Classics From Criterion: THE BROWNING VERSION (1951)

One of the things I enjoy the most about the Criterion Collection is discovering hidden gems within the collection.  There are always the splashier, more famous titles that we all know and love for good reason.  But every once in a while I pick up a movie that I have heard little to nothing about, one I have never seen before and find interesting and give it a go only to find that it is an amazing film that deserves to be talked about more.  THE BROWNING VERSION is one such film.

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Andrew Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave) is a master of classics at an English public school.  Getting on in years, he has been forced to leave his position due to poor health.  At the suggestion of his doctor, Crocker-Harris is taking a lesser position at a smaller school and leaving his classics behind.  His current class is less than dismayed at this turn of events.  “The Crock”, as the boys call him, is not well liked either by his students or his peers.  He is pedantic, reserved to the point of being stuffy, and generally unable to endear himself to his fellow man.

Someone who does not suffer from this problem is Crocker-Harris’ wife, Millie (Jean Kent).  In fact she has made many friends, including the science master Frank Hunter (Nigel Patrick) with whom she has been carrying on an affair.  She despises her husband, seeing him as weak, ineffectual, and totally absorbed in his work.  Clearly she had different ideas as to what her husband would be doing with his life and career when they got married.  She has given up on any hope of happiness with her husband, and her husband has given up any hope of happiness in his life at all.

Crocker-Harris is aware that he is disliked, aware that his students not only dislike him but loathe him as well.  He also knows that his colleagues have no regard for him and that his career is not what he wanted to make of it.  He knows that his wife dislikes him and that any semblance of a happy marriage has disappeared long ago.  He feels himself a failure, not only as a teacher but as a man, and he has resigned himself to being a failure for the rest of his days.  When he meets his successor and hears that fellow staffers refer to him as “The Himmler of fifth level”, he is hurt but accepts that this is only proper and just considering what his life is.  It isn’t until one of his students, a lad named Taplow, brings him a good-bye present that things begin to change for Crocker-Harris.

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THE BROWNING VERSION is based on a one act play written by Terence Rattigan, and was adapted for the screen by the same.  While the play ends when Crocker-Harris receives his gift from Taplow, the film continues on and gives a much more complete and emotionally satisfying ending.  The fact that Rattigan himself wrote this new ending is perhaps more reassuring that this was the ending that he always meant to infer with his play.

If you are hoping to find something similar to GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS then I am afraid you will be extremely disappointed.  THE BROWNING VERSION is an examination not only of a man’s life and his family, but also of failures of all kinds.  The failure of unfulfilled dreams, of incompatible love turned into mutual destruction, of disconnection, and resignation to ones lot in life.  It also asks the question, when is it too late to change or is it ever too late?

I have heard this film described as a man looking back on his life and realizing that he has been a failure in his job and his marriage.  But I think that that is a very simplistic view.  I think that Crocker-Harris was aware that he had failed in many aspects of his life but it wasn’t until he was presented with the end of his current position and with a possibility of some kindness and consideration that he must confront this failure and decide what is to be done.  Tallow’s gift echoes pieces of Crocker-Harris’ past, pieces that he had given up and that those around him have forgotten.  For a moment when he receives this gift her can see a possibility of happiness once again if only he could figure out how to get it.

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Mrs. Crocker-Harris could easily been seen as a purely nasty person but I think that she has been disappointed just as her husband has, but her disappointment comes from the man she married and his inability to be the person she wants him to be.  When she realizes she can’t inspire or affect him to become that person, she decides to destroy him instead so that she can at least have some satisfaction from watching him to respond to something of her making.  While many of the people in THE BROWNING VERSION are mean, I would not say any of them are bad.  Rather they are all unhappy and dissatisfied in their own ways, and they each respond to this dissatisfaction differently.

This film also presents a fairly unflattering portrait of public education staff life.  Teachers are shown to be petty, rude, and gossipy.  Another teacher is leaving along with Crocker-Harris but he is leaving to play cricket and the difference between the two farewells is obvious and hurtful.  When the head master asks Crocker-Harris to allow the younger master to give his farewell speech second, a slight to the more senior master, because the expected response and applause will be far greater than the one for Crocker-Harris, we can feel the harshness of the comment because it is something that still happens today.  Popular sports outweighing academia once again.

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Finally, Michael Redgrave is phenomenal.  He carries this film utterly and he manages to portray Crocker-Harris not only as a unpleasant person but also as one that we can sympathize with.  We can dismiss him as simply a man who has failed at life but if we take the time to really listen to the words being said and really see the nuances in Redgrave’s performance we will see that here is a man who once had hope and promise, and through a series of decisions has lost that.  There is tragedy here and it is a tragedy that we can all relate to as who among us hasn’t had a moment where we wondered, “What if?”

 

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Twelve Classics for 2016: THE LADY EVE (1941)

To start of my year of Twelve Classics, I decided to begin with a little Preston Sturges.  Because come one, what is better than Preston Sturges when you are feeling a bit down and stressed after the holidays?  Answer…nothing.

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Deep in the South American jungle the heir to the Pike’s Pale Ale empire, one Charles Poncefort Pike (Henry Fonda), is getting ready to set sail back to America with his valet/bodyguard/banker Muggsy and his new pet snake.  Charles, it seems, is a bit of a snake fanatic.  This fact does not deter any of the young ladies about the cruise ship he boards, in fact most of them are doing pretty much anything in their power to get his attention.  One woman who is trying not to catch Charles’ eye, at least not yet, is Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck).  Jean and her father “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn) are con-artists and cardsharps, and they have just found their next meal ticket in one Charles Poncefort Pike.

Jean takes her time observing Charles and the shameless flirting of the other women onboard before she finally makes her move.  Specifically, she trips him.  Then she blames him for breaking her shoe.  Charles is extremely sorry as one might imagine and Jean suggests that he make it up to her by escorting her up to her cabin to pick out a new pair of shoes.  Upstairs, Charles is unprepared for the advances of Jean and is soon putty in her hands.  Returning to the dining room, Charles and Jean join the Colonel in a friendly game of cards.  Despite Muggsy’s watchful eye, Charles has no suspicion that Jean and her father are anything but wonderful people.  In fact he wins $600!  The evening ends with Charles and Jean promising to see each other the next day, and he and the Colonel promising to play cards again soon.

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Over the course of the next several days Jean and Charles spend a great deal of time together.  Naturally, Charles falls in love with Jean but something strange begins to happen as well.  Jean falls in love with Charles.  More than that she tells her father that she has decided that she is going to marry Charles, legitimately with no cons or tricks, and that she will eventually tell him the truth about her past.  While she and Charles are onboard she promises not to reveal anything out of respect to her father but she does warn him not to try any tricks or cons on Charles.  Her father promises but privately decides to continue to con as planned.

That evening, Charles asks the Colonel for his permission to marry his daughter which the Colonel grants.  Jean goes to get some air and Charles agrees to a friendly game of cards with his future father-in-law.  By the time that Jean comes back to the table Charles has lost $32,000!  Jean is furious but the Colonel rips up the check in front of her.  She and Charles excuse themselves and soon retire to their separate cabins.  Meanwhile, Muggsy has been doing some investigating of his own and has found proof of just who Jean and her father really are, proof he shares with Charles.  The next morning Charles confronts Jean and she admits everything.  In his anger, Charles pretends that he knew the truth all along and was just stringing Jean along for a joke.  Hurt, Jean leaves and vows to return to her conning ways and never think of Charles again.  She begins to feel better when he father shows her a check for $32,000 which actually was never ripped up at all.

Some time later, Jean and her family are having a day at the races when they run into a fellow con-artist named Pearly (Eric Blorre).  Pearly is currently known as Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith and has set up quite a comfortable life for himself among the rich of Bridgefield, Connecticut.  Jean perks up at the mention of Bridgefield because that is the hometown of Charles Poncefort Pike.  Despite her father’s protests she devises to visit Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith as his niece…Lady Eve Sidwich of England.

