Given my newfound fascination with silent star John Gilbert, I found a friend who gave me his rare pre-code film DOWNSTAIRS on VHS. The film is about a chauffeur who arrives to work in a new home and in the process seduces the wife of the head butler, blackmails the lady of the house, and embezzles money from the elderly cook. He is an evil cad through and through. The film is a brisk and entertaining piece of Pre-Code filmmaking. John Gilbert is great in the lead role and his voice is great too! I think the problem he had with this film is that audiences didn’t want to see him playing such an evil unrepentant character. Many film stars (of silents and talkies) became trapped in many ways by their images and in the process weren’t allowed to stretch artistically. When some of them did, their films failed and then it subsequently hurt their careers. Their fame and success became quite a double edge sword. In any case, John Gilbert actually wrote the story that DOWNSTAIRS is based on. I’m currently reading the biography about him entitled DARK STAR. I highly endorse the book. It is a really excellent account of not only his career, but of the struggles of establishing and maintaining a career in 20s and 30s Hollywood.
Let me first being by saying if you haven’t been to the UCLA film series entitled “Out of the Past: Film Preservation Today” on Wednesday nights….PLEASE go to this in the future. The series is FREE and it is a great way to learn about the decisions and the process that goes into restoring a film and making it live again.
The feature shown tonight was KILLER OF SHEEP. I knew nothing about this film going in except that I really liked the title. I’ve actually purchased many books simply because I liked the title or cover art and so far doing that has never steered me wrong.
KILLER OF SHEEP was made in the early 70s by UCLA grad student Charles Burnett. The film was shot on location on the streets of south central Los Angeles, but if you are expecting something like BOYZ IN THE HOOD, you won’t find it here. Burnett’s film is a thoughtful meditation on an impoverished family whose members are doing the best they can to survive. The UCLA program notes referred to this film as “a stunning example of American urban neo-realism at its best.”
I would call it a non fiction version of A RAISIN IN THE SUN. The film is not a plot driven piece but is one that is guided by quiet moments that speak louder than pages of dialogue ever could. There is one scene where a husband and wife try to have a romantic evening. Judging by the look in their eyes, it is clear that the woman is far more interested than the man is. He is hesitant even reluctant to be there with her. It is obvious his mind and possibly heart are elsewhere. He finally walks away from the dance leaving the woman to look after him with an expression of heartbreak and disappointment in her eyes. Words aren’t necessary, in fact it would spoil the moment if anything was said in the first place. A later scene re-affirms the man’s lack of interest when he lights up and becomes animated in the presence of their daughter. He comes alive briefly for her in a way he never does for his wife. Again, no words are exchanged here but she knows…..the pained look in her eyes says so.
Another scene that works really well in the film is when two men try to purchase a motor and put it in a truck. Their struggle is reminicent of a Laurel & Hardy short as they haul it into the truck only to have it fall off and break in the street. It seems that motor is a symbol of something larger (like their dreams) failing to sustain any momentum.
The score for the film consisted of a bunch of terrific jazz tunes. They fit the emotional beats of the film perfectly.
Overall KILLER OF SHEEP is a haunting and beautiful portrait of people struggling against not only poverty but each other. This film captures a place, a group of people and a time in history that is every bit as potent now as it was 3 decades ago when the film was made.
This weekend I wound up house sitting and dog sitting for my friend Jeff who was out of town on vacation. Jeff has an AMAZING collection of DVDs, cable and TiVo, so sufficed to say I didn’t leave the couch the entire weekend. Hell, I didn’t even inconvenience myself to leave the house for food. I just got the phone book and ordered everything in. Fortunately Turner Classic Movies was running a series of musicals and I finally saw GUYS AND DOLLS, which amazingly I had never seen before. I loved it! Before the film Robert Osbourne said that Frank Sinatra was unhappy with the film and felt that HE should have played the role of “Sky Masterson” instead of Marlon Brando. With all due respect to Mr. Sinatra (and believe me there’s plenty) I think he was far better suited for his role as “Nathan Detroit.” The casting was exactly as it should have been.
Since “Sky Masterson” has to seduce a prim uptight missionary into running off with him to Havana, the role calls for every bit of sex appeal that one actor can muster. That’s why Brando fits the bill. The woman is such a cold and harsh person that it must take a man of supreme charms to melt her heart and win her favor. It is a tough task and “Sky” proves he is more than up to the challenge. Meanwhile, “Nathan Detroit” is caught in the middle of trying to set up the city’s largest floating crap game AND to keep his neglected fiance “Miss Adelaide” from finding out about it. We find out that “Nathan” has been engaged to her for about 13 years or so! Naturally she is frustrated and eager for him to finally marry her.
