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

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Actor Spotlight: Edward Arnold

(Note: This is my entry in the What a Character! Blogathon, hosted by Outspoken & Freckled, Paula's Cinema Club, and Once Upon A Screen.)

Nowadays, the Hollywood rule for greedy businessmen in movies is that be you tall or short, slim or round, redeemable or diabolic, you must be shouting into a cellphone. Hence will the moviegoers know you as the face of cold-hearted capitalism. But back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, Hollywood had a different shorthand for businessmen. You had to be fat.

To struggling audiences during the Depression, nothing said money like middle-aged men who seemed to be eating too well. Bankers, politicians, newspaper owners, and factory owners. They were all “fat cats” in the eyes of the public, men gorging themselves on the labor of others. In Hollywood, the portrayal of these men wasn’t always negative. On the contrary, the screwball comedies were full of bumbling, well-meaning businessmen, who could be rescued from their selfish existence. Generally, redemption would come in the blonde, husky-voiced form of Jean Arthur, who would arrive to provide daughterly support and some no-nonsense lecturing (Easy Living, The Devil and Miss Jones, The More the Merrier). Other times though, these men were surface-level sharks, insatiable villains out to grab everything in sight. Whether he leaned good or evil, the businessman archetype was ridiculously popular during those lean years, enough so that a whole class of talented character actors could make a living just from playing him. And of those character actors, for me, the most interesting and varied of the lot is Edward Arnold.

Within the ranks of Hollywood’s fat men, Walter Connolly was the cuddliest, Eugene Pallette was the grumpiest, and Charles Coburn the wiliest, but Edward Arnold always came off as the smartest. Many character actors gain success by having the biggest reactions, the most outsize expressions. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as any fan of Edward Everett Horton, Marie Dressler, Una O’Connor or Eric Blore will tell you. But Arnold’s special talent came from holding just a little back. When an Edward Arnold character gets bad news, he goes very still, with only his eyes giving away his despair. When the news is good, he responds with a boisterous laugh, but it never takes him long to get serious again. Arnold excelled in playing cool-headed businessmen and politicians, men who were cautious, controlled, and ambitious. A Coburn character could get away with playing dumb but Arnold couldn’t.

Even in the part of the bumbling millionaire in Easy Living, he’s sharp and snappy. Watching him spar with Jean Arthur over compound interest is like watching two trains collide at top speed and then miraculously keep right on going. “I pay eight dollars a month, there are four weeks in a month,” Arthur tells him. “I beg your pardon, madam, there are four and one third weeks in a month!” Arnold counters. “Otherwise we’d only have forty-eight weeks in a year!” “Oh,” Arthur says, her face brightening, “You mean leap year?” Arnold’s face instantly collapses like a sinking sponge cake. “No, NO, I don’t mean leap year!” he shouts, turning a howl of frustration into something that’s almost a sob.

But while Arnold could do comedy, his talents were more often put to use in drama. For Frank Capra, he was the face of ruthless opportunism and in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe, he plays essentially interchangeable villains. Capra could never muster up as much interest for his bad guys as his heroes so Arnold gets little to do. Still, he manages to convey the coiled-up cruelty of these men by keeping his body still and his movements subtle, with a predatory gaze from behind his glasses. It’s a rule in Edward Arnold movies that, unlike Clark Kent, Edward Arnold always gets ten times more dangerous whenever he has glasses on. 

Capra would also use Arnold as the greedy but ultimately goodhearted businessman in You Can’t Take It With You. This is a movie I find hard to stomach. It’s one of those leaden confections where obnoxious free spirits run around following their dreams and turning up their noses at people who try to do dull things like paying bills. But Arnold, who is the closest thing the movie has to a real person, managed to sneak one genuine laugh out of me. During a chaotic dinner party, Arnold’s wife gets jabbed over her spiritualism by a clueless Spring Byington. “Everyone knows spiritualism’s a fake!” Byington says. “Now, Penny, you’ve got hobbies of your own,” Lionel Barrymore reminds her. “Yes, but not silly ones!” Byington answers innocently. Arnold’s been looking like grim death the whole evening, but at this remark he lifts his eyes up and suddenly beams like a blissful baby. 

In repose, Edward Arnold’s face was ordinary, but watch him smile and the features turn into a sharply angled geometry problem. The nose is a positive beak; you could imagine Arnold elbowing aside Burgess Meredith to play the Penguin. The eyes squint into specks while the mouth curls up until it almost disappears under the nose. If he’d wanted, no doubt Arnold could have parlayed that expression into a character actor’s trademark, but his overall demeanor was too serious to caricature. 

