film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

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I have the strange feeling that comedies from Britain’s Ealing Studios, like this film, are going to give me a better understanding of Monty Python. Kind Hearts and Coronets didn’t have Python’s absurdism, but its dark comedy and spoofing of class and upper-crust manners felt very familiar. As did one instance of drag.

The whole story is framed as a sort of last confessional memoir, written by a young nobleman, Louis D’Ascoyne, the 10th Duke of Chalfont (Dennis Price), on the eve of his execution.  He’s pretty matter-of-fact about his impending death – and as we soon learn, that’s because he’s been found guilty of murder.

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Louis was the son of a disinherited member of his family; his mother had eloped with an opera singer, living with him in happy poverty until Louis’ birth. But when the family fell on hard times and his mother wrote home asking for help, they turned their backs. Louis tries reaching out when his mother died, hoping to at least have her buried with the rest of her family; they refuse this too.  And that is when Louis concocts his plan. As his mother told him, in their family, the bloodline also runs through the women; so whether the family wanted to admit it or not, he was a valid claimant to the Dukedom.  All that stood in his way of the title were a handful of other family members with closer succession.  Considering this, Louis decides to murder his way to the title.

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Most of the film is a chronicle of Louis suavely befriending and then dispatching the various other D’Ascoynes – each in a slightly ridiculous fashion. A doddering priest is poisoned, a pompous general is blown up with a bomb smuggled inside some caviar.  The suffragette is killed during a publicity stunt; she’s commissioned a balloon to carry her over the city so she can drop leaflets, and Louis waits by his window with a bow and arrow for her to sail past.  (The ensuing narration got a chuckle from me: “I shot an arrow in the air, it fell to earth in Berkley Square.”)  Complicating things slightly are Louis’ two romances; first with Sibella (Joan Greenwood), a childhood sweetheart who married someone else for money but then starts canoodling with Louis again, then with the Lady Edith (Valerie Hobson), the genteel widow of one of Louis’ victims.  Louis of course strives to keep his ambitions from them both, and also keep them from each other.  Eventually he’s going to have to choose one as his Duchess; and just as the Dukedom is in his grasp, Sibella threatens him with blackmail in an effort to force his hand.  Is it going to blow the whole plan?

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I’ve saved some of the best casting for last, because it really is the standout performance; or, rather, set of performances.  For it is Sir Alec Guinness who plays all nine of the D’Ascoynes that Louis kills off – and manages to pull it off.  To be fair, in some cases the D’Ascoyne in question only enjoys a few seconds of screentime and thus all that distinguishes them is a change of costume or wig. But his take on the playboy Ascone D’Ascoyne is distinct from the banker Lord D’Ascoyne, which is distinct from the priest, which is distinct from the photographer…and even his take on Lady Agatha, the suffragette, manages to avoid verging into camp even though he’s in a frilly hat and a dress with a bustle.  For someone of my generation, for whom the name “Alec Guinness” is synonymous with “Obi-Wan Kenobi” and that’s it, this was a good wake-up call.

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Just as Guinness in drag stays clear of camp, the tone of the whole thing also manages to stay clear of farce.  This is a very dry comedy, feeling almost stereotypically what people think of as “English” – genteel, prim, and mannered, with one’s standing and reputation in society being the be-all and end-all.  It’s exactly the kind of tone that would put me off if this were a more serious film, honestly – but in this case it’s used as the filter for someone who is methodically committing fratricide and regicide in one fell swoop.  That kind of disconnect between tone and action is something that the Python team did a lot – they just took it to more absurd lengths.  I’m suspecting that I can see some of the Python DNA in this film, and with some more Ealing comedies ahead of me I suspect I’ll see even more.

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Adam’s Rib (1949)

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Back when I saw Top Hatmy immediate reaction was “oh, now I get why everyone talks about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.”  Similarly: on the evening of October 16th, 2019, I finally learned why people talk about Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn so glowingly.

