Saturday, March 08, 2014

Don't Call It a Comeback

As often happens around this time of year, I had a period of a couple of weeks where I could not get any kind of essay going. One day I was going to take up the subject of the particular types of monsters that are currently ascendant in our society and how there are things about them, in spite of their unopposable greatness and superiority, that still really are troubling, and another day I scribbled down an idea that I cannot remember or make out what it was now (it looks like "long camp" or "one camp" which signifies nothing to me). Then I was driving and in Florida for about ten days, and when I tried to log onto the site it would not let me because I was in an unusual location--evidently now you have to check in with Google when go on vacation, at least if you don't bring your own computer with you. And then while I was away a frozen pipe burst in the office requiring that room to be cleaned out. The carefully typed out manuscripts of my old attempts at writing that had been moldering there for years bundled in special gold paper clips, were finally destroyed at least.  I thought maybe I would even be permanently blocked from logging onto this site but now that I am home it is letting me in again.

It is still not my intention that the site become exclusively a record of movies I have watched. I do want to keep that record however and I have said before this is a convenient place to keep it.

That said, we are back to the 1930s now, which means I am pretty much going to like everything no matter what it is. I was not particularly amped beforehand to see any of these four I am reviewing today, yet I thought there were fine things about all of them.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

This is a real classic, for what it is--and that seems to me nothing inconsiderable--it is perfect in just about every way. I do not think it would be possible to make a movie (or write a book, or a song) like this, in this kind of spirit, now even if one wanted to, which in spite of all the powerful arguments in favor of progressivism in the culture due to technology and the increasing dominance of fact and information in every facet of human endeavor, seems to me to be a real shame.

I suppose I should try to explain why I would say this. The movie pleases a part of the brain which is not usually stimulated in such a fashion in modern life. To begin with, it has one of the best casts of all time. Having been raised in the modern era, the presence of particular stars or actors rarely has struck me as being all that important to the interest of the movie, even when they are good (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman was one exception to this that I can think of offhand). But it is unusual that I see a performance and feel that this one actor has made the role or the part really special. Claude Rains (who plays the wicked Prince John here) almost always has this effect, and by himself is usually enough to make any movie he is in a matter of cinematic interest. Basil Rathbone is also an oddly compelling actor to watch perform. This is my first time seeing Errol Flynn, who plays  Robin Hood. He holds his own among this highly distinguished company, but my overall impression is still somewhat undefined. He was a major star at this time, though today his most characteristic movies (Captain Blood, et al) do not seem to me to be well-known today. The adjective most commonly used to describe his film persona is 'swashbuckling'. Swashbuckling carries with it an implication of roguish (but adult) fun, and the successful combating with people who on paper at least are as strong as one's self, all without apparent stress or worry regarding the outcome on the part of the swashbuckler. Olivia de Havilland, another of my favorite stars of this time, is one hand as Maid Marion. She is not required to do a lot other than look good (in a 1930s idea of 12th century dress), be cold to Guy of Gisborne, and provide encouragement and a reward to Robin Hood for continuous heroic deeds, but as almost the only female character in the movie, she does this well enough. (As an aside, Olivia de Havilland is still alive, aged 97. She was 22 when Robin Hood came out).

A second strength of this is that it has a great uncomplicated understanding of what is most broadly appealing in the source material and it goes with that above any other consideration, such that nearly every scene is its own satisfaction and hits the viewer's romantic susceptibility head on. The story flows almost effortlessly from the romantic setting of the forest to the early dramatic peaks of the confrontation in the castle and the archery tournament and back and forth all the way to the anticipated climax. But getting to the end or anywhere in the future is less the point in this movie than almost anything I have ever seen.

While today this would be considered a children's project, and any attempt at an adult interpretation would have to be sexed up considerably, this 1938 version seems to be directed at an amorphous general filmgoer who is composed of childlike and adult elements at the same time. Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone approach the material in the full adult personas of Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone. They aren't hamming it up for the kids or mailing it in and sneering at the earnest middlebrow American public. Even though their parts are funny and over the top and are to a certain extent meant to be, they took the execution of them most seriously.

This came with many bonus features, most of which I enjoyed, though this entailed spending a week or more considering this one movie. There was the regular commentary, which was by a film scholar named Rudy Behlmer, who had a congenial manner of talking and some sense of humor, which I liked, there was an hour long documentary on the history of technicolor which I found enjoyable (Robin Hood was not the first major technicolor movie--it was around the ninth or tenth--but it may have been the first really memorable one), there were some shorts from the 1940s, including one of Errol Flynn taking a yacht trip along the coast of Mexico and Jamaica (by way of the Panama Canal, though filming was forbidden there) with his scientist father, one of his many wives, and numerous of his colorful friends, including the archery expert who had consulted on Robin Hood. There was a (too brief) look at some scenes from the 1922 silent version of Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks, which looks like a pretty good, as well as hilarious, movie in its own right. There was a blooper reel of 1938 Warner Brothers productions that was an staple at the studio's annual employee banquet. In short, quite a lot of good stuff of the sort that I have not seen before.

Apparently in the scenes where people are shot in the chest with arrows they really were shot with arrows. Of course they had on thick padding underneath, cork and other types of reinforcement, though it still seems rather dangerous to me (what if the archer was off a couple of feet and got you in the eye?) It was noted that the extras who took these arrow shots got paid an extra $50.

There were two directors credited on the film, William Keighley and Michael Curtiz, the latter of whom directed a number of famous movies, including Casablanca.

