Saturday, July 11, 2015

Maybe the Most Classic Movie Post Yet (1933-1940)

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

I have never gotten around to reading the book yet (though it appears on all of my lists eventually), nor had I seen the movie until now. It was probably time for one of them. The film was satisfying to me. John Ford of course directed it, though I have still not had that moment of profound, I-see-the-light connection with his personal style. It is more that I like most of the studio productions I see from this specific period, the prewar pinnacle from '38 to '41 or so. The images and sensibility they present, of the landscape, of the people, of history, of literature, still inform the ideas of much of the common mind with regard to all of these subjects. It was a transitional period, which will be a theme throughout this post. For me at least, the people in movies in 1930 and the world they inhabit seem quite remote and foreign, but by 1940 these have become very recognizable--in many instances almost more so than the present.

I liked the presentation of the road trip--Route 66, passing the state capital in Oklahoma City, how the road was unpaved when crossing into Arizona, the roadside diner, the bridge at Needles, the desert. Some hardcore critics have complained, as someone always must, that the real hardships and poverty of the Okies were softened to be palatable for the public, but I think their circumstances as presented here are plenty grim. Movies that insist on being relentlessly miserable also tend to kill in me any hopefulness that improvements can be effected. I liked the beginning scenes in Oklahoma too, they they are reminiscent of the Kansas portions of the Wizard of Oz. I thought the tone was a good one to take, the emphasis on these people being Americans and having cultural and linguistic affinity with both the filmmaker and the audience, and the confidence that the government, representing the greater nation, could have a positive role in mitigating some of the really ugly consequences of the economic situation (as represented by the much more pleasant and competently organized government camp--with showers!--that the family is able to stay at near the end of the movie).

Mutiny on the Bounty  (1935)

Another real monument, eminently watchable and crowd pleasing. an early realization of the finely polished Hollywood product that we all know. We also have the irrepressible Charles Laughton starring as Captain Bligh, though while he still gets some good lines ('Clear the deck of this r-rrrabble"), he does not have quite the free range to completely take over the character of the film the way he does in many of his other roles. I really notice in this movie and the two below the jump, or break, as some might see it, that took place in film production from 1933 to 1935--those in the latter year seeming so much more modern in terms of dialogue, mood (superficially at least much less dark), humor, what constitutes attractiveness in women, the stars such as Laughton and Clark Gable still have a general resonance with modern audiences whereas some of the earlier stars do not. I mentioned in an earlier post (on Baby Face, I think) how I was struck by the general crassness and slatternliness of the pre-code era films in contrast with anything that has come since, even the self-consciously edgy movies of the post-1970 era. The Code doubtless is responsible for a lot of these changes, but perhaps, in certain areas, it had a positive influence. It did raise the tone of movies, and one suspects of public discourse in general, as far as the mass mind was concerned.

The part where the daily log is read when Bligh and those loyal to him in the castaway boat have been several weeks on the open sea and are out of food and water, with no immediate prospect of finding land, essentially dead men floating, and it is noted that all there is left to do is to pray to the Almighty for deliverance struck me as noteworthy, for this is precisely the kind of situation at which modern intellectuals, or the more comfortable ones at least, are fond of pointing out as a demonstration of the absurdity of the idea of a higher power, conscious or otherwise, that takes the slightest hand in human affairs. Yet it makes perfect sense that if a man were really reduced to the woeful state that the castaways found themselves in, that prayer, or something akin to it, would be almost the instinctive response. That does not mean that it is 'true' or that it proves the material or objective supernatural existence of anything, but the impulse in such instances is a profound one and means more in terms of the human experience than perhaps some people appreciate.

This was based on an at one time famous book as well, though I don't think it is read much anymore.

