October 23, 2013

Show Biz

Ruby Keeler, bless her heart. It's tough to say which aspect of hers is clumsier—her hoofing or her acting. But no matter, because her real job in Mervyn LeRoy's entertainingly dumb-ass Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) is to moon after Dick Powell. Powell's a young songwriter in a tenement room across the alley from Keeler and her girlfriends Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell, and Aline MacMahon. The girls want to be in show biz, but it's the Depression and shows keep closing down because producers can't pay the rent.

Dollar for dollar. Ginger Rogers
The movie, an early thirties Warner Bros. classic that certainly deserves its status, goes in a million different directions: it's a cascade of daffy visual non sequiturs, thanks in large part to a series of libidinous musical numbers concocted and shot by Busby Berkeley. James Agee wrote about a 1944 Preston Sturges movie that it "raped the Hayes office in its sleep," and there's plenty of pre-Code monkey business going on in Gold Diggers, too. This is undoubtedly the most manic, vivacious Depression you've probably ever seen in movies, and it's framed in a silvery Art Deco production design. Ned Sparks is the irascible, put-upon producer with faith in Powell's talents, Ginger Rogers is a superb camera subject (in the opening number she sings "We're in the Money" in pig Latin), and the excellent Joan Blondell, with her bee-stung pucker, adds fizz to this crazy champagne. Poor Ruby Keeler huffs and puffs her way through a pair of good songs with Dick Powell, but even her inability to keep up with her surroundings seems bizarrely right, and, as she manages to do in many of her '30s movies, she wins over moviegoers despite being a klutzburger. You're both amazed and amused by her—when she says her lines, she crinkles her face with pride at having remembered them. Aline MacMahon plays the wisecracking pragmatist with many of the best punch lines (the same role that stars like Eve Arden and Paulette Goddard played a decade later).

A huge hit in 1933, the movie must have sent audiences out feeling buzzy and lighthearted. In its uniquely American energy and its punchy, sexy tomfoolery, Gold Diggers of 1933 is emblematic of Hollywood's life-affirming inclination, at a time of pervasive hardship, to good-naturedly remember the nation's forgotten men.

October 19, 2013

The Greatness of Audacity

In answer to the question: What is the greatest American movie performance of the early sound era? Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931) or Scarface (1932)? Chaplin in City Lights (1931)? Jimmy Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931)? Marie Dressler in Dinner at Eight (1933) or the barely remembered Emma (1932)?

Mesmerizer. Jack Barrymore
John Barrymore (Broadway's Orson Welles) in Svengali (1931) unpacks theatrical traditions and his own sly, self-referential archness into a variety of grand gestures—the sing-song accents, interrogative upturns, and squeaky upper registers of the Eastern European Jew; the static postures and bearing of the angular nobles in the Eisenstein historical epics (Barrymore is made up to resemble Nikolay Cherkasov in Ivan the Terrible); and the tortured self-doubts and sadism of the Shakespearean villains. Barrymore is so audacious that all these styles blend seamlessly—he gets to the essence of the art of acting: creating a character that is both lifelike and larger than life. When his great death scene occurs, you're ready to go to the grave with him because you're sure he's going to spring uncannily back to life. And the special effects in the mesmerism scenes have sensual heat: Svengali's eyes glow like molten metal.

Watching John Barrymore spellbind in Svengali is like watching a fabled stage performance from some long-lost age of theater. He stalks the floorboards in high-heeled boots and overcoat, as gaunt as a vampire. But his voice and mien are so commanding that the gothicism never degenerates into camp. Like Karloff's terrifying, confused monster in Frankenstein or Sam Jaffe's nebbishy Grand Duke Peter in Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress (1934), the experience is too appallingly profound for camp.

October 5, 2013


The loose, romantic playfulness of Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) is lifted from screwball comedy of the 1930s. This laid-back romp gives Woody Allen and Diane Keaton an opportunity to be Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938), Ray Milland and Jean Arthur in Easy Living (1937), and Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche in Midnight (1939), and it has the most sustained tempo of any of Allen's movies of that time. (Alice, from 1989, is a lovely flight fantasy for the first hour, but gets bogged down in marital melodrama in the last half—its whimsical romance dissipates into sodden confusion that leaves moviegoers bummed out.)

Daffy detectives. Diane Keaton and Woody Allen
The movie's central conceit is the romantic gambol of the old screwballs: the girl (often played by Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck, or Jean Arthur, and later by Betty Hutton) is frisky and in the mood for an adventure, while the shy, straightlaced guy wants no part of it, but nervously follows her anyway because she's such a babe—Henry Fonda was the quintessential lovestruck nerd in The Lady Eve (1941). Here, it's Keaton, back to form, leading a constantly protesting Woody Allen around with a ring in his nose, sneaking into people's apartments and scouting for clues.

