film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Rebecca (1940)

Image result for rebecca film

In the interest of full disclosure, I went into Rebecca thinking that I was spoiled for it and knew the ending.  But somehow I had confused the plot of this film with that of Jane Eyre, for reasons that I am unable to ascertain.  So watching this was an unusual exercise in waiting for a plot twist that never came.

That confusion isn’t completely out of nowhere, in my defense.  Both stories are told from the perspective of a young woman who finds herself joining a wealthy estate where everyone is haunted by the memory of the deceased prior lady of the manor.  In Jane Eyre’s case, however, that’s just part of a lengthy epic, which sees our heroine through an entire coming-of-age tale complete with boarding school anecdotes and early jobs as a governess and long-lost cousins and other such English Gothic plot tropes.

Image result for rebecca film

Also, Jane Eyre is actually named after the narrator.  Not so with Rebecca – which is actually named after the dead first wife of Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), the nobleman that our heroine (Joan Fontaine) meets while in Monte Carlo.  ….Our heroine is never named in the original Daphne du Maurier novel on which this is based, and the movie carries on that convention (which is kind of weird on film). Most reviewers or scholars refer to her character as “The Second Mrs. De Winter”, but that is impossibly clunky so I’m instead going to call her…Hortense.

Hortense is the lady’s maid to an elderly socialite, and meets De Winter while out on a stroll on the cliffs overlooking the beach at their resort.  She’s looking for something to sketch – and he looks like he’s about to jump off the cliff.  Understandably Hortense is alarmed and blurts out a plea to him to stop.  He tells her to scram and mind her own business, but her interruption has distracted him enough to give him second thoughts – and he thanks Hortense later in the hotel.  He’s charmed by her sweet nature and naivete, and sweeps her up in a whirlwind two-week courtship before spontaneously proposing to her on the day she’s due to leave Monte Carlo. Hortense agrees, they hit up a Justice of the Peace to marry right away, and De Winter brings Hortense back to his English estate “Manderley”.

Image result for rebecca film

Hortense was due for some culture shock no matter what; the goings-on of an estate would be completely foreign to someone from Hortense’s background.  But in the case of Manderley, Hortense has to deal with the house staff keeping things just as the first Mrs. De Winter had them.  Rebecca’s letterhead and address book still grace the office, her old bedroom is left intact while Hortense is sent to sleep in another wing of the house, and the creepy head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) keeps commenting on all of Hortense’s decisions by remarking about what Rebecca would have done differently.

Mrs. Danvers and De Winter both seem weirdly hung up on Rebecca, albeit in different ways.  Mrs. Danvers seems to regard Rebecca with nearly religious fervor; there’s a lengthy scene where Mrs. Danvers catches Hortense timidly exploring Rebecca’s old bedroom, but instead of throwing her out, Mrs. Danvers gives her a grand tour, pointing out each of Rebecca’s possessions and forcing Hortense to touch Rebecca’s furs and lie on her bed and admire the lace in her negligee, all the while talking about how elegant and classy and gracious and suave Rebecca had been and how devoted Mr. De Winter had been to her, why just look at these slips after all, they were made by nuns in an Italian convent and he bought them for her…  De Winter, on the other hand, seems hellbent on avoiding all reminders of Rebecca entirely, violently lashing out at Hortense if she reminds him of Rebecca in any way.  But since he’s pretty tight-lipped on what Rebecca was like or how she died, Hortense ends up pissing him off more than a few times.

Image result for rebecca film

Things really come to a head when Manderley throws a costume party.  Hortense is struggling with a costume idea, and Mrs. Danvers suggests that she dress as one of De Winter’s own ancestors, pointing out a specific portrait in the hall that she implies De Winter will really like.  Hortense trustingly agrees, keeping her costume secret from De Winter until the day of the ball.  But he blows up at her when he sees it – for Rebecca had worn exactly the same costume at a prior ball.   Now Hortense knows Mrs. Danvers has it in for her; it’s time to figure out exactly what the hell is going on.

The bulk of the film is taken up with the psychological fallout of Hortense getting thrown into the situation in Manderley.  The scene where Mrs. Danvers shows off Rebecca’s things is profoundly creepy, thanks to Anderson’s performance; it’s the first time we’ve seen any emotion other than disdain from Mrs. Danvers, but it’s still delivered with the same stern gaze and monotone she’s been using to address Hortense throughout.   It’s an eerie calm which suggests that something about Mrs. Danvers is very, very wrong.

Image result for rebecca film

Also creepy is De Winter’s repeated admiration for Hortense’s “innocence” throughout. He says a couple times that he’s drawn to her because of her simplicity and sincerity, both of which he implies comes from her innocence and youth.   That kind of attitude seems pretty oogy, frankly; however, when Hortense discovers more about Rebecca, it kind of explains De Winter’s attitude.  Not to the point that I’m going to forgive him, though; Hortense has some dang brave moments towards the end, but instead of applauding that, De Winter remarks that she’s lost that girlish look in her eye now.  I mean, he still loves her and everything, but he does note that she’s changed.  ….Ew.

