Queen Christina (1933)

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Garbo Reigns!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The costume drama, a genre I struggle with; wealthy, upper class people with problems and conflicts I just can’t summon any interest in. However there are a handful which I do manage to enjoy and Queen Christina is one of them; what is it about Queen Christina which makes it compelling? The craftsmanship of the underappreciated director Rouben Mamoulian is certainly a factor but ultimately I believe it all comes down to the fascinating individual at the centre of the film.

Queen Christina is the role Greta Garbo was born to play, the androgynous, unconventional Swedish film star as the androgynous, unconventional 17th Century Swedish Queen.  Christina is one of the great gender bending characters in film history, referring to herself in masculine pronouns to having what could be mistaken as the body of a man; just look at those incredibly broad shoulders Garbo possesses when they are exposed. In the opening to Queen Christina her confidant Axel Oxenstierna (Lewis Milestone) speaks of how Christina was brought up as a boy in order to prepare her for the throne. This does raise the question; do positions of power require a sacrifice of feminine virtues? If the role was reversed of a king dressing and living as a woman, just how powerful and noble would such a king come off? Likewise while it is a likely possibility of Christina being bisexual, the girl on girl kiss she shares with Countess Ebba Sparre (Elizabeth Young) never struck me as a particularly romantic kiss and more of a sign of friendship however Christina speaking of the two of them going to the county for three nights would certainly imply otherwise. Yet even if you’re the biggest tomboy in the world like Christina, there still exists in her the desire to be a woman with her proclamation to love interest Antonio (John Gilbert) “that it had been so enchanting to be a woman. Not a queen, just a woman in man’s arms”.

The fascinating figure of Queen Christina goes beyond her disregard of social norms. She is a figure of great intellect with her values of personal freedom, the quest for knowledge, self improvement as well as spending the few spare moments she has reading books (“One can feel nostalgia for places one has never seen” – so true). As a Queen she has a great sense of national pride and has a fierce devotion to the individual citizens of her county; a romanticised depiction of a world leader many of us wish was more of a reality.

The one portion of Queen Christina which puts realism to the side is that in which she escapes from her palace to the country in order to get away from the strain of being a ruler. I enjoy the trope of a public figure in power sneaking out disguised as a commoner as seen in films such as Roman Holiday or The Shoes of the Fisherman. What is hard to shallow however is everyone Christina meets on her escapade including future lover Antonio and the alumni of the inn she spends the night mistaking her for a man. I know it was unusual back then for a woman to ride on horseback, carry a sword and pistol and go to a tavern to drink but she still clearly has the face of a woman. Regardless I can overlook this lack of realism as it doesn’t impair my enjoyment of the film.

John Gilbert shows in Queen Christina that he was an effective in talkies (contrary to the popular belief that his failure to make the jump from silent to talkies destroyed his career). I don’t find him quite great but he is good enough. After a night of love making with Antonio, Christina compares the experience to how God must have felt when he created the world; yep, she went there. The ending of Queen Christina on the other hand in one which inspires even if everything is not tied up in a neat bow. It is a tragedy in one sense but with one of the greatest uses of close up in film history of Garbo’s expressionless face looking out to sea, the viewer gets to write their own ending.

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Ninotchka (1939)

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Communism: A Load of Bolshevik

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Does communism have a moral equivalency to Nazism? Conservatives have long complained of a double stand for Nazi and communist crimes. Nazism is based on heinous sounding ideas; communism is based on nice sounding ideas. However that makes communism and left wing radicalism more appealing to people of good intentions and perhaps that makes communism more dangerous and an evil in disguise. I’m undecided on this question myself but regardless of which ideology is worse there is one thing I’m certain about: communism sucks and the fact that it is has nowhere near the reputation of Nazism is disturbing. This is an ideology which was responsible for the deaths of 100 million in the 20th century yet I am able to buy t-shirts featuring its dictators in pop culture stores.

