Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Dennis Potter, Broadway Danny Rose, and the corners of Noah's beard - Reviews #175

I got to watch a lot of films this week. These ones:

Pennies from Heaven (Herbert Ross, 1981) - A conceptually dazzling musical, adapted by Dennis Potter from his BBC series, which juxtaposes the grim reality of Depression-era life with the fantasy of popular song.

Steve Martin is a pipe-dreamer and travelling sheet music salesman who thinks about sex once every one second, leaving his frigid wife (Jessica Harper) in the lurch and a timid spinster (Bernadette Peters) up the duff. Potter doesn't give Peters the soapy sob story, though. In fact, what he does with this tiny-mouthed schoolteacher is remarkable to the point of revolution, and her candid, conflicted, sensual performance is astonishingly good, one of two real reasons to see the film.

The other is the songs: an endless succession of show-stoppers, mostly framed as fantasy sequences, and almost all lip-synched to the crooniest available versions of old standards, while faithful to some distinct visual style of the 1930s. Many borrow directly from Busby Berkeley - Yes! Yes! even has kaleidoscopic overheads - but there's also a nod to nautical numbers, an enduring obsession in American popular culture for reasons unknown, while the film reaches the height of its ambition with a Fred-and-Ginger take-off staged on a replica of the Let's Face the Music and Dance set, but with choreography inspired by Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.

Just about every number is impressive or thrilling in some way, from Peters' exuberant Love Is Good for Anything That Ails You (mimed to a Phyllis Robins record and featuring schoolchildren as backing dancers), to a gold-tinted, stunningly-staged version of the title tune danced by Vernel Bagneris, and excellent guest spots for '50s hoofer Tommy Rall and Christopher Walken, the latter magnificently objectionable as a face-cutting pimp with a sideline in tap-dancing, whose incredible version of Let's Misbehave is probably the gateway drug that Tarantino fans need to get into Cole Porter.

Between these musical high points, though, which reveal the central characters' hidden urges or wildest desires, the dramatic passages don't quite cut it. I haven't seen Potter's original, but his script here - which underwent 12 revisions while boiling down six hours of drama to less than two - operates mostly at a surface level, and seems to mistake repetition and mundanity for profundity. Few of the characters seem truly affected by anything that happens to them, that strange, cold aloofness preventing you from engaging with much of what's going on amidst the impeccable period design. The writing isn't bad - there are moments of truth amidst Potter's laid-back perviness - but it isn't up to the standard of its interludes, which border on the sublime.

There's also the problem of Martin's performance. His attempts at emotion seem to have a unique, mawkish insincerity about them, while his zany treatment of some of his musical spots, mugging when he should be following Peters' restrained lead, often puncture the pastiche, leaving only a cartoon in its place. He makes a good fist of the dancing, but with someone down-to-earth and dramatically dynamic in the central role, perhaps Potter's spoken passages would have come closer to the robustness and realism needed to make the central contrast really work. Though its numbers aren't as impressive, that's why Ken Russell's version of The Boy Friend works so well: you believe in the seedy seaside world it creates, and so the songs give you something to escape from.

I wish this were great. It should be. It almost is. But it doesn't quite make it. A little like the pipe dreamer at its centre. (3)


The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (Ernst Lubitsch, 1927)
- When I'm writing about this one, I tend to run out of superlatives halfway through. It's the greatest film from one of Hollywood's greatest directors; a silent translation of a popular operetta, and as much fun, romance and heartache as most people can generally stand across an hour and three quarters.

Ramon Novarro is the titular prince, the nephew of the king of Karlsburg, whose restrictive upbringing - one of "duty, obligation and loyalty" - goes out the window, however briefly, in a fug of love, friendship and beer, swirling (swilling?) across the old city of Heidelberg.

The love - and the beer, for that matter - comes from an ethereal but down-to-earth, slightly cross-eyed barmaid (Norma Shearer): the guileless, glugging Kathi forever the high point of her screen achievements. Novarro himself wasn't blessed with the greatest range, but then you don't want J. Carrol Naish as your callow, conflicted young romantic, you want a sweet, sensitive, big-eyed kid with a seductive streak - and who more suitable than Novarro, a Latino sex symbol whose tenderness and vulnerability were all too real.

You want your kindly professor, his sense of fun overriding his sense of decorum, played by someone with the chops and twinkle-in-the-eye of Jean Hersholt. And, of course, you want Lubitsch, the inimitable, irreplaceable Lubitsch, behind the camera, every scene handled with that "Lubitsch touch", every moment seeming to offer something new and extraordinary to bring a smile to your lips or a tear to your eye: Shearer checking out Novarro with absolutely no subtlety when they first meet, a garden-full of beer glasses raised with military precision, the look on the lead's face as his love interest downs an entire pint, the pair's spirited night-time excursion to the finest field in movies, and that heartbreaking return to Heidelberg, as heartfelt a paean to lost innocence and the youth that is never to return as the movies have ever served up.