Image result for rebecca film

The creepy Anderson is the highlight of the show, ultimately, backed up by Alfred Hitchcock’s direction.  This was Hitchcock’s first film for producer David Selznick, who was still working on Gone With The Wind.  It seems that Selznick had a couple of showy ideas for shots which Hitchcock found ridiculous, and simply didn’t film; one concerned a scene with a fire at Manderley, during which Selznick wanted a shot of the smoke billowing into the sky to magically shape itself into a huge “R”.  Not only am I not sure how Hitchcock would have been able to pull that off, it sounds really, really stupid.  Hitchcock also thought so, and simply didn’t film any shots of smoke billowing into the sky during that scene.  Instead, he filmed some of Rebecca’s monogrammed possessions burning, forcing Selznick – who liked to be hands-on in the editing room – to work with that instead.  The film got a whole raft of Oscar nominations that year, and ultimately won Best Cinematography and Best Picture, so it seems that Hitchcock’s instincts were superior.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

His Girl Friday (1940)

Image result for his girl friday

I appreciate quick wit, and I appreciate the madcap pace of screwball comedy.  I also appreciate Cary Grant when he’s at his screwball best.  So I’m not sure why I didn’t really get into His Girl Friday, which has all of the above elements.  Maybe my problem is simply that it has a little bit too much of them.

Grant may have one of the top-billed spots here, as Walter Burns, chief editor of Chicago’s Morning Post newspaper.  But his co-star, Rosalind Russell, ably does most of the heavy lifting as Hildy Johnson – formerly Hildy Burns, Walter’s ex-wife and one of his papers’ star reporters.  At the film’s rise, she’s already divorced him, and has come by the Post office to announce that she is quitting the business and is looking forward to a happy domestic life as the wife to an insurance salesman, whom she’s due to marry on the morrow.   Burns is convinced that she doesn’t really want to quit, though, and concocts a set of schemes to lure Johnson into staying – including luring her with a chance to interview Earl Williams (John Qualen), a man on death row for a controversial murder case. He’s scheduled to be hanged the following day, Burns opines, but he may be innocent, and may just be getting set up by the corrupt sheriff.  A star reporter like Hildy could save the man’s life, if only she’d consider one last piece…

Image result for his girl friday

Johnson relents, and drops by the courthouse to speak to Williams, planning to write up her interview real fast before hopping the night train to Albany and retirement.  But the familiar vibe of the courthouse press room slows her down a bit, and then when Williams stages a jailbreak, positioning Johnson in just the right place for a coup of a scoop, Johnson is really hooked, struggling to cover the story and still make it to Albany in time.

The film is based on a 1928 play called The Front Page, which is set entirely in the courthouse press room.  Hildy Johnson is a man in the play, and while he is indeed planning on a retirement and sees his plans get interrupted by the jailbreak, there’s no subplot about a jealous ex of Johnson’s trying to win him back.  So it sort of makes sense to me that that element was the weakest part for me.  Grant is clearly having fun with the role, Russell even more so (honestly, she acts rings around Grant); but too many of Burns’ schemes to stop Johnson are actually pretty mean, like sending interns to frame Johnson’s fiancé for crimes by planting stolen goods on him. Twice.  It’s not a good look for Grant, and it put me off.  To make things worse – Johnson catches him at it each time, but by the movies’ end it seems she’s cheerfully forgiven him.

The film also moves at a breakneck pace – way more so than other screwball comedies, to the point that I occasionally had trouble following what was happening or understanding what people were saying. It’s almost as if the extra subplot getting squeezed in made everyone involved feel like they had to talk even faster just to get in all the extra words.  Again, I know that screwball comedies are supposed to be fast, but this one felt just a little too fast for my taste.

Image result for his girl friday

There are some fun one-liners, and Rosalind Russell is a treat, but ultimately there was a little bit too much to wade through to find the gems for me.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Story Of The Last Chrysanthemums (1939)

Image result for the story of the last chrysanthemum

The slow, meandering pace of this film almost put me off at first; most of the scenes are slow, the takes are long, conversations are long and winding, things felt like they were just taking a darn long time to get going.  But that slow pace ended up sucking me into an affecting story despite myself.

Set in the theater world of Japan in the 1880s, it’s the story of Kiku (Shotaro Hanayagi), the adopted son of a renowned Kabuki actor. Kiku is being groomed to follow in the family business, and he is everywhere celebrated as the successor to his father’s theatrical dynasty – at least when he’s in the room.  When he leaves, however, everyone gossips about how bad he is, largely because he’s spending his nights partying with the geishas instead of perfecting his craft. Kiku starts to question everyone’s praise, however, taking aside a couple trusted friends to get an honest opinion; but they too tell him no, everything’s fine.  The first person to ever speak frankly with him about his talent is Otoku (Kakuko Mori), a servant girl in his family’s house; she’s the wet nurse for Kiku’s baby brother, but snuck out one night to watch him perform.  And….she didn’t dig it.  But – she eagerly tells Kiku – she believes he could be good if he started to really practice at it.

Image result for story of the last chrysanthemum

Otoku’s sincerity and faith touch Kiku deeply, and he falls for her hard, swearing off the partying and staying home to study his art.  But of course, since Otoku is also there, Kiku’s family gets the wrong idea about why he’s home all the time now, and fires Otoku. An indignant Kiku announces he’s leaving as well; if he’s going to become an actor, he wants to succeed on his own merits instead of riding his father’s coattails, so he’s going to go off and pay his dues.  And he’ll have Otoku with him when he does, so there.