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Do I even need to say that this is a great movie?  First of all Preston Sturges created this screenplay specifically for Barbara Stanwyck and it shows.  Jean Harrington is such a dynamic, intelligent, funny, sexy, and all around amazing woman.  She is a con-artist for sure but you never find her so devious that she is unlikeable.  Even when she is masquerading as the Lady Eve and making Charles’ life miserable, there is still a quality to her that makes you just think she is fantastic.  I honestly don’t think that anyone else could have played Jean except Barbara Stanwyck, even if the part wasn’t written specifically for her.  She can just give one look with her eyes and convey an entire scene.  She more than holds her own in every scene she is in, against the likes of Coburn, Blorre, and Palatte, as well as Demarest and Fonda.  This is not to sat that she steals the scenes from her fellow performers, rather she allows them shine while never letting the audience forget that she is still there.  Barbara Stanwyck is my favorite classic film actress and THE LADY EVE gives her room to play.

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Henry Fonda is terrific as the bumbling, naive, unworldly Charles.  He plays his inexperience as both charming and believable.  Often when there is a character that is supposed to be sheltered and unwise to the world, I find them annoying and overly child-like.  Fonda acts like a man who knows quite a bit about some things but next to nothing about many things.  He is just a quiet man who has lived his life with the knowledge that he will probably not ever get married and have a family, that he will most likely spend his life reading books and collecting snakes.  When he meets Jean its like a whole new world has opened up to him and he is so excited at the possibility.  To find out that all this happiness was based on a lie is devastating to him and for the first, and really only time in the whole movie and perhaps his life, Charles reacts cruelly.  But just like we never dislike Jean for her conning ways, we never dislike Charles for his poor behavior.  We understand why he reacted that way and we hope that he can find a way to return from that.

It speaks to the mastery of Preston Sturges that we can have a film about a con-woman and her criminal family, as well as a rich somewhat childish man and his slightly psychotic and paranoid guarding and still care about and like each and every one of them.  I will also say that the ending when it first began to take shape didn’t make total sense to me.  But as the movie went on and the full culmination became evident, I was certain that there was no other way that this story could have ended.  For a script that was written while Preston Sturges was awaiting his third divorce, THE LADY EVE is a remarkably hopeful story about love and finding ways to accept people for who they are.


This post is part of the 2016 Blindspot Series from The Matinee.  You can see more about it here with my list of films I want to watch in 2016!

 

The Try It, You’ll Like It! Blogathon: THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942)

This post is part of the Try It, You’ll Like It! Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently and Sister Celluloid.  Be sure to check out the other entries here!

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Let’s be honest.  If you are a classic film fan the chances are good that you have at least one person in your life who is less than excited at the prospect of watching one of your “old movies” with you.  For me that person would have to be my husband.  God love him he tries, he really does, but he just can’t quite muster up the same enthusiasm as I do when I put in a DVD and Barbara Stanwyck comes on screen.  I’ve been trying to convert him, slowly, and I have found some films that he has enjoyed.  Recently, we watched THE PALM BEACH STORY and in my opinion it is a terrific movie to use when introducing non-fans to classic films.

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First, a brief summary of the film.  Tom (Joel McCrea) and Gerry (Claudette Colbert) are a married couple in New York City.  They are also currently in a bit of financial difficulty especially as their landlord is showing new tenants their apartment.  Gerry happens to be home during one such tour and takes refuge in a shower.  She is discovered there by a funny little old man who calls himself “The Weinie King”.  When Gerry explains that the reason the landlord is showing their apartment is because they have no money to pay the rent, the Weinie King gives her a large sum of money for no other reason than to annoy his wife.  And the fact that Gerry happens to be a lovely girl with a nice voice.  Gerry gratefully takes the money and gives the old man a kiss on the cheek.

Tom meanwhile is at the office making a sales pitch.  He is trying to convince a potential investor that his idea for a new kind of airport is an idea worth putting some money behind.  When he gets a very excited phone call from Gerry, who is trying to tell him what happened with the Weinie King, he barely has time to listen.  Gerry agrees to tell him everything that night and then hurries out to put the new money to good use.  When Tom arrives home later he is shocked to find that Gerry has paid all the bills and the rent, as well as bought herself a new dress and now she wants to take him out to dinner and theater with the money left over.  Tom is suspicious of this man who came into the house and gave his wife money and wanted nothing in return.  Gerry is slightly offended by this but not for the reasons you might think.  She has been trying for some time to use all of her talents to help Tom get ahead in the world and every time he becomes jealous and ruins things.  Over dinner that evening Gerry, who has had a bit to drink, tells Tom that she firmly believes that while she still loves him it would be in his best interest if she was to leave him.  She is only holding him back and since he won’t accept her help, leaving is the only way she can ensure that Tom’s career will be successful.  Tom dismisses this notion as foolish but even after they return to their apartment, Gerry is insistent that she is leaving him.  But some caring and helpful unzipping of a difficult zipper stop this conversation from going any farther.

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Morning comes and while Tom slumbers peacefully, Gerry tearfully writes him a note.  In it she explains that she was perfectly serious last night, that in spite of how much she still loves him she is leaving him so that he will finally be the success he deserves to be.  Unfortunately, Gerry is not super stealthy when leaving the note and Tom wakes up in time to see her leaving.  He gives chase and the two eventually end up at the train station.  Having no money of her own, Gerry must resort to using her feminine wiles and finds success in a traveling group of men who call themselves The Ale and Quail Club.  She waves goodbye to Tom as the train pulls away from the station.  Tom decides to follow Gerry’s train and meet her when she arrives in Florida some time later.  By the time he finds her things have changed.  Gerry is no longer part of The Ale and Quail Club, but she is accompanied by a young man (Rudy Vallee) who happens to be a millionaire and who has bought her an entire wardrobe, and his wife introducing him as Captain McGlue to a very forward woman (Mary Astor) with a boyfriend named Toto.

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THE PALM BEACH STORY is crazy, zany Preston Sturgess goodness.  It is just fun!  And that is what makes it such a great first film for non-classic film lovers.  Comedy is perhaps the easiest genre to take when trying a new kind of film, book, or television show.  Humor is a universal value and something we all can enjoy.  It sets people at ease, perhaps making them feel less pressured to do anything more than enjoy the film they are about to see.  Comedies don’t have to be dissected or discussed, although they can be certainly, they really only need to be enjoyed and it doesn’t get much better than Preston Sturges.

Too often people think of classic films as slow, clunky, and boring.  These are three words that will never be used to describe THE PALM BEACH STORY or Preston Sturges.  With THE PALM BEACH STORY, Sturges is at the top of his game and throws himself and the audience into the zany story with reckless abandon.  The story, the characters, and the jokes come fast and furious and with such enthusiasm that we can’t help but get swept up in it.  Have a friend who says that old movies are dull?  Show him this movie and stand back!  The comedy makes the transition easier, the ability to forget that the film being watched is over sixty years old simpler, and the preconceived notions of classic films seem foolish.  This is an old movie that doesn’t feel like an “old movie” and this is because Sturges has crafted such a clever, funny, and enjoyable comedy that it has become timeless.  In case you are still on the fence about whether or not THE PALM BEACH STORY is a great film to show a novice fan, here are three reasons why you should courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

So back to the night I showed THE PALM BEACH STORY to my husband.  He liked it.  He really liked it.  He laughed.  Out loud.  Several times.  And days later he would look at me and say “Nitz Toto!” and start laughing.  I don’t think you can ask for a better review than that, do you?

 

 

The Criterion Blogathon: RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947)

This post is part of the Criterion Blogathon hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings.  Be sure to check out all the awesome posts here!

Spoiler Warning!  Before we go any further let me say that we will be having a somewhat detailed discussion of this film.  While I will not be revealing the ending, several plot points will be mentioned so if you don’t want to know stop reading now.