You can analyse the film a dozen different ways and it comes up faultless - from its abundance of visual metaphor, shifting perspectives used to illustrate the prince's changing moods, to the director's sparing use of intertitles, and the groundbreaking shot in summation that predates The Long Good Friday by 53 years - but it all adds up to the same thing: a film for the ages, an emotionally overwhelming portrait of self-sacrifice, paradise lost and position found, of young lovers meeting like passing trains, together for a fleeting, shining moment, then torn away by "duty, obligation and loyalty". And it's all scored to perfection in the old Thames Silents version by the peerless Carl Davis.

"It must be wonderful to be a prince," muses one of the town kids, studying a portrait of Novarro. On this evidence, not so much, but then isn't life just about enjoying those perfect moments when they come? This film has more than almost any other. (4)


Broadway Danny Rose (Woody Allen, 1984)

Danny Rose: What'd you do, you divorced him, or got a separation, or what?
Tina Vitale: Nah, some guy shot him in the eyes.
Danny Rose: Really? He's blind?
Tina Vitale: Dead.
Danny Rose: Dead. Of course, 'cause the bullets go right through.

I don't think this is Woody's greatest film, but it's the one I return to most often: a sweet, funny, utterly charming tall tale - with hidden emotional heft - about a loveable Broadway talent agent (Woody Allen) trying to escort his best client's mistress (Mia Farrow) to a crucial show, and unwittingly incurring the wrath of the mafia.

What seems at first glance a slight, minor movie holds untold pleasures, from Allen's script - stuffed with gems - to Gordon Willis's mesmerising monochrome cinematography, and an unforgettable, uncharacteristic performance from an unrecognisable Farrow, as the forceful, temperamental Tina Vitale, her late husband a juice man for the mob. "He made juice for the mob?" asks a baffled Allen. (4)


Bad Company (Robert Benton, 1972) - A God-fearing young man (Barry Brown), fleeing conscription during the American Civil War, falls in with a barely competent group of robbers about his age, also hoping to escape the draft. Along the trail, and amidst farce, thievery and tragedy, he bonds with their arrogant, charismatic leader (Jeff Bridges), as the group begins to bicker and break up.

This extraordinary, determinedly unpredictable movie - in close up, a model of stark simplicity; in overview deep and fascinating - could only have been made in one decade, shot through as it is with both timely parallels to the conflict in Vietnam and a total lack of respect for Western cliché. It also forms an interesting comparison piece with Ben Wheatley's A Field in England, beginning in the same vein, before events go similarly but differently awry.

The performances are mostly solid but unremarkable: Brown is well-cast but not a particularly good actor, Bridges - between his star-making parts in The Last Picture Show and the experience of shooting The Iceman Cometh that fundamentally changed his outlook as an actor - has great presence but little complexity (too many of his early performances just consist of him whining and looking like a dinosaur), and The Deer Hunter's John Savage is variable as one of his more abrasive underlings. It's the supporting cast that provides the real quality: Jim Davis playing a fierce, single-minded marshal, and David Huddleston, later to be found tormenting Bridges as The Big Lebowski, who's absolutely superb as the laid-back, outwardly avuncular "Big Joe", a courteous, hulking stick-up man leading a gang of imbeciles.

The bulk of the brilliance, though, comes from elsewhere: from the spare script, oscillating purposefully between the silly and the serious, and incorporating numerous inspired developments from lynchings to shoot-outs, the poetic imagery by Godfather photographer Gordon Willis - often at odds with the harshness of the material - and that impossibly fine piano score by Harvey Schmidt.

Writer-director Benton's career has been an odd thing: he kickstarted the New Hollywood era with his Bonnie and Clyde script, wrote Richard Donner's Superman, and got a Best Director Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer, before turning to gentler fare, and in light of his box-office smashes, this directorial debut often gets overlooked. It shouldn't, it's amazing: unsentimental, realistic and yet, in its brutish and complete rejection of Western norms, somehow mythic - a portrait of lost souls in a hellish America, the whole piece heading inexorably towards a perfect ending.


Hold Back the Dawn (Mitchell Leisen, 1941) - A romantic slow-burner, set in a Mexican border town, with Romanian gigolo Charles Boyer seducing American schoolteacher Olivia De Havilland to get in to the States, then starting to struggle with his conscience. Written in Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett's distinctive style, and directed by Mitchell Leisen - the master of the romantic drama, now almost forgotten - it's a simply beautiful movie: one which completely sneaks up on you, with an original set-up, an unusual atmosphere, and superb performances by the leads.

