Saturday, June 01, 2013

Classic Movies 1950-1960

These are all well-established classics that a certain class of mind is supposed to like. There is another class of mind, that consisting of independent spirit or intelligence, which would probably not deign to bother with them, except to pick out their inanities. I do not belong to that class however.

I had seen all three of these before now, but only once, maybe twice in one instance, and all a long time ago.

Inherit the Wind (1960)

I don't love this movie, but I kept getting the nagging suspicion that it was better than I was giving it credit for. For one thing, I think I was letting myself be deceived by the circumstance that its sets reminded me of a television show of its period. Here are some of what I thought was good about it:

The screenplay is very good, despite being apparently didactic. It is an adaptation from a well-regarded play of the time, which (the time) had a definite strain of earnest concern for social justice and liberty about it. It is frequently intelligent, and thorough, while being lively enough to move the story along and keep the attention of viewers like myself, who like mild stimulation but are generally too tired/out of practice to give much mental exertion.

I saw Spencer Tracy again, and was more impressed with him than I was in Father of the Bride, which I had just seen a week or two before, because I thought he was more or less playing himself in that other movie, and would effectually be the same guy here; but he played a quite different guy, and rather subtly, such that I don't have any sense that one of these characters is more indicative of who he is than another.

It probably does not have to be noted, but Spencer Tracy's physique and overall look, for somebody who was a major star for three decades, is pretty amazing. The guy's upper body was mashed potatoes, and he always looked 10 or 15 years older than he actually was. When he did Father of the Bride, he was 50, about the same age as Brad Pitt and George Clooney are today (or, to make a more contemporary comparison, as Cary Grant was circa To Catch a Thief. On the other hand, Wilfred Brimley was an even older-looking 50 at the time of his career-making performance in Cocoon). He is 60 in this one. I used to thnk of 60 as old, but many 60 year olds nowadays prefer training for and running marathons to loading up on steak and martinis (Tracy is what 60 looks like when you focus on the latter). Even Philip Seymour Hoffman probably employs a personal trainer and dietician.

The great Frederic March played the William Jennings Bryan character, I suppose well. He is at least quite unrecognizable to me as Frederic March in his costume, the bald head especially.

Things that irritate me about this movie:

I have no particular love for Bible-thunping rural white southerners, but I thought the rather raw contempt poured out on them in this movie did not really do the filmakers much credit--it certainly did not add anything to the quality of the film. I realize that this came out as the civil rights era was starting to gain heat, and though there is no direct racial dimension in it, anti-southern sentiment among the mosr progressive social justice liberals--and Stanley Kramer was perhaps the most avowedly politically motivated major studio director of this time--was running high. Nonetheless, given the star power on display in the movie, and the extras showing the film being feted at gala celebrations in Berlin and Cannes, my class instincts kicked in with the feeling that this was not quite a fair fight, and while maybe at some level it was an honest representation of the reality on the ground, it was not an artistically worthy or fair one.

Gene Kelly--yes, the dancer, though at least they don't have him break into any numbers here--is not well cast as a cynical newspaper reporter who I believe is supposed to be H L Mencken. Having read even a little H L Mencken, I cannot imagine he was anything like the character depicted here, though one would assume most of the brain trust involved in the making of the movie would have been more familiar with his works than I am, or even known the man personally. My impression of Mencken is that he was a rather pitiless person towards people he considered inferior (pretty much everybody), who never smiled, and only laughed with people who had demonstrated some worth. Kelly plays the role as a kind of nihilistic, wisecracking, light person, which does not ring true to me.

Donna Anderson (this is not in the category of things that irritated me) is the token babe in this, and she has an appealing 1960 look, which is why I mention her. She went on to have a modest career in television, though not in any shows that I ever watched.

Paths of Glory (1957)

This was a St John's favorite. I think they showed it twice there, once as the regular Saturday night classic, and a couple of years afterwards as part of the Wednesday Kubrick series. It has a sensibility that fits comfortably there. Its time is close to the heyday of the College's modern era--I believe Jacob Klein himself was still the dean in 1957. It has a kind of classical spareness both of plot construction and in its sets and general style. Its themes are the sorts of things you can talk about at the bar afterwards without straining yourself or falling asleep, so that you feel you taking part in mental life to some degree. So needless to say my viewing, after about a 20 year interval, was heavily colored by these associations.

I had forgotten that one of the guys was chosen to be the sacrificial lamb from his platoon because, among other reasons, he was a 'social undesirable'. At times I feel like there are some people nowadays--perhaps even myself--could stand to gain by the sort of concentration upon self-improvement that the threat of being sentenced to execution because you are so repulsive to people might inspire.

An Adolphe Menjou sighting! He is in the cast as a cynical, weaselly, sybaritic French general (I think there are several redundancies).

I still don't really understand the part at the end where a terrified German girl is put in front of a pack of ravenous, wolf-whistling French soldiers and manages to subdue their raging boorishness by singing a melancholy song.