A bus pulls into a small Mexican town.  Passengers disembark and locals hawk their wares.  Among the tourists is a man who stands apart.  He walks with purpose into the bus station, under the sign that reads “WELCOME TO SAN PABLO”, and heads toward the back benches.  Sitting down, he opens his suitcase and pulls out a gun which he slips into his jacket.  Next he pulls out a slip of paper which he glances at before shutting the suitcase.  Walking to the wall of lockers, he choses one and places the paper inside.  Buying a stick of gum, he chews it and uses the softened gum to hold the key to the back of the large picture on the bus station wall.  This task completed he goes outside and asks the first local he sees where he can find a certain hotel.

Various locals give him varying directions until he finds a group of young girls.  The youngest girl offers to take him to the hotel, which she does, and before parting she gives him a local idol to protect him.  The man, Lucky Gagin (Robert Montgomery), scoffs at this but pockets the doll anyway.  Gagin enters the hotel in search of a man named Frank Hugo (Fred Clark) and when he receives no help from the front desk, he makes his own way upstairs to Hugo’s room and acquaints himself with Hugo’s man Jonathan.  Gavin settles in to wait for Hugo to return when the door opens and a woman enters.  This time it is Marjorie Lundeen (Andrea King), Hugo’s main squeeze and she seems less concerned about Jonathan and more concerned about who Gagin is.  As she tries to work her charms on Gagin the phone rings and Hugo comes over the other end to say the he won’t be back until the next day.  Gagin takes his leave and tells Marjorie to just tell Hugo that “Shorty’s pal” was here.

In the hotel lobby a little old man approaches Gagin and invites him to lunch.  He has all the information on Gagin, including his name, bus number, and why he is so interested in Frank Hugo.  The man is Bill Retz (Art Smith) and he works for the FBI.  Retz is trying to arrest Hugo for the federal government but he needs more evidence, evidence which he believes Gagin has.  Gagin refuses to help, sighting his experiences in the service during World War II as reason enough to doubt that the government would ever do anything decent.  Retz leaves with one parting piece of advice for Gagin, don’t try to avenge his friend Shorty by killing Hugo.

Gagin goes in search of a hotel room for the night but finds that all rooms are booked thanks to the upcoming fiesta.  The bellboy at one of the hotels advises him to seek out a local tavern which he does.  However the tavern seems to be strictly for locals and they don’t offer a very friendly welcome…at first.  Luckily a man named Pancho (Thomas Gomez), the local carousel operator, who teaches Gagin that the way to the local’s hearts is through tequila.  Several drinks later Pancho and Gagin make their way back to Pancho’s carousel.  Along the way they run into the girl who took Gagin to the hotel.  The girl, Pila (Wendy Hendrix), continues to follow the two men until they both lay down to rest.  Something catches her eye and she hurries over to Gagin, alerting him that someone is coming.  It’s Retz and he has a warning for Gagin.  Hugo got his message and knows who “Shorty’s pal” is.  He has sent some of his men out looking for Gagin, hoping to kill him.

Gagin spends the night at Pancho’s carousel and in the morning heads back to the hotel for his meeting with Hugo.  Hugo, who is deaf, is unfazed by Gagin’s arrival and is even hospitable.  After some small talk things get down to brass tacks.  Hugo knows why Gagin is there.  It seems that Gagin’s friend Shorty used to work for Hugo and during his time there got the idea that he could be a crook too and decided to blackmail Hugo.  This was a bad idea and it ended up getting Shorty killed.  At this point Gagin reveals that he still has the cancelled check Shorty stole, the check that proves that Hugo bribed a government official, the check that he is willing to now sell back to Hugo for $30,000.  Hugo agrees to Gagin’s demands and the two men plan to bring their respective pieces of the deal to the Tip Top Cafe that night.

I have a theory about film noir.  I think that a lot of it comes from World War II.  The disillusionment felt by the returning servicemen and their families, the adjustments that needed to be made by the men who had fought on the battlefields and the women who had served on the homefront, the displacement felt by an entire population who now found the world completely altered lead to the creation of the film noir.  It wasn’t popular, correct, or acceptable to give voice to the feelings of pain, frustration, and alienation.  Men were supposed to come home and get on with their lives, women were supposed to give up their newly discovered independence and go back to their former roles, families and communities were supposed to just carry on as if nothing had changed when of course everything had.  The male stars returning to Hollywood were changed, the directors who had filmed the battles and troops were changed, the writers, producers, and directors who had sought refuge from their homes in Europe were changed.  They all needed an outlet for the anger, the sadness, the disillusionment, and the pain they felt and they found it in making films that seethed with an undercurrent of darkness.  Lucky Gagin’s entire journey in this film is propelled by his disillusionment with the country and the government after the war.  He is disgusted by the common acts of cowardice and corruption he witnessed in the service, the selfish behavior seemingly promoted among the population, the love of the dollar at any cost with no care for your fellow man attitude that seems to be prevalent among the very people he saw so many men die defending.  If they don’t have to care then why should he?  If they didn’t have to be decent why does he?

I have read some reviews which mention Robert Montgomery as being something of a weak link when it comes to the acting in this film.  More to the point, the feeling is that he falls short of bringing Lucky Gagin to full effect as a gangster especially as compared to Fred Clark’s portrayal of Frank Hugo.  I have to say that I disagree with this evaluation.  First of all, let me say that I think that Robert Montgomery is a wholly underrated actor.  Most people think of him in terms of the urbane comedies of the 1930s, especially those he did alongside Norma Shearer.  But I remember watching Robert Montgomery in NIGHT MUST FALL.  In it he plays a psychologically damaged man who kills old women and keeps their heads in a hatbox.  Starring alongside Rosalind Russell, Robert Montgomery gives an amazing performance of a man who is not purely evil but rather one who is disturbed and charming all at once.  The film was a critical but not a financial success, a symptom most likely of audience’s unwillingness to see Robert Montgomery as anything other than the wise cracking friend who usually doesn’t get the girl.  Perhaps it was thanks to this pigeon-holing that caused Robert Montgomery to direct and star in RIDE THE PINK HORSE.  If he didn’t direct the film it would never get made and if he didn’t direct it he would never get to star in it.

To me, Robert Montgomery’s seemingly less than adept performance as a gangster is less a lack of skill and more an artistic choice.  Lucky Gagin in the film is presented as a man who used to be a petty criminal before the war.  He entered the service, perhaps hoping for a better life or a nobler cause, and after the war was so discouraged that he returned to his former life of small time crime.  Shorty got him a job working alongside him and that was how he got involved with Hugo.  Shorty was killed and Gagin decides to avenge his friend by making Hugo pay by hitting him where it hurts, his wallet.  He isn’t going for a big score and he isn’t trying to make a fortune, pretty much everyone points out to him that he isn’t asking for very much money, rather he is trying to make a point.  Make a point to Hugo, to Shorty, and to himself that the world is corrupt and easily bought and the only thing worth anything is money.  Lucky Gagin isn’t a big time gangster and he isn’t a criminal mastermind.  He is small time crook who is good in a fight.  He isn’t too bright but he knows how the world works.  He used to think that the government was worth fighting for but now he isn’t so sure.  When up against Frank Hugo in a scene, Lucky Gagin feels like a blunt instrument which is what he was. And that is exactly how Robert Montgomery plays him.

RIDE THE PINK HORSE is a film noir that deserves a wider audience which will hopefully happen thanks to The Criterion Collection.  This unusual noir is exceptionally well done and gives an indication of what a fantastic director Robert Montgomery could have been given the opportunity, as well as what a fine actor he was in drama as well as comedy.  The opening scene alone is worth the price of admission, setting up the entire character of Lucky Gagin without ever saying a word.  Robert Montgomery is much more than the light farce he spent much of his career making, hopefully this film will help to show that.

Classics From Criterion: CITY LIGHTS (1931)

Growing up the majority of my silent film comedies came in the form of Buster Keaton.  I saw a few Charlie Chaplin films, but Buster Keaton was my main man.  This is not to say that I prefer one to the other, not forgetting Harold Lloyd, rather that I had more experience with Buster Keaton’s films than with Charlie Chaplin’s.  Starting off my month of silent films I decided to take a suggestion from Fritzi of Movies Silently and watch CITY LIGHTS.