There's also cracking support from Paulette Goddard - as a sparkly-eyed conwoman with no illusions - and a sardonic Walter Abel, while an extremely meta framing device gives a glimpse of Paramount Pictures, with Leisen playing a director, and Veronica Lake and Brian Donlevy playing themselves. It isn't always an easy watch, because you know De Havilland's innocent dreamer is about to get put through the wringer, but it's a truly wonderful movie from a director who made some of the best. (4)


Titanic (Jean Negulesco, 1953) - Marital troubles and alcoholism upon the doomed ocean liner! Hurray! It's actually a lot more involving - and enjoyable - than it sounds, thanks largely to a pair of excellent performances from Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck. Webb is particularly memorable as a superficial, spiteful father shaken to his true self by a rip in the boat.

The film doesn't manage to convey the magnitude of the Titanic, takes place around somewhat artificial sets, and, most damagingly, is erratically plotted, spending just half an hour on the sinking, but finding time for an insipid teen romance that necessitates two utterly incongruous songs, including the anthem of Cornell University (I have no idea). There's also the usual risible "ethnic dancing" set-piece below stairs, while the great Thelma Ritter is given nothing - like nothing - to do.

On the other hand, a handful of nice details effectively evoke life on the boat - everyday things like telegrams, postal deliveries and the rituals surrounding the on-board meals - the central storyline is pretty interesting, and the climax, despite its weird lack of spectacle, is extremely moving, with numerous emotional high spots and an exceptional use of sound. This 1953 effort can't compete with James Cameron's magnificent movie, but it's a valuable film in its own right, a strange paucity of ambition in its staging overridden by the sheer quality and conviction of the human drama. (3)


The Nut (Theodore Reed, 1921) - Douglas Fairbanks' last modern-day silent comedy was essentially shot as insurance in case fans didn't go for his reinvention as a swashbuckling action hero in The Mark of Zorro. They did, making this his farewell to contemporary fare - but also little more than a footnote. That's a shame, as it's in many ways the summation of his early work: a very enjoyable movie full of imaginative gags and cheerily bizarre touches, such as the phone operator alternating between Satan and Cupid (both in their usual environs), depending on whether the caller's intentions are nefarious or nice. There's also some neat camera-trickery, done using double-exposure, employed throughout the action climax.

Doug is cast in his usual role as a misfortune-prone go-getter duelling with an utter bastard for the hand/sexy-time of a sweet-hearted maiden, leading to various mix-ups that require him to wear a cardboard cut-out of a suit, walk down stairs as a man carrying a stretcher apparently containing himself, and nick a load of wax dummies that he can pass off as local dignitaries. I don't think any of the eight early comedies spotlighted in Flicker Alley's superlative DVD set are quite masterpieces - it took Fairbanks going back in time to take his films to that higher level, but this is up there with the best of them, and it's perhaps the most consistent of the bunch. Lovely end title too. (3)


Ladies They Talk About (Howard Bretherton and William Keighley, 1933) - A salty, stylish Pre-Code meller with a typical Barbara Stanwyck powerhouse as a deacon's daughter turned moll who tangles with a dishy young reformer (Preston Foster) and winds up in the slammer. It's good fun, if a little insubstantial, peopled by archetypes soon to be outlawed by the censors (an unrepentant madam, a cigar-chomping lesbian, a sexually-frustrated fanatic). You also have to wonder if Preston Sturges had the opening reels in mind when he wrote The Best Film Ever (TM), Remember the Night.

Trivia-wise, Lyle Talbot has a bit as a gangster, his storyline very similar to the one in the previous year's 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, and for '30s music nerds, there are two special treats. The first is the chance to see amazing torch singer Lillian Roth, playing Stanwyck's affable new mate and singing a song about how she wants to have sex with Joe E. Brown, which seems a surprising thing to want. Second is an uncredited, unmistakable Etta Moten (who vocalised my favourite production number, Remember My Forgotten Man, the same year) wailing the St Louis Blues off-camera, as Stanwyck writes a clandestine letter to a friend on the outside. (3)


I Was an Adventuress (Gregory Ratoff, 1940) - Nothing more or less than sheer escapism, with Vera Zorina as a conwoman who resumes her career as a ballerina after marrying (alleged) Frenchman Richard Greene, only to be aggressively re-acquainted with her really quite gay former partners in crime: innocent Peter Lorre and domineering, creepy Erich von Stroheim, who it's frankly bizarre to find in a film like this. It's faux-Lubitsch fun all the way: minor and a little disjointed, perhaps, but also light, amusing and full of pleasant innuendo, while Zorina's obligatory ballet sequence is strikingly staged. Lorre completely steals the show, as always. (3)


Forbidden (Frank Capra, 1932) - A far-fetched, fast-moving soap opera, unbelievable in the more negative sense of the word, with Barbara Stanwyck as a potential old maid who falls hard for a dapper married man (Adolphe Menjou) whilst on an impromptu cruise, and quickly gets pregs. After that, events get rather out of hand.