The film features excellent musical numbers such as “Luck Be A Lady,” “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat” and “Take Back Your Mink.”
Plot complications ensue and the characters finally get their happy ending in the form of a double wedding. The film is colorful, fun and entertaining. It was directed by the great Joseph L. Mankiewicz and it wound up being the only musical he ever made. If you are looking for a classic grand scale Hollywood musical, this is it hands down!
Yes I fed my noir addiction yet again!
JOHNNY STOOL PIGEON (1949)
This low budget noir directed by William Castle features Dan Duryea as a criminal who gets sprung from the big house in order to help crack a heroin smuggling ring that is taking over a western restort town. Naturally there are complications…many of them as it turns out. The films co-stars Howard Duff and Shelly Winters who was still in her sexy bombshell phase. This film was fun and entertaining but it wasn’t one of the more memorable noirs.
Dan Duryea once again plays a shady character, this time he’s a hustler out to bilk a grieving war widow (Joan Caufield) out of her money. This is film was everything a noir should be! It had an evil femme fatale (a lusty Shelly Winters packing a pistol), snappy dialogue, and a rotten to the core scheme. The plan becomes complicated when Duryea starts to make the war widow believe he’s in love with her. Seeing her character with such trust and vulnerability set against such bad intentions makes for a great story and an excellent noir.
Dan Duryea was never a giant star like Cary Grant or Clark Gable, but he could always be counted on to give a rock solid performance. Many low budget noirs were made far greater by his acting. He always delivered and brought a great deal of talent to the table. He was like the John C. Reilly of the 1940s and 50s.
Whenever there is a restoration, director’s cut or extended version of ANYTHING, you can pretty much bet I’m going to be front row center. I’ve always greatly admired the work of Sam Peckinpah. Whenever people ask me to list my most favorite films I almost always mention THE WILD BUNCH. I’m also a fan of RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. There is just something about Peckinpah that I respond to. His work has this sort of electric raw energy pulsating through every frame. Since I had never seen MAJOR DUNDEE before, I was very excited to discover the film and to see it on the big screen.
The film chronicles the exploits of MAJOR DUNDEE (Charlton Heston) an iron willed Army officer who rounds up a rag tag group of prisoners and Confederate soliders (including Richard Harris) to chase a group of Apaches.
While there are moments in the film that are pure Peckinpah touches, overall MAJOR DUNDEE is really lacking in focus. The film was taken out of Peckinpah’s control in the editing room and recut so that much of the character development was deleted from the most important section of the film.
The problem that I had with the film is that it drags and fails to keep your interest. Manohla Dargis of the NY Times said, “It’s amid the dust and desperate festivities that ‘‘Major Dundee’’ wanders beautifully off point, and the lack of narrative focus matters not a whit.” With all due respect to Miss Dargis, I disagree. It DOES matter….at least it mattered to me.
I was disappointed by MAJOR DUNDEE and I was expecting it to be much more, HOWEVER I’m still glad I saw it. The film is important to anyone studying Peckinpah’s work and how this film fits into the larger puzzle of his cinematic universe.
To read more about this film in the NY Times, click here.
QUEEN CHRISTINA (1934) MGM
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian
By this point in her career Garbo had a considerable amount of power. She personally chose Rouben Mamoulian as her director and insisted that her ex-lover John Gilbert be cast in the male lead over Laurence Olivier no less.
The result is a lavish and entertaining historical drama that showcases the MGM artisans at their peak. From spectacular costumes, ornate sets to perfect lighting, this was a first class production all the way.
I’d like to go off topic for a moment and discuss John Gilbert instead of Garbo. I’ve fallen madly in love with him in the past few months and so has one of my close friends. We’ve seen him in THE MERRY WIDOW a few months back at LACMA and in THE BIG PARADE which had a recent showing at the Academy. This man has an amazing presence and is a flat out excellent actor. He is so handsome and charming and likeable. I’ve started reading up on him and it is so tragic that his career fell apart with the dawn of sound. There have been many reasons and theories as to why this is. This has been blamed on a variety of things from his bad relationship with Louis B. Mayer, his voice, his drinking and the changing audience tastes. I agree with historian Jeanine Basinger who said that sound simply diminished him. His romantic image when put with words….all of the sudden seemed silly and was ultimately rendered powerless. He certainly wasn’t the only one. Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton and Clara Bow all suffered greatly and were ultimately undone by sound. Gilbert wasn’t alone by any means. What saddens me is that he has become such an underappreciated and underrated actor and often times is regarded as a mere footnote in Hollywood history, particularly when one is discussing Garbo. In truth he starred in many silent masterpieces, worked with the top directors and actresses of his day and deserves to be much more highly regarded than he is.