The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) is trying to take a nap in the solid stone arms of a statue.  Unfortunately for him this statue is part of a dedication ceremony and is unveiled, complete with sleeping tramp, before an entire crowd of people, dignitaries,  and policemen.  Naturally no one is particularly pleased to see him there and the Tramp takes his leave as quickly as possible but not before creating quite a stir and putting himself on the police’s radar.  Walking down the street the Tramp meets some of the lovely young fellows of the newsboy ilk and, in an attempt to avoid their taunts, crosses the street and nearly runs into a waiting policeman.  Luckily for him several fancy cars have just pulled up and the Tramp slips into the backseat through one door and out onto the sidewalk through the other.

Exiting onto the sidewalk the Tramp hears a young woman peddling flowers to the passing gentry.  The rich and fashionable walk on by without a second glance but the Tramp turns to see the lovely young woman (Virginia Cherrill).  She offers him a flower and while he is turning her down, drops it on the sidewalk.  As she reaches down to find it he realizes that she is blind and hurries to help her.  He buys a flower and at that moment a man crosses in front of him and climbs into the town car the Tramp just exited from.  The girl looks up believing that the Tramp is actually a rich gentleman who has just driven away without his change.

The Tramp is in love but knows that he can’t do anything to help the lovely flower girl as he has no money to his name, let alone a home or a job.  But she sees him as something wonderful and he would do anything to keep that vision alive.  Walking by the canals late that night he comes across a drunken man trying to kill himself.  The Tramp manages to stop the man and convince him that life is worth living.  The drunken man is actually a drunken millionaire (Harry Myers) and he proclaims that the Tramp is his new best friend.  He takes him back to his mansion and gives him plenty of drinks and food.  A small problem arises in the morning when it becomes clear that when sober the millionaire has no clue who the Tramp is, and he certainly is NOT his dearest friend.  This is doubly bad for the Tramp because not only does his lose his rich pal but he also loses the possibility of helping his dearest love regain her sight.  Clearly he will have to take matters into his own hands.

CITY LIGHTS is thought by many to be the finest film that Charlie Chaplin ever made.  I can certainly see why this would be.  Obviously this film was a labor of love, especially since it took Charlie Chaplin almost four years to bring it to theaters.  Original filming began in late 1928 but the film was shelved as the talkies began to take over the film industry.  The subsequent depression did nothing to help matters either, as CITY LIGHTS would become one of the most expensive films made by Chaplin at the time.  It wouldn’t be until 1930 that Chaplin would begin filming again.  CITY LIGHTS would also mark the first film that Charlie Chaplin composed a musical score for.

In spite of the growing popularity of sound, and the increasing pressure to turn CITY LIGHTS into a talkie, Charlie Chaplin held firm in his desire to release the film as a silent.  Why would he do this?  Why run the risk of financial loss by releasing a silent film to an audience that was becoming more and more enamored of sound?  I think it was because he was trying to make a film that showed the world the beauty, emotional impact, and intelligence that could be found in silent films.  Charlie Chaplin was known as a perfectionist, holding control over every element of filming, but there is something about CITY LIGHTS that makes it feel as if more was at stake for Chaplin than with some of his other films.

There are some theories that CITY LIGHTS is semi-autobiographical with the flower girl representing Chaplin’s mother and the millionaire his father.  While this could be true, I tend to think that the millionaire represents the Hollywood industry attacking the art of silent film and the flower girl is the movie-going public.  The millionaire loves the Tramp only when drunk and shows his affection with gifts, money, and parties.  But in the light of day all gifts are rescinded and all bonds are severed.  While the powers of Hollywood might have kinds words to say about Chaplin and his films at parties or in private, when it comes time to stand up in the board room and make a case for silent film all allies fade away.  The flower girl is innocent and kind, and believes the Tramp to be someone great and powerful even though she has never seen him.  The Tramp puts so much effort and love into trying to help her regain her sight.  It almost seems as if Chaplin was begging the people who had spent so much time and money coming to see his films, the people who made him into and believed him to be a great star, to take one more look at silent films, to show them that these films which they had once loved could be something great and wonderful even in a world of sound.  With this idea in mind the final scene becomes so much more powerful.

CITY LIGHTS could not stop the onslaught of sound, nor could it revive the world of silent films.  But what it could do, and what it did, was create a film that showed everything that was best about the art form.  And while Charlie Chaplin may not have saved silent films per se, I think he did save them in a way he never expected.  CITY LIGHTS is a film that helps people fall in love, or at least in like, with silent films.  It has romance without being sappy, humor without being over the top, and emotion without being melodramatic.  For every person who watches this film and wants to see more, in them Chaplin has saved silent film because no art form can truly die when there are people who are watching it, talking about it, thinking about it, and loving it.

Classics From Criterion: GREEN FOR DANGER (1946)

This post is a dual posting in conjunction with Kristina from Speakeasy!  Be sure to check out her thoughts on this film here!

A few months ago I posted about my trip to the Princeton Record Exchange.  Among my DVD purchases for the day were a few Criterion films, including GREEN FOR DANGER.  This was a film that I had seen years ago with my family and one that I had really enjoyed.  Luckily for me, Kristina gave me the perfect excuse to see this film again when she agreed to join me in a dual post!

During the days of WWII, August of 1944 to be exact, the English countryside is under attack from the German Doodlebugs.  “Buzz bombs” as the locals call them are V-1 flying bombs which fly towards their intended targets with a loud buzzing motor before going deathly silent, as the motor cuts out and the bombs glides noiselessly towards the people below.  One such area suffering the scourge of the doodlebugs is Heron’s Park Emergency Hospital, a rural hospital in the southeast of England.

The staff of the hospital work tirelessly, in spite of the constant threat of bombing, to provide care for the sick and injured locals.  Among the staff members of the hospital are the five doctors and nurses who were present in the operating theatre the night postman Joseph Higgins comes in.  There is Mr. Eden (Leo Genn), the attending surgeon with steady hands and a silver tongue.  He has a definite weakness for the ladies, especially nurses, something which Sister Bates (Judy Campbell) is all too familiar with.  Sister Bates tries her best to maintain her cool in her role as head operating theatre nurse but she finds it difficult to forget the past relationship she had with Mr. Eden, especially when she walks in on him kissing Nurse Freddi Linley (Sally Gray).  Freddie has been a bit conflicted of late, she is drawn to Mr. Eden certainly but she also still loves the man she might or might not be engaged to, Dr. Barney Barnes (yes, really).  Dr. Barnes (Trevor Howard) works alongside Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins) who is the voice of sarcasm and reason more often than not, as well as Nurse Sanson (Rosamund Jenkins) who everyone seems very surprised to see back at work after her “incident” and who Mr. Eden strongly urges to leave the hospital as soon as possible.

Into this cocktail of people, relationships, and motives comes Joseph Higgins.  A local postman and member of the town watch, Higgins was brought in quite injured after a bomb landed on his post office.  Due to his injuries, it takes several days before his identity is discovered by the hospital staff.  By that time, however, it has been decided that Joseph Higgins must undergo surgery to repair a fractured leg.  Mr. Eden will perform the surgery, assisted by Dr. Barnes, Nurses Bates, Linley, and Woods, while Nurse Sanson cares for Joseph Higgins on the ward.  We have to start with Joseph Higgins you see.  We have to start with Joseph Higgins because, as Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim) dictates in his case report, “he was the first to die”.

Let me start off by saying that I don’t think that anyone does a better whodunit than the Brits.  For me, there is nothing that I love more than a proper English murder mystery.  And GREEN FOR DANGER has to be one of the best that I have ever seen.  I heard a description of this film as one that puts out lots of red herrings during the story but at the end you will still have not guessed the identity of the murderer until it is revealed.  Now, let me say that I do not go into films usually trying to guess the ending,  I prefer to let it unfold naturally.  However, this is not to say that I don’t try to guess the ending before it happens.  Well, as I said I had seen this film before, albeit a few years ago, and I can say that I still couldn’t guess who the murderer was before the end!  My husband joined in watching with me and when we took a break halfway through he told me, quite confidently I might add, who he thought was the murderer.  He was wrong.  As the end credits rolled he said, “That is why it is a Criterion.”