Conscripting armies to fight wars, especially wars like this where 75-90% of a birth cohort is killed, and the military leadership considers itself justified to make an example of conscript citizen-soldiers it considers not to be fighting with enough zeal by shooting them, is almost unthhinkable in the current state of society, on the mass scale of the 2 world wars especially. Aside from reticence about possibly being killed, huge segments of the present population simply don't regard the state as having authority over them to that degree. Power, yes, but power to which they are in a state of antagonism, not something to which they see themselves as owing a duty.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

This is even more firmly ensconced in the Pantheon than the other two, so much so that many of the more highbrow or edgier iconoclasts on the internet take glee in knocking it down as much as they can, along with its similarly popular and acclaimed director, the great Billy Wilder, by whose creations they are decidedly unimpressed. I actually worship these people in a way, at least when they are obviously the sort of people who are cool and are successful with women, or are themselves desirable women hopelessly beyond my social reach, but unfortunately even when I am able to share their tastes I am unable to partake of what must be the exhilirating sharpness with which they savor their particular likes and especially their dislikes. Needless to say, I am a fan of Sunset Boulevard. Like other Billy Wilder films, it is fantastic (in the sense of being over the top in its storytelling and characterizations) and yet seems to me more like real life than a hundred other movies, and good ones too..

Quickly, some favorite dialogue bits:

JOE (upon Norma's declaring that he needs some new clothes): What's wrong with this shirt?

NORMA: Nothing, I suppose. If you work in a filling station.

That line kills me for some reason.

Near the end when Betty Schaffer comes to the house and discovers the truth about Joe:

BETTY: No, no. I haven't heard any of this. I never got those telephone calls. I've never been in this house...Get your things together. Let's get out of here.

JOE: All my things? All the eighteen suits, all the custom-made shoes and the eighteen dozen shirts, and the cuff-links and the platinum key-chains, and the cigarette cases?

I've never had nice clothes or accessories, and rarely think about wanting them, but I want them when I see them.

The Oscar for best actor in 1950 went to Jose Ferrer for Cyrano de Bergerac. I haven't seen that, so maybe it was the clear cut winner, but as, similar to Brando the next year in A Streetcar Named Desire, if not quite so dramatically, William Holden's role and presence is one of the more memorable performances in the history of the movies, I am thinking he probably would have been a deserving winner. Incidentally, Spencer Tracy was also nominated that year for Father in the Bride, another iconic role, but not I don't think in the same class as Joe Gillis. I like William Holden as a actor. He had that All-American midwestern charm combined with an unassuming studliness, a type which seems to have disappeared from the national scene in the last generation. He was apparently very good friends with Billy Wilder. This is noteworthy to me because Billy Wilder is one of the all time giants in his field and it is curious to know what kind of friends and intimates such people have. William Holden had some problems with alcohol such as we tend to frown on nowadays, most notably killing a person in a car accident while driving drunk. He also died at the age of 63 by falling onto the edge of a table while intoxicated in his apartment and bleeding to death, which is sad, really, but he had a little bit of an artistic flair about him, enough to be likable, and the possession of a restless and regularly unsatisfied soul often seems to be a prerequisite for attaining to this state.

Nancy Olson, who plays the fresh-faced aspiring screenwriter Betty Schaefer and represents to Joe the illusion of escape from the deformation of his soul that has been expedited by his taking up with Norma Desmond, was know as "Wholesome Olsen" in her high school days. That was in Wisconsin; in the 40s. That's pretty wholesome.

Doubtless this has been remarked upon before, but Norma Desmond is basically Don Quixote in drag and possessed of a massive fortune. The scene where she goes to the studio and is not able to be disabused of the conceit that she is still the greatest star in the world is reminiscent of various Don Quixote episodes, especially those in the second part where people begin to humor him by acting as if he were really the knight he claims to be.

Given Buster Keaton's current status in the very first rank of the Pantheon of the all-time greatest movie directors and actors, it never ceases to astound to see his cameo appearance with fellow washed-up, and at the time forgotten, silent film stars essentially playing themselves as Norma Desmond's old friends. In 1950 though the means of delivering old movies, to the extent people were even interested in seeing them, especially silent ones, was pretty limited, and film history as constituting some part of one's artistic education had not yet entered the general consciousness; which pretty much left Buster Keaton on the outside looking in, though he remained active and made guest appearances on venues like The Donna Reed Show, which would sort of be like Woody Allen appearing in a bit part on The Big Bang Theory, except that Keaton is normally considered now to be a major modernist artist, admired by Samuel Beckett and other cultural titans of the 20th century.

Contemporary Bonus: I watched Silver Linings Playbook because besides being much touted I knew it took place in Philadelphia and mildly deranged Eagles fans constituted a major part of the plot, and a decent Philadelphia-themed movie is pretty once in a generation event. I have to say it was very entertaining, though I would have liked more Inside Philly stuff and I think at some level the movie would have to be considered a failure because it purportedly is about rather dark subject matter, but I, and probably a lot of other people, came away from it thinking that maybe getting arrested and committed to a mental institution, taking a few years off to hang out at somebody else's parents' house (I don't want to live with my own parents), jogging, reading books, watching football games, visiting my zany Indian psychiatrist who really cares about me, and practicing dancing with a 23 year old babe who is also a mental health patient while I recover might be just what I need in my life at this time.

