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

Swing Time (1936)

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Right.  You remember how in my review of Top Hat, I gave a particular shout-out to Astaire and Rogers’ dancing, and was lukewarm on the plot?….Yeah, I had the same reaction to Swing Time, except even more so.  The dancing felt more impressive, but the plot and the rest of the film felt…more flawed.   Initially I was uneasy about my response, since several critics tout this as one of their best works; but I’ve read a few other critics’ reviews, and even they focus almost exclusively on the dancing, saying next to nothing about the plot.  I suppose I could have ignored the bits that didn’t work for me…but I’m watching a movie, not a dance recital.  And the non-dance bits just plain didn’t work this time.

This time around, Fred Astaire is John “Lucky” Garnett, a performer in the suburbs who’s engaged to a wealthy heiress; but her father disapproves the match and insists he find another line of business.  Lucky concocts a plan to try gambling instead – heading to New York, making a big pile of money, then coming home victorious and marrying his sweetie.  Except almost the second he gets to New York he meets Penny Carol (Rogers), an instructor at a dance school, and is intrigued enough to enroll for a class with her as a pretext for getting acquainted. The pair are so well-suited as dancing partners that they come up with a night club act, and start to fall for each other – except Lucky’s still got a fiancée, and Penny has the orchestra leader, Ricardo Romero, trying to woo her as well…

So, okay.  The dancing throughout is top-notch, with some of Astaire and Rogers’ most famous routines to some now-classic songs on display.  The song “Pick Yourself Up” is from here, with Astaire pretending to bumble his way through a dance lesson before busting out a flawless tap routine and blowing Rogers away.  A later number, “Never Gonna Dance,” is a showstopper, coming towards the end when our lovebirds are doing one more dance together when they think they are about to be parted.  Sometimes the songs themselves are enough of a draw, even without dancing – “A Fine Romance” is also here, with Rogers lamenting Astaire’s lack of ardor.  “The Way You Look Tonight” (an Oscar winner for Best Song that year, by the way) sees Lucky idly playing the piano and singing in Penny’s dressing room at the club, sparking her crush.  (Amusingly, Penny is in the middle of washing her hair when he sings, and comes to listen in awe; the sentiment of the moment ends when they both realize “the way she looks” maybe doesn’t quite fit.)

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But that wasn’t enough to shake my feeling that throughout the whole movie, everyone was being mean to each other. Lucky’s actually due to marry his fiancée at the very beginning of the movie, but his performer colleagues pull a series of pranks and throw diversions in his path to make him fully two hours late to the church.  Lucky’s buddy “Pop” has followed him to New York for a go at gambling as well, and much of his success comes through cheating. Ricardo shamelessly flirts with Penny right in front of Lucky, and stages an outright strike during Penny and Lucky’s planned night club debut. Lucky is an outright pest to Penny when they first meet, getting her so angry that a nearby traffic cop threatens to arrest her for disturbing the peace.  Even the “happy ending” at the very end – come on, that’s not a spoiler, you knew this was going to have one – comes about through pranking someone and making them look ridiculous.  I can’t help it – you can have all the pretty dancing in the world, but if the dancers themselves are all acting like jerks, it’s still going to leave me cold.

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I need to mention that a dance moment also left me uneasy. Astaire has a number in the film called “Bojangles In Harlem,” which is a bit of a personal statement for Astaire – it’s an homage to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the African-American vaudevillian whose tap-dancing style inspired Astaire as a child.  Now, the dancing in this number is stunning.  Astaire starts out leading a bevy of chorus girls, but midway through the number they leave him to a solo – and midway through, some camera trickery makes it look like his shadow runs out of breath halfway through and walks off to take a rest.  The lyrics of the song also make clear that this is a love letter to Robinson, singing his praises to the skies.  But – throughout this whole number, Astaire is in blackface, and is dressed in an over-the-top Jim Crow minstrel outfit.

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I’ve read a few apologetics for this scene that point out Astaire’s makeup isn’t a full-on “blackface” caricature; the overly-red lips and white-rimmed eyes are absent.  The lyrics are also free of the stilted dialect and vernacular you’d expect.  It is apparent that back in 1936, this was considered a sincere homage – possibly even tasteful.  Today, however, it left a very sour taste in my mouth.

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My recommendation: get the film on DVD so you can skip everything but the dances and call it good.

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

The 39 Steps (1935)

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This project of mine may be like dating in a weird way. The 39 Steps is one of those movies where I can empirically recognize the quality, and intellectually I can appreciate the skill, but yet somehow…there’s no “x” factor that makes me swoon. Possibly because this is a thriller; I’m not a huge fan of that genre as a general rule.

I can appreciate the cleverer parts of the script, however – particularly that the woman who’s being put forth as the lead’s love interest actually doesn’t fall head over heels for him as quickly as she would have done in other films.

….But I’m getting ahead of myself a little.

The hero of our tale is Richard Hannay, a bloke in London on business who’s taking in the show at a music hall. During the performance, someone in the audience fires a gun, and in the ensuing panic, Hannay ends up thrown together with “Annabella Smith”, a beautiful and mysterious woman who takes one look at him when they’re safely outside and then informs him she’d like to come home with him.  A bemused Hannay agrees – but when they get up to his room, Smith quickly tells him she wasn’t looking for a pickup. Instead, she explains, she is a secret agent, trying to stop a network of spies from smuggling RAF secrets out of the country. The gunshots in the theater were meant for her, and she had to escape.

