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 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 will power 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 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 tress and all that gleaming white snow – I don’t believe there could be a better natural light reflector than the white stuff.

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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.

The Pirate (1948)

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Caribbean or Caribbean? Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

At the beginning of The Pirate we learn Manuela (Judy Garland) has a life of servitude ahead of her while she yearns for a life of adventure. She desires to be taken away by the legendary Mack the Black, swooning over dreams of stolen treasure, maidens captive, of villages destroyed; kind of twisted don’t you think? Regardless I don’t think anyone can project an innocent yearning for adventure better than Judy Garland. The Pirate was a different role for Garland; more exotic, less girl next door and more grown up. For once she plays the object of desire and I find she pulls this off perfectly as although I’ve never found Garland to be a woman of sexual appeal, I do find her one of great beauty (why she was ever referred to as an ugly duckling is beyond me). At heart however Manuela is still very much a Judy Garland character, a down to Earth girl with aspirations for greater things.

The title of The Pirate could come off as misleading. Gene Kelly isn’t a pirate but rather a performer named Serafin masquerading as one. No the pirate of The Pirate is Mack the Black, whom in a odd turn of events is actually the man Manuela is going to wed in an arranged marriage known as Don Pedro, the mayor of a small Caribbean town who has put his life of crime behind him  and kept it a secret. The Pirate is enhanced on second viewing knowing the true identity of Don Pedro as he speaks of his dislike of travelling on the sea and telling Manuela home is the perfect spot; remind you of another Judy Garland film? There is even a moment in which Manuela frantically tells Auntie Inez (Gladys Cooper) she wants to go home which feels like Wizard of Oz redux. The second half of the pirate is one huge comic, screwball like farce which doesn’t fully work for me; it’s amusing but not so much laugh out loud making me prefer the first half to the second.

The Pirate shows Gene Kelly had the ability to be a natural swashbuckler while his introductory sequence in which he gives a lengthy monologue promoting his acting troupe has to be one of his most entertaining non-musical moments on screen. However what really makes his role in The Pirate stand out among his other films is the oozing sexuality he projects on screen; more than any other film he did. Serafin is a real Don Juan with his Gable like moustache as well as with his tightly fit pirate attire and the wipe he is seen sporting in the film (plus that cigarette trick, what a play-a!) His introductory song Nina is one steamy number with Kelly flirting and dancing with oodles of women (just look at that state his hair is in by the end of the number) while the topical setting just enhances the eroticism. The Pirate is another movie in the “how did they get away with that club”. You can censor all you want but you can’t tell someone to simply stop projecting natural sexuality.

Although Judy and Gene do display affection for each other at points in the film, the romantic element of The Pirate comes off to me as secondary. Serafin pursues Manuela for reasons other than love as he can tell she is going into a life she doesn’t want due to his ability to know an entire woman through their body language. This gives his character another element and shows he isn’t totally  shallow and just out to get laid; he wants to prevent Manuela from going down a path she doesn’t want to and expose the adventuress that she is as well as her hidden performing talents. By the end it’s evident they share a more of a professional association than a romantic one, nor is there even a final kiss between the two.

Mack the Black is the musical highlight of the film and an interesting change of pace seeing Judy Garland doing a more racy number. Mack the Black was the replacement for a number titled Voodoo of which the negatives where burned at Louis B Mayer’s instance over the number’s reportedly scandalous content. Would it be considered shocking by today’s standards, was it even that shocking to begin with?  – One can only imagine. As the audio still survives, the song itself is one of the darker, more eerie songs in the MGM library but doesn’t strike me particularly memorable. Perhaps going with Mack the Black was the right decision after all. Be a Clown on the other hand is notably the basis for the song Make ‘em Laugh from Singin’ In the Rain and plagiarised it may be, Make ‘em Laugh is a far superior rendition in my view. The ballet sequence in The Pirate however is a treat with a real sense of three dimensional depth. The sequence with its many explosions and Gene Kelly’s masculine athleticism makes for one of the more primal musical numbers in film history.

The production values of The Pirate aren’t quite up to MGM’s usual standard with clear dividing lines on the sky backgrounds, visible wires holding Gene Kelly on the tight rope and even a very visible thread attached to Judy’s hat as its hoisted away by the wind. Come on MGM, you can do better than that. Ultimately The Pirate is not my favourite MGM musical but is unique enough to make it worthwhile.