Aside from the fact that it is (forgive the overt British-ism) a cracking good mystery, this film has a cast to die for.  Trevor Howard, Leo Genn, Megs Jenkins, ALASTAIR SIM?!  Does it get much better than that?  The characters never feel forced or like one-dimensional place holders, rather they are all fully fleshed out people that we feel we know.  I think that is part of what makes the ,mystery so good in GREEN FOR DANGER.  We get to know these characters, or at least we think we do, and so we form very definite ideas about who we think could actually be the murder.  We are biased towards our preferred character and when confronted with new evidence find it difficult to condemn them.

The backdrop of WWII is always present in this film, as the droning buzz bombs not only are the catalyst for the whole murder, brining Joseph Higgins to the hospital in the first place, but remain a constant threat overhead.  It is an interesting juxtaposition to see, the hospital staff held at the mercy of a murderer among them, while overhead death could come quickly and indiscriminately with a single bomb.  The staff face each threat in the same way, while resolve to continue on their duties but with a watchful eye at all times.  The war on the home front is  being waged against the German forces but there are still those who find the time to wage war amongst each other.  Is it selfish?  Maybe, but maybe too there is a sense of escapism in finally having something else to focus on rather than the war.  Perhaps the personal problems of five staff members are a welcome distraction from the horrors of war buzzing just above.

Finally, let me just say that GREEN FOR DANGER has a script that is just so clever and so witty that I can hardly stand it.  It is so good.  For example;

Dr. White: I do hope everything can be arranged discreetly.
Inspector Cockrill: Umm, shouldn’t think so for a moment.
Dr. White: Why not? Press? Do they have to be seen?
Inspector Cockrill: Can’t keep ’em out.
Dr. White: Oh, dear.
Inspector Cockrill: I don’t mind; they always give me a good write-up.

Dr. Barney Barnes: I gave nitrous oxide at first, to get him under.
Inspector Cockrill: Oh yes, stuff the dentist gives you, hmmm — commonly known as “laughing gas.”
Dr. Barney Barnes: Used to be — actually the impurities cause the laughs.
Inspector Cockrill: Oh, just the same as in our music halls.

And the best…

Inspector Cockrill: My presence lay over the hospital like a pall – I found it all tremendously enjoyable.

Clearly Alastair Sim gets all the best lines.

This is a terrific murder mystery and wonderful film. My husband, who is not a classic film fan, gave it 4 out of 5 stars and I think it says something that the murder mystery is so well done and surprising even to those who have seen it before.  If you would like to hear a bit more about GREEN FOR DANGER, no spoilers I promise, check out this episode of the Attaboy Clarence Podcast.  And of course be sure to go and read Kristina’s take on this film as well!  Then go and watch it and let me know what you think.  Once you do you might realize that the biggest clue was right in front of you all along!

Classics From Criterion: THE RULES OF THE GAME (1939)

This is a dual posting in conjunction with Kristina at Speakeasy!  Be sure to go and read her thoughts on this film here.

Way back in January I made a list of ten films that I wanted to see in 2105.  On that list was THE RULES OF THE GAME from Jean Renoir.  I had just purchased a copy at the Criterion Sale and wanted to see what made this one of the greatest films ever made, or such was the claim on the back of the box.  Well, here it is many months later and the next Criterion Sale is back on and I still hadn’t seen this film!  Luckily my Dad and Kristina both expressed an interest in watching and that gave me the push I needed!

Before we proceed please be warned that I will be talking about the end of the film.  I really want to share some thoughts about this film and the ending and thus it will be necessary to have spoilers.  There will be a warning at the point where you should stop reading if you don’t want to know!

My Dad and I settling in to watch...
My Dad and I settling in to watch…

Just outside of Paris the daring young aviator Andre Jurieux (Roland Toutain) has just made a risky flight and is the toast of the city.  He is greeted at the airport by his friend Octave (Jean Renoir), but is noticeably disappointed as the only person he wanted to see there is nowhere to be found.  He is looking for his love, Christine (Nora Gregor, who is the wife of Robert, Marquis de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio).  Bitterly hurt at this betrayal, as Christine is the entire reason why he undertook his latest flight, Andre denounces her publicly on the radio.  This is overheard by Christine, her maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost), and Christine’s husband.

A moment to explain the relationships.  Andre loves Christine.  Christine has been married to her husband for three years.  For about five years Robert has been seeing Geneviève (Mila Parély).  Christine’s affair with Andre is known by her husband and Lisette, but Robert’s affair is only known by Lisette.  Lisette has been married for two years to the gamekeeper of the estate, Schumacher (Gaston Modot), but is much more devoted to Christine and carries a great affection for the family friend, Octave.  Octave is Andre’s friend and is also aware of Christine’s affair with him, as well as being aware of Robert’s affair.  Octave also was friends with Christine’s father and has known Christine since she was a child.  All clear?

Christine and Robert discuss Andre’s words on the radio and profess their devotion to each other.  At this point Robert excuses himself to go and call his mistress.  He tells Genevieve that he must see her the next day.  When they meet Robert insists that he must end their relationship but Genevieve isn’t giving in that easily.  She refuses to go quietly and Robert finally decides that the best move is to invite her to a weekend at the country house with him and Christine.

Meanwhile Christine is having problems of her own.  Andre is still hurt by her refusal to come to the airport and she doesn’t know what to do.  Octave reassures her that he will take care of everything.  By that he means that he will convince Robert to invite Andre to the country home for the weekend, inferring that Andre and Genevieve can meet and start a relationship together thus making everyone happy.  And so it is the Octave, Christine, Robert, Lisette, Genevieve, Andre, and a large assortment of friends and relations head off to the country for a weekend.  While checking the grounds one day, in an attempt to get rid of rabbits, Schumacher and Robert find Marceau (Julien Carette).  Marceau is a poacher and he has come to check his snares.  Schumacher is all in favor of throwing Marceau out on his ear but Robert has taken a liking to him and decides to promote Marceau to domestic and get him a job at the country house.  In order to rid the estate of rabbits and other pests, Robert holds a “hunt” in which very little hunting takes place.  In fact it is mostly a “shoot”.  Schumacher and other servants serve as beaters and drive the animals out of the forest into the waiting gun sights of the guests.  It is a massacre of all sorts of wildlife and the guests shoot until they lose interest, at which point they simple walk away leaving the carcasses as someone else’s problem.  It is on the way back to the house that Christine first sees evidence of the affair that exists between Robert and Genevieve.

At this point you will most likely want to stop reading if you want to avoid spoilers!  

The festivities of the weekend continue at the house, complete with a masquerade ball and several skits put on by various guests.  At the same time Lisette is running around with her newest love interest, Marceau, much to her husband’s dismay.  And Andre has decided that he wants Christine to leave Robert and come away with him.  Christine has decided that she wishes to declare her love for Andre, though she instantly regrets it and doubts her own feelings.  While Andre and Robert come to fisticuffs over Christine, she slips out into the garden with Octave.  Lisette meanwhile is chasing after her husband as he tries to shoot Marceau through party guests.  Andre and Robert stop fighting long enough to work together to deal with Genevieve who has become hysterical over the fact that EVERYONE loves Christine and NO ONE seems to love her, not even Robert.  That and she is slightly drunk.  Once Genevieve is safely packed off to her bed, Andre and Robert talk like men and Robert gives his blessing to Andre.