Adam’s Rib doesn’t have the weightiest plot, to be honest; in its original review, the New York Times quipped that while it wasn’t “solid food”, the film was “meaty, juicy and comically nourishing“, and I’m inclined to agree.  Hepburn and Tracy star as Adam and Amanda Bonner, a pair of married New York lawyers with the city’s D.A. office.  They’re clearly fond of each other, and enjoy a comfortable life – lavish penthouse in the city, a second home in a cozy little Connecticut farmhouse – but keep things lively with spirited debates about legal and moral issues of the day.

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Like this news story that’s just made the papers one morning – a jilted woman, Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) was just arrested for trailing her cheating husband to his girlfriend’s and firing a pistol.  We actually see the incident first thing – Doris is completely inept with a gun (she even has to consult a booklet first to see how to fire it), and it’s unclear whether she was aiming at anyone.  Regardless of her intent, she wounded her husband and is now charged with assault.  Adam and Amanda debate the story over breakfast – he feels it’s a clear-cut case from a legal standpoint.  But Amanda argues that if the genders were swapped, Doris would have been treated differently, and possibly not even charged. Still, it’s just an intellectual exercise for them both, just something to talk about as they head to work.

But then Adam is assigned the role of prosecuting attorney in Doris’ trial. And when he tells Amanda, she marches straight to the Legal Aid society and offers her service as Doris’ defense attorney.  And the battle commences!

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Now – anyone planning to watch this as a straight-up courtroom story may be in for some disappointment.  I’m no expert – my “legal education” consists of Law and Order reruns and one copywriting temp gig at Columbia Law School’s Alumni Magazine – but Amanda’s legal argument feels a little…far-fetched.  She could have easily made a case out of Doris’ maltreatment by her husband, and from her claim that she only meant to scare her husband. There’s enough cause for reasonable doubt there.  But Amanda chooses to turn the whole thing into a springboard for a larger debate on women’s overall equality, going so far as to bring in a small group of other women – wholly unrelated to the case – to testify about their own gender-based struggles and limitations in their chosen professions.  It was an interesting scene to watch today – even though it ultimately is played for laughs – but I couldn’t shake the feeling that as a legal argument, it didn’t seem like it’d hold water.

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Then again, watching this as a straight-up courtroom story is a mistake anyway.  You’re watching this to watch Hepburn and Tracy, period.  We see their courtroom debates, sure – but we also watch how the ongoing trial affects their home life. And for a while, it seems like the couple find each day’s debates a little…stimulating.  Tracy and Hepburn have a chemistry and an ease with each other that is delicious – flirtatious, comfortable, playful, even a little erotic (we don’t see anything sexual, but we do hear an offscreen smack of a kiss – and we hear an onscreen smack when Adam spanks Amanda during a massage).

The homefront playfulness fades as the stakes rise in the court, of course, and both get a little mean with each other – but you can tell this is a couple that has a history of deep love and respect, and will eventually put things right. The film even flirts with a plot twist that implies that the pair will break up, but I didn’t buy it in the slightest – and not just because “this is a romantic comedy and of course they won’t break up”.  I didn’t buy it because from what I’d seen onscreen, I knew Adam and Amanda weren’t going to break up. They were too in love and had been for too long.  And that is entirely thanks to the performances from Tracy and Hepburn, and the chemistry they share.

Amazingly, the performances weren’t nominated for any awards, it seems; the film’s only Oscar nomination came for the script – a collaboration between writer Garson Kanin and his wife Ruth Gordon, herself an actress with several Broadway credits in her past and some acting Oscars in her own future (but we’ll get there eventually).

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The Heiress (1949)

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The Crash Course syllabus is starting to edge into the 1950s, and after the last few contemporary films it feels almost like a throwback to see a costume drama.  But this was contemporary; The Heiress is based on the play of the same name (itself an adaptation of Henry James’ novel Washington Square), and was one of the hot Broadway tickets of 1948.  Star Olivia de Havilland was one of the celebrities who caught the show, and immediately contacted director William Wyler to suggest it as a potential film.