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Hannay is of course dubious – but then notices that there are a pair of men loitering on the sidewalk outside, staring up at his flat and trying to act a little too casual.  Smith decides the safest thing is to try to get a few hours’ sleep and hope the lurkers eventually leave; but just in case, she tells Hannay a few basics in case anything happens to her: she needs to meet with a man in Scotland for further instructions, she doesn’t know exactly what the spies are trying to smuggle out of the country, and the head of the spy ring she’s trying to bring down is missing the tip of one of his little fingers.  Okay, good to know.

…Especially when in the middle of the night, someone sneaks into Hannay’s flat and stabs Smith in the back.  She manages to stagger into the living room – Hannay has gallantly taken the couch to let her have privacy in the bedroom – and she gasps out the name of the town in Scotland where her contact lives, begging him to make contact for her. Then she collapses, leaving Hannay with a dead spy in his living room and two more outside his door.

Well then.

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After slipping past the spies, Hannay hits the road and has nearly reached Scotland when he learns that he is under suspicion for killing Smith. Sharp-eyed policemen spot him on the train, and he is barely able to evade them, fleeing desperately across moors and bribing farmers for help – and then realizes that the spy ring that killed Smith is now after him as well.

Despite her spending the night in Hannay’s flat, Smith actually isn’t the love interest the film is trying to throw at Hannay. Instead, the film tries to hook him up with “Pamela” – a stranger Hannay briefly meets on the train while trying to escape police. He sees her sitting alone in a compartment, barges in, and apologetically says he’s desperate – then locks lips with her, in an attempt to hide his face from oncoming police.  She understandably doesn’t take that well, pushes him away and tries to turn him over to the police.

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Pamela then disappears for most of the rest of the film; then, much later, when Hannay is trying to bluff his way through making a political speech (it makes sense in context, trust me), Pamela just so happens to walk in, see him there, and fetch the police again.  Except the men she fetches, unbeknownst to her, aren’t police, and insist that she should also come to the station too…

I’m afraid that Pamela’s chance presence at that political rally is one of the two plot wrinkles I had trouble with.  The other came earlier, with Smith’s initial stabbing; any spy would have assumed she’d told Hannay something and killed him too, but they let him be.  Wasn’t there a chance that someone was still in the apartment? Why weren’t they?  I even pointed that out to Alex, who was watching this with me; he only said, enigmatically, that “those are very good questions to be asking.”  They weren’t answered, though, which bothered me – I was expecting some kind of a double-cross Mission-Impossible thing that never came.

Another thing I was expecting, however, was for Hannay to engage in some kind of sex scene – and I was pleased to see that he didn’t.  He and Pamela are forced into being fugitives together and ended up sharing a room in a wee Scottish inn, and all they do is sleep. Most likely the reason was because of the Hays Code – but it was downright refreshing to see that the most physically intimate Pamela and Hannay get is for his hand to rest on her knee, and even then it’s only an inadvertent thing because they are handcuffed together and she’s trying to take off her stockings.  (Again – it makes sense in context.)

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Speaking of handcuffed – I’m feeling a bit shackled not giving away the final twist, which I appreciated: the climactic scene where Hannay finally figures out what it is the spies are trying to smuggle out of the country, and more importantly, how. It’s a clever twist, but it would thoroughly be spoiled if I said anything. So I’ll say that if you see it…yeah, that’s a neat touch at the end, there, huh?

There are similar “neat touches” throughout the film – moments of gorgeous cinematography, clever bits of dialogue – all of which I can appreciate for their skill, even though they’re applied to a genre that I’m only lukewarm about.  As dates go, it was okay.

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

Judge Priest (1934)

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So. I got through Limite just fine – I didn’t understand a lick of it, but watched it all the way through.  Five different Soviet expressionist films – same thing, I was confused and bored but kept watching. Even Un Chien Andalou – I covered my eyes at the icky bit, but still watched.  Judge Priest therefore has earned a dubious honor: it is the first film in this project I seriously considered turning off halfway through.

Not because of the quality, mind. It’s shot well enough, and even enjoys a couple of cute “special effects” touches.  The talent assembled is also impressive – an Oscar winning actress appears here in her first role, a renowned director is also on board, a famed comedian stars, and a star reporter is trying his hand at the script. They all ply their craft well enough.

The problem is that they are all working to support one of the most ridiculous, pandering, illogical, hokey, and all-around insulting scripts I’ve ever seen in my life (and I used to run a playwriting contest, so I’ve seen plenty of insulting scripts).   Characters’ motivations are inconsistent, the rule of law is subverted by a judge, an entire class of people is belittled, and there is a running gag involving a spittoon that violates laws of physics.  And the whole thing ends with a yay-Confederacy Stars-and-Bars flag-wavy sequence at a parade (and pandering to Confederate sympathies is actually what drives the happy ending).

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The whole thing is set in a small Kentucky town in the 1890s.  Will Rogers plays Billy Priest – a beloved but irreverent judge, whom the film’s introduction states is renowned for his common sense and tolerance, and who in the first scene is presiding over the trial of a man accused of stealing a chicken. The prosecuting attorney is a former state senator; but during the trial, Priest is flat-out ignoring his opening arguments in favor of reading the funny papers. Our defendant “Jeff Poindexter” is played by the controversial comedian Stepin Fetchit.  Or more accurately – mumbled by Stephin Fetchit.  I swear I only understood five of the words that Poindexter babbles out in his own defense in this scene; and that’s only because Priest (who’s put down his paper long enough to pay attention) has engaged him in conversation – about the appropriate bait to use while catfishing. After hearing Poindexter’s secrets, Priest dismisses the case to fish with him.  We never hear anything about the trial again.

