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The Philadelphia Story (1940)

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The Philadelphia Story is a bit of a Bringing Up Baby reunion, with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn returning under the direction of George Cukor.  But I liked it much, much better.

Part of why is that Hepburn is playing someone much more likeable this time. Instead of a dizzy free spirit, she’s a feisty, strong-willed socialite, Tracy Lord, whom we meet in the middle of breaking up with her husband C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) in the very first scene.  It’s a wholly wordless scene, but it’s absolutely clear what’s going on – she throws his suitcases through the door at his car, pausing only to break one of his golf clubs in half.  And the feeling is mutual – as Haven demonstrates by pushing her backwards through the door to land on her tuchus.

The film then fast-forwards two years, to the weekend of Tracy’s second marriage to a nouveau riche industrialist.  It’s the society wedding of the year in Philadelphia, and the editor of the gossip magazine Spy wants a scoop – so he enlists cynical writer Mike Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and his photographer sidekick Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) to get in on the festivities and do a piece on How The Rich Set Weds.  But how will they get in?  Why, there’s a fellow here who just moved back from our South American office who says he can introduce you, with a story about your being friends of Tracy’s diplomat brother.  Says his name is “C.K. Dexter Haven” and he knows the Lords well.

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Tracy isn’t too pleased to see Haven (although her mother and kid sister are), and easily sizes up Connor and Imbrie.  But before she can kick them out, Haven privately reveals another bit of info – Spy is sitting on a much more scandalous story about Tracy’s father having an affair with a dancer, and letting them do a piece about her wedding will convince the editor to kill the gossip piece.  Tracy knows about the dancer – and in fact has disinvited her father to the wedding because of it – but agrees that the scandal would damage the family, and agrees to play along.

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….that’s all just the setup.  The rest of the action unfolds over the two-day wedding weekend, which sees Tracy and Haven reminisce over their old affair, Tracy and Connor gradually realize they have chemistry, and Tracy’s fiancé George get increasingly confused about what all these dudes are doing hanging around.  Tracy’s father even shows up (secretly invited by her mother).  The evening before the wedding, Tracy has become thoroughly mixed up – she’s uneasy about how her fiancé idolizes her, she’s attracted to Connor, and she’s having epiphanies about her and Haven.  And then she and her father get into a serious argument which drives her to self-medicate with about a bottle and a half of champagne before turning up to a wedding-eve ball thrown by her uncle, where she meets an equally-drunk Connor….

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I truly did not know until just before the close who Tracy was going to end up with. With three men hanging about this is more of a love rhombus than a triangle; and each of Tracy’s relationships with these men is wholly distinct, and either one is a choice that would make sense.  I was impressed how well-rounded the characters themselves were, which no doubt helped – Haven does fall back on being depicted as the “bitter snarky ex” a shade too often, but there’s also a sense that he genuinely realized where he messed up in their marriage and that he wants to do right by her, even if it’s to protect her second marriage.  Connor is a salt-of-the-earth frustrated writer unimpressed by the Lords’ wealth – but that also makes him one of the few who sees past the façade Tracy’s put up to the world and relates to that.  George Kitteridge (John Howard), Tracy’s fiancé, may idolize her – but mercy he is devoted, and would make a faithful and devoted husband as well.  All three of them get under Tracy’s skin for very distinct reasons, forcing her to do some hard thinking – not just about her paramours, but about herself – for possibly the first time ever.

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This all sounds really deep.  But this film also pulls off being really funny.  Not the slapstick kind of screwball comedy either – the film goes for witty one-liners and small bits of business instead, with Connor getting most of the jokes, some pointed classist mockery of the Lords and some fish-out-of-water fumbles while he’s “under cover”.  Hepburn gets some witty barbs in as well, fighting back against Connor’s attacks – making it all the more gripping when the two get into a more serious argument about his classist snobbery.