The image of Arnold that’s been passed down to us is the stern businessman, but take a look at Edward Arnold when he was young. You could imagine that man playing Lorenzo in Merchant of Venice, which was actually Arnold’s debut role. The part must have made a great impression on him, because he titled his autobiography Lorenzo Goes to Hollywood. I’ve always loved that little detail, which gives you some insight into Arnold’s mind. No matter how many greedy fat cats he played, he still saw himself as the young man under the stars, whispering poetry into the ears of his beloved.

By far my favorite Edward Arnold role is his turn in The Devil and Daniel Webster, playing the courageous and eloquent Webster to Walter Huston’s Devil. Originally Thomas Mitchell was going to play Daniel Webster and while Mitchell was a superb performer, I can’t help but think his take on the part would have been much warmer and more approachable than Arnold’s. Arnold is certainly boisterous and fun-loving as the beer-swigging orator, but there’s a calculating glint in the eye that never goes away. When he says, “I’d fight ten thousand devils to save a New Hampshire man,” there’s nothing folksy about it. It’s cold and quiet and utterly resolute. Our first glimpse of Arnold is of a tired man scratching away with his quill in the dark, while the Devil’s voice whispers in his ear. Arnold’s face betrays how tempted he is to abandon principle for power. It’s a moment that adds a measure of depth to every scene afterwards. No matter how hail-fellow-well-met Webster acts, he is still fundamentally alone, trying to help people more inclined to worship him than treat him as an equal. 

Arnold had a gift for tackling long, weighty speeches and making it seem easy. The Devil and Daniel Webster shows him at the top of his form, but if you want to watch him in a game of serve-and-volley dialogue, look no further than Von Sternberg’s 1935 adaptation of Crime and Punishment. Next to a prickly, tormented Raskolnikov (played by Peter Lorre), Arnold is a smoothly confident Inspector Porfiry. Lorre speaks slowly, his eyes haunted, while Arnold plays the detective with an air of boundless good cheer, as if he’s genuinely enjoying his quarry’s company. The movie was disowned by Von Sternberg for being a routine assignment with little feel for the source material, but Lorre and Arnold are still a pleasure to watch.

In a long and prolific career, Arnold did get some interesting lead roles, although they were rarely in top-flight films. In Come and Get It, Edward Arnold plays the part of yet another greedy businessman, except this time we get to see his character develop. He goes from being a boisterous lumber man to a dissatisfied tycoon, hopelessly trying to recapture his youth. In the first half of the film (by far the better half) Arnold is overshadowed by Frances Farmer’s throaty, wistful bar singer. But an odd thing happens. When the movie gets duller and the pacing begins to lag, Arnold actually gets better. As his character tries vainly to recreate his lost love in the form of Frances Farmer’s identical daughter, Arnold manages to make a creepy, unpleasant man seem genuinely tragic. 

While Arnold could carry a film, I feel like his particular brand of underplayed scene-stealing is most interesting when it comes as a surprise. Take a run-of-the-mill assignment like 1941’s Johnny Eager. In Johnny Eager, Arnold nearly gets sidelined by all the compulsively watchable antics of his costars. When you’re in a movie with Lana Turner as a sociology student falling into madness, Van Heflin tossing out drunk Shakespeare quotes, and Robert Taylor telling all the ladies in the audience that he’s bad, oh yes, he’s never known love and no woman will ever find a way into his heart, you could be turning cartwheels in the background and still not get noticed. 

Arnold gets the unenviable role of the good-guy D.A., who tries to keep his stepdaughter Turner from falling into the clutches of Taylor’s womanizing gangster, only to end up blackmailed and broken. But he still manages to add a few interesting touches. In a scene with Taylor, Arnold snaps, “Remember what I told you, thief!” Arnold lingers on the word “thief” as if it’s the worst sobriquet known to man. “You mean ex-thief,” Taylor counters. “Get out, thief!” Arnold barks, more like a cashier brandishing a baseball bat than a dignified D.A. When he orders Taylor to stoop down and pick up a dollar bill, it’s no surprise that Taylor does it, after getting a glimpse of such primal hatred. The D.A. actually becomes more dignified when he becomes powerless and his final scene with the gangster is a flash of pure heartbreak. “My daughter always trusted me,” he says and Arnold pauses to swallow down his inconvenient emotions. “But she doesn’t anymore.” Taylor tersely tells him not to cry. “You’ll not have that pleasure,” Arnold responds, looking back with resigned misery.

If there’s one way to sum up an Edward Arnold character, it’s that he always has total conviction that what he’s doing is the only right thing to do, whether it’s arguing a man’s soul away from Hell or blasting boy scouts with hoses or trying to explain compound interest. I like to think that it was Arnold’s own conviction and determination that shone through in his roles, the conviction of a man who gave his best years to Hollywood and never lost that look of bright, watchful intelligence.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween, Guys!

Happy Halloween to all my readers! I hope it's been a good one, full of treats and fun and frights. I've been using the season to catch up on all those famous horror movies I'd never gotten around to see it and my favorite of the bunch was undoubtedly the 1958 Hammer version of Dracula. In fact, I even got to write that one up in an article for ClassicFlix!

For those who don't know, I'm now an official ClassicFlix contributor, which means I get a shiny new column all to myself, every month. I have the great privilege of joining a wonderful team of writers, including the inimitable Stacia Jones, the erudite Mythical Monkey, the scintillating Brandie Ashe, the prolific Laura Grieve, the tasteful Rick Brooks...have I pelted you with enough adjectives yet? And of course, there's the needs-no-introduction Ivan G. Shreve, Jr., who's taken on the responsibility of associate editor, which means he gets to gently beat the writers with old copies of Film Comment whenever they don't turn things in.

I'll be heading up the Colorama column, which means I get to find new ways to gush over beautiful Technicolor movies each month. Not sure quite how this particular assignment fell to me--I've never pretended to be an authority on cinematography or matte paintings (psst, for that, you should check out Matte Shot) or the inner workings of Natalie Kalmus. But anything that gives me an excuse to spend another two hours watching Black Narcissus makes me a happy camper so there you go. 

This month marks my third article for ClassicFlix. If you guys are interested, you can also find me talking up the color scheme in John Ford's Revolutionary epic Drums Along the Mohawk and daydreaming about Gene Tierney's eyes in Leave Her to Heaven. But I hope you will drop by the site to check out the all the writers who've chosen to make it their second home. As soon as you're finished pouring over the incredible classic film and television selection, of course. And picking your rental choices for the next four weeks. And making out your Christmas list. 

That's all for the moment, folks, but you will be hearing from me again very soon. Here's to all the people that make this season of spooks so damn fun!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Movie Review: Blues in the Night

Blues in the Night (1941)
directed by Anatole Litvak, starring Richard Whorf, Jack Carson, Betty Field, Priscilla Lane

Note: Review requested by W.B. Kelso, of the fabulous blog 3B Theater: Micro-Brewed Reviews

Jigger Pine (Richard Whorf) is a world-class pianist with only one dream in his heart. To start his own jazz band (or "unit" as he calls it). A group of guys that play the same, live the same, and think the same. All of them on a mission to find the music of the streets and give it back to the people. His friend, reluctant lawyer/aspiring clarinetist Nickie (Elia Kazan) believes in his vision and they recruit two of their friends: Pete the bassist (Peter Whitney) and Peppi the drummer (Billy Halop). It isn't long before their enthusiasm wins over more people, too. Scheming trumpeter Leo (Jack Carson) and his sweet, optimistic wife Character (Priscilla Lane). The quintet begin their ragged life on the road, hitching rides on boxcars and playing to whatever audience they can find.

It's a hard but happy life until one faithful day when they run across ex-con Del Davis (Lloyd Nolan). One careless act of generosity on their parts is enough to win the gangster's loyalty and he brings them to his roadhouse, the aptly-named jungle. The former members of Davis' gang, his old partner Sam (Howard Da Silva), his old flame Kay (Betty Field), and Kay's crippled ex-lover Brad (Wallace Ford), are running the joint and none of them are too happy that Davis has decided to adopt this group of stray musicians. It isn't long before Kay, still angling to win back Davis, takes up with Leo. When Leo gets wise, she sinks her hooks into Jigger. Her toxic demands turn Jigger from a confident musician into a hollow-eyed wreck, willing to tear down everything else to make her happy. Even if it means turning his back on the band and the music he loves.

Blues in the Night is a movie that seems specially ordered for a night of insomniac channel-surfing, the kind of movie you watch through bleary, dazzled eyes at 3:00 A.M. and then forget about until the next morning, when you try to summarize it to your friends. All goes normally at first ("There's these guys that want to start a jazz band"). But before long you start to stumble over the details ("So the baby's dead and the pianist goes on some insane acid trip on account of the gangster's ex-girlfriend and he starts hallucinating that he's an organ grinder's monkey, but the band convinces him to come back, but then the ex-girlfriend returns to plot more evil until her crippled sidekick decides to put a stop to her.."). And then you start to think, "Wait, what the hell was I watching?"

But Blues in the Night is more than the sum of its delirious plot points. It's an amazingly appealing genre mash-up, a film that starts out like any other light musical comedy of Hollywood's golden age and spirals into a proto-noir of backstabbing dames, mental breakdowns, and vengeful gangsters. Despite the descent into darkness, though, the movie remains innocent at the core, allowing its group of music-minded misfits to walk through Hell and emerge unscathed. I have a weakness for movies that can skip through multiple genres. Maybe it's because as movies get bigger, they also get safer. Scene after scene of well-made, polished sameness. Did Blues in the Night seem as messy to the theater audiences of 1941 as it does now? Probably. But I doubt those audiences could have predicted how exhilarating watching that kind of mess could be, seventy years later.

I can pinpoint the exact scene where I fell for this movie. We catch up with our band of musicians as they steal a ride on a boxcar. After raising each other's spirits with a round of "Hang on to Your Lids, Kids," our gang welcomes a fellow traveler aboard. Only this traveler is no ordinary bum; he's a hardened criminal, who immediately pulls a gun and demands money. They hand over all they have and the train travels on, into the night. The gangster, Del Davis huddles by himself in the corner while the gang falls asleep, clutching their instruments. When the train pulls into the station, a railway man opens the car and beams the flashlight into the faces of our heroes. Instead of getting mad, he greets them as old friends. "Last time I saw you was three months ago...still riding the boxcars?" He promises not to kick them off, leaving them with a warning not to play so loud. When he's gone, the gang promptly settles back down to sleep but Davis won't let them. 

"You could have turned me in," he snaps. 

"Why should we? We've been broke and hungry, too," says Jigger, the band leader. 

The band members lie back down, curled up together like kittens or a bunch of kids at a sleepover. They are total innocents, completely unafraid or resentful. A smile breaks out over Davis' face and you can see the lost humanity slowly return to his eyes. When this hardened gangster decides to take care of them, it plays out not just as some ridiculous plot twist, but a sweet fantasy. Nobody survives on luck and music alone but sometimes, it's nice to pretend we could.

Director Anatole Litvak doesn't give you any time to question the plot of Blue in the Night. He keeps it moving at a frantic pace; you can almost hear him snapping his fingers in the background of each scene, ordering each actor to pick up the tempo. These jazz musicians talk faster than Wall Street stockbrokers, trading quips and comments and insults at such a rate that one scene can shuffle through six different moods. I like the speed, though. It reminds me of His Girl Friday and Stage Door, other movies about people doing what they love, no matter what it costs them. If you love something so much you couldn't imagine doing anything else, then why wouldn't your brain zip along at the speed of twenty ideas per minute?

While Litvak's direction is smooth and confident throughout, the movie really turns on the heat with the montage sequences (credited to Don Siegel). The first one is a sharp evocation of what life on the road means for a penniless jazz band. We race through images of the band members playing, of maps, and outstretched thumbs and speeding cars. I especially like the way the film uses angles, swiping across the screen with a character's instrument when it cuts into the next scene, as if to show music itself as a physical force, propelling these people onward.

But the second montage is the crowning glory of the film, its most perfect, bizarre moment. Jigger Pine falls off the deep end after the femme fatale Kay leaves him. He can't even remember how to play the songs he wrote. Suddenly, after a disastrous reunion with his friends, Jigger falls unconscious and dives headfirst into a surreal hallucination. He sees his bandmates. Then they turn into the five fingers of a hand. He sees Kay, repeated over and over, until she becomes an entire orchestra, each of them playing a separate instrument. Giant hands wave in his face. He shrinks down into an organ grinder's monkey while his bandmates taunt him. And then, in an image that feels like it should have been storyboarded by Salvador Dali, Jigger finds himself at the piano, ready to play, only for the keys to melt into white goo, trapping his fingers completely. The imagery is so stark and arresting that the movie doesn't even try to follow up on it in any logical way. Jigger just wakes up from this crazy dream and that's it, he's ready to be cured. I'm sort of wondering if Kay herself is supposed to be a metaphor for drug or alcohol addiction, because it really does play out more like Ray Milland coming off the DTs in The Lost Weekend than anything else.