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The film mainly concerns Priest’s nephew Jerome, newly graduated from law school “up North”. He’s just been appointed to the bar and has returned home to begin a practice, and to win the hand of his longtime sweetheart Ellie Mae. But Jerome’s mother Caroline disapproves of the match since Ellie Mae has an unclear parentage; she is the daughter of an unmarried woman who died in childbirth, and Caroline is afraid Ellie Mae’s father might not be respectable enough.

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Priest oon suspects that Ellie Mae’s father is the town blacksmith Bob Gillis, a loner he sees visiting the grave of Ellie Mae’s mother one evening.  Priest is also present when Gillis is at the barbershop and overhears some men leering over Ellie Mae, joking that since she’s fatherless, there’s no risk of a shotgun wedding.  So they can have their way with her scot-free! (The true horror of that notion, which I somehow missed during viewing, has just dawned on me now – yeccch.) A fight breaks out and Gillis is accused of assault. Jerome steps in as his defense attorney, and Priest is surprisingly ordered to recuse himself from the trial – but not because of Jerome.  No – he’s forced off the trial because he sided with Gillis in the barbershop.

But he finds a way to take part in the trial anyway – by declaring himself associate defense lawyer, by persuading the town priest to betray a confidence, by sending anonymous letters to the prosecution, and by paying off Poindexter to play “Dixie” outside the window at a pre-arranged signal to sway the jurors’ emotions.  Gillis was a war hero, you see. (He’d also been on a chain gang, but let’s not dwell on that!)

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Priest’s “tolerance” is manifested through hiring Poindexter for odd jobs like this, and by singing with his maid “Aunt Dilsey” – played by Hattie McDaniel, in an early role. Singing is pretty much all McDaniel is called upon to do, actually – she sings a spiritual at a church social, she sings Stephen Foster songs while cleaning Priest’s house, she even sings about doing Priest’s laundry while engaged in said act.  Her few non-musical scenes all involve cooking or food, like a moment where she defends a batch of donuts from Poindexter’s grasp (he retaliates by stealing some whiskey instead). But otherwise, she’s no more than a walking jukebox Priest harmonizes with occasionally.

Not that Fetchit fares much better. Aside from the trial, and playing “Dixie”, he’s reduced to being Priest’s errand boy.  Whenever he’s not fetching and carrying he’s hovering close by Priest – in some scenes literally sitting at Priest’s feet like a faithful dog.  At least they have occasional conversations – Rogers and Fetchit, both veterans of the vaudeville circuit, would sometimes ad-lib during their scenes, to the great frustration of director John Ford. But they were jokes (at least in theory) so they stayed in.

To paraphrase Roger Ebert:  I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated every simpering stupid biased illogical pandering moment of it. Hated the producer that thought there would be an audience for it. Hated the realization that there no doubt was an audience for it.

Most of all – I hated the realization that there most likely still would be an audience for this film today, that there would be those who overlook abuses of the law and write off character flaws on the basis of tribalism and sentiment, that there would be those who are blinkered to its caricaturizing, that there would be those who see this as a nostalgic look at “the good old days”.

I could not get this disc out of my DVD player fast enough.  If I had good enough aim I would have forgone the postal system and hurled this back to Netflix like a frisbee, just for the sheer satisfaction of throwing this movie as far as possible.

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

The Thin Man (1934)

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After only 20 minutes into The Thin Man, Alex eagerly grabbed his computer to look it up on RottenTomatoes.com. “This had five sequels,” he announced.  “And all of them were certified fresh!”  This movie absolutely earned that urge for tell me more about this, please.

 The Thin Man was the first film to feature William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, a witty, urbane mystery-solving couple.  They pretty much have a dream life; Nick is a detective who retired when he married heiress Nora, and now the pair spend their days traveling, throwing boisterous dinner parties, and looking after their fox terrier Asta.

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Nick is actually not the “thin man” referred to in the title – that reference actually applies to inventor Clyde Wynat (Edward Ellis), whose disappearance is the film’s central mystery. Nick is an old family friend of the Wynats, and Clyde’s adult daughter Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan) begs him to come out of retirement and help find her father. Nora joins in the persuasion, insisting that she’s never seen him at work and thinks it’d be fun.  Nick is initially reluctant, but as he hears about how the police are handling the case, something just doesn’t quite add up…

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The mystery plot unfolded nicely, but was pretty damn complicated.  There were four or five completely different people who had a stake in killing Clyde – from an ex-wife, to a current wife, to work colleagues and rivals and even a gangster – and Clyde had just as many reasons to kill any of them and go into hiding.  Nick persists, gradually uncovering all the clues (sometimes before we even realize they are clues!) and then hosting a lavish dinner party for all the suspects, with the police in attendance, where he unravels the whole plot to the astonished guests before naming his suspect.  “….I have no idea which one did it,” Alex confessed as the scene started.  Neither did I – I announced a guess two minutes into the scene, but then changed my guess two minutes later as Nick unwound more of the plot.  But for the life of me I couldn’t tell you why – maybe, as Nick covertly whispers to Nora midway through his speech, “it’s the only way things make sense!”

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If you’re not a mystery fan, never fear – you still get to watch Nick and Nora, a delight all on its own.  They’re smart, they’re lively, they’re constantly flirting with each other – and they are incredibly witty. Some of the scenes even include a little ad-libbing from Powell and Loy, including a bit in the bar where Powell is expounding upon the proper method for shaking cocktails.  On set, director W. S. Van Dyke was running some light tests at one point and asked Powell to quickly run through the scene; Powell got caught up in the fun and ad-libbed a whole riff about different cocktails requiring different shaking rhythms.  When he was just about done, he was startled to hear Van Dyke shouting “Cut!  Print that!”  Van Dyke had been so taken with his new dialogue that he’d asked the camera crew to start filming.