Dinner at Eight (1933)

Now in two years we are back practically in another era, not just in the movies of course but in American history, as doubtless along with the code the Rooseveltian political ascendance and the more hands-on, technocratic approach to governing and its underlying aims that Americans began to accept after 1933 had no small influence on the character of films. Based on a hit play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, who were big name writers at the time, the movie was an extravaganza full of huge stars who were at the peak of their fame at the time, most of whom however would be facing has-been status within a couple of years. John Barrymore, one of the greatest American actors ever and in my top ten favorite male stars, though I had only seen him before this in two movies (Grand Hotel and Counsellor at Law), in both of which he was magnetic, is in this, though he was not his usual awesome self such as I was expecting. And indeed, many historians of the movies note this particular film, in which he plays an alcoholic has-been actor having an affair with a woman half his age that apparently was a mirror of his own place in life at that time, as the beginning of his decline. This is my first time seeing Marie Dressler, a blowsy, overweight, middle-aged vaudeville veteran who was the number 1 box office star in the country in 1932 and 1933. Her persona in this was as a wise-cracking, seen it all, worldly wise artistic mother hen with a big heart. My impression was that her shtick was a little overplayed, but that was the vaudeville style. She actually died of cancer in 1934 at the height of her fame, but it is hard for me to see her maintaining her status as a top draw as the 30s wore on. Jean Harlow, who was one of the major 'sex symbols' (I thought today that this was an odd expression; but then as I don't especially like most of the people who are designated as symbolic in this way, it is perhaps because the term does not strike me with significant meaning) of the 30s, famous for her pussycat pouting, platinum hair, and the pointedly underdeveloped intellects of most of her characters, is also here. Not really my type. She died (at age 26!) in 1937, at which time she was still a pretty big star, though I have not heard of most, if any, of the movies she was in.

The story in this, as well as its tone, definitely belong to that side of the 1930s cinema that I find to be strange, of enormous doors and lavishly furnished rooms that look as if no one ever occupied them, of naked social climbing and social misery, and a certain blunt honesty about people's sexual and financial interests. The movie is of interest as a glimpse of its time, and of all of its so soon to be vanished megastars, and if Netflix ever sends me a DVD of it (I had to check it out on early 90s era VHS from the library) I will certainly watch it again and see if I can get anything more from it.  

King Kong (1933)

Probably more important and epic for the sci-fi/monster/special effects aficionado, but it is certainly historically iconic, and I feel like I have achieved the next level in my progression as a movie buff in having seen it. Speaking of seeing it, have the PC police checked this out lately? I would advise them to skip it, but I get the sense that a lot of them feel a thrill of righteousness and vindication in seeing what they know all white people really perceive exotic peoples and countries to be like anyway depicted on the screen.

There was quite a bit of material in the extras about the director, Merian Cooper, who was the kind of daredevil, hyperenergetic, independent, endlessly resourceful and creative American male specimen that seems to have especially flourished in the early decades of the 20th century, at least I am discovering more and more individuals who broadly fit the type. A fighter pilot in World War I, Cooper was shot down and taken prisoner, knocking him out of action for the remainder of the war. His appetite for fighting not quenched (thus joining Hitler as the only men I am aware of who did not get enough of World War I), he went and joined the Poles in their fight for independence against the fledgling Soviet Army, in which conflict he was taken prisoner again. He escaped from Soviet prison, where his life was only spared because they did not realize who he really was, and made his way back to the United States, where he and his friend and collaborator Ernest Schoedsack took up documentary filmmaking, making intrepid ventures to places like Iran and Thailand and Sudan that were scarcely on anyone's radar in the United States in the 1920s. In addition to producing many films, especially numerous of John Ford's classics, he became an off and on executive at MGM and other companies. When the United States entered World War II he immediately re-enlisted in the Air Force and directed numerous bombing raids in Japanese held areas of China, rising to the rank of brigadier general. One could go on, but you get the general idea. And this guy is not someone who is really all that well-known, even as the director of King Kong, which is what he is most famous for.

I also watched Odd Man Out again, as Netflix finally sent me a disc of it, from the Criterion Collection too. My second impressions are, above all, that it is one of the most gorgeous movies I have ever seen, which is all the more remarkable when you consider that much of it was shot in Belfast (with the remainder in London) in 1947, a time and place not thought of at the time as being beautiful, but in contrast with today's world there is an elegance in day to day common speech, clothing, cityscapes, customs and the like that hold a deep attractiveness to a person like me. This atmosphere, more so than in The Third Man (which was Carol Reed's next film after this) is what makes the movie what it is.

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