He was by far the BEST leading man Garbo ever had. That was driven home very clearly watching Frederic March star opposite her in ANNA KARENINA. Don’t get me wrong, March is a fine actor, but he didn’t have the chemistry with Garbo that was really needed to make the story take flight.
Watching QUEEN CHRISTINA made me realize that there was nothing wrong with Gilbert’s voice. It was a fine voice and he is great in the film. His final death scene seemed almost like a foreshadowing since this was to be his second to last film….and his last as a romantic lead. When he closes his eyes and dies in Garbo’s arms….it seemed like more than just his character died. His inner fire, his passion and his romantic screen presence died too.
ANNA KARENINA (1935) MGM
Directed by Clarence Brown
This was Garbo’s second time to play ANNA KARENINA (her first time was in the silent film LOVE in 1927). This retelling of Tolstoy’s classic 19th-century Russian novel once again gets the full MGM treatment. From amazing costumes, decor and technical elements, the film is lovely to look at, but for me something was missing.
The story tells of Anna’s loveless confining marriage to Karenin (Basil Rathbone) and her doomed affair with Count Vronsky (Fredric March). The problem for me with this film was the chemistry between Garbo and March. I didn’t buy it. As I said earlier, I love Frederic March as an actor…but I felt he was miscast in this. I may sound petty here but he really didn’t look good in his uniform. You just can’t have a romantic lead who is in the military who DOESN’T look good in his uniform. March just looks shapeless and out of his element. In order for a romantic film to work, it is CRUCIAL that you believe the chemistry between the two leads. Otherwise, you have nothing. Think of all the romantic films past and present and why they do (or in many cases don’t) work. It is all about chemistry. Of course that chemistry is hard to create and even more impossible to clearly define. It is either there or it isn’t. When it’s there….my gosh…how it works. When Garbo and Gilbert first meet in FLESH AND THE DEVIL, you know there is chemistry. It is palpable. It is undeniable. That can’t be forced or manufactured.
In spite of the problem I had with the film, it was still great to look at on the big screen.
I forgot to say this in my last post…..
I was shocked at how rude the audience was at the Garbo films last night. During THE TORRENT this one man’s cell phone rang. He not only let it ring many times, but he ANSWERED IT and took the call right there in the theatre! I lost my temper and took off after him, but my friend stopped me. I seriously wanted to hurt him….although given my small stature I doubt I could have done too much damage. I did scream, “No cell phones!” at him.
Then the couple sitting next to me kept laughing the entire time. They thought every single thing was funny. Garbo would just walk into a room and they would errupt in laughter. It made me so mad! They had no respect for the film or the other audience members around them. Maybe this is just my inner film geek speaking here, but when I go see a movie that was made in the 1920s, I look at it through 1920s eyes. I don’t even attempt to compare it to things being made now in 2005. It’s not fair to do that. For example there is a flood scene in THE TORRENT and for 1926 this was a really groundbreaking special effect! It is not fair to compare it to THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW for example and laugh at what an antique it is compared to that! Their laughter really distracted me and was extremely uncalled for. Then this man in front of my started belching….loudly I might add. These old ladies started talking in the row behind me.
I wonder why audience behavior has gotten so bad. I suspect maybe it is because of the home video DVD revolution. People watch stuff in the privacy of their homes and I’m sure they think nothing of talking loudly, chatting on the cell phone or whatever. I guess they just think this is acceptable in the public as well.
I’ve got news for them…..IT IS NOT! I wish I could get some brass knuckles that say “SHUT THE” on one hand and “HELL UP” on the other. Then I could walk up to rude audience members and explain to them the story of SHUT THE and HELL UP and how they are going to make quite an impression on their face….sort of like what Robert Mitchum did in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER.
