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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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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.

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Destry Rides Again (1939)

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It took me a while to figure this film out.  The opening was so over-the-top that I was watching with a literal dropped jaw; it was a slow pan down a stereotypical “Wild West” town street, panning over scores of cowboys fighting along the way, and coming to rest on the porch of an establishment literally called “The Last Chance Saloon”, where about twenty cowboys were whooping and hollering and merrily firing guns in the air. As I gaped at this, one man even rode his horse through the doors of the saloon and then back out again.

….What on earth was I getting into?  This was reminding me of some of the excesses from Blazing Saddles – only Mel Brooks was kidding with his work.  But this film….they weren’t serious, were they?

Not only did I end up less certain that they were serious, I ended up less convinced that it even mattered.

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Said saloon is the home base for Kent (Brian Donlevy), a gambler and shady dealer and all around oogy dude; he and his sweetheart, saloon singer Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich), are the unofficial power in the little podunk town of Bottleneck.  Mayor Hiram Slade (Samuel Hinds) is in cahoots with their schemes, so he’s no threat; and as for Sherrif Keogh, when he asks a couple of nosy questions at the start of the film, someone shoots him to shut him up, and Slade appoints “Wash” Dimsdale (Charles Winniger), the town drunk, as the new sherrif.

But to everyone’s surprise, Wash takes the honor seriously.  He was once the deputy to a highly-esteemed lawman by the name of Destry, and Wash swears off alcohol, wanting to bring honor to the profession.  He even sends for Destry’s son Tom (Jimmy Stewart) to serve as his own deputy.  Tom’s just as much of a respecter of law as his father and accepts the job – but to Wash’s great disappointment one thing Tom doesn’t believe in, is guns.  The rest of the town collectively scoffs and goes back to their usual hijinks – until Tom Destry starts asking some probing questions about both Sherrif Keogh, and about the running poker game Kent has going on in the saloon…

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In a move that may have been catering to a very specific audience, Frenchy gets into a lengthy catfight with Tom Destry’s landlady on his first day in town, one which destroys most of the saloon before Destry finally breaks things up by dousing them with water.  But otherwise – in a possible return-to-form in her career – Dietrich is the same sly singer she was in Blue Angel, only a bit older; and, surprisingly, unsuccessful at winning over the man she’s got her eyes on.  The first time she tries seducing Destry, it’s clear that it’s to keep him in check – but the second time, it seems like Frenchy sort of…means it.  And the upright Destry, devoted to his job, fends her off both times.

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It wasn’t until halfway through the film, with a small moment with a minor character, that I finally understood this film for what it was.  There’s an ongoing bit of schtick with Destry’s landlady, who proudly goes by the name Callahan – but her current husband is not the original Callahan.  He’s her second husband, a Russian guy who just looks a lot like him.  And for reasons which the film fails to explain, Mrs. Callahan is trying to hide that fact, constantly upbraiding him for not living up to her memory of the original.  The pressure drives “Callahan” to compulsively gamble, playing Frenchy in frequent poker games – which always end with her encouraging him to bet his pants.  He loses, she claims her prize and he is forced to steal pants from the other tenants in their inn, making his thefts throughout.  But all of that is just a little bit of a background throwaway gag until the moment when Destry is alone in his room and hears a noise in his closet – and throws open the door to see “Callahan” there, getting dressed in Destry’s own trousers. After a beat of shocked silence, “Callahan” simply says: “Would you believe me if I said I was waiting for a stagecoach?”

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And that is when I got that this film was in on the joke.  Mel Brooks borrowed a lot from this film for Blazing Saddles – Madeline Kahn’s character “Lily von Schtupp” is an obvious echo, but I realized that Harvey Korman’s corrupt businessman, the fast-shooting Waco Kid, and even the befriending of a local to serve as deputy all have their ancestry right here.  Mel Brooks may not have consciously intended thus, but Brooks was poking affectionate fun at Western film tropes – so it makes sense that he was influenced by a film that was having fun with those very tropes.  Destry Rides Again’s filmmaker must have known, and intended, for his film to be a little bit ridiculous and cartoonish; it’s just that instead of pushing it all the way into farce, Destry Rides Again mixes the comedy in with a bit of seriousness to create an ultimately engaging story.

