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Another weekend, another brilliant entry in TIFF’s ongoing Dorothy Arzner retrospective. The director went freelance after leaving Paramount during the early 1930s, picking up work at RKO and Goldwyn before entering into a short-term association with MGM. If you’re guessing that Arzner would work well with the leonine studio’s #1 working girl star, you’ve been paying attention! This one makes extraordinary use of Joan Crawford’s 1930s persona, developed in films like Possessed (1931), Grand Hotel, and Sadie McKee.

It’s based on an unproduced Molnar play (The Bride From Trieste) with strong plot similarities to The Good Fairy, adapted a couple of years earlier by William Wyler (with a proto-auteurist script by Preston Sturges). We even have Reginald Owen’s goofy Admiral in the cast as a link. In Arzner’s hands, the playwright’s jolly topsy-turvy class-skeptical fable-making offers the perfect pretext for her protagonist’s existential will-to-efflorescence. From the start, we have a crucial difference in the set-up. Margaret Sullivan and Joan Crawford’s respective characters might come from the same downtrodden class, but while The Good Fairy’s orphaned innocent can stumble virtuously along the plucky path to love and fortune, Bride’s Triestine dive diva has another massively gendered strike against her. She’s damaged goods, in the patriarchal parlance of the times.

George Zucco’s high-handed Count Armalia, who seems so thoughtful and “democratic” at first, sees that right off – and conceives his scheme accordingly. The film makes it quite clear that this is all a ploy by one blue-blooded bro to get another aristo’s goat (Robert Young). Zucco’s final telegram is so thoughtlessly cruel that one can’t help reading it as evidence of Arzner’s scathing contempt for this entire genre. If you’re going to make lighthearted pronouncements about the unfairness and fundamental arbitrariness of the class system and then do absolutely nothing about the problem, you’re even more contemptible than those (like Young and his hotel-dwelling set) who cling to the fantasia of caste and “breeding”.

Franchot Tone’s Alpine Emersonian adds another interesting wrinkle. Although aligned with the Tyrolian “peasantry”, he has a pleasant, necessary, and minimally-taxing government job, leading the life of a deep-thinking Jeffersonian yeoman by other (Ruritanian) means. Neither exploiter, nor exploited, he is self-reliance on a hilltop.
Confronted with all of this, Crawford’s aspirational drives bifurcate and metastasize. Does she wish to crash society? Or hitch her donkey-cart to the stars? Does she even have to choose? As with our previous Arzners, these indeterminate desires take on lives of their own. And, fortunately, the director finds a way to bring a crucial female interlocutor into the mix. Stage star Mary Philips, as Maria, brings real brilliance to her class-straddling suite-cleaning scenes. She functions as Crawford’s cheerleader, conscience, and co-conspirator all in one. The one thing she isn’t a confidante, in the traditional sense. Her interest is purely in Crawford herself (and the quick-change permutations of her soul), not in her feelings qua feelings for Young and/or Tone.

And what of the eponymous red dress? One year before Bette Davis learned that “you can’t wear red to the ‘Lympus Ball”, Crawford learned quite the reverse lesson. You can wear anything you want, anywhere. So long as you’re committed to the outfit. And if you’re not, you can’t even bear looking at it in the mirror.

(There’s a lot more interesting material about gender, melodrama, and suicide in this film, but I’ll try to bring that into my reflection on Christopher Strong in a couple of weeks).

Louisa (1950)

Subject of our latest Reagan filmography podcast episode.

The Gipper’s slow segue out of the Warner fold began with this tone-setting suburban sitcom for Universal-International. Part of his new sometime-studio’s “Big Push” at the dawn of the television decade, Louisa shows how easily Reagan might have stepped into a Father Knows Best/My Three Sons-style second career. If only he had done so, American (and Canadian) marginal tax rates might still be at 70%.

As usual, Reagan mainly holds down the stage for the benefit of his co-stars, occupying a crucially colorless space between the coming and the going generations. The latter group includes Spring Byington (in the title role), Edmund Gwenn and Charles Coburn – reworking their love-triangle dynamics from the immortal Devil and Miss Jones. At the other end of the scale, we find debuting Piper Laurie, tragic Scotty Beckett, and little Jimmy Hunt with his big radio.

The film runs a brilliant reverse-play on the viewer, feinting toward some kind of a send-up of senior citizen sexuality and then delivering those second-chance-at-life intensities surprisingly straight. It all starts on a sidewalk outside Gwenn’s gourmet grocery shop, with a conversation about the loneliness of twilight. Along the way, we get some pretty decent dissection of masculinity at every age and stage of that particular disease.