I did call UCLA and personally ask the Archive to make a no talking and no cell phone announcement before the films in the future, which they did. It’s a good thing too. I’d hate to get kicked out of there for beating someone up….although you never know. It still might happen.
POSSESSED (1947) Warner Bros.
Joan Crawford racked up another Oscar nomination (she won for MILDRED PIERCE in 1945) for playing a woman driven to insanity by her obsessive unrequited love. Van Heflin is the lover who rejects her and tries to move on with his life. This is really a great performance from Joan Crawford and this particular film is rarely screened.
The sad truth is that due to “Mommie Dearest” Joan Crawford is only remembered as an alcoholic abusive mother. While I certainly don’t claim to know about her home life, I know that there was much more to the woman than the charicature she has become. She was hard working and talented. One film critic said, “You will NEVER find a single piece of film with Joan Crawford slumming.” He’s right. You won’t. She always gave 100%. She also managed to have a career that spanned from the silent era starting in 1925 until her final role in 1975. That’s a 50 year career! She managed to evolve and change with the times. She outlasted almost all of her contemporaries. She worked with some of the greatest actors and directors in Hollywood history. Joan Crawford deserves to be remembered for her professional accomplishments and not her personal problems. Just my opinion though.
THE MAN I LOVE (1946) Warner Bros.
Directed by Raoul Walsh
As a lonely torch singer, Ida Lupino sizzles amidst the smoky nightclubs and romantic backdrop of post WWII Los Angeles. This film is part noir, part melodrama, part romance and pure Classic Hollywood at it’s best.
Ida Lupino’s character comes to town from New York to visit her family and manages to solve all of their problems but creates her own in the process. She falls in love with a fellow musician and their doomed affair sends her back on the road. According to the program notes, this film inspired Martin Scorsese to make NEW YORK, NEW YORK.
I love both Ida Lupino and Joan Crawford. They were tough smart women who can still light up the screen. They were made for noir. Fortunately due to the efforts of film preservation, their faces will continue to brighten up the back streets, dark alleys and smoky nightclubs forever frozen in time as the ultimate dark city dames.
I love many different types of films from tons of different genres, eras, countries, etc… but silent films are one of my greatest passions. I love them so much. There is just something so poetic and dreamlike about them. Seeing them relaxes me and sweeps me off into a whole other world….a world I wish I could step into and never leave.
I’ve always loved Greta Garbo and while many people may argue with me, I prefer her in silence to sound. Yes it’s true. There is something about her in the silent films that is just so much MORE mysterious and glamourous and divine. I was thrilled that UCLA included many of these silent films as part of the series.
THE TORRENT (1926) MGM
Directed by Monta Bell
This was Garbo’s first film in the US. At this point, MGM was just experimenting and trying to figure out what to do with her. THE TORRENT is a story of forbidden love between two young Spanish lovers whose parents prevent them from being together. Garbo is taken to Paris where she becomes a world famous opera singer and then man (Richard Cortez) marries and leads a conventional life which is clearly one of quiet desperation. Years later, the lovers meet again and it is clear that the feelings of romantic anguish and regret still haunt them.
Here’s part of what the UCLA program said, “An early instance of the thwarted-love theme so integral to Garbo’s self-sacrificing persona, THE TORRENT was greeted rapturously, as in this Variety review: “Greta Garbo, making her American debut as a screen star, might just as well be hailed right here as the find of the year.”
What I liked about Garbo in this film is her character’s complete lack of regard for snobbery. When she is in a nightclub and is very deeply touched by the song of an African American singer, she just walks up on to the stage and gently hands him her diamond braclet and tells him “You are a great artist, perhaps this will make you an even greater one.” Everyone around her is stunned and horrifed by her gesture, but she could care less. She responded to him emotionally and that was ALL that mattered. I was also touched by the look on her face at the end of the film when she is sitting alone in the limo. Someone walks by and says, “She must have everything!”
The look in her eyes clearly tells us otherwise.
FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1926) MGM
Directed by Clarence Brown
This marked Garbo’s first collaboration with director Clarence Brown who was to have a very important role in her career. This also marked something even more significant…at least to movie audiences…..the meeting of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert! Even to this day, I’ve never seen a more torrid and passionate screen couple. They just ignited together both on screen and off! The plot of the film features John Gilbert and Lars Hanson as childhood best friends who have been romantically involved with Garbo. Gilbert is her past lover and Hanson is her husband. This is a melodrama that is very much of it’s time. It is a bit over the top in places, but I’m sure it didn’t seem that way in 1926. It was and in my opinion remains very hot stuff! It also features a very rare thing—horizontal love scenes! You never see this happen in silent cinema—but you see it here. I’ve heard this is going to come out on DVD later this year. I really hope that rumor is true.