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Jezebel (1938)

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It’d be easy to write off Jezebel as a copycat of Gone With The Wind – and in fact, GWTW director David O. Selznick accused the Jezebel team of doing precisely that, since there are a lot of parallels (spoiled Southern belle has a tempestuous relationship and gets her comeuppance).  There’s even a claim that Bette Davis was offered the starring role in Jezebel to cheer her up after she was passed over for the role of Scarlett O’Hara. But Jezebel – which was adapted from a Broadway play – is ultimately a little smaller in scope and sets up a bit more of a redemptive arc for its heroine.

Davis plays Julie Marsden, a thoroughly stubborn and spoiled society girl engaged to young banker Preston “Pres” Dillard (Henry Fonda) in 1850s New Orleans. Both Julie and Pres are rather forward-thinking; but where Pres’ views are about things like improving New Orleans’ sanitation and public transit systems, Julie’s “progressive” views are more about social mores and manners for women.  With her, however, that mostly manifests in fashion; she wants to wear vibrant colors to an upcoming social event, instead of the demure white that New Orleans society deems appropriate for unmarried women.  In fact, she uses this issue as a means to punish Pres early on, when he is unwilling to leave a business meeting and come dress shopping with her.  When Pres understandably refuses, she picks out a showy, scandalous red ball gown to wear to the high-society Olympus Ball that weekend.  Pres begs her to change – but Julie accuses him of not being brave enough to defend her against criticism.  Pres decides to give her what she wants, in the hope that maybe she will learn a harsh lesson.  But when Julie’s dress causes a scandal and she realizes her mistake, the pair lash out at each other after the ball and the feud breaks them up.

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Pres leaves New Orleans on business soon after, and Julie spends the next year as a relative recluse; regretting her mistake and pining for Pres, feeling too stubborn or embarrassed in turn to write him and ask him back. Then Julie learns of Pres’ return, and joyfully receives him in a new white dress – and is also introduced to Pres’ new wife, a lass from a prominent Northern family.  Shortly after Pres arrives, so does the threat of a Yellow Fever epidemic – so Julie suggests Pres and his wife, along with several of their friends, join her in relocating to her family’s estate just outside town.  There she starts a campaign to either win Pres back or punish him – going so far as to egg another fellow to start a duel with him – but as her plan unspools, her motives become more and more apparent, gradually turning everyone against her.  And then someone in the house catches Yellow Fever themselves…

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Now, I’m ordinarily not all that sympathetic to a character whose big obstacles seem to be “I want to wear what I want whenever I want and people should just deal with it” and “my guy left me because I was a selfish brat”.  Doubly so when their response to the news that her guy has married someone else is “well I’ll just try to break them up”.  I have always had something of a strong “fair play” instinct, and I always want to see such characters get their comeuppance.  (….Okay, maybe I can get bitter about this kind of thing, hush.)  So while the redemptive arc Julie takes at the film’s end feels a little weak, I appreciated that the film took pains to make it clear that Julie realizes that “oh wow, I really screwed up.”  In fact, the film does it twice – once to teach Julie that she shouldn’t meddle in a marriage, but also earlier, when she wears that scandalous red dress to the ball.

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I also usually don’t like scenes that are all about manners and social niceties, but this sequence was brutal.  Julie triumphantly walks into the ballroom on the arm of the stone-faced Pres, proudly beaming at all the other partygoers.  Except they’re not smiling back.  When Julie and Pres approach anyone, they’re initially cordial, but make excuses and leave.  When they step on the dance floor, everyone else wordlessly withdraws. Davis’ performance makes it clear that Julie realizes she messed up big time – and she repeatedly pleads with Pres to take her home, but Pres has decided to give back stubbornness for stubbornness and he all but manhandles her into a dance, even ordering the orchestra to start back up again when the conductor, wildly uncomfortable at the spectacle, stops the music.  Fonda’s stony resolute face and Davis’ shrinking courage make for a haunting scene, and even as you’re saying “yeah, Julie, you brought this on yourself,” you find yourself feeling some sympathy for her as well.  Then her behavior towards Pres’ wife destroys that sympathy when she’s up to her old tricks again.

