MORE LEVIATHAN, PLUS 40s DISNEY

MORE ON THE RUSSIAN FILM LEVIATHAN

Please see last week’s blog (3/13/15) for an earlier description of the film.

The local priest is another interesting character in Leviathan.  He is portrayed as siding with the community’s power structure, perhaps even being part of it.  He offers sympathetic counsel to the grasping, drunken mayor but gives the desperate, honestly self-questioning Kolya bromides and judgmental preachments.  Interestingly he quotes the scriptural leviathan but likens him, if the subtitles are correct, to God (instead of the traditional enemy that God defeats).  Most reviews I have seen are more interested in Thomas Hobbes’ leviathan (Leviathan) than the Bible’s.

Lindsey Bahr, reviewing Leviathan for the Associated Press and describing Kolya’s struggle to save his property from developers, says many things better than I could.  Here are two:

“Kolya, a hot-tempered, passionate sort, calls in his cool, suave friend…a buttoned-up Moscow lawyer, for help in court.  Despite a front of masculine aloofness, Kolya wears every worry on his face and in every jug of vodka he consumes.  His entire being is wrapped up in the house, a physical representation of his heritage, and a symbol of his personhood, and it’s all in jeopardy.”

AND:

“Alas, their appeal is rejected by a humorless bureaucrat who reads what might as well be this man’s execution sentence with monotone, robotic speed.”

Reprinted in the Akron Beacon
Journal 2/26/15

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DISNEY IN THE LATE 40s

My  out-of-town film festival program a couple of years ago promised that the annual Saturday morning potpourri of animation would include a feature mixing animation and live action.  Since the announcement further described the surprise film as one not having been publicly shown in a long while, I guessed to myself what I was about to see.  When the Song of the South title hit the screen I burst into applause, joined by only two others in an audience of more than a hundred.  The couple on my left stared at me as if wondering should they change their seats.

The Akron Beacon Journal‘s outstanding television/film reporter/critic, Rich Heldenfels writes a weekly mailbag column in which he responds to requests for information.  A recent query concerned the Disney 1946 feature Song of the SouthHeldenfels responded with information about the Disney group’s keeping the film unavailable for fear of reaction to what is seen as racist content.

Having seen Song of the South not all that long ago at that Midwest film festival mentioned above, I am convinced that the perception of the film and the company’s fears are groundless.  (Easy for me to pontificate:  I have nothing at stake.)  And it might be more accurate to say that the perception is wrong  but that the fears of reaction might be realistic.  I consider myself highly sensitive to racism in every form and, with a lifetime of moviegoing experience under my belt, especially sensitive to it on screen.  At this same film festival over the years I have been chagrined to find that many in the audience are quite comfortable laughing at the typical stereotypes and racial jokes in the typical Hollywood productions of the 20s, 30s and early 40s.  I confess to having once hissed a cartoon there.  But I write of my own sensitivity with fear and trembling, aware that I have never experienced for one moment the hurts and injustices that the average African- American must daily encounter.

Having declared my caveats, I feel prepared to assert that I found nothing offensive in Song of the South.  Uncle Remus is a slave, and he is obsequious in the manner of a slave toward his owners.  His speech is that of many African-Americans to this day.  But the boy Johnny’s devotion to him and his love for him are the emotional center of the story.  The audience identifies with Uncle Remus and his delightful tales (recently selected and rewritten for modern readers by towering African-American author Julius Lester).  As Johnny, Bobby Driscoll, an uneven, unreliable talent, is good here.  His performance works.  James Baskett as Uncle Remus received a special Academy Award for his portrayal.  Hattie McDaniel as Aunt Tempy is strangely subdued.  (Was she already ill?)

What shines through all the film is the strange historical, sociological fact that for Southerners more than Unionists, blacks were people, individual human beings.

When you are part of an audience you can sense its overall reaction, its general leaning, its siding this way or that.  At my film festival, the same audience that I was certain was so moved by the gentle Uncle Remus and were pulling for him, laughed at an ugly racist joke in the very next film.

