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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.

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

THE INFORMER (1935)

Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) is a shadow of a man. The first shot of John Ford’s THE INFORMER (1935) has the shadow of the hulking Irishman crawling up a wall on a foggy Irish evening during the great rebellion. He is a shadow because he has been “court marshaled” by the IRA and is now homeless and without a job. When he comes across a “Wanted” poster for old IRA buddy Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford), he angrily tears it off the wall. As Gypo makes his way down the darkened alley way, the poster carried by a gust of wind, wraps itself around his legs. He can’t break free. Eventually, it will be blown down the street, but we are haunted by the feeling that Gypo is about to do something he will regret (despite the merits of turning in a cold blooded killer). He meets his girlfriend Katie (Margot Grahame), on a corner of this same street. Poverty has forced her into prostitution. Everyone in the film is tormented by money – the lack of it and the desire to get some quickly. If she only had twenty-two pounds, she could, perhaps, escape to America with Gypo. It just so happens that twenty-two pounds is exactly the reward offered for Frankie’s arrest. We are now certain: Gypo will turn his friend and comrade over to the police.

But Gypo has a kind heart. He was thrown out of the IRA because he refused to kill a man marked for death by the Republicans. “Not in cold blood”, he explains to Frankie as they eat at a soup kitchen later in the film. He is just kind enough to help Katie find escape, but hungry enough to turn in an old friend.

Frankie is concerned about his mother, as are all Irish-Catholic boys. He has not seen her since he first went on the lam – and she must be so worried. Coppers and British soldiers are everywhere, having an oppressive effect on the occupied citizenry of Ireland. When Gypo approaches the police station, he raises his hands in the air. “No weapon here” he seems to be telling the constabulary, and this is a standard action taken by all Irishmen as they approach British soldiers and the police – most of whom are loyal to the Crown.

After betraying Frankie to the powers that be, Gypo sits by a loudly ticking clock in the police station, his head bowed. Ford’s low angle here emphasizes Gypo’s shame, and as this scene dissolves to Mrs. Mcphillip’s kitchen clock (also ticking loudly), the high angle seems to imply impending doom for Frankie. His time on earth is ticking away. Gypo leaves the police station by the back door, barbed wire visible in the foreground. Both men will soon be trapped. A blind man (D’Arcy Corrigan), who has been standing outside the police station, follows Gypo down the street – a symbol of his conscience and (as the filmmakers see it) his own moral blindness. Frankie sneaks into his Mother’s house by the kitchen entrance, and is joyfully greeted by his Mother (Una O’Connor) and his sister, Mary (Heather Angel). But that clock is still ticking.

Frankie is killed in the ensuing shootout as police surround Mrs. McPhillip’s home, and the sad disintegration of what remains of Gypo’s life begins. Alcohol facilitates this fall. Booze is prominent throughout and Gypo imbibes every chance he gets. When he meets Katie at an eatery, a bottle of whiskey separates them in the frame, dividing the screen in two. Strong drink will literally come between them. When Gypo is called to the hideout of Dan Gallagher (Preston Foster) the IRA head, and ordered to find the informer (and possibly be reinstated as a member in good standing) the men stand around a table set with bottles of alcohol and shot glasses. Gypo helps himself to the spirits and grows increasingly inebriated as the scene goes on. The broad comedy is accentuated when Gypo, given the ultimatum/offer, does what amounts to a “spit take” in amazement. Drunk out of his mind, he fingers a fellow named Mulligan (Donald Meek) as the informer, hatching an absurd story about Frankie impregnating Mulligan’s sister, creating the motive for betrayal. After Gypo leaves the hideout, one of Gallagher’s men reveals his suspicions that he is the informer.

Becoming more and more paranoid (and with good reason), Gypo spends his reward money on booze, on a handout for the blind man (who is still following him), on fish and chips for a crowd that dubs him “King Gypo” after he assaults a cop in his haze and – most movingly – on an English woman who needs money to get back to London. The last two episodes are especially ironic, considering the Irish hatred at the time for the Crown and all things English (fish and chips was a popular English meal at the time). The suspicious IRA men have been following him, watching – and counting the money as he spends it.