Most of the written script was adapted from Dasheill Hammett’s novel, and most of the dialogue is simply Nick and Nora riffing off each other:

(after Nick has a narrow escape) 

Nick: I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.
Nora: I read that you were shot five times in the tabloids.
Nick: It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.

(After Nick diverts Nora from trying to “help him” on the case by sending her to Grants’ Tomb): 

Nick: How’d you like Grant’s tomb?
Nora: It’s lovely. I’m having a copy made for you.

(After hearing about the case): 

Nora: You know, that sounds like an interesting case. Why don’t you take it?
Nick: I haven’t the time. I’m much too busy seeing that you don’t lose any of the money I married you for.

(Their very first exchange in the film, at a bar): 

Nora: How many drinks have you had?
Nick: This will make six Martinis.
Nora: All right. (to the waiter) Will you bring me five more Martinis, Leo? Line them right up here.

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….That last bit illustrates the one and only part of the film that made me uneasy; Nick and Nora drink a lot throughout.  No, really, a lot.  From the bar where Nora orders five martinis to catch up with Nick, to a cocktail party where both carry trays of drinks to press on their guests, to each nearly instinctively offering each other a drink upon waking (and then secretly stealing each other’s drinks a couple minutes later) – there is enough evidence to accuse the Charles’ of being functional alcoholics. But save for one jokey moment after the first bar scene where Nora is depicted with a hangover (“What hit me?” she groans; “That last martini,” Nick answers), their drinking doesn’t seem to affect them at all. Other characters, sure; but Nick and Nora?  Never. They’re such a delight that they just seem like fun party people, able to “maintain” even when everyone else around them is getting sloppy.  Still, by the end I found myself wishing they’d slow down a little.

(I just discovered someone has actually come up with a Thin Man drinking gamewhich seems like the height of masochism.)

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On the other hand, Nora proves herself an even match for Nick – in wit and style and bravery – which made for a really nice foil after It Happened One Night.  Both Nora and that last film’s Ellie were heiresses; but where Ellie was sheltered and naive, Nora is smart, tough, and independent.  It helps that Nick seems to appreciate Nora; he pokes fun, but you can tell it’s teasing born of genuine affection and admiration.  These two feel like equals.

Nick and Nora survive it all well – the events of the film and the partying – and go on to those five other films, all starting Powell and Loy. And dangit, I wanna watch.

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

It Happened One Night (1934)

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Actually, the plot covers about four or five nights, but whatever.

It Happened One Night was a surprise hit for all concerned – stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert were actually the third or fourth choice for their respective parts, and neither was very enthusiastic about it (after filming Colbert apparently told a friend “I’ve just finished the worst picture in the world”) and director Frank Capra had to jump through hoops to keep the cast happy, including shaving a week off his production schedule at Colbert’s behest.  The studio also rolled the film out to theaters slowly.  But then audiences went completely bananas for the film, turning it into a box office smash.  Critics followed suit, and the Academy heaped nominations on the film.  It Happened One Night ended up sweeping the top five Oscar categories that year (Best Actor and Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Picture), an achievement matched only by One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975 and Silence Of The Lambs in 1991.

And it is kinda fun, at that. Colbert plays Ellie Andrews, a pampered but overprotected heiress who managed to get out from under her father’s thumb long enough to score a city hall marriage to another millionaire before her father dragged her back home.  At the top of the film, her father has her on board the family yacht in Miami, trying to talk her into an annulment (and keeping her a near-hostage so he can have his say). Ellie jumps ship – literally – and makes her way to the local bus station, boarding the next bus for New York City, where her beloved awaits.

She meets Peter Warne (Clark Gable), a down-on-his-luck reporter, on board.  Peter instantly recognizes her – news of Ellie’s flight has already started to hit the press – and he hitches himself to her, figuring an exclusive story about “Ellie Andrews’ Bus Ride To Love” will give his career a much-needed boost.  Ellie is also somewhat new at the Ways Of The Common Man, and Peter appoints himself her Protector, teaching her how to camp out in a hayfield and score rooms in motels.  He even has opinions on the correct way to dunk a donut into coffee.

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The pair are forced to share a number of motel rooms, Peter checking them in as a married couple for decorum’s sake.  To placate Ellie further, he rigs up a blanket wall dividing their beds each time, nicknaming the barrier “The Wall of Jericho”.  Of course, a blanket isn’t all that strong a barrier, especially as the pair continue to get acquainted on the road…

I was strangely reminded of the Kathleen Turner/Michael Douglas film Romancing The Stone, a favorite of mine when I was fourteen.  It had a similar fish-out-of-water heroine on a quest, and a rough-around-the-edges rogue who somehow gets drafted as her protector. And over the course of the travel and the bickering, they fall for each other.  But It Happened One Night covers way more of the class difference between Ellie and Peter.  She doesn’t know how to budget her money, she doesn’t think to watch her bag while the bus is on a break; and soon she finds her bag has been stolen and her money is running out.  But a couple nights later and she is comforting another passenger traveling north looking for work, and is joining a bus-wide singalong to “The Man On The Flying Trapeze.”

