A Star Is Born (1954)

What Price Hollywood?

It’s hard to believe a mainstream film made as late as 1954 has strands of lost footage, yet that is the case with A Star Is Born. The inserts of production photographs over the surviving audio track in the restored version is a mildly irritating, so I can just hope and wait that an uncut version of the film will surface one day.

A Star is Born is the ultimate showcase for the incomparable talent that is Judy Garland. The film’s title couldn’t be more apt as this is the role she was born to play in the film her career had been building up to. Every song to come out of her mouth is sang with such emotional intensity, and with this being as much a drama as it is a musical, Garland acts her little heart like never before with her monologue at the end of film always leaves me stunned. Her performance is surely contributed by the movie very evidently tapping into Garland’s own past insecurities; such as the scene with Esther and the makeup department men.

As much as A Star Is Born is Garland’s big moment in the sun, it is also one of the high points of James Mason’s career in a performance which is nothing short of magnificent (thanks in part to that heavenly voice of his). The character of Norman Maine is right out of a classic tragedy; a man who has accepted his doom rather than fighting against it. He is a tragic figure wearing a mask while joking and makes light about his failing career and his dependence on alcohol. His only remaining hope is that his name will continue to be remembered through the success of his wife’s career (a career from a star which he created) if he dies he will continue to exist through his wife. George Cukor had tackled this material before, first in What Price Hollywood? (1932) and later in Dinner at Eight (1933) in which John Barrymore played the alcoholic, washed up actor Larry Renault. Like Norman Maine, Renault succumbs to the bottle, although has a demise without any optimistic ending that Norman Maine has. The other real standout member of the cast is Jack Carson as Matt Libby the publicity department executive. Carson often played roles such as PR agents but it’s not hard to see why as the man has the born look of a con man.

There is real movie magic within the structure as well as individual moments throughout of A Star Is Born. The entire first act for example takes place over the course of one night and within this single portion of the film we have a whole gauntlet of human emotion (fear, uncertainty, pity, joy, optimism). That scene in which Norman meets Esther for the first time and writes on the wall with lipstick has so much more poignancy when watching the film again.

With The Man That Got Away number, the song itself is amazing but the setting really sells it; a band playing in the early hours of the morning in a club after it’s closed, with the chairs on the table and the lights dimmed, just playing in order to unwind. Not to mention Garland’s vocals, just incredible. Likewise the scene in which Norman tells Esther to stay behind and start a Hollywood career to a backdrop of city lights – you can feel the world on her shoulder. There is also the publicity department sequence in which Esther is thrown from person to person only to literally end up where she started at the beginning of the scene. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I do smell a metaphor here. For the final portion of the film it goes right into classic melodrama territory, taking place in a home by the sea with the sound of crashing waves and hard winds.

It’s impressive considering this was George Cukor’s first film in widescreen, his first film in colour plus his first musical, yet watching the film you would he was already a long established master of these forms in a movie littered with eye pleasing compositions and a three hour run time which feels shorter than it is. A Star Is Born is a great movie to have playing in the background to enhance of the atmosphere of the room or just listen to the highly lush film score; I can happily listen to orchestral variations of The Man that Got Away over and over again. Likewise the film’s use of locations in L.A. as well as the Warner Bros studio makes the film a time capsule of Hollywood circa 1954.

Like Singin’ in the Rain, A Star Is Born is a movie which satirises Hollywood with its exposure of the actions of publicity departments and the lengths they go to in order to retain their public relations, however at the same time it is a movie which celebrates Hollywood; an ideal balance between celebration and self-deprecation. A Star Is Born is an ecstasy explosion of old Hollywood glamour; a world of spotlights, big bands, big costumes, high end nightclubs, back stage drama and the extravagance that comes with it. Likewise the number Born in a Trunk is Warner’s attempt to create the type of impressionistic ballet sequence which MGM had perfected – and they certainly succeed, with movies like this it’s hard to look away from the screen.