Soon Gypo and Mulligan find themselves dragged off to a Republican trial. Mary, who is in love with Gallagher, is the only woman attending. And he is there. The man who has “seen” so much – the blind man. Freaking out upon spotting the blind man, Gypo once again points to Mulligan who is exonerated by his faith in God:It seems he was at prayer in a chapel when Frankie was betrayed. And his only sister has lived in Boston for years. All of the money Gypo has spent is recalled by the men who followed him. It comes to twenty-two pounds. He breaks under the pressure and confesses. The men draw straws to decide on Gypo’s executioner. He escapes to Katie’s home, but not before taking a slug in the back. Katie goes to Gallagher and begs for him to call off the execution. There is none of the mercy showed by Gypo when he was called on to kill. Katie gives away Gypo’s location, and after another gun battle in which Gypo is grievously wounded, he escapes to the church. Staggering down the aisle, he falls before Mrs. McPhillip who is kneeling in prayer at the foot of a large crucifix. Gathering enough strength, he then kneels before Frankie’s Mother and the cross and begs forgiveness from her and – it appears – Christ. She does forgive him in an emotional exchange that marks the highlights of the careers of McLaglen (his performance garnered him an Oscar) and O’Connor. In his final moments, he has atoned for his sins by submitting to the two pillars of Irish-Catholic life – Motherhood and the church. Triumphant, he stands with his arms outstretched as if he were Christ on the cross. “Frankie, Your Mother forgives me!” This physical gesture and the fact that he addresses the cross as he says this implies that both Frankie and Gypo are Christ-like figures themselves, with all the suffering of the world on their shoulders. And now there is peace for both of them as Gypo falls dead before the crucifix.

If the film has a real flaw it is that this somber spiritual drama veers too often into broad comedy, creating an incongruous atmosphere. But THE INFORMER met the needs of depression era audiences – the need for an occassional laugh, and to observe the lives of people who were even worse off than themselves.

CREDITS: Produced and Directed by John Ford. Written by Dudley Nichols. Based on a story by Liam O’Flaherty. Photographed by Joseph H. August. Edited by George Hively. Music by Max Steiner. With: Victor McLaglen, Margot Grahame, Heather Angel, Preston Foster, Wallace Ford, Una O’Connor, Donald Meek, D’Arcy Corrigan and Francis Ford.

June 19, 2013 Posted by | "the troubles", 1930's cinema, classic cinema, film directors, film drama | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) begins with a witty prologue featuring Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), Percy Shelley (Douglas Walton), Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) and a very portentous thunderstorm. This device is used by director James Whale and screenwriters William Hurlbut and John Balderston to tell the story of FRANKENSTEIN as presented in the first film. This is not only a good way to inform those who never saw FRANKENSTEIN (1931), but is also a perfect opportunity for some very bright and ironic humor. We are told the author of the original novel is afraid of lightning and that she is faint of heart. Lord Byron expresses amazement that such a gentle soul could have written a novel as horrific as FRANKENSTEIN. And then this delicate lady, who sits doing needlepoint while a thunderstorm rages, pricks her finger. She lets out a gentle yelp as she leaps to her feet, with Byron and Percy helping to steady her. The men stand on each side of Mary, her arms outstretched toward them, as they grasp her hands. This moment provides the first of three such connecting images that appear throughout this marvelous sequel. The belief in the alleged fragility of femininity is celebrated and gently mocked at various points in a film rich with visual gems and stark metaphors exploring sexual relationships, religion and family life.

The new story gets off to a spooky start where FRANKENSTEIN ended: a burned out mill at which the monster (Boris Karloff) was supposedly dispatched. The “fiend” however, is still alive and he facilitates a reunion of sorts for a family from the fist film. He does so by murdering little Maria’s parents (Reginald Barlow and Mary Gordon), who have come to the mill to be certain the creature that murdered their daughter is truly dead. This reunion is an example of Whale’s “family values” however weird, and the next scene features DR. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) being returned to his castle (having survived the mill encounter with his monster), his fiance waiting at the door in her wedding gown. This is the night they were to be married and Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) is understandably unnerved. In a reprisal of the shot from the prologue, she is steadied by two attendants as she shakily walks through the cavernous set as designed by Charles D. Hall. This will be her home soon, as she and Henry are about to start a family. Elizabeth is not happy with the way things are starting out and she speaks with trepidation, telling her bed ridden husband-to-be of a “spirit” she fears will take him away. Immediately DR. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) arrives on a matter of “grave” importance. It seems the bad Doctor has an itch to collaborate with Henry in creating a mate for the monster. Pretorius quotes the Bible to explain his strange familial yearning on the monster’s behalf: “Male and female he created them” and “Be fruitful and multiply.” He invites Henry to his bungalow where he displays the fruits of his own experiments: tiny people kept in jars – the Doctor having trouble achieving the right size for his creations. Whale is at his bitchiest here spoofing earlier films. One of the little people bears a strong resemblance to Henry the VIII while another is modeled on the monarch’s wife Anne. Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester had recently starred in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII. Everyone is fair game for Whale’s good-natured ribbing – including the co-star of his current film and her own husband. Despite this enchanting presentation, Henry Frankenstein, who wants nothing further to do with monsters, is unwilling to go along with Pretorius’ plans.