De Havilland stars as Catherine Sloper, the shy, plain daughter of a wealthy doctor living in New York in the 1840s.  Her father Dr. Austin (Ralph Richardson) was widowed when Catherine was young, and has been in mourning for his lively and delightful wife ever since; and unfortunately, he has been unconsciously comparing Catherine to her memory, and found her wanting. Not for lack of trying – he’s paid for Catherine to have classes in music, cooking, elocution, and the like; but she still is awkward and antisocial, preferring to keep indoors working on her endless embroidery projects and doting on her father.  All Catherine has going for her, really, is her inheritance; a sizeable one from her late mother, and another one she’ll eventually get from her father.

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Sloper enlists Catherine’s aunt Lavinia Penniman (Miriam Hopkins) for help; Lavinia has recently been widowed and she’s more outgoing, and Catherine seems to like her company.  Maybe she can help get Catherine out of her shell, he thinks.  And sure enough, at the first party Lavinia drags Catherine to, she meets dashing Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), who seems quite taken with Catherine.  Over the next several days, Morris woos Catherine, completely sweeping her off her feet.  However – Dr. Sloper has been making some discreet inquiries about Morris, and suspects that the only thing that Morris really sees in Catherine is a bank account.  Even though Lavinia begs him to keep mum (who cares why Morris wants to marry Catherine, because hell, at least someone does) Dr. Sloper still confronts Morris with his suspicions, and then – uncomfortably – Catherine.  Catherine is of course horrified at Dr. Sloper’s mistrust, and begs Morris to elope with her.  Sssssssure, Morris says, he’ll just go pack and be back in just a minute….

The story goes on a little from there, of course, but that painful scene – where Catherine finally gets her eyes opened about both her sweetheart and her father – is really the heart of the film, and my hunch is it’s what spurred De Havilland into opting the play.  Catherine is a very, very different character at the end of the play than in the beginning, and it’s a plum of a role for an actress.  For any actress – I saw the 1995 revival of the play with Cherry Jones, and it’s the production that deservedly made Cherry Jones a household name in the New York theater world.  The screen adaptation changes very little; the original playwrights, Ruth and Augustus Goetz, were asked only to make Morris a little more sympathetic, so that the studio could better push Montgomery Clift as a romantic lead.  But his character is oily and duplicitous enough still that you are never quite certain whether to really buy his excuses for his spending habits.

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The film also wisely keeps a lot of the action inside the Sloper’s home.  There’s always the temptation to throw in a bunch more sets when you’re adapting a play for the screen, and the production could have gone nuts and thrown in scenes with Catherine attending church, a ladies’ club, going shopping, etc., to amp up the Costume Drama Spectacle of it all.  But that would have been all wrong for the shy Catherine, and things are kept largely to a few rooms and a courtyard in the Sloper’s house, and that one fateful ball; and one very brief scene with Catherine sitting in the park across the street from the house. (It’s a spoiler for me to elaborate on why, but it’s a heck of a moment.)

I’m still personally making up my mind whether I prefer Cherry Jones or Olivia de Havilland’s take on the role.  But absolutely agree that de Havilland shines; the role earned de Havilland her second Oscar.

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White Heat (1949)

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Now I know that my opinion of Jimmy Cagney has been forever changed since seeing him in Yankee Doodle Dandy; he was the best bit of this film for me.  …Unfortunately, in this case that’s a bit of damning with faint praise.

This was a return to form for Cagney; he was a bit low in cash, and knew the public liked seeing him play gangsters, so he shrugged and went back to doing a gangster film.  In this case, he’s “Cody Jarrett”, the head of a criminal outfit based in southern California, exerting ruthless power over his underlings and answering only to his doting mother. One of their raids goes a bit pear-shaped and the police start closing in; after Jarrett wounds one of the federal officers during a getaway, he decides to use an escape plan he’s always had in his back pocket – sneak up to Chicago and confess to a smaller crime there.  The Chicago crime will carry a lighter sentence, and will also be a convenient alibi for the California job.

