Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Xanadu: A Review


You've got a musical built around disco and roller skating, with Gene Kelly throwing himself in for good measure.  What could possibly go wrong?  Xanadu was a flop when it was released, and gained a reputation for being an embarrassment to almost all concerned: I doubt any clips were used when Kelly received a Kennedy Center Honor.  The fact that Xanadu was his final film perhaps explains a lot.

Looking back at the whole thing from a distance of almost forty years, Xanadu is not a 'bad' film, just a very peculiar one.  Most peculiar, Mama.

Sonny Malone (Simon Beck) is a brilliant but struggling artist, one reduced to painting large versions of album covers.  Out of nowhere a beautiful woman comes roller skating up to him and kiss him.  Sonny also meets Danny Maguire (Kelly), a former jazz master who went into construction and made a fortune.  He lost interest in music after he lost his Muse, and Muse is an important matter, since the mysterious girl who comes to Sonny is Kira (Olivia Newton-John), who in reality is one of the Muses of Greek mythology come to Earth to inspire Sonny.

She also, in a subplot that gets a bit lost in the haze, was the same Muse who inspired Danny to create great jazz (and at one point, do a little softshoe, but I digress).

Kira and Sonny soon fall in love while she guides him and Danny to turn a rundown auditorium into a roller skating nightclub/dance hall to be called 'Xanadu'.  Eventually Kira reveals herself as the Muse Terpsichore, and reveals that her job is just to inspire, not be with mortals.  Danny is too busy and happy to be bringing back jazz in a disco setting, while Sonny is despondent about losing Kira.  He literally roller skates into a mural of the Muses where he asks Zeus (voiced by Wilfrid Hyde-White) to let Kira have a moment with him.  Zeus is not moved, but thanks to the intervention of whom I assume to be Hera (Coral Browne), Kira is allowed to be in a showstopping number on Xanadu's opening night, and be with Sonny once again.

To say that Xanadu is a bit confused is to be extremely generous. It's flat-out bizarre in moments, with plot points that either don't make sense or don't seem necessary.  We see Kira's sister Muses doing some dance numbers, but they are so unnecessary to the story they might as well have been left out.  No one gets as to why Sonny was rehired at the art studio or who his coworkers were, coworkers who as far as I know never got names or again were unnecessary.

A lot of Xanadu is just weird, just totally weird in a 100% Weird style.  You think Gene Kelly could have done something better to end his career, and to be fair Kelly did elevate this bizarre material.  He showed he could still do interesting dance routines, though nowhere near as athletic as his work in Anchors Aweigh or Singin' in the Rain.

However, at times what dignity he lends to the proceedings evaporates in whatever efforts director Robert Greenwald made to make Kelly more contemporary.  A frightfully embarrassing dance number has Kelly trying on various threads in an effort to be more hip and trendy.  This montage leaves one cringing.  One of his outfits makes him look like a gayer Truman Capote.

That is not a repetition of terms: one outfit looked so flamboyant that Kelly managed to come across as more bonkers than when Capote was bombed out of his mind on a television interview.

Xanadu also made the choice with Maguire to suggest that he might recognize Kira as the great love of his life only to pull back and never mention it again.  Why the gods would want to set up a roller skating disco, and what this if anything has to do with Sonny becoming a painter is similarly left unanswered.  Sonny's puzzling acceptance of Kira's non-answers to his legitimate questions, or why he would rush head-forward into the mural on his roller skates with no idea whether this would get him to Kira or literally kill him, well, such things will remain a mystery.

Dalek: The Musical?
Other times the elaborate musical numbers were just, again, weird.  A long number where Sonny takes Kira to a studio as they romance each other I think is supposed to evoke Singin' in the Rain (especially a part where 'rain' falls on them and they find two umbrellas).  However, that whole number falls disastrously flat when a.) they roller skate to this and b.) they at one point appear to be chased off by a giant Dalek.

While the mash-up between Sonny and Danny's competing visions for Xanadu plays actually well (Sonny's 80's New Wave style versus Danny's 40's swing), the final big title number just goes on and on and on, building to more silliness that leaves you either in shock or in fits of laughter.  While I find nothing wrong with Newton-John's voice (and Xanadu the song itself isn't a horror) you just wonder how any of it is remotely logical.

In fact, while the soundtrack was a hit, and I have nothing against either Newton-John or Electric Light Orchestra who both sung the songs for the film), I can recall only two songs: Xanadu and Magic (the latter not used to the best effect as it's played while Kira roller skates in the rundown auditorium).

When it comes to the acting, Beck can generously be called 'not good' as the lovelorn artist.  Very generously.  In his scenes with Kelly, it looks like Beck is not only not able to see that Kelly is considerably shorter and is speaking over his head, but he similarly has no real expressions or emotions when he speaks to anyone.  I don't want to be too hard on Newton-John, who at least had her singing to carry her up.  Maybe in her defense, Kira is such a blank role no one really could have done much if anything with it, but Newton-John did not have the range to make any of this believable.

As for Kelly, yes, he gave Xanadu what little dignity the film had, and as I stated had a couple of nice song-and-dance numbers. However, when in that frightful costume montage he looks like a gay cowboy on a weekend bender, Kelly can't have thought the final product would build on his legacy.

Xanadu is pretty much a daft film, where by the end you either shake your head or put your hands up to your face in disbelief at what you're watching.  I know I said 'Wow' a lot, though more in shock than in awe.  Bad visual effects, poor acting, a curious premise all conspire against it.

However, in its own offbeat and wacky (or whacked-out) way, Xanadu can be enjoyed as kitsch, a reflection of the odd times it was made.

In the end, sometimes you do have to believe we are magic.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man: A Review


I start out by saying I have never found Abbott and Costello funny. The Marx Brothers, I found funny.  Laurel & Hardy, I found funny. The various versions of The Three Stooges, I find funny.  Abbott and Costello, with the exception of their Who's On First routine, I never found funny.  Costello, the eternal man-boy, was always crying "HEY BUDDY!  BUDDY!", usually in terror, while Abbott just pretty much took whatever abuse his dimwitted buddy threw at him when he wasn't doing the actual abusing himself.

It's with that disdain that I wank into Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, which I figure is another comedy romp where these two find themselves among the Universal Monsters such as when they met Frankenstein and Dracula, the Mummy and the Creature From the Black Lagoon.  Perhaps my resistance to Abbott and Costello is simply too great to overcome, for while I did chuckle a few times during Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man, and many in the audience were laughing uproariously, I still do not get the appeal of these two dimwits.

Recent detective school graduates Bud Alexander (Abbott) and Lou Francis (Costello) find themselves with their first case: that of Tommy Nelson (Arthur Franz), a boxer accused of murdering his manager.  Tommy's on the lam, and Bud and Lou find themselves with him through the strangest and most illogical of circumstances.  Tommy takes our thoroughly unwitting heroes to the home of his girlfriend Helen (Nancy Guild) and her father, scientist Philip (Gavin Muir).  Dr. Gray has been working on an invisibility formula earlier used by John Griffin, who was driven mad by it.

This bit ties Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man with the film The Invisible Man, showing Claude Rains' picture as that of 'Griffin', Rains having the title role in The Invisible Man.

Lou can't make it clear to Bud that the guy they went with to the house IS Tommy Nelson, but once Bud 'figures it out for himself', he's eager to get the reward money.  The police arrive, but they literally don't see Tommy.  He's injected himself with the invisibility formula and disappears in front of a disbelieving and shocked Lou.

After Bud twice tries to pull a fast one and get Tommy locked up, Tommy gets them to help him solve the murder.  The real murderers are gangsters who are angry that Tommy didn't throw a fight.  Morgan (Sheldon Leonard), the main gangster, still wants Tommy found, dead or alive.

Our heroes now decide to do undercover work by having Lou go into the ring as a boxing mastermind and Bud is his manager.  The reason 'Lou the Looper' is so fast is simple: Tommy is the one doing the actual boxing, but since no one can see him, everyone credits Lou.

The night before the big fight, a femme fatale named Boots Marsden (Adele Jergens) attempts to seduce our man-child Lou the Looper, but as much as he'd like to get seduced, either Bud or Tommy are there to prevent it.  Further complicating things is Tommy's excessive drinking, which neither Lou or Bud appear able and/or willing to stop.

Morgan leans on Bud to get Lou the Looper to take a dive in the fifth, and he's more than willing, but Tommy yet again thwarts Bud's latest get-rich-quick scheme.  Into the ring poor Lou goes, causing all sorts of mayhem, down to accidentally knocking Tommy out in a pique of hubris.  To his surprise and Bud's dismay, Lou wins the fight.

Bud is especially distressed because now he's going to be the one iced, but fortunately, the main detective in charge, Roberts (William Frawley), gets there in time to save them.  In the fracas however, Tommy is shot and injured.  His name cleared, he's rushed to the hospital where Lou gives him a blood transfusion that brings him back to visibility.  Unfortunately, Lou becomes temporarily invisible himself, causing some mischief with the pretty nurses.  That invisibility doesn't last long, and Lou finds himself desperately trying to cover up his slowly visible nudity while also trying to figure out how his legs got backwards.

What surprised me about Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man is that Abbott can be just as moronic as Costello.  As he prattles on about the Tommy Nelson case, he is thoroughly and completely incapable of figuring out that THE Tommy Nelson just happened to wander into his and Lou's office.

It's pretty clear from the onset that Lou is the bigger moron: he has a hard time walking towards the stage at the graduation, proceeds to fall off the small stage when the graduates sit, then is told by Bud that Lou managed to graduate because Bud paid the school off.  I guess a lot of the comedy comes from this roly-poly figure, easily frightened, could possibly pass himself off as a boxer.  His idiocy knows no bounds, as he manages to drive the police psychiatrist crazy, down to accidentally hypnotizing him and everyone else who wanders into the psychiatrist's office without meaning to.

It's also pretty clear that Abbott and Costello were in on the joke, for I noticed a lot of winking at the camera if not downright mugging to us, especially by Costello.  The film is full of sight gags and moments where it's clear that these two are playing up to the camera.  Perhaps that self-awareness is a reason I don't like Abbott and Costello.  It isn't as if the Marx Brothers couldn't on occasion do that kind of shtick, but Bud and Lou seem to build their whole careers on it.

They also didn't have the Marx Brothers' witticisms to go along with the lunacy and idiocy.

It's not as if Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man isn't without some merits.  A routine where Costello, dumb as he is, keeps managing to take money away from his more cantankerous straight man is amusing, and Costello has a surprising ability for some physical shtick in the boxing match.  When Lou shoots someone with a water pistol, he says, "I'm a little squirt," and I confess to chuckling at this.

However, a lot of Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man seems either rushed or a drag.  The subplot with our temptress doesn't add much and Boots Marsden doesn't have much to do.  Same goes for the second-rate love story between Guild and Franz, both stuck in poorly-written roles with little do to as well.  They're all just plot devices to set up another Bud and Lou routine.

For the most part, however, I still don't get their appeal of Abbott and Costello.  Some people don't get what makes the Marx Brothers funny, and it's a cliche that women don't find The Three Stooges funny and wonder why men do.

For me, the mystery of the straight man Abbott, who is always trying to pull a fast one, and his little buddy Costello, the dimwitted boob who is easily scared, are similarly mystifying to me.

I probably will given Abbott and Costello one more chance should the moment arrive.  I know many in the audience were in stitches, and there were good moments, particularly near the end when Bud and Lou are trying to fight off Morgan and doing a right-mess of it.

Costello tries to handle a gun while still wearing his boxing gloves, and even after managing to get them off still is too stupid for his own good.  When Bud tells Lou to 'let (Morgan) have it', he meekly gives Morgan the gun and 'lets him have it'.

I still don't find Abbott and Costello funny.  It's really the audience reaction that makes me given even the slightest positive rating I can.  I truly hope that Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man is on the lower end of their comedic prowess.  If it's near the top, then I'll be the man who will be invisible whenever their movies are show.


Monday, August 14, 2017

Persistence of Vision: A Review


In the pantheon of Great Lost Films there is Greed, The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil, movies that were taken out of their creators' hands and given over to others who took the product into something other than what it was envisioned to be.  Add to that sad list The Thief and The Cobbler, the subject of the documentary Persistence of Vision.  This animated film, in the works for over thirty years, had a very tortured history and an even worse fate, one that ultimately makes one cry over the whole tragedy of it all.

In his 'quest for excellence', artist and animator Richard Williams became enchanted, or obsessed, with the Nasrudin stories of Persia and began to work to create an animated film based on them.  His difficulties were that he really never had a complete story but a series of vignettes and that due to fraud, he had the rights, and all accompanying work, essentially taken from him.

He was allowed to keep a character, a Thief.  Undeterred, he charged ahead again, this time planning a major work: The Cobbler, The Thief and the The Grand Vizier.  Already having won an Oscar for his animated version of A Christmas Carol and supplementing his studio with commercial work ranging from movie title scenes to television ads, Williams and his group pressed on and on and on.

The pace was slow and painstaking, perhaps too slow and painstaking.  People brought on board, such as master animator Ken Harris, died during its production, and he had been working alongside Williams for fourteen years.  The work on The Cobbler and The Thief took a lot out of those who worked on it: many eventually left for work at other studios, and one animator recounts he was not allowed to visit his wife in the hospital when she had meningitis.  The only way he could get around that was by going to see her on his lunch hour.

Despite all the production woes with the film, the results more than make up for it.  Using no computer technology, which Williams was opposed to, some of the sequences in The Thief and The Cobbler are breathtaking in their ingenuity and visual splendor.  An unexpected boost comes his way, when none other than Steven Spielberg sees test footage from the film.  So impressed is he that he hires Williams and his crew to create the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.  With his second Oscar in tow, Williams now has the backing of Warner Brothers for $50 million: $25 to finance and $25 to promote, with the understanding that he had to have it finished and at budget.

Alas, Williams' passion project could not get that done: he continued in his crawl, lengthening scenes because of their beauty instead of story reasons, and that is considering he didn't have an actual story for many years.  In his long interim, Disney managed to beat him to the punch with the similarly-themed Aladdin, which bore more than passing similarities between their characters and those in The Thief and The Cobbler. It didn't help that many people who worked on Aladdin also had at various points worked on The Thief and The Cobbler before quitting or being let go.

As was the case with all artistic ventures that exceed logic, Williams failed on his promise to deliver the film on time and on budget.  With it 'almost complete' in 1992, the Completion Bond Company legally seized everything connected with The Cobbler and The Thief.

After over thirty years work, the film was released as Arabian Knight, an Aladdin knock-off that junked a lot of Williams' work, mixed some of the original work with animation made by others without Williams' input and which differed from The Thief and The Cobbler, and added voices and songs to the characters: two things that Williams was dead-set against (he opposed songs completely and had envisioned the title characters to be mute).

Williams, who did not participate in Persistence of Vision, is still working on a new secret project, and still is revered among artists and animators.

For those who see Persistence of Vision, it all just breaks your heart: both the ultimate collapse of what could have been a beautiful, almost revolutionary piece of art, and the destruction its failed creation wrought.  The work on The Cobbler and The Thief or The Thief and The Cobbler (it seemed that the title could shift) did affect people's private lives (Williams' marriage failed, other people almost literally died in its making, and years were spent on a total of a few minutes' worth of screentime, if they were lucky).

Some things that led to the ultimate fall of The Cobbler and The Thief were not Williams' fault: the shady business deals that took the original Nasrudin stories from him.  Other things were: extending scenes that did not need extending, the failure to have a solid, set script, the driving obsession to the point of other people's private lives (another animator, if memory serves correct, quit or was fired when he was denied the opportunity to be at the birth of his first child, the time needed on a never-ending production).

Director Kevin Schreck does not delve deeply into the blame Williams has for this debacle, but from my seeing of Persistence of Vision, he does bear a great deal of blame.  In his 'quest for perfection', he may have forgotten that 'the perfect is the enemy of the good', and that his work, though beautiful, was running too long in production, money, and patience.

One animator wryly noted that he had 95 minutes of an 80 minute film, but The Thief and The Cobbler kept growing and growing with no actual signs of stopping.

In a certain way, Persistence of Vision is highly sympathetic towards Williams' mad, tragic, doomed efforts to create something truly magnificent.  The scenes from the aborted Nasrudin, as well as Williams' version of The Thief and The Cobbler are spellbinding (particularly a chase between the title characters that was done with no computer enhancements).   Having seen all the work and love poured into the project, seeing just what extraordinary work had been created, and knowing what the original intention of Williams' was, once we see the trailer for the eventual end result, Arabian Knight, with its songs and voices and jumble of animation, it just makes you want to cry.

It being so forgettable that after decades of hard and painstaking work, to see it released on DVD as part of a cereal giveaway makes it all the more mocking and tragic.

