The simplicity of most cinematic realist movements has always been deceptive. From the Italian neo-realists of the 1940s to the British “angry young man” or “kitchen sink” school and the Brazilian “cinema novo” or “new cinema” approach of the 1960s, there has been an overriding concern with the lives of ordinary people at the expense of what many feel are the contrivances of Hollywood plotting and technique. But this austerity has not muted the power of many of the works created by the immensely talented filmmakers involved. Of course, the Brazilian directors (especially Glauber Rocha) were heavily influenced by Godard, which often led to a more flamboyant visual and structural filmmaking, but with the same commitment to the “class struggle.” No film successfully conveyed the trials of the ordinary man more than Italy’s THE BICYCLE THIEF (1948), a most moving collaboration between director Vittorio de Sica and the film’s main screenwriter, Cesaré Zavattini. Enacted by a cast of non professionals and shot on location in the streets of Rome among that city’s impoverished denizens, this simple film is of grand historic significance. It inspired most of the movements and filmmakers mentioned above and remains a fitting testament to the all-encompassing reach of the human spirit.
Family man Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is lucky enough to get a job in a world where such things are hard to attain. All he needs to start work as a poster hanger is a bicycle to get around the big city. However, he had pawned his bike to feed his family just days before landing the coveted employment. His wife Maria (Leanella Carell) takes the family bedclothes to the same pawn shop in order to obtain enough money to get the bike out of hock. The bicycle now in his possession, Antonio proudly starts work the next morning. While he is busy hanging a movie poster (of Rita Hayworth – a startling contrast to his drab life) a young man makes off with Antonio’s only means of transportation. But not before he snares a good look at the culprit. Since lack of action would mean both the loss of his cherished job and the end of his ability to feed his family, Antonio, accompanied by his young son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), sets off on an epic quest to find his stolen bike.
Antonio’s pride in his new job is illustrated with a few master strokes. At first he cannot believe his luck. “My God, a job!” he exclaims upon first learning of his good fortune. He is overjoyed that all employees of the poster company have their own lockers. Pointing his out to Maria, he says “see how big it is!” and follows this with “and there’s the overtime!” He is especially impressed with the uniform, particularly the cap. He informs Maria that he has found her work as well: She will have to take in the cap which is slightly too large. Antonio’s boss is just as excited, telling the new employee on his first day “See, Ricci, to do this job you must be very intelligent, have a good eye and work fast!”
These are concrete traits of which a man can truly boast, and Antonio likes to think of himself as firmly grounded in reality. When Maria visits a Psychic (Ida Bracci Dorati) to thank her for providing her family with hope, Antonio scoffs at what he calls “nonsense…stupidity.” And he is no friendlier towards organized religion. He and Bruno encounter an old man who may be able to lead them to the thief, but the elderly gent wanting no part of it, escapes to a mission, followed by father and son. Once inside, Antonio is approached by a woman who gives him a Bible tract. Without even looking at it, he crumples it up and discards it on the floor. There is only time for the here and now – the problem at hand.
Like many Italians before and since, Antonio distrusts authority and especially the police. Maria tells him he resembles a “cop” when he first places the cap on his head. He pretends to slap and rough her up over this insult, before planting a gentle kiss on her. The feigned anger is just a joke on Antonio’s part, but this is also a telling moment, as we often speak truths when kidding around. And cops are everywhere in the film, playing prominent roles throughout. Most interestingly, on a couple of occasions as Antonio threatens to call a policeman when someone impedes his search. Threatening a person with arrest is an acceptable action when things don’t go our way – even in a society unfriendly to the police. And the depictions of the police here are often harsh, such as when Antonio reports the theft to the police chief and receives treatment that is brutish at best. The chief tells him directly to “look for it yourself”, explaining he has more important things on his plate. “Nothing, just a bicycle”, he tells another cop who enquires about the case. Almost as ubiquitous as the police are the children that inhabit the landscape of post-war Italy. In any society, children are the most cruelly afflicted with the circumstances of that world. The child who plays an accordion as Antonio is given a lesson in poster hanging, is chased away by the novice’s boss. Antonio’s own son means the world to him, yet this central relationship is not without blemishes, as we see when Bruno is told to “shut up” by his Father, who even slaps the boy at one point. This child – at once so precious and vulnerable yet so worldly – is the kind of child produced by years of a war fought in his own land. He complains that the pawn shop may have dented the bike: “Who knows how they take care of them. They don’t pay for the repairs.” Later, when the search begins, it is Bruno who knows the exact make of the bike and the frame number. This information comes in handy when Antonio’s friend Baiocco (Gino Saltamerenda) tells them the bike has almost certainly been dismantled for sale on the black market. Baiocco takes the pair to an outdoor bazaar of sorts, where such items are sold. As Antonio walks along countless rows of tables, perusing hundreds of gears, chains, wheels and tires, we feel as though his life has been dismantled and scattered before him in pieces. But Antonio and Bruno must be strong for each other.
When Antonio and his son finally encounter the teen-aged thief, they harass him until he suffers an epileptic seizure. There is an icy irony in that this sickly youth may need the bicycle even more than Antonio. “Instead of insults, you should give my boy a job!” his Mother cries. Chased away by the thief’s neighbors, Antonio is left in an even more desperate state. It is here that we discover the meaning of the film’s original Italian title: BICYCLE THIEVES. As Antonio and Bruno sit dejected on a curb outside a soccer stadium, and endless sea of bicycles speed past them. Accompanied by the sounds of the soccer fans roaring their approval, Antonio gives into temptation and, after sending Bruno home, steals a bike parked down the street. The owner, his friends and several others, chase the second of the film’s bicycle thieves, finally catching him as Bruno (who was too late for the streetcar) sobs “Papa.” In another moment of irony, the owner shows more compassion than Antonio had shown the first thief. “Be thankful he didn’t have you arrested” one man remarks. A second bystander then delivers the film’s final line and, perhaps, its ultimate message: “And you can thank God.” We are left to wonder if Antonio will take the man’s advice. Realizing his son has witnessed the entire degrading incident, Antonio joins hands with Bruno. Both close to tears, they walk home disappearing into the crowd.
THE BICYCLE THIEF is a quintessential example of a fortunate meeting of minds. In this case the Christian Vittorio de Sica and the Marxist Cesaré Zavattini, frequent collaborators. Marxism is represented by the film’s preoccupation with class struggles and Christianity finds its ultimate expression in its theme of forgiveness and brotherly compassion. After sixty-five years these concerns have never been more simply or beautifully depicted in film.
CREDITS: Produced by Giuseppe Amato. Directed by Vittorio de Sica. Written by Cesaré Zavattini, Vittorio de Sica, Suso D’Amico, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci and Gerardo Guerrieri. Based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini. Photographed by Carlo Montuori. Edited by Eraldo Da Roma. Art Direction by Antonio Traverso. Music by Alessandro Cicognini. WITH: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, Gino Saltamerenda, Vittorio Antonucci and Ida Bracci Dorati.
You would never know from watching it, but the screenplay for THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1941) was written by two of the men who penned CASABLANCA (1942). That was the job of a good studio contract writer – to adapt to your material and serve the producer, while working in a number of genres and styles. The scenarists in question – brothers Philip and Julius Epstein – were as skillful at the task as anyone during the golden age of the Hollywood studio system. With films like ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944) and MR. SKEFFINGTON (also 1944), the team more than proved their mettle. Also a fine example of a studio employee was the film’s director, William Keighley. Making films in a breathtaking variety of genres, he frequently displayed a smooth, elegant technique, rewarding to audiences. But he was no “auteur”. He never developed a personal vision like Ford or Hitchcock and was content with serving his studio bosses – men such as Hal Wallis, production executive at Warner Brothers for many years, and executive producer of THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, a near perfect example of studio run efficiency. All the various departments (acting, producing, writing, directing, photography, art, music and editing) work together to create a delightful unified whole. It may have been an assembly line, but it produced a number of Cadillacs.
As part of an effort to garner support for his lecture series, Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley), a famous writer and critic, agrees to have dinner at the home of the Stanleys, an Ohio family made up of Father Ernest (Grant Mitchell), Mother Daisy (Billie Burke), daughter June (Elizabeth Fraser) and son Richard (Russell Aims). The incredibly snooty and rude Whiteside insults Mr. and Mrs. Stanley when they meet him at the train station, proving how boorish east coast snobs can be when dealing with the denizens of “fly over” country. It is enough to make you believe in Karma when the elitist boob slips on the icy steps of the Stanley home, fracturing his hip. But it is the host family doing most of the suffering when they are stuck with Whiteside as a most unpleasant house guest during his convalescence.
Whiteside’s personality is skillfully illustrated from the very start with a few colorful stokes. At the station, an awestruck Mrs. Stanley asks him two questions: How was his trip and will he indeed be having dinner with her family? His reply to the first query? “Charming. I killed a woman in the next compartment. She asked me to lunch!” This after he pretends to be a Frenchmen in order to avoid speaking to them. His secretary, Maggie (Bette Davis) sums things up to him succinctly: “You have one advantage over everybody else in the world. You never had to meet Mr. Sheridan Whiteside!” But there is a hint of thawing to come in his handsome tipping of a black porter.
Whiteside’s inflated view of himself is seconded by many of his hangers-on in the show business, newspaper, literary and political worlds. Even Winston Churchill calls to wish him well, causing Mrs. Stanley to gush “Winston Churchill – on our telephone!” But even his most committed fans joke about his influence. A line in a newspaper article about his accident reads “Christmas may be postponed this year!”
Once hunkered down in his new digs, Whiteside refers to the Stanley home as a “moldy mortuary” and the elegant library he will be working in as a “drafty sewer.” The joke here is that this home is actually a lush mansion, as Mr. Stanley runs a successful munitions factory. Whiteside cordons off parts of the house for his own use and demands that the family members come and go by the back entrance. All of this serves the purpose of making his gradual warming more tantalizing, and for this reason THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER is set during a particularly nasty and frigid mid-western winter. When Whiteside is drawn into the lives of aspiring photographer Richard and love-sick June and her beau Sandy (Charles Drake) the setting is the plush living room next to an inviting fireplace and its cozy, comfortable fire. This imagery is offset by the depiction of a world seemingly cloaked in ice. Whiteside’s close friend – visiting actress Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan) – even covers herself with “ice” (read that jewelry) and sports a snowflake broach. She is in town – at the behest of Whiteside – to foil Maggie’s intention of marrying hunky newspaperman and playwright Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis). It seems Maggie has plans to abandon her old boss and dedicate herself to her new husband, if she can snag him. Lorraine’s mission is to preoccupy Bert with plans to produce his new play and keep his mind off of Maggie.
For all its humor, the film contains a remarkably dark view of marriage: When Bert takes Maggie to the Railway Express Agency to pick up a yuletide gift he has purchased for her, there is an unusual conversation with the man at the mail center. He is gifting his wife with a pipe this Holiday season. Says Bert: “That’s not very sensible.” The man replies, “It’s as sensible as the vacuum cleaner she’s giving me!” There is more of this cynicism, as it happens that Bert’s gift is a charm bracelet made up of previously sold trinkets and engraved with the sentiments of long forgotten lovers from the past. These begin well enough with “a fair lady” but end on what Maggie and Bert agree is a pretty grim note: “iron bars a cage.” Eventually this dark view extends to all family life, including a macabre aside involving Ernest’s crazy sister Harriet (Ruth Vivian) who, it turns out, murdered her parents with an ax a quarter of a century earlier.
There are many in jokes on hand for pop culture enthusiasts of that long ago era, as well as those of today who may have a historical bent. First, the character of Sheridan Whiteside is patterned after Alexander Woollcott, a well-known crusty malcontent columnist and critic. Whiteside’s friends, Beverly Carlton (Reginald Gardiner) and “Banjo” (Jimmy Durante) represent Noel Coward and Harpo Marx respectively. These little touches add a delicious layer to THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER. As one who has not seen the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, it is difficult to know where Kaufman/Hart leave off and the Epstein brothers begin. One thing is clear: These were four talented guys involved in a studio system that has often been maligned, but at its best produced some of the most entertaining movies ever made.
CREDITS: Produced by Jack Saper and Jerry Wald. Directed by William Keighley. Written by Philip G. and Julius J. Epstein. Based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Photography by Tony Gaudio. Music by Frederick Hollander. Edited by Jack Killifer. Art direction by Robert Haas. WITH: Monty Woolley, Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Grant Mitchell, Billie Burke, Richard Travis, Elizabeth Fraser, Russell Arms, Reginald Gardiner, Jimmy Durante, Ruth Vivian, Mary Wickes, Edwin Stanley, Betty Roadman, Charles Drake, George Barbier, Nanette Vallon and John Ridgely.
Made toward the end of his career, John Huston’s WISE BLOOD (1979) is one of the iconic (and iconoclastic) director’s oddest films. A master at adapting what were often unfilmable novels, Huston crafted a rewarding version of Flannery O’Connor’s idiosyncratic depiction of Southern religiosity. But the film is offbeat to a fault, with segues into broad farce that are not always successful. And some parts of the movie are just plain weird…
Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) returns angry and embittered from the Vietnam war to his small Southern hometown. He finds his house abandoned and the rest of the town in much the same condition. He has an overwhelming need to “do some things I ain’t never done before.” Exactly what, he has no idea – but these “things” will be monumental. Too big for this one horse town that has only a few more people than it does horses. The town having fallen on hard times, most of the citizens, it seems, have moved on to the nearest big city and Hazel decides to do the same. During his first day in the city he encounters an allegedly blind street preacher named Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton) and his daughter Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright) distributing Bible tracts. Hazel has now found his calling – but with a peculiar bent all his own. As he tells a cab driver “I don’t believe in anything”, so it is fitting that the religion he establishes will be called “The Church of Truth Without Jesus Christ Crucified.” The story of this neo religious/atheistic experiment and its troubled founder constitute the remainder of the film, with all its amusements – and at times – horrors. Interwoven with this story is a major theme that is skillfully explored by O’Connor, Huston and his screenwriters Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald: Religion as a primal urge. This is not necessarily the same as the belief that faith is primitive – the domain of the unsophisticated. “Primal” is defined as “the first in time”; “original.” The filmmakers seem to be saying that the desire to know God has been with mankind since the beginning. Perhaps we were primitive, but the desire was and remains sublime. A similar theme would be developed in another film written by Benedict Fitzgerald: Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004).
Religion rules in the South: An opening montage treats us to various spiritually themed placards. Even a Dairy Queen has a “Jesus Saves” message on its sign. John Huston acknowledges his warm respect for what he feels are the simpler aspects of Southern living by including in the opening montage some misspellings, even presenting his own name in the credits as “JHON” Huston. Condescending? I don’t think so, though it must be pointed out that the belief that people south of the Mason Dixon line are poor spellers who utilize bad grammar, is silly and wrong-headed.
Upon returning home, Hazel visits the small family plot behind his childhood abode, stopping at the headstone of his Grandfather (John Huston), a fiery evangelical preacher. The epitaph reads “Gone to become an angle”, with the word angel obviously misspelled. But the decision of the WISE BLOOD creators to use a misspelling of this nature may serve as a double meaning of sorts. Many fake preachers everywhere are indeed working an “angle” – a disingenuous con. Apparently Hazel’s Grandfather was one of them.
On the train to the big city, Hazel meets a proper Southern Belle and proceeds to improperly offend her. “I reckon you think you been redeemed”, he snarls. The woman answers in the affirmative, annoying Hazel. After the train arrives at its destination, he finds what at the moment he believes to be true redemption, by visiting a prostitute named Leora Watts, whose name and address he takes from the station bathroom wall. The theme of sexuality as redemptive is aided immeasurably by the type of home Huston chooses for Leora’s residence: A small, wood building that could easily serve as the little church in the wildwood! As Hazel tells Asa on their first meeting “What do I need Jesus for? I got Leora Watts!”
In this city of what must have seemed to Hazel as endless possibilities, he soon meets Enoch Emory (Dan Shor), an eighteen year old – also new in town – who claims to “see signs…I know things I ain’t never learned.” Young Enoch calls this ability “wise blood”, prompting Hazel to think the teen is nuts. Of course, he will become the new religion’s first and only true disciple.
The two powerful drives – sex and religion – are combined in a neat flashback to Hazel’s childhood and his Grandfather’s tent revival show, as the young Hazel struggles to get up high enough to see into a coffin the old man uses as a prop for the service. Inside the casket lies a beautiful (and very much alive) young woman wearing nothing but underwear, fish net stockings and pasties. The Grandfather’s sermon warns of death as the wages of sexual sin. The flashback is in the form of a dream and Hazel wakes up in bed next to Leora.
Hazel purchases a used car that he envisions as a sign of the new church’s vitality. As he states later “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.” But the vehicle – all he can afford – is hopelessly dilapidated. It does, however, get him to a museum where an excited Enoch shows him (and us) the central primal symbol in the film: A small Egyptian mummy. Enoch is enraptured by the ancient little man. When Hazel preaches about the need for “a new Jesus” – one that is “all man, without blood to waste” the delusional young man steals the dried up mummy from the museum in order to present it to Hazel as the new Messiah…
Her Father revealed as a fake, Sabbath moves in with Hazel, a man she desperately wants. She lustfully refers to him as “King of the Beasts”. We then cut to a van traversing the streets of the city, advertising “Gonga the Great Jungle Monarch” and the opportunity to shake hands with the gorilla star (Allan A. Apone in a gloriously cheesy gorilla suit) as a promotion for his new movie. The movie business is made up of hucksters too.
Sabbath is on hand to receive the package from Enoch, with instructions to hand it over to Hazel as soon as possible. This leads to one of the most disturbing images in the film, as she stands before Hazel wearing a black veil and cradling the withered little corpse in Madonna and child fashion. Appalled, Hazel destroys the mummy, and Sabbath reveals she may know more about the new evangelist than even he does, stating “You don’t want nothin but Jesus!” Since Hazel actually scolded Asa earlier for not trying to save his (Hazel’s) soul, Sabbath may be correct in her assessment.
When a con man named Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty) teams up with a fellow he calls the “preacher” (William Hickey) essentially pilfering the “Church without Christ” concept with the sole purpose of making money, Hazel is outraged. His church may be many things, but it is no con. It is a heartfelt expression of his philosophy. To Hazel, the Shoates church is the real sacrilege. He confronts”preacher” and expresses his contempt: “How come you say you don’t believe in what you do?”, he asks, realizing the man is probably a Christian despite his church’s mantra. When the frightened and intimidated man rushes down the street, Hazel drives after him, running him over. As he dies the “preacher” confesses his sins to Hazel who now functions as a demented version of a Catholic priest. This tragic figure’s last words are “Jesus…Jesus…help me.” To Hazel Motes the worst thing of all is a man who is not true to himself.
In an effort to combat his loneliness, Enoch steals the Gonga gorilla suit, hoping it will help him to meet people. After scaring off an elderly couple he laments “I only wanted to shake hands.” We in the audience experience a mixture of amusement and melancholy as we remember his earlier complaint that he has been in town for two months and still doesn’t know anyone. Fear of loneliness is primal at its core.
Attempting to leave town after the murder, Hazel has serious car trouble, attracting a cop who requests he exit the vehicle. Realizing his dream of a new religion is coming to an end, Hazel watches in amazement as the cop, with a single well placed kick to the back bumper, sends the car meandering down a long grade and splashing into a pond. Just as he felt the need to “do something” after coming home from the war, he now must do something else – something bigger – something real, in order “to pay”. Asa, early in his career, cooked up a stunt along the same lines as what Hazel will actually do in earnest. To atone – perhaps for his own sins, perhaps for the sins of con men like Asa and the “preacher” – Hazel performs a perverse sacrifice. Another lonely soul – his landlady (Mary Nell Santacroce) – proposes marriage, pleading “The world is an empty place, Mr. Motes…If we don’t help each other, there’s nobody to help us.” This may be the key message of the film. The primal expressions – religion, sex and companionship – are all part of an effort to beat back the beast of loneliness. We were created to need one another.
CREDITS: Produced by Kathy and Michael Fitzgerald. Directed by John Huston. Written by Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald. Based on the novel by Flannery O’Connor. Photographed by Gerry Fisher. Edited by Roberto Silvi. Music by Alex North. WITH: Brad Dourif, Dan Shor, Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright, Ned Beatty, William Hickey, Mary Nell Santacroce, John Huston, Marvin Sapps, Betty Lou Groover, John Tyndall, Richard Earle, J.L.Parker, Herb Kossover and Allan A. Apone as Gonga.
With his production of STRAW DOGS (2011) director and writer Rod Lurie takes the Sam Peckinpah original out of its English setting and drops it into the middle of the Mississippi marsh lands. The message of the Peckinpah version was that violence exists everywhere, even in the most bucolic settings, while Lurie seems at times to be saying nothing more than the old stereotypical canard “rednecks are crazy.” The isolated Cornish village that was supposed to be mathematician David Sumner’s refuge from the violence of America, becomes “Blackwater Mississippi”, a rural Southern town where Hollywood writer David Sumner (James Marsden) can get away to work on his new screenplay. The opportunity arises for Sumner and his actress wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) when she inherits her recently deceased Father’s run down farm-house. The fact that he is writing about the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the most violent confrontations of World War II, proves portentous in the extreme, as you will soon discover… Upon returning to the town she dismisses as “Backwater”, Amy is interrupted by old boyfriend Charlie (A very sinister Alexander Skarsgard) as she and David have lunch at “Blacky’s” diner. He runs a construction company facilitating David’s decision to hire him and his crew to renovate the home. If not for mistakes like this, we would be without many of the classic dramas and thrillers we have been so fond of over the years. Not that this new version is a classic by any means, but its scenes of animal killing, rape and an especially graphic climactic blood-letting have the power necessary to keep audiences interested and, dare I say, delighted. Also fascinating is the development of several themes which take the heat off of our Southern brethren, whose culture comes in for an otherwise furious shellacking by Lurie. One of these themes is the animalistic nature of all mankind, the ultimate proof of which is found in the fact that audiences enjoy violence such as the above. Of course, most of these themes were developed in the first film, and Lurie, at best, can be credited with adding a few different twists.
One of the first images of the film is of Charlie and his crew/hunting party reflected in the dying eye of a deer as the kill shot is administered. later, when Charlie is reflected in David’s sunglasses, we realize the timid screenwriter will eventually be the hunted – and the hunter – like the animal in all of us. Both men proudly display their trophies. A shot of the aforementioned deer’s antlers decorating the front of Charlie’s truck is followed by a close-up of a jaguar hood ornament on David’s fancy sports car. The arrogance of the two men will lead to a head on collision…Soon there are shots from Amy’s point of view of a church as the car speeds along, followed by shots of high school football players marching along the side of the road. Hunting, football and religion are seen as the pillars of southern American life and they are the motivation behind much of what follows in STRAW DOGS.
The people of Blackwater clearly resent the pampered Hollywood hot-shot. When David attempts to pay a waitress with a credit card she balks, explaining, “We only take cash. You know, stuff poor people use for money.” It is at this same bar and grill that the couple first encounter “Coach” Tom Heddon (James Woods), a drunken mess of a man and the ex coach of the local high school football team. He is insanely possessive of his teen-aged daughter Janice (Willa Holland). Above all, he is filled with blind hatred – especially for Jeremy Niles (Dominic Purcell) – a mentally challenged man he obsessively believes to be a threat to Janice. In a fight with the bartender “Coach” shatters a glass of beer – cutting himself. He literally has blood on his hands, a hint of what is to come. Also a foreshadowing are the guns, animal trophies and bear traps that decorate Amy’s childhood home – the home she now shares with her husband. David is truly the odd man out, even listening to classical music while everyone else is obsessed with southern blues and country songs. One of Charlie’s crew is even heard asking another worker “Who would you rather have sex with, Hank Williams or Johnny Cash?” While working on the house, Charlie cranks up the country songs to drown out the sound of David’s classical record. Charlie is dominant. He will take David’s woman. And David, who is teaching Amy the fundamentals of chess, attempts to seduce her by rubbing chess pieces over her body. He is no match for the alpha animal Charlie – not yet. The crew of “rednecks” go hunting every chance they get – and David? He prefers a more genteel pursuit: He skips rope. All the men wear hunting boots except David who sports effeminate brown and white saddle shoes. Perhaps most damning of all is David’s disdain for organized religion. Invited to a “preach and play” – a church service before the big game – David grows disgusted with the fire and brimstone theology of the Pastor (Richard Folmer). He walks out in the middle of the sermon angering Charlie. Did it get him angry enough to kill Amy’s cat? Perhaps in an effort to find out, David accompanies Charlie and his crew on a hunting trip. Soon Charlie and the others lose David in the woods, with Amy’s ex making his way back to the Sumner home. It is here that Charlie rapes Amy. There is much cross cutting between David killing a deer (the motivation for this sudden shift in the mild-mannered writer’s temperament is not adequately explained) and the rape of his wife. Soon Norman (Rhys Coiro), one of Charlie’s beastly crewman, enters and has his turn with Amy. Extreme close-ups of David’s hands as they caress the deer carcass, are intercut with Norman’s hands groping his traumatized victim. During this rape, a bluesy version of “Release Me” is heard on the record player. (Notice it is not a CD player – this is the “backward” south, after all.) The beast has indeed been released. As the men leave, Norman’s gun passes in the foreground of the shot. The men have been hunting a human, in the stalking and raping of Amy, who strangely, never informs David of her ordeal. Bt this is just the most ferocious attack in the film up to this point. The consummate orgy of brutality is still to come.
When Janice goes missing, “Coach”, Charlie and the crew set out to essentially lynch Jeremy, who has taken refuge with the Sumners, setting the stage for the final flood of crimson. This gang, the most repulsive southern villains since DELIVERANCE (and I must also give a nod to that most disgusting of stereotypical icons, Leatherface), besiege the Sumner home to satiate their blood lust. But the beast has also been released in David. As the siege begins, he plays the recording of “Release Me” that was used by Norman and Charlie to add ambience to their horrific rape of Amy. David will now do any act of violence to protect his homestead – much to the displeasure of Amy who begs her husband to turn Jeremy over to the mob. This is a most pronounced irony, of course, because earlier she castigated David for not stepping in to defend Jeremy as he was assaulted by a drunken and delusional “Coach” at a barbecue. He is finally the man you always wanted Amy – savor it. One by one, David dispatches the invaders in the most unimaginably gruesome ways. “I got’em all”, he proudly declares, as the bodies lay scattered about the house. As in the first film, David’s glasses represent the fragile nature of his persona and also mankind’s tenuous hold on civilization. It is after his glasses are shattered that David commits his most violent act. The preacher’s apocalyptic sermon has finally been enacted and fulfilled. The first film ends with David taking the character on which Jeremy is based, home to his family. As the remake ends, we are not even sure of what has become of Jeremy, as if he was not that important in what has just happened. The violence, it seems, was just an animalistic explosion.
Though the Sam Peckinpah version is superior, this new incarnation is not without its pleasures – mainly because there is a little bit of blood lust in all of us. There is a certain kick – a charge we get – from unrelieved mayhem. It is the nature of the beast.
CREDITS: Produced by Marc Frydman. Written and Directed by Rod Lurie. Based on the novel “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm” by Gordon Williams. Photographed by Alik Sakharov. Production Design by Tony Fanning. Edited by Sarah Boyd. Music by Larry Groupe. WITH: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, James Woods, Dominic Purcell, Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Laz Alonzo, Willa Holland, Walton Coggins, Drew Powell, Tim Smith and Richard Folmer.
THE BIG SLEEP (1946) isn’t the best film noir ever made, but it certainly is one of the funniest. The Howard Hawks production based on the Raymond Chandler novel is stuffed with hilarious one liners and near perfect performances – especially from Humphrey Bogart as iconic detective Phillip Marlowe. Bogart and co-star Lauren Bacall had previously teamed up with Hawks to creat TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944), and that film was so successful they decided to collaborate once again. Good idea… For the most part. THE BIG SLEEP is an exciting breakneck ride with a labyrinth plot that causes the head to spin – perhaps a bit too much. For this is not so much a feeling of vertigo with all its inherent, though strange, pleasures, but more of an outright confusion, relieved by the laughs, excitement and romantic subplot. This confusion seems to have its roots in Chandler’s book, rather than in the screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. As they adapted the novel, Hawks and his team were lost as to the identity of one of the murderers. When they contacted Chandler to find out who killed the chauffeur, they were amazed to discover that the original author himself had no idea!
Private Detective Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is called to the home of “General” Sternwood (Charles Waldron) an elderly and sickly millionaire who lives with his two daughters, the teenaged Carmen (Martha Vickers) and her older sister Vivian (Lauren Bacall). Carmen is being blackmailed by a man named Geiger and the General wants to get to the bottom of it. Also of concern to the General is the disappearance of his friend and former employee Sean Regan. Marlowe’s investigation leads to a string of murders and an ever contorted plot and – at last – true love with Vivian.
Things happen so fast in THE BIG SLEEP, and with such increasing incoherence, that we soon decide the best thing to do is laugh when we can and enjoy the carnage. But there are also clever asides to a sort of playful thematic development. The General meets with Marlowe in a greenhouse where the detective sweats it out as the old man sits in a wheelchair under layers of blankets. Says the General “It’s too hot in here for any man who has any blood in his veins.” The elderly coot’s iciness runs through his entire family – especially Carmen. The greenhouse which wildly sprouts all manner of exotic plants and flowers is like a petri dish – as is the entire Sternwood home. Some wild things grow there! If in true noir fashion the women are especially wild, there is also an exotic aura surrounding the feminine mystique as depicted in the film. Geiger’s cottage is decorated with statues and figurines of female nudes and a large head of a Hindu goddess, which conceals a hidden camera. Everything about women is subterfuge in THE BIG SLEEP, and when Carmen is revealed as a murderer it seems totally logical.
There is also a subtle but elegant highlighting of pairs in the film. The opening credits end with a shot of two burning cigarettes resting in an ashtray – a foreshadowing of the Marlowe, Vivian hook up. When Marlowe leaves Eddie Mars’ (John Ridgely) gambling den, he is met simultaneously by two cigarette girls both there to deliver the news that Eddie’s good friend and frequent customer, Vivian, wishes to speak with him. The young girls at first stumble over each other’s words then share a laugh with Marlowe over the awkwardness of the situation. During the course of the movie Marlowe is beaten up twice – first by two thugs in an alley – then by a different pair of brutes in an auto repair barn. The film ends as it began – with a close-up of two cigarettes smoldering sensuously in an ash tray.
But the thing most people remember about THE BIG SLEEP is the dialogue – especially the banter between Marlowe and the film’s many femmes fatales. Vivian: “You’re a mess, aren’t you?” Marlowe: “I’m not very tall either. Next time I’ll come on stilts, wear a white tie, and carry a tennis racket.” Or try this exchange as they discuss sex in terms that satisfy the censor by using horse racing euphemisms. Marlowe: “I can’t tell until I see you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class but I don’t know how far you can go.” Vivian: “A lot depends on whose in the saddle!” Or this hilarious wower as a tied down Marlowe expresses concern about the imminent return of an infamous gangster: “He’ll beat my teeth out then kick me in the stomach for mumbling.”
Howard Hawks was one of the most versatile directors in Hollywood history. From the mid twenties until 1970’s RIO LOBO, Hawks mastered every imaginable genre. There were gangster films (SCARFACE), screwball comedies (BRINGING UP BABY), thrillers (THE BIG SLEEP), westerns (RED RIVER being the best remembered) and musicals (GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDS). He even directed parts of a low-budget horror film (THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD – which he also produced) going uncredited for his work in that capacity. Hawks was not a stylistic virtuoso like Hitchcock or Orson Welles. His was a more subtle approach letting the actors and the scripts (on which he frequently collaborated) shine. But he was an innovator: During the 1930s he helped develop the use of overlapping dialogue several years before CITIZEN KANE. Above all he was a storyteller. And spellbinding stories they were – and remain to this day. With the exception of SCARFACE and its dated star performance by Paul Muni, Hawks’ films seem as fresh and potent today as the day they premiered. A fact of which any director could be proud.
CREDITS: Produced by Howard Hawks. Directed by Howard Hawks. Written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler. Photographed by Sid Hickox. Art Direction by Carl Weyl. Edited by Christian Nyby (who also directed most of THE THING). Music by Max Steiner. WITH: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Martha Vickers, John Ridgely, Dorothy Malone, Charles Waldron, Elisha Cooke Jr., Bob Steele, Regis Toomey and Louis Heydt.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made ten films together between 1933 and 1939. Many of these were directed by Mark Sandrich – but who cares? I don’t mean to belittle Sandrich, who was a talented practitioner of the movie musical, but it was Astaire and Rogers they came to see. Probably the most adored screen couple during the depression years, audiences flocked to their films in search of blithe escapist fare. And they found it. The quest was most delightfully fulfilled with TOP HAT (1935). It is certainly the most typical of the team’s collaborations, with its mistaken identity plot, witty rejoinders, splendid supporting cast, endlessly hummable Irving Berlin songs and, oh…those lighter than air dance numbers – the dances that have always served as a metaphor for the swooning emotion of romance.
The screwball plot of TOP HAT has Jerry Travers (Astaire), an American song and dance man in London for a stage performance, falling head over heels for Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers), a globe-trotting mannequin. But through a series of wild coincidences, she comes to believe he is married to her friend Madge Hardwick (Helen Broderick). Madge’s husband Horace (Edward Everett Horton) is the producer of the show in which Jerry is starring, further complicating matters.
The power of dance to sooth the soul is playfully depicted right from the start. Visiting Horace in his hotel room, Jerry performs an elegant tap dance to Hermes Pan’s choreography, waking Dale, who is staying in the suite below. She hurries upstairs to confront Jerry, who immediately falls in love. When she leaves, Jerry spreads sand from a cigarette but receptacle onto the floor to quiet the sounds of his taps. Dale, Horace and eventually, Jerry all fall asleep to the soft shoe as the dancer becomes a literal Sandman. But Jerry’s taps are also lethal weapons as in the “Top Hat, White tie and Tails” number. Here he shoots at the all male chorus line with his cain, while his taps double as the sound of the gun shots. Dance also has the ability to bring people together in a way unlike any other art, as is demonstrated by the literal crossing of bridges in the Venetian set dances.
But the relationship is off to a stormy start in London as they dance together for the first time under the protection of a gezebo roof, during a torrential downpour. “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” may be the title of the song to which they frolic, but clouds on back drops and rear projections follow them throughout the film, thanks to the astute art direction by Van Nest Polglase and Carroll Clark.
But even with Dale’s misconceptions about Jerry’s true identity, everyone else disappears (including cast members and extras) during the couples “Cheek To Cheek” moment. They are the only two people left on earth, it seems, as it often does when young couples fall in love.
Along with the major relationships depicted in TOP HAT, there are several other couplings of note. First is that of Horace and his valet Bates (Eric Blore). The comedic interactions are highly effective and the performances involved are top-notch. But there is something else – something that could only be hinted at in 1935. There seems to be a decidedly gay angle, here. This is perhaps because Edward Everett Horton and Blore play their scenes to persnickety, perfection. They seem at times to be a bickering married couple and Jerry even remarks “I hate to interfere in these little family squabbles.” Another interesting pairing (and one with still more gay undertones) is that of Horace and Jerry. When the two follow Dale to Venice (under the guise of meeting up with Madge) they end up, through complications, sharing the bridal suite. After the men are asked to move out of the room to make way for an actual married couple (see below) Jerry batts his eyelashes and affects disappointment. “We’ve hardly settled in, have we angel?” he asks Horace. Lastly, there is the strange and seemingly contradictory relationship between Dale and Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes), her dress designer. They travel Europe together to promote his designs, and he is at once a strong male protector but also very effeminate. When he thinks her honor is at stake he proposes marriage, explaining “I’m rich, I’m pretty, and this Hardwick will leave you alone.” His classification of himself as “pretty” is yet another feminine trait revealed in a male character. At the film’s conclusion, when all is straightened out (pun quite definitely intended), Alberto kisses Horace passionately as Madge remarks “Go right ahead boys! Don’t mind me!” All these couplings make for delighted speculation on the part of viewers watching the film with the twenty/twenty hindsight of a twenty-first century perspective.
A final note about Fred Astaire and the man who would eventually succeed him as Hollywood’s king of dance: Gene Kelly. The star and co-director of ON THE TOWN (1949), SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952) and other classic musicals provided in several ways a counterpoint to Astaire. Kelly was a great dancer – athletic but perhaps a bit mechanical. Astaire brought dance to the level of “poetry in motion” as the cliché goes – but the cliché was invented for him. He seemed to walk on air, to use another well turned phrase. We are impressed with Kelly’s precision and prowess on the dance floor but Astaire virtually carries us to the clouds – too enraptured to be impressed by mere technique. The differences between them can best be summed up by paraphrasing critic Andrew Sarris’ famous dissection of the personas of Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin. The difference between Kelly and Astaire is the difference between poise and poetry, between man as machine and man as angel.
CREDITS: Produced by Pandro S. Berman. Directed by Mark Sandrich. Written by Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott. Story by Dwight Taylor. Photographed by David Abel and Vernon Walker. Edited by William Hamilton. Art Direction by Van Nest Polglase and Carroll Clark. choreographed by Hermes Pan. Songs by Irving Berlin. WITH: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Helen Broderick, Eric Blore and Erik Rhodes.
Howard Hawks’ production of HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) is a slap happy mixture of 1930s screwball comedy and a Warner Brothers social conscience film from the same decade. It also looks forward to the social realist dramas of the late 40s and early 50s. The film is a remake of Lewis Milestone’s THE FRONT PAGE (1931) utilizing one of the screenwriters of that film, Charles Lederer. Both films were based on the play “The Front Page” by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. HIS GIRL FRIDAY underwent some gender bending, changing the main character of “Hildy Johnson” into a beautiful woman, and transforming the film – in a roundabout way – into a different sort of love story than the one originally envisioned.
In HIS GIRL FRIDAY Walter Burns (Cary Grant), a morally corrupt newspaper editor, wants his ex-wife and former ace reporter, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) to come back to work for his paper. Burns – for the purpose of selling papers – has taken up the cause of Earl Williams (John Qualen) who is about to be executed for the murder of a cop. He may or may not be innocent by reason of insanity. Hildy was Burns’ best writer, and he is convinced her writing skills will get Williams the reprieve he desperately needs. And Burns desperately needs the reprieve – you guessed it – to sell more papers.
The gender bending of HIS GIRL FRIDAY goes beyond the switcheroo with the main character. Walter Burns constantly refers to Hildy in masculine terms. When trying to convince her to come back to work for him, he implores “You’re a newspaperman!” Since Burns claims he was drunk when he proposed marriage, he scolds her for accepting with “If you’d have been a gentlemen you’d have forgotten all about it!” Hildy is engaged to Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) because he treats her “like a woman” and says sappy things such as “Even ten minutes is a long time to be away from you.” She eats it up. Though Burns gives her the “one of the guys” treatment most of the time, he is not above occasionally treating her like a child, inviting her to sit on his knee after delivering this loo loo: “Theres’s a lamp burning in a window for you, right here.” Refusing, she responds with “I jumped out that window a long time ago.”
Though she seems to desire the delicate female treatment, a hint of her inner fire is displayed in lines such as the above (which also prefigures a suicide leap by a secondary character) and also in her wardrobe. Throughout the film she wears bold striped designs while her ex-husband is seen in conservative grey suits. And her husband to be is a buttoned down guy as well – an insurance salesman who is looked down upon by her ex. In fact Bruce is viewed by Burns as so milquetoast that the editor grabs the handle of the insurance man’s umbrella, shaking it instead of his hand, on their first meeting. The umbrella, like the goloshes he wears, signify to Burns (and us) that Bruce is a bit of a sissy, who doesn’t fully exist without the conveniences of modern life. And he may be right about the whimp factor. When the three principles go to dinner, Bruce (who is not paying attention) accidentally sits in Burns’ lap! And Bruce is mixed up in other ways: When defending his profession, he ridiculously states “We don’t help people much when they’re alive – but when they’re dead – that’s what counts!” Even stranger, Bruce plans to take his mother on the couple’s honeymoon and he and Hildy intend to live with Mother after the nuptials.
The cynicism about the insurance industry is mild compared to what the filmmakers unleash on the newspaper business. Before and after taking the job (Burns buys a hefty life insurance policy in order to persuade her) Hildy makes clear her distaste for her profession. When her fellow reporters fabricate salacious stories about Molly Malloy (Helen Mack) and Earl Williams (she brought flowers to his cell after being touched by his plight) Molly bursts into tears, shouting “They’re not even human!” Hildy responds with “I know, they’re newspaper men!” Perhaps Hildy’s disgust at being treated like a man stems from the fact that all the reporters she has encountered throughout her career happen to be men. As the Earl Williams story progresses she is more and more seduced by her old life and career and becomes much more like the man Burns has always admired. After Earl’s escape from the police station, with cops and everyone else in hot pursuit, she chases down the Warden (Pat West) and literally tackles him in the street to get the story. This is perhaps the funniest scene in the film and the one most evocative of 1930s screwball comedies, including Hawks’ own BRINGING UP BABY. On a darker order, gallows are being built outside the press room. The “Gentlemen of the press” as Hildy sarcastically calls them, are doing their best to see Williams hang. The symbolism is obvious.
And then there are the politicians…and the Doctors who analyze Williams for the state…and everyone else in the bureaucracy. They all come in for cynical dissection. The politicians manipulate Williams’ fate for their own political purposes, with the Governor (whom we never see) being a fan of “red menace” conspiracy theories and the Mayor (Clarence Kolb) issuing a “shoot to kill” order against Williams to further his reelection bid. The Sheriff (Gene Lockhart) announces excitedly “I have the tickets for the hanging here boys!” as he enters the press room, as though the state sponsored murder were a stage show. The Sheriff and Psychiatrist (Edwin Maxwell) discuss banalities in front of Earl Williams, ignoring him completely. When the poor man objects, the shrink offers a half-hearted apology:”I’m awfully sorry, Mr. Williams. I forgot you were there.”
There are countless witty touches and inside jokes scattered throughout the film. Feigning heartbreak (though he truly loves Hildy) Burns dabs at his eyes with a handkerchief saying “Maybe she’ll think of me after I’m gone”, then gently taps Bruce on the shoulder to make sure he will not miss this piece of finely tuned choreography. Near the end of the film Burns refers to a nefarious character named “Archie Leach”, which is Cary Grant’s real name.
Despite these light touches HIS GIRL FRIDAY remains a most cynical piece of film history. It is to newspaper professions what Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) is to the movie business. This is perhaps the reason Wilder himself chose to do yet a third version of the film in 1974, under the play’s original title. A fourth version – by the way – called SWITCHING CHANNELS was made in 1988 updating the story to the television era and using the gender make up of HIS GIRL FRIDAY.
CREDITS: Produced and Directed by Howard Hawks. Written by Charles Lederer. Based on the play THE FRONT PAGE by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. Photography by Joseph Walker. Music by Sydney Cutner. Edited by Gene Havlik. WITH: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart, Clarence Kolb, John Qualen, Abner Biberman, Helen Mack, Ernest Truex, Cliff Edwards, Porter Hall, Roscoe Karns, Regis Toomey, Billy Gilbert, Pat West, Alma Kruger, Edwin Maxwell.
Ida Lupino was an actress before she became a director, but her roots don’t show. You might think she would be a filmmaker preoccupied with performance at the expense of pictorial designs. As it happens, she proves herself quite adept at the visualization process in THE HITCH-HIKER (1953), one of six films the British born Lupino made as just about the only female director in Hollywood during the 1950s. Most of her films were overheated melodramas which she frequently co-wrote as well as directed. If her writing did not always match her clever visuals, she should at least be congratulated for surviving in these capacities in male dominated Hollywood.
In THE HITCH-HIKER, Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) and Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) are on a fishing trip through Mexico, when they pick up a hitch-hiker whose car has run out of gas. But Emmett Myers (William Talman) is actually a serial killer who has murdered several drivers unlucky enough to offer him a helping hand. A few minutes into this drive the wanted man pulls a gun and lays out his plan: His captives will drive him south to San Rosalia, where he will catch a ferry to freedom. If they try anything, they will die.
The film begins with a montage of the killings, punctuated by a woman’s scream. This is one of the few appearances of a female character (though we never see her face) in a film heavy with testosterone. How odd – considering the gender of the director, who also co-wrote the screenplay (with Collier Young). Gilbert and Roy’s first encounter with Myers is memorably ominous as the silhouette of his hand, thumb extended, looms in the foreground on a dark desert evening. Soon he is worming his way into their subconscious by calling attention to the class differences between the two men. Upon discovering their professions (Gilbert is a draftsmen and Roy owns a garage) the oily villain says to Gilbert “That makes you smarter.” elsewhere, he plays on this alleged difference: “You’re the smart guy” he barks, handing Gilbert a map. Myers is ill at ease with Gilbert’s status, castigating him for speaking Spanish to a gas station attendant, “I don’t speak Mexican!” he growls. He tries again to drive a wedge between the two men in a brilliant scene involving a game of target practice. Having found one of the rifles they intended to use for hunting, Myers uses his own gun to force Gilbert to shoot a tin can out of Roy’s hand at 50 paces. He sadistically instructs Roy to hold the can closer and closer to his face before commanding Gilbert to fire. Lupino uses a clever subjective shot to heighten the suspense as we, in the audience, seem to be holding the rifle.
Another sublime, though perhaps more subtle visual touch, comes as the men drive on, listening to radio reports from the States, of the police search. Myers has a dead, partially paralyzed right eye and his good eye seems to glow menacingly as the sun shines through the car window. A weird, comic moment comes as the men bunk down for the night. Gilbert and Roy are wrapped tightly in their sleeping bags with only their heads popping out from the top of the bundles. Myers leans against a tree holding his ever-present gun on the helpless men, with Lupino’s sleeping bag imagery acting as a symbolic comment on their entrapment.
The only female character of note appears when the three men stop at a small grocery store to pick up supplies. A little girl playing with a doll annoys Myers making it necessary for Gilbert to come to her defense. Woman are peripheral in this world, always thought about, even discussed but almost never seen, and the female character with the most significant role in the drama is a small child. In OUTRAGE (1950) Lupino depicted a woman at the mercy of a man, and the rape victim in that film becomes undone by the trauma. Interesting…
Gilbert’s expensive watch becomes a symbol of privilege to Myers. “You always had it good so you’re soft”, he says admiring the wristwatch. It also becomes a symbol of the kind of love Myers has never known, when he discovers the timepiece was a gift to Gilbert. It is obvious that Myers is intimidated by Gilbert, but it is gas stations – a representation of Roy’s profession, that haunt him. A service station figures most prominently when Gilbert purposely leaves his wedding ring at a station as a clue to the police who are closing in. And the ring being left behind seems to represent Gilbert’s heartache at being separated from his wife, a yearning Myers will never understand.
Though he began by belittling Roy, it becomes clear that Myers feels a strange connection to this blue-collar working class hostage. In an effort to fool the police as they get closer, the two men exchange cloths late in the film (at Myer’s command). But Myers is a lone wolf who resents Gilbert’s relationship with Roy. He mocks them suggesting that at least one of them could have escaped had they not worried so much about each other. The relationships between men are at the heart of this film by a woman director, and she handles the task with aplomb – at least visually. Her screenplay unfortunately displays a certain lack of imagination at times. Despite its perfunctory nature it serves a purpose as a clothesline on which Ida Lupino hangs her themes and pictorial ideas, making for an entertaining low-budget thriller.
CREDITS: Produced by Collier Young. Directed by Ida Lupino. Screenplay by Ida Lupino and Collier Young. Adaptation by Robert Joseph. Photographed by Nicholas Musaraca. Music by Leith Stevens. Edited by Douglas Stewart. With: Frank Lovejoy, Edmond O’Brien, William Talman, Jose Torvay, Sam Hayes, Wendel Niles, Jean Del Val, Clark Howat.
THE KID (1921) is Charlie Chaplin’s first real feature. He had previously appeared in Mack Sennett’s full length 1914 production of TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE, but only in a supporting role. With THE KID, Chaplin was in complete control. He wrote it, directed it and played the lead role – that of his soon to be legendary “tramp” character. Developed during a series of shorts at Essanay and then Mutual Studios, the tramp was allowed full flowering in this First National Studios release. With its mixture of whimsy and heartbreak, THE KID gave audiences a richer version of the profoundly impoverished yet elegant little man who through it all sported a three-piece (though shabby) suit and a proper bowler hat. And his walking stick was always on hand to add a regal touch.
As the film begins, an unwed woman (Edna Purviance) has just given birth to a baby boy, and feeling hopeless, wanders the streets in a daze with her newborn. Chaplin emphasizes her internal struggle by cutting to a statue of Christ carrying his cross. This, the first of the film’s many spiritual references, infuses the audience with a sense of the unfortunate woman’s desperation. Desiring to give her child a better life, she leaves him in the backseat of a car in a wealthy neighborhood. But the car is stolen by a couple of thugs, who discovering the foundling, deposit him in an alley. The child has now been abandoned twice and the cruelty of existence is masterfully depicted by Chaplin. Also depicted is life’s serendipity as the next person to come along is the little tramp. Upon discovering the child, he places him along side another baby in a carriage being pushed by a matronly woman who happens down the same alley. Of course the woman balks and the tramp is left with an unwanted companion. But not before he himself tries to abandon the child – several times. He even contemplates leaving the baby in a sewer grate! Along the way he is followed by a cop who complicates his predicament considerably. These complications reveal a wicked playfulness in Chaplin and a frightful pragmatism in the tramp. Clearly, this is a deeper character than we may have previously believed.
Finding a note tucked in the baby’s blanket, the tramp is touched by the mother’s plea for a loving home for her boy. Making the best of things, he takes the baby home to his hovel and is soon a caring adopted father. A title card reveals a passage of five years and that poverty-stricken mother is now a famous stage star. The baby is now a five-year old “kid” whom the tramp calls “John” (Jackie Coogan). Chaplin’s universal compassion is nicely displayed in a scene involving another “kid” – a small black child making a delivery of sumptuous roses to the actress following a triumphant opening night. Touched by the urchin, the mother/actress shows an egalitarian kindness in her generous tipping of the boy. He smiles broadly and happily makes his exit. This sweet little vignette is at odds with so many other depictions of black Americans in the motion pictures of this era. These “Topsy” type characters, often portrayed by white actors in black face, must have been anathema to Chaplin, who as an Englishmen, was unfamiliar with America’s peculiar racial caste system of the early twentieth century.
Later this charitable woman visits the slum on a typical mission of mercy, finding herself holding a neighborhood woman’s baby while sitting on the front “stoop” of the tramp’s home. As she gazes longingly at the child, her own son sits behind her on the doorstep. This haunting moment concludes as the actress unwittingly hands her son a small toy and an apple. She is then on her way to touch other lives. Simply beautiful…
On another trip to the ghetto, the mother, who has befriended John, discovers he is ill. The tramp calls a doctor on her advice. When the physician (Jules Hanft) learns that John has never been legally adopted, the tramp shows him the mother’s note from so long ago. The doctor contacts the “Orphan Asylum” personnel who come to take the child. This gives Chaplin the opportunity to attack the cold, impersonal bureaucracy of government entities. The asylum is represented by two men: a snobbish dapper looking fellow who is clearly the boss, and his driver. The man in charge – dressed to the nines and chomping a no doubt expensive cigar – refuses to look at the lowly tramp or address him directly. “Ask him how old the child is” he tells the driver, among other commands.
When the men try to take John, a comical fight ensues in which the bureaucrat is reduced to a disheveled mess – being knocked down more than a peg or two. However, a cop arrives and the tramp is soon overpowered. John is placed in the bed of the asylum truck like so much garbage, as he pleads to God and cries out for his father. He is whisked away as the tramp scurries through a window, just out of the cop’s grasp. Climbing along the rooftops, he follows the truck, finally leaping onto the back of the truck to save the boy and escape to a flophouse. Because of a nebby proprietor who wants to collect a reward, the boy is taken away to the police while the tramp sleeps. He soon awakens however, and begins a frantic search for his son.
The mother wanting to know if John has recovered from his illness, returns to the tramp’s home just as the doctor is passing by. Unaware of her true identity, he shows her the note she left with the child five years before. She now knows the truth. Mother and child are soon reunited at the police station. But the tramp still searches…He returns home and finding the door locked, falls asleep on the door step – and dreams a silly dream. It is all about angels and innocence and love and how chaos is introduced to the natural order by Satan – or as a title card warns – “Sin creeps in.” Roses are everywhere in this dream. They line the houses and sidewalks and instantly remind us of the black child presenting the roses to the unwed mother turned actress. Carefree, the tramp flies through the air on giant wings in a visualization of the exhilaration of love – romantic and familial. The flight is also a surreal take on the tramps earlier flight over the rooftops to save his child. Highly comical, this dream scene is also potently moving – especially when a cop arrives to shoot the tramp in mid-flight causing him to fall dead on his doorstep. The image of the broken man laying in a crumpled heap at his door is amazingly shocking coming as it does at the end of such frivolity. It is also a perfect symbolic recreation of the many times cops have interrupted his relationship with John. The cop shakes the fallen angel in an attempt to revive him. Chaplin then dissolves to the same cop waking the sleeping tramp and taking him away in his police car. But he doesn’t arrest him. Instead he takes him to the front door of the actress’s mansion where he is warmly greeted by mother and child. John leaps into his arms as the cop roars with approving laughter at the sight of this heartwarming reunion. The cop leaves and the little tramp is invited inside.
A surprising subtext to THE KID is Chaplin’s apparent belief in (or at least respect for the belief in) the saving power of faith. Along with the opening shot of Christ the film also gives us scenes of the main characters saying “Grace” and praying before bedtime. The mother quotes from the Bible and of course, there is the harrowing brief prayer in the back of that asylum truck. Throughout, Chaplin shows a respect for faith that would be scoffed at by most modern filmmakers.
Also notable is the film’s visual style. Told almost entirely without title cards, THE KID finds its greatest pictorial acumen in a procession of witty pantomimes that are as surprising as they are funny. The best example of this is the blanket scene. As the tramp awakens one morning, the audience is made aware of a large hole in his blanket. He slides under the bed cloths, his head momentarily disappearing then popping up through the hole. The odd little man stands, letting the blanket fall around him like a poncho! All dressed for breakfast, he makes his happy way to the table. With moments like this in his films, it is no wonder that Charlie Chaplin would soon become, in the words of actor and close friend Norman Lloyd, “not only the most famous actor in the world but the most famous man in the world.”
CREDITS: Produced, Written and Directed by Charlie Chaplin. Photographed by Roland Totheroh. Edited by Charlie Chaplin. Music for later rerelease by Charlie Chaplin. With: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Jackie Coogan, Jules Hanft, Jackie Coogan Sr.
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- Demetrios Papigans
- Donald Evan Farmer
- Dorothy Gish
- early cinema
- early sound film
- Edward Waisnis
- Errol Morris
- film comedy
- film directors
- film drama
- film editors
- film noir
- films about prejudice
- films based on plays
- films set in Austria
- French "new wave"
- French cinema
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- French Revolution
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- German cinema
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- horror films
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- independent film
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- Karen Black
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- Keith Gordon
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- Lee H. Montgomery
- Lillian Gish
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