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The Chicago police are dubious, of course, as are the feds; so they concoct their own counter plan, sending an undercover agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) to serve as Jarrett’s cellmate and gain his trust.  Maybe he’ll brag about the California job, the feds figure.  While Fallon does win Jarrett over, he takes Fallon into confidence on something entirely different – an escape attempt.  Jarrett trusts Fallon so much, in fact, that he asks Fallon to escape with him and join his gang, giving Fallon a front-row seat to a huge job – robbing the payroll safe at a chemical plant outside Los Angeles. Now all Fallon needs to do is figure out how to get word to his boss…

…So, Cagney’s great in this. And the tapdancing Fallon is doing to keep up his cover while winning Jarrett over is great fun to watch as well.  But that doesn’t even start until about a half hour into the film, and the whole first act felt like it was getting bogged down with a lot of procedural busy-ness – both from Jarrett’s gang and from the police.  There’s a sequence where the feds have spotted Jarrett’s mother in a grocery store and round up a squad to tail her in hopes she’ll lead them to Jarrett.  But the sequence is prefaced with a couple minutes’ worth of the officers discussing the exact procedural strategy they’ll be using, and there’s a good deal of back-and-forth discussion between them during their chase as well, and I found it….pretty dull.  There’s something to be said for verisimilitude, but your average audience doesn’t watch a car chase scene to learn police tactics, they watch a car chase scene to…watch a car chase scene, you know?

The roommate didn’t mind the procedural bits that much; but when we discussed that after the film, his examples of moments he liked all seemed to come after Fallon had entered the story.  Everything before Jarrett’s escape to Chicago felt drawn-out, like the writers felt they needed a detailed excuse just to get Jarrett and Fallon into the same room.  I’ve since read that the original screenwriters were an especially meticulous pair who felt that they had to very carefully plot each and every beat of action and line of dialogue, and that when Cagney’s friends read it they tried talking him into dropping out.  But Cagney was determined to do something with it, enlisting some of those very friends into helping him with rewrites (none other than Humphrey Bogart is supposed to have weighed in on some bits).

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So on the whole this was just kind of….fine.  Cagney does get a dramatic final scene – maniacally laughing as he stands atop an exploding tower and hollering “Top of the world, ma!” – but I just wish the rest of the film had matched that mania with more consistency.

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The Reckless Moment (1949)

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When producer Walter Wanger pitched this film to studios, he described it as “Mrs. Miniver meets Brief Encounter“. Mrs. Miniver I can see, but I’d have gone with Mildred Pierce instead, for the fierceness with which a mother tries to protect her family.  Either way, I still dug it.

It’s that mother, Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett), who carries the film.  She’s mother to two teens – collegiate daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks) and a younger son David – and currently trying to keep their suburban California house together while her husband’s on a business trip in Germany.  At the start of the film, “keeping the house together” involves her making a secret solo trip to Los Angeles to tell a sleezeball named Darby that he’d better break up with Bea, or else.  Darby says he’ll only do so for cash; and Lucia walks out, thinking that surely all she’ll have to do is tell Bea about that and she’ll see sense.  The besotted Bea secretly meets with Darby in the family boathouse that night, hoping to clear things up; but when Darby confirms what he said, Bea is angry enough to wallop him with the flashlight she’s carrying before running into the house and into Lucia’s arms, begging forgiveness and promising it’s over.  Yay, crisis averted!

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Except – when Lucia takes an early walk on the beach, she finds Darby’s corpse. It seems that while he was staggering around after his clonk on the head, Darby fell off the boathouse balcony, landing directly on the anchor from brother David’s motorboat.  In a panic, Lucia loads the body into the motorboat and dumps both body and anchor in a nearby swamp.  Yay, crisis averted again!….Except a day or so later, the police find the body.  And that evening, a stranger named Donnelly (James Mason) turns up with a bundle of letters that Bea had written to Darby, threatening to turn them over to the police unless Lucia pays up.

