Saturday, February 27, 2010

Prix de Beauté (1930)

One of the tiny handful of films to feature Louise Brooks in a starring role, Prix de Beauté (Miss Europe) is worth seeing for that reason only. It was one of the very first talkies to be made in France, in 1930, and it was actually started as a silent film. In fact the dialogue is sparse and mostly unnecessary, and it has the feel of a silent film.

It’s a very odd film indeed. It tells the story of a typist named Lucienne who. Much against the wishes of her fiancé Andre, enters and wins a beauty competition. This gives her the opportunity to break into films and thus escape the tedium of both her job and Andre. This doesn’t please Andre at all, who proceeds to behave like a spoilt child whose favourite toy has been taken away from him.

Can Lucienne realise her dream of stardom, or will Andre persuade her to become a meek little obedient housewife?

The movie starts out as if it’s going to be a lightweight comedy, and then takes a darker turn, and then takes a very dark turn indeed. Brooks looks fabulous, of course, and her ability to be both very restrained in her acting and at the same time to light up the screen is the main reason people are going to watch this movie. In fact, although it’s an odd mix, it’s an interesting movie and definitely worth seeing. The ending is particularly well done.

The movie is also nicely ambiguous – we sympathise with Lucienne’s desire to make something of her life but at the same time we see that her dream of being a movie star really is an escape into an unreal existence (which is emphasised by the ending), but then her short-lived attempt at conventional domestic life is portrayed as being equally unreal.

The Kino DVD release is just awful. Picture quality is bad, sound quality is bad, there are no extras. Although it’s a sound film the speed of the movie is all wrong, just like silent movies projected at the wrong speed where everyone is moving too fast.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Baby Doll (1956)

Baby Doll was adapted by Tennessee Williams from two of his early one-act plays, and directed by Elia Kazan. On its release in 1956 it was described by Time Magazine as: "Just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited." And who am I to argue with Time Magazine? In fact it’s the sort of movie you really can’t watch without feeling vaguely dirty. Which of course is precisely the point. This is a movie about sexuality repressed until it starts to fester, and the poison spreads through the whole body. It’s about dirty minds, diseased souls and a corrupt society.

And did I mention that it’s also extremely funny? Because yes, it’s definitely a comedy. And while it might be the least ambitious of the many 1950s attempts to bring Tennessee Williams to the big screen, it’s arguably the most successful. While it’s played as comedy, it works as an absolutely devastating critique of the society it depicts.

Archie Lee Meighan, a middle-aged decaying wreck of what was never much of a man to begin with, lives in a crumbling ruin of a southern mansion with his 19-year-old bride Baby Doll. When Baby Doll married Archie Lee she explained that she was too young for marriage, so they made an agreement. They would delay the consummation of the marriage until her 20th birthday. As the movie opens Baby Doll is asleep in her crib in the nursery, sucking her thumb, while Archie Lee is drilling a hole in the wall so he can watch her. That pretty much sums up the tone of what is to follow.

To add to Archie Lee’s woes, he is broke and his furniture has just been repossessed. Archie Lee’s cotton gin stands idle, while the shiny new modern cotton gin owned by the Syndicate Plantation gets all his business. Despair drives Archie Lee to desperate measures, but when the Syndicate cotton gin burns to the ground its owner, the Sicilian Silva Vaccaro, does not believe for one moment that the fire was an accident. He spends the whole of the following afternoon alone in Archie Lee’s house with Baby Doll, trying to get Baby Doll to admit the truth, while an elaborate seduction is played out. When Archie Lee arrives home it is painfully obvious that Baby Doll is a little girl no longer, but a woman.

The most surprising thing, given that this is 1956, is that so little is implied. We are not given hints that Baby Doll is still a virgin; the embarrassing facts of Archie Lee’s marriage are stated openly. The movie was greeted with howls of outrage by America’s moral watchdogs, and was condemned by the Legion of Decency. America’s Catholics were informed that seeing this movie would be regarded as a mortal sin. What is really surprising is that it was passed by the Production Code Administration. Sex was now well and truly out of the closet. Hollywood was clearly growing up.