However, part of me was almost sympathetic to the money men, those who put up the financial backing to finish this passion project.  It wasn't as if Williams wasn't aware that The Thief and The Cobbler had to finish at some point.  His decision to extend scenes in particular because they were beautiful in particular struck me as extremely poor.  If he had maybe hoped for an extended version of The Thief and The Cobbler, to go back and tweak it after its release, that would have been applauded; his decision to make it grow into something much grander shows that he either did not know or did not learn the hard lesson Erich von Stroheim was taught.

Greed, his silent masterpiece, was intended by the temperamental director to run a punishing nine hours long.  Forced to cut it down to a slightly more reasonable four hours, it was still too long.  Internal studio politics took Greed out of Stroheim's hands and reedited it to a much shorter two hours, but the film, despite its brilliance in its truncated form, was not the work Stroheim had envisioned.

Similarly, Orson Welles' follow-up to Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, along with his last comeback at directing a studio-financed film, Touch of Evil, both met a similar fate.  Having decided they were too complex to be understood, the studios took the film and reedited them, down to re-shooting scenes not in the original version of the films.  The destruction of both Ambersons and Touch of Evil essentially left behind 'beautiful corpses', films that are still impressive but not what they could have been if their makers had been allowed to complete things their way.

Such is the case with The Thief and The Cobbler, another film that could have been something extraordinary but that was destroyed by a terrible combination of financial considerations and artistic excess.  What is left is a terrible tragedy for all concerned.  It is highly unlikely that Williams' full, complete vision for The Thief and The Cobbler will ever be realized.  If memory serves correct, a great deal of material was essentially tossed and discarded.

Those who sold the bastardized Arabian Knight and another reworked version not or barely mentioned in Persistence of Vision (The Princess and The Cobbler) will never see profits from their handling of the material.

Audiences will get only tantalizing glimpses of something that could have been extraordinary, even revolutionary, and will have to settle for something less than the sum of its parts.

Persistence of Vision is a tragedy and both a chronicle and a warning to those who seek out to create their masterpiece: be careful that that vision does not blind you to the cold reality of money matters. Sometimes one can love something beautiful too much, and that love will ultimately destroy that which you hold so dear.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

Ashes and Diamonds: A Review


Ashes and Diamonds is a haunting film, one filled with overtly visual splendors that don't take away from its simple yet deep story.

On the last official day of World War II, Polish underground/Home Front fighters Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) and Andrzej (Adam Palikowski) attempt to assassinate Communist Commissar Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzezynski).  They accidentally kill two people who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.  Ordered to try again, they bide their time at the hotel where he will stay.

To celebrate the imminent surrender of the Nazi regime, a party is thrown by the mayor for the various Communist Party officials, including Szczuka who will attend.  The Mayor knows it's good to curry favors with the new masters of Poland, even if his assistant Drunowski (Bogulim Kobiela) is both a double agent for the Home Guard and gets drunk, thus making a fool out of himself at the grand celebration.

As Maciek awaits his chance, he becomes besotted with Krystina (Ewa Krzyzewska), the barmaid at the hotel where all these stories collide.  The Poles are too busy celebrating the fall of the monstrous Nazis to care about the lives of three little people, but they would see that all are headed towards a tragic ending.

Maciek and Krystina sleep together and soon wander through the remains of Warsaw, where our troubled hero talks of 'ashes and diamonds', the hope for a future away from all these killings, and a chance to live a happy life with Krystina.  The Commissar for his part worries about his son, whom we learn later on has become part of the anti-Communist Home Front and is being held by the Reds.  Maciek thinks of leaving the mission and going with Krystina, but Andrzej tells him if he doesn't do it, someone else will.  He will also be a deserter and a traitor should he put his own personal pleasures ahead of the greater good.  Maciek reluctantly agrees to kill the Commissar.

The Commissar pays little heed to the drunken revelries below, too worried about his son.  Early in the morning, before sunrise, he leaves to go see his son.  Maciek follows him and completes his sad and lonely mission.  Once done though, almost mocking fireworks go off behind them, and now Maciek's fate is sealed.  With the dawn of 'liberation' under Communist rule, Maciek attempts to make the prearranged train.  Krystina, for her part, is left behind, to suffer the indignity of having to dance to Chopin's Polonaise in A Opus 40 Number 1 or Military Polonaise with drunk revelers who go through the motions but care little to do so, played by the house band who butchers the music.  Attempting to flee, Maciek attracts the attention of the military, who give chase.  He tries to escape but is shot, and he dies in a trash heap, a wild animal in death throes.

One would think that the symbolism in Andrzej Wajda's film would be overwhelming, but in truth it all blends so beautifully that it lends Ashes and Diamonds a sublime beauty and covertly says things that could not be overtly said given that it was made under Communist oversight, even if by Communist standards Poland was one of the freer states.

The visual that I found most haunting is when our lovers are wandering through a bombed-out church, the Crucifix dangling precariously upside down while His Crown of Thorns forms almost a web to ensnare our lovers while Christ has His back to them, and perhaps to all Poland as they exchange one dictatorship for another.

Right from the beginning, when one of the innocent men accidentally killed is murdered in front of an altar of a small church, Wajda is saying, I think, that God remains silent as evil is done right before Him (or in front of the Virgin Mary, sign of spiritual and physical purity).  Wajda has a heartbreaking moment where the fall of Poland is all but complete: the merry celebrants stumble and move mechanically as the music of its most famous composer is played badly.  Perhaps Wajda is saying that so long as Poland is truly not free, its history, its culture, will have to continue this dance of deception, going through the motions.

That shot of Maciek cradling his victim while fireworks go off behind him, is such a rich moment in terms of visual cinema: both men will not be free even as the nation they fought to free is celebrating.  The Commissar will never see his son, and this youth holding his body will never see his father or be one himself.  The mission has been accomplished, but what of it?  Neither side has gained anything from it, except misery.

Watching this scene in Ashes and Diamonds reminded me of a similar scene from Brokeback Mountain.  I cannot remember the context of the celebration: I think it had to do with Heath Ledger's character Ennis having beaten down bikers who questioned his manhood.  He beat them, but while he has a celebration of victory going on behind him, he too has not 'won' because he still lives a lie.  I don't know if Ang Lee thought of Ashes and Diamonds when he filmed this scene, but it would be an extraordinary coincidence if he hadn't.

Much has been written and said about Cybulski's turn as Maciek, with many comparing him to James Dean.  I agree: not only does he look like Dean with his jacket and pompadour, but in terms of manner, Cybulski's character is emotionally tortured, angry yet with a soft core.  His struggle between love and duty, regret and courage, is magnetic and magnificent.  His early death at 39 further links him to the fascinating and complex American counterpart.

Ashes and Diamonds is a masterwork, one that uses images to speak things that could not be openly said.  With a powerful performance by Cybulski and masterful direction by Wadja, along with Jerzy Wójcik's cinematography, it's a haunting film of the personal cost of freedom, personal and political.


Saturday, August 12, 2017

John Wayne in The Searchers: Some Personal Reflections

This is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film.  I am grateful to Kristen Lopez for allowing me to participate.  Today's Star is John Wayne.

This is not a review for The Searchers.  Instead, it is an exploration of John Wayne's performance in The Searchers.

I bristle whenever someone says he or she doesn't think John Wayne could act.  My first instinct is to think what they object to is Wayne's image as the cowboy, or a reaction against his right-wing politics.  Whenever someone says to me 'John Wayne can't act', I offer to show them The Searchers, which is to my mind, not just Wayne's seminal role, but among the greatest performances by any screen actor. 

In The Searchers, Wayne goes against his usual role as the noble, heroic figure, that symbol of strength.  Wayne's character is the 'hero', but he's anything but noble or strong.  He's vile, full of rage and fury, and yet a tragic figure who, despite his almost grotesque nature, makes you feel great sadness and sorrow for him.

A quick plot overview of The Searchers before we go on is necessary.  Ethan Edwards (Wayne), a Confederate veteran, goes to his brother Aaron's (Walter Coy) homestead in Texas.  There, he's reunited with his brother, his nieces and nephew, his brother's wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan), and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a boy Ethan had saved.  Martin is 1/8th Cherokee, which Ethan finds is enough to make him unworthy of being among the family.  Cattle rustlers appear to have raided a neighbor, but it was really just a diversion to drive the men away.  Instead, Ethan realizes that it was the Comanche who stole the cattle and were going on a murder raid.  Out of two possibilities, it is Ethan's family that is slaughtered, though they find only three bodies: Aaron, Martha, and his nephew Ben.  That means the two girls, Lucie and Debbie, they youngest, were taken.