Also in the cast are Ruth Warwick, Luana Patton and the great Lucile Watson.  The photographer was Gregg Toland.  The Academy Award-winning song, “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah was written by Allie Wrubel and Ray Gilbert.  James Baskett’s Oscar citation read:  “To James Baskett for his able and heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus friend and storyteller to the children of the world in Walt Disney’s Song of the South.”

Song of the South
Harve Foster (live action)
Wilfred Jackson (animation)
1946

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FOR NORTHEAST OHIO

If you are a reader of blogs devoted to film, you will be aware that the Cleveland International Film Festival is underway.  Check out John Ewing’s current Cleveland Cinematheque calendar in which he describes how he uses the festival’s excellent but unwieldy schedule and calendar.  I found it to be personally helpful advice.

Be sure to check out also websites and Rich Heldenfels’ Akron Beacon Journal articles for opportunities to catch festival films at other, closer venues:  The Nightlight, the Akron-Summit County Public Library and the Akron Art Museum.

NEXT FRIDAY POST March 27
Until then,
See you at the movies, including at Akron and Cleveland,
Rick

CINESATION WRAP, FROM GEORGE RAFT TO EDDIE BRACKEN; FROM MAE WEST TO VERONICA LAKE

Night After Night is a cleverly written, gutsy film that goes the way of so many Hollywood films of the 30s, 40s and 50s  —  fizzling out to a limp and disappointing conclusion, often negating all that had gone before.  The Cinesation program note:  “a film that starts well and then pulls its punches.”

George Raft is well cast as a casino owner.  Allison Skipworth as his tutor is excellent and delightful.  He’s a hood who wants so much to be a gentleman that he’s taking lessons.  He falls hard for a “lady” but is faced with figures from his past:  gangster rivals and  —  as if they were not enough  —  Mae West, a former girl friend.  She is hilarious and touching in a strikingly human characterization.  The Cinesation audience roared its approval when ol’ Mae delivered her now classic response about her diamonds to the hat check girl.

Night After Night is based on a story by Louis Bromfield.  I have not read it and cannot know whether the film is faithful to the material.  Since the original is titled Single Night, there’s a suggestion of discordant perspective from the get-go.

Night After Night
Archie Mayo
1932

Eddie Bracken and Veronica Lake show a genius for comedy in Hold That Blonde.  It is a silly picture about a not very bright kleptomaniac becoming involved with jewel thieves, one of whom is Veronica Lake.  She is skillful, ruthless, not in the least mean, and adorably alluring.  Some of the slapstick scenes include so much gesturing, so much movement, so much ad libbing and overlapping dialogue that it becomes clear that much of what these two are doing (and it’s 1945!) is improvised.  I wish I could watch it again with a script in hand.  Outstanding work from these two is anything but unusual, but how much they appear to create on their own here is remarkable. ( See note from Rick’s Journal below.)

Hold That Blonde
George Marshall
1945

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Rick’s Journal (MY FILM CAREER)

Eddie Bracken died in 2002.  He was 87.  A short time before his death, I wrote him a long overdue fan letter.  I had admired his work for years, especially in Hail the Conquering Hero, and wanted to tell him so.  In his late 80s he found time to send me a signed photo.  He had written “Hi” and my name on it.

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Richard Roud on Jean-Luc Godard

“One cannot be sure that individual shots in a Godard film have been planned to create a special dramatic effect, but they always contribute to the mood and general tenor of the film.”  (I always wonder how much that we see as art might have been accidental and/or unintended.)

How many of Godard’s films have you seen?    How many have you been able to see?  “Several times in Godard’s career he has produced a film which summed up his previous work, consolidated his advances.  Vivre sa vie was such a one; Alphaville is another.  Now it is quite possible to prefer those films which strike out on new ground, films like Les Carabiniers or Une Femme mariée, or, indeed like Pierrot le fou.  Although obviously less perfect, they will be to some more interesting, more exciting.  It just depends how much importance one gives to experiment, how much to achievement.  To put it differently, whether one prefers romantic striving or classic perfection…The ultimate superiority of Alphaville lies not only in its more brilliantly achieved plastic beauty, but in the greater adequacy of its plot.  Without being too pompous about it, one could say that in this film more than any other, Godard has achieved the most complete degree of correlation between vehicle and content, between style and subject.”