Carroll Baker as Baby Doll oozes sex. Karl Malden gives a wonderful completely over-the-top performance as Archie Lee. Eli Wallach is equally good as the charming but calculating Vaccaro. Half a century later this is still very much a movie for grownups. It absolutely reeks of sex, decay and corruption. I loved it.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Animal Kingdom (1932)

The Animal Kingdom is yet another overlooked pre-code gem that needs to be released on DVD (although it was released years ago on VHS).

Leslie Howard is a publisher, Tom Collier, who is about to be married to Cecilia (Myrna Loy). He’s been living with an artist, Daisy Sage (Ann Harding), but they had a free-and-easy relationship without any messy emotional entanglements. At least that’s what they both thought. And Cecilia knows all about Daisy, and she isn’t jealous at all. At least that’s what she thought.

This is very definitely a movie that could only have been made in the pre-code era. Not only is the cohabitation between Tom and Daisy referred to openly, they also discuss their sex life quite frankly. Tom is also prone to wistful reminiscences about his favourite brothel, the Florentine, where he evidently spent many enjoyable evenings in his youth. There’s also a degree of emotional honesty and an acknowledgement of the complexity of relationships and the difficulty of the choices that must be made that you don’t find in post-code movies.

Leslie Howard is an actor I’ve generally been inclined to dismiss as being rather insipid. I’m starting to think I may have seriously misjudged him, that perhaps the secret is that he was one of those stars, like Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo, who could only bloom in the free atmosphere of pre-code Hollywood. His performance in The Animal Kingdom is simply superb, a masterpiece of understatement but at the same time a very powerful and honest performance. This is the kind of subtle role that seemed to bring out the best in him, playing a man who has always taken a slightly childish and passive approach to life but now finds he can no longer avoid the painful and awkward decisions that grownup people have to make. He’s a sensitive man who must make brutal choices.

Ann Harding’s acting style takes a bit of getting used to but it’s an effective performance. Myrna Loy makes the most of her opportunities, and another interesting feature of the film is that her character, who would usually be the “good girl” character, is portrayed as being somewhat sympathetic but also calculating and manipulative. And Loy carries it off splendidly.

This RKO production is also one of those pre-code movies that doesn’t lose its nerve. A terrific movie that deserves to be much better known, and an absolute must-see for all fans of pre-code movies.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Week-End Marriage (1932)

Week-End Marriage, released in 1932, is one of those movies that serves as a sobering reminder that the stifling moral conservatism and outrageous sexism that were such depressing features of Hollywood in its golden years cannot be blamed entirely on the Production Code.

The dreary moralising that ruined so many movies was to a very large degree a result of the studios’ determination not to offend their audiences, rather than being something imposed on the studios by outside pressure groups. This movie, coming out at the height of the pre-code era, has no doubt whatsoever about what is wrong with modern society. Those selfish women need to give up their jobs and get back to the kitchen and start having babies, so that their men will be able to feel like men again.

This is especially depressing since the first half of the movie holds considerable promise that this is going to a bright, breezy and sparkling pre-code comedy.

Lola (Loretta Young) is in love with Ken (Norman Foster) but they can’t get married because he doesn’t earn enough. Lola’s sister-in-law Agnes (Aline MacMahon) is a modern woman who combines marriage with a career, and she encourages Lola to believe that she could do this also. In a very amusing scene she provides Lola with a sure-fire script to follow if she wants Ken to propose to her, and the plan goes off like clockwork.

Unfortunately Ken’s career is stumbling, while Lola’s is blossoming. And Ken reacts the way any real man would react - he becomes petulant, he wallows in self-pity, he gets drunk and he manages to get himself fired. And it’s all Lola’s fault, for not being a real wife. Both Lola and Agnes will soon discover the price that women pay for neglecting their duties as wives.

It’s almost as if the second half of the movie has no real connection with the first half, as if what was intended as a comedy has suddenly become a sermon. There’s even a gruff but kindly doctor on hand to give Lola a long lecture on the duties of womanhood.

Loretta Young is extremely good, as she was in most of her pre-code movies. She manages to give her character some real dignity and some life despite the best efforts of the script. She almost makes the picture worth seeing. Aline MacMahon is marvellous. Norman Foster is obnoxious, sulky, manipulative and generally loathsome, some of which can be attributed to the screenplay but it’s still an annoying performance.