Captains Courageous (1937)

Another movie that was much more emotionally engaging than I had anticipated, and also featured a cast full of big names. Spencer Tracy appears yet again, though in a much younger incarnation than we have seen him yet, and is, as film performances go, more or less spectacular. I suspect this is the best role of his increasingly impressive career. Old Hollywood legend Lionel Barrymore is in the house as the captain of the fishing boat. Though by today's standards his management style is a series of negligence and wrongful death lawsuits waiting to be filed, we are supposed, I think, to recognize him as a serious and noble man at the end of the movie. Freddie Bartholomew, who played the kid, is genuinely obnoxious in the beginning but becomes quite affecting by the end. Mickey Rooney is also in it, though I don't think his presence adds much. But then I've never been able to like that guy.

This was directed by Victor Fleming, who is most famous for directing both The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind in 1939. He was obviously an able director of studio films.

The home base of the fisherman in this movie is Gloucester, Massachusetts, another place pretty close to where I live (probably 90 minutes) which I am reminded I have never been to. I have put on my list for the upcoming spring and summer. Whatever else there is to do, we can check out the famous fisherman monument (which is in the movie) and probably there are some atmospheric places to get seafood, even if the fishing industry is effectively dead there compared to what it had been well into my lifetime. I suspect there must be a few old ship captain's houses around, too. Those kinds of kinds of towns usually have enough interest to fill a day.

The story is from a Rudyard Kipling book. I believe Kipling wrote it during the time when he was living in Brattleboro. I also believe it is his only book that has an American setting. I have not read it, though it is on at least one of my lists, so I probably will someday.

The movie romanticizes and extols the humble life devoted to hard work and simple, honest pleasures, and contrasts it with the kinds of grotesque and empty excesses of a life too much cushioned by wealth. These fishermen are rough characters, sure, but they are at bottom good men who instinctively as it were knew exactly what the boy needed to flesh out his character. I was quite taken aback at the end when the fisherman donned ties and jackets upon arriving back on land and also by the highly civilized and almost genteel  personality of the captain's household. The modern day New England fishermen don't really seem to clean up like this, not that I know that many.

Follow the Fleet (1936)

Another 30s movie carried by the presence of brilliant superstars, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in this case. It is probably my least favorite of this set; however it has some pretty good songs in it and it seems, compared to other 30s musicals I have seen, to be more full and more like a real movie all around. That is to say that the plot, such as it is, tries to resemble the form of a plot,  and develop an identifiable structural framework. The plausibility of Fred Astaire's having joined the navy to get over the breakup of his partnership/nightclub act with Ginger, of his running dancing classes on board a battleship, and of his organizing and starring in a civilian stage show during his shore leave to pay for the restoration of the sailing sloop that had belonged to the father of Ginger and her sisters, are not important.

The decline of the song and dance man (and woman) as a major component of the movie and television entertainment scene over the last 40-50 years is really one of the more astounding developments in the history of these media.

The woman in the photo above is Harriet Hilliard, who played Ginger Roger's sister. She would become best known for marrying Ozzie Nelson, fathering Ricky, and playing herself on the iconic 1950s TV show starring the family.

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

Charles Laughton is the star of this, and of course we know all about him (as an actor). He apparently had the kind of sex life, heavy on the gay side and full of breathtakingly casual and borderline respectable encounters, that shocks the living daylights out of people like me who have never touched another person's body in any kind of risky or illicit or even mildly socially disapproved manner. That is to say, I am aware that he had this kind of side to him, and was not the distinguished and respectable European gentleman he often portrays in films 24 hours a day. It is important that I note this because this sensual and artistic life with its seemingly (at the highest levels) carefree and casual creativity and wit and fun is so foreign to me that I forget that it is a serious world that is very different from that known to me. Anyway, in these four movies we have definitely seen five of the better movie actors/performances of all time (Rains, Rathbone, Tracy, Astaire, and Laughton), five big names who may or may not be at that level in other films (Flynn, de Havilland, Barrymore, Rogers, Melvyn Douglas), besides much excellent work by the supporting players.

Ruggles of Red Gap is based on a novel by Harry Leon Wilson, which I had not known beforehand. I had actually read one of Harry Leon Wilson's books, Merton of the Movies, probably 20 years ago, and I have always thought it one of those good-natured, cleverly written books that is undervalued. Besides the similarity of the alliterative title, of which the author was apparently fond, Ruggles and Merton are similar kinds of stories. In both instances a young, or at least youngish, man migrates to the American west in the early 20th century--Merton to Hollywood to try to break into the movies, Ruggles as an English butler whose lord loses him in a poker game in Paris to the uncouth scion of a mining operation (who looks and dresses rather like Mark Twain) based in Red Gap, Washington. Some fish out of water hilarity ensues as the greenhorn adapts to his new surroundings, but eventually both Merton and Ruggles find their level, embrace the freedom of men in command of their own destiny that early 20th-century America, and especially the western parts of it, offers, and get the girl (even though we know enough now to suppose that Charles Laughton probably doesn't want the girl). There is some corn in it--the scene where Ruggles recites the Gettysburg Address to a teary-eyed audience in the saloon is a bit much even for me--but on the whole it is a satisfying, feel good kind of picture. It's also not available on Netflix, so I sprang for a $1.79 VHS copy.

My wife observed during one of the early scenes in Paris where two Americans spot each other in the road in front of a cafe and being whooping and hollering and snorting like cows and riding on each others' backs, to the extreme horror of the cafe patrons, that "unfortunately only the Australians act like this now."

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