It's very Art Deco-y in that early Capra way, equipped with bright lighting and stylish montages to go with some jazzy, swooping close-ups, there's an initially appealing supporting part for Ralph Bellamy playing a cool-as-flip newspaper editor - this was before he found that unwanted career niche: never getting the girl - and Stanwyck is going great guns as a potent cocktail of meekness, mousiness and white hot fury. The moment where she essentially strangles herself at the re-appearance of her lover is a gobsmacking piece of acting. And when she throbs with intense, detached, blank-eyed anguish by the fireplace as the police hammer at the door: just incredible.

The plotting's generally pretty laughable, though, despite the solid entertainment value, and none of the cast age very convincingly: the overall effect is as if the filmmakers forget to buy any make-up and could only find a bag of flour. For that matter, the world they inhabit doesn't change at all across more than 25 years, just the amount of flour they're wearing. Spooky. (2.5)


The Mind Reader (Roy Del Ruth, 1932) - Warren William is in his element here, playing a phony mystic and all-round scruple-vacuum in love with the most naive woman in the world. It's a snappy if slight, slightly gloomy Roy Del Ruth movie boasting the breathless treatment of risque gags, adult drama and redemptive romance the director made his own in the Pre-Code era. Allen Jenkins is quite good value as William's slow-witted sidekick. (2.5)


Miracles For Sale (Tod Browning, 1939) - Horror maestro Tod Browning's final film is a light murder mystery set around the world of the occult, with (mostly) rational conjuror Robert Young helping the police work out who killed a creepy old dude obsessed with demons. The culprit is perhaps overly obvious, but there's a strong ensemble including the likes of Florence Rice, Henry Hull and William Demarest, and the movie pulls a fair few tricks out of its sleeve along the way. (2.5)


Noah’s Ark (Michael Curtiz, 1928) - Ooh, somebody likes fire. A sledgehammer-subtle, hokey-as-hell but sometimes impressive epic, written by super-producer Darryl F. Zanuck and inspired by the Oscar-winning epic Wings and Cecil B. DeMille's biblical excursions, that draws one big parallel between the Great War and the Great Flood, and utilises the most 1929 cast imaginable (Dolores Costello, George O'Brien, Guinn "Big Boy" Williams and Myrna Loy) in dual roles. It's a film of scale rather than nuance, its attitude towards war makes little sense and there are countless weak scenes and stupid exchanges, but the film does offer a few good Hollywood moments, like a touching reunion between O'Brien and Williams, as well as a magnificent montage comparing the decadence of the '20s (I think - chronology isn't the film's strong point) to the ancient world that God swept away. Most significant, though, is the climactic flood sequence, which remains a wonder to behold: in artistic terms a staggering, enduring achievement that justifies the film's existence, though in moral terms an unforgivably costly one, claiming three lives and injuring countless others after Warners allegedly failed to heed warnings about extras' safety from original cinematographer Hal Mohr.

The film is largely silent, accompanied only by laughably poor sound effects, though there are a couple of awful talkie sequences added after the initial release. Loy, a favourite of mine who famously struggled with the nascent medium, is billed seventh but only has one short scene (and perhaps a bit in the finale - I couldn't spot her). The ethereal Costello, shot through a Vaseline-lensed haze, would probably seem extremely attractive if I hadn't read her boring, racist honeymoon diary in a biography of her husband, John Barrymore. It's also a bit rich for the film to preach about lust after showing a slippery Costello in her underwear for 20 minutes, though DeMille would have admired such rank hypocrisy. And that prediction about war at the end was a bit premature, wasn't it? Lol Zanuck you n00b. Perhaps it's best to distract yourself from such things with the Best Putdown of Noah Ever: "Shave the corners of thy beard, old man, to make nets to catch fish on the mountainside." Zing. They forgot to add "#sickburn". Also: "I'm going to die in a big flood." Incidentally, as regards the extremely limited Williams, I've always found it quite funny that an actor nicknamed "Big Boy", who engaged in dewy-eyed bromances like this one, was such a homophobe off the screen, once cutting off Orson Welles' tie at a bar because he'd heard that the inveterate skirt-chaser was gay. Not a great film, then, but a film with one hell of a morally-indefensible set piece. (2.5)


The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927) - On this evidence, I'm not sure talking pictures are a very good idea. (1.5)


Thanks for reading.

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