Outside Octave and Christine talk about many things, eventually making their way to the greenhouse.  Once inside Christine and Octave admit their love for each other and make plans to run away together.  Unbeknownst to them, they are being watching.  Schumacher and Marceau, who have both been fired for their parts in the evening’s gunplay, are hiding in the bushes.  They have mistaken Christine for Lisette, as she is wearing her maid’s cloak.  They see Octave run off to the house, to gather his coat and hat and get Christine’s coat so that they might run off together, and decide to wait until he comes back.  Schumacher has decided that he must kill Octave rather than allow him to have who he presumes is his wife.  Once in the house Octave is stopped by Lisette who seems to know what he is trying to do.  While he is talking with her, Andre appears and demands to know where Christine is.  Resigned to his fate to always be the friend and never the lover, Octave tells Andre to go to the greenhouse.  Before he goes Octave gives him his coat to keep him warm.  Andre runs off into the night and is gunned down by Schumacher.  When the truth of the tragedy is revealed Octave and Marceau drift away into the night, shocked by what has transpired.  While Christine is escorted into the house, Robert makes a brief speech and concludes that they will all take their leave tomorrow and remember the young man who died in a tragic accident, when the gamekeeper mistook him for a poacher.

There are so many things to talk about with this film.  There is the fact that this film was widely disliked and banned after its release.  There is the fact that it was almost lost entirely due to the war, the bans, and the bombing.  There is also the troubled and difficult shooting and casting that took place.  Days go by and I still find myself thinking about this film.

Renoir wanted to make a film about the attitudes he saw in the people around him before the start of World War II.  Renoir said “…what is interesting about this film, perhaps, is the moment when it was made. It was shot between Munich and the war, and I shot it absolutely impressed, absolutely disturbed by the state of mind of a part of French society, a part of English society, a part of world society. And it seemed to me that a way of interpreting this state of mind, to the world hopefully, was not to talk of that situation, but tell a frivolous story…”  This is a film about people who are so wrapped up in their own lives, so deeply selfish and self-absorbed, that they can not even begin to comprehend the catastrophe that is approaching.  No mention is made of the war in this film.  No mention is made of any tensions in Europe.  All that is mentioned in this film are the stories and relationships of these people and their friends.  All their lives take place in a bubble, little games played by little people following rules that have no place in the greater world.  And perhaps that is the point that Renoir was making.  At one point in the film a character says “…Put an end to this farce!” and I almost feel that this was Renoir himself saying this, a plea into the ether hoping someone would hear and take notice.  There is something farcical about the worries and concerns of these rich men and women with the approaching darkness from Germany.  How can they care about such silly things as parties and affairs when so much more important things are happening?  But then maybe this is why the film was so poorly received upon release and why it was banned in France and later Germany.  The same refusal to see the truth that is present in these characters, the same inability to look outside of themselves and see the world was also present in the movie going public of 1939 and Europe.

The hunting scene is probably the most famous in the entire movie.  While some people believe that it symbolizes the killing to come during the war,  I tend to think as some others do that the scene is in fact a representation of the callousness and lack of compassion and awareness present in the characters of the film.  The people have a sense of entitlement so naturally why wouldn’t the animals be brought to them to kill?  Why should they have to go out and find the game?  Why should they have to try?  And not only is it the slaughter that is so startling, but the lack of concern for the dead animals when they are done.  While other hunters would go and gather the carcasses for food or furs, these people simply turn and walk away leaving them there to rot.  This scene appeared to be to be recalled in Andre’s demise.  Like the animals chased by the beaters, Andre is blindly led to his doom running full force into the waiting gun of the gamekeeper.  And his death and body are treated with the same careless and cavalier attitude as the dead rabbits, squirrels, and pheasants.  No one is any more concerned for him than they were for the vermin they murdered that morning.  But then again, he was just a poacher wasn’t he?  Trying to take Robert’s wife from him and worst of all, not following the rules of the game.

Classics From Criterion: ACE IN THE HOLE (1951)

Charles “Chuck” Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is an out of work reporter who finds himself outside of the offices of the Sun Bulletin in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  His car has just been towed and Chuck decides to rush into the offices and ask for the editor.  He makes his pitch, calling himself a $250 a week reporter who can be had for $50, but his brand of shock journalism is not the editor, Jacob Boot’s, cup of tea.  However, Boot agrees to give Chuck a job provided that he remains honest and sober which Chuck agrees to.  Chuck acknowledges that his past rough and brutish behavior has cost him several high-powered jobs but he is confident that his next big break is just around the corner.  Until it comes around all he has to do is wait and keep his nose clean.

One year passes and Chuck is still working at the Sun Bulletin and is becoming increasingly disgusted with his lot.  He is itching for a good juicy story, the sort that will get him back on top, but the best he can get is an assignment to cover the local rattlesnake hunt.  Chuck drives towards town along with cub reporter/photographer Herbie Cook (Bob Arthur) but soon stops for gas at a small trading post.  Herbie goes in to find an older woman weeping and praying in the backroom and soon police sirens can be heard.  While he and Chuck are wondering what is going on a young blonde woman approaches asking for a ride.  Her name is Lorraine (Jan Sterling) and she is the wife of Leo Minosa, who is the owner of the trading post.  Leo was exploring a nearby cave and is now trapped in a cave-in.  Lorraine is bringing him blankets and a thermos of coffee and Chuck offers to drive her the rest of the way.  Once at the cave Chuck hears that it is a sacred cave to the Native Americans, called the Cave of the Seven Vultures.  Sensing a chance at a story, Chuck pushes his way past the sheriff’s deputy and enters the cave ostensibly to bring Leo the blankets and coffee.

Once underground Chuck soon finds Leo, trapped under the mud and rubble but otherwise upbeat.  He is certain that he will be out soon and he is more than happy to let Chuck take his picture.  He is especially thrilled when Chuck says that he will publish a story about Leo in the paper along with the photograph.  Chuck returns to the trading post where he rents a room from Lorraine and then calls Boot.  He tells Boot that he has the front page story and begins typing up the story.  While talking to Lorraine, Chuck learns that she and Leo were married soon after Leo was discharged from the military.  Lorraine quickly became unhappy and disillusioned with their life and is now taking her chance to leave Leo while she can.  Chuck nows how this will hurt his story so he tries to shame Lorraine into staying but to no avail.  The only thing that stops Lorraine is when Chuck tells her that this story will bring customers from all over the country to her tiny store.  The prospect of increased profit is too enticing to Lorraine and she agrees to stay.

The trading post is soon besieged by tourists, all anxious to get a glimpse at the human tragedy that is unfolding.  Lorraine begins charging for admission to the site, against the wishes of her father-in-law, and presses her mother-in-law into service to help with the rush of customers at the trading post.  Chuck learns from the local physician, who has just been down to see Leo, that the trapped man is healthy and could probably last a week underground.  With this in mind Chuck goes to see the Sheriff with a proposal.  Knowing that the Sheriff is crooked and up for re-election Chuck suggests that they prolong the rescue effort, taking a whole week by drilling down from the top of the mountain rather than shoring up the loose walls and going in from the side (which would take only sixteen hours), so that the Sheriff can use the event to bolster is re-election campaign.  In exchange for his quiet and cooperation, the sheriff will guarantee Chuck exclusive access to the story.  The Sheriff agrees and uses his position to force the construction foreman to go along with the plan.  Chuck tells Herbie that they are quitting the Sun Bulletin now that they have a big enough story to write their own ticket with.

That night Lorraine comes to see Chuck and flush with her recent success tries to flirt with him. Chuck responds by slapping her and reminding her that she is supposed to be playing the grieving wife.  The next day the drilling begins and more reporters show up but they are to be disappointed.  When they question why they are being denied access to the story while Chuck is allowed free rein, the Sheriff responds that he has deputized Chuck and no one else can have access to the cave for safety reasons.  Meanwhile down below, Chuck is talking with Leo again.  Leo declares that Chuck is his best friend, which Chuck has little reaction to, and tells him about a present he has bought for Lorraine for their upcoming anniversary.  Back at the trading post Chuck is confronted by his old boss, Mr. Boot.  Boot has figured out Chuck’s angle and condemns his “below the belt” journalism.  Chuck could not care less especially as the editor of a major New York paper is on the phone, having just agreed to hire Chuck to cover the story.  Things could not be going better for Chuck.  He has exclusive access to the story of the century, Leo thinks of him as a friend and confidante, the tourists have turned the outside into a literal carnival and the money is rolling in, and oh yeah he is having an affair with Lorraine.  But at the next visit inside the cave with another day or so to go before the drills reach Leo, the doctor delivers terrible news.  Leo has developed pneumonia from laying in the cave for the past five days and won’t survive more than twelve hours.

