This will be the last update for the time being. I want to take a break from the blog to focus more on my fiction (I've written a kids' book and am trying to get it published), and after 10 years I'm not sure what more I have to say about movies, gigs, books and plays. I may post updates now and then: I enjoy doing the reviews of the year, so I imagine I'll put those up in December.
In the meantime, thanks to each of you who's read, commented on or plugged the blog over the past seven-and-a-half years (and for the three years before that, when it was Films on Friday). Bye then.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943) – Betty Smith’s novel about growing up in poverty in Brooklyn at the turn of the century begins with such an accumulation of detail that you feel as if perhaps she can’t distinguish between the mundane and the memorable. But then you realise she’s merely setting the scene, immersing you in the minutiae and the singular atmosphere of this atypical household in this dirt-poor, drably colourful place, so the stories – anecdotal, funny, heartbreaking – have a place to lay their roots. Her heroine Francie Nolan is the bookish, sensitive and poetic daughter of a mother turned hard by penury – just as her hands are cracked and weathered by work – and a father who is too dreamy, deluded and drunk for this world, and will be out of here by 35.
Kazan’s sensational 1945 film condenses the key events to a single year, but this book follows Francies from 10 to 18, flashing back to her infancy, and seeing her grow from a dirty-faced junk hoarder to a confident, intelligent, sexually-aware young woman finding her way in the world, negotiating the pain of betrayal and finally leaving that home in Brooklyn with its improbable, incongruously beautiful, neverendingly resilient tree in the yard. The film has been a precious thing to me for years, and this book has the same tone of yearning, of wisdom learned too young, and character being forged in the furnace of hardship, while offering dozens of deleted scenes with their new insights, moments of deft levity and piercing heartaches. I don’t think it’ll ever leave me, not least those details, like the one about her keeping the old house's carpet for the new one. (4)
Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity by Neal Gabler (1994) – Walter Winchell is one of those cultural figures so of his time that they simply evaporate from history. That time was the 1920s to the 1950s, when the former second-rate Vaudevillian turned from a gossip columnist into a political commentator, from a Rooseveltian Democrat into a McCarthyite Republican, and from a slangy if self-obsessed man of the people into a vicious bully forever sidetracked by meaningless, one-sided beefs. At the peak of his fame and influence, he was read or listened to by two-thirds of Americans each week.
It’s hard to write a biography of a man who was so unknowable and aloof – Winchell had few friends and almost no interests beside his career – but this book gets as close as it can through contemporary articles, secondary sources and interviews with his colleagues and near-confidantes, while doubling as a truly exceptional social history of America: an America for whom Winchell democratised but trivialised and sensationalised news, treating gossip, tragedy or politics with the same screaming, shallow reverence, and increasingly – like his protégé Roy Cohn, later the mentor of one Donald Trump – seeing life as a war between an Eastern intellectual elite and the common, simple and simply patriotic American. If you wondered too where Trump got his tweet style, then look at a ‘50s Winchell item, ending with an accentuated, hyperbolic blast like “Seven subpoenas!” or “Party card!”.
Gabler has a superb vocabulary and a grabby but cerebral style, while littering the narrative with mini-profiles of contemporaries, and short essays on the changing America – and how Winchell first powered that change, and then was powerless to resist it, eventually being destroyed by hubris, his association with McCarthy, his personal unpopularity and his utter irrelevance to the world of the 1960s. The author’s set-pieces are dynamic – including a brilliant chronicle of the Hauptmann trial of the 1930s, and Winchell’s initially understandable but then unbearably overbearing hatchet job on Josephine Baker – and so is his deep, thoughtful and truthful analysis, most memorably of his subject’s political conversion, which he attributes to Winchell’s fear of being investigated himself, his genuine, fervent and long-standing anti-Communism, and the opportunity it gave him to lambast James Wechsler, the editor of the New York Post and a former Young Communist League member, whose paper had just written a series dismantling Winchell’s mythos and reputation.
Gabler argues brilliantly that communism was “the weapon, not the object” and that Winchell’s decisions were often more political than personal. He had become a worshipper of Roosevelt only after being charmed personally by the new president, while – like McCarthy and Cohn, both of whom he liked personally – Winchell was earthy, bitter, working-class and attracted to power. Even in the ‘50s he didn’t see himself as a Republican – telling a party functionary who welcomed him to the GOP at Eisenhower’s election party, “I'm not a Republican, you're a Republican” – and never abandoned his one saving grace, the ‘premature anti-fascism’ (as the HUAC would dub it) of the early ‘30s, in which his uncanny antenna for anti-Semitism saw him repeatedly and passionately denounce the Nazis some five years before most of his contemporaries, and root out fascists and Nazi sympathisers throughout the United States (this role inspired Philip Roth to use Winchell as the defender of the people in his brilliant alternate history, The Plot Against America, in which the hero of the air – and of America First – the fascist Charles Lindbergh becomes president).