The rest of the film is about Ethan and Martin searching for the girls, or rather Debbie (Natalie Wood), for Lucie has met a horrifying end, or at least that's suggested.  Ethan does not like Martin for being an eighth Native American, and as time goes on he is filled with fire and fury at the thought that Debbie will become 'one of them'.  So great is Ethan's wrath that he is perfectly willing to kill Debbie rather than have her blood mixed with 'Indians', let alone join their culture.  As their five-year search comes to a climatic end, Ethan Edwards will stop at nothing to destroy Debbie in order to 'save' her, nothing that is, except perhaps what sliver of humanity still resides within his dark heart.

Wayne's performance in The Searchers undermines whatever image one has of 'John Wayne'.  Unlike in other John Wayne films, particularly Westerns where Wayne's moral certitude and noble cause elevate him, here, his moral compass for lack of a better term drives him on into genocidal fury.  His act of nobleness in having save Martin when he was a baby is undercut by his basic declaration that Martin was essentially not worth it because he's 1/8th Cherokee.  Interestingly, I believe 1/8th is the minimum requirement for one to be considered Native American, but it's such a miniscule amount as to be almost insignificant.  That would be your great-grandparents, and yet Ethan will not see Martin, brought up to think of the Edwards as part of the family, as any kin of his.

Ethan cannot abide the mixing of the races no matter what the circumstances.  For him, the idea that Debbie will be 'tainted' with Comanche blood, sleep with Comanche men (even if it is against her will) and perhaps bear part-Comanche children is the true evil.  He believes he is saving Debbie, but it's a monstrous act of murder and genocide that drives him.

In one of the most famous moments in The Searchers, the original search party finds the body of a dead Comanche.  One of them wants to smash the body's head in, but the Reverend/Captain Clayton (Ward Bond) orders him not to.  Ethan, dismissive of all this moralizing, taunts them.  "Why don't you finish the job?" he calls, before shooting out the eyes of the dead man.  When asked what good that did, Ethan replies, "By what you preach, none.  But by what that Comanch believes: ain't got no eyes he can't enter the Spirit Land, has to wander forever between the winds.  You get it, Reverend," ending with a racial slur at Martin, "Come on, blanket head". 

We learn two things from this powerful moment. One: that Ethan Edwards was highly versed in Comanche custom and culture.  Two: that his genocidal rage goes beyond death itself.  As Martin Scorsese observed, he condemned a man's soul.  Ethan was no practitioner of Comanche theology and doubtful he believed in the Christian God, but that isn't what was important to him.  It was the fact that the Comanche believed what he did, and now, without his eyes, he was doomed in the afterlife.  Ethan's vile hatred went to the very soul of a person.

Ethan's dark soul knew no bounds, yet it is his tragedy that it would destroy him too.  Before he and Martin hear the Cavalry come with a group of 'rescued' white women, Ethan is shooting down buffalo like mad.  Why?  Not to feed him or Martin, but to stop them from feeding Native Americans.  In Wayne's performance, we see just how far, how demonic Ethan has become, but yet we find that within him there is still a semblance of humanity.  He shows this in quick moments, such as when he covers Martin in a blanket one night (albeit as part of a trap to lure men following them for money) or when he writes out his will giving Martin all his possessions.

That however is undercut when he states in the will he has 'no kin'.  Martin angrily states Debbie is his kin, and Ethan replies she is no longer kin.  She's Comanche, and no Comanche will be related to him.  The fact that Ethan and Martha clearly were in love and that perhaps Debbie, far from being his niece might have been his daughter, (something the film neither confirms or denies) makes his denial of Debbie all the more shocking.

To Ethan, the 'saved' women were no longer white, they were Indian.  As he looks back at them, we can see nothing, but with him bathed in darkness, we can 'see' that he is now totally engulfed in hate. Yet even here, when we see Wayne, we see that maybe that hatred that he has for others has also turned into hatred for himself.

In a minor plot, Martin gets accidentally married to a sweet but large Native American who adopts the name 'Look' in an effort to please Martin who repeats the word over and over.  When asked about Scar, she is terrified and flees.  Later, Ethan finds Look dead in the village that had been raided by the Cavalry.  Martin asks why the Army would do that to Look since she couldn't harm anyone.  Seeing Wayne in this scene, we can see that Ethan has no answer, and see that the darkness that he has within him has carried on into America's own soul.  
I don't know if this was a turning point for Ethan, but given Ethan has no answer for Martin, and given he has briefly known Look's genuine innocence and sweetness, it might be here that Ethan for the first time has truly come to face just how he has dehumanized Native Americans.  He is forced to see what hate does, and while he still is engulfed in hate himself, it is now mixed with a terrible sense of loss.

John Wayne's performance in The Searchers gives us a frightening portrait of a dark soul, one who hates beyond death itself.  What makes it more interesting is that Ethan is far smarter than the others.  Martin rushes to the Edwards' homestead even after Ethan tells him that the horses need rest and grain.  As Ethan begins to pat down his horse, we see in Wayne's face a man who knows the terrible fate that will befall his family and the woman he loves, yet he can do nothing because logic gets in the way.  Once he gets there, passing the unfortunate Martin, he looks upon the burning stead, and in Wayne's performance that mixture of fear and fury come across, enraged at what his despised 'non-people' have done and his own inability to have saved them.

As The Searchers continues, Wayne becomes more frightening, more intense, the furious Wrath of God come visiting vengeance to all.  Yet he also shows the tragedy of Ethan Edwards, because he fails to see just how much like his enemies he has become.  In the end, he scalps the head of Scar, the Comanche antagonist.  The words that Ethan uses on Scar are thrown back at him by Scar, and here, we see that the old axiom is proved true: we do become the thing we hate.

Ethan in the end is destroyed by his hate, and there is no room for him in the new world of 'civilization'.  Though he has sworn to kill Debbie for her transgression of miscegenation, real/imagined/consensual or not, when he finally corners her, lifting her up like he did when she was a child, at that moment we see Ethan finally, despite himself, see that this girl is part of him.  She is human, the one thing Ethan has never admitted that she was.  He calls her 'Debbie' even in the chase, which shows that his love for this child, for Martha's child, perhaps their child, has broken through.

Yet he ends The Searchers a broken, defeated man.  When Ethan brings Debbie to the homestead of the Jorgensens, to whose daughter Martin has been romancing, all of them go into the house except Ethan.  Debbie goes in, still slightly in shock by her ordeal, but now integrated into American society (and by extension, Native American society having to find a place within it).  Martin and Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) go in to continue their love, the 'purity' of the Scandinavian blood to mix with Native.

John Wayne's Ethan however, stands outside, and starts walking towards the vast expanse of the American West.  As he does so, we see the wind sweeping up dust around him.

The curse Ethan Edwards has placed has come upon him.  It is Ethan Edwards who cannot enter the Spirit Land and has to wander forever between the winds. 

Here, John Wayne moves me enough to cry for men like Ethan Edwards, lost in a world that can never embrace him.  Ethan's murderous xenophobia cannot find a place in a world that once needed him to 'tame' the West, but now that it is 'tamed', he can never be.  Wayne says nothing as he sees the others go in, but then turns to us, grabs his arm, and has a sad, strange look. 

I think of it as a look of forlorn acceptance of Ethan's tragic fate: to never be at peace or ever find peace.  He knows the world will accept that which he cannot, and that his journey is over.

John Wayne's performance in The Searchers is one of the greatest performances in film history to my mind.  It gives lie to the idea he couldn't act, because this vile, angry, almost monstrous man moved me in the end, made me feel such sympathy, sorry and sadness for him.  Wayne, and director John Ford, showed us the dark side of 'how the West was won': the brutality inflicted on the Native Americans, the hatred one side had for the other.

It is a rich, complex performance, where whatever revulsion you have for the character is balance with the knowledge that he is also the 'hero'.  Wayne does not shy away from being unsympathetic, dark, almost evil, yet shows us the lost, doomed man, driven by rage, by hate, but also by a form of love.

You don't have to like Westerns or John Wayne's politics to see in The Searchers both the exploration of the dark side of American Western history or of the men who made it so.   He's a hateful man, in many ways a monster, yet he is also tragic.  To balance all that requires great skill, to have us feel sympathy and even a form of admiration for someone as horrible as Ethan takes a tremendous amount of acting prowess.

