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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-arrows 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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Hello!

Here’s my Letterboxd review of The Secret Heart:

No golden age great was plagued by a less likely name to conjure with than Robert Z. Leonard – who might just as well have answered to “Mr. Brand Echh”. And yet, every RZL film is much better than it ought to be (excepting The Great Ziegfeld, which is worse). Was he an auteur? Who knows? That’s a post-facto status constituted by criticism. If you can add Film A, Film B, and Film C together and come up with something, you’ve got yourself an auteur. I’m not going to try anything that fancy this evening. I’ve just got a few words to say about The Secret Heart.

It’s one of those psychoanalytical chamber dramas that possessed Hollywood during the headcasey years after WW2. The titular occluded organ belongs to June Allyson, whose odd combination of full-blooded wholesomeness and full-moon looniness never had a better chance to shine. From the moment we first hear of her, Penny Addams is regarded as a problem. Surrounded by tenderly-disposed people (mother-in-law and last-parent-standing Claudette Colbert; returning hero brother Robert Sterling; convenient love interest Marshall Thompson; even crotchety old shrink Lionel Barrymore, who must have been a contemporary of Freud), the young virtuoso remains mewed up to her music. Her progress at the conservatory has stalled, and any prospects for a successful artistic career is jeopardized, by her conviction that her heart cannot venture forth amongst the populace.

Through a series of intricate flashbacks (which, in combination with George Folsey’s gorgeous nocturnal cinematography, imbue this little family romance with a noirish frisson), we trace her affliction to a piano bench reverse pieta, in which the child is cradled by her adoring, soon-to-be-self-murdered father and promises always to play only for him. Well, that’s kept Penny pickled in melancholy for more than a decade. Things might have muddled on that way forever, but what happens when she transfers that soaring monomania to a living, substitute dad? Fortunately for the Addamses, Walter Pidgeon (as the step-mother’s once-and-future love) shows up to pour kerosene on the low-level family fire they’ve been stewing in.

One of the joys of this film is the way it doubles and triples down on its ricocheting roster of complexes. Case in point, Claudette Colbert’s inability to deal with her emotions and forgive herself for failing to pull her flailing husband out of despair leads her to pour everything into raising his two orphaned children – thereby pushing Penny further into neurosis through an enforced ignorance of the truth.

I can’t think of another narrative that wrings this kind of heart-swelling catharsis out of a revelation of the reasons for a loved one’s suicide. And just when you begin to doubt the wisdom of Colbert’s clifftop confession (because it saves Penny by throwing her daddy under the bus – or into the sea), the film leaps into an even higher register in the next scene, staging a truly moving meeting of the minds between mother and daughter by delving deeply and empathetically into the roots of Larry Addams’ ruin.

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Here’s my Letterboxed review of Strange Illusion

Unique Ulmer entry opens in media reve, with protagonist Jimmy Lydon introducing us to his peculiarly prophecy plagued plight – and then devotes the remaining 80 minutes of its run time to an inexorable process of oneiric exegesis.

Paul Cartwright lost his elderly father last year, see – and now every time he shuts his eyes, grim intimations of his mother and sister experiencing unaccustomed sexual pleasure assault his proto-patriarchal mind. I’m sure it doesn’t help that he’s been receiving creepy monthly newsletters from his defunct dad, each one more paranoid than the last.

And so, our junior G-spot man sets out to waylay anyone’s chance of getting laid. Fortunately for him, every one of his prurient prognostications are proven correct. Not only is that new potential step-father a no-good conman and rapist – he was actually the elusive Moriarty to old Judge Cartwright’s Sherlock Holmes AND the instrument of that worthy gentleman’s demise.

From the moment his oily voice slicks across Paul’s murky nocturnal visitation, Warren William’s insinuating presence casts a supercilious pall upon the spunky scion’s bourgeois “Son King” schemes.

As you might expect, director Ulmer finds a way to have it both ways in this surprisingly minor-key “meller”. He wants you to like Paul and marvel at his resilience (he’s the most energetic depressive you will ever meet); but the film’s heart, ultimately, belongs with the interloper Brett Curtis (nee the diabolical Barrington). This is most clearly articulated by sister Dorothy Cartwright (played by the excellent Jayne Hazzard), who makes it pretty plain that she’s not going back to hanging out with the likes of Paul’s callow pal George after meeting Warren William.

And that’s what makes it so heartbreaking that the object of her affection turns out to be such a beyond-the-pale swine. I’m going way out on a critical limb here, but I view the treatment of Barrington’s sex-murderer streak as an Ulmerian meta-swipe at the Judge Cartwright-like canons of melodrama. It’s a “look pa, I’m throwing your more appealing nemesis under the bus” element; and I think that interpretation is borne out by the fact that the film never actually shows William committing any of the recounted atrocities (in the pool, and at the boat house), thus allowing viewers to keep their charming impression of the character (while simultaneously knowing that he signifies everything – both good and evil – that patriarchal bourgeois norms must condemn).

We (or, at least, I) can forgive him for staging a train wreck to rid himself of the sanctimonious old judge, but misusing Omar Khayyam in that manner is absolutely monstrous.

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Undercurrent (1946)

Here’s my brief reflection on Vincente Minnelli’s Undercurrentcross-posted from Letterboxd.