Both quotations are from Richard Roud’s introduction (c by Lorrimer Publishing Ltd.)  to Peter Whitehead’s Alphaville, a film by Jean-Luc Godard, Simon and Schuster, 1968(?).

OUTSTANDING ACTING IN CURRENT FILMS:  James Franco in Spring Breakers, directed by Harmony Korine.

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NEXT FRIDAY POST November 8
Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

MORE FROM CINESATION 2013

WOMEN AT THE FRONT, WORLD WAR 1

The Mad Parade
William Beaudine
1931

A group of canteen workers in a combat zone during World War 1 end up in a dugout where they carry on the emotional squabbles they were having at headquarters before an attack forced their evacuation.  The film is an interesting curiosity, boasting an all-female cast.  This becomes a gimmick carried to an extreme with men never being seen, even when they are part of the story.  It goes so far as to show us but the shadow of a woman’s lover as she leaves his bed.

There are model trucks and miniature vehicles on the battlefield, and with all its talk it feels like a play though not based on one.  It is almost always interesting, however, essentially because of the tough, fiery performance by Evelyn Brent.  Irene Rich as her calm foil is also good.

Palmy Days
A. Edward Sutherland
1931
choreography by Busby Berkeley

The star attraction here is Eddie Cantor, and he and the film make the most of it.  He plays the Eddie we expect, but he manages to fit this Eddie into the film and become the believable, bumbling but ultimately clever assistant to two successive bosses.  He progresses from being the trickster for a false medium to an idea man (!) for a CEO whose bakery operates under the slogan, “Glorifying the American doughnut.”

The film is from 1931, and Cantor is slightly  —  just slightly  —  too large for the close-up camera.  Those banjo eyes almost overwhelm us.  But his adjustment to the camera is greatly superior to Al Jolson’s in some of his work.  Jolson, who apparently thought he was sexy, tries to burn holes in the camera lens with supposedly smoldering eyes.  Eddie Cantor, with no idea that he is sexy, of course IS.

Charlotte Greenwood is excellent, and Busby Berkeley’s dances are consistently interesting, and premonitory.

I had not seen this film since watching it on television when my children were small.  But Palmy Days sticks with you.  My grown kids can still sing the melody of “The Lady Says, ‘Yes!  Yes!'”.

NEXT POST FRIDAY November 1 with more from Cinesation

See you at the movies!
Rick

FROM BUCK JONES TO MAE WEST: CINESATION 2013

FIVE FILMS FROM CINESATION PRESENTED BY THE GREAT LAKES CINEPHILE SOCIETY IN MASSILLON, OHIO, SEPTEMBER 26-29

Sundown Rider
Lambert Hillyer
1932
-with Buck Jones

The last shot presents us the backs of our cowboy hero and his heroine.  He puts his hand on her back just above her waist.  He slides his hand up in short stages until it reaches her shoulder.  Fade-out.  There has been neither kiss nor clinch.  These two throughout the running time have only chatted and smiled.   This is the extent to which Sundown Rider embodies one of the hallmarks of the Hollywood western. We know he’s going to kiss the girl but let’s  not see him do it.  The film includes as well the stranger riding in; the first view of the girl we know he’ll discover; and the town bigwigs who are more corrupt than the town knows.  But this is an excellent motion picture.   There is a saloon gunfight, one of the best I can recall, which is without dialogue all visual.

In one sequence our hero is about to be branded by a gang of lawmen turned vigilantes who think he’s a rustler.  As one of them approaches, aiming the iron at Buck’s forehead, there is a cut to the real villains, riding silently away , then a return to the scene, the branding accomplished.