Image result for story of the last chrysanthemum

The next several years are grueling for the couple, as Kiku struggles for gigs – regional theater here, cheap touring companies there – with Otoku struggling to hang on and support him, selling her few belongings and doing odd-job sewing to make ends meet.  They go through poverty, sickness, and disillusionment, Otoku trying harder and harder to encourage Kiku to keep going.  In desperation one day, when she sees that Kiku’s uncle is producing a show in the small town where they’re staying, she sneaks to him and begs him to cast Kiku in something, swearing that Kiku’s struggles have lead him to hone his craft.  Kiku’s uncle makes her a deal: he’ll cast Kiku in his latest show and see how he’s doing. If Kiku’s really a better actor, they’ll bring Kiku back home to Tokyo – but without Otoku, since Kiku’s father never approved of their union.  Do they have a deal?

It’s a pretty soapy melodramatic plot.  But the slow pace ended up working its patient magic with me, and I ended up sucked into the story; grieving with the couple when they were stuck in doing cheap show tours, rejoicing with Otoku when Kiku tracked her down after her dismissal.  The calibre of Kakuko’s performance drew me in as well; there’s a moment when Kiku is giving that pivotal performance with his uncle’s company, with scores of different people watching eagerly from the wings, Otoku among them, to see what will happen.  But Otoku can’t watch after a while, and flees to a space under the stage; but then she lingers, listening to his show, torn between hope for his success and pain for what his success would mean to her.  She says nothing – only listens, aching.

Image result for story of the last chrysanthemum

The film also resonates with an old theater person like me; even though the performers are doing kabuki instead of something more familiar to Western eyes, there are some lengthy clips of Kiku’s performances that allow you to track his progress.  There’s even an unintentionally funny bit where the road show Kiku’s in gets its contract cancelled early because the theater manager wants to bring in a female sumo act; and he’s brought the lady wrestlers in as muscle to evict the actors.

But it’s mostly a tragic tale, quietly affecting in its sincerity;  much like the quiet Otoku.

Director's Cut, film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Babes In Arms (1939)

Image result for babes in arms film

I was initially amused to see that Busby Berkley directed this film, an early Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland vehicle.  But the more I think about it, the more it makes total sense.

You probably guessed when I mentioned the two stars; but confirming that yes, this is an early film from the genre “Hey, let’s put on a show in the barn and save the orphanage!”  You know what I mean – small community facing financial hardship, plucky teens have the idea to put on some kind of show as a fundraiser, rehearsals are a mess but it all comes together and the day is saved.  Often with a side order of “producer boy enlists local hottie as the lead, but realizes the girl next door is actually better and recasts at the last minute”, frequently with a garnish of “and they fall in love too”.  It’s become a very familiar trope, getting used in everything from The Blues Brothers to The Full Monty to TV’s Scrubs and The Brady Bunch and a number of others.  It’s even inspired real-life attempts (in 2009, I helped stage manage such a show to raise funds for my high school’s music program).

Image result for babes in arms rooney

With Babes in Arms, however, there was another nuance that I only caught in retrospect.  In this film, the kids are all show-biz kids, the sons and daughters of old vaudevillians now struggling to book shows  in the movie era.  Many of the kids – especially Mickey Moran (Rooney) were part of the family act and are on the cusp of embarking on solo careers; Moran is trying to break into songwriting, encouraged by his girl Patsy Barton (Garland), herself a fine singer.  But when the parents all team up to collectively launch a greatest-hits revival tour, in a desperate bid for money, they insist the kids sit this one out.  Some even suggest to their kids that they could consider other careers.

But these are theater kids.  And speaking as a former theater kid – telling us to give theater up does not work.  It just makes us twice as determined that we will put on a boffo show and show you we can do it, so there.

Image result for babes in arms film

It’s a fantastically predictable plot; the kids struggle to put on the show, Moran and Barton have a lovers’ tiff after he casts the silly Rosalie “Baby” Essex as the lead (Barton thinks he digs her, but he only casts her because she’s a former child star with gobs of money to invest in the show), there are initial disasters, but everything works out in the end – this time, with a Busby-Berkeley-choreographed production number.  But Berkeley’s involvement added a particular bit of subtext; maybe it was unintentional, but this felt like a bit of a torch-passing, with the cast from earlier musical movies giving ground to a team of younger and fresher-faced performers.  One of Berkeley’s regular go-to character actors, Guy Kibbee, even has a role as a sympathetic judge who buys up a whole block of seats for the kids’ show as a gesture of support.  And in a poignant note towards the end, Moran and his father have had a severe falling-out about the younger Moran’s show business career – largely sparked by the father’s career collapsing right when his son’s career is dawning.  But Moran fils finds a way to extend an olive branch by giving his father a job on the show and making him feel valued by show biz again, even in his dotage.

Even Berkeley’s final number is different, doing away with most of the pyrotechnics and showcasing his young leads.  It’s still gloriously excessive – a whole team of dancers filling the aisles and stage of a theater, dancing and singing about the simple pleasures of the U.S. of A. – but instead of a tightly choreographed team of nameless smiling dancers in a swimming pool, the centerpiece of the number is Rooney and Garland trying to do impressions of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt delivering their weekly radio addresses before leading a group of folk-costumed folks from other lands in a tap dance. It’s no longer 1932; the times are different, the priorities are different, and there are younger, newer stars – grateful for those who paved their way, but eager to set out on their own in a land that’s now theirs for the shaping.  It was a surprisingly poignant note to end on.