The 1939 Ernst Lubitish directed and Billy Wilder penned comedy Ninotchka is reflective of this lack of morally equivalency between Nazism and communism despite the film clearly being anti communist (apparently the film was responsible for communists losing an Italian election in 1947). The scenes in Ninotchka which take place in Russia are grim. The complete censorship of information, the regimented support of the regime, the asphyxiating and claustrophobic living conditions, rationed food, fear of spying neighbours and the overall lack of personal freedoms. Yet despite critique such as this which the film levels against communism, Ninotchka does not present communism as the utterly monstrous belief system that Hollywood suggested Nazism was. When I first watched Ninothcka as a politically lay viewer that’s the impression I got – “communism isn’t great but Nazism is worse”. That’s not to say Ninotchka would be so much better a film if it went the full throttle and showed us the gulags and mass starvation but would a film like Ninotchka transposed to Nazi Germany ever get made with the same comic and tonal approach, one which doesn’t go the full throttle by mentioning concentration camps and persecution of Jews and other minorities. Would it even be morally appropriate to do so? – Food for thought.

One of the ways in which Ninotchka jabs at the Soviets is through the Russian characters skewered thinking. In the opening scene the three comrades on a mission in Paris attempt to justify choosing an expensive hotel over a cheap one because apparently it’s what Lenin would have wanted and refusing to simply admit they really just want the royal suite (“but who said we had to have an idea”). In another scene in the film Ninotchka explains why Soviet Russia is “peddling our precious possessions to the world at this time”. She goes onto say, “Our next year’s crop is in danger, and you know it. Unless we can get foreign currency to buy tractors, there’ll not be enough bread for our people and you comrades.” As if tractors could overcome a drought and famine. Likewise there is Leon’s (Melvyn Douglas) statement in regards to Russia, “I’ve been interested in your five-year plan for the last 15 years”.

I do find much of the Ninotchka’s first 18 minutes prior to the introduction of Garbo to be a bit flat even with some humorous scenes in which the three comrades are being seduced by capitalistic decadence and start fawning over Leon. The setting up of the background behind the jewels as a plot device and the scenes between Melvyn Douglas and Ina Claire are not terribly interesting. Once Garbo appears however, the film is on fire.

Greta Garbo is not one of my favourite actresses but I totally understand the appeal. Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova Envoy Extraordinaire is one badass. She claims to have been a sergeant in Third Cavalry Brigade and she is certainly one with the ability to convince the uninitiated to communist ideals. Lines such as “I have heard of the arrogant male in capitalistic society” and “That’s no business, that’s social injustice” don’t sound too different from talking points by modern lefties. Ninotchka is driven by facts and statistics in comparison to Leon who is more driven by emotion (although I guess the fact of communism’s failure is one for her to ignore). The Soviet State as represented by the figure of Ninotchka is genuinely concerned with the great mass of its people but it is so interested in their statistical well being that is has forgotten their emotional needs and has become cold, oppressive and inhuman. Garbo’s cold emotionless voice and her stone face are fully utilised in a faultless deadpan, comic performance. However when she finally laughs for the first time and unleashes her endearing side, it feels so genuine and uplifting. At the heart of romance in Ninotchka is that of love triumphing over opposing ideologies.

Ninotchka’s communist ideology does rub off on Leon as he becomes somewhat of a campaign socialist and humorously turns to violence in order to track down Ninotchka later in the film. As good as Melvyn Douglas is in the role of Leon, I can’t help but wish William Powell could have performed the role as no one does suave cynicism like Powell. Regardless Douglas does deliver one of my all time favourite set of movie lines in which he tells Ninotchka to just smile “At the whole ridiculous spectacle of life, at people being so serious”; I like to remind myself of this whenever I feel frustrated at the state of the world we live in.

One of the most interesting scenes in the film involves Leon’s butler Gaston (Richard Carle) telling his master about his concern regarding Ninotchka’s (or simply the Bolshevik Lady) influence over him;  Gaston as much as refuses to dust Leon’s copy of Karl Marx’s Capital as it is a socialistic volume. Gaston also mentions how Leon has not paid him two months in the movie suggesting that capitalism isn’t perfect; however Gaston finds the prospect of sharing belongings with Leon and being on an equal footing as him to be terrifying. By the end of the film neither Ninotchka nor Leon directly renounce communism but I doubt they will be returning to Russia any time soon.

Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977)

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Not The Final Installment In That Teen Vampire Series

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

1977 was a year of some high profile bombs which later achieved some cult status such as Cross of Iron, Sorcerer and Twilight’s Last Gleaming. This partially came about from the competition from a certain film called Star Wars which offered a more optimistic and hopeful cinematic experience. As someone who has mixed feeling on New Hollywood, these movies don’t deserve to be ignored the way they are and are some of the best hidden gems of the 1970’s. Likewise the trashy, conspiracy theory concept of Twilight’s Last Gleaming would be the ire of many high brow critics but it’s the high concept which makes Twilight’s Last Gleaming irresistible and helps the viewer to look past the implausibility of the premise. This is a film which trades it’s logic for emotion and is aware of its own implausibility (“How in the hell does some joker walk into a top secret installation and get control of the most sophisticated weapons system in the world?”). As a layman it feels believable within the context of the movie but it’s always fun to ask, could it happen in real life?

Twilight’s Last Gleaming features an ironic use of ‘My Country Tis of Thee’ during the opening and closing credits; it’s not exactly a happy movie. Oddly however Jerry Goldsmith’s score sounds like something from an action/adventure blockbuster and is even John Williams like at time. The action takes place over a single day in what can be described as Dog Day Afternoon like scenario in a missile silo for a film which you could mistaken as being based on a stage play with its handful of sets and lengthy scenes. On my first viewing I wasn’t convinced the running time was justified but watching it again I was hooked. Twilight’s Last Gleaming takes is set in the future year of November 16th, 1981 although it’s not stated why it’s set on this particular date.

Burt Lancaster was still getting some great roles into the 1970’s. He still had his mojo and now with a beat up face to boot. As one of the character’s in the film puts it, “with that rhetoric he could be elected governor in ten states”. Lancaster’s role of General Lawrence Dell draws parallels to his role of General Scott in the political thriller Seven Days In May; a megalomaniac going to extremes in order to fulfil his agenda despite the risks to the United States and the world as a whole. He may be trying to provide a catharsis to the pain and anger of Vietnam veterans but at what cost? Lancaster and co star Paul Winfred have an enjoyable chemistry between them and provide comic relief with their back and forth. It’s interesting seeing Lancaster sparring off with actors much younger than him as well as dropping some F-bombs. On top of that there is something surreal about watching Burt Lancaster drinking a can of Coca-Cola. Product placements for Coca-Cola appear at several points throughout the film with Coke vending machines in clear sight; I guess they have to answer to The Coca-Cola Company.

Twilight’s Last Gleaming consists of veteran actors talking some serious stuff. The discussions in the Oval Office scene are alot to take in on one viewing (“Ralph! Are you comparing Vietnam to Hitler?!” – It always goes back to Hitler). The movie is full of entertaining one liners – “It’s like Star Trek all over again”, “Come on this isn’t Disneyland” and my favourite, “There are no midgets in the United States Air Force”.  The oldest among this cast is Melvyn Douglas, the prime example of an actor who got better with age as clearly evident here; full of powerful subdue comments and monologues (“The beginning of the end of mankind, in graphic black and white”).

The film’s extensive use of split screen works remarkable well and does not feel like a gimmick creating a unique viewing experience; the split screen here is clearly not an afterthought. The entire sequence in which missiles are about to be launched is presented entirely in split screen with events being monitored in three different locations in order to heighten the tension. The scene itself is one scary sequence with the pandemonium and the sight of the missiles rising (the model of the silo exterior is shown on screen just briefly enough not to notice they are models). The President himself describes it best – “The opening of the doors of hell”.

The President in Twilight’s Last Gleaming played by Charles Durning is not an idealistic representation of a president nor is he massively charming and ultimately a bit drab. However we do get to see his human side during a scene in which he talks to his General alone and admits to being scared out of his mind. At the beginning of the film there is a scene in which the President has a conversation with a character played by Roscoe Lee Brown. It doesn’t have purpose in the plot but does set the tone of the White House scenes and foreshadows the rest of the movie (“If I grant Zabat sanctuary, I give approval to every dissident with a cause and a gun”).

The ending of Twilight’s Last Gleaming all comes down to the question of whether or not society can deal with the truth? With widespread distrust in the government starting with the assassination of JFK and not getting any better with the Watergate scandal, would the President’s cabinet reveal the movie’s purported truth on the Vietnam War to the American public like he ordered before being shot down in an attempt to take down the two men holding him hostage. However was his death even an accident or did they intend to let him be shot down in order to keep the truth hidden; it does seem odd that no medical aid is given to him after being shot. The ending is left ambiguous and the viewer is left to think about it.

The Comedy of Terrors (1963)

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A Graveyard Smash!

Four of classic Hollywood’s biggest horror icons together in a macabre comedy? Even if you’re not a diehard horror fan how can you turn down a film like this (if only Bela Lugosi had lived longer). Each icon in The Comedy of Terrors plays to their strengths in this sitcom like set up in which a group of characters, not all of whom can stand each other are forced to live and work together and have no way out of it. Surely there was potential in this to be a TV sitcom, at the short and sweet run time of only 83 minutes it feels like an extended TV episode.

Right of the bat the exposition explaining the film’s set up is a joy to listen to with the perfect comic timing from Vincent Price mercilessly insulting everyone to Boris Karloff’s random one liners. Despite the film’s macabre tone it does have an innocent element to it such as Price’s reaction to Peter Lorre’s poorly made coffin, “No one in their right mind would be caught dead in a thing like that”; nothing beats a distinguished actor delivering a corny pun.

Basil Rathbone is presented as the villain of the film, partially due to him being Basil Rathbone acting in an antagonist manner however his character isn’t doing anything wrong, he’s just trying to collect the debt he is owed from his tenants. Then again going all the way back to the bible, those who collect owed money are always portrayed with scorn. After The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Comedy of Terrors has to be Basil Rathbone’s best ever moments on screen, showing off the full range of his talents from his swordsmanship and ability to recite Shakespeare all while hamming it up.

Vincent Price’s anti hero is one real bad guy of the film, causing misery to those around him. Yet we still gravitate towards him in a reverse of the Basil Rathbone situation; because he’s Vincent Price. The relationship between Price and Lorre is the centre piece of the film in a Pinky and The Brain like dynamic. I’m also surprised I didn’t notice Peter Lorre’s mask double until I had it pointed out to me, it’s the one aspect of the film which is actually creepy. Likewise the other great member is the great Orangey aka Rhubarb the cat. As a cat lover I appreciate the shots of the many shots the mean looking but still adorable feline.

The Color of Money (1986)

The Rules of the Game

I’ve never been more aroused by a film’s editing and cinematography than that featured in The Color of Money, a film which I ultimately enjoyed more than it’s predecessor The Hustler. It just so happens I first watched The Color of Money during my time as a film student and attempted to replicate many of the film’s shots and edits for a music video (and  an intentionally 80’s music video at that) as I studied the cuts present in the film frame by frame. Needless to say I was not entirely successful in my endeavour.

The Color of Money has the fast pace and rhythm of MTV music videos but still with a sense of old school class and sophistication; right from the opening credits I can tell this would be a movie dripping in atmosphere. A movie so snappy, fast paced and full of quick edits, many of which come unexpectedly along with many unconventional camera movements yet it never feels disorientating or distracting as the scenes glide with such fluidity and ease. The cinematography on display here isn’t that of a David Lean production, no this is a movie which largely takes place in bars and pool halls yet it still has a sense of majesty and scope even if the shot in question is a close up of drinking glass. Really the only edit I can fault is the very cheesy freeze frame of Paul Newman jumping out of a swimming pool. On the other hand nobody uses licensed soundtracks better than Martin Scorsese. I get the impression scenes in the film where shot with the music in mind and not as an afterthought. With the opening scene it feels like Phil Collins’ One More Night was specifically composed to fit the mood and tone of the scene.

The Color of Money however is not style over substance. I love the intriguing character triangle of a trio of hustlers as well as the harmony of two generations coming together. Tom Cruise is an actor I only like in certain parts but in roles such as Vincent, a cocky, male fantasy indulging character who embodies the entrepreneurial and capitalistic spirit of the 1980’s (like his character in Risky Business), I simply revel in – as Eddie puts it “a natural character”. Just as impressive are pool shots done by Cruise himself (he performed all but one of his own trick shots); makes me energised to play some pool myself.