If you or anyone you know says 'John Wayne couldn't act', I suggest watching The Searchers to see how wrong such thinking is.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Heart Outright: A Review


It's a bit difficult for me to review The Heart Outright only because I have to keep in the back of my mind the fact that this independent film is essentially a college paper.  Director Ross Kagan Marks is primarily a New Mexico State University professor in their Creative Media Institute.  Another Mark (Mark Medoff), who also works at NMSU, adapted his own play to the screen.

The Heart Outright is a sequel to a previous Medoff work, When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?. As if to answer this question, The Heart Outright revolves around said character coming back to his old haunts to bury his mother and deal with other ghosts.

A brief albeit jumbled intro fills us in on what we should know before the film begins: on June 16, 1969 Steven 'Red' Ryder (Brad Makarowski) was held hostage at the Foster's Cafe in Las Cruces, New Mexico by Teddy, a disturbed Vietnam veteran.  Also held hostage was waitress Angel (Jessica Medoff, who I believe is also Marks' wife).  This is told in voice-over, quick shots, and faux-news reports.

Thirteen years later (setting it in 1982), Angel rushes to make the funeral of Stevie's mother, who I think was the owner of Foster's and whom she had bonded with after the horrors of the hostage situation.  She barely misses it, but she does find Stevie at the bus stop, run by wacky Dickie Turpin (Josh Rowan), whom I could never decide whether he was a simpleton or just plain bonkers.  As Stevie waits for the bus, he and Angel wander through town, have lunch together, get in a tangle with Stevie's stepfather Ray (Medoff himself) and as they go around, find that despite themselves and their hindrances (his marriage and war 'injury', her pregnancy), they still have a strong bond that isn't easily broken.

Stevie finds a semblance of peace within himself, having struggled between the ideas/ideals that people have of him and his own ideas of himself.

Always keep in mind that The Heart Outright is a local film (by local, being southern New Mexico) made by university students (on a shoestring budget in 10 days).  That is neither a slam against it or an excuse to note if there are faults within it.  It's a statement of fact that should be used to both temper any overt criticisms or give it excessive praise.

I found the film to be well-directed and acted, with some particular standouts.  At the top of my list is Jessica Medoff, who was heartbreaking as Angel (more than a metaphor in that name, I imagine.  I see you, playwright).  Whether sharing moments with other cast members or having monologues, the mixture of hope and regret she displays is a wonderful performance.  Her father too, in his brief moments, proved quite menacing as the abusive father, though this plot point came and went relatively quickly.  Jessica Medoff was the clear standout in terms of performance, and while I understand why Medoff's pregnancy needed to be written into the film, frankly, I didn't notice it or give it any thought.

Would that I could say the same for Makarowski and Rowan.  Makarowski, for the longest time, looked slightly comical when attempting to be serious, more perpetually perturbed than in emotional crisis.  His character was very tightly wound, and while I understand that was how the character was it still looked as if Makarowski thought it was a comedy he was in, his expression a curious grimace.  It isn't until the end when he makes shocking revelations about himself that he makes Stevie a truly tragic figure, one in desperate need of an Angel.  I don't know if we were meant to notice that Stevie didn't move his left arm long before Angel even recognized there was something amiss, but at what is meant to be a big fight, the whole thing was slightly tinged with humor.

I still could not figure out whether Rowan was meant to be comic relief or was just nuts.  I didn't understand why he was so obsessed with Stevie's actions of thirteen years past, or why he carried around an article of Stevie's actions at the cafe, or why he didn't seem to know how to behave in public.  Rowan never made Dickie into a real or plausible person, just someone pretending to be someone who might be quite insane.

One thing that I would say Marks might have done better is in how the music fit in at certain points. Country music singer/songwriter Josh Grider wrote the score and songs for the film, and they are hauntingly beautiful.  A bit reminiscent of Ryan Bingham's The Weary Kind from Crazy Heart, Grider's songs are generally mournful and somber with a touch of love, like the film itself. They are wonderful, so wonderful it would be great if they found their way into a Best Original Song playlist.

It's not the songs or music that I have an issue with.  It's where the music went in.  At what is supposed to be a climatic dramatic scene for Makarowski, the guitar seemed to echo him, getting louder and louder as Stevie got louder and louder.  Part of me understands the logic behind that (you want to match Stevie's growing anger with the music), but it ironically made Stevie's dialogue harder and harder to hear.  The louder the music grows, the more drowned out Stevie's rant becomes.

I do admit that when we heard a harmonica play as the bus was headed our way, I did groan inside.  Granted, the harmonica was played by a homeless man in the bus stop, and to its credit The Heart Outright kept the music to a naturalistic setting (the 'battle' between the mariachi band and the folk singers notwithstanding). However, the harmonica bit was to me a touch too much.

The opening was also a bit jumbled: getting the story of When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder? in bits and pieces put one slightly off-balance, where perhaps we could have opened with Dickie rereading the article to give us how things were before Stevie went back to bury his mother.

If it sounds as if I'm being excessively harsh, that isn't my intent.  For a film with limited resources and a short shooting schedule, one that was almost a school project, The Heart Outright has many positives: a wonderful turn by Jessica Medoff and an excellent score/song list by Josh Grider.  Again, one has to judge the success of The Heart Outright based on what it is, not what it would or could have been if it had bigger names or bigger budgets.  The film has a good story, some good performances, moving songs and is well-crafted.

It makes an excellent calling card for those involved; there were things I would have changed (why do Hispanic cleaning ladies always end up not speaking English?).  There were some things that I did find odd (how did Angel so quickly broker piece between the folk singing trio with a child that had an infection and the mariachi band that didn't speak Spanish, let alone what that had to do with anything?), The Heart Outright is proof positive that good films don't require big budgets, just a lot of heart.


Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Politics Of: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

This is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film.  I am thankful to Kristen Lopez for allowing me to participate.  It is also part of my own The Politics Of... series, where I discuss any potential political meanings behind films. Today's star is Sydney Poitier.

Miscegenation, the romantic or sexual relations between people of different races, was strictly forbidden by the Motion Picture Production Code.  By the late 1960's, when Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was released, the Code was on its deathbed.  This tale of interracial romance was couched as a comedy and was seen as 'topical' and 'important'.  Time has diluted some of its power, and while I've offered my review of the film I think it might be interesting to explore the politics of the film itself.

A summary of the plot is simple: Joey Drayton (Katherine Houghton), daughter of liberals Matt and Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy and Houghton's real-life aunt, Katherine Hepburn) wants to marry Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier).  The complication comes from the fact that Dr. Prentice is black and Joey or Joanna (he always uses her formal name) is white.  Everyone from the sassy maid to the Catholic monsignor who is their friend (despite the Drayton's apparent atheism) down to Dr. Prentice's parents put in their two cents about this perceived crisis until Matt Drayton, the man who is the most reluctant to give his blessings, finally says that all their views are unimportant.  The only thing that matters is that John and Joanna are in love.

It seems serendipitous that Guess Who's Coming to Dinner came out the same year the Beatles sang All You Need is Love.  Curiously, in the film Monsignor Ryan (Cecil Kellaway) quotes the Fab Four, but not this song, though to be fair I'm not sure exactly what song he quoted.

Damn hippie-dippy priest.  Vatican II has a lot to answer for.

The hitch, if you want to call it that, in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is that the Draytons are liberals, who are supposed to be free of prejudice or at least claim to be.  One can take issue with the suggestion that if the Draytons, Ryan, or even the Prentices were conservatives they would by default be bigots or reflectively object to interracial marriages.  As liberals, they are expected to not just oppose racial discrimination but perhaps be color-blind, including in the affairs of the heart.

Having seen Guess Who's Coming to Dinner twice, I think that neither Christina or Matt Drayton were bigots, or that they were opposed to marriage due to race.  The film may want to paint it that way, or suggest that race itself was the big issue for them.  I didn't see it that way because they never expressed opposition due to Prentice's race.  Truth be told, there were far better objections to their marriage divorced from the issue of race.

What I saw instead was that the Draytons did not so much object to their daughter's fiancee's race as they were concerned for their daughter's future as well as that of any grandchildren.  They were, I think, concerned that Joey was either too far naive or far too dismissive of any issues that revolved around interracial romances/marriages.

Joanna seemed completely oblivious to the fact that society as a whole still wasn't accepting of such relationships, down to it still being illegal in 17 states at the time. She truly didn't comprehend that her falling in love with a 'Negro' would shock anyone (her word, which along with 'colored' were acceptable at the time).  When it came to children, she figured all their biracial children would grow up to be President of the United States despite the fact that the Voting Rights Act was only two years old.

