Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year!

"Every New Year is the direct descendant, isn't it, of a long line of proven criminals?"

But let's raise our glasses anyway. Happy New Year, everyone! In the words of C.C. Baxter, I absolutely adore you. And in my own words, I wish you three hundred and sixty-five new days of joy and good fortune. With a little madness thrown in.

Quote belongs to Ogden Nash.
Picture belongs to Dsata at Pictures Blog. Psst, Dsata, where did you find this one? It's amazing.

Movie Review: Boys Town

Boys Town (1938) 
directed by Norman Taurog, starring Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney

(Note: Review requested by Silver Screenings during my Reader's Choice Event. You have my humblest apologies for its lateness.)

Father Flanagan (Spencer Tracy) has always been a friend to children in need, giving comfort to the guilty and succor to the innocent. And all his experiences have driven him to a single conclusion: There is no such thing as a bad boy. Such talk goes against the grain for the prison wardens and business owners that have to contend with the roving gangs that tear up the slum streets. His friend, Dave Morris (Henry Hull) thinks he's a deluded fool. But after hearing one death-row confession too many, Flanagan is convinced that the only way to save these boys is to give them a proper home, away from reform schools and gangs. He talks the reluctant Morris into financing him and opens up Boys Town.

After many hardship and sacrifices, Flanagan and Morris succeed in building up Boys Town into a genuine refuge for boys in need.  Everyone is clamoring for Flanagan to take their boy in hand; some boys walk miles and miles to be admitted. But there's one boy who swears he'll never fall for that phony racket, a boy who just might turn out to be the first failure of Boys Town. That boy is Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney), a fast-talking delinquent who only wants to cut out and join his gangster older brother Joe (Edward Norris). Father Flanagan and all the boys under his care will find out if tough talk and tough love will be enough to straighten out Whitey before he drags the whole community down with him.

Spencer Tracy is the perfect rebuttal to that old chestnut about never working with children or animals. Because not only did he win back-to-back Best Actor Oscars in 1937 and 1938, he won it for playing the exact same role: a virtuous, plain-spoken mentor who manages to win over a bratty boy, turning him into an honorable and good-hearted young man. Both movies featured popular child actors (Freddie Bartholomew and Mickey Rooney, respectively). Both movies belong to that slick, familiar, wears-its-corn-on-its-sleeve MGM style. And yet, I find one distinct and undeniable difference between Captains Courageous and Boys Town, one that completely divided my reactions to the two films.  

Captains Courageous was fun. It was a fun coming-of-age adventure story with a great child actor to carry it (yeah, I like Freddie Bartholomew) and no big ambitions beyond that. Boys Town, however, is not fun. It is nothing less than a hymn of praise to a saint of a man who hems and haws and waits for his problems to just melt away. Delinquent boys flock to his side and he wins over everyone while barely seeming to lift a finger (I have to wonder what the real Father Flanagan thought of his portrayal here). 

Now the sugar-frosted approach is not too surprising, given the era and the studio. But Boys Town gives me the nagging feeling that it wants to be fun, too. It wants to be the perfect little angel sitting at the front of the class and lecturing you on the true meaning of Christmas, but it also wants to be the irresistible class cut-up making faces in the corner. 

 So what we end up with is a movie that begins with Father Flanagan's noble quest to give boys an alternative to the streets or reforms school. But instead of showing us how he built Boys Town, it skips ahead several years and the place is already an amazing success. The movie stops being about Flanagan and shifts to the story of Mickey Rooney's character Whitey Marsh, apparently the only boy who ever rebelled against Boys Town. From there, the movie follows the comic hijinks of Whitey, who gets into one scrape after another, including class elections, cow milking, and blackface (errr). But then the movie shifts gears yet again and suddenly Whitey gets mixed up in a gangster plot that feels like it was airlifted over from Warner Brothers. Hell, there's even a scene where Father Flanagan and his boys march over to the gangsters' hideout, armed with bats and looking like a genuine lynch mob. I won't be giving much away by telling you the movie has a happy ending, but I was genuinely shocked that a movie with this much plot and this many tonal shifts could wind up feeling so averse to conflict, so afraid to really examine its hero and his lifework.