Ellie also has more wit and sass than Turner’s character had; in one of the film’s classic scenes, Peter boasts about his hitchhiking prowess, then utterly fails to stop any one of a parade of passing cars.  Ellie then asks to try her technique.

In an earlier scene, some private detectives sent by Ellie’s father are searching the motel where they’re staying – and manage to escape thanks to posing as a feuding couple, a performance Ellie seems to really enjoy.

However, Peter also enjoys his part – a little disconcertingly much.  Alex was eager to watch this with me – he’d seen it in college and had good memories of it – but when the film ended, he had a troubled look.  “….there’s some gender-relations stuff in there that has not aged well,” he said.   We discussed that a bit, guessing that the “Me Too” movement today was casting everything in a different light. Peter is cast as Ellie’s rescuer, helping her get used to budgeting money and trying to ensure she’s safe and sound as they travel.  But he does so by barging into her company and barking orders – at one time even taking her money away from her, lecturing that she’s too irresponsible with it.  We both liked the hitchhiking scene – and I realized that one reason why I liked it was because it was one of the few scenes that Ellie is depicted as Peter’s equal.

I mean, there are some fun and charming enough moments in the film, and our reaction was very much colored by the present climate.  It’s too soon to tell how long that color will last.

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

The Goddess (Shénnǚ) (1934)

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After a couple years of putting up with Hollywood giving its take on China, finally China answers back.

China’s film scene was born at a tough time.  The nation was embroiled in a Civil War in the late 1920s, then went to war with Japan in 1937.   In between, money was tight, and people wanted an escape; but the films sent over from Hollywood were either culturally baffling or insensitive. But that lack of cash made it all the more challenging for the few local studios which kicked off during the period.  Still, they made a go of it, striving to produce films with stories more germane to the average Chinese citizen than 42nd Street or the like.

One of the big three studios fortunately had two bright talents under its banner – filmmaker Wu Yonggang, and actress Ruan Lingyu.  Ruan was one of China’s biggest stars in 1934, with a long string of hits to her name; several of them dramas featuring Ruan as a poor but hopeful heroine.  She was increasingly drawn to films showcasing social issues and produced by left-leaning directors.  As for Wu Yonggang, The Goddess was his film debut, and proved an auspicious beginning to a 40+ year career.

The Goddess isn’t necessarily a film that’s going to grab everyone.  It’s a silent film about a down-on-her-luck prostitute, and the bad guy is almost a caricature with no clear motivation except to be a jerk.  On the other hand, it has Ruan LIngyu, it has an adorable kid, and it actually manages to deliver a social message without being preachy.

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The Chinese title of the film is actually a play on words: Shénnǚ does translate to “The Goddess”, but it can also refer to a prostitute. Ruan plays such a nameless prostitute; a single mother driven into The Life to support her son.  At the top of the film, she’s got a solid routine in place: leaving her baby with a neighbor and heading out to the streets all night, then coming home to dote on him.  It’s tiring, but she is utterly in love with her little boy.  One night the police decide to sweep the streets, and a local low-life named Zhang offers her a place to hide in his flat.  …In exchange for a taste of her services, of course.  Our unnamed heroine has to agree, leaving in the morning; but Zhang sees an opportunity and secretly follows her home, bullying her into making him her pimp.  When he threatens to take away her son, she gives in.

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Five years later, “The Goddess” is living in a flat owned by Zhang, and her son is a sweet, curious little boy.  The neighbors gossip about her and keep their kids away from her son, but “The Goddess” perseveres.  Zhang is in the habit of coming by unannounced and helping himself to the money in her desk drawer, so she’s started hiding some in a hole in the wall hidden by a loose brick; she discovers one day that she’s saved up enough to get her son into a nearby private school, and enrolls him right away, carefully obscuring her profession from the principal.  The boy takes to school like a fish to water, eagerly reading all of his lessons out loud to his mother at night and even playing “school” with her in the evenings. When he gets a solo in the school talent show, she shows up sitting in the front row and bursting with pride.

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Unfortunately one of the busybody neighbors is also in the audience, and spreads the word about “The Goddess”’s profession.  The principal receives floods of angry letters complaining about the immoral situation.  Meanwhile, Zhang has come by the flat for a hit of cash, and starts idly playing with a loose brick in the wall…

That all sounds like serious melodrama, and the ending is even more so.  But except for a couple of High Passion moments, the acting is remarkably subtle.  The chemistry between “The Goddess” and her son is especially endearing; the scene where the boy is “playing school” with his mother drew a genuine “awwwww!” from me.

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The film also takes a sympathetic look at the whole issue of prostitution, casting it as a last-resort measure for women who truly have been shut out of any other choice. Society is to blame, the film argues – not the women, and certainly not any of their children.  But there’s no big dramatic turning-point where everyone is convinced that the Prostitute Has A Heart Of Gold – instead, the principal follows up on the letters with a home visit, where he sees that even though the woman has a shady job the little boy seems safe and happy, and actually goes back to the school board to try advocating on her behalf.  And even here – he doesn’t sway everyone with any kind of ‘Have Mercy On Her!” speech.  He does speak on her defense, however.

The Goddess was a small-scale, simple film that I found strangely affecting.

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

King Kong (1933)

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We’ve had the ur-war film, the ur-gangster film….arguably, King Kong is the ur-special-effects-monster-blockbuster, the first link in a chain that leads all the way up to Jurassic World.  It’s got an easy plot to understand, and a crapton of visual pyrotechnics; that description fits plenty of other movies over the years.

That sounds like a sneering dismissal.  But it’s not. Because in this case – the super-special-effects monster stuff is pure, dippy fun.