The film opens on an Ozuesque note, with Hepburn and Edmund Gwenn playing New England’s very own Setsuko Hara and Chishu Ryu. I’d love to have seen where Minnelli might’ve gone with that (last time they played father and daughter it turned into SYLVIA SCARLETT). Instead, Robert Taylor’s grim-visaged inventor/industrialist blunders onto the stage, a homicide-haunted Howard Hughes who elicits snarls from the family dog and some kind of a reaction from our heroine (both as an American and “as a girl”).

What is one to make of a movie partly premised on the preposterous conceit that Katharine Hepburn could ever possibly have reminded anyone of any other human being? Per the film’s gothic-tinged script, the celebrity grabs his bride off the scrapheap of spinsterhood in order to transform her and show her off to her double… Jayne Meadows?

That’s a pretty serious problem.

But if you set that issue aside, there’s a lot to like in this film. For one thing, Minnelli and cameraman Karl Freund seem to come alive whenever anyone ventures near Taylor’s stable – particularly in Hepburn’s incantatory encounter with a traumatized witness to the master’s depravity. For another, Taylor’s stilted saturninity conveys the cornered rat choler of impostor syndrome quite brilliantly. And then there’s that scene at the ranch, which is enough to make any viewer lament having missed the chance to join a philosophical book club led by Kate and Bob Mitchum.

Speaking of Mitchum, true to what would soon be his cinematic form, he manages to make a serious impression without demonstrating the slightest hint of agency within the plot.

Fortunately, that wronged horse knew when to put his hooves down. And Minnelli shoots the cathartic finale with libidinal aplomb.

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Here’s my Letterboxd reflection on Till the End of Time (1946)

Director Edward Dmytryk puts on a clinic in blacklist-ready filmmaking.

You’ve seen this film in plenty of footnotes to articles on Wyler’s brilliant BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. It’s the other “three soldiers come home” movie released in 1946. I’m not going to argue that it’s better, but it’s no also-ran.

The themes are similar: social dislocation, existential dread, battlefield trauma, vicious physical challenges, and the whole gamut of concerns that come under the heading of “post-war readjustment”; but Dmytryk’s emphasis is quite different. For one thing there’s Dorothy McGuire’s Pat Ruscomb. You can search 1940s Hollywood cinema from end to end and you won’t find another character like this one. “They oughta give out medals to war widows,” Guy Madison’s character opines. What they ought to’ve done is make more movies about them. Pat is simultaneously aimless and grounded; aloof and empathetic; available and wedded to an ideal. She’s no script doctored fount of wisdom either, conjured up for the benefit of the protagonist; she makes some gut-wrenchingly authentic gaffes (“you’re the velvet”).

McGuire’s performance alone would make this a must-see, but alongside it you get to watch Robert Mitchum’s carelessly thoughtful persona emerge fully formed from the American subconscious. And give Guy Madison his due – he may not have done much else of note (although I’m also a big fan of FIVE AGAINST THE HOUSE), but his ill-at-ease Adonis stylings make him the perfect protagonist for film set against the backdrop of a Golden State Limbo on the cusp of the coming Cold War clampdown.

“Now we’re civilians again,” Mitchum says. “Rugged individuals. No one to tell us what to do or when to do it. We’re on our own. Perry, you, me, all of us. Well, we’ve been gabbin’ for it. Now we got it.”

The anti-fascist solidarity of the Depression and War years could vanish more quickly than Bill Tabeshaw’s 2000 fish at a Vegas crap table.

Note the film’s prescient evocation of the sunny sitcom politaesthetic that would drop like a repressive beach blanket on the Popular Front aspirations of Dmytryk’s generation.

But, in true Gramscian fashion, Dmytryk’s art offers Pessimism of the Intellect and Optimism of the Will, building to a kind of Antifa Epiphany at some dive called the Swan, where even the badly damaged Perry finds there’s still some use for his well-trained fists.

Too bad about the rest of the century.

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Hello and welcome to the newest year yet!

Hope you’ve all been well!

I regret to report that this is not likely to be the year that I return to blogging, as my free hours will mostly be devoted to finishing my latest novel (Anatomy of a Melancholy Baby) and podcasting at Another Kind of Distance and Red Time For Bonzo: A Marxist-Reaganist Filmography Podcast.

However, I have resolved to try to write more (very short) reviews/reflections on Letterboxd in 2019, and I figured I might as well cross-post’em on good ol’ Anagramsci.

Here’s the first one – on Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982)

(Elise and I saw a whole bunch of Bergman at the TIFF Lightbox cinema in 2018 – and the new Winter ’19 promises to keep us just as busy with oodles of Ophulses, Arzners, Vigos, and K. Hepburn vehicles, so stay tuned for reactions to those.)

First time seeing the 312 minute version.

Perhaps the strongest conceivable defense of bourgeois hypocrisy/superficiality as a (temporary) refuge from existential dread. We are cordially invited to attend a sumptuous warts-and-all year-end celebration that, in most other films (perhaps especially in most other Bergman films), would play like a scathing critique of corrupt indulgence and falsity. Here, those flatulent festivities take on a kind of miasmatic glow in comparison with the crisp, cool cruelties on offer at the Bishop’s Citadel of Introspection.

The “Little World” is fragile as hell, and mostly conjured out of smoke, mirrors, and capitalist exploitation, but only a fool would deny the charm afforded by a closet full of party masks.

Let us live in the little world, by all means, for as long as we are able to – and let us do all we can to ensure that, someday, the comforts of that little world are available to every person on the globe.

 

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That’s it for now – see you soon, friends!

Dave

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