Maybe my perspective on Boys Town is hopelessly tied to my own life. You see, my mom was an elementary school principal. And when I was a kid, I would ask her about her day. This meant that I got to hear all the stories about every problem kid in our district and beyond. I got to hear about the nine-year-old whose mental problems could drive him into an uncontrollable frenzy of rage, enough so that even a team of paramedics couldn't restrain him without a straight-jacket. I got to hear about the twin girls who got placed in a loving foster home, only to be separated when one girl tried to beat her sleeping sister with a bat. This same sister was put under medication. When a different foster situation tried to take her off the drugs, she promptly tried to burn her school down. Another kid was reasonably bright and liked to please but if he saw a kid who'd fallen down, he would be compelled to run over and jump up and down on their head. Now don't get me wrong, I got to hear all the great, inspiring stories too. All the cute things kids say. But I can't get with a movie that tries to tell me helping troubled children is easy.

It's a shame really, because I think Boys Town does have an interesting story to tell. Father Flanagan was a real person and his goals were admirable. Boys Town still stands today. It's downright maddening to see that potential squandered. 

In a weird way, the movie actually seems to be on surer ground with Mickey Rooney's character than Spencer Tracy's, even if Rooney acts more like a runaway game show host than he does a real kid. The movie is far more interested in showcasing his antics. It's like the creators started out with good intentions but said to themselves, "Slums? Misery? The root of criminal behavior? To hell with it, let's stick to what we know! Letting a child actor steal all the scenes!"

My pet theory on Spencer Tracy is that he was much, much more interesting when his movies acknowledged he was kind of a bastard. Give me the cocky, fast-talking Tracy of the pre-Code era over the upright, honest Tracy of later flicks. I wish MGM hadn't decided to make Tracy the moralizing voice of so many movies because it really works against him as an actor.

His Oscar-winning performance in Boys Town is a complete turnaround from his more self-conscious turn as the Portuguese sailor in Captains Courageous. He's very underplayed here, very smooth. Many of his scenes have him just listening while a louder, more obviously troubled character pours out their heart to him, and Tracy is always an active listener. He never tries to wrest the scene away, but he makes it very clear what Flanagan is thinking and feeling. The movie sets Tracy's dial to "patience and kindness" so many times, it's impressive he manages to bring any reality to it at all.

However, I have a confession to make. I was kind of glad when the movie switched from Spencer Tracy to Mickey Rooney. Because Rooney, despite giving a performance with more bells and whistles than a hundred Christmas concerts, is way more fun to watch.

It may be bizarre, but it's oddly enjoyable to watch a bow-tied Rooney strutting across the grounds with a walk that's half barnyard rooster, half used-car salesman. It's fun to watch him tent his fingers together like a plotting supervillian when he decides to upset the boys' election. His conversion to good is less fun, but Rooney does manages to dig up some genuine feeling here and there. The brotherly relationship he develops with Pee-Wee, the adored baby kid of the school, actually succeeds in feeling fairly genuine and Rooney has good chemistry with little Bobs Watson.* 

But overall, you know what Rooney's performance reminded me of? Christian Slater's Jack Nicholson impersonation in Heathers. I'm dead serious. Every nasally, fast-talking, sneering line he says? It's all delivered in the exact same tone that Slater used. Hell, I could just imagine Mickey Rooney saying the line, "Football season is over, Veronica. Kurt and Ram had nothing left to offer the school except date rapes and AIDS jokes." And now that I've imagined that, I'm going to go on to imagine an alternate universe where I could cast young Mickey Rooney as the wisecracking psychotic killer running rampant through a high school. I want that movie.

Boys Town gives us a perfect summary of the difference between Tracy and Rooney in this film in the scene where Father Flanagan arrives at Boys Town on Christmas, lugging a heavy bag. "What is it?" the boys demand. Tracy hesitates before answering. "It's good cornmeal mush, not a tummy ache in the carload." The boys are outraged. "If I was home, my old man would wallop me, but we'd have turkey Christmas," one of them says. And that's just the way I feel here. Tracy's acting here is good cornmeal mush. It's straight and simple and perfectly unobjectionable, but there's just not much flavor. Rooney is an overcooked Christmas turkey. He may be overflowing with fats and juices and stuffed with more than you need, but dammit, at least he's giving you something resembling a meal. I can't honestly call it a good performance but without it, all of Tracy's sincerity would just turn to sand in your mouth. 