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The Wild Party (1929)

A tremendous showcase for Clara Bow, a performer I’ve wanted to know more about ever since I read Elizabeth Kendall’s brilliant The Runaway Bride: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1930s. In the forward to that book, Kendall contends that Bow’s persona paved the way for the great screwball heroines of the Depression, and laments that the “It Girl” left pictures just before the genre took hold in 1934. We were fortunate enough to take in a beautifully restored print of The Wild Party as part of TIFF’s ongoing Dorothy Arzner retrospective (three more weekends to go!), and after finally seeing a Bow film, I concur with Kendall.

The Wild Party is less intricately plotted than Working Girls or Dance, Girl, Dance, and its protagonists’ erotic aspirations are less unmoored, but its story is still driven by a powerful relationship between two very different women (Bow and her scholarly friend Helen, played by Shirley O’Hara), and Arzner’s penchant for synthesizing romantic passion, intellectual growth, and artistic/professional attainment into one grand will-to-efflorescence remains very much in evidence. As in the later films, we locate our two central figures within a larger homosocial group (here, a tight-knit class of college dorm-mates); however, in this one, there is almost perfect solidarity within the collective (and between the pair of fused opposites). Only Joyce Compton’s Eva Tutt lurks enviously outside the charmed circle, causing mischief (and narrative movement) wherever she can.

When we first meet Bow (Stella Ames) and Helen, they are on completely different tracks. Stella is a hedonist of sorts, committed to exploring her sexual and volitional powers during the 4 “wild card” years between childhood and matrimony that 1920s society blessed women of her class with. Helen is a scholarship student who (unusually among her group, who call themselves the “Hard boiled maidens”) sees college as the necessary prelude to an intellectual career. By the end of the film, the two women, already deeply in sympathy with each other, have so rubbed off on one another that each has incorporated the other’s signature ambition into a broader plan for life.

It was great to see the return (or first appearance, chronologically) of Paul Lukas’s cozy office/armchair/fireplace set-up from Working Girls, this time assigned to Professor of Anthropology (and mansplaining) Fredric March, who makes an interesting mouthpiece for some of the director’s characteristic themes – most notably the human duty to become an ever more expansive person (without sacrificing an ounce of sensuality).

Despite its light tone, The Wild Party presents a pretty terrifying portrait of the era’s gender landscape (both outside and within the halls of academe). Our bourgeois protagonists have developed some pretty effective ways of having fun while deflecting unwanted masculine attention when cavorting with their collegiate peers, but in the real world of the roadhouse, hard boiled maidenhood only goes so far against men who’ve been socialized to go too far whenever they can. Meanwhile, at the women’s college, the students and the mid-level female administrators might conspire to keep certain indiscretions under wraps, but once word leaks upstairs to the all-male board of directors, the patriarchal canons of virginal purity or expulsion remain in full effect.

The film offers enough sociological insights to fuel a raft of monographs (think of Helen’s boyfriend George and his quick succession of statements and apologies regarding “women like Stella’); but, ultimately, its greatest asset is Bow herself, whose mix of good-humored pan-sensuality, self-regard, and stubbornness makes for an intoxicating blend.

 

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City Girl (1930)

Cross-posted from Letterboxd:

Murnau’s mea culpa to Margaret Livingtone, whose “Woman From the City” was thrown under the bus (or tossed onto the back of a cart) in the director’s previous masterpiece, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. This time, the music has been written for a slightly larger ensemble – but with Mary Duncan’s eponymous character very definitely in the lead.

Once again, City Girl finds Murnau on the faultline of the urban/rural divide – a divide which continues to paralyze American political development and could rupture the nation for good at any moment. The film boasts a unique structure, front-loading its fusion of opposites and then stepping back to stare in horror as human misrecognition goes about its dirty work of fission.

No director ever metonymized modernity better than Murnau does here, with his cheek-by-jowl-by-hash-by-ogle downtown Chicago diner packed to the screen edge like the final Jenga pile. It’s a mise-en-scene cute with a boxed-in build-up between the two principals that has rarely been equalled in cinema history (perhaps by Minnelli’s The Clock). The film takes the time to acquaint us with Kate’s humid, hurried life; and one can understand how she might come to misperceive the country as a place of calm, cool Emersonian ease and contemplation.

Of course, the reality is a very different thing. This film was made in 1928, a year before the Great Depression hit, but American farmers had been suffering throughout that supposedly prosperous decade. City Girl shows that, if anything, rural people were getting even more pummeled by impersonal market forces than proletarians like Kate. Patriarch Mr. Tustine has been so Stockholm syndromed by capitalism (and the crushing weight of his debts) into price-tagging his natural surroundings that he becomes apoplectic whenever his little daughter (future star Anne Shirley) plays with a few stray sprigs of his crop. At least in the metropolis they’ll sell you back a de-instrumentalized hunk of metal and plastic that you can think of as a bird.