Image result for babes in arms rooney

 

….I have one confession by way of epilogue.  There was one scene that I simply could not watch all the way through, and I mention it only as a warning. The scene depicting the kids’ initial performance of their review is a salute to minstrel shows, which ultimately sees the whole cast in blackface singing a medley of minstrel songs – save for one lone young man, dressed all in white and sitting in a grand chair on the stage, and looking for all the world like a plantation owner surveying his “staff” as they entertained him.  Now, I know that this was a scene very much of its time and that I am a person very much of my own time, but I’ve seen quite enough of that. I fast-forwarded it all until the end, where – possibly karmically – a rainstorm interrupts the kids’ open-air performance, leaving Mickey Rooney pleading with the audience to stay as the rain washes off his blackface.

…Good for the rain.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Rules Of The Game (1939)

Image result for the rules of the game

Like Ninotchka, Jean Renoir’s The Rules Of The Game is also set in and around Paris in the short months leading up to the Second World War.  ….And….that’s about the only thing they have in common, ultimately.

Ninotchka takes a lighthearted, sentimental view of the kind of gaiety and pitching woo they claim is indicative of late 1930s French society.  Renoir is a bit more critical, however; his characters are all a cosmopolitan and worldly, and most are also really jaded; and some are also completely nuts.  Most of the action takes place at a house party thrown by the Chesnayes, Robert and Christine, at their estate in the country.  Christine (Nora Gregor) has a fervent admirer in Andre (Roland Toutain), a stunt aviator who’s just made a successful trans-Atlantic crossing to impress Christine; while Robert has been trying to end his affair with Genevieve (Mila Parely), another single socialite.  Their old friend Octave (Jean Renoir himself) is serving as agony aunt for all of them, all the while secretly harboring his own crush on Christine, whom he’s known since childhood.  Octave appeases his crush by dallying with Christine’s maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost), who’s married to Schumacher, the gamekeeper at the country estate; but when Robert spontaneously gives local poacher Marceau a job, Lisette soon starts checking him out too.  That entire entangled web of people decamps to the Chesnaye’s estate for a week to celebrate Andre’s successful flight – and over the course of that week, mayhem ensues.

Image result for the rules of the game

Now, you’d think that a lot of the mayhem would take the form of people sneaking in and out of bedrooms and merrily humping on balconies and such.  But the physical affection here is surprisingly chaste; the most we see are some lingering kisses and fully-clothed embraces.  But they’re enough to spark jealousy, as Christine spies on Robert and Genevieve in an embrace (not knowing that it’s intended as a farewell), and as Schumacher catches Marceau trying to canoodle with Lisette in the servants’ kitchen.

Image result for the rules of the game

And both jealousies come to a head late in the film, during a masquerade ball thrown by the Chesnayes; the whole ball is a completely bonkers sequence with Christine trying to make both Robert and Andre jealous by flirting with another random guest as Schumacher chases Marceau through the packed party with a gun, the rest of the house staff in hot pursuit.  Robert and Andre also finally have it out, Genevieve challenges Robert to finally choose between her and Christine, and all the while – and I’m not kidding about this – Octave is inexplicably blundering around in a bear costume begging people to help him unzip it.  It’s a whole bunch of simmering stuff finally brought to a head, almost like if someone tried to wrap up all the plot threads in an entire season of Downton Abbey in only five minutes.

Image result for the rules of the game

While the ball scene is funny, there’s a tragic “things are only funny until someone gets hurt” ending to the film I won’t divulge here; playing up that the ridiculous hijinks that the upper classes were indulging in were ultimately foolish and pointless, and a dangerous distraction in the runup to war.  Renoir included an even more critical sequence earlier in the film, with a lengthy and unnervingly-detailed hunting sequence. The house guests are all dispatched to their various blinds and issued their guns; but instead of shooting at clay targets, they’re shooting at actual animals, with a team of servants dispatched to flush out rabbits and pheasants from the surrounding woods and relentlessly driving them into the line of fire.  Just to hammer the point home, Renoir includes several shots of some of the animals being shot down, including one disturbing shot of a rabbit twitching in its death throes after being hit.

Not all the shots are this grim, fortunately.  There is some striking camera work throughout; Renoir invested in some cameras with super-deep fields of focus, to let him capture as much detail in the long corridors and huge rooms at the chateau where he was filming.  Fortunately, this also let him set up some shots during the ball scene with one set of characters in the foreground while another set got up to other hijinks in the background, to emphasize how all these stories were unfolding at the same time and generally add to the chaos.  There’s also a short and affecting shot towards the end, where Octave is out in the gardens with Christine and is recalling a moment when he saw her father, a famous conductor, approach the podium at an orchestra; as Octave, Renoir approaches the head of a set of stairs, turning to the gardens just like his long-lost hero turned to his musicians.