Richard Whorf plays the film's protagonist, Jigger Pine, as a man of almost unreal goodness and conviction. He's always smiling, always supportive. Litvak keeps Whorf as the focus of nearly every group shot, letting the other band members cluster around him like eager acolytes. Because the movie holds Jigger up to such a high standard, I found myself almost rooting for the femme fatale Kay to drag him off his mountaintop. And drag him she does, right into the mental ward. Whorf has a relaxed, friendly presence onscreen and he handles Jigger's descent into desperation without histrionics (except that loopy hallucination scene). The script doesn't give him much chance to add character depth. Jigger's downfall happens as simply and easily as if someone had just flipped a light switch. 

I'm really beginning to wonder what quirk of fate and casting kept landing dimpled, all-American Betty Field in the role of irresistible, untrustworthy female. Every time I see her, she's playing some kind of tramp, from low (Mae in Of Mice and Men) to high (Daisy in The Great Gatsby). Maybe it was that insinuating nasal whine she could put into her voice. Or maybe it was the go-for-broke energy she displays here as conniving Kay. Field's femme fatale is a jangling bunch of nerves and tinsel, a two-bit, no-talent floozy who chews through men like they were strips of gum. I've ripped into Field before on this blog, but she's much improved here, clearly relishing Kay's barbed-wire ambition more than Daisy's aristocratic charms. However, Field relishes it rather too much, playing up Kay's whiny, nagging side so much that it's difficult to understand how she ever manages to enslave men. Personally, I'd be hopping a boxcar just to escape the woman's awful vowel sounds. And when she calls down vengeance upon Jigger and Del and all the men who haven't given her what she wants, Field goes right for the rafters in a way that's madly enjoyable and downright silly. I mean, she doesn't shout, "And then I will build my race of atomic supermen!" but she comes close.

As Field's good-girl foil, Priscilla Lane manages the trick of being the squarest jazz musician ever seen, until Martin Milner stole her spot in Sweet Smell of Success. Okay, so that's rough on Lane. She does have a nice voice and if her sweet, blonde singer seems like she'd be more comfortable baking an apple pie than hitching it on boxcars, well, at least she provides the audience with a pleasant break from Field's nastiness. The script does add a bizarre touch by giving her character the name, "Character." Really? Maybe Ethel Waters could pull that off but Priscilla Lane?

 Blues in the Night benefits from a wealth of wonderful supporting actors. There's Jack Carson, playing a heel as only Jack Carson could. It's a typical Carson role, the guy who knows he's laying traps for suckers but is honestly hurt and confused that these suckers would expect any more or less of him. There's also Elia Kazan, turning in another enjoyable, fast-talking performance after City for Conquest. Seriously, guys, I never would have pegged Kazan as any kind of acting talent, but that's twice now I've found him pretty good. Lloyd Nolan, as the gangster Del Davis, manages to convey the perfect amount of affability and menace. 

But by far and away, my favorite supporting performer was Wallace Ford, who plays Brad, Kay's ex-lover and fumbling sidekick. At first, Brad seems like nothing more than a pathetic crony, a shuffling Igor too stupid to free himself from Kay and Davis. But in one key dialogue with Jigger, Ford slowly reveals the tragedy behind the man. Once he felt sorry for Kay. And then he fell in love with her, breaking his own body in a rodeo just to impress her. "I wasn't much good for anything after that except hanging around her." As Ford talks, you see Brad stand straight and tall for the first time, his voice free of self-pity, revealing a depth of experience that turns him from a cringing crony into a fallen hero.

Blues in the Night is a movie I'd be very happy to stumble across again. It's weird, it's sweet, it's got good Arlen and Mercer tunes, and it's entirely unique. I don't think I'd ever want to own it, though. It really belongs to that realm of happenstance movies. Too mixed-up for respectability, too cute for sophistication, and too enjoyable to resist.

Favorite Quote:

"You see, I'm a student of jazz. I know the anatomy of swing, not only musically but theoretically. I've heard everything from Le Jazz Hot to Downbeat. You'll find out for yourself. As the Latin say, res ipsa loquitur. On the side, I'm a student of the law."

Favorite Scene:

As I mentioned before, that crazy montage scene. Can't say it enough.

Final Six Words:

Exhilarating riff turns into fever dream