It’s worth seeing simply to remind oneself that not every movie made in the pre-code era is worth seeing!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Our Modern Maidens (1929)

Our Modern Maidens, released in 1929, was one of those transitional movies with a soundtrack featuring music, sound effects and some speech in the background, but no synchronised dialogue. It’s the tale of a group of flappers and the Jazz Age naughtiness they get up to, with Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr in the starring roles.

Crawford is Billie, and she’s in love with Gil (Fairbanks). Unfortunately her best friend Kentucky (yes, her name is Kentucky) is also in love with young Gil. Meanwhile Billie decides that Gil’s fledgling diplomatic career could use a boost, so she uses her feminine wiles on a powerful influential older man, Glen.

They might sound rather wicked, but these are just crazy mixed-up kids wanting to have a good time, and when Billie realises that the game of love is one in which people can actually get hurt she decides to do what she can to make amends. Being a pre-code movie, no-one gets punished for their little sexual escapades, and love eventually triumphs.

Silent movies were intended to be projected at a different speed from talkies, but the addition of a soundtrack meant that this one had to be run at the faster sound speed, thus producing that speeded-up jerky movement that so many people off associate with silent movies. Since the performances are somewhat hyperactive to begin with (Crawford especially is quite over-the-top) this speeded-up quality does become very noticeable.

This is a very lightweight movie, and is mostly worth seeing today for the gorgeous art deco sets (the MGM glitz is very much in evidence) and for the stunning costumes. Crawford, as usual in her MGM movies, gets to wear some wonderful gowns designed by Adrian, and it has to be said that he really knew how to dress her. It also has some historical interest as a snapshot of the Jazz Age in full swing. Anita Page is completely adorable as Kentucky. Fairbanks Jr gets to do an amusing impersonation of his dad. Crawford (and it grieves me to say this since I’m a huge Joan Crawford fan) is not at her best in this film.

Still, it’s an amusing piece of fluff and entertaining enough in its way. If you love the 20s then it’s most definitely worth a look.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Caught (1949)

Caught was one of Max Ophüls’ handful of Hollywood movies. Although often described as a film noir it’s really a romantic melodrama done in film noir style.

Barbara Bel Geddes is Leonora Ames, a poor girl who dreams of marrying a rich man to escape from the misery and boredom of poverty. Charm school and a modeling career seem to offer the perfect opportunities to fulfill this fantasy. This dream is the trap in which she is caught. She meets her multi-millionaire, Smith Ohlrig (played by Robert Ryan), and she marries him. Unfortunately he turns out to be emotionally dead and obsessed with the desire to exercise absolute control over his employees, among whom he includes his wife. Realising she has made a very big mistake indeed she leaves him and finds employment as receptionist to idealistic paediatrician Dr Larry Quinada (James Mason) who works in a slum neigbourhood. But escaping a man like Smith Ohlrig proves to be rather complicated.

Smith Ohlrig was widely rumoured to be based on Howard Hughes, and to reflect Ophüls’ own feelings about what it’s like to be to deal with an immensely wealthy and powerful man who considers people to be merely possessions to be bought and sold. Ophüls had worked briefly for Hughes and the experience had been very very unpleasant. Ohlrig certainly has the hypochondria and the paranoia of Hughes, which lends credence to the theory. So although the script is credited to Arthur Laurents one assumes that Ophüls must have had a considerable influence on it.

The character of Leonora is both the most interesting feature of the film and its greatest weakness. In a society that offered women few career choices outside of marrying money, but at the same time idealised marriage and romance and also preached an incredibly narrow and repressive sexual morality, women were forced into a fairly elaborate form of self-deception. Most of Leonora’s problems stem from this, and from the distorted view of reality that such self-deception inevitably leads to. The fact is that her one ambition was to marry money, and she succeeded in her objective. But she was incapable of admitting to herself that that was what she had done. So she constructed a fairy-tale romantic fantasy about a man she hardly knew.