The best performance in the movie is actually given by Henry Hull. He plays Flanagan's reluctant, beleaguered business partner. And by partner, I mean the guy who funds everything and handles the business aspect and all the practicalities while the other guy just smiles and asks him to find a solution. Really, Hull is the true hero of this movie. But he also manages the trick of giving a performance that balances the movie's comedy and its drama. He's tearing his hair out at Tracy's nonchalance, but he's genuinely moved to see the positive results. He's like the bridge between Rooney and Tracy's different approaches. I enjoyed him in every scene and I was always sorry to see him go.
I haven't given much space here to the movie's director Norman Taurog, but frankly, I have no kind words for him. His direction here is pure hack-work, plain and simple. The film opens with a stark scene of a prisoner on death row, begging for some understanding and decency in his last moments. Imagine the angles a good director could bring to such a scene, the lighting, the close-ups. Instead, Taurog just stages and shoots it like a play, with the other actors standing around awkwardly as the prisoner physically moves to each of them in turn to plead his case. There's another scene later where Rooney breaks down emotionally in a chapel, giving way to doubt and pain at last. This could have been deeply profound. But Taurog just lets the actors get into position and flail around, keeping everything in a standard medium shot. I can't think of a single visually interesting shot in this movie. Taurog leaves everything to the actors.

So, with all that said, am I panning this movie? I can't quite bring myself to do that. It's not really bad and in parts, it can be quite entertaining. It's just that those parts never fit together into an emotionally coherent whole. It's like the movie is actively fighting against itself, wanting to praise its hero but deliberately ignoring him. It wants to argue for social justice, but doesn't want to live in the real world. I think the children and founder of Boys Town deserved something more honest than this.

Favorite Quote:

"Can't you stop that singing?"

"It's his turn next. You confess. He sings."

Favorite Scene:

 I'm especially partial to an early scene with Spencer Tracy and Henry Hull arguing over money. Tracy tries to pawn his watch for a hundred dollars and Hull, with just the right touch of irritation and humor in his voice, shows him his watch collection. "You can have any one of those for sixty-five cents--and any one of them is better than yours!" Tracy keeps trying, even pulling out a kid's puzzle and passing it off to Hull. Hull stares back in disbelief. "This is a ten-cent toy!" Tracy beams. "Yeah, you can have a lot of fun with it!" "Not a hundred dollars worth I can't!" And yet Tracy keeps working at him, still smiling, still sincere and you can see Hull slowly come around, even though he's snapping angrily at Tracy the whole time.

Final Six Words:

Plate of wholesomeness, served room temperature

*Incidentally, I made fun of Watson back in my Dodge City review--but I feel a little guilty for it now. It wasn't his fault that shedding copious tears was his trademark. And apparently he had such a good experience acting with Tracy in Boys Town that it inspired him to become a real minister. Good for Pee-Wee!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Farewell, Audrey Totter

What could I play? A nice grandmother? Boring! Critics always said I acted best with a gun in my hand.
Audrey Totter (1917-2013)

Farewell, Joan Fontaine

It's gone forever, that funny, young, lost look that I loved.

Joan Fontaine (1917-2013)

Farewell, Peter O'Toole


Whoever you were in those movies, those silly goddamn heroes meant a lot to me! What does matter if it was an illusion? It worked!
Peter O'Toole (1932-2013)

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Movie Review: China Doll

China Doll (1958)
starring Victor Mature, Li Hua Li

(Note: This is my entry in The Late Films Blogathon, hosted by David Cairns at shadowplay.)

Cliff Brandon (Victor Mature) is a gruff, cynical captain in the American Air Force, leading a crew of cargo pilots in 1943. He and his men are stationed in China, running supplies to the Allied troops and keeping up their spirits with booze and women. Brandon isn't all that popular with his own troops, who resent his humorless, cold personality. His only friends are a little Chinese boy named Ellington (Danny Chang), who translates for the crew, and a priest (Ward Bond), who likes to play chess with him. But one drunken night, Brandon changes his life forever. He accidentally purchases a bonded servant for three months. And the servant he purchases turns out to be a young, beautiful Chinese woman named Shu Jen (Li Hua Li). Brandon has no intention of keeping this girl in his house until the priest warns him that Shu Jen is depending on the money for her family.

The two begin a strange domestic relationship, with Ellington there as translator and errand boy. Shu Jen is sweet and eager to please, tending to the surly captain with a smile on her face. They can't even speak to each other, but even a stick like Brandon can't help but be charmed. Still, it isn't until Brandon is stricken by a malaria fever that he succumbs to her attractions. It results in a night of passion that Brandon immediately regrets, driving away Shu Jen with coldness and absence. But when he finds out that Shu Jen is pregnant, he realizes what an idiot he's been. The only question left is whether he can keep the strange happiness he's found, in a world that's coming apart.