Image result for the rules of the game

We can laugh at these people, Renoir seems to be saying – in fact, we should laugh at them.  But we should also be angry at their callousness and their folly, for losing sight of the good they could have done, and for where the world went when they weren’t looking.  Renoir was certain that the simmering global tensions that were underway while he was filming would at some point spill over into war, and placed the responsibility for that war squarely on the carelessness of the upper classes.  Gaiety and pitching woo is all very nice, but if it distracts you from taking care of the people around you and leads you into hurting others, or if it comes at anothers’ expense, that fun and frolic can suddenly turn tragic.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Ninotchka (1939)

Image result for ninotchka

So Ninotchka was fun, but I had a heck of a time figuring out why.

If you dissect it, there’s a lot about this film that seems problematic, un-fun, or just plain odd.  It’s a frothy comedy that uses Stalinist philosophy as a running gag and the Nazi threat as a throwaway joke; it features Greta Garbo in a comedy role; there’s an oogy scene with the romantic lead persistently trying to pick Garbo’s character up, and not only does she actually give in, she turns on a dime to do so.  It’s a winking Ernst Lubitsch bedroom comedy that tries to write off the driving forces behind World War II as easily-dispatched strawmen, with women as even more easily-swayed creatures prone to giving up their principles for the sake of a fashionable hat.   On paper I should have hated this film; and yet, I found myself laughing out loud more than once, to the point that Alex remarked that he overheard me from his room and said “I’m assuming you liked it, then.”

Image result for ninotchka

The whole thing is set in Paris right before the war; a time when, as the introduction states, “if a Frenchman turned out the light, it was not on account of an air raid!”  A trio of bumbling Soviet envoys have come to Paris to sell off a former countess’ jewels confiscated by the Bolsheviks to raise money for the government’s coffers.  But to their misfortune, the countess in question is living in Paris in exile, and her boytoy Leon (Melvyn Douglas) is a lawyer to boot, so they launch a lawsuit to block the sale.  The lawsuit – plus the three envoys’ increasing interest in Paris’ more bourgeois pleasures – leads to the Soviets sending in the big guns, in the form of Special Envoy Nina “Ninotchka” Yakushova (Garbo).  Yakushova is a by-the-book, all-in Marxist and party faithful who spends her first day sneering at Paris fashions, and visits the Eiffel Tower only to study its metal content and construction.  But she’s also attractive, which spurs Leon to give up the pursuit of the countess’ jewels in favor of pursuing her. 

Unquestionably, Garbo was the highlight for me – particularly early on.  Yakushova is written as a completely humorless stoic with no interest in romance or poetry or frivolity and with passions reserved solely for the Soviet Party.  She has some darkly comic lines – at one point, she responds to an inquiry about “mass trials” back in Russia with the observation that they were “a great success” since “There are going to be fewer, but better, Russians.”  When she’s trying to put off Leon, it’s even better; when he says that his compulsion to flirt with her is a “natural urge,” she simply retorts “Suppress it.”  Another exchange:

  • Ninotchka: We don’t have men like you in my country.
  • Leon: Thank you.
  • Ninotchka: That is why I believe in the future of my country.

Image result for ninotchka

The lines are witty enough, but Garbo’s performance makes them even funnier.  Her Yakushova is blunt, forthright, no-nonsense and all business; I found her strangely like Mayim Bialik’s character on The Big Bang TheoryWhat’s even stranger –  I’m not a fan of Big Bang Theory, but I thought this was a hoot.  Later scenes with a loosened-up Yakushova are still funny, particularly a scene when Yakushova gets completely blitzed on champagne and tries to deliver a proletariat-rallying speech in the middle of a crowded ballroom.

There is one bit I shuddered at; a lengthy scene in which Yakushova heads to a cheap café for a meal, and Leon trails her, hoping to pitch some woo.  Yakushova takes a seat alone at a table; Leon sits at the next table with a “fancy meeting you here!” quip, and then spends five very long minutes trying to urge her to “smile” or “talk to me” while Yakushova stares stoically ahead, pointedly ignoring him.  The scene does end with Yakushova finally cracking a smile (at Leon’s expense), and I understand that the times were different, but this is a moment that has not aged well at all.

Image result for ninotchka

Speaking of timing, though, that may be a clue as to why the rest of the film hangs together and is such a delight.  As that early introduction implies, Ninotchka was released only a month after the Second World War broke out in Europe, at a time when all of Europe – and Parisians in particular – were looking ahead to a very grim few years.  It was time for everyone to buckle down and get serious – and so a film celebrating frivolous delights and love and frolic was no doubt well received as a wistful fairytale of a more innocent era, at a time when people feared whether that sort of love of frivolity would ever return.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Daybreak (Le Jour Se Levé) (1939)

Image result for le jour se leve

I think I have a small celebrity crush on Jean Gabin.

….Hang on, I’m getting ahead of myself a little.

Gabin stars in Daybreak, a sort of doomed-love story/mystery cross-pollination, which starts with Gabin’s character Francois shooting someone in his apartment and then barricading himself against police during the first ten minutes.  The backstory for his act – and the rest of the film, for that matter – is told in a handful of extended flashbacks, chronicling his love affair with a young woman, Francoise, and both of their complicated entanglements with the oily Valentin (Francoise’s ex) and forthright Clara (Valentin’s ex, Francois’ sometime rebound).  And when I say “complications”, I mean it – Francois takes a while to unpick exactly what is the nature of Francoise’s relationship with Valentin, largely because Valentin lies to him the few times Francois confronts him.  ….And maybe Francoise is lying to him a little as well.  But Valentin may also be lying to her.  At least that’s what Clara says – but is the bitter Clara, frustrated at Valentin’s rejection of her, really a reliable source?