In a case of unintended foreshadowing, a biracial son of a black doctor and a white mother who met in Hawaii did grow up to become President of the United States.  However, if John Wade Prentice III grew up to think like Barack Hussein Obama II, he would have called Christina Drayton "a typical white person" almost deathly afraid of any black person coming her way.

Even among liberals, you can apparently be in favor of interracial marriages and still harbor racial prejudice.  Go figure.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was meant to be a 'message' picture, where the issue of race was addressed and the message that prejudice was bad.  It's certainly a good message and well-delivered, but parts of the film were not.

As I watched the film, what I thought of the first time I thought again: Dr. Prentice can do much better than Joanna Drayton.  She frankly wasn't good enough for him.

I thought Joanna an idiot, a ninny who was almost infantile in her worldview.  The film wants to present her as totally free of prejudice and bigotry as a result of her liberal upbringing, but what it ends up having is a totally unrealistic character.

In many ways, Joanna comes across as a child delighting in her newest toy, that toy being John.  She's very proud of him, showing him off to everyone she comes in contact with.  She displays him as almost a 'model Negro', which in many ways eases his entry into the upper echelons of the Drayton world (something I'll touch on later).  She tells the family maid Tillie (Isabelle Sanford) that John is the same skin tone as Tillie, and that since she loves Tillie, her de facto Mammy, why can't she love John too.  I leave it up to smarter people to try and explain to our dear little girl the difference between familial and erotic love.

She may not see John as a toy, but to my mind, he may be a sort of plaything to her, someone whom she can enjoy showing off to everyone; it seems extremely strange for John, especially since he's fourteen years her senior, to not at any point sit her down and tell her that they will face hurdles.  He seems to almost cower to Joanna's worldview, to go along with her idyllic notions of a post-racial society.  He does tell her parents that if they object to the marriage, he won't go through with it, but does so in private.  Him doing so, to me, shows he's not willing to confront Joanna about her unrealistic attitude about society's views, wrongheaded though they may be.

Curiously enough, while he is willing to give up the woman he loves should the Draytons object, he certainly won't give her up if his own parents, the Prentices, should object.  Again, I leave it up to readers to explain why the Draytons could have veto power over his love life, but the Prentices don't.

From the moment she tells her older fiancee that 'there's no problem', we see that Joanna lives in an alternate universe.

In a sense, she's right: there is no problem with their relationship.  The question isn't whether their relationship is wrong (it isn't) or even how society at large will view it.  It's in her insistence that they won't face any problems in that society.  Their children could grow up to be Presidents, but they will also face taunts from children and sadly, from adults.  Their children will also be asked to 'identify' themselves and may question who or 'what' they are.  They might not be welcomed in certain parts or locations.  Her stubbornness in not seeing that there are issues connected to her marriage is extremely irrational.

Note I said issues, not problems, for there is a difference. There is nothing wrong with their relationship.  Their relationship, however, will cause them and any children to come across uncomfortable even painful situations, and Joanna's insistence that it won't makes her a ninny.

For a film that prides itself on being progressive, it's curious that the only person who genuinely objects to the relationship based on race is John's father.  Everyone else, to my memory, is concerned over the effects of the romance.  John, Sr. is upset about the romance itself.  If anyone is genuinely prejudiced against Joey and John, it's the elder Prentice.  Even that, however, is not because he hates whites but because he thinks it is somehow wrong for two distinct races to be that intertwined.

As much as John, Jr. may react strongly against his father's views, I think it is unfair to Mr. Prentice to have his views so casually, almost cruelly dismissed.  Mr. Prentice is a retired mailman, a position that I figure provided well for his family and one that pushed them to middle-class.  I figure Mr. Prentice endured much prejudice and bigotry in his life (I can imagine that he could go only so far at the Postal Service even if his abilities could have moved him further up).  He could achieve only so much, he endured so much, and now comes his more educated and wealthier son to lecture him about race.

Something about that just didn't sit right with me.  Mr. Prentice had, I imagine, a lifetime of experiences where he faced overt prejudice, perhaps far more than his wealthier son, who could use his money, position, and prestige to shield him and his future children from more overt and uglier acts of bigotry.  Mr. Prentice was of the generation that could have been Emmett Till.  Dr. Prentice was of the generation that could have been Dr. Martin Luther King.

The fact Dr. Prentice can lecture his father about how he sees himself as 'a man' versus 'a colored man' seems to me slightly unfair to Mr. Prentice.  John, Sr. may see himself as 'a colored man', but society hasn't given him much chance to live as anything other than 'a colored man' whatever his own wishes and views on that may be.

I think that in the end, what could make the Draytons, and by extension white audiences, accept Dr. Prentice into the family is not so much race but class. While the film bills itself as tackling race, in essence it gives the Draytons, and by extension, white audiences, a lovely way out of any perceived intolerance and an ability to bypass racial prejudice.

The Draytons and Dr. Prentice are both members of the same class, where they are all one color: green.

Much has been written and said about the perfection of Dr. Prentice, and there is truth to that.  He is not just a doctor, but one who teaches and works for the World Health Organization. He is, to quote then-Senator Joe Biden's words on then-Senator and Democratic rival Barack Obama, 'bright, articulate, and clean'.  He is deliberately and intentionally perfect: calm, non-threatening, elegant, articulate, charming, virtuous sexually to being almost virginal (no sex before marriage despite the hot-to-trot Joey, no pesky ex-wife or clinging child) and he looks like Sidney Poitier, no slouch in the attractive department.

He's like the black Mary Poppins: practically perfect in every way.  Who seriously would object to Sidney Poitier as a son-in-law?

However, I think what would make Dr. Prentice non-objectionable is that he is, well, rich.  Little Joey ain't going to marry a mailman himself.  She isn't even going to marry the son of a mailman.  She's going to marry a doctor, a posh, elegant, elite, well-respected, well-traveled, and best of all, wealthy doctor.

It's not as if Joey is going to marry Huey Newton.  If she had found a black man who was either a committed revolutionary, even Marxist that went beyond the Draytons' comfortable limousine liberal worldview, or someone who drove said limousine, I figure Matt and Christina would have not been so welcoming to their future son-in-law.

She is going to marry a bourgeois, elite, essentially upper-crust member of society.  There is nothing militant or angry about Dr. John Wade Prentice, Junior. Joanna's choice of partner may have been a break from her race, but she didn't break from her own class.  Looking at it now, her choice of the ever-posh Dr. Prentice is almost as controversial as if she had chosen a Dr. Lowenstein or Dr. Gupta or Dr. Aranetti or Dr. Hassan or even a Dr. Garcia, with perhaps only a Dr. Cheng proving out of the mainstream.

As a side note, I think sexual relations between an Asian and an Anglo were specifically illegal in California for decades, being repealed (if Wikipedia is to be believed, in 1948, when Joey would have been four years old).

If she had fallen in love with a Jew, an Indian, an Italian, a Hispanic, an Arab or even an Asian, it might have raised eyebrows, but again with the possible exception of an Asian so long as he came from a good family and was able to support Joey in a manner which she had grown accustomed to, what legitimate objection could they or anyone have?

Joanna, for all her protests of love, still did not go outside her class.  As such, she kept within the bounds of her circle, liberal as they might be.

It's curious that Christina and Matt say they didn't expect that Joanna would choose a 'colored person' as someone to fall in love with.  That suggests, at least to me, that despite their liberalism, they really didn't know any black people outside of Tillie, making them in a sense as insular as Joey.

I'd like to explore this notion of class versus race a bit more.  I wonder if she had chosen someone who was not from a well-respected bourgeois family like the Prentices, but someone who was poor. What if Joey had come home to tell her parents she was marrying Tillie's son?  Would they then be more inclined to be joined in family with their maid?

Perhaps that depends on what kind of person Tillie's son is.  If he was like John: polite, respectful, noble, they might not object to his personal qualities.  However, what if he were poor and in a sense, 'not one of their own'?  What if he could promise Joey nothing but a minimum wage salary to live off, in a less-than-reputable part of town, rather than the posh mansions she has known?  Would it then matter that Tillie's son would take Joey down from upper to lower class?

That is something Guess Who's Coming to Dinner will not answer, because for all intents and purposes, Joey did not go against expectations because while she wants to marry outside her race, she is staying firmly within her own class.  Money, perhaps, papers over pesky details like pigmentation.