The problem with all this is that it makes it difficult to feel the necessary degree of sympathy for Leonora, who remains so blinded by her obsession with money that she continues to make obviously disastrous decisions. She is unwilling to renounce her dream world. The role would be a challenge for any actress, and Bel Geddes is simply not equal to the task. Robert Ryan overacts outrageously, but it’s still a compelling performance. What makes it truly chilling is that he plays Ohlrig as a powderkeg waiting to explode, but he’s such a control freak that he won’t let himself explode. So the tension within him (and within the audience) just goes on building up. James Mason has a deceptively difficult role, playing a character who could easily have come across as annoyingly noble. But Mason’s easy charm allows him to avoid this pitfall and he is able to make Dr Quinada both believeable and likeable.

Ophüls and cinematographer Lee Garmes have created an exceptionally stylish movie in Caught. It really looks superb, and there are some wonderful tracking shots. There’s a particularly effective scene in which Dr Quinada and his partner discuss Leonora while the camera twitches wildly back and forth between the two doctors at opposite ends of the room and the empty chair (Leonora’s chair) between them.

The ending has been much criticised as a cop-out forced upon Ophüls but it’s actually quite clever, managing to keep a timid studio and the Production Code people happy while reinforcing the movie’s savage attack on contemporary American sexual and social mores. It’s one of the most interesting movies to come out of Hollywood in the 40s, and well worth tracking down.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Please, Not Now! (1961)

Please, Not Now! (La Bride sur le cou) is a lightweight but a amusing French comedy. It was undoubtedly considered a little on the risque side in 1961 although it seems rather quaintly tame today. It succeeds mostly because of its star, Brigitte Bardot. She’s likeable, zany without being annoying, and utterly charming. She’s also a more than competent comic actress.

Bardot is a model named Sophie who has been dating her photographer boyfriend Philippe for 18 months. She spends a lot of time looking for apartments where they can settle down in domestic bliss. Philippe however is a handsome gold-digger and he has set his sights on a wealthy American woman, Barbara. When her grandmother found herself in this situation with a man who was cheating on her, she dealt with in in traditional Corsican fashion. She took a rifle and she shot the other woman. At her trial she was naturally acquitted (this is France and this was a crime of passion) and as a result she got her man back and lived happily ever after. Sophie believes in the importance of family traditions, and armed with a rifle she sets off in search of Barbara.

In the meantime she has encountered two sex-starved young doctors, and one of them has fallen for her in a big way. He convinces her that the best way to have her revenge is not through murder but by making Philippe jealous by sleeping with another man. As a gentleman Alain is happy to volunteer his services. What follows is a good-natured bedroom farce.

It works mostly because of Bardot. She has a sparkling personality and she’s genuinely funny. She elevates what could have been a fairly routine romantic comedy into something with real zip. Roger Vadim took over the director’s chair from Jean Aurel during the course of the production and he handles the task with flair and a nice lightness of touch. The movie is part romance, part screwball comedy and part sex comedy, with just the slightest dash of slapstick. The French have a tendency to be over-fond of slapstick but fortunately Vadim keeps this to a minimum. At not much over 80 minutes the movie maintains a frenetic pace. The performances in general are good, but Bardot has the star quality.

Bardot’s nude dance sequence earned the movie some notoriety at the time. It wouldn’t attract too much attention today except for the fact that this is Bardot, an actress with a degree of exuberant sex appeal that most modern actresses can only dream of.

It’s a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable little movie, and a chance to see why Bardot became a legend.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Bigamist (1953)

The Bigamist, released in 1953, was the last of the handful of movies Ida Lupino directed for The Filmakers, the production company she and her then-husband had set up. It’s a low-key little B melodrama that, despite the title, is not the slightest bit lurid. It’s a good example of the greatest virtue of the old-fashioned Hollywood B movie - the Production Code Administration was likely to let you get away with things you couldn’t get away with in an A picture, simply because B movies were perceived as movies that didn’t really matter all that much.

Edmond O’Brien is travelling salesman Harry Graham. He’s just a regular guy, living a fairly dull and uneventful life. He’s married to Eve (Joan Fontaine) but she’s unable to have children. He spends an enormous amount of time away from home on business, especially in Los Angeles. When she finally comes around to his idea of adopting a child all seems to be well until Mr Jordan (Edmund Gwenn) from the adoption agency informs them that their past will have to be rigorously investigated. In the course of this investigation Mr Jordan discovers Harry’s secret life. He has a second wife, and a child, in Los Angeles. How this came about is then revealed in a lengthy flashback.