Image result for le jour se leve

That all could have been a confusing mess, but the script ably leads you through the ensuing twists and turns well, pacing the various double-crosses and revelations well enough for you to follow the thorny story to that final fatal act, an act which by that point makes total sense for the exasperated Francois – as does his way out of his predicament, which we finally see at the film’s very end.

There’s a lot in the film that caught my eye – some of the present-day shots with Francois brooding alone in his apartment are gorgeously composed.  But the scenes where Francois is trying to pitch some woo with Francoise – an early scene at her apartment, a later one in a barn – that really grabbed my attention, for a couple reasons.  The Francois/e initial meet-cute felt a bit forced, but their next scene is marvelously compelling – playful, flirtatious, and a tiny bit seductive.  Honestly, if someone looking like Gabin turned up in my apartment and talked that way to me, I’d have a hard time resisting myself.

Image result for le jour se leve

Hence the celebrity crush.  We’ve seen Gabin before in Pépé le Moko and The Grand Illusion, but this was the first time we got to see more of a romantic-lead kind of part – albeit a tragic one – and boy, it got me, moving Gabin onto a shortlist that is populated with more contemporary performers (no, I am not going to tell you who they all are just now).

Alas, it seems that this may be the last I see of Jean Gabin from the list.  Gabin got wooed by Hollywood following this film, but preferred the French film world.  World War II changed his mind on that score, however, and he decamped to Los Angeles for a couple years – but was frustrated by the Hollywood system, and got a reputation for being difficult to work with.  His years in Hollywood brought him into contact with Marlene Dietrich, with whom he apparently had a relationship through most of the 1940s, even after he ultimately returned to France.  His insistence that she co-star in his pictures caused further friction with directors, and his career suffered until their 1948 breakup.  He was a little too old for the dashing leads he’d played previously, though, and his career floundered a while until he was cast in a series of films as Jules Maigret, the lead in a beloved French mystery novel series.  The films put him back in the critics’ good graces, and he was able to get regular work again until his death in 1976.

Image result for le jour se leve

But it’s the Gabin of the 1930s that I think will be making my heart flutter a little.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Image result for the wizard of oz

Watching Wizard of Oz made me think a lot about time and memory.

Rather, I should say re-watching it.  Because I’ve watched it countless times – when I was a child, it enjoyed an annual broadcast on television every spring, as one of the regular round of TV specials which marked the year for me (most of them various Peanuts holiday specials, with the occasional movie mixed in).  When we did Wizard of Oz as a school play in Junior High, Dorothy’s skipping step down the Yellow Brick Road was one thing that our director didn’t need to choreograph because every child in the cast had already learned it from Judy Garland.

Image result for the wizard of oz

I’ve grown up now, of course, and it’s been years since there was an annual broadcast of the film anyway.  So this was a revisitation after a long absence.  I was curious to see what I’d think; I remembered everything, I thought, so what would I respond to?

….Well.  There are some bits I did not remember at all.

Actually, it’s safe to say that I remembered almost nothing from the scenes before Dorothy’s fated meeting with a cyclone.  Dorothy singing about flying over the rainbow, sure, and Toto escaping from a basket strapped to Miss Gulch’s bike – but that was it.  I remembered none of Miss Gulch taking Toto in the first place, or Dorothy tagging along with the Gale’s three farmhands and falling in a pig pen, or running away and meeting the sideshow barker “Professor Marvel” – I watched in fascination, because it was almost entirely new to me.  It wasn’t until Dorothy opened the door onto Oz In Technicolor that I recognized things I’d seen before.  Maybe the Kansas stuff simply didn’t register when I was a kid because it was the “boring part”.  Oz was the whole draw when I was younger – it was bright and colorful, there were witches and fairies and talking lions and scarecrows, all of which overshadowed drab brown Kansas easily.

Image result for the wizard of oz

Even more interesting – overlooking those bits before meant that I missed some big hints the film had been giving about Dorothy’s trip to Oz and whether it was all a dream.  I knew that actors Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr were the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion respectively, and knew that they turned up at Dorothy’s bedside at the end for her to point to and say “and you were all there too!”.  But we see them before Oz too – and in one shot, Bert Lahr as farmhand “Zeke” even encourages Dorothy to “have courage” after she tumbles in with the pigs and he has to fish her out.

Image result for the wizard of oz

Speaking of Bert Lahr – I was paying close attention to Dorothy’s three friends this time around, and have a renewed appreciation for his work as the Lion.  I remember especially liking the Lion as a child – and as an adult, I suspect it was because Lahr’s role lets him ham it up a bit more, showing off his comedic chops.  Even viewing this as an adult he’s something of a standout.  …Conversely, Jack Haley’s Tin Man seemed worryingly…flirtatious during his “If I Only Had A Heart”, which put me off a bit in today’s climate.

But most surprising at all was how fast the film moved. All of the famous sequences – Munchkinland, Dorothy meeting the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, the poppyfield – seemed to stretch on much longer in my memory than the were on the screen.  True, that could simply be due to having to sit through all the commercial breaks as a kid – or a change in the way I’ve come to perceive time over the ensuing 30-plus years.

Image result for the wizard of oz

I should stress, though – the film feeling like it had been longer then, or shorter now, is definitely a function of my own memory.  Because at no time I’ve watched it – either then or now – did I feel like it was either too rushed or too slow. Even the most indulgent scenes – and let’s face it, some of the Munchkinland stuff got pretty indulgent – the pace is quick enough to hold your attention, and there’s such a feast of detail that you’re caught up in it all anyway.

Maybe that’s why it felt longer when I was a child. Watching it now I’m looking for things like the script and the plot and the pacing, but watching it then, I was journeying into Oz.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Baker’s Wife (1940)

Image result for the baker's wife film

I’m starting to think that I will sour on French comedies at some point; something about the quaint country characters and twee comedic conflicts could eventually start to bug me.  Fortunately I haven’t quite got there yet. 

The Baker’s Wife opens with just such a display of twee comedic conflicts between the quaint country residents of a small town in Provence.  It’s a small town, there’s not much happening, so people let themselves get annoyed by small grievances or long-standing squabbles, just for something to do. The only real problem they’ve had in town is a dearth of good bread; their old baker was inexperienced or drunk much of the time, and the bread supply suffered as a result.  But fortunately Amiable, a new baker, is in town – and huzzah, he seems to be good at his job.  So now the town has something else to talk about aside from their old grievances; they can talk about the fine bread! …And about the fact that Amiable’s wife, Aurelie, is about 20 years younger than him and is a hottie.

Image result for the baker's wife film

Several of the men in town take note of Aurelie’s pulchritude – especially Esprit, a young shepherd and errand boy for the local mayor.  Esprit is himself a hottie, which turns Aurelie’s head.  So three nights later, when Esprit turns up with a pair of friends to serenade Aurelie under her window, she is eager to run down and meet up with him. Except Amiable wakes up and hears the serenade too.  But – he is so trusting of his wife and so blinkered over Esprit that he assumes that Esprit’s there to thank him for the bread!  He suggests to Aurelie that she head downstairs to meet them; give them something to eat from the storehouse, there’s a good girl!  And Aurelie eagerly goes down to them while Amiable goes back to sleep.  But – she doesn’t come back.

Amiable thinks nothing of it at first – he’s distracted by getting the first day’s loaves in the oven.  When he finds her gone, he still thinks nothing of it – she probably went to explore the town garden.  ….Oh, she’s not there?  Maybe she went to the church.  ….Or, if she’s not there, maybe she went to her mother’s.  She’s always going to her mothers’ a lot.  Everything’s okay.  …..Right?….The rest of the town is at first eager to gossip over the scandal – Aurelie makes for an attractively wicked villainess, and Amiable is entertainingly clueless.  But then Amiable starts to lose hope, and gives up on his baking – and the whole scandal suddenly becomes way less entertaining.

Image result for the baker's wife film

The film is mostly occupied with following Amiable’s blundering search for Aurelie and the town’s reactions to the unfolding drama; moving from titillated gossip to an all-hands search for Aurelie, to return her to her grieving husband so he can start baking again. The renowned French character actor Raimu, as Amiable, excels here; he’s got a lot of lines that imply Aurelie has been playing him for the fool for years, fooling around with other men under his nose and making plenty of “trips to mother” to deceive him.  But he delivers them with such a trusting straight face that even though you realize how thin those excuses are, you also realize Amiable believes them, poor guy (or, maybe he’s willfully deluding himself), and it takes you from wanting to point and laugh at Amiable to wanting to give him a sympathetic hug.  Towards the end when some local yokels give him a “gift” of a pair of antlers, a jibe at his cuckold’s status, he is visibly hurt, but dismisses it with a patient shrug – and you want to punch people on his behalf.

There’s an interesting subplot, too, involving the local vicar.  He’s a straightlaced pious boob at the top of the movie, picking a fight with the local schoolteacher over a tiny point in the history of Joan of Arc (“you said that she ‘believed’ she heard voices instead of saying she did!”), and is horrified by the scandal over Aurelie, implying in a sermon that Amiable needed to be a stricter husband.  But a lengthy talk with the mayor concerning the heights and pitfalls of romantic love, coupled with a closer study of Amiable’s emotional roller-coaster, moves the young priest to a more compassionate perspective.  There’s a lovely scene at the end of the film when he encounters the straying Aurelie – and instead of lecturing her, he reads her the story of Jesus and the woman accused of adultery, ending with Jesus’ charge to “go and sin no more”.  It’s more a character study than a fleshed-out subplot, but it’s a lovey element.

Image result for the baker's wife film

Surprisingly, I’d had contact with this film before – or at least something inspired by it. In 1976, Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz tried adapting the film as a musical; it enjoyed some successful runs in Los Angeles and Washington D.C., but never came to Broadway itself.  Usually falling short of Broadway is a kiss of death in the musical theater world, but the Baker’s Wife musical gained a cult following, thanks to a Grammy-winning cast album and one hell of a solo number for Aurelie (renamed “Genevieve” in the play), “Meadowlark”, in which she agonizes over whether to run away with Esprit.  “Meadowlark” became a go-to audition piece for a lot of actresses; I actually heard it first in one of my voice classes in college, when a classmate chose it for one of her study pieces.