As I see it, Dr. Prentice is an ideal candidate for Joey beyond his own qualities.  He is not a radical change from the other boys that courted her apart from his race.  He may be black, but he's rich.  Joey won't be slumming it anytime soon.

She also won't be joining any revolutionary moments, no Patty Hearst Moments for our little Joey. John is as square as they come.  Tillie may think John is 'getting above himself', but from the Drayton viewpoint, having a wealthy son-in-law who won't talk to them about 'revolution' or 'reparations', let alone express admiration for the Black Panthers, is ideal.  They can be even more liberal, showing off their new son-in-law like a toy, congratulating themselves on how open-minded they are, so long as Prentice doesn't upset the cart by being cognizant or verbal of the still-deep racial divides.

He is still good, but he's also able to be in their socioeconomic circle and won't leave it.

The class divide I think would have been a harder bridge to cross than the racial divide.  For the differences between John and the Draytons, he is also 'one of them', who can fit into their circle not because they are more accepting of him as a black man, but because he is a wealthy and cultured man.

I could find much to object to with regards to Joanna and John's marriage: the fact she's fourteen years younger and the fact they've known each other for just ten days.  Those to me is more scandalous than whether John and Joanna are different races.  As I've said, unless she's pregnant (and his refusal to sleep with her shows she isn't), I don't understand what the rush to marriage is.  I would not like my daughter essentially rushing off to marry someone who she wants to sleep with within two weeks of knowing him.  The fact he's almost a decade-plus older than my daughter is also not something I find endearing.

I don't want my version of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner to turn into Lolita.

For me, in the final analysis to quote a phrase, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is slightly disingenuous.  Joey's parents don't object to a marriage because he is black.  At the most, they might object to it being rushed, and might be concerned that their daughter is not being realistic about the difficulties she and her intended will face.

For me, I still think it is not race but class that would be the hurdle for the Draytons.  Had John been more Malcolm X than Marcus Welby, or had John been a pharmacist's assistant than a WHO assistant director flying about the world, the Draytons might have been less welcoming if not perhaps downright opposed.

If he were white but poor, I think the Draytons would have reacted more sharply than if he were black, period.  Their liberalism would go only so far: black they could deal with, poor they could not.

I also still think Dr. Prentice can do much better than Joanna Drayton.  I'd tell him to drop that ninny and find himself a woman worthy of him, not that simple-minded, bubble-headed twit.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

If A Man Answers: A Review

This is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film.  I am thankful to Kristen Lopez for allowing me to participate.  Today's star is Sandra Dee.


"Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee/Lousy with Virginity/Won't go to bed till I'm legally wed/I can't, I'm Sandra Dee". 

If Sandra Dee is remembered at all by those under 40, it's for the mockery she and her image took in Grease when Rizzo ridiculed both the character of  Sandy and the real-life Sandra in song. Dee was not considered a great actress and her image of virginal sweetness was pretty set by the time If A Man Answers was released.  Dee was the spiritual younger sister of Doris Day (who was also name-checked in Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee).  In an interesting turn of events, Dee, like Day, made three romantic comedies with the man most identified with her: Dee's then-husband, singer Bobby Darin.  If A Man Answers was their second film together, a comedy of errors and mistaken identity that could mask the suggestion of infidelities going round.

Chantal Stacy (Dee) is the product of a most curious marriage: her father, John (John Lund) is as proper and stuffy Boston as they come.  Her mother Germaine (Micheline Presle) is a former Folies Bergere dancer and very French.  These two influences, which Chantal refers to as her 'beans and souffle upbringing', mix in Chantal: she's coquettish while ultimately pulling back.  Her exasperated father wants her to marry so that he can rest that she will be a respectable lady, and while her mother would like her to marry too she isn't shocked by any of her actions.

A move to New York proves fortuitous to Chantal, as she quickly meets Eugene Wright (Darin), a commercial photographer who mistakes her for a model.  They quickly fall in love and marry, but here is where problems start.

Gene now won't hear of his wife posing for photographs, even though that's how they got involved. Chantal for her part is worried that Gene will be lured away by the bevvy of beauties he sees, and at the top of the list is her frenemy, Tina (Stephanie Powers in an early role).  Gene is very, almost shockingly flirtatious with her, though completely faithful to Chantal.  For her part, Chantal is very upset and goes to Maman for advise.  Mother always knows best, giving her the perfect guide in handling husbands: How to Train Man's Best Friend, an instructional guide for dog training.

To Chantal's genuine shock, the book actually works! Gene does pretty much as he's told and is able to be 'house-trained'.  It's going well until Tina spills the beans, and Gene is furious at how he's been had.  Chantal does what any girl would do in a time of crisis: go to Mother.  This time Mother comes up with an even wilder scheme, one that worked wonders for Maman: take a lover!  Not a real lover mind you, but an invented one so as to make her husband more attentive.  She's even willing to let Chantal 'borrow' her lover, 'Robert Swan'.

It's the perfect plan: Chantal will send herself flowers with no cards and her Maman to call, always hanging up 'if a man answers', in this case, Gene. Should Gene ask her where the flowers came from, Chantal can quite literally tell the truth and not be believed.  Once again, Gene finds things very strange when it comes to 'Robert Swan', until Chantal gets a surprise of her own: Robert Swan shows up for dinner!

Robert Swan (Cesar Romero) is delighted to be with Chantal, and even enjoys a 'reunion' with his old flame Germaine, sending both women into virtual hysterics at the goings-on.  It isn't until we discover that 'Robert Swan' is actually Gene's father Adam, with both of them cooking up this scheme to get back at them, that things take a few more turns before all's well that ends well, with Maman about to be Grand-Maman.

If A Man Answers plays like a young adult version of a Doris Day/Rock Hudson bedroom farce, and it's no surprise given that the mastermind behind it is Ross Hunter, the man behind the first and quintessential Hudson-Day film, Pillow Talk.  Apart from the voice-over that introduces If A Man Answers, it has other Ross Hunter motifs: the jaunty theme song with accompanying animation (the theme song written and performed by Darin), the surprisingly risque elements that are immediately tamed (there are two suggestions of illegitimate births and extramarital affairs before things are quickly corrected, the film ends with Darin wearing a dog collar as a nod to having been 'trained' like a puppy), and a lot of mix-ups and befuddling though logical conversations that end with our lovers happily reunited.

Sandra Dee shows here why audiences responded to her: she is cute and perky as our chouchou (the pet name her mother uses).  Dee isn't an idiot in If A Man Answers, but she has a delightful screen presence as our tease par excellence who always manages to stop just when she looks like she's about to indulge.  It's delightful to see how easily and how well she manages to bamboozle Gene with her mix of words and actions.

I don't think that my unabashed love for Bobby Darin to where I'd like to name a son Darin in his honor should have any bearings on the fact I thought Darin had wonderful comic timing as the much put-upon Gene.  He manages to hold his own as someone who is a typical man, one who like all men, can be trained by their much smarter wives to do anything, starting from getting married to them.  From his cynicism about marriage itself (as he says, marriage in an institution sponsored by women for women) to his flustered manner over 'Robert Swan' down to letting dear old Lothario Dad to not even think of going after Chantal, Darin showed a remarkable ability for comedy.

The true standout is Presle as the ever-wise, ever calm Maman, who knows exactly what to do and how to do it.  She offers wise advise to her daughter: be French in the boudoir,  Boston in the parlor, but never get them mixed up.  It's what we say 'a lady in the parlor, a whore in bed', but with a more refined vocabulary.  She also points out to Chantal the logic of her actions in having used a dog training book on John, stating that 'husbands often leave their homes, pets never do'.  Presle was elegant, ruffled only once when presented with 'Swan' (and even then keeping to the comedic spirit, declaring she'd never make up a lover with a mustache).

In their smaller roles, Romero was charming, elegant and clearly in on the joke as 'Robert Swan'.  Powers too manages to walk away with her scenes as the troublemaking Tina.

If A Man Answers is firmly in the tradition of 'women are smart, men are idiots' school of romantic comedies.  It is very firm in the mindset that a woman's main goal is to get a man to marry her, while a man's main goal is to avoid it (and almost always losing for his own good).  Whether it is good to have the dolts essentially hoodwinked by feminine wiles, or to essentially say that men can and should be trained like dogs to do what women want is open for debate.  However, we have to take into account that If A Man Answers is by no means meant to be taken either seriously or literally.