Regarding such Philly stuff as there was: They started strong by having the Bradley Cooper character carrying something around in an empty jar of Hellman's Mayonnaise, and I thought, this is going to be good, because Philadelphia people, for reasons which I have never understood though I too suffer from the affliction, cannot endure any other mayonnaise than Hellman's. I cannot bring myself to purchase another brand. I had to do the shopping for my son's camping trip with the scouts and they told me, 'just buy the store brand of everything' but I couldn't bring myself to put another brand of mayonnaise in the cart. The really odd thing about this is that most sophisticated people outside of the 215 think it is an absolutely terrible variation on mayonnaise. My wife thinks it is nasty stuff, but she has been to Philadelphia enough times to know that what I am talking about is real, and something deeper than taste. Apparently French mayonnaise is so incredible that normal people after having one bite are never able to stand the taste of Hellman's again. But this doesn't apply to people from Philadelphia.

I thought they got the Christmas scene at the house with the lights, the kind of food, the Frank Sinatra Christmas song in the background, pretty accurately. When you are a kid you assume everybody everywhere listens to Frank Sinatra Christmas albums, and Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole and Perry Como and other people like that, but people in New Hampshire, for example, really don't. In general people in New England after they are about 25 don't seem to have popular music records or radio on obsessively in the background all the time, and especially at parties, like everybody I know did growing up. Sometimes my wife will let me put a record on when we have a birthday party or family guests, but the sound is put low and we always turn it off when it is time to eat or serve cake. The music in this movie was good in general. There was nothing in, other than the Sinatra, that was specific to Philadelphia life, but it was all things people would be into if it came on.

Things that were wrong: The most egregious error was when the Jennifer Lawrence character talked about a car broken down, 'on 76, near the King of Prussia Mall'. Though I-76 is the main east-west highway running out of Philadelphia, I have never heard anyone refer to it by its number. In town out to Valley Forge the road is always called the Schuylkill Expressway, after the river it runs alongside, at which point it joins with the Turnpike. Both the Expressway and the Turnpike predate the numbered Interstate highway system and everybody still refers to them by the old names. Most other state and U.S. roads are also called by their local names. I-95 is referred to by its number. This is nit-picking, but when somebody in a movie refers to something you have been on or heard spoken about a thousand times using a term for it you have never heard anyone use in real life, it is rather jarring. New Yorkers certainly wouldn't stand for it.

Also a real die-hard Eagles fan could never be friends with a Dallas Cowboy fan. The mindset and life experiences are too disparate for any real bond of intimacy to develop. I don't even think I could be in love with a woman who was in any way a serious Dallas Cowboy fan. This is extreme, because sometime in the early 90s I remember watching a TV show--I think it was Beverly Hills 90210--where one of the guy characters had to dump a gorgeous blue-eyed Aryan goddess he was dating because she revealed racist tendencies, and of course my reaction was, "Who cares?" If anything, I thought a girl who sincerely disliked blacks or Arabs or whomever could probably be counted on not to run off with one under my nose, and that seemed at the time not an unappealing thought to me. But a Dallas Cowboy fan, you know it would be doomed from the start.

I like the high school reading list he does, though he continually is frustrated by the endings of the books and hurls them through the window. A lot of the books he reads I never read either in high school or afterwards--Lord of the Flies, The Grapes of Wrath, whichever of the two early Hemingways he reads. I don't remember much which novels I read in school. A Separate Peace, I remember, and Great Expectations. David Copperfield had been the Dickens novel they had read at my school up to about 1980, when they changed it because David was too long. I'm guessing by now Dickens has been dropped from the curriculum altogether.

I've got to finish this post tonight, so my last points will be quick and un-expanded upon.

So let me get this straight. You go home and catch another man having sex with your wife in the shower and you beat him up, you get arrested? That doesn't sound very American to me.

Jennifer Lawrence does strike me as embodying some especially characteristic strain of this new generation of women (the millenials) that we are getting. It would take me at least an hour though to tease out what I mean by that, so I will leave it for another time.

Like many movies that crave mainstream approval nowadays, there are a lot of extraneous multicultural characters thrown in whose characters nor multicultural qualities are essential to the plot. The materialistic wife of Bradley Cooper's vaguely ethnic (Hispanic?) friend who was being driven to an early grave by stress had some reality as a character, but was completely extraneous to any story (then again, the story itself is largely extraneous to what is interesting about the movie). The Indian psychiatrist who turns into a face painting, insane Eagles fan on fall Sundays is a nice try, but a bit of a stretch, I think. It's clear they had no idea what to do with the black guy.

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