Like those earlier screwballs, Manhattan Murdery Mystery has its classic sequence: Allen, Keaton, and friends (Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston), a quartet of intrepid amateur detectives, concoct a plan to blackmail the suspected killer by playing prerecorded dialogue on cassette tape over the phone to simulate an actual conversation; naturally, the tapes get all jumbled and the "conversation" hits an abrupt snag. The last scene is kind of a dud—an anticlimactic shootout amid a maze of mirrors and projection screens (during the scene, The Lady From Shanghai is playing on the screens just in case you couldn't quite figure it all out by yourself). But all in all, the movie is a plush, snug recliner: you can settle yourself in and have a pretty good time as old movie references fly back and forth, and cobblestone streets gets soaked with rain. Things are a lot closer to the spirit of the '30s here than Peter Bogdanovich's mostly witless What's Up, Doc? (1972) or even several of the 1980s Allen comedies. In Manhattan Murdery Mystery, Woody Allen got his groove back.

October 2, 2013

A Capricious Masterpiece

Jean Renoir's La Règle du jeu (1939) was voted the third greatest film of all time by an international group of critics for a 1962 Sight and Sound poll, and the fourth greatest film of all time by a 2012 panel of critics and scholars brought together by the British Film Institute. This fabled masterpiece is widely regarded as the greatest French film by the greatest French director, and decade after decade hangs on to its hallowed place at the summit of world cinema.

The hunt. Mila Parely
I love this movie more than almost any other. Seeing it is as rich an experience as you are likely to have in a theater. Renoir and his team infuse centuries of high comic tradition into a Modernist farce that only appears as if it were spinning out of control. In fact, it's a completely controlled tragicomedy in which chance, or fate, is the prime mover.

Just about every social or cultural anchor—love, honor, class, even classical distinctions between literary genres—is dismantled in La Règle. The title is doubly ironic: The social classes abided by their rules in pre-war Europe, love had its rules, comedy and tragedy had their rules. Renoir smashes these rules into pieces. La Règle in 1939 points the way to the absurdist strain in Modernism. The animal hunt is a deft visualization of the slaughter during the Great War and the slaughter to come—warfare on land (the rabbits) and in the air (the birds). The idea of the disintegration of class distinctions, of relationships teeming with infidelity and jealousy, had been around since Musset (whose Les Caprices de Marianne Renoir used as a springboard), Beaumarchais and Molière. In La Règle, ignobility is society's great leveler (the way all cats seem to be the same color at night), much as you find it in Enlightenment theater traditions. But the movie pounces on the modern: civilization itself becomes a witches' sabbath in which sentiment is juxtaposed with raunchy sex chases, heroes (like the hapless aviator) are turned into victims of mischief, and the intricate organizing impulse of society itself crumbles into a mayhem of poaching (both animal and sexual). In earlier literature, the immoral was the moral, but in La Règle it's the revelrous commingling of the immoral with the amoral. That's what makes the movie so absolutely modern, and so sustaining.

October 1, 2013

The Boom

Boulevard of broken dreams.
The Great Gatsby (2013) is a brashly kinetic adaptation of a literary landmark. Filled with flaws of taste, it nonetheless has a primal power, balancing F. Scott Fitzgerald's lyricism with a eurotrash sensibility. Baz Luhrmann's direction goes beyond realism—beyond hyperrealism, even—into a garishly ornate romanticism, a jewel-encrusted, stylized vision of the 1920s as distant from reality as a fairy tale. Luhrmann makes the florid hysteria of Ken Russell (The Devils, The Music Lovers, Savage Messiah) seem tranquil by comparison. But Fitzgerald's poignancy and homespun longing elevate this movie above Russell's emotional barrenness.

Except for Leonardo DiCaprio (who's looking a little pudgy around the jowls), the cast was too tightly controlled by the iron-clamp production to be able to create human beings with believable idiosyncrasies—the kind of imperfections that allow a performance to breathe. The actors are largely props in marvelously explosive tableaus (New York looks like a Jules Verne creation, and the Art Deco mansions are steely, cartoonish Studio 54s). DiCaprio is able to do more than adopt Jazz Age poses. He navigates the mega-technology and whiz-bang camera successfully, and he steals a great many scenes (except perhaps those with his gorgeous Duesenberg, whose shimmering yellow coat of paint mirrors Gatsby's tailored suit). Gatsby's self-made man (in post-Horatio-Alger America—serendipitously mentored, financed, and launched) pulls you in deeply enough that you're fixated on the boulevard-of-broken-dreams corrupted hope theme, which could be the green light of our collective movie past.