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I thought Bennett’s take on Lucia was strangely cold at first; all she says in the face of Bea’s sobbing apology is a brusque “it’s all over now” and urging her to go get some sleep, with just a little pat on the shoulder instead of a comforting mom-hug.  She’s something of a nag to son David, and just seemed strangely brittle.  But as the film went on, I realized that what I was taking for coldness was actually a 1950s housewife grit-teeth determination that “I HAVE EVERYTHING UNDER CONTROL AND THINGS ARE JUST FINE.”  She’s not cold, she’s just overwhelmedand at the same time she is determined to pretend that everything’s fine and to try to handle everything herself.  Even in the few times she speaks with her husband she keeps things from him – in an early scene when she is writing to him, she starts to complain that she misses having him on hand as a source of advice, but then crumples up that entire page of the letter and writes a more generic “I miss you, darling” missive.  The two times her husband calls home, the biggest crisis she shares with him is a difference of opinion about the family Christmas tree.  She will handle everything else on her own, dammit.

That also informs a lot of her meetings with Donnelly.  As the film goes on, Donnelly develops a sweet spot for Lucia, gradually thinking of bigger and bigger ideas to spare her from blackmail and protect her family. Lucia also softens towards Donnelly a bit over time.  It’s clear that Donnelly is developing a crush (the one thing in the film I didn’t buy), but while other critics see Lucia as reciprocating that crush, I think it’s more gratitude; Lucia wants to protect her family, and if being nice to Donnelly will help, then so be it. And Donnelly is helping, at a time when she most needs help.  And thank God, he’s also being discreet about everything!

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Director Max Ophüls uses a lot of long, sweeping tracking shots to follow Lucia as she scurries around trying to juggle everything; trying to keep David tucked in his room and her live-in father-in-law stowed in the den while she speaks to Donnelly in the kitchen, or running out of change during a call at a payphone and having to run out to Donnelly to bum a quarter.  It’s like watching a juggler with a bunch of spinning plates or watching a rat trying to navigate a maze, and just emphasizes that Lucia’s insistence that things are fine is all a performative front.

Apparently this had a bit of a 2001 remake with Tilda Swinton; both this film and 2001’s The Deep End draw from the same source novel.

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Gun Crazy (1949)

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As the roommate observed when I was midway through this film – “if a film is called something like Gun Crazy and you’re still falling asleep in the middle of it, that’s telling.”

In the film’s defense, I’ve had a few rough nights’ sleep. But this also seemed to be a weirdly bloodless noir, in the way that things can sometimes feel if they try a little too hard and fall short.  In this case there is a lot of emphasis put on how the main character Bart (John Dall) is a good guy, really.  We open with a longish courtroom scene with Bart as a kid, where he’s on trial for trying to steal a gun out of a sports goods shop window. But the scene is meant to underscore Bart’s inherent goodness – family and friends all serve as character witnesses with tales about how Bart may be really into guns, but he shies away from using them to kill anything.  Nevertheless, the judge still sends him off to reform school, pointing out that Bart is still a little overly-obsessed with guns.

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The grown Bart is still a gun fan as an adult, and is still just as committed to non-violence. He’d been in the Army for a while, but it didn’t take; he didn’t want to kill anyone, and teaching other guys to shoot got dull.  So he came home, hoping to spin his marksmanship into a career; maybe as a tester or a salesman for Remington rifle company or something. By chance he ends up at a carnival sideshow with a lady marksman, Annie (Peggy Cummins), and Bart takes the ringmaster up on a challenge to try out-shooting her.  Of course he wins, earning a job with the carnival and the attention of the pretty Annie.

But it’s not until the jealous ringmaster fires them both a couple weeks later that Bart learns that Annie may share his skill as a marksman – but not his moral compass.  “I want things,” Annie complains.  “A lot of things, big things. I don’t want to be afraid of life or anything else. I want a guy with spirit and guts!” And the way to get these things, Annie argues, is through theft – holding up small banks and drug stores and living on the run.  Bart reluctantly goes along, telling himself he can keep Annie from killing anyone in the process.  They tire of their spree after only a few months and agree to one last big heist before retiring to Mexico – but Annie shoots a couple bystanders, adding murder to their docket and sending them both on a run for their lives.