The monster, having his own troubles, is pursued by a mob. Whale’s treatment of this scene and the ones that follow is as wild and iconoclastic as anything found in even the most avant-garde cinema. The monster is captured and tied to a log, his hands above him. He is hoisted vertically into the air before being loaded onto a horse-drawn cart. Whale’s staging makes it perfectly clear: this is a crucifixion, with a most unlikely Christ figure at its center. The monster is taken to a jail cell and chained to what looks like an electric chair. He screams out in agony as the chains, attached to large spikes, are pounded into the ground. He soon escapes his tomb-like confines and later stumbles his way into a cemetery where he overturns religious statues, including one of a Bishop. The town’s people, little more than brutes, are the Pharisees in this new passion play. The sacrifice, who has already risen from the dead (in Frankenstein’s lab) finds refuge in a meeting with a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie – in a heartfelt performance). In the man’s cabin, they reenact the Last Supper, by sharing bread and wine over a small table. All of this is presided over by a crucifix above the hermit’s bed. Both the monster and the blind man are despised by men. When two vigilantes come upon the cabin and see the monster and the hermit together, the first man (John Carradine) remarks “He’s blind!” followed by the second man’s exclamation “He isn’t human!” Though the second man is actually referring to the monster, the two lines are placed together in this way to suggest a reference to the hermit. Like the monster, he is considered less than human – he is not completely “whole”, because of his affliction. In the ensuing struggle, the cabin catches fire, frightening the monster, causing him to escape into the night.

In order to force Henry to participate in his plan, Pretorius has the monster kidnap Elizabeth and hold her hostage. Henry complies. This creation scene is a classic of suspense as well as a fascinating exploration of man’s relationship to his woman. As Henry waits for the return of Elizabeth, the monster waits, just as anxiously, for his new mate. Both the Doctor and his creation are nervous grooms on their wedding nights and we are reminded of another Bible passage: “It is not good for man to be alone.” Franz Waxman’s delicious music score is aided by a beating drum, representing the heart of the new creation, and also the excitement and longing felt by both the first creation and his creator. Just in time a lovely thunderstorm (recalling the prologue) arrives to assist the two scientists in their quest. Henry, at first unwilling, is by now completely wrapped up in the project exclaiming “She’s alive!” as the experiment reaches fruition. Of course, this exclamation could also signify Henry’s elation at realizing Elizabeth will also live.

When the mate is unveiled she is revealed to be none other than Elsa Lanchester, our Mary Shelley from the prologue. Like Mary the new creature is a depiction, in her own way, of classic femininity who needs the Doctors to steady her as she takes her first uncertain steps. This is the third such image in the film, as the story, beginning and ending with a thunderstorm, comes full circle. “The bride of Frankenstein!” Pretorius proudly announces. This could be a joke targeting those who have always incorrectly referred to the monster using his maker’s name. Or could it be that she really is Frankenstein’s bride? Henry has so much invested in the project by this time, that he and his new creation could be seen as one in marriage. In fact, almost the same could be said of his relationship to the first creation – the monster being Frankenstein’s alter ego. This is, after all, a film heavily inspired by the Germans, who have a well known doppelganger obsession. Of course, Pretorious and the bride are linked as well through the crazy hairstyles they share. Horrified by her mate (as many women in arranged marriages are), she recoils in disgust. “She hate me – like others!” the monster says, tears pouring down his cheeks and filling his voice. In this and his final line “We belong dead!” Boris Karloff reveals himself to be an actor able to elicit depths of emotion from the most unlikely of characters.

After allowing Henry and Elizabeth to flee to safety, this broken soul reaches for “the lever” blowing himself, his new bride and Pretorius to bits. But for the other lovers – a very different fate: Henry and his bride-to-be embrace as they watch the castle explode from a distance. The heartbeat from that Franz Waxman score fades out with the rest of the film and though we may agree with Leslie Halliwell’s assertion that BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is “At once the best of the [Universal Studios] horror films and a gentle mocking of them.”, it is apparent that James Whale and his writers were also concerned with more serious themes – deadly serious. Just think of Maria and her parents.

CREDITS: Directed by James Whale. Written by William Hurlbut and John Balderston, from the book FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley. Photographed by John Mescall. Production design by Charles D. Hall. Edited by Ted Kent. Music by Franz Waxman. With Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger, Elsa Lanchester, O.P. Heggie, Una O’connor, Dwight Frye, Gavin Gordon and Douglas Walton.

April 16, 2013 Posted by | 1930's cinema, horror films, sequels | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment