Ball of Fire (1941)

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The Kind of Woman Who Makes Entire Civilisations Topple

Ball of Fire is the more grown up, risqué version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; even during the opening scene the film’s cast of professors are seen walking in tandem through Central Park like the seven dwarfs as they adhere to a strict daily seclude in an attempt to compile an encyclopaedia of all human knowledge. The film plays off the public perception of bureaucrats, bankers, librarians and people in other such mundane professions. Are they such sheltered, socially awkward individuals who are in bed at 9 every night and have likely never been in a relationship? The recurring Howard Hawks’ theme of male bonding is ever present in Ball of Fire, although here it is all the more goofy with a cast of characters playing nerds. Regardless there still remains one very poignant scene in which Professor Oddly (the only bachelor of the group) recounts about his past wife and the men start singing.

There are few other character entrances in film more entertaining than that of Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O’Shea (a not so innocent name by today’s standard) as she enters the picture singing and dancing with Gene Krupa and his orchestra – could the character’s fast-living personality be summed up in a more entertaining manner? Likewise, that dress! No wonder Edith Head had decades working in the industry. Notice it’s nonstop sparkling every moment it’s on screen, making Stanwyck look all the more tantalising. Almost all the outfits worn by Stanwyck in Ball of Fire are clearly designed to make her look as sexually appealing as possible. When Professor “Potsy” Potts (Gary Cooper) and Sugarpuss are alone, the sexual sparks fly and when she holds up a leg she gives a group of socially awkward, sheltered middle-aged to old men a sexual awakening. It’s all the more poignant that the man she seduces is played a Gary Cooper; a contrast to his boy scouty screen image. Here Cooper is a nerd, and while he did play tough guys on screen, he will always be that boy next door. Ball of Fire is full of lines and moments which wouldn’t feel out of place in a film made before the production code. At the beginning of the film, we even see Professor Potts arousing the funder of the encyclopaedia project by merely talking to her in an attempt to convince her to keep the project running.

Ball of Fire is worth watching multiple times for all the lines you can easily miss out on. For example, when a garbage man (Allen Jenkins) comes into the house to ask the men for assistance on radio quiz, one of the questions regards the correct way to state a mathematical problem: “2 and 2 is 5, 2 and 2 are 5, 2 or 2 makes 5”. Cooper states the correct answer is “2 and 2 are 5” however the mathematician of the group then states “2 and 2 are 4” followed by the garbage man responding, “that’s a good one, nobody’s gonna get that”. Am I detecting a sneaky Orwellian statement pre-1984?

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Female (1933)

Man, I Feel Like a Woman!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Majority of reviews I have read for Female express disappoint for the film’s apparent cop-out conservative ending. A female CEO of an automobile company hands the business over to her soon to be husband and proclaims she wants to have nine children. I won’t lie though; I would have had the same reaction if I had seen Female at a younger age. I’m actually very happy that I first watched this movie when I did during a time when I became familiar with the works from the likes of Jordan Peterson and was around the time of James Damore’s Google Memo. News Flash; there are biological and psychological differences between men and women and as a result, the two make different life choices and exceed in different fields while finder others more difficult. Women are less career orientated than men and don’t push as hard for positions of power and therefore are less likely to become CEOs. The automobile industry itself had its first female CEO in 2014 but you can only attribute this to discrimination for so many years after women’s liberation. Regardless of the writer’s intention in Female, it was refreshing to see a film which portrays such an honest depiction of the differences between men and women, not to mention one made before the science on the subject became definitive. Like in Queen Christina from the same year, Female shows how positions of power require a sacrifice of feminine virtues.

Allison Drake (played by the radiant and sadly forgotten Ruth Chatterton) is an iron lady who lost her girlish illusions when forced to take on her father’s business. She is a playgirl who seduces employees from her factory when bringing them to her house for so called “business”. It’s odd hearing about how films of the pre-code era outraged groups such as Christians when films such as in the example of Female don’t paint a sexually promiscuous lifestyle as one that leads to much happiness. Allison’s gigolos (on top of not being very interesting) are mere yes-men who bow to her every whim; cucks as modern internet slang would refer to them as. Alison desires to be liked for bring herself and not as the president of a motor company. As she says early in the film, “Oh I see lots of men, but I’ve never found a real one”. In Queen Christina fashion she goes downtown under the guise of a commoner and meets the no-nonsense Jim Throne (George Brent).

Following their time together Allison comes across Jim again when he just so happens to coincidently start working for her company. After learning of Allison’s true identity he is invited back to her place for “business” but doesn’t fall for any of her seduction techniques; Throne is a man who is above that and has no desire to become a gigolo. With Allison’s new found desire for a domineering man she asks her father figure of sorts Pettigrew what kind of women men like Jim Throne desire; why women who are “gentle and feminine”. He’s not wrong, is he? What follows is a picnic scene in which Allison humorously tries too hard to be gentle and feminine. At the end of the day, Allison Drake is a woman making her own choice of what she wants to do in pursuit of her own happiness, what could be more liberating? In what would be a fantasy for 1933, no systemic force is keeping her down nor is she browbeaten by anyone to leave her position as CEO. It’s entirely her own choice, one of the virtues afforded to anyone living in a free society. This makes Female a fascinating watch, not only through the context of when it was made but even more so through a modern context.

Female is yet another example of those 60 minute long pre-code films which go by very fast and pack a lot into them. It is a movie of three directors but doesn’t feel like an odd stitch-up of a film; what shots evoke William Wellman and which evoke Michael Curtiz?  The film is full of unforgettable art deco sets and eye-watering cinematography not to mention the Ennis House which is used for Allison’s mansion. As Joe Gillis puts it: “I was a great, big white elephant of a place. The kind crazy movie people built in the crazy 20’s”.

The Cameraman (1928)

Man With A Movie Camera

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Cameraman is my 2nd favourite Buster Keaton feature after Sherlock Jr. A film which manages to hit every beat and even MGM themselves believed in the film enough that it became their comedy training film for new writers as the example of a perfect comedy; I can’t argue with that. Like the aforementioned Sherlock Jr, The Cameraman reflects a fascination with filmmaking in which Keaton has to act like he doesn’t know anything about the anatomy of a camera.

Once again Keaton (playing a character conveniently called Buster) is competing for dominance and the love of a woman in a world of alpha males. What makes the relationship between Buster and love interest Sally (Marceline Day) work so well? Her sympathy, or the fact that she is one of the few people in the film who doesn’t act like a complete jerk towards Buster, even the bell boy at the fictionalised MGM newsreel department is a jerk to him when Buster simply asks about the woman in his photograph despite him being a super sweet guy. Does MGM want people thinking their newsreel department is full of pricks? Or is it the little things such as her first encounter with Buster when he first bumps into her he smells her hair and goes into a trance without her noticing. You can feel the chemistry between them from their body language and even from close-ups of the two starring at each other. Likewise there is the relatability of any man who has tried to impress a girl only for his effort to be a failure by the presence of a bigger, stronger man. – Plus there is the adorable factor from seeing the two of them together. When Buster gets a kiss from Sally as he leaves her off at an apartment and then walks away in the rain with a sense of elation has Singin’ In The Rain vibes; was Gene Kelly inspired by this?

The Cameraman is one of those rare films which is comprised of one great moment after another. The scene in Yankee Stadium for example has no effect on the rest of the plot but there’s no justification required in order to watch Keaton’s athletic prowess as he pretends to play baseball by himself.  Likewise the sequence on the stairs is a wonder of Keaton’s ability to use the frame in what looks like to modern eyes as a 2D platforming video game. Another superb use of this comes in the pool sequence in which Sally walking by the poolside in a swimsuit then suddenly all of the men get out of the pool entering from the bottom of the frame out of nowhere. Likewise keep an eye out for the on screen nudity.  This sequence also gives arise to possibly the most bizarre moment in The Cameraman in which Keaton after losing his bathing suit in the pool begins eyeing a woman wearing an excessive bathing suit and starts approaching her while Jaws-like music plays (as part of the wonderfully quirky modern score by Arthur Barrow). Off-screen he steals the suit but we never see how; just what exactly did he do to her? It’s both creepy and funny at the same time.

I have to ask if automobiles back then were designed for use in comedy such as an open top double decker bus which creates so many possibilities for physical comedy. However the most oddly designed vehicle present in The Cameraman has to be the 1927 LaSalle Convertible Coupe Fisher with its seat on the back of the car separate from the main seats of the vehicle. The seat is already inherently de-emasculating by itself, even worse when your girl is at the front with another guy and you’re completely cut off from them because the roof is up to protect them against the rain. Oh yeah, that’s another thing, when it rains you have no protection. Again I have to ask, was this vehicle designed for use in comedy?

The Tong War is among one of the greatest of Keaton spectacles with its large-scale carnage and extras galore; plus I do love the fascinating underworld of the tongs and opium dens as a setting. The moment in which Keaton is confronted by gangsters and is cornered is one of those oh so glorious “how is he going to get out of this?!” moments. By the end of the film Keaton goes through so much misfortune that you badly want to see him succeed in the end. At the end he gets his sweet, satisfying revenge while the douche who takes credit for rescue Sally from the out of control speedboat gets his comeuppance. The revenge is unintentionally obtained but more than very well deserved.

The Boston Strangler (1968)

Take My Breath Away

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

I’ve seen some films in which I’ve had to patiently wait for the main star to show up; The Boston Stranger may be the record holder in this category. It takes 57 minutes of a 116 minute film for Tony Curtis to appear.

The extensive use of split screen present in The Boston Strangler intrigues me, appreciating the planning and the huge sets of extra reels which must have gone into creating the effect. It’s not an afterthought and helps derive suspense with sequences in which each individual frame features a minimal number of cuts such as sequences which highlight the successful techniques that Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis) uses in order to get into victims homes and escape without detection (watching Curtis get into an apartment with ease by claiming to be a plumber sent by a super really gets under your skin). This voyeuristic style of filmmaking allows the viewer to see different perspectives on the same space, such as in a more creative instance in which we see the perspective of a TV camera which appears in the frame right next to it. On the other hand many of the transitions and framing do come off as something a film student would do, although the attempt is early and more than admirable so I’ll give it a pass (for a flawless attempt use of split screen watch Twilight’s Last Gleaming).

The Boston Strangler is a dirty, grimy looking film full of explicit, sexual language set in an underworld of creeps and perverts while the police view homosexuality as a perversion, interviewing suspects on the basis that they are gay (“This kind of mutilation goes with the queer”). The film even plays out like a documentary at times as we see the effects the murders have on the public. The Boston Strangler was Henry Fonda’s second cop film of 1968 alongside with Madigan and along with the latter we see a world in which men still wear suits and fedoras on their daily jobs, something which isn’t present just a few years later in the likes of Dirty Harry or Serpico.

The Boston Strangler is a slow-moving film but one which is rewarding for the patient. The final third becomes very arty without coming off as pretentious and the ending in which Fonda calls out “Albert!” amongst the silence is chilling. I do have a soft spot for old mental illness dramas even if the science presented in them is out of date or disputed; if anything that’s part of their charm.

Call of the Wild (1935)

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Baby its Cold Outside

The beginning of Call of the Wild (a very loose adaptation of Jack London’s novel of the same name) is made up of hard to decipher plot set up exposition which I was only able to get my head around until my third viewing; surely there could have been a more interesting and engaging way the film could have delivered all this information to the viewer. Likewise a scene during the beginning of the film in which Jack Thornton (Gable) returns to his room only to find his love interest (and possible prostitute) Marie (Katherine deMille) having an affair with another man doesn’t appear to have any effect on the rest of the plot. According to TCM originally Marie had an earlier scene but this was cut from the original print of the film. After this rather static opening the film gets rolling and finds one of its emotional cores.

Call of the Wild is one of the best dog movies with its complex relationship and emotional bond between Gable and the Saint Bernard named Buck, one majestic looking beast. Buck is a dog that would be of no use to Jack yet is willing to pay $250 to save its life. The image Gable hugging the pooch tells more than words can; truly man’s best friend.

Arguably the most powerful scene in the film is that of Buck trying to pull 1,000 pounds as the result of a bet. You couldn’t ask for a more powerful and barbaric display of willpower knowing if he doesn’t succeed his life will be taken.  The dog in the film appears to be legitimately struggling regards the weight it is actually carrying in real life. Much of the scenes in Call of the Wild featuring dogs would never make it to screen today due to the unethical treatment of animals which is more than apparent on screen. Near the beginning of the film two dogs fight each other on screen and uncut which today would ether to edited to create the illusion of a fight or with horribly unconvincing CGI. Likewise the general handling of the dogs and even the use of an actual rabbit as bait for dogs to hunt creates a gritty and brutal realism on screen which could not be replicated today.

Reginald Owen is the show stealer as Mr. Smith, the posh, sinister English gentleman with a sick vendetta against a dog; those ridiculous magnified eyes give him the look of a madman. Likewise Jack Oakie as Shorty comes off to me as an uncowardly version of the Cowardly lion, even down to that laugh. Shorty was killed off in the original cut of the film, as evident from the foreshadowing of his dice turning up snake eyes after Gable throws them to him. The new ending in which Shorty and Jack are reunited prevents the film from being darker in vein like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

It took me a long time to get the appeal of Loretta Young but I gradually came to see her immense likeability, partially in due to those gazing, soulful eyes. In Call of the Wild her makeup is applied flawlessly despite being stuck in the freezing cold wilderness but she’s still she’s a tough cookie who can lecture Gable on a thing or two. I love a good man and woman alone in the wilderness film in which their chemistry fully shines through and the process of falling in love happens organically which in this instance may have been aided by Gable and Young’s affair they had during the production which bore a child named Judy. In a moment of art imitating life Shorty even says; “You know I know a couple of people who used to fool around like that and they got children now”.

I like this sub-genre of the northern western, a refreshing alternative to the mundanity I can often experience in traditional westerns. This is aided by the extensive use of location shooting present in Call of the Wild with those beautiful mountains, silhouetted trees and all that gleaming white snow – I don’t believe there could be a better natural light reflector than the white stuff.

Possessed (1931)

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Living In Sin

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The poor, poverty-stricken girl goes to the city to meet a rich man. Once you’ve seen enough 1930’s films which follow this formula you get sick of it but Possessed is one of the better films of this kind, partially from a degree of its self awareness, such as when businessman Wally Stuart (Richard “Skeets Gallagher”) reacts to Marian Martin (Joan Crawford) showing up at his New York apartment (“Poor but beautiful factory maiden leaves squallier of small town for glitter of big city”). At the beginning of Possessed Marian works in the most comically mundane place imaginable, a box factory (thank you Principal Skinner). Marian holds the fear of getting older and passing her sell-by date; use your looks now while you still got them. When Marian goes to the city she must navigate her way through a man’s world full of greed, ambition, politics and sex. It’s there that she meets a certain Mark Whitney (Clark Gable).

Crawford and Gable – the heat, the passion, the electricity. Could you ask for a stunning and sensational on-screen couple? Crawford has talked openly about her feelings for Gable and watching them on screen you can tell the two of them are really in love with each other. Possessed shows a couple living together (and presumably having sex) out of wedlock; means nothing today but was scandalous for the time. Mark refuses to marry Marian out of pain from his previous marriage (“Losing a sweetheart is a private misfortune, losing a wife is a public scandal”) and we see the effect this has on their relationship. In one pivotal scene during a party at Mark’s apartment an accomplice of his brings a floosy to the party and justifies this over the presence of Marian. Not married and living with a man? Then others will see you no better than some tramp off the street.

Later in the film Mark makes the decision to run for governor and decides to marry Marian as she would otherwise be a liability to his campaign. The scene in which Marian can overhear Mark talking about his intention to marry her as heard from Marian’s point of view is one of the many deeply emotional and naturalistic scenes with Possessed. Also at exactly 7 minutes and 7 seconds into Possessed there is an edit which does not match at all when Crawford opens a kitchen door and enters the room; I found myself watching it several times just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.

Mark Whitney is a man of moral character compared to other Gable characters. This isn’t the brutish Gable who throws women around. Just like the film itself there is a great sense of tenderness, warmth and maturity to his performance. When the two do break up we finally hear the brutish Gable and it’s heartbreaking. The greatest emotional high however is saved for the film’s climax as we are treated to Mark giving a campaign speech to a huge crowd in an auditorium; expertly shot and very rousing stuff (he gets my vote!) Likewise that Whitney for Governor poster is an obscure film prop that I want.

Sergeant York (1941)

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Render Unto Caesar

It’s refreshing to watch a film like Sergeant York with it’s straight up old-fashioned Boy Scout, trying- to-do-what’s-right hero. There’s no edginess, no irony or need for an anti-hero here and while there’s a place for that I enjoy seeing a protagonist who’s trying to reflect the best of humanity; many will find this boring and corny but I dig it. Who better to play such a role than the boy scout-iest of actors (along with Jimmy Stewart) – Mr. Gary Cooper as Alvin C. York; the story of a contentious objector whom in an ironic twist of fate became a war hero. Although you do have to ask if Cooper was too old for the role of York as at the beginning of the movie he is presented as a pathetic man-child still living with his mother.

Sergeant York is the black sheep in Howard Hawks’ filmography, lacking his trademarks and in many ways the opposite of what you would expect from him. Sergeant York is a film which espouses traditional morality and notions of marriage. Joan Leslie as York’s love interest Gracie Williams is anything but a Hawksian woman; rather is as innocent and wholesome as you can get. The real Alvin C. York himself initially refused to allow Hollywood to make a film about his life over concerns of the morality espoused in their films resulting in Sergeant York being as wholesome and old-fashioned as it is in a film in which religion and the community dominate everyday life. However it’s not religion which triggers York’s reformation but rather the love of a woman which allows the audience’s identification with the character not be a purely religious one. Likewise the foreshadowing from Pastor Pile (Walter Brennan) to York being struck by lightning avoids making the plot device more contrived.

At its heart Sergeant York is a movie about pacifism. While its examination of the topic is very much pacifism 101 it is still thought-provoking stuff and lets the audience make up their own mind as the film doesn’t propagate a point of view (including that which York comes to) onto the viewer. The discussions within the film, on York trying to determine the right thing to do, present both religious and secular arguments in relation to pacifism. On the religious side York states that the Bible is against killing as his reason to be exempt from military service but the draft board states the Bible can be interpreted as its followers choose. On the secular side of things, York is handed a book on the history of the United States by one of his superior officers and is told if he wants to worship God in his own way, plough his fields as he sees fit and raise a family according to his own likes then the cost of that heritage is high – In the words of Team America; freedom isn’t free. One of the most striking images in the film is that of York and his dog sitting on a rock on the side of a cliff overlooking the wilderness in a state of deep thought as the words “God” and “Country” are repeated in his head serving as inspiration for the challenge of wrestling with weighty decisions (What Would York Do?).

It’s clear Joan Leslie in the role of York’s future wife Gracie can only just manage to act herself out of a paper bag but manages to get away with it on endearment alone. However the show stealer is Walter Brennan and those amazing eyebrows as the father like figure Pastor Pile; I don’t think anyone can play an endearing old man better than Brennan. The other cast member that sticks out to me is Dickie Moore as Alvin’s younger brother George. I’m not sure if his performance is supposed to be funny or not but his monotone reaction to everything makes me laugh.

Sergeant York is one example in media of Appalachians being presented in a dignified manner rather than being the butt of jokes. In Sergeant York there are presented as uneducated and sheltered but not as a pack of simpletons. As it turns out the writers and filmmakers had little choice in this matter as the real York and several townsmen in Tennessee refused to sign releases unless the film was an accurate portrayal of history. Likewise not a single character in the film, both in York’s rural Tennessee home or at the army barracks in which he trains, seem to know what the war is about but then again no one knows what World War I is all about.

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 is 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 center 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 presence 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 lovemaking 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.

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 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.