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I’ve read that the scriptwriters behind Bonnie and Clyde watched this for research. It’ll be interesting to compare to that film down the road; right now, though, it felt a little closer to the camp anti-drug film Reefer Madness (the judge in the early courtroom speech in particular had a “guns are bad, m’kay?” vibe).  I also didn’t really see any of the luridly sexual tone that other reviews swear this film has – possibly because others say that it’s Peggy who’s bringing the sex appeal, and she’s not my flavor of eye candy to begin with.  Bart, meanwhile, is presented as super-squeaky-clean almost to the point of absurdity – the catalyst they show for his non-violence is a moment from when he was just a little boy fooling around with a BB Gun and accidentally killed a wee fuzzy chick in his family’s henhouse.  (There are a few shots of the dead chick lying on the ground, fair warning; interspersed with the boy version of Bart crying bitterly.)  The subtext for the film isn’t that guns ruined Bart’s life – it’s sex. And I’m not that crazy about that.

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One scene in particular stands out for its technique. About midway through the film, there is a scene where we watch Bart and Annie drive to a bank, and then Annie watches the car while Bart heads inside to pull off a heist; when he’s done, they make their escape.  The whole thing is filmed as one single unbroken shot – and the director had the idea to somehow try to film this as if the camera were in the back seat.  Today that’s not an unusual shot – but it was somewhat new territory for 1949.  The only way they could figure out how to do it was to get a stretch limousine and remove all of the seats except for the two front seats, and then stick a cameraman in the car behind the actors.  It was a simple solution which worked surprisingly well.  …However, they also chose to have Cummins and Dall improvise all their dialogue in the scene – and most of it was a pretty mundane discussion about street directions and parking, which ended up detracting from the novelty for me.

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Louisiana Story (1948)

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As it turns out, this film can be paired with Nanook Of The North to serve as the bookends for a career.  Nanook was the debut film for director Richard Flaherty; Louisiana Story was his last film.  …That being the case, I wish I were a little more impressed with it.

Much as he did for Nanook – and for all his “documentaries”, to be frank – Flaherty directed more of a docu-drama, writing up a sort of “script” with various “typical scenarios” in it, and then casting non-actors to act them out. Here he turns his attention to a rural Cajun family in Louisiana, where he focuses mainly on a boy of about ten who lives in a cabin in the bayous with his parents and a pet raccoon that he paddles around with on his pirogue, fishing and exploring and trying to trap an alligator.  Early on in the film, his father sells an oil company the drilling rights to a portion of their property, and on occasion the oil workers and the boy swap fishing tips.

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And nothing else really…happens.

It’s the same model as Nanook of the North, actually – “show people going about their business”.  In Nanook there are sequences with seal hunts and spearfishing; here we see a sequence with the boy struggling to land an alligator.  In Nanook, the children play with sled dogs and are fascinated by other Arctic animals; in Louisiana Story, the boy plays with his raccoon and is fascinated by watching an alligator hatch.  Nanook has a “comedy” bit where Nanook shows himself to be unfamiliar with a phonograph; Louisiana Story has a “comedy” bit where the boy amuses the oil riggers with some folkloric tips for fishing, and takes them seriously when they joke that he should do the same for their oil rig.  With this film, it didn’t seem as fascinating; possibly because moviemaking itself is two decades older, or possibly because Cajun country is not as dis-similar.

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There’s also a whiff of propaganda to the film as well; and no surprise, as the Standard Oil company commissioned the film to promote its Louisiana drilling ventures. Not a whole heck of a lot happens with that either; other than the friendly banter between the boy and the riggers, and another scene where the boy and his father show off the skin of an alligator they’ve caught, we don’t see much of them. There’s a sequence with the oil drill striking a gas pocket and nearly causing an accident, but it seems to get fixed up awfully quick (and largely off-camera), with absolutely no environmental impact.  There’s also a scene towards the end with the father bringing home some new household items for the mother, presumably using proceeds from the drilling crew.

So I don’t really know whether it was the propagandizing or the film itself that made this feel like a non-event, and why it didn’t grab me as much as Nanook did.  Maybe I’ve changed a bit as well since watching that earlier film.

This being a Louisiana story, I’ll leave you with a lagniappe – a recent interview with Joseph Boudreaux, who was cast as the Boy in this film.