It's supposed to be a sparkling romantic romp about two crazy kids in love.  That's what Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin were in real life: two crazy kids in love with each other.  Neither of their lives ended well, and there was a lot of emotional and physical damage they endured together and apart.  However, If A Man Answers is a nice treat about the wit and wisdom of love, and how to make the man stay.

All that's required is a leash and a fake lover.


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Midnight Mary: A Review


This is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film.  I am thankful to Kristen Lopez for allowing me to participate.  Today's Star is Franchot Tone.

Pre-Code is now a catch-all term for films made up to or slightly past the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, which regulated just about everything from whether you could show a married couple in bed (you couldn't) to whether criminals could get away with it (they couldn't) right down to whether the clergy could be ridiculed (it couldn't).  Some see Pre-Code films as 'brazen' or 'decadent'.  Some see them as 'honest' or 'gritty'.  Midnight Mary is brazen and gritty and shockingly risqué, even for the era.  It has a surprising turn from the lead actress, and minus an uncharacteristic Pre-Code ending, holds up surprisingly well.

Mary Martin (Loretta Young) is on trial for murder.  This dame don't care none: casually reading a fashion magazine when the jury is sent out to deliberate.  As she waits for the jury's verdict, she goes into a long flashback remembering how she got there.

An orphan at nine, Mary finds herself getting into problems even if she doesn't cause them herself.  Already having served time for a crime she didn't commit, she falls for mobster Leo Darcy (Ricardo Cortez), who makes her his moll.  Mary's only real friend is Bunny (Una Merkel), but despite her surroundings of wealth and glamour Mary wants more out of life.  She in particular yearns to be a respectable lady, far from her background, and aspires to better things: more education and an actual job.

However, Leo wants to rob a casino, so Mary and Bunny are his moles: the former passing herself off as another high-roller, the other already there as a hatcheck girl who will help them rob the place.  As it so happens, upper-crust lawyer Thomas Mannering, Jr. (Franchot Tone) goes to the casino and is instantly smitten with our Mary.  As Leo and his mob rob the place, a security guard manages to interrupt things.  In the confusion and chaos of the situation, where Leo tries to kill Thomas, the latter and Mary flee to Thomas' home, where they openly discuss sex. Once she gets back to the hideout, she tells them she's done with the seamy side of life and wants out.  Leo doesn't protest, but tells her she'll be back.

Mary attempts to go straight and goes to Mattering for help.  He becomes her patron, paying for her secretarial education and getting her a job at the law firm.  Mary soon starts finding joy in her new job and is moving up in respectability.  However, things keep conspiring against Mary, for the lawyer she works for, Mr. Tindle (Ivan Simpson) is really a dirty old man who accosts her after hours.  Mattering finds them as Mary attempts to struggle and after a talk admit their love for the other.

Mary and Thomas talk marriage, but once again, fate has an ugly turn for our heroine.  She spots the copper who knows of her involvement in the casino robbery.  To spare Thomas scandal, she turns on him, insisting he was a sap and that she was just going to use him for money.  She leaves, and despite pressures Mary doesn't reveal anything about the robbery because she really doesn't know where any of the gang is.  She's sent up the river for three years.

Once out she tries again to get a respectable job, but her efforts meet in failure.  She then is spotted by Leo, who is still attracted to her.  Finding no way out, she agrees to go back with him and has resigned herself to being back in this nefarious fold.  She soon starts finding a semblance of happiness when by coincidence the gang goes to a nightclub where of all people, Thomas is there.  He has already married but it's an unhappy one, he having grown more responsible and Mrs. Mattering less so.  While Thomas is thrilled to see Mary again, she is now conflicted: loving Thomas, but aware of Leo's wrath.

Leo is fully enraged with Thomas, knowing him from the botched robbery.  He also isn't keen of him hitting on his woman, and after a fight Leo chases after Thomas' limousine.  Unbeknown to Leo, he killed Thomas' best friend Sam (Andy Devine) by mistake.  Mary knows that Thomas' life is in danger and tries to warn him, but when she returns to Leo's (he in his haste having left Mary behind), her lies are discovered.  Leo smacks her around a few times then gets ready to go find Thomas.  Mary, however, beats him to the punch, shooting Leo before he leaves.

Back to where we started, the jury finds Mary guilty of murder.  Before sentence can be pronounced, Thomas rushes into the court insisting on a new trial due to new evidence: his own.  He tells the shocked court that Mary wouldn't reveal the reason for the murder because it was about him, that she was trying to protect him.  He also admits he still loves Mary.  The film ends with Thomas divorced and the two of them in jail, waiting for their trial but at least together.

In an odd way, Midnight Mary might be a precursor to the incoming enforcement of the Production Code by the way it ended.  The happy ending feels forced and untrue to what we have already seen: a story involving out-of-wedlock births, the slapping about of our two 'broads', wanton sex, lechery, a mostly unrepentant criminal, and most scandalous of all, open talk about sex! 

Midnight Mary not only talks about having sex far outside marriage but even uses the word itself, 'sex' in reference to the carnal pleasures of the flesh.  When Thomas and Mary go to his place, long after respectable hours for an unmarried man and woman to be alone, the dialogue by Anita Loos (who is best known for writing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) doesn't overtly state "let's go have sex" (even for the Pre-Code era, that, along with openly mentioning Bunny was knocked up, would have been way too far).  However, it's perfectly clear that screwing around is exactly what Thomas would like to do.

It wouldn't be as if Mary would put up much of a fight, given we'd already seen her openly cavorting with other men and was basically living with Leo without a respectable wedding ring.

Midnight Mary is very open about the seamy side of life, and the fact that it was made by MGM, the very model of posh and elegant productions that would not only boast of 'more stars than there are in Heaven' but was the creator and promoter of the Andy Hardy series as the ideal American family makes it all the more shocking.  Perhaps one could expect something like this from a Warner Brothers or a Columbia Studios on Poverty Row, but MGM?

Loos and director William Wellman shaped a story that wasn't just about a dame that don't care, but a true Portrait of a Woman, a good woman who finds herself in awful circumstances not of her own making.  This is accomplished by the performance of the most unlikely tramp in cinema: Loretta Young.

Long before she twirled into a room to introduce her newest lesson in morality on The Loretta Young Show or was considered the epitome of elegance, grace and moral rectitude, Young played a wanton woman who enjoyed men and who could turn on a dime.  I think Young fans who know her only from her show would be shocked to see her as a brazen, wanton woman.  However, she was nobody's floozy.

Young's performance reveals a woman who really was at heart a good person, who wanted class and a better life far from the squalor that she came from.  We see this in little details, like her affinity for art and reading of high-level books for pleasure.  She wasn't just some doll for a gangster.  Mary was actually a decent person who wanted to do the right thing but found herself constantly joining the wrong people just to survive.

Young makes Mary brazen and at the same time, almost innocent and pure of heart.  It's an absolutely wonderful and brilliant performance, touching, heartbreaking, but when she plays a tough broad, she makes it believable that someone like Thomas would believe her lies when it's clear she was lying.

Tone was playing the predominantly carefree, affable, and slightly dumb man-about-town, and he performed it well.  It wasn't as if Thomas Jr. had much depth to him, but I was impressed with how Tone did manage to be more dramatic at the end when he has his moment of high drama at the courtroom.

The difference Thomas and Mary is that he drinks champagne out of a champagne glass, she drinks it out of a coffee cup when they talk about sex, subtly underscoring his posh background to her lower-class roots.

Devine and Warren Hymer as Angelo Ricci, dimwitted boy-toy to Bunny, were the comic relief.  Devine in particular seems wildly out-of-place in this gritty drama, constantly singing Blood on the Saddle in his distinctive high-pitched voice. Hymer was much better as the dumb Ricci, who could be perpetually flummoxed when asking people about his new coat's fit but could be cruel as he slaps Bunny around.

Merkel's performance as Bunny, the broad with few brains but loyal to her friends to a fault, was good, almost charming in her mix of toughness and tragic abuse.

Cortez was not bad but to my mind a trifle self-conscious as mobster Leo, as if he knew he were playing a part and wanted to show he could play a part.  His death was slightly comical, as was Young's bobblehead routine right afterward.

If not for the last few moments of Young bobbing her head and Cortez's death scene, along with what seems a forced happy ending, I would have rated Midnight Mary higher.  However, thanks to Loretta Young's performance in particular, and not a bad one from Franchot Tone, Midnight Mary is not just a sleazy, tawdry Pre-Code picture.  It's really a sad tale of a good girl who never went bad, just was pushed that way.