Friday, May 15, 2015

I Was Going to Interrupt the Movie Reviews to Comment on Current Events But I Thought Better of it

All of the tired, expected topics: Baltimore, the confusion of the political left, the general level of hatred in society, what seems to me the desperate need to find solutions to problems that don't involve business interests getting to dictate terms that are disproportionately favorable to themselves. But all of this was taking too long, and I did not have a great fire for writing it, so I have put these ideas aside until the next crisis calls them forth.

I find that my responses to movies from the 30s are more unpredictable than they are for any other decade. Sometimes I see something from that decade (Captains Courageous, A Tale of Two Cities, Counselor at Law) and I cannot believe how good it is. Then I will see something else and I am reminded that we really are living in a very different world, which was largely the case with the two films here, both of which I had approached with a higher than normal anticipation of greatness and found myself let down by to some extent.

Gunga Din (1939)

One of the many celebrated films (very few of which I have seen to this point, including this one until now) from what has become enshrined in the popular consciousness as Hollywood's greatest year. On this initial viewing I found Gunga Din interesting for its abundance of classic Hollywood tropes--huge stars, adventure and spectacle in an exotic locale, the unabashed cheering on of the great Western empires in collision with the mystifying cultures of the non-European descended world--but somewhat hard to get into as a story that demanded attention in itself. That is to say that it is more than a little silly unless you apply a whole lot of context. Based on the famous poem by Kipling, Gunga Din (played in brownface by a perpetually loincloth-clad Sam Jaffe, who was a widely respected actor--we have seen him here in The Asphalt Jungle) is preternaturally eager to serve the British and throw over those who are, as far as I can make out, his own people. According to the ethos of 1939 this apparently should suffice to make him a winning chap in our (Western) eyes, and we are even encouraged to get teary-eyed at the end. This last is difficult in the original version of the movie (which has been restored on the DVD release I saw) because an actor comes in for the final sequence depicting an absurd and sheepish looking Rudyard Kipling, who is so moved by the denouement of the Gunga Din saga that he immediately sets to writing his immortal poem in his tent as soon as the body is carried away. Kipling's widow, upon seeing a preview or early showing of the film, demanded that this part be removed, as certain to induce hilarity in audiences, which it subsequently was in all of the prints released until recently.

When you are watching this movie, it is probably impossible for the modern instinct not to demand you express some concern for what people in India must make of it. My impression though is that, compared with other peoples historically disrespected by Europeans, Indians, and Indian intellectuals specifically, have enough confidence in the rigor of their thinking and educations, and interest in those processes for their own sakes, to consider these past condescensions a little more dispassionately than we have come to anticipate.

When watching this type of film I try to imagine myself as a scrawny nineteen or twenty old in 1939, living in one of our dense old cities--New York dominates our imagination of urban life at this time but many of our old northern cities, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati, Buffalo, St Louis, even places like Newark and Akron and Utica, were significantly more populous and livelier in 1939 then they are now. I work at some fairly wretched job, either in a factory or a dingy, backroom office, but I am still young enough to go out and I don't have a wife or any sweetheart yet (though I have undeclared affections for various lunch counter workers and regular riders on my favored streetcar routes all over the city). I am in general depressed because my life lacks excitement or purpose and the prospects for improvement in my conditions are not promising. As such my twice-weekly pilgrimage to the movie theater is, for the moment, one of the highlights of my existence, and one of the few suggestive of attractive possibility. So once I have entered this mode somewhat, I am more ready to enjoy the films of this period that require such an adjustment.

The only picture I could find of Reginald Sheffield as Kipling in the movie

Rudy Behlmer, a film writer and historian who is one of my favorite commentators, did the commentary for Gunga Din. While I did not like this commentary as much as I did the one he made for the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood, it was decent. It was a little too heavy on biographical information about the actors and other prominent people involved in the film, much of which I found I knew already, but overall I like his approach and conversational style in these things, which are important.

Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Seminal Frank Capra picture, considered by some to be his masterpiece, considered by seemingly everybody to be one of the all time classics, I came to this expecting to be satisfied in about the highest degree a person like me can ever know of true satisfaction, but I never arrived anywhere near that point. I did not hate it, but it is much more dated--in the mildly unpleasing sense of the word--in all of its main aspects than I was anticipating it would be.

Incredibly, this is the first Capra movie I have seen other than It's a Wonderful Life. It certainly operates in the style Capra is famous for, with broadly drawn themes and human types, with an everyman hero whose solid good nature and practical wisdom suffices for him to contend with the more wily and grasping element which seeks to manipulate and control him, strip him of his American birthright of autonomy of conscience and so on. Gary Cooper, a massive star at the time, not exactly forgotten now but perhaps less actively legendary than his previous status might have suggested he would be, fills the Jimmy Stewart role here as a relatively simple guy in a small town in Vermont who inherits 20 million dollars from a distant relative of whose existence heretofore he seems only to have been vaguely aware. Upon gaining this windfall, he goes to New York and has various adventures, most of which involve hardened city sophisticates trying to take advantage of him for some wretched benefit to themselves. The premise of the story is fine, it is actually one of the kinds of thing I like most, but the execution did not hit home to me. One problem is that Cooper's character develops early in the film a propensity to punch people out who are snobbish to him or otherwise do him a wrong turn. One time this might have been effective, provided a sort of catharsis, but once he begins he starts doing it in every situation involving a confrontation of some kind, including to the opposing lawyer during the trial at the end when he is accused of being incompetent to handle his fortune due to insanity. The trial scene is something of a mess as well, and is for me a kind of microcosm of what is the problem with the movie. I can buy one or two fairly outrageous and unexpected things in this type of movie--in It's a Wonderful Life, for example, I completely accept Clarence the guardian angel as what he says he is--but I can't buy every aspect of a scene or a story bearing no resemblance to what it is supposed to be representing in real life whatsoever. The bit where Cooper undertakes to tackle the depression by being a one man jobs program does not really come off either. Besides the fact that it would never happen, even most amateur students of economics, especially nowadays, would laugh out loud at the idea that it would produce good or sustainable results. So that is what I took away from Mr Deeds Goes to Town, though I do want to read up more on it to see what serious men and women saw in it and presumably liked. I was psyched up for this one, so I took it hard that I found it disappointing.

There was a commentary by Frank Capra Jr, but it was very sparse and not particularly enlightening, so I gave up on it after twenty minutes.

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