This film did not do well when it was first released.  In fact the profits were so poor that Paramount not only changed the title to THE BIG CARNIVAL, without Wilder’s knowledge, but also subtracted the losses from the profits of Wilder’s next film, STALAG 17.  It is a very modern film, one that feels even more relevant today than it might have in 1951.  It is also a very uncomfortable and uncompromising look at the darker ambitions and urges of people, as such it isn’t too surprising that audiences didn’t take to the film.

The most significant point of the film is the manipulation of events by Chuck Tatum, his unwavering and uncompromising desire to control the unfolding story in order to keep his exclusive.  His single-minded behavior doesn’t take into account any one else, not Leo, not Lorraine, not Herbie, not the Sheriff, and not the thousands of people coming to see the spectacle.  He prevents the workers from digging Leo out sooner in order to prolong the story to keep readers interested and to bolster his fame and desirability to other newspapers.  He keeps Lorraine from leaving to keep the family life looking pristine.  He feeds Leo’s parents false hope and accepts their kindness all because he wants the story.  Of course Chuck is not alone in using Leo’s situation for his own personal gain.  Lorraine hates Leo but loves money so she stays on at the trading post and even starts charging for admission.  The Sheriff wants re-election and so agrees to force the miners to dig Leo out slower as well as giving Chuck exclusive access.  Even the construction foreman wants to keep his new job and so agrees to dig Leo out using a method he knows is unnecessarily slow.  Every person in a position to help Leo, to keep him from being trapped longer than needed, every single one of them fails to because of their own selfish reasons.

And what of the crowd of people gathering outside the cave?  The cave, which before was revered as sacred to the Native Americans and considered a pit stop by tourists, now is attracting thousands of men, women, and children.  They gather to sing songs about Leo, to take pictures, to ride carnival rides, and buy hamburgers.  They tell their children to pay attention as this is “educational”, which it is though not for the reasons they might think.  Chuck and the others certainly have a major part in what is happening but these people do as well.  Who buys the papers that Chuck writes for?  Who elects the Sheriff?  Who pays Lorraine the money she asks for, even as the price of admission creeps higher and higher?  While we have to confront the selfishness of Chuck, his callousness and puppet-mastery, we also have to confront the fact that people love to watch a car wreck.  How can it be that no one thinks it in bad taste to buy hot dogs and ice cream outside of a cave where a man is fighting for his life?  How can it be that a human tragedy such as this becomes a sideshow?  Since when does a human life equate increased revenue?

Wilder’s film is a startling and shocking look at the darker side of men and their desires.  The film never hides the truth of the matter, rather forcing us to confront it.  Little wonder then, that this film was not popular when it first came out.  The issues presented within are relevant at all times but in this time of social media, when everyone has a camera and can be an ersatz reporter, they are even more so.  The questions it raises are even more important now than in 1951.  Who is writing the news?  Who benefits from the news?  When is a life more valuable than a profit?  We like to think we know the answers to these questions and we like to pretend that they are easy.  But ACE IN THE HOLE shows that is not always the case.

Classics with Criterion: IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)

My husband is starting to enjoy classic films.  As I write this he is sitting next to me laughing along to A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, his first time watching the Marx Brothers.  The other night I decided to show him IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT for two reasons.  First, I wanted to watch my new Criterion Edition of the film.  Second, I wanted to test my theory that a truly great classic film can be enjoyed by anyone (even if that person doesn’t think they like classic films).  A good story is a good story and a great movie is a great movie.  And if any film is both a good story and a great movie it is certainly IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT.

On board his yacht in the waters of Florida, millionaire Alexander Andrews (Walter Connolly) is trying to persuade his daughter Ellie (Claudette Colbert) to eat.  She is pitching a fit, shouting at crew members, throwing things, and refusing all food that is sent to her cabin.  The cause of her displeasure is her own father who, after discovering her hasty marriage to playboy aviator King Westley (Jameson Thomas), has “kidnapped” her and taken her away on his yacht.  He hopes that time apart from her new husband, a man whom he considers to be a fortune hunter, will give Ellie time to reconsider her actions.  If that doesn’t work the annulment he has in the works should do the trick.  Disgusted with her father’s continual attempts to control her life, Ellie bursts from the room and runs out onto the deck.  Climbing over the rail she swan dives into the water and quickly swims off.  Her father’s men hurry after her but cannot catch up to her, and she swims out of sight.  Andrews sends word to his personal detectives to be on the lookout for Ellie, to keep an eye on all modes of transport going to New York (and back to King Westley).

In a Miami bus station an old woman buys a ticket for the night bus to New York.  Two of Andrews’ detectives are watching nearby but this elderly woman doesn’t attract their interest.  As she steps away from the counter the woman crosses the floor and hands her ticket to Ellie, who has been hiding nearby.  Slipping past the detectives, Ellie boards the bus where she finds herself sitting next to a slightly drunk and newly fired newspaper man named Peter Warne (Clark Gable).  The two take an instant dislike to each other, Ellie being offended by Peter’s rough way of speaking to and dealing with her, and Peter finding Ellie a spoiled brat.  However, at the next stop on the route Ellie’s bag is stolen while she smokes a cigarette and Peter takes off after the thief.  Unable to catch him, Peter returns empty-handed to Ellie who reveals that all her money is now gone and she has only four dollars left.  Peter suggests that she wire her father for more money or report the theft to the bus driver, but she refuses raising his suspicions.  His theory of Ellie’s true identity is confirmed when she leaves the bus at the morning rest stop, assuming that the driver will hold the bus to wait for her.  Ellie returns to the station twenty minutes late to discover that the bus has left her behind and the next bus to New York won’t leave until eight o’clock that evening.  But Ellie is not alone as she soon discovers that Peter has also stayed behind.  He hands her a newspaper with her photograph on the front page.  Ellie offers to pay him once she gets back to New York, to give him any amount of money to keep her secret.  Peter is offended that Ellie thinks that she can just buy people off when he was willing to help her if she would have just asked.  The two argue and then part ways until boarding the bus to New York that evening.

Onboard the bus Ellie finds herself sitting next to one Mr. Shapely, who is more than slightly interested in Ellie.  Believe you me, Mr. Shapely would love to have Ellie as his something on the side and isn’t shy about letting her know.  Ellie tries to get him to leave her alone but he persists until Peter stands up and requests to change seats with Mr. Shapley.  When asked why Peter replies that he would like to sit next to his wife, much to Mr. Shapely and Ellie’s surprise.  Ellie tries to thank Peter but he dismisses her saying that the other man’s voice was getting on his nerves.  The bus continues on for a time but soon is stopped by a washed out bridge.  Peter manages to secure lodging for himself and for Ellie, sharing a cabin at a nearby lodge.  Because money is tight and room fees are high, Peter has them sharing one cabin and posing as a married couple.  Ellie enters the cabin reluctantly as Peter readies the beds.  She wonders why he is going through so much trouble to help her get back to New York.  Peter tells her that all he wants in return for helping her are the exclusive rights to her story, which he hopes will get him his job back. If she does not go along with his plan then he will call her father and reveal her location.  She reluctantly agrees and Peter returns to his bedtime preparations.  He strings a rope between the beds and hangs a blanket, calling it “The Walls of Jericho”.

The next morning the two prepare to leave for New York, taking in a quick breakfast complete with lessons in doughnut dunking etiquette, when they hear people approaching the cabin.  Ellie recognizes the voices as those of two of her father’s detectives.  Realizing they are about to be caught, Peter and Ellie spring into action now behaving like a married couple having an argument.  Caught off guard by the yelling and crying in the cabin the two detectives leave quickly before taking a closer look at the bride.  Unbeknownst to them Andrews has offered a $10,000 reward in exchange for information regarding his daughter.  A new picture is published in the newspapers, along with the reward offer, and it is this picture that catches the eye of one Mr. Shapley.  Back onboard Peter and Ellie continue on their bus ride, the trip becoming more pleasant as musicians take out their instruments to play “The Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”.  Other passengers join in, taking a verse here and there, and even Peter and Ellie find themselves singing along.  Everyone gets caught up in the song, including the driver who lets go of the wheel to applaud the song.  The bus swerves off the road and promptly gets stuck in the mud.  A young boy cries out to his mother, who has fainted, and while Ellie tends to his mother tells Peter of how neither one has eaten since boarding the bus as they spent all their money on the tickets.  Peter guilty looks at his money and is about to put it back into his pocket when Ellie returns, and after comforting the boy hands him the money to buy food with.  Now penniless, Peter and Ellie must be careful while traveling.  While the driver tries to figure out their next move, Mr. Shapley approaches Peter and asks to speak with him about Ellie Andrews.  Peter quickly leads him away from the bus where Mr. Shapley offers to keep his mouth shut in exchange for half of the $10,000 reward.  Peter pretends that he is part of a gang who have kidnapped Ellie for a large ransom and threatens Mr. Shapley in order to keep him quiet.  Thoroughly convinced, Mr. Shapley takes off running into the woods (and he might be running still) while Peter hurries back to the bus to retrieve Ellie.  Worried that Mr. Shapley might still go to the police or that someone else might recognize Ellie, Peter believes that it is better to continue on foot.  The two are forced to spend the night in a field, sleeping in haystacks.  As the night passes Peter’s mood darkens, but Ellie has begun to see Peter in a new light and as the night deepens her eyes stay locked on his sleeping form nearby.

After walking for the better part of the day, Ellie asks when the hitching part of “hitch hiking” starts.  Peter extolls the virtues of proper technique when thumbing a ride and takes his place at the side of the road.  But after several cars drive past him, Ellie asks for a chance to try her luck.  Not even using her thumb, Ellie flags down a car and soon the two of them are passengers of a jovial man who seems to have a knack for putting anything into song.  Peter is in a sour mood, but this soon turns to anger when the man driving them attempts to abandon them and take off with their belongings.  Peter chases after him leaving Ellie behind, only to return sometime later driving the very car that had left them.  It seems their roadside savior was in fact a car thief, making a living by picking up hitch-hikers and then taking off with their belongings.  Ellie tends to Peter who is slightly battered from his fight with the man, which ended with Peter tying him to a tree.  Meanwhile in New York, Andrews has resigned himself to Ellie’s marriage in order to get her to return.  Westley publishes an appeal to Ellie in the newspapers, telling her that all is forgiven, which she sees but hides from Peter.  The pair is now just three hours away from New York but Ellie insists that they spend one more night at a lodge.  That night across the walls of Jericho, Peter tells Ellie about his dreams in life which include moving far from the bustle of the modern world, to a simple life on an island in the Pacific he once saw.  He hopes to one day find a girl who would go with him to that sort of life.  But suddenly Peter stops talking because the walls have been breached, and Ellie is standing in front of him.  She confesses her love for him and pleads with him to take her away with him, to take her to his island.

This is the original romantic comedy and it is just SO good!  I hadn’t seen it for a few years and it is even better than what I remembered.  My husband said that this was a “sweet movie” and it is. It is also astonishingly well done. It is a simple story but it is just done so well that it becomes something greater. I loved every moment of this film and could not imagine anyone other than Claudette Colbert or Clark Gable being in it.  The Criterion Edition looks gorgeous, and I can’t wait to dig into the extra features that are included on the disc.

It is so surprising that at the time it was made really no one in the industry, aside from Frank Capra, liked the film or thought it would do well.  Claudette Colbert apparently hated making the film, and once it was complete told a friend that she had just finished making “the worst picture”.  Clark Gable came to set on the first day saying “Let’s get this over with”.  But this would go on to sweep all the major categories at the Oscars in 1935, the first time that had ever happened, and would also grow in popularity and respect as the years went on.  According to Frank Capra, it was not until the film started to make its way out to the theaters in smaller towns in rural America that the box office returns began to increase.  It was the people in local towns and small movie theaters who helped make this film a success, going to see the film and then taking their friends and family to see it as well.  And it is fitting that it is those people who had such an impact on the outcome of IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, because it is those people who Frank Capra seemed to have in mind when he made it.  Whenever I watch a Frank Capra film I always feel a common thread running through them, this feeling that people can and should be decent, hard-working, honest and true.  I always have a sense of wanting to be something better and more honorable after watching a Frank Capra film, and this is no different.  Though perhaps not as lofty as MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON or MEET JOHN DOE, this film shows us that we can be kind to each other and that there is nothing so satisfying as dunking a doughnut or riding piggyback, if they are done honestly and without airs.

Classics from Criterion: TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942)

“To be or not to be…that is the question”

That is also where all the trouble starts.  Every six months or so BARNES AND NOBLE BOOKSELLERS conspires with THE CRITERION COLLECTION to make me spend my money and buy far more DVDs and Blu Rays than I intend to.  The Criterion sale puts these titles, that previously were on the higher end of my price range, into the extremely tempting how-can-you-not-buy-twenty area of 50% off.  So, of course…I buy twenty.  This time one of my purchases was one of my favorite Ernst Lubitsch movies, TO BE OR NOT TO BE.

The movie stars Jack Benny as that great, great, Polish actor Joseph Tura, and Carole Lombard stars as his wife, Maria Tura.  Joseph and Maria Tura are actors in Warsaw, Poland right at the beginning of what would become World War II.  Joseph is a bit of a prima donna, and his wife is becoming frustrated with his lack of attention and respect for her.  The theatre troupe is currently performing HAMLET while rehearsing for a new play meant to give a realistic representation of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.  One night, during the evening performance of HAMLET, Maria invites an admirer back to her dressing room.  Her admirer is a very handsome young airman, Lt. Stanislav Sobinski, whom she instructs to leave the audience to visit her when Hamlet starts his famous speech.  Naturally, complications ensue but just when you might be inclined to think that this is going to be just another romantic comedy the Nazis invade Poland.  Literally.

From there TO BE OR NOT TO BE turns into a darkly funny movie dealing with World War II, spies, gun fights, intricate ploys and costumes, fake beards, and THE MERCHANT OF VENICE.  If you have not seen this movie I won’t go any further into details about the plot, except to strongly recommend that you see it.  If you have seen this movie, I will say that it looks gorgeous on Blu Ray from Criterion and it certainly a film that deserves a place in any classic movie collection.

This film was made at a time when America was not yet involved with the growing global conflict that was World War II.  Hitler and his Nazi regime where out in the world wreaking havoc but Americans had not yet experienced the war first hand.  This would change of course, because by the time the movie was released Hitler would be moving across Europe, Pearl Harbor would be bombed, and one of the movie’s stars would be killed in a plane crash.  This was the final film of Carole Lombard, who died on January 16, 1942 when her plane crashed returning from a trip to sell war bonds.  She was 33 years old.  She had taken the part of Maria despite strenuous objections from her husband, Clark Gable, and she would go on to say that the making of this film was the happiest time of her career.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE was not terribly successful at its release, but over the years it has grown in appreciation and was named one of the fifty best comedies by Premiere magazine in 2006.  It was remade in 1983 by Mel Brooks, with himself and Anne Bancroft in the lead roles.

For me, while the 1983 version is good and has some great moments, the 1942 version is the one that I prefer.  Carole Lombard and Jack Benny are perfectly cast, and the entire ensemble is amazing!  There is also something daring and pointed about this film that the 1983 version can’t replicate.  This movie was made as World War II was happening.  It was made at a time when most Americans didn’t seem too concerned over Adolf Hitler and his regime, and yet here was Ernst Lubitsch making a film that really seemed to be saying “Hello?  I think we need to start paying attention over here!”  The film is undeniably funny, smart, and extremely well made.  But it is also a look into a moment in time that would not come again…the moment where America still believed that there would only ever be one World War.