So tonight I once again put on my clingy black 1940s dress, my cat eye sunglasses and crimson red headscarf and went to the Egyptian for some Film Noir bliss!
THE WEB (1947) Universal
This was a fun little movie that felt more like a murder mystery than an actual noir, but regardless it was fun! It had great dialogue and excellent actors including Edmond O’ Brien, Ella Raines and my beloved Vincent Price.
The print was a new 35mm and looked lovely! It is such a luxury to get to see so many films like this on the big screen.
BORDER INCIDENT (1949) MGM
This film was directed by Anthony Mann who is widely regarded as one of the greatest noir directors. The plot for this film was about a Mexican cop (Ricardo Montalban) who teams up with American agent (George Murphy) to stop a gang who are killing illegal immigrants on the U.S./Mexico border. The cinematography was by the great John Alton. His work is amazing. I could just stare at his films for hours and get lost in their brutal, stark, haunting images. This film was intense and well made and was a more unusual setting for a noir. I tend to think of noirs as happening in the big city, most notably Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York. Then again, crooked cops and dirty villans can crop up in any corner of the world—including a remote farm town across the border. Ricardo Montalban was very impressive as the lead character. The scene were the man gets run over by the tractor was particularly brutal and has to be one of the most disturbing death scenes I’ve seen in ages.
I really wanted to stay for the third film, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. As much as I love noir (and believe me I really do) if I see more than 2 in one day they all start to run together in my mind and I can’t keep it all straight. I get disoriented and confused as to what exactly I’ve just seen. I don’t want to overdose. I prefer to keep my noir addition in small but very steady quantities.
Tonight I went to the Academy for the Tribute to Greta Garbo on the 100th anniversary year of her birth. Lena Olin (also Sweedish) hosted the event and they had 17 film clips from her career. It was a lovely evening! They also had special guests on stage to discuss her life away from the cameras. Gore Vidal was among them. They all had a few interesting stories, but they were all such minor ones. That’s what is so fascinating about Garbo-NO ONE really ever knew her. She built up walls around herself and never allowed anyone inside. I think perhaps this quality is what made her such an amazing actress. She has one of the most beautiful faces that has ever been put on a camera. There is something hypnotic about her….intoxicating if you will. Bette Davis once referred to Garbo’s work as, “witchcraft” and said that “on one else ever worked so effectively in front of the camera.”
After viewing all of her clips, I thought “WOW-I can’t believe she didn’t make more films….then again maybe it’s best that she didn’t.” There are some stars who belong suspended in time. As much as I love Bette Davis, I wish she had retired decades before she died. Something about the site of her holding on to a career long grown cold and making really bad movies just saddens me. Her later work is hard to watch at best.
Retiring early just kept Garbo from growing stale and making bad films. It also added greatly to the sense of mystery. Given that she retired right as WWII was happening, she left at the right time. One critic said, “At that time people wanted to see Betty Grable’s legs….not Garbo’s art.”
It is so odd how public taste can shift so radically in a matter of a few short years. Regardless, it is good to know that ALL of Garbo’s films (except one silent) still exist and have been preserved and will continue to live on.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947) I?ve been dying to see this film so many times and every time it has played at the Egyptian I?ve been out of town or somehow unavailable. This film is not at this moment available on DVD or VHS except in really bad bootleg copies. For me the chance to finally see this film on the big screen in nitrate was a real treat. The storyline is about a man who works in the carnival and he decides to join forces with a crooked psychiatrist to con his way to the top of the ?spook racket? by speaking to the dead. He gleefully rips people off until he himself gets taken sending his life until a downward spiral.
By this point in his career, Tyrone Power has grown tired of playing swashbuckling heroes and romantic leads. He wanted to stretch as an actor and he lobbied studio chief Darryl Zanuck to let him make this film. To me, Tyrone Power has always been underrated as an actor. He was so handsome and his looks limited in him many ways. By the end of this film, he almost looks like an entirely different person. He had much more power and depth as an actor than he was ever really given credit for. The print of this film looked so beautiful and dreamy and harsh all at the same time. It was absolutely terrific and it reminded me in many ways of why I love movies so much to begin with.