Monday, August 05, 2013

1946-1949 Movie Post

I have been on vacation, hence the delay in posts. For any secret regular readers out there.

On the Town (1949)

This movie is quite silly, it doesn't have any songs that I am particularly taken with, one of its three leading women is decidedly ugly, and one of its other leading women has something too all around weird about her for me to warm up to. One will imagine that I am now going to say that I like it anyway, but that would not be wholly accurate; however, I do like certain things about it, and it was painless to get through, though it should not have been. In addition to all of its bombast and effort, it had a lot of that real, unconscious postwar optimism that is so infectious, and the like of which someone my age has never known. There is the sense, for example, that New York really does in a way belong to all of "us" who have any feeling for it, and that when we are young and energetic it is reasonable that we should go there, for a time at least, and test ourselves and engage with the life to be found there, and that if we do this, a more interesting version of our lives should happen for us, even if at 27 or 32 or 38 or 45 our time and usefulness in the life of the city has run its course and we have to vacate the premises to let a new wave of energetic people take our places. Like many musicals from this period, the movie allows its audience the conceit that life, or at least life as presented in it, is full of fun, romance, new experiences, new and like-minded compadres and all of the other things ordinary boring people daydream about endlessly but rarely get to experience. There are variations on this attitude throughout the history of Hollywood especially, but they were able to most consistently, organically, and spontaneously achieve it in the way I am thinking of in those first few years after the war.  

Frank Sinatra's role in this is odd to the modern viewer in that he had not quite become Himself yet. He's surprisingly small and scrawny, and is not the commanding superman-type presence among the other actors that one would expect from his later iconic status and "My Way" reputation. He is pretty much one of the group here. His character is also the least worldly among the males, and he ends up with the least attractive, indeed nearly mannish woman, which is also a departure from type.

I watched this the night before Esther Williams died, which was a coincidence, since Gene Kelly, Sinatra, and Betty Garrett, who are all in this, had teamed up with her the previous year in Take Me Out to the Ball Game. The double play combination of "O'Brien to Ryan to Goldberg" in that film was a reminder of those heady days, so short-lived that maybe they only ever existed in my imagination, when it looked like Catholics, especially the Irish and Italians, and Jews might be teaming up for some desirable cultural or social purpose, before the American Catholic population fell apart as a substantial force in society starting in the late 1960s.

For some reason I had not known this movie was in color before this viewing. I had always imagined it in black and white.

Oliver Twist (1948)

Solid British version, directed by David Lean, who is widely regarded, on the strength of this and 1946's Great Expectations, which I have not seen, to be the best cinematic interpreter of Dickens. The movie is handsome, well-acted, and the story well-told. Only one time did I notice I missed one of the numbers from the later musical version of the story:

The depiction of Fagin, played by Alec Guinness, has been controversial for being obnoxiously anti-semitic. Guinness wears an enormous hook nose, which has been usually explained away by observing that this is how the character was drawn in the famous illustrations that accompanied the book, which the filmmakers tried to adhere to as closely as possible. Guinness also plays the character with a lisp, which I am pretty certain is manifest through the dialogue in the story, which anyway does not in itself suggest Jewishness to me. I suppose there are other negative Jewish stereotypes written into the character, though if you were not already aware of them I doubt you would make the connection from what is given in the movie. The dialogue and idiosyncracies of the character are overall extremely well-written and well-acted. I cannot really convince myself that this is not in general true. Fagin, at least as played by Alec Guinness, who really demonstrates considerable acting talent here, is the most vivid, verbally interesting character in the film. Do the stereotyping and prejudice detract tremendously from the story? One may feel it should, but that is not the same thing as feeling that it does. Most characters in Dickens are caricatures of one kind or another with one dominant aspect that is developed to a greater degree. Fagin in this sense probably is more roundly developed than the run of characters in Dickens's books, though the author committed a major faux pas by investing the caricature here with insulting traits associated negatively with ethnicity rather than personal qualities or education level or class origins, which modern people are generally more willing to tolerate (though many pure and dogged souls, God bless them, will not). This story does present particular problems for the person who would rather avoid these kinds of unarguable arguments because the character in question is a good and more than usually interesting literary or cinematic character, in the sense of what he says and does in driving the story along.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Much-praised film noir that I had some anticipation to see because in addition of course to being a fanatic of this period I did not know what to expect at all. It wasn't bad but it didn't seem to me to be quite the classic it is made out to be either. As in a lot of these noirs, the premise is rather clumsy, and the film is dependent on other elements--atmosphere, dialogue, compelling performers/characters--to have anything to say to me, and none of that really happened here, apart from the scene where Lana Turner's lawyer gets her to spill out and sign the confession that turns out not to be official so that she would get it out of her system--that part was good. Of the two leads, Lana Turner was considered one of the absolute bombshells of the age at the time, and she is what she is, but I cannot say I find her all that fascinating; and the male star, John Garfield, I have to admit I had never heard of before this movie, though there was a short documentary about him included in the extras that made the claim that he was a huge star for about ten years from the late 30s to the late 40s, before getting called before the un-American activities committee and not naming names, shortly after which (1952) he died of a heart attack at the age of 39. He sounds like an interesting guy--he was an important stage actor in one of the major movements of the serious theater during the 30s--but I can't say he drew me in to him in this movie either.

The book on which the movie was based was written by James M Cain, who was also the author of Double Indemnity. Cain's father was on the faculty of St John's College Annapolis, and the author was born in the Paca-Carroll house on campus where the family lived. This building is now a dormitory, though so renovated as to be quite modern on the inside.     

1 comment:

Hannah said...

Wow. I have seen Oliver a number of times, and also love Alec Guiness, and yet somehow completely missed the fact that he portrayed Fagin in the movie! Good grief! I'm too obsessed with Bill and Nancy, I expect.