San Francisco (1936)

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It’s Going to Be a Bumpy Night

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The disaster film is a genre thought of as being low brow but San Francisco is one of the few with class and sophistication. Like in James Cameron’s Titanic, the viewer is left waiting in suspense for the impending disaster as the emotional stakes rise. When the night of the earthquake arrives the movie draws out the final moments before the disaster; I’m left thinking to myself “It’s coming, it’s coming”. Also was it common back then to hold a ball at 5 in the morning?

The earthquake itself ranks among one of cinema’s greatest disaster sequences with the special effects and studio pyrotechnics making up for the less than stellar projection effects at the beginning of the film. The sequence shows the close up reactions of individuals just before they are killed by incoming debris as it lasts for the same amount of time which the actual earthquake itself did on Five-Thirteen A.M, April 18th, 1906 (or at least according to the movie, other sources state it occurred at 5:12 AM).  This is followed by the harrowing sight of death and destruction as Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) walks through the ruins of San Francisco as he observes the horrifying, brutal aftermath in a remarkable section of the film. Even famous silent directors D.W. Griffith and Erich Von Stroheim worked on the film without credit which shouldn’t come as a surprise as the plot of San Francisco would have been ripe for a grand silent melodrama.

On my first viewing the ending of San Francisco felt farfetched. I can see many people having an “Oh come on!” reaction but for me at least even on that first viewing it still worked on an emotional level. However after contemplating about the ending I have come around to accept the idea that a person, even a non believer may turn to religion after experiencing something as horrendous as a natural disaster which leaves a trail of death and destruction. Although considering how religious the entire movie is I should have seen it coming not to mention the ending can be justified when looking at the deeper religious parallels within the film.

During the movie Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) performs the opera Faust on stage as we are shown recreations of various portions of the opera; throughout San Francisco there are parallels to the story of Faust. The clash between the moral and immoral, Mary’s tendency to refuse Blackie’s advances, the fire seen at the beginning of the film to lines such as “You can’t take a woman and then sell her immortal soul”. Even during the earthquake’s aftershock the underworld itself opens up (and one poor sucker falls into it); and at the very end of all this Blackie repents his sinful ways. If you can accept Blackie’s conversion then you still have to deal with the extremely corny, patriotic finale but I can still get a kick out of such cheese.

Jeanette MacDoanld, what a voice! The reaction of the church goers listening on in awe when she sings in the choir is the same reaction as the viewer; San Francisco is after all a vehicle designed for the full range of her talents. Plus that title song is one catchy tune and I’m happy to hear it multiple times throughout the film. Likewise Spencer Tracy appears in the film for 15 minutes and 58 seconds but he is the actor who leaves the biggest impression acting wise. Father Tim Mullin is the predecessor to Tracy’s Father Flanagan in Boy’s Town. Tracy was an actor who had the ability to play such a saintly character without it being sickly even as he inhabits the office of his church amongst the most heavenly lighting.

Is Blackie an atheist or just non religious? The first dialogue between him and Father Mullin suggests he may not believe in God; “So you still believe in Santa Claus?” followed by Mullin’s response, “Trouble with you is that you don’t believe in anything”. The character relationship between Blackie and Father Mullin is the same which was seen in Manhattan Melodrama (in which Gable plays a similar character also called Blackie) and later in Angels With Dirty Faces. The two childhood friends who end up taking very different paths in life (one of moral servitude and the other of crime and corruption) yet their friendship prevails despite such contrasting lifestyles and views. Blackie Norton couldn’t be more of a Clark Gable character; a man under great pressure, business owner, runs for political office, has a way with women, cocky, street smart and a loveable jerk. It’s not clear to what extent his criminality runs to other than that he (along with numerous business owners in San Francisco) run his establishment without a license; there was still a bit of the Wild West in 1906 San Francisco.

The Criminal Code (1931)

Crime Doesn’t Pay

The Criminal Code explores the issue of turning a normal person who made a mistake into a criminal through time spent in prison and ends up abiding by the criminal code itself. The same subject matter is also explored in the movie Caged made 19 later; nothing seems to change. Robert Graham (Phillip Homles) is a sheltered pretty boy who got a rotten break (similar to Robert Montgomery in The Big House). However unlike Montgomery in The Big House, Graham is put in a cell with two guys (including Boris Karloff’s Galloway) who look out for him. Although you do have to suspend your disbelief a bit over the movie fast forwarding six years and Graham not being remotely criminalised within that time. Among the film’s examination of the American legal and penal system, Walter Huston explains how it would be possible for someone to get off the hook for a crime such as manslaughter; “A year’s delay, a new trial, the witnesses would fade away, they always do, the whole mess would get cold, the paper’s would have something else to yap about. I’d get him off; he’d never serve a day”. Great thought provoking stuff.

Walter Huston plays the warden of the unnamed prison. He is stern but fair and a real “Yes sir!” type as evident from his first appearance with the manner in which he addresses a female witness (“Never mind that, pull down the shade”). The man is one lightening fast talker who can interrogate like a boss but his greatest of moment on badassery comes from the scene in which he goes into the prison yard to confront protesting, yammering prisoners face to face without any guards. Just look at the way he walks into the yard and lights up a cigar. As he approaches the prisoners the yammering stops and they don’t lay a hand on him. Simply put, this guy is badass. Perhaps unrealistically so but that’s why we have movies.

The Criminal Code was Boris Karloff’s first significant screen role in the part of Galloway. With his dominating, tall, lanky figure he steals the show; his monologue on why’s he’s in the slammer with the shadows across his face is hair raising stuff. Galloway has a vengeance with a guard named Gleason which gives the film some dark comic relief such as the two awkwardly passing each other on the stairs to Karloff’s recurring use of the lines “I don’t like you” and “I got an appointment with you”. Likewise the other memorable cast member, albeit in a very brief role is Andy Devine who is very hard to miss with that highly distinctive voice of his.

The Criminal Code uses the same set created for MGM’s The Big House released the year before. With its more intricate cinematography the film doesn’t capture the sense of claustrophobia seen in The Big House but still captures the mundanity of prison life. As an early talkie there is no music present in The Criminal Code but rather the sound of prisoners marching along with various other sound effects are just as effective as any music score could be.

The Criminal Code is also host to one of the most shocking moments in pre-code cinema (and was even featured in Karloff film Targets from 1968). When Galloway chases a squealer into a room while yammering is going on in the background from the prison yard, Galloway walks into the room with the squealer cornered as he slowly closes the door as the squealer looks on in terror. What happens next is up to the viewer’s imagination.

Dance, Fools, Dance (1931)

I Pity the Dancing Fool

Dance, Fools, Dance begins with a party onboard on yacht in which the younglings jump off the boat for a late night swim in their underwear while the older men are ignorant of a possible fall in stocks and the idea of forthcoming great depression; the last days of the carefree, roaring twenties seen through the lens of 1931.

Bonnie Jordan (Joan Crawford) and her brother Rodney (William Bakewell) are young, glamorous people who never worked a day in their life and show no resentment for it ether, from a father who doesn’t want his children to have the hard time he had. They don’t exactly mourn over the death of their father but the loss of their fortune following the stock market crash is the tragedy which gets a reaction out of them. Regardless Bonnie deals with the loss of their fortune surprisingly well and accepts the fault of being left nothing from their father because she and her brother didn’t finish school. This is the crux of the character and what makes her interesting. She doesn’t doesn’t choose the easy way out of getting married to a wealthy man even though the opportunity comes to her but rather desires the thrill to make it on her own as she herself later puts it.

I don’t believe many people are aware of just how endearing Crawford was in her younger, pre-shoulder pad days. In Dance, Fools, Dance she exemplifies a working class heroine with an aura of refreshingly simple, straightforward bravery which really makes you route for her character; plus there is the joy of watching her flex her dancing talents.

Clark Gable is a mere 5th on the cast list, even William Holden (no, not that one) is higher than him but his introductory scene is hard to forget. The downbeat piano music as one of his servants puts a blazer on him as he then blows smoke in a woman’s face; tells you everything you need to know without a spoken word. Likewise Bonnie’s bother Rodney is a memorable character himself as someone who is shocked by the criminal underworld where his alcohol came from before the depression after taking his supply of booze for granted for so long. Likewise the other great cast member is Cliff Edwards as Bert Scranton who makes for an endearing comic sidekick and mentor to Bonnie.