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I’m not going to delve into the plot because a) it’s simple, and b) it’s bloody King Kong, but in brief – movie director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) rounds up a team to go to a remote Pacific island and film a movie; at the last minute he discovers Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), a down-on-her-luck actress, and brings her along.  Denham’s heard a rumor there’s a giant ape on the island; he plans to simply hurl Darrow at it and film what happens. But the ship’s first mate falls for Darrow, heroically rescuing her when the ape captures her.  When Kong comes out into the open in an attempt to get her back, Denham gets the idea that film of a giant ape may be awesome – but a live Kong would be even better.  He captures the beast and puts him on display on Broadway – and things go a bit wrong…yeah, you know the story.

So, let’s get the discussion of the special effects out of the way first. I hadn’t seen this original before, but I have seen the 2005 Peter Jackson remake, with greenscreens and CGI and Andy Serkis in a motion capture suit, and…this film had stop-motion animation and miniatures and forced perspective camera tricks.  The close-ups on “Kong’s face” are simply footage of a guy in an ape mask.  It’s nowhere near the caliber of what WETA studios came up with.

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And….you know what?  I didn’t care.  The stop-motion is actually a considerable leap forward in special effects, but more importantly – the filmmakers (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack) put a lot of detail into what the stop-motion characters do. There’s an intention and purpose to their actions; Kong gets into a battle with a dinosaur in one scene, and defeats him not by simply hitting him, but by ripping his jaw open.

It’s a moment that Peter Jackson recreated in his own film.

And there are smaller moments meant just to make the stop-motion critters seem alive; Alex watched this with me, and the sight of Kong pausing to scratch himself in the middle of a scene made him laugh in utter delight.

It’s too easy to lean on special effects as a panacea; instead of using them as a means to an end, it’s tempting to see them as an end in and of itself.  I’ve seen the original Star Wars trilogy, both with and without George Lucas’ after-the-fact editing, and it’s clear that some of the thrown-in special effects were just thrown in “because I can”.  King Kong is very heavy on special effects, but at no time did I feel like there was an effect “just because”; Cooper and Schoedsack have clearly put thought into “what do we want to see Kong actually do” and “what will make Kong actually seem alive”.  And because this is special effects with care and attention…it held my attention, even though the technology is dated.

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Speaking of dated – there is some gender and racial stereotyping that has aged much less well.  When Denham and company turn up on Skull Island, they come upon the “native islanders” engaged in a “magic ritual” that’s completely ridiculous; hell, the islanders themselves are ridiculous.  (The women actually wear coconut bras.)  And Fay Wray’s role is little more than just the damsel in distress who screams a lot; there’s even a slightly icky scene where Kong peels parts of Darrow’s dress off and then sniffs his fingers.  That’s a scene that censors cut from several screenings, and which Peter Jackson thankfully updated a little.

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But – you don’t see a film like King Kong for the high art and interpersonal connections.  Yes, they could have been better, but – you see this for the spectacle and the sparkle, and when there’s a strong hand at the helm, the spectacle and the sparkle is a good show.

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Gold Diggers Of 1933 (1933)

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Herewith do the escapist Busby Berkeley musicals finally acknowledge the Great Depression – albeit sometimes in ways that feel like tacked-on afterthoughts.  But when they pull out the stops, they pull out the stops. 

The cast includes some of Busby Berkeley’s regulars from 42nd Street and Footlight ParadeDick Powell as the young romantic lead, Ruby Keeler as his aspiring actress sweetheart, Ginger Rogers and Joan Blondell as other up-and-coming actresses and Guy Kibbee in a largely comedic role as an ineffective lawyer.  But we don’t really “meet” any of them at first – at least, not so far as we know, since we are plunged immediately into a Berkeley dance extravaganza of gold-coin-bedecked chorus dancers as Ginger Rogers sings “We’re In The Money”.  It looks like Gordon Gekko’s wet dream, frankly; but the lyrics hint that this isn’t a greedy fantasy, but is simply about being financially solvent again:

“We never see a headline ’bout a breadline today
And when we see the landlord, we can look that guy right in the eye!”

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But before the number is even finished we are brought down to earth.  For this is just a rehearsal – and the producer has been dodging his creditors, so the police have come to confiscate everything and close the show before it even opens.  Our heroines Carol (Blondell) and Polly (Keeler) head for home, an apartment they share with comedienne Trixie (Aline MacMahon).  All they have to eat is bread that they’ve pooled their money for, and the milk that Trixie steals off their neighbor’s windowsill.  But they’re optimistic – and Polly is cheered by her flirtation with neighbor Brad (Powell), a composer who will sometimes serenade her window-to-window with his songs.

But what luck!  Barney comes to them with the news that he has the idea for another show and offers all the women roles.  This time, he says, he wants to make a show about the Depression itself!  As he discusses his idea, he hears the plaintive music from Brad’s apartment and hires him as well.  And only when Brad agrees, and everyone is on board does Barney admit that there’s just one tiny, eensy little problem – the budget realistically would be $40K, and he doesn’t have it.  He doesn’t even have the $15,000 he would need to put down for a deposit.

And then Brad blows everyone away by casually saying “Oh, I can advance you that.”  He offers to bring the money, in cash, to Barney’s office the following day – but refuses to explain how on earth he has the money to put up, and also refuses to appear in the show.  He will be behind the scenes only.  The others are dubious, but too desperate to question their good fortune.