Larceny Inc. (1942)

Under Pressure

How can you resist a film like Larceny Inc once you’ve heard the plot? It’s one of those quirky film concepts I just love. A cocky criminal and his two buffoons buy a luggage store to they can dig their way into the bank next door. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is how it plays out like a live action cartoon. Nothing ever goes beyond the scene in the moment; for example in one scene a set of oil pipes are burst during the digging process and the basement from which they are digging from is drenched in oil and yet this is never mentioned again. Even as one character who is not involved in the ban heist comes across the two drenched in the oil he bizarrely does not comment on their appearance; that’s the twisted cartoon world Larceny Inc incorporates. I’ve always thought actors from the 1930’s resembled cartoon characters with their exaggerated facial features and distinctive accents; very true with this cast including Edward G. Robinson, Jack Carson and even a young Jackie Gleason; all live action caricatures.  Actors who emerged after the war generally didn’t have this and instead were actually more lifelike. You really get a sense of the world the movie takes place in with a street populated with such memorable and mostly ethnic characters giving the movie that Shop Around the Corner edge to it.

Maxwell aka Pressure’s gift wrapping has to be the comedic highlight of Robinson’s career; a comedy moment which couldn’t be timed more perfectly. His uttering of “$9:75”  is funny enough as it is but his pathetic attempt at gifting wrapping which follows had me in stitches. I also love Jack Carson’s attempt at hitting on Jane Wyman. This scene has nothing to do with the rest of the movie but has got to be the ultimate “skipping the pleasantries” monologue I’ve ever heard.

There are so many layers within Larceny Inc. Is the movie a celebration or an indictment on capitalism? The gangsters involvement in legitimate business is what makes them renounce their past ways but only after they’ve essentially been seduced and consumed by the capitalist system. Larceny Inc was released in 1942 just months after the US got involved in the war but the film’s production began prior to that with its themes of business and consumerism are completely counterproductive to the war effort, something I’ve noticed with many films released in 1942. There is also the irony that the gangster is the one who brings the community together and the authority figures in the movie are played as fools.

Larceny Inc can also join films like Rocky IV and Die Hard as Christmas movies which aren’t about Christmas; and Edward G Robinson dressed as Santa Claus? Sold!

Love Crazy (1941)

Serving the Nuts

I believe every great actor should have at least one movie in which they get to go completely over the top and out of character (Barrymore in Twentieth Century, Howard in Its Love I’m After, Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Stewart in Vertigo). For William Powell, Love Crazy provided him with his opportunity, in easily the most slapstick oriented comedy ether Powell or Myrna Loy ever done; from heads being stuck in elevator doors to characters slipping on the same mat several times throughout the film. It’s not John Barrymore levels of over the top, but compared to William Powell’s usual soft spoken persona, it’s pretty over the top.

Love Crazy is the William Powell show all the way, showcasing the complete range of his abilities as a comedic actor in a plot which is like a tabloid newspaper story turned into a screwball comedy; a jokey representation  of mental illness which wouldn’t be politically correct by today’s standards. All the more fun then! One of the scenes from any film Powell has appeared which I feel best demonstrates his comedic timing, is when he is tasked with convincing a lunacy commission of his sanity by placing shaped blocks into their corresponding holes. It’s such a basic task yet his overzealous confidence he still manages to convincingly screw it up; it works on so many levels. Yet as the film progresses, I end up feeling particularly sorry for his character.

But not to undo Myrna Loy, with her stand out moment being a surprisingly erotic scene with Jack Carson in which both of them are bare shouldered. On top of that I find myself in awe that there is a straight up dick joke in this movie (“He has to have his torso free when he shoots his bow and arrow”). Of all the sneaky jokes they got past the censors I’ve heard in screwball comedies, this is one of the most unsubtle. Likewise Gail Patrick who plays Powell’s former girlfriend appears to be a bit of a nymphomaniac; badly wanting him shortly after meeting for the first time in years despite both of them now being married, and it’s his anniversary night! Just listen as the seductively tells Powell, “Stevie I’m bored!”. There’s quite a bit of setting up in Love Crazy, but the payoffs are worth it. Love Crazy also gets a big boost from the apartment sets designed by Cedric Gibbons. The painted backdrops of skyscrapers high in the sky and the art deco shading, it’s beautiful.