The song, and the musical, treat Aurelie a lot better than the film does – the musical implies that she’s happily married to Amiable, and that their May/December relationship suits her because of Amiable’s kindness and care; her affair is an anomaly born of a deeper connection with a previously-unknown sense of passion.  The film is very different; there’s no “Meadowlark” moment at all, and instead Aurelie and Esprit have instant chemistry and jump straight to acting on it, without a thought spared for poor Amiable.  Moreover, the film implies that this isn’t the first time Aurelie has strayed.  But towards the end, film Aurelie seems to have come around to the same kind of affection for Amiable as well at long last.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Gunga Din (1939)

Image result for gunga din

You’re a weirder movie than I thought, Gunga Din.

Cary Grant has star billing as Sgt. Cutter, one of a trio of British officers in the Indian subcontinent in the 1800s. Cutter and his colleagues, Sgts. MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) and Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) are a little unorthodox and prone to hijinks, but very effective at what they do, so they are sent to a remote outpost to rebuild and protect its telegraph station after an act of sabotage.

Image result for gunga din film

Sgt. Cutter has a get-rich-quick streak, though, and throughout his tour of duty he’s been talking to the locals about where there might be “hidden treasure” and setting off on wild goose chases after rumors of riches.  During his tour at the outpost, Cutter befriends Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), an older Indian gentleman who desperately wants to be a British soldier but is too old and feeble so instead he is serving as the platoon’s water carrier.  Desperate to get in good with the soldiers, Din tells Cutter that there is a secret golden temple hidden somewhere nearby, and the pair steal out one night to find it.  Turns out that Din was right – except that what Din did not know is that the temple is the home base for a growing army of Thugees, devotes to the goddess Kali who’ve adopted murder as their form of worship and who have targeted the nearby British outpost as their hunting ground.  Cutter is captured by the Thugees as they try to sneak out and back to base, leaving Din alone to try to escape the Thugees and sound the alarm.

Now – I knew going into things that this film was loosely based on a Rudyard Kipling poem – one that I was only vaguely aware of but never read all the way through.  What little I knew suggested that it was about an Indian soldier, working with the British forces, who did…something noble.  I looked up the poem after, and it was very different – in Kipling’s work, Gunga Din is still a water carrier, but his heroic act from the poem is simply dragging a soldier to safety during a battle and then getting shot.  There’s no Thugee temple, no treasure-hunting – none of it.  The film actually throws in Rudyard Kipling as a character towards the end, implying that he learned of Din’s adventures while touring India and was inspired that way, but reportedly the Kipling estate really didn’t like that because the film was so different from Kipling’s work.

And about half the film’s plot is taken up with Cutter and his colleague’s hijinks anyway, and Din doesn’t even show up.  About a third of the film deals with Ballantine and his impending marriage – his tour of duty is soon to end, and his fiancée Emaline (Joan Fontaine) is waiting for him, prepared to marry as soon as he’s discharged and whisk him away to a well-placed position in her father’s tea company.  Cutter and MacChesney think that sounds dull as all hell and spend a good portion of the film trying to sabotage his plans – in whimsical madcap ways, though.

Image result for gunga din

Reportedly Cary Grant was originally cast as Ballantine, but saw the comedic potential in the role of Cutter and asked for that part instead.  There is some debate about whether Fairbanks was originally cast as Cutter and they just switched, or whether Grant himself suggested Fairbanks after his casting change; there’s even a tall tale that both actors actually flipped a coin to determine who would play Cutter.  However Grant got the part of Cutter, he exploited the comedy potential to the hilt, injecting a screwball comedy note into many of his scenes (there’s a scene between Cutter and an elephant that would fit perfectly into Bringing up Baby).  Then the tone shifts towards the end to play up Din’s bravery and the danger of the Thugees, a change so sharp as to cause whiplash (although there was some unintentional comedy involving a “pit of poisonous snakes”, in which the snakes were clearly fakes being jiggled along on wires).

Image result for gunga din

But most of it was comedy – something I found baffling, since I was expecting a more red-blooded story of military heroism.  Instead this was feeling more like all the goofy parts from Indiana Jones And the Temple Of Doom.  Interestingly, there’s a reason for that – screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz drew directly from Gunga Din when writing their Temple of Doom treatment, and even introduced the idea of a Thugee temple (all Lucas knew was that he wanted there to be an evil cult of some kind).  In retrospect, though, I feel like there’s also some comparisons to M*A*S*H – Cutter and MacChesney come across like Hawkeye and Trapper John at their most irreverent.

Image result for gunga din

Critics at the time were generally positive, although Time Magazine noted it was an example of a recent trend Hollywood was taking to inject screwball comedy notes into different genres.  Dissenting critics took a dim view of how Indian culture was depicted in the film – while the Thugees were a real group, they were not devotees of Kali after all, and were instead simply mercenary highway robbers. Dissenting critics weren’t that impressed that the only Indian characters we met were the evil Thugees and the self-sacrificing Gunga Din – and ultimately, I wasn’t impressed by that either (nor by casting a Caucasian actor as Din, and then slapping a lot of makeup on him).  Grant is at the top of his form, though, which at least made this watchable, if a bit baffling.