Brad does end up being forced onstage when the show’s lead throws his back out.  And his secret is revealed – he is the son of a wealthy Bostonian financier, who was slumming in New York to dodge the family business. And now that his family knows where he is, his older brother Lawrence and the family lawyer Peabody (Kibbee) have come to bring him home.  Brad refuses, of course – insisting that not only will he keep his theater career, he’s also going to propose to Polly.  So there!

Lawrence and Peabody try an alternate approach – they turn up at the girls’ apartment, hoping to warn Polly away from Brad. But it is Carol, not Polly, who meets them; they assume she’s Polly, and deliver their warning.  She slips off to consult with Trixie – who’s also heard the whole thing – and they resolve to help Polly and Brad by playing along with the mistaken identity and snooker the guys out of their own money.  Lawrence quickly has the counterplot to seduce “Polly” himself to break up Brad’s engagement, and Carol plays along to save the real Polly and keep Lawrence distracted so he lets the show continue.  But in time, the pair start questioning their motivations….

This wouldn’t be a Busby Berkeley movie without the elaborate musical numbers.  There’s no water ballet here – instead, we have “The Shadow Waltz”, in which dozens of dancers in hoop skirts play glow-in-the-dark violins, and “Pettin’ In the Park,” a winking ode to public displays of affection; the staging of which includes roller-skating cops, Billy Barty with a pea shooter, women disrobing in silhouette, and a pair of chimpanzees, and ends with Ruby Keeler in a costume made of tin and Dick Powell leeringly undressing her with a can opener.

Remember – these are meant to be numbers from Barney’s show about the Great Depression.

I was getting ready to write that off, though; it’s a Berkeley musical, after all.  It’s about the production numbers and pretty dancers and lavish stage sets and escapism.  No one really cares why everyone bursts into song, they just want them to, and want everyone to have a happy ending.  So by the movie’s end I was just nodding along – yep, happy ending for that couple, check, and they’re happy now, check, and them too, bases covered…just enough time for one last production number, and here we are backstage and the chorus is getting into place for something called “The Forgotten Man,” here we go.

Well.

There’s no chorus girls in this one, no elaborate set gimmicks.  Instead, we get Joan Lunden, in a tattered skirt, with a guy in a panhandler costume beside her; she watches him wander off and starts singing:

Remember my forgotten man.
You put a rifle in his hand.

You sent him far away,
You shouted: “Hip-hooray!”
But look at him today…”

Soon another woman sitting in a window takes up the song, as the camera pans across other actresses in other windows – but none of them chorus girls, all of them poor and haggard-looking.  Similar run-down men shuffle along the street, getting chased by cops; when a cop corners one, Lunden opens the man’s jacket to reveal a Purple Heart pinned to the inside lining, shaming the cop into letting him go.

This dissolves into a “stage set” of World War I doughboys marching off to war, flags waving and girlfriends rushing to kiss them farewell; after only a moment, this same “stage set” then adds a parade of wounded soldiers staggering past them in the other direction, where they later take their place in a growing Depression-era breadline.  Berkeley can’t resist a whiz-bang set piece at the very end, with Lunden serenading a crowd of hungry men while a squad of solders in silhouette marches along an archway over them.

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There was historic precedence for this; Gold Diggers of 1933 came out less than a year after the Bonus Army protest, a major World War 1 veterans’ protest action.  Prior to World War I, any US Serviceman who saw combat was awarded a financial relief package meant to compensate for any lost wages he would have received.  During the late 19th Century, this became more and more controversial as the definition for “combat” expanded even to include soldiers who’d served in the Frontier “Indian Wars”, and the relief packages often included land grants – which ate up most of the fertile land in some states.  In the 1920s, Calvin Coolidge tried doing away with the practice, but was overruled by Congress, who announced that they would award all World War I vets the amount of one dollar per day they were on active duty, with a maximum of $500.  However, they issued most of the rewards in the form of certificates that wouldn’t mature for another 20 years.

Still, in the go-go 1920s this seemed like a good deal – but when the Depression hit, the vets started thinking they’d rather have the money now, thanks.  The 10,000-strong “Bonus Army,” as they called themselves, assembled just north of Virginia and marched on Washington to demand their bonus payouts, setting up a “Hooverville” near the Capital Building in protest.  Some congressmen did introduce a bill authorizing an early payout, but the bill was voted down in committee, and ultimately the army was called in to break up the Bonus Army and throw out the protestors.  Two vets were killed in the furor.

This recent history would have been as much on the mind of the 1933 audience as the 2017 Womens’ March would be today.  Making impoverished veterans the focus of this number, instead of impoverished people in general, was a major political statement on Berkeley’s part – and clearly one he cared about, because he cast himself as the stagehand who rallies the cast onto the set for the “Forgotten Man number”.  The rest of the show felt like it was making light of the Depression, or allowing people to get out of it too easily; it looks like Berkeley was just saving everything for the end.  And what an end.

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Zero For Conduct (1933)

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Zero de Conduite is…puzzling.  But I can’t decide whether or not it’s supposed to be.

It’s about a group of boys at a French boarding school who plot a takeover of the school, barricading themselves in an attic and throwing garbage on the teachers’ heads during a school assembly and hoisting a Jolly Roger flag on the roof. This was apparently shocking back in the day – the film faced censorship in France when it was released – but it seems more like a Home Alone-style romp today, with the naughty-boy heroes pulling loads of preliminary pranks like staging a food fight to protest a meal, using a pillow fight to suppress their dorm monitor and setting booby traps to bait other teachers.  Along with more mundane pranks like playing trumpets with their noses or sneaking smokes.