The sundown of the title is important to the plot.  It is a mortgage deadline  —  a mortgage to make or break the heroine and save or end a way of life.    There is something genuinely cinematic as the characters, inside, watch the sun through a window while outside the camera watches the sky.

The Cinesation program notes describe Buck Jones as “the only silent screen cowboy to make it big in sound westerns” and quotes William K. Everson as saying that Jones “was a serious actor” who “chose stories and scripts with a sobriety in them that was almost Hart-like…”

Sundown Rider is proof.  Serious film.  Good western.

NEXT POST:    FIVE FILMS continued:  More from Cinesation 2013.

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NEWS OF VIVIEN LEIGH

In November Turner Classic Movies is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Vivien Leigh’s birth in Darjeeling, India.  From Dark Journey and Storm in a Teacup of 1937 to Ship of Fools in 1965, TCM is showing 11 of her 19 films.  The TCM November calendar features a beautiful color portrait of her as the timeless Scarlett.

NEXT POST Friday October 25
Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

SERENDIPITY MEETS TWO GIFTS FROM OUR HOLLYWOOD PAST

Rick’s Journal (MY FILM CAREER)

I checked into Turner Classic Movies because The Desert Song was scheduled, and I felt like hearing Gordon MacRae sing the title song and “One Alone.”  I had never seen this 1953 version, but knew I could trust his singing.

I was in for a surprise.

The Desert Song is an expensive production, much of it shot outdoors against desert sands and rolling dunes.  It also contains some careful and admirable matting.  “The Riff Song” is not only a production number.  It is a cinematic production number.  MacRae’s “The Desert Song” is obviously lipsynched to his own recording, but his timing is good, and he delivers the lyrics with great feeling.

Those Unfortunate Unfunny Funny Men.  The one fly in this sumptuous ointment is the supposedly funny journalist.  The character is in the play, but in the play he does not war against the romance of the tale and its romantic setting.  This crass, coarse American stereotype figures in thousands of Hollywood movies starting from the twenties, perhaps even earlier.  He often takes the form of a regular sidekick, like Gabby Hayes for Roy Rogers or Smiley Burnette for Gene Autry.  Watching such films today, one sees Roy Rogers, an instinctive performer whose acting doesn’t date at all, alongside Hayes who is not funny but embarrassing, especially in the writing.  This kind of figure, actually played well here by Dick Wesson, is particularly offensive in foreign settings where he perfectly exemplifies American chauvinism and exceptionalism.  You can see his descendants on television’s The Amazing Race where they specialize in disgust at the food of other nations.

The Desert Song
H. Bruce Humberstone
1953

NEXT POST Friday,October 11 featuring Part Two of SERENDIPIDTY, another gift from an earlier Hollywood, this one from 1948.

COMING SOON TO THE SCREEN NEAREST YOU: a discussion of five films exhibited at this year’s Fall Cinsesation during the last week of September in Massillon, Ohio.

Until next time,
Rick

SILENCE AT CINEVENT

The Canadian
William Beaudine
1926
from the Somerset Maugham play The Land of Promise

The plot is simple and spare, but this is a gripping drama with mesmerizing performances by its two principals.  Nora (Mona Palma) marries Frank Taylor (Thomas Meighan) to escape the house of her brother and ferocious sister-in-law who has humiliated her.  But immediately after the quick civil ceremony, she returns the ring, making clear that she will not be a wife to Taylor but will be his housekeeper and cook as was their bargain.

The erotic tension that now mounts in the small cabin they share is not of the fierce quality of a similar situation in Victor Seastrom’s The Wind, but it is dramatic and effective.  (The sequence in The Wind may be heightened by the fact that it is the decorous Miss Gish we are watching.)

The photography captures the spacious and grim landscape to which our refined heroine is unaccustomed and fills it with moving farm machinery and blowing wheat.  Even scenes that one can imagine playing well theatrically within the proscenium arch are  —  in a manner bringing to mind the future Wyler)  —   given cinematic punch with camera point-of-view and visual surprises.  There is a writing lapse in that Taylor’s reason for marrying Nora is never clear.  But this taut drama is unforgettable.