Harry wasn’t the kind of guy who picked up women for casual sex when on business trips, nor did he make use of the services of ladies of the night. And that proved to be undoing. When the loneliness really started getting to him, he met a nice girl (Phyllis, played by Ida Lupino) and fell in love with her. He tried to convince himself that nothing was going to come of it, that it would just remain an innocent friendship, but on his birthday he and Phyllis ended up in bed. And she got pregnant. And being a decent guy, he did the right thing and married her. So he ended up with two households in two different cities, with two different wives. Until the nosy Mr Jordan started poking around and Harry’s double life caught up with him.

It’s a movie that provokes surprisingly heated responses. I suspect that your reaction to this film will depend very much on how you feel about its refusal to take a moral stance. There are no villains. Phyllis isn’t “the other woman” - she knows nothing about Eve’s existence. She’s a very sympathetic character. Eve is troubled by her inability to have children and over-compensates by throwing herself into the business that she and Harry own, but she’s no monster. Harry is a decent guy who wants to make everybody happy. As the surprisingly non-moralistic courtroom speech by the judge at the end suggests in a covert sort of way (this was 1953), it’s a complex situation and perhaps having the state acting as moral policeman and treating this as a criminal matter isn’t helpful and only serves to make an unhappy state of affairs more unhappy.

Audiences at the time apparently didn’t approve of this non-judgmental attitude and the movie was not a commercial success. The ambiguous ending probably didn’t help the movie’s prospects in 1953. And many modern viewers also seem annoyed by the movie’s failure to take sides, and especially by the movie’s unwillingness to condemn Harry. Personally I think that’s its strength. These are essentially good people who find themselves caught in a predicament where there’s no easy way out. Someone is going to get hurt.

Lupino’s direction is unobtrusive. She’s content to let this be an actor’s picture, and given the high quality of the acting by O’Brien, Fontaine and Lupino herself this is a sound move. Lupino is particularly impressive, demonstrating her ability to give a subtle performance where it’s appropriate. The one real weakness is Edmund Gwenn as the annoying busybody Mr Jordan. Apart from not adopting a moralistic tone the movie is also notable for being rather frank about extra-marital sex, by the standards of 1953 anyway. It’s a fascinating and absorbing little movie that is well worth watching. And it’s public domain so it’s very easy to get hold of, or even to download.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Call Her Savage (1932)

Few Hollywood pre-code movies can match the notoriety of Call Her Savage, Clara Bow’s next-to-last motion picture. It included just about everything that could possibly arouse the wrath of moral crusaders in 1932 – fornication, adultery, homosexuality, inter-racial sex, prostitution, venereal disease, whipping, male escorts and attempted rape.

Clara Bow is Nasa Springer, the very wild daughter of a Texan railroad baron. Her temper has earned her the nickname Dynamite Springer. When her father tries to marry her off to a nice respectable young man she finds the most dissolute man in town and marries him instead. After a series of adventures and misadventures she finally discovers the secret of her wildness, her deep dark shameful secret.

Bow is superb – very wild, and very sexy. She’s very sexy by 1932 standards, and she’s very sexy by today’s standards. She simply oozes sex. She gets to do both comedy and some moments of serious acting in this one, and handles both with ease. The movie, rather typically for a pre-code film, stomps all over the moral codes of the day while both celebrating and condemning its own moral transgressions.

While the explanation for Nasa’s scandalous behaviour is something modern audiences with find outrageous and somewhat grotesque the movie doesn’t actually paint her as a villainess. Even in the very overheated sequence where she appears to pay in very conventional melodramatic terms for one of her sins the film’s sympathy very clearly remains with her, and her actions are shown as being not merely defensible but even noble and courageous. Monroe Owsley is delightfully debauched as Nasa’s husband Laurence, Thelma Todd is entertainingly bitchy as Nasa’s husband’s girlfriend, but Clara Bow dominates the film from beginning to end.

This is a bizarre but marvellously entertaining little film.