In the end, Winchell did as much harm as good: opening up the press to working class voices, challenging outdated mores and unquestionably enlivening the medium, but then using his platform to settle scores and wage vindictive vendettas, accumulating more and more wealth (a reaction to his Dickensian childhood), and – in a broader cultural sense – turning news into entertainment, with the accompanying callousness and collateral damage that engendered. He fought fewer and fewer justified or even coherent battles, was a lousy friend, and was an even worse father, but – for better or worse – he was also among the most significant cultural voices of the 20th century, whose life must be understood in order to understand the present. Without ever over-stretching or being caught up in academic-ese, Gabler’s incredibly entertaining book does as good a job as can be imagined of making that possible. (4)
Grand Hotel (Edmund Goudling, 1932) – It looks like a relic compared to even similar contemporary films like Union Depot, Dinner at Eight and Skyscraper Souls: too static, melodramatic and light on, y’know, story. And yet once you adjust to its size and tempo, and the characters begin to cross into one another’s lives (always a joy of such all-star shenanigans), it becomes damn near unmissable.
John Barrymore is noble (and wearing way too much eye-shadow), Lionel turns from a trivial one-note annoyance into a hero, Crawford discovers an attractively tender humanity, and Garbo is just so damn Garbo: warm, sensual, tragic, and apparently in a different film to everyone else, as she dances badly and her silent film eyebrow works overtime. The moment where she discovers Barrymore’s true character, purring “Norrrr”, is such a transportative treat: dumping you right back into 1932. A mention too for Lewis Stone, playing an omniscient medic who got blown up in the war and is now Two-Face from Batman.
If you show it to someone who thinks black-and-white films are dated, clunky and even a little silly, they’ll laugh you right out of the room, but if you’re receptive to this era of cinema, it’s kind of amazing. (3.5)
Tagline clearly influenced by Annie Hall's 'A nervous romance'.
CINEMA: The Big Sick (Michael Showalter, 2017) – American stand-up is just crap, isn’t it*. The rest of the film’s great, though: funny, tender and coming at the rom-com from a different angle to normal, with what’s surely a star-making part for Kumail Nanjiani (who co-wrote the script, based on his own life). In support, Holly Hunter is ACTING and Ray Romano is playing for laughs, and yet what underpins their performances seems real, and so they really work. I liked it a lot. (3.5)
*not Louis C.K.
CINEMA: Cría Cuervos 1976 – A miraculous film, quite unlike anything else I’ve seen, that plays out on the face of its young heroine (Ana Torrent from Spirit of the Beehive) and exists in that strange place between memory, reality and fantasy, as scenes bleed one into the next, and Torrent recalls her authoritarian, adulterous father, conjures the gentle spirit of her neurotic mother (Geraldine Chaplin) and cautiously negotiates a new, lonelier life in the bosom of her strict aunt’s family.
Torrent is simply wonderful, as is Chaplin – who also plays the older Ana – and the film’s unpredictable storytelling, offbeat comedy and sumptuous camerawork is allied to a pained understanding of human cruelty – but also a firm conviction in human resilience. For all the political analysis made of the movie (it seems that every Spanish film, even if it’s a comedy about an ice-skating dog, is read as an allegory of the Spanish Civil War), it’s really a film about loss, its unique worldview encapsulated by the inspired use of a contemporary pop song that has the jauntiest tune and the most desolate lyrics, and seems to be the only record Ana owns. (4)
"I wrote it."
"I gave you the title."
"Okay, so when they have awards for titles, you can go to that."
CINEMA: Prick Up Your Ears (Stephen Frears, 1987) – Near-perfect biopic of gay '60s playwright Joe Orton (Gary Oldman), focusing on his volatile relationship with live-in lover, Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina), powered by a superb Alan Bennett script, and Oldman's best performance. It has the same appealing, distinctive, slightly washed-out look as almost every good British film of the period and, if it's perhaps a little light on Orton's writing, and its Morocco sequence drags, the film is just as bawdy, erudite, entertaining, non-judgemental and tragic as it should be. A film so fine, in fact, that Vanessa Redgrave is good in it.
Oldman has given so many mannered, lacklustre or just plain bad performances since the early '90s, but in his first few years he must have seemed a revelation, his star soaring as he subsumed himself in a succession of unforgettable, coruscating characterisations. Playful, reckless and morphing from a rough, nervy Midlands youth to a swaggering, dapper jack-the-lad toast-of-London, his Orton is the best of the lot. The relationship he evokes with sister Leoni (Frances Barber) too is wonderfully attractive and real.
'Synthesisers by Hans Zimmer'! (4)
CINEMA: The Swimmer (Frank Perry, 1968) – An American tragedy, impeccably constructed, with charming, toothy and toned Burt Lancaster resolving to 'swim home' through his gated Connecticut community via his wealthy friends' sapphire, sun-dappled pools. It's a film about innocence, idealism and moral rot: bombastic, melodramatic and surrealistic, but also human, profound and intensely moving as it depicts a body, a mind and a society running to ruin. There's also a scene in which Lancaster runs around a horse enclosure in slow-motion, leaping over hurdles, which is emblematic of the film's sometimes heavy-handed symbolism, and really very silly indeed. (4)
Fixer Dugan (Lew Landers, 1939) – Fast-talking Lee Tracy played reporters, promoters and carnival barkers in a career that saw him rise meteorically during the pre-Code era, then plummet to earth after he allegedly urinated on the Mexican Army whilst shooting on location in November 1933, was booted out of the country, and then sacked by MGM. (I wrote about it here.) Tracy was sensational when given a good script (his turn in Blessed Event, patterned after the life of national sensation Walter Winchell, is one of the great comic performances), but he seemed rather lost without one, and his performances lost much of their zip and vigour as he filled out and toured the cheaper studios in search of his lost career.
He made four films set around carnivals and circuses, where his characters’ conniving, finagling and, well, lying seemed right at home. The first and best of these was The Half-Naked Truth, a spectacular, lightning-paced comedy made while he was on the way up, and pairing him with the ‘Mexican Spitfire’, Lupe Velez. The other three – You Belong to Me, Carnival and this one – are sentimental yarns that offset his scurrilous, take-no-prisoners persona by making him care for an orphan. Here that orphan is Virginia Weidler, one of the better child stars of the era and a key part of the classic B-movie, The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt, the same year, but sadly Fixer Dugan doesn’t amount to much: it’s rather functional and laboured, and its tiny budget sticks out all over the place.
The film reunites Tracy with Peggy Shannon six years after Turn Back the Clock, the brilliant Depression-era fantasy about a tobacconist returning to his youth and reinventing himself as a crusading politician. Here he’s a carnival ‘fixer’, she’s a lion tamer and together they’re trying to do the best for Weidler while keeping hold of Shannon’s big cats (which she accidentally sold to a scheming rival), but neither of them seem to have their heart in it. The scenes of the star sparring with William Edmunds and a funny Ed Gargan are enjoyable enough, and there’s a fair part for Irene Franklin as a has-been, but it’s slightly dispiriting seeing Tracy – formerly a human firecracker – slog his way through the B-movie mire, and the story’s outcome is readily apparent from the 10-minute mark. (2)
Many thanks to Owen for the loan. (I always feel ungrateful giving two stars to something someone’s kindly posted to me, but you’ve got to be honest I think, or what’s the point of reviewing? Spectre of the Rose next!)
See also: I wrote about some of Tracy's key early films in this piece on the American political cinema of 1932-33.
Big City Blues (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932) – A bad pre-Code potboiler with a good cast, as Callow Woodenness Personified (Eric Linden) travels from Indiana to New York, where he meets crooked uncle Walter Catlett and brassy showgirl Joan Blondell, before clunky melodrama intervenes.
It's extremely 1932, with some fast-paced dialogue and an impressive-sounding supporting cast (Bogart, Lyle Talbot, Tom Dugan, Ned Sparks being aggressively deadpan, Guy Kibbee playing his usual drink-sodden lech), but the story is silly, muddled and joyless, alternating between hard-boiled posturing and mawkish hand-wringing, and much of the cast is given nothing to do.
The film's only real virtues are some snappy stylistics – including the epitome of old movie in-the-big-city montages, and that great shot of Blondell at the station near the end – Clarence Muse's nightclub numbers, and a pair of good performances: the big-eyed Blondell peddling a typically nice line in worldly-wise empathy, and Jobyna Howland stealing the film as a lonely, kindly socialite looking for a young gigolo. (1.5)
Thanks for reading.