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Tracy’s sister Dinah is another scene-stealer.  Dinah is played by twelve-year-old child actress Virginia Weidler, who was a revelation – she’s got incredible comic timing and instincts, easily swinging between wisecracks and youthfulness as the tomboyish Dinah.  There’s a fantastic scene early on, when the Lords first meet Connor and Imbrie, and have decided to put on an elaborate act to confuse them; Weidler more than holds her own in a scene with Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart all.  I was impressed enough to track down Weidler’s biography; this was one of her last roles in a career that began when she was only seven.  She and Shirley Temple entered show business at about the same time and at similar ages; but Weidler was quick-witted and funny rather than being cute, and an actress alone rather than also being able to dance, so she lost out several roles to Shirley Temple – especially in her teens – and eventually retired from show business altogether at the age of 16 and married a naval officer.  It’s a pity the studios didn’t recognize her obvious talent.

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On a happier note – The Philadelphia Story revived the career of Katharine Hepburn, who’d done a lot behind the scenes to get the film made. The film was based on a play, one which Hepburn had commissioned herself a couple years after Bringing up Baby when her movie career was in a bit of a slump.  The play was a rousing success, and Hepburn’s then-boyfriend Howard Hughes bought her the film rights.  She sold them to MGM on the condition that she have a say in the casting and crew selection.  Initially she’d tried to get Clark Gable cast as Haven and Spencer Tracy as Connor, but neither was free; Grant and Stewart were second-string choices.  But the atmosphere on set quickly confirmed that they’d made the right choices; in a later interview, one of the cameramen, Joseph Ruttenberg, spoke of how much fun all parties seemed to have during filming, especially during that first opening scene:

“Cary got along very well with Kate Hepburn. She enjoyed him pushing her through a doorway in one scene (so she fell over backward) so much that she had him do it to her over and over again. …There was also a scene in which she had to throw Cary out the door of a house, bag and baggage, and she did it so vigorously he fell over and was bruised. As he stood up, looking rueful, Kate said, ‘That’ll serve you right, Cary, for trying to be your own stuntman!'”

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Dodsworth (1936)

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YAY I FINALLY SAW DODSWORTH!

If you’re thinking this sounds familiar – yes, this was based on a book by Sinclair Lewis (or, more accurately, based on a play that was itself based on the book).  The titular Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is the founder of an auto manufacturer in staid Zenith, Ohio, and has sold it at the start of the film so that he can retire and take his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) on the grand tour of Europe he’s always promised her they would do one day.  But like many couples find when they retire, sometimes being thrown back together 24/7 forces them to confront the fact that they want different things now.  In Sam and Fran’s case, Sam just wants to do a little traveling before returning home to his dotage where he can play indulgent grandpa to their daughter Emily’s baby boy, while Fran is looking for more of a “Got Her Groove Back” thing, where she can move among the smart set and hobnob with socialites, like she did during her years in an exclusive Swiss boarding school.

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Fran is especially self-conscious about her age, which leads her to flirt with several European playboys, with varying degrees of seriousness.  This is of course a slap in the face to the faithful and devoted Sam, who’s already smarting from Fran’s sudden critique of their stable Midwest lifestyle.  Their growing discontent threatens to break the couple up once and for all.

I mention that this was based on a play inspired by the book. Interestingly enough, I’ve seen that play, done at one of my old favorite theatrical stomping grounds, so I had a soft spot for this already.  I also pretty much knew what was coming throughout.  Then again, it’s hard not to predict how things are going to end – early on Sam and Fran are devoted enough, with him seeing her foppishness as an endearing quirk and her seeing his stolidness as “kind but boring”, but the change in their routine brought about by Sam’s retirement upsets the balance, bringing out the worst in Fran’s frivolity and forcing Sam to confront that his wife’s values have changed (or worse still, that maybe she’s felt this way all along and he just never knew).

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We’re clearly meant to sympathize with Sam, as well – Fran has a couple affairs, and even asks for a divorce at one point to marry a German boytoy, but she always runs back to Sam crying and asking for help when each affair crashes and burns.  Meanwhile Sam just sort of muddles along touring Europe for its own sake – marveling at each of the landmarks and boyishly exploring.  Even so, Fran’s dissatisfaction with their predictable life in Zenith makes perfect sense when she’s speaking to him at the top of the film.  Any sympathy we have for her vanishes quickly, though, when they’re barely on their steamship and she’s already nagging him to “dress for dinner” because “that’s what the smart people do”.  ….She’s wrong about that, and Sam is still indulgent over it, but it’s a precursor for how she is going to be behaving throughout.

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There’s some eye-catching cinematography and art direction in spots – the whole film opens with a hell of a gorgeous shot of Sam standing reflectively in his office, staring out the window where the side of the building is emblazoned with his name, preparing himself to leave forever.  But most of the “European scenes” ignore the specific scenery there, with all of the action taking place in hotel rooms or or steamship cabins or post offices, nary a sexy location shot in sight. Most likely this is a holdover from the play, but it wisely focuses your attention on the story itself, making you bear witness to what is ultimately a long and drawn-out breakup.  And while Sam does finally come to a happier place in the end – and you don’t blame him in the slightest – it’s still a tragic tale.

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Fantasia (1940)

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According to family lore, Fantasia was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. I was about three, so it was either just before or after my brother was born; most likely in the indie theater at the state university campus the next town over from where I grew up.  My parents probably made the mistake common to a lot of young parents – they saw it was a Disney film, thought “okay, perfect for kids” and didn’t investigate further (or if they’d seen it when they were younger, they forgot about it).  So it wasn’t until we were sitting in the theater, with me wide-eyed at the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence and my mother whispering to me that everything was going to be okay, that they realized their mistake.

I don’t remember any of this, so fortunately it doesn’t seem to have scarred me.  Mom and I chatted right before I watched this, and she teased me that “I’m glad you’re brave enough to revisit it now!”

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What struck me, actually, was just how innovative an idea the whole thing was. Basically it’s an anthology of short films, each of which had been inspired by a certain piece of classical music.  Anthologies-of-films aren’t that novel an idea in and of themselves – the recent Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a live-action example, as is 1993’s Short Cuts and 2006’s Paris, Je T’aime. You could also say that Intolerance back in 1916 was an anthology as well.  But Disney originally planned for Fantasia to be a recurring and ever-changing thing – re-releasing it every year or so, swapping out older segments for newer ones as they were produced, keeping the popular fan favorites and retiring some of the less-popular ones for newer content.

True, there could have been a mercenary motivation (“we’ve gotta find something else to do with these short subject pieces aside from just slapping them in front of newsreels”).  But Disney’s original conception was quite grand, including the invention of a whole new sound technology, “Fanta-sound,” with Disney encouraging theaters to install it prior to screenings. I’ve spent several fascinated minutes imagining what else may have come of it if the idea had truly taken off. Unfortunately, with the outbreak of World War II, Disney lost out on their usual European market; and the Fanta-sound system was cost-prohibitive for many theaters, so the initial film didn’t recoup as much of its original investment as Disney had hoped. So this version was the only one until the year 2000 (more on that version in a minute), and the 1940’s Fantasia was left to stand on its own.

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….If you’ve been to a children’s program at a symphony orchestra, you kind of get how the framing device behind Fantasia works.  All the music is performed by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, all of which are taking their seats and tuning up right at the start; finally composer Deems Taylor walks in, taking up a spot next to the two harpists, and introduces the whole show.  Taylor serves as our M.C. for the film, giving us a bit of a brief music history lecture before introducing each of the seven segments:

  • Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, which scores a surprisingly experimental work of abstract animated forms.
  • Selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, which here is interpreted by a bunch of anthromorphic plants and pixies with nary a nutcracker in sight.
  • Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, probably the most famous selection – and the only appearance of Mickey Mouse.
  • A bit of an intermission, during which Taylor plays around with an animated version of “the soundtrack” itself – depicted as a plain line that changes shape with each unique sound.
  • Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, interpreted as a story of the rise and fall of the dinosaurs.
  • Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony”, set in a twee Disney version of ancient mythological Greece.
  • Ponchielli’s “Dance Of the Hours”, featuring the graceful balletic stylings of ostriches, hippos, and elephants.
  • “Night On Bald Mountain”/”Ave Maria”, in which Satan presides over a black mass before day breaks and sends him fleeing from a religious procession of monks.