Davis won the Oscar for Best Actress for this at the end of the day, a year before Vivien Leigh’s Oscar for Gone With The Wind.

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Song At Midnight (1937)

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Song At Midnight is often called “the first Chinese horror film”, and most reviews compare it to Phantom Of The Opera. But it’s only loosely based on that earlier work.  There’s a disfigured man lurking in the attic of an opera house, yes, but he’s not interested in kidnapping a lovely young lady to be his protgee and mistress – for this fellow, Song Danping, has already given away his heart to Li Xiaoxia, the daughter of a local official.   And she loves him back – in fact, they were a loving couple ten years prior to the film, when Song was an opera star in the city where they live.  However, another local fellow named Tang Jun was a rival for Li’s affections.  He first tried turning Li’s father against Song – but when that didn’t work, Tang waited outside the stage door of the opera one night with a bottle full of acid, hurling it at Song’s face when he emerged.  The acid attack left Song disfigured, and out of shame he went into hiding in the opera house’s attic, sending a message to Li that he had died of his wounds to spare her. The shock at this news drove Li mad – which also turned Tang off, so he skipped town.  Heartbroken for Li, Song has been sneaking to her window each night and serenading her from the shadows, hoping to give her some comfort.

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That’s all backstory, though, that only comes out midway through the film. We actually begin the movie ten years later, when a touring theater company shows up for its booking in the dilapidated opera house.  The troupe’s young romantic lead, Sun Xiao-au, is running through one of the big numbers alone in the space when Song starts singing along, subtly coaching him through the tricky parts.  Sun discovers Song after a brief investigation and remembers Song from his early glory days – so he’s a bit of a fanboy.  Song is equally impressed with Sun’s singing – and when he sees that Sun is also easy on the eyes, he tells Sun the whole story of him and Li and the acid attack, and then suggests that Sun pay him back by visiting Li that night, posing as Song, and giving her one last embrace and urging her to move on with her life.  Sun is a little weirded out, but goes along with it, and Song is ready to withdraw into his attic for good – until he learns that Tang is also back in town, and realizes he also has a chance for revenge.

The structure of the film made this a tiny bit hard to grasp at first.  The very first thing we see is one of Song’s serenades to Li; a four-minute sequence which jumps back and forth between shots of Song’s shadow hovering against a wall, and shots of Li standing on a balcony and listening.  It makes sense in time, but right at the first you’re left scratching your head a bit.  There’s also a political-revolution subplot that honestly feels a bit tacked on.

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One arresting sequence comes when Song is recounting his story, and we see the aftermath of the acid attack.  Song fortunately had friends to look after him as he recovered, and spent several weeks with face and hands swathed in bandages as his friends rally around him and buck him up. But one day he demanded the bandages off now so he would know how bad the damage was, and his friends grudgingly agreed.  The reveal of his new face is as shocking a scene as was Lon Chaney’s face in the silent-era Phantom – props to the makeup department, seriously – but in this case, it’s a poignant moment, since instead of feeling horror and revulsion, his friends also feel sorrow and pity on his behalf.  After their initial recoil, they rally back to his side, promising bring him food and companionship in his self-imposed exile.  This Chinese Phantom is heartbroken, but not wholly abandoned by the human race.

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Pépé le Moko (1937)

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So you know that heist movie trope of the bank robbers pulling off their big score and then fleeing the country to hide out in some exotic faraway country, out of reach of the police?  Pépé le Moko is sort of about what happens a few years afterward, when the robbers start getting homesick.

Pépé (Jean Gabin) is a gangster from Paris who’s been laying low in Algiers for a while after a heist. Everyone knows he’s there – a team of Parisian gendarmes have even come to Algiers at the top of the movie to follow up with the local police in trying to find him.  But the problem is that Pépé has been hiding in the Casbah district, Algiers’ “old city” full of byzantine streets, houses with secret passages, and rooftop escape routes.  It’s also where Algiers’ original occupants live, along with a number of other poor immigrants and other criminals all too eager to help someone escape the clutches of the occupying French authorities; so every time they’ve tried catching him, one of Pépé’s neighbors help him escape. He’s also too smart to fall for any of the police’s efforts to lure him out of the district and into the open.

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Local Gendarme Inspector Slimane has somehow managed to befriend Pépé, even though Slimane is quite open with Pépé about his belief that they’ll catch him one day.  Pépé disagrees, of course, but seems to like Slimane anyway; trying to outsmart each other has almost become a game they play.

And Pépé seems to welcome it – because sticking to the Casbah is starting to get to him. He’s assembled a tidy little mob for himself amongst the other residents, running a small gambling den and committing petty theft here and there; he lives comfortably in a spacious apartment; he’s also regular girlfriend in Inez (Line Noro), a Romani drifter who’s settled in Algiers for now.  But not having the liberty to leave the Casbah is getting confining, and he finds himself thinking of France more and more often.

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His homesickness comes to a head when he meets Gaby (Mirelle Balin), a wealthy Parisienne visiting Algiers with her importer husband.  Gaby’s pretty much a trophy wife, and her husband is a stick-in-the-mud, so she ventures to the Casbah on her own. Her jewels are what catch Pépé’s eye first – his men see her as an easy target – but then he catches her eye, and they start talking, discovering that they both had a lot of the same haunts in Paris.  Gaby’s attracted to the younger, handsomer Pépé – but as for him, Gaby represents home, and he decides he somehow has to get there.  That is, if he can get past Slimane – who has been watching the whole situation unfold, and thinks he may finally have his chance to win their game.

There was a sequence early on I did not like at all, when the Algerian gendarmes are telling the visiting Parisian police about the Casbah itself, essentially going into detail about what a wretched hive of scum and villany it is. As they speak, we see scenes from the Casbah itself, with people going about their day.  But what the script tells us is dangerous looks…kinda cool, actually – twisty streets you can wander, ancient markets, and people from a staggering variety of nations, races, cultures, and creeds, all getting along and smilingly doing their thing as the narration implies how shady they all are.  The script reserves special scorn for the women – calling them slovenly, fat, immoral, and dirty, but all the accompanying clips simply show women going about their business.  Maybe they’re not as beautifully coiffed and dressed as Gaby is, but why is that a problem?….

Such was the attitude of the colonizing French, however, in the 1930s; it’s part of the world of the movie.   And it is almost instantly dropped – it’s clear that Pépé doesn’t see the Casbah that way, nor does anyone else we meet in the film (except Gaby’s husband, and he’s depicted as being a buffoon for it). Pépé likes the Casbah, and Inez, and everyone else there just fine.  He just wants to be free to leave it now and then is all.  A cleverly edited sequence shows Pépé making his way through the streets of the Casbah, but he’s as smartly dressed as if he were on the Champs-Élysées, and as he walks, the walls of the Casbah around him start turning into the side streets and alleys of Montmarte, the skyline of Algiers dissolving into that of Paris.  Moments like that made up for the early prejudice a little – and it underscored the weakness in Pépé that might lead to his downfall.

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Almost immediately upon its release, Pépé le Moko was optioned by a Hollywood producer for an English-language American remake called Algiers, with Hedy Lamarr and Charles Boyer.  Algiers’ director even went so far as to show Pépé le Moko to the cast, insisting that they copy the film exactly.  Boyer’s performance had an unexpected impact on the world of cartoons – the Warner Brothers character “Pépé le Pew” is based on his take on Pépé le Moko – but Algiers was otherwise unremarkable, and Pépé le Moko was the superior film.

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Things To Come (1936)

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I was unsure what to make of Things To Come. But for the life of me, I can’t tell whether that is my fault, the film’s fault, or…history’s fault.

Written by H.G. Wells – and very very loosely adapted from one of his short stories – Things To Come is a treatise on war, politics, and aspirations to progress, hiding in the middle of a sci-fi story about a generic British city named “Everytown” and the changes wreaked upon it by time and fate. It starts out on Christmas, 1940 – a date four years distant ahead of the film’s release – with the frolic and festivities periodically interrupted by news reports threatening oncoming war.  Two families discuss the news over Christmas dinner; while John, the patriarch of the Cabal family is uneasy, his neighbors the Passworthys think it’ll all blow over.  But a bomber from “The Continent” dropping by just after dinner proves the Passworthys wrong.