I have to admit that when I chose Frank Borzage's penultimate film China Doll for my entry in David Cairns' Late Films Blogathon, I was expecting either a full-blown romantic triumph or a wet, sputtering firecracker. My main motive for picking it was the desire to see whether Borzage's brand of redemptive romance could survive contact with leading man Victor Mature and his bored machismo. Think about it. One of Hollywood's most genuinely spiritual directors and the man who described his own success in Bible epics with, "I make with the holy look." The director who drew career-best performances from Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Loretta Young, Jean Arthur, Margaret Sullavan, and others. And a proudly-lazy actor whose performances could be serviceable, but totally lacked inspiration. Maybe with China Doll, a tender romance between Mature's gruff captain and his Chinese servant, Borzage could lead both Mature and himself to a small but rewarding success in the twilight of his career.

My predictions, however, were way off the mark. Because China Doll fails to be either a satisfactory romance or a train wreck. It's just a weak movie with flashes of Borzage's style and themes, but no real magic. And the blame for that doesn't really lie with Mature, even if he's never more than adequate. No, the problem is with the story. Even Borzage can't do much with such a cliche East-West romance. This movie turns its heroine into a literal "China Doll," a beautiful fantasy devoid of wishes or desires outside of her man.

I've ragged on Victor Mature in the past, but truthfully I find him one of Hollywood's more inexplicable leading men. His particular brand of gargoyle-ish handsomeness never appealed to me. As an actor, he never rises beyond the level of the script. The only two movies I've ever enjoyed him in are The Shanghai Gesture and My Darling Clementine, where he plays a poetry-spouting gigolo in a fez and a bitter, dying Doc Holliday, respectively. But left without a strong director, one who's willing to either draw out his darker emotions (John Ford) or craft him into a bizarrely arch bit of scenery (Joseph von Sternberg), Mature ends up as a blank. In something like Kiss of Death, he's one of the most forgettable noir protagonists ever.

China Doll doesn't do a lot to redeem Mature. He looks older and more tired than he should be, making the romance less passionate than it should be. He has one great moment of truth in the movie, in a scene where he's discussing Shu Jen with his friend Father Cairns. "All she wants to do is give--I can't understand someone like that!" he says. Mature doesn't overplay the line; he just sounds confused, giving us a real look at how this man lives. Otherwise, Mature gives another okay performance. 

But okay isn't good enough when the script keeps contradicting itself. In one scene Brandon's drinking alone at the bar, ignoring both his men and the slinky advances of an old flame. He's cold and terse. The very next scene, he's stumbling out blind drunk and grinning, eagerly purchasing what he thinks is a prostitute, never mind that he just rejected one. The movie means us to think that he's a tough killjoy whose men resent him. Yet he's constantly getting stumble-down drunk in front of his crew, something no self-respecting captain would do. Truth be told, there's not much that's really admirable about Captain Cliff Brandon. He's grumpy, petulant, not very good at his job, and while he comes to adore Shu Jen, he never shows her any respect.

Li Hua Li takes home the acting honors for China Doll. Since her character speaks almost no English, Li is reduced to a lot of smiling and nodding, with only subtle changes of expression to indicate how she's really feeling. And Li's character Shu Jen ("precious jewel") isn't given much complexity of feeling. She falls in love with Brandon and that's all you need to know. But give it up for Li, who really does have the talent to hint at a deeper intelligence and maturity underneath the yearning. I like the look she gives Mature when he comes to her and confesses his love at last. He's babbling and tugging her into his car and Li get in with an enigmatic expression that makes her look suddenly so much older and wiser than her captain. When the boy Ellington teaches Shu Jen how to salute Brandon's plane, Li does so with a look of total conviction that transcends corny sentiment and becomes genuinely moving.

But China Doll doesn't have the integrity to keep up with Li. The movie betrays its intentions early on by giving the beautiful Li a true Hollywood makeover, turning her from a smudge-faced waif into a stylish knockout. It's a long way from Janet Gaynor shyly discovering her own beauty in Seventh Heaven to Li Hua Li cleaning Victor Mature's house in tight cheongsam dresses. And if Mature is so adamant about keeping her on strictly as a housekeeper, why the hell does he buy her tight cheongsam dresses in the first place? 