Tustine’s son Lem (Charles Farrell) is just as ear-marked for obedience and production as the farmer’s abundant fields of wheat. In Chicago, out of his element, Kate misperceives the young man as a free-willed Jeffersonian yeoman, and maybe he even begins to believe it. But the reality is cataclysmically different. Kate discovers all at once that 1) Mr. Tustine hates her on sight as a sexual emissary of the exploitative Chicago Board of Trade; 2) country folkways provide Lem with no honourable way of rebelling against his father; and 3) her own impression of her new husband was tragically mistaken.

As in Sunrise, Murnau again deploys his urban female character as an agent of disruption. However, whereas in the previous film that disruptor ultimately had to go (after performing her useful function of rekindling the palled love between Gaynor and O’Brien); in City Girl she becomes a necessary part of the new synthesis. It’s obviously no accident that Farrell’s final reel search for her takes him down a road indistinguishable from the one upon which Livingstone had fled. One might be tempted to read the film as, ultimately, another song of two humans (Lem Tustine and his wife; or perhaps between Lem and his disapproving dad), and I can see the validity of those readings; but personally, I might call this an opera of intersubjective understanding between Kate herself and Mr. Tustine (with Charles Farrell as their lyre). Hence, the overwhelming emotional impact of the old man’s apologetic aria after his gun-rampage at the gate.

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Cross-posted from Letterboxd.

Subject of the latest episode of our Ronald Reagan filmography podcast. (Which I do with my friends Gareth & Romy.)

It’s the return of Brass Bancroft! (In Reagan’s own least favorite of his films.)

Warner’s vaunted (at least, by me) Foy Unit fell down on the job here. In The Films of Ronald Reagan, Tony Thomas contends that both Foy and his star asked the studio not to release it. They compromised by releasing it everywhere except in Los Angeles. A better compromise might’ve been to rework it a little – but, hey, whaddya want? They made these movies in 7 days!

Lacking anything like a compelling story to distract the viewer, you can zero in on the Reagan persona – a unique synthesis of sharpie and naïf. This American character type goes back to Mark Twain (at least), and several Hollywood stars (notably Gary Cooper) walked a tightrope between squint-eyed shrewdness and man-childishness; but can you think of any other actor so ideally fitted to playing a press agent or a scout leader? (He wound up playing both at the same time – for 8 miserable years during the 1980s).

Other pleasures (or, at least, puzzlers) on offer include: Moroni Olsen as a singularly psychopathic counterfeit-monk/counterfeiter; sidekick Gabby’s bizarre strip poker antics with the Mexican police (for all you Foy Jr. fetishists); the luminous Rosella Towne in her second straight Bancroft film (playing an entirely different character); and an unexpected cameo from Paul Muni. Sadly, John Litel had moved on to playing Nancy Drew’s dad at this point, and his replacement makes a damned second-rate Saxby (fortunately, Litel will return for 1940’s Murder in the Air).

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Working Girls (1931)

My reflection on Dorothy Arzner’s Working Girls (1931) – part of TIFF’s ongoing (in January and February 2019) Dorothy Arzner retrospective. Feeling pretty grateful to have seen it in a beautiful 35mm print – after observing what sad shape the online transcriptions of the film are in! (Cross-posted from Letterboxd)

Back to back screenings of DANCE, GIRL, DANCE and WORKING GIRLS ought to set visions of auteurism dancing in even the most hidebound canon fetishist’s head. Here again, the director’s camera shoots a quiverful of eros in mid-flight. Arznerian libido never quite settles; conjects rather than cathects – with dizzying effects. At the center of the maelstrom are a pair of protean protagonists who carry both surprise and heart in the vicinity of their sleeves.

Unlike the artist-figures of DANCE, GIRL, DANCE, Mae and June Thorpe are (as the title implies) ordinary working girls – as if there could ever possibly be such a thing. Shorn of the 1940 film’s theatre- and burlesque-world trappings, we see here that Arzner’s characters need not have any outre aesthetic ambitions in order to be compelling works in progress. Judith Wood (June) was, for me, a particular revelation, as the seen-it-all-but-still-scanning-the-horizon Thorpe sister. She may seem, at times, to be an ancestor of Lucille Ball’s “Bubbles”, but, in fact, she’s got far more in common with Maureen O’Hara’s “Morning Star”.