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The ensuing war drags on for nearly 50 years, and by 1977 Everytown is reduced to a feudal-state village. A mid-war pandemic has shrunk global population to a shadow of its former self, people huddle in the bombed-out ruins of skyscrapers, and a warmongering despot called ‘The Chief” runs things. Infrastructure has collapsed to the point that technology is where it was in the 1700s.  But there are enough people living who remember that things like flight and combustion engines and electricity were possible, and The Chief is convinced they can return to this glory even though he’s a bit unclear how. He’s convinced all he needs is to somehow get some of the antique aircraft mouldering in the town’s airport going again, giving him a military advantage, and he has all but enslaved a couple of the smarter villagers to get them aloft again.

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So everyone is surprised when a sleek modern plane lands just outside town one day.  The pilot represents a global organization called “Wings over The World”, devoted to ending the lingering war and devoting mankind’s passions and energy to science and progress.  He’s come to offer them membership.  The Chief wants nothing to do with it, though, and imprisons him.  But he has backup, and they have a nerve gas that pacifies people instead of killing them.

Wings Over The World takes over and spends the next 50 years turning Everytown into a utopian community in a pristine cavernous underground city.  Energy seems cheap and plentiful, everyone is hale and hearty and well-fed; and the city’s scientists, coincidentally lead by John Cabal’s grandson, are now turning their attentions towards space exploration.  But just as they’re nearly ready for a first test of their “space gun”, a local artist holds an anti-science rally, arguing that progress is moving “too fast”.  The rally becomes a mob bent on destroying the space gun, and Cabal and his fellows decide to launch the untested gun; Cabal’s own daughter volunteers to join its crew.  Cabal and his team set off for the space gun, hoping desperately to beat the mob to the launch pad…

So, here’s the thing. As inventive as that story is, it was bloody hard for me to follow – because I couldn’t keep all the characters straight.  The characters aren’t fleshed out that well – instead of presenting them as people, the script falls into the trap of using them as mouthpieces for Wells’ views on science and progress.  There are a couple small human moments – Cabal and his wife hover by their sleeping children in one scene, discussing their fears for the future. But most of the characters’ lines are more like aspirational platitudes about Progress Reaching Beyond Our Grasp and such.  Even more confusingly, some of the actors are double-cast, and I wasn’t clear whether it was for reasons of economy or continuity.  The 1977 ambassador from Wings Over the World has a connection to Everytown, and not only did I not know that from the film, I didn’t even know it until reading the cast list on IMDB just now.

The place where the filmmakers decided to blow their budget is on the look of the film. Wells was put off by the future depicted in Metropolis, with a downtrodden underclass and evil robots, and wanted to present a brighter, cleaner future, emphasizing science’s boons as opposed to its burdens.  So the 1977 Everytown looks entirely constructed of rubble and everyone wears rags, while 2036 Everytown looks like a luxury hotel lobby and everyone wears jumpsuits made of white silk and mylar.  It’s a look that was adopted as “futuristic” by many subsequent films.

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In fact, that was one of the details that made watching this from 2018 kind of unique.  Many of the films that adopted that “futuristic” look were….of diminished quality, shall we say, so what looked like “clean bright future” in 1936 now reads to me like “B-Movie”.  The “future outfits” in particular resemble those from a film pilloried by the show Mystery Science Theater 3000, and some of the show’s quips came to mind while I watched (“Put your faith in Blast Hardcheese!”).  The current depiction of “the future” has become far grittier, as well – compare the bright cavernous luxury of Everytown with the future depicted in Blade Runner, for instance, where everything is crowded, dark, and inexplicably damp.  We have been trained to think of the future as a dystopia in recent years, making views of a future utopia feel naïve.

The very dates also distracted me as well.  I was especially struck by the film’s guess that 1940 would be the onset of war, to the point that I just looked up British military strategy from 1936 to see if they anticipated an outbreak.  Turns out they didn’t – but Wells was personally convinced that war was on the horizon, and just made a guess as to when.   The prediction of 50 years of war was fortunately a miss; but I’m already hearing some of the 2036 anti-intellectualism arguments today.

Then again, watching any kind of “vision of the future” from the time depicted as that future leads one to unconsciously keep a scorecard, ticking off a checklist of “what they got wrong”.  What they got right – and that they got anything right at all – is possibly more impressive.