The real diving line between Gaynor and Li is that Seventh Heaven gave itself over to the woman's point of view, allowing us to see her growing delight in having a home and in caring for Charles Farrell. We get to see her change and grow stronger, as love drives out fear. But Li Hua Li, stuck in a movie with no subtitles and no real interest in developing her character, is utterly devoted to Mature right from the beginning, completely willing to mold herself to his needs. The only time she ever goes contrary to his wishes is when she initially refuses to marry him. But of course, the only reason she does is because she loves him too much to cause him any problems. 

China Doll was only one of many films in that late '50s, early '60s period when Asian-Caucasian romance was suddenly a cultural fascination. You have Marlon Brando finding love with a Japanese woman in Sayonara, James Shigeta wooing Victoria Shaw in The Crimson Kimono and Carroll Baker in Bridge to the Sun, and Nancy Kwan finding happiness in William Holden's arms in The World of Suzie Wong. And you know what? I much prefer the romance of Suzie Wong, even if it does feature a hooker with a heart of gold. Because at least Suzie is allowed to be witty, cynical, demanding, loving, and fun. The movie is at least interested in what Suzie does when she's not pining after William Holden.

I've spent so much time on the teeth-grinding simplicities of China Doll that I've neglected its interest points. Because the movie is of interest to anyone who likes Frank Borzage. It ended up being Borzage's last romance film. It carries the same themes and images as so much of his early work. The gruff, unreachable man and the sweet, self-sacrificing woman, drawn together in a fragile situation. The threat of war coming up against the purity of love. And Borzage doesn't shy away from repeating a lot of what he's done before. The shot of Li covering a feverish Mature with her body to keep him warm is a direct crib from The River. The repeated image of Shu Jen saluting Brandon's plane has the same kind of significance as the lovers watching the clock in Seventh Heaven. Victor Mature striking a match to look at Li Hua Li's face for the first time echoes a scene in Street Angel with Janet Gaynor.

His visual compositions here aren't as interesting as they've been in the past. Brandon's crew, for example, have a tendency to remain in stock positions like store mannequins, with one at the piano, one leaning his head towards his girl, etc. But he still knows how to use his close-ups. In the scene between Mature and Li where Mature pours out his feelings to her for the first time, confessing his fears and affection at the same time, Borzage keeps Li at the forefront. He gives Mature all the words but lets Li's face tell the story. And in the film's shocking finale, he actually finds an equal amount of heartwrenching emotion in Victor Mature's face.

I haven't talked much about the movie's finale. That's partly because it's such a shocking, frankly nihilistic ending that it barely seems to connect to this movie. Everything that followed before was so sweet and stubbornly optimistic and then suddenly, we're confronted by something that seems to cruelly wave off everything that's happened. Even though the movie is set in World War II, it's an ending that seems to speak more to the atomic anxieties of the late '50s. Other Borzage movies have ended in bitter tragedy, but this seems more violent and even more cruelly pointless. In his earlier work, death came like a whisper. Here, it's nothing but brutality. Was it a sign that Borzage was getting more cynical in his old age? 

Possibly, but I prefer to think that he was merely finding a different way to expressing the same question that haunted him through his entire career. Can love reach into the eternal, beyond mortality or reason? For fans of his work, even in lesser movies like China Doll, the question is always worth the journey.

Favorite Quote:

"He's in the third stage. The first four months you're in China, you catch up on reading. The next four months, you catch up on women...He's been here ten months."

Favorite Scene:

The final scenes are brutal and truly startling, but I have to admit that I like the wedding scene between Brandon and Shu Jen even more. There's a straightforward tenderness about it that appeals to me. We get to see Father Cairns walking Brandon through the rituals of a Chinese wedding, correcting him as Brandon keeps trying to look Shu Jen in the face, kiss her, and all manner of inappropriate things. But the touch that really makes it is the way Brandon's crew and friends turn up to participate in the wedding. Since neither his parents nor Shu Jen's are there, his friends have to stand in for them during the ceremony. And the way his friends go through the rituals, bowing their heads, and receiving the tea, is very sweet. They do it without a hint of condescension or mockery. It's the first time we've ever seen this bunch of wisecracking cynics unite to support their captain. It's the first time we've ever seen Brandon willingly bend his pride in order to make Shu Jen happy.

Final Six Words: 

Love outlasts life but not cliches