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But the style and the brevity of the film made things a little hard to follow.  The brevity in particular – it’s only about 45 minutes long, which left vanishingly little time to develop any of the boys’ characters at all.  We’re theoretically following four ringleaders in the rebellion, and for the life of me I couldn’t tell you their names.  Or, rather, I know their names but I couldn’t tell you which boy was which – they seem to work as a unit, frequently getting slapped with the sentence of “zero points for conduct” and sentenced to detention over minor offenses.  I did grasp that one boy is the son of the school’s cook, and another is a little bit of a dandy who seemed to have a bit of a crush on one of his older classmates.

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The dandy commits the only really defiant act before the rebellion. During a science class, the teacher seems to fawn over him, going so far as to creepily pet him because he seems upset.  The boy is understandably unnerved and shouts out that he’s “full of shit”.  He’s offered the chance to be let off with just a warning if he publicly apologizes, but the dandy joins the rebellion instead, offering some tactical planning expertise.

But I’m making this sound like there is much more coherency to the film. The film’s style is quite different – things just sort of…happen, and you’re expected to follow along, like when one of the school’s new teachers is strolling around the playground during recess and suddenly busts out with a Charlie Chaplin imitation.  Or another teacher stumbles upon a grafitti’d caricature one of the kids has made of him – and a brief bit of animation shows the doodle reacting with alarm at having been caught.  And there are less sensible bits – like during the climactic school assembly, which sees two gendarmes in attendance, both of them casually exercising on gym equipment.  Why?  Beats me.  Before I could figure it out I was being shown that half the attendees of the assembly were mannequins.

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It’s possible that director Jean Vigo was depicting a child’s understanding of things, actually. You don’t really see the connections between events when you’re that age; stuff just sort of happens, and it’s either good or bad.  The cool teacher may suddenly do a handstand in class, and that’s cool.  The mean headmaster may shout at you in his office, and it’s scary. There’s that one creepy science teacher where you can’t quite put your finger on why he creeps you out, because you haven’t really seen him do anything, like, bad, but you just get a bad vibe so everything he does is creepy, even just taking off his tie or opening a book.  You may notice that the cook’s son is sad during the food fight and you suddenly feel sort of sorry for him and you get everyone to stop.  You may get into a full-scale pillow fight in your dorm, and it’s totally epic and it’s like you can see the whole thing happening in slow motion in your head, especially when that one kid does a backflip and his nightshirt falls down and you can see his weenus and it’s funny.  And then when the moment ends, it ends, disappearing into your subconscious but otherwise just sort of letting you go your way, and hopefully you’ll make the connections later when you’re older; but right now, everything seems arbitrary and baffling, so you just go with it and trust it’ll make sense eventually.

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And that matches my reaction here. I’ve made those connections now, but in the moment, when watching the film…I was pretty confused.

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Duck Soup (1933)

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Duck Soup has been the first time in the Movie Crash Course that I’ve re-watched something. And I cannot begin to tell you how long I tried to think of an apt Groucho-esque pun to follow that statement; alas, the pun escapes me. But it’d be stupid to even try; Groucho is the master, forever and ever amen.

Something surprised me with this viewing – on paper, I shouldn’t have liked this film. Duck Soup has some of the faults I’ve frowned on in other films – a paper-thin plot that’s just an excuse for gags, some dialogue that hasn’t aged well, a character whose motivations and affections turn on a dime. But what I noticed wasn’t the faults themselves – what I noticed was that I wasn’t caring about them, because the gags offered by that paper-thin plot were so good and the dialogue was still so rapid-fire witty, and even if a couple of the jokes landed badly, the cast was already on to the next quip by the time you were blinking and thinking “….hang on.”

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Briefly, for the three people who haven’t heard of this film: Groucho is Rufus T. Firefly, who’s been dubiously appointed to the presidency of the nation Freedonia.  He almost instantly begins wooing the wealthy widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), who’s been loaning the nation money; but a Mr. Trentino, ambassador from the neighboring Sylvania, is doing the same in a bid to take over Freedonia.  Trentino sends in his two top spies (Chico and Harpo) to undermine Firefly.

It almost doesn’t matter what the plot is anyway; any Marx Brothers movie is really just an excuse to watch the Marx Brothers do stuff. The team is known for their wordplay, but on this viewing, it was the physical comedy that stuck out most for me. Duck Soup is home to the oft-copied “mirror sequence”, where a disguised Harpo is snooping in Firefly’s house late at night, and Groucho spots him in a doorway – so Harpo desperately tries to pretend that the doorway is actually a mirror, and he is Groucho’s reflection.  I’m almost positive you’ve seen it.  I don’t care, here it is again.

I was even more taken with the “triple-hat” scene, where Chico and Harpo are working undercover as peanut vendors outside the Freedonia parliament and collaborate to drive a nearby lemonade salesman foamingly nuts.  The timing and choreography of this scene is flawless.

There are scholars and historians who’ve argued that Duck Soup is a satire of fascism and totalitarianism; and it can come across that way, especially when you consider its 1930s release date.  But this was probably accidental; Groucho once quipped that all that Duck Soup is “about” is “four Jews trying to get a laugh”.  Still, when the brothers heard that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini took offense to the film and banned it in Italy, they were delighted.

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Alex insisted on watching this with me, and told me about the time he showed this film to a college friend.  The friend watched silently through most of it, finally speaking up while watching a physical gag of Harpo’s:  “I’ve just realized….he isn’t human.  He’s a manifestation of chaos.”  Frankly, “a manifestation of chaos” is one of the best reviews of this film I know of.