Dance, Fools Dance isn’t quite a great film, its concept could be fleshed out and explored to a greater degree and would have been ripe for a remake (and maybe a title that wouldn’t sound like something a James Bond villain would say). Although even at that despite the film being imperfect it would still be hard to top with that endearingly creaky, early 30’s, pre-code charm.

The Talk of the Town (1942)

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The Lawgh

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

As a political junkie its fun to watch films like The Talk of the Town and dissect their deeper political and philosophical meaning which in this case is intertwined within a screwball farce that effortlessly transitions between wacky comedy and serious drama. The movie centres on a fantastic triangle of characters played by Jean Arthur, Cary Grant and Ronald Coleman with the real meat of the film being the relationship between Leopold Dilg (Grant) and Professor Michael Lightcap (Coleman) while Miss Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur) tries to keep this unlikely family of three in one piece.

Leopold Dilg is one of the more interesting characters Cary Grant ever played, a radical activist and one role in which we see him dressed just like a commoner. However he is one handsome activist at that rather than some hair dyed SJW (that man can make any clothes look dapper). If it weren’t for the production code then the character of Dilg would certainly be labelled as a communist. The movie is full of clues pointing to this (educated young working class intellectual, opposes capitalist corruption, belief that violence is sometimes necessary, his father’s resentment for work, even his fondness for borscht). The production code would not have allowed a possible communist to be sympathetic character or a hero thus the word “communist” or related term is never mentioned. On the other hand Dilg is shown to have much respect for the Supreme Court so is he really a communist of just a leftie? With Dilg we even get an insight into why one might be an activist; as he puts it, activism is a form of self expression – “Some people write books, some music. I make speeches on street corners.” Dilg would have felt right at home in the age of the internet (“When I hear a man talk nonsense I always get an impulse”).

Ronald Coleman, one of Hollywood’s most charming English gents is Professor Lightcap. Dilg and Lightcap are two intellectuals but from different worlds in this clash of the classes yet they find common ground in their interest in the political and philosophical; their conversations and so much fun to listen and make the film worth watching again as they’re alot to take in. Dilg views Lightcap as “an intelligent man, but cold” with “no blood in his thinking” and thus doesn’t desire to see him take a seat in the Supreme Court with his current mentality. By the end of the film both Dilg and Lightcap change their philosophies on law. Dilg comes around the see the need for law and order while Lightcap begins to see that the law is not sterile. During the film’s final monologue Lightcap speaks to an anger mob at a courthouse on the importance of law:

“This is your law and your finest possession. It makes you free. Why have you come to destroy it? Think of a world crying for this law. Then they’ll understand why they ought to guard it and why the law should be the concern of every citizen, to uphold it for your neighbour as well as yourself. Violence against it is one mistake; another mistake is to look upon the law as just asset of principles. Just so much language printed on heavy paper. Something he recites and then takes it for granted that justice is being done. Both kinds of men are equally wrong. The law must be practiced every minute, to the letter and the spirit. It can’t exist unless we fight a battle every day to preserve it.”

I’m not sure what message to take from The Talk of the Town. On the one hand it showcases the importance of upholding a lawful and just society (which would have resonated with the war against fascism in Europe) and the dangers of mob mentality. On the other hand earlier in the film Lightcap spoke of how “If feelings had any influence on the law, half the country would be in jail” and “you conduct your law on random sentimentality and you will have violence and disorder” only to later soften these views as evident by his final monologue. These statements sound just like a description of the PC politics of the 21st century; facts don’t care about your feelings. Just how far will the professor go with this change of heart? Still at the end of the day it is thought provoking stuff.

The character of Tilney (Rex Ingram) is one of the better, more dignified portrayals of an African American as Professor Lightcap’s servant of whom he considers Tilney’s judgement to be superior to his own. In one of the more unusual but emotionally powerful scenes in the movie, Tilney sheds a tear in an extreme and long close up at the sight of his master shaving his beard; a black actor having a long close up with real emotion behind it. The scene plays the emotions up to 11 as Tilney realises his friend and employer is undergoing a profound change as he shaves his beard as a metaphor for casting off old ways.