The Golden West
David Howard
1932
from The Last Trail by Zane Gray

This film has trouble deciding what kind of picture it wants to be:  a railroad-to-the-west movie; a cowboy/Indian shoot-’em-up or a romantic operetta.  Director Howard exhibits interest in the camera, though.  There are two impressive process shots, both brief, and one that is not a process in which the camera is apparently mounted on the front of a horse and carriage that is making a turn.  Later he moves his camera among the dancers at a party and then cuts from harp strings to the beribboned tunic on a military chest in the next scene.

In one sequence our romantic couple decide to have their fortunes told in a cabin in the slave quarters.  Seven years before Gone with the Wind Hattie McDaniel reads the cards for them.

Bert Hanlon is excellent as traveling merchant Dennis Epstein.

Delayed review:  On the last blog (6/21/13) I promised to discuss a currently playing French film.  Reflecting on Renoir is taking more time than I imagined, and I am delaying the discussion for one week.  Renoir will be the subject of the July 5 Friday blog.

NEXT POST FRIDAY  JULY 5

Hoping to see you back here then,
And in the meanwhile: see you at the movies,
Rick

A MOB OF FACES AT CINEVENT

Queen of the Mob
James Hogan
1940
from Persons in Hiding by J. Edgar Hoover

During the first couple of scenes I was so busy discovering famous faces all together at the same time, that I had a problem following all that was being said.  Blanche Yurka.  J. Carrol Naish.  Paul Kelly.  And that black-haired man IS blond Richard Denning, supposedly needing to look like the rest of this larcenous, murdering family.

Queen of the Mob is briskly paced, artfully edited (Arthur Schmidt) and well-acted. We watch what appears a close-knit family, except for one white sheep who insists on a straight life.  But the greed of all the others is such that Mother  —  SPOILER ALERT  —  can order a son to kill his brother, and he does it, apparently without a qualm.

I liked the film and was brought up short reading Eric Spilker’s citation, in the CINEVENT program notes, of the New York Times review which asked, essentially, what the film is about besides its own violence.  Mother is the most ruthless of all, but the script gives her no motivation.  The writing does give Paul Kelly an opportunity to get beyond his usual snarling presence and exhibit more than surface feeling.

It is a pleasure to see a rare appearance by Jean Cagney, sister of James the Great.  Robert Ryan has not a line but a single word:  “Right!”

This film is one of four based on J. Edgar Hoover’s book Persons in Hiding.  That was the title of the film based on the same book shown at last year’s CINEVENT.  (CINEVENT hopes to show the other two at the next couple of festivals.)  In writing about Persons in Hiding last year, I said that the rapid pacing of robbery after robbery rarely offered opportunity to see the perpetrators’ life off the road.  This film shows something more of that, but like the other one it makes clear that folk who live like this never enjoy the money they’ve killed for.  In fact, most of the time they don’t dare spend it.

JACK CARSON LISTENING

Jack Carson plays a G-Man in Queen of the Mob and is in several scenes.  He has few lines, but what he does here is listen, creatively.  How he does that demonstrates what a good actor he was.  He never does this in a scene-stealing way.  He is simply always a vital participant in what is happening.  Watch him in the scene where Billy Gilbert insists on serving all the G-Men a piece of cake.  Carson’s reaction is unique, and perfect.  It was but a few years down the road when he would become only the straight sidekick to the romantic lead.  He would have a good role in the Cukor A Star is Born, but by then the subtlety was gone.

Another Great Listener:  Rita Hayworth was outstanding in doing the kind of listening I have been describing.  Watch her, even in her earliest 30s films.  She hears and reacts to everything happening around her.  Like Carson in Queen of the Mob, she does this by way of filling out her characterization and without ever distracting attention.

NEXT POST   Friday   June 28   with a wrap-up of CINEVENT 45 and discussion of a new film from France.
Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick