Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

TOP HAT (1935)

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.

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July 31, 2013 Posted by | 1930's cinema, classic cinema, film comedy, film directors, musicals | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

BEFORE SUNRISE (1995)

Alfred Hitchcock deplored movies that amounted to “pictures of people talking.” He considered the making of a film containing little action and structured around conversations to be the worst crime a filmmaker could commit. The irony that a work such as NOTORIOUS (1946) essentially fits that description and remains one of Hitchcock’s greatest masterpieces, was apparently lost on the master director. Hitch’s assessment can also be shot down with a viewing of Louis Malle’s MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981), a film that is not just a talk fest, but one of the most fascinating and riveting cinematic treats of the 1980s. If the conversation is bright and intriguing… It is with these possibilities in mind that I viewed BEFORE SUNRISE (1995). This very wordy (but never verbose), one hundred minute long acting exercise follows the conversations between a young American named Jessie (Ethan Hawke) and a French woman (Celine, played by Julie Delpy) as they spend a day and night traversing the breathtaking landscape of Vienna in the late Spring.

Jessie (his real name is James but his friends call him Jessie – perhaps because he shoots from the hip), first encounters Celine on a Vienna bound train as they travel through Europe. He is just “traveling around.” She is returning from Hungary where she was visiting her Grandmother, and plans to take the train to Paris. The first shot of the film is a clue that they will be together – at least temporarily: The parallel rails of a train track as the locomotive speeds on its way. Celine and Jessie meet when she changes her seat to avoid a bickering couple (Andrea Eckert and Hanno Poschl). This is another clue: BEFORE SUNRISE will be about relationships, especially the conflicting personalities of men and women. One of the first lines in their conversation will be about conversations, with Celine remarking, “As couples grow older they lose their ability to hear each other.” It seems men lose the ability to hear high-pitched sounds and women lose touch with the lower pitched end of the spectrum. While she is referring to a literal loss, her statement could also be interpreted along figurative or symbolic lines, as we recall the arguing couple.

Later, as they ride a tram through Vienna, the subject turns to sex and love. When the couple play a version of twenty questions, Jessie asks about her first sexual attraction. Celine asks if he has ever been in love. This is the eternal divide with women interested in love and men forever obsessed with sex.

The film could also be read as an exploration of the differences between Europeans and Americans. She is cosmopolitan and speaks several languages (including English) while he is a self-described “crude American” who has only mastered English. Celine is preoccupied with stories of her Grandmother and sees herself as an elderly and wise woman (though she is only in her mid twenties.) Jessie thinks of himself as a very young boy and it is laid out clearly: Europe, the older, wiser partner and America the young snot nosed kid, will always be in conflict. Jessie plays the ignorant, ugly American joke to the hilt. When Celine points out the Danube from atop a ferris wheel, he jokes “That’s the river, right?” And he is genuinely cynical. Encountering a fortune-teller on the street, the grandmotherly woman (Erni Mangold) reads Celine’s palm, eliciting disdain from Jessie. Celine, of course, believes in the woman, partially perhaps, because of her respect for the aged. Jessie will have none of it. Affecting a Romany accent, he recreates what he feels a truthful palmist would tell a disappointed old lady. “You’re life will be a tedious collection of hours with no new passions.”

But Celine is falling for him. AS they happen upon an impoverished street poet (Dominik Castell) who asks the couple to suggest a word he will use in a poem (in exchange for a small donation), Celine picks a uniquely American one:”Milkshake.” The poem he creates on the spot is all about relationships and ends with the query “Don’t you know me by now?”

Stopping in a pub, they play pinball while once again discussing love. Both seem to take out some suppressed anger on the machine. Hitting the button with more and more intensity as they take turns, there is a sense of barely subdued violence and perhaps, sexual tension. Jessie: Love is for people afraid to be alone. There’s nothing more selfish!” Later, after leaving the pub, he reveals a paranoid streak when he states, “On some level women don’t mind the idea of destroying a man.” Celine is more philosophical, saying “Isn’t everything we do in life a way to be loved a little more?”

There is ample discussion about God and the deeper meaning of existence. An emotionally pointed scene has the couple visiting a cemetery. The countless black crucifixes that decorate the landscape of the grounds remind us of comments Jessie made earlier about reincarnation, in which he states his belief that the million or so souls that populated the world at the beginning have splintered into the six or seven billion that exist today. The crosses stretch to the horizon and we are struck by the universality of human existence.

We see the couple working together in a revelatory scene in yet another pub. Jessie talks the bartender (Hayman Maria Buttinger) into giving him a bottle of wine (the broke American is now the panhandler), while Celine steals wine glasses from under the preoccupied barkeeper’s nose. In an isolated park the two share the wine, and apparently sex, but not before much discussion as to whether the latter is a good idea. Jessie, of course, thinks it’s a great one, eventually having his way with Celine.

As morning beckons, Celine and Jessie end up on a deserted street dancing to harpsichord music played by a man in a nearby apartment (Wolfgang Gluxam), just as they danced the night before to “Yakety Sax” at an amusement park. The crude red neck American song has given way to the elegant strains of European classical music. Celine and Jessie have each given up a piece of themselves for the relationship.

At the train station that morning, they agree to meet again “six months from last night.” Originally they intended to keep their evening together a one night affair – something to remember for the rest of their lives – but emotions got the better of them – even the love leery American. In what appears to be a nod to Yasujiro Ozu, Linklatter closes his film with shots of all the places the couple visited during the previous night. Each location is now empty (Ozu frequently ends a scene on a shot of an empty room – creating a feeling of melancholy), except for an old man in the town square and an elderly woman in the park where the couple indulged in the pilfered wine and much debated sexual coupling. No matter our experiences in life, we often end up old and alone. Perhaps it will be a mistake for the two to meet again. I may view the sequels that followed to find out Celine and Jessie’s ultimate opinion of their decision. The continuing conversation would be an interesting one on which to eavesdrop.

CREDITS: Produced by Anne Walker-McBay. Directed by Richard Linklater. Written by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan. photographed by Lee Daniel. Edited by Sandra Adair. WITH: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Andrea Eckert, Hanno Poschl, Erin Mangold,Dominik Castell, Hayman Maria Buttinger and Wolfgang Gluxam.

July 24, 2013 Posted by | 1990s cinema, American Film, film directors, film drama, films set in Austria, independent film | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940)

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.

July 10, 2013 Posted by | 1940s cinema, film comedy, film directors, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE HITCH-HIKER (1953)

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.

July 3, 2013 Posted by | 1950s cinema, film directors, film drama, independent film, suspense films | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment