films that year are more dated than this is. It did stand out among the winners of the 50s though, most being of the big budget and flashy variety of films, including several musicals.  The equally low rent Marty did win Best Picture in '55, but otherwise all the Best Picture winners from '51 to '59 were of the extravagant big canvas type.

There were some seriously ugly mugs available to make up the membership of Johnny Friendly's gang. You don't see faces like that anymore. Fred Gwynne, later to win fame both as Muldoon in Car 54 Where Are You? and Herman Munster, can be spotted among this crew, among whom he is a relatively handsome young guy.

Eva Marie Saint is kind of a standard attractive blonde type so I was going to let her pass by without professing my undying love for her, but I had forgotten about her awesome voice, which is actually very similar to Teresa Wright's voice. Teresa Wright was born in 1918 in Manhattan and grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey, which is right next to Newark. Eva Marie Saint was born in Newark in 1924 and grew up in Delmar, New York, which is right next to Albany. I think I see a pattern here. I had always suspected that the greater New York City area circa 1940 was my kind of place, but if there were large numbers of young females who talked like this walking around everywhere...it's 2:42am, and that thought doesn't need to be finished. But here is Eva's voice with some of Brando's charming eccentric genius thrown in as a bonus. This whole section actually is a good demonstration of how this movie is great quite independently of whatever is supposed to be going on in the plot.


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