Perhaps the key scene of the film, in retrospect, comes early on, when June sits down for her job interview with Paul Lukas’s plainly star struck professor. She answers exactly none of the descriptors set forth in the man’s warmed over want ad – and yet her presence clearly stokes the embers of some deeper needs within him. This could easily have been played up for prurience. This is a “Pre-Code” entry after all – and, on the surface at least, the prof’s behavior is indistinguishable from any other sexually harassing employer. The film magnanimously writes off his offences as the symptoms of acute spring fever; and Arzner somehow manages to keep us (or, anyway, me) on board with this febrile creep through some pretty untoward episodes (I will admit that it was momentarily more touch than go for me when he fires Mae for turning down his ring).

Anyway, back to the scene in question! June summarily assesses her unfitness for the job; but, rather than allow a vortex to form in the wake of her powerful impression, she pulls Mae in to occupy her position by the hearth. And this is where Lukas’ vernal fever defense really picks up steam (at one point, he calls Mae “April” – there’s no one called “April” in this film). April – and the Equinox in general – are purely libidinous states of mind. They stand in for the same endless seeking (and freaking) that Ferdinand the Bull did in DANCE, GIRL, DANCE. The professor brings the term into the proceedings, but, if anything, his case is the mildest one. Boyd Wheeler (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) shows signs of being a far more distempered cad, careening wildly from fiancée to Mae to fiancée and back to Mae again. The film does pathologize his behavior; but, interestingly, it’s not the male gaze that causes his eye to wander, it’s his desire to attract a certain kind of gaze (monopolized by Mae). I could go on and on about the film’s unique way of crocheting its loving people into and out of each other’s arms – but that might have to wait until another day.

Just a couple more nods to crucial scenes will have to suffice. June’s incredible return to Lukas’ office – where she tries out both of his offered armchairs and expresses her unanimous delight (a prelude to those Chinese restaurant visits in which the director effortlessly upends a succession of forbidden apple carts by unveiling an unexpected reciprocity between June and her weirdo prof). And, last, but certainly not least, Mae and June’s gun toting good cop/bad cop commando raid on Boyd’s apartment (with Stu Erwin in tow) – showing that these visionary sisters have no need of a stage.

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Here’s my Letterboxd review of Dance, Girl, Dance (1940).

But before we start – there are 4 films left to go in this series (Dorothy Arzner’s Working Girls). If you’re in Toronto – don’t miss it!!!

Great start to TIFF’s Dorothy Arzner retrospective – and a longtime favourite. During her introductory remarks, series programmer Alicia Fletcher mentioned that she made it through two post-graduate film degrees without once seeing an Arzner film. That’s disheartening, and one hopes the canonizers are recalibrating their watch lists as we speak, but it also reminded me of my good fortune in having grown up indiscriminately immersed in the studio age buffet laid out by PBS stations during the ‘80s. I got to see several of this unique director’s works while still in high school – and I’ve been on the lookout for the others ever since.

DANCE, GIRL, DANCE is justly celebrated for Maureen O’Hara’s Brechtian burlesque stage direct audience address – a primal vocal poke in the male gaze – but there’s so much more to it than that. It’s a meditation on the bonds and bounds of female solidarity, yes; but it also offers a tremendously atmospheric cross-sectional slice of life at the ragged edges of urbane poverty and ersatz aristocracy in the late depression nightspots where these classes were apt to meet.

Often compared to LaCava’s superlative STAGE DOOR, with which it shares a number of RKO sets and one performer (Lucille Ball), Arzner’s film, in fact, explores very different thematic terrain. Where the earlier effort took the time to develop just about every member of its boarding house ensemble, Arzner zeroes in on only two members of her story’s beleaguered dancing troupe (Bubbles and Judy). Only one other dancer even gets a name – and Sally spends most of her scenes asleep (or aspiring to the same). That’s not a flaw. It’s evidence that the director is after antithetical game. While LaCava primarily examines the internal dynamics of his group, Arzner is more interested showing the effects of external class and gender vectors upon her linked protagonists.

How else to explain the interwoven saga of Louis Hayward and Virginia Field’s Schrodinger’s cat connection – they’re always married and divorced (until they try to pin it down). It’s the same with Bubbles and Judy – they’re always comrades-in-arts and rivals. And, as Judy’s incredible witness stand epiphany makes clear, their rivalry was always primarily aesthetically based (both in terms of self-expression and self-fashioning). This film depicts the confusing and omnidirectional impulses common to artistic and erotic aspiration qua unfixed aspiration better than just about any movie I know (Ferdinand the Bull becomes a sort of free running signifier of these desires). Against all odds, it truly earns its allusive use of morning stars and the wishful rhymes we habitually catapult skyward.

Obviously, there’s a lot more I could say about this film! Arzner gratia artis!

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