I managed to go into Love Crazy unaware of the screwball hijinks which occur during the third act. If it’s not too late for you, I recommend doing the same. You’ll be left in a state of disbelief that what occurs on screen is really happening.

Carefree (1938)

Freud & Ginger

On my first viewing of Carefree, I experienced something I never thought I would with Fred and Ginger, boredom. Initially I was expecting another spectacular musical showcase, however the film is on a smaller scale (their shortest at only 80 minutes) than their previous outings and only contains a mere four musical numbers; making it more of a comedy with some singing and dancing than a full fledged musical. With several movies behind them following a similar formula, if they were going to make another then they had to do something different or things would have become stale. I wished though that Fred Astaire could have done straight comedies during his career; Carefree is the closest thing to that.

None of the musical numbers in Carefree stand out as being among the best in the series. Fred Astaire’s number in which he plays golf while tap dancing sounds better on paper than it does in execution. I’m sure what he’s doing is no easy task yet it doesn’t look all that impressive to watch. The Yam on the other hand is a pretty standard number, but heck, it’s still Fred and Ginger dancing. I find the film’s most interest musical number is ‘I Used to be Color Blind’, the most experimental in the film, shot in slow motion and allowing the viewer to see Fred and Ginger’s grace in every detail.

For the only time in the series, Astaire plays a character who is not a dancer by profession, but rather a psychiatrist (although they do make sure to mention he once had aspirations of becoming a dancer). I don’t completely buy Astaire as a psychiatrist, but realism is not what these movies are about. Plus I’m sure the psychology on display here is of the “you are getting sleepy” variety as seen in movies. He doesn’t break his professional ethics though by pursuing his patient like his stalkerish attitude towards Ginger in other films in the series, instead she wants him.

Carefree belongs to Ginger, playing a character whom has been put under hypnosis, giving her the opportunity to completely goof around in a child like manner with big wide eyes, and it’s pretty funny stuff. How many movies do you get to see Ginger Rogers wielding a shot gun? Everyone needs at least one movie where they get to act stupid. The comedic assets of Ralph Bellamy and Jack Carson are a big benefits to the film’s witty dialogue, where much of the film’s strength lies. Even if the dance numbers don’t fully exceed, as a screwball comedy, Carefree grows on me, of course I am a sucker for these movies and the Astaire/Rodgers name, so good enough for me!

The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)

The Comedy Came: Laugh on Delivery

Whenever I watch a classic movie with two love interest leads with astounding chemistry I’m often left in suspense wanting to see the two together at the end. The Bride Came C.O.D. is one such film.

I find William Keighly to be a director of mediocre films; The Bride Came C.O.D. is a major exception. Past the not entirely electrifying opening, once James Cagney and Bette Davis where alone in the dessert and constantly bickering at each other I knew I was going to enjoy the hell out of this film. I was enjoying the presence of these two so much at one point I found some initial disappointment when a third character showed up despite the two being stuck in the wilderness. It felt like someone crashing at a party so it’s a good thing that I did grow to like this character; the movie really does get better and better as it progresses.

The movie takes place over a less than 24 hour time period and I’m pretty sure in real life two people couldn’t go from hating each other to madly in love within a time period of this length, but The Bride Called C.O.D. is movie fantasy. The film has one pivotal scene which elevated the film from being great to excellent in which Davis tells Cagney in a tearful breakdown of how she has had everything handed to her in life. No longer was the movie just a laugh riot, I now had characters whom I was emotionally invested in. It’s a testament to Bette Davis as an actress that she has the ability to tug the heart strings like that in an instant. I’m generally not a huge of Davis, I find her roles in numerous soap opera romantic tragedies off putting, thus it was a pleasant surprise to discover her natural ability for comedy. Perhaps that dame could have been undoubtedly the outstanding screwball of her generation!