The beginning of The Talk of the Town is incredibly different from the rest of the film, setting it up as a horror/thriller with its moody, melodramatic music and making Dilg out to be a sinister, threatening character. If you went into the film completely blind you would be shocked as it gradually morphs into a comedy as the lighting and shadows becomes less dim, the music becomes more cheery and starts to take on a pleasant New England, small town feel. Likewise listen out for a piece of music heard throughout the film including at the end which sounds just like Yoda’s them from The Empire Strikes Back.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

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Flying Down To Rio

Only Angels Have Wings is the culmination of the 1930’s aviation pictures (and boy there were a lot of them), helmed by director Howard Hawks who previously directed The Dawn Patrol and Ceiling Zero and even features the casting of Richard Barthelmess, star of such flying pictures The Dawn Patrol, The Last Flight and Central Airport. With World War II on the horizon this genre would never be the same again. Like in The Dawn Patrol, the pilots in Only Angels Have Wings have methods of dealing with reality as the film really examines the psychology of early aviators and the danger they went through to get the job done; Hawks called Only Angels Have Wings the truest film he ever made. Why do flyers do what they do? As Kid (Thomas Mitchell) puts it, “I couldn’t give you an answer that’d make sense”.

The first 30 minutes of the movie takes place in real time in what is my favourite section of the film in which a whole host of emotions are presented with a short period of time; a real piece of film magic. As we are introduced to the cast and become attached to pilot Joe Souther (Noah Beery Jr.) as he and his buddy become friends with an American tourist Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) only for him to be killed in a flying accidents moments later when he’s called on short notice to deliver mail. Death is such a normal occurrence that the squadron leader Geoff (Cary Grant) has no problem eating the steak ordered by Joe prior to his death only moments ago while the pilots even sarcastically ask each other “who’s Joe?” when Bonnie questions them on their ability to carry on like nothing happened; a denial of reality in order to deal with reality. Just how healthy is that? Well as Bonnie puts it, “All my life I’ve hated funerals, the fuss and bother never brings anyone back, just spoils remembering them as they really are”. This 30 minute section of the film successfully goes from one emotion to the polar opposite from joy to tragedy and back to joy again. I still however can’t find myself fully engaging in the joy of Jean Arthur and Cary Grant playing the piano knowing one of their flying comrades just died a horrible death. Likewise at the beginning of the film we also see an interesting method of getting free drinks from a bar if you’re friendly with the owner; I must try that one out some time.

Jean Arthur’s role of Bonnie Lee, a lone adventuress from Brooklyn is a change of pace for the actress as she leaves her usual urban dwellings. Arthur differs from other Hawksain women due to her absence of sex appeal, she’s simply not that kind of an actress but rather more inherently innocent and sweet hearted. Hawks wanted Arthur to play Bonnie subtly sexy way with Arthur stating, “I can’t do that kind of stuff”. The scene in which she invades Geoff’s room in order to take a bath was never going to be Clark Gable or Jean Harlow in Red Dust with Arthur playing the role, resulting in a scene which is playful without being flirty of sexual. Just listen to her as speaks of how “It’s so cold and rainy outside and nice and warm and cosy in here” – it couldn’t be delivered in a more innocent manner. I feel Jean Arthur represents the way young boys will innocently feel about women before hitting puberty.

I feel the rest of the film doesn’t reach the emotional heights which the first forty minutes accomplished partially due to the lack of the Jean Arthur touch with her being absent for lengthy portions of the film but it is still blessed with a great cast of players. Cary Grant plays a Clark Gable type role, a no nonsense leader under extraneous pressure in the part of Geoff Carter while silent era star Richard Barthelmess uses his greatly expressive face which carries the baggage of his character. Plus what’s a Hollywood movie from the 30’s without a central to east European comic relief character in the form of Sig Ruman. The one cast member who doesn’t do anything for me is Rita Hayworth whom I’ve never particularly been a big fan off but there is still the bizarre amusement of Grant pouring water over her hair.

Only Angels Have Wings even opens up the potential to be The Wages of Fear of the air when Barthelmess is required to transport nitroglycerine by plane but the movie doesn’t take this far creating a missed opportunity. Regardless the aerial footage of the plans is an impressive sight with long uncut shots as the camera moves along with the aircraft. The film doesn’t identify what country the story takes place however I like when classic films leave details like that ambiguous; let your imagination fill in the blanks.