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The “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence is probably the best-known today, followed possibly by the “Pastoral Symphony” and “Dance of the Hours”.  They’re probably the sequences I liked best as a child; they’re the most kid-friendly, with cute or funny animal characters and lots of action.  As an adult, I definitely favor the “Dance of the Hours” out of those three – there’s some obvious comedy due to hippos and elephants standing in as delicate graceful ballerinas. From a technical standpoint, I was also impressed with the ostriches – there’s enough of the “body language” of ostriches that resonates, combined with equally apt body language from your average ballerina to make you think “okay, yeah, ostriches as ballerinas does work.”  Apparently the animators for this sequence were sent on a field trip to a Los Angeles zoo to spend a day watching their various subjects so they could capture their action.

The opening “Toccata and Fugue” sequence also really grabbed my attention.  It’s pretty abstract; all shifting forms and shimmering shapes, lines morphing into bowstrings floating in space and waves rising and falling with the strings and woodwinds.   (I’m amused to note that I was seeing it on a college campus in the early 1970s, and in retrospect I think I can guess what mental state some of the students in the audience may have been in.)  It seemed the most un-Disney film of the lot, and I was pretty surprised.  The “soundtrack” sequence also gets abstract with the animation, but that looked more like a science-class demonstration.

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The flip side for me was the “Pastoral Symphony” sequence, with chubby little cherubs and fauns and baby unicorns all prancing around in a twee idyllic paradise, all snub noses and cute widdle hoovsies and…yeah.  It was going for endearing, but to cynical grown-up me it just looked saccharine, with some of the characters looking just this side of a “My Little Pony” cartoon.

Also, the “Pastoral” has a bit of a notorious reputation – part of it depicts a group of female centaurs bathing in a stream and then primping to look pretty for their mates.  In the 1940s, the fact that the ladies were topless (albeit nipple-less) raised eyebrows; but today, what gives people pause is the really blatant racism in a centaur servant, depicted as a full-on “Aunt-Jemima” caricature and doing nothing but dressing the other centaurs and fluffing their hair and such.  I watched this thanks to a DVD copy loaned by a friend (Hi, Scott!) which had been issued as a re-release with the Fantasia 2000 disc; in that version, and in any future theatrical re-release, all appearances of that particular centaur have been carefully edited out.  You can find the uncensored version of that segment online, however; and honestly, after tracking it down, I can attest that this character doesn’t add anything by its presence.

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Speaking of Fantasia 2000 – this was the first (and so far only) sequel to the original, borrowing from the initial plan to re-release the film with new short films in each program.  The 2000 version keeps the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence, but everything else is new – an appearance by Donald Duck, a piece based on the “Steadfast Tin Soldier” story, a lovely nature tale set to Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite”, and a piece set to “The Carnival of the Animals” which sees James Earl Jones as the M.C asking “what would happen if you gave a yo-yo to a flock of flamingos?”  I saw the 2000 version in the theater, and dipped into the DVD again since I had it; one of the pieces that impressed me at the time was a sequence with some humpback whales.  But on re-watch the animation looked a little too blatantly “CGI”, and it put me off.  My favorite sequence from the 2000 edition, however, I watched all the way through – a sequence set in 1930s New York City, with the art done in the style of the famed caricaturist Al Hirschfeld and set to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.  Then, as now, it warmed the cockles of my New Yorker heart.

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Rebecca (1940)

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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His Girl Friday (1940)

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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…

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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.

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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.

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The Story Of The Last Chrysanthemums (1939)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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).

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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.

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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.

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….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.