Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Tomorrow, the World!: A Review (Review #1528)



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Fredric March.

As the United States entered the Second World War, Americans were not well-versed in the ways of the European enemies as much as they thought they were on the Japanese. The Germans had not bombed us, but there we were fighting against them. What made the Third Reich tick? I don't think Tomorrow, The World! will answer that question, but one can't fault its total earnestness even if at times it veers close to camp.

Mike Frame (Fredric March) is bringing his orphan nephew to America. The child, Emil Bruckner (Skippy Homeier) is twelve-year-old but already dangerous unbeknownst to his American family. Emil is a devoted Nazi (I figure Hitler Youth), forever spouting off against the cesspool that is America. His first horrifying moment is when he tells his family he was "forced to sit next to a big fat Jew", and it only goes downhill from there.

He is convinced he is a spy for The Fuhrer here in America, attempts to recruit and shape up his fellow classmates is informing Mike's fiancée Leona Richards upon learning she is Jewish, "that is regrettable". He looked happy when one of his cousin Pat's (Joan Carroll) friends was an Asian named Charlie Lee, but his joy was short-lived when he found that Charlie was not Japanese but Chinese.

Emil, snobbish, excessively formal and arrogant, makes life pretty hard to impossible for everyone around him, leading to among other things trying to turn his spinster aunt Jesse (Agnes Moorehead) against this "unholy matrimony", an attempt on Pat's life, Mike going homicidal on a child and a manhunt consisting of three tween boys. It is only Leona's genuine concern for the child inside the Baby Stormtrooper (give or take a slap or two) and Pat's only pleas that Mike thinks maybe our Aryan Child may be redeemable.

I understand that both Homeier and Tomorrow, The World! were big hits when they were on Broadway. Perhaps the stage version was better, but the film version ended up almost a spoof than a genuine exploration of the indoctrination of Hitler's Children. I found Jojo Rabbit to be more realistic, and that one was a comedy.

I put it down to the elements that made Tomorrow, The World! such a widely acclaimed work: Homeier and the overall story. Sounding like a Teutonic Steve Urkel, Emil came across as less a True Believer of Nazism and more as a loon. His behavior was more than bizarre, it was overtly antagonistic to where it was clear Tomorrow, The World! was totally misguided in what it was attempting to say.

I figure the film wanted the viewer to look on Emil as so indoctrinated that he would reject any evidence to the contrary of what he had been taught. However, through Homeier's performance on down to the music it was clear they wanted the audience to hate Emil versus feel sympathy for him. Director Leslie Fenton and screenwriters Ring Lardner, Jr. and Leopold Atlas may have wanted us to be shocked by Emil's manner, but they ended up making him look like the German Bad Seed.

Take for example the scene where Emil comes down in his Hitler Youth uniform. The film could have made it into a scene where he unwittingly wears something that is wildly inappropriate but which to him is perfectly normal. However, as played by Homeier, directed by Fenton and written by Lardner, Jr. & Atlas, it is clear that Emil is evil versus confused. Over and over, we see Emil bully, berate, ridicule and insult people with an almost Satanic glee. Over and over, I thought that Tomorrow, the World! wanted us to look on at Emil as either evil or bonkers. Only at the very end is he allowed to be the slightest bit human. 

No matter the intent, seeing Fredric March try and strangle a child comes across as hilarious than horrifying. There are a lot of laughs to be had in Tomorrow, The World!. How else to react when seeing Emil freak out over seeing his male classmate put up the laundry.

It seems a strange thing that rather than make Emil a sympathetic character or at least a conflicted one, the film seemed to go out of its way to make him a miniature version of the many Nazi villains rolled out in World War II-era films. In a certain way, Tomorrow, the World! seems to be almost to put children in adult roles.  The fight scene between Emil and Paul, the Polish-American laundry boy, looks like something more appropriate for grown men to be doing. The score somehow emphasizes the weirdness of it all.

His assumption later that his classmate was "the leader" due to his Boy Scout uniform is not made to look naïve or innocent. It comes as almost belligerent, aggressive and insulting. 

In short, nothing in Tomorrow, the World! makes Emil into the lost little boy or even the fanatical Hitler Youth. Instead, he's really just the male version of The Bad Seed's Rhoda and These Three/The Children's Hour's Mary: little children who are really psychos.

Not that Fredric March did himself favors here. Tomorrow, the World! doesn't quite make him a sap but it does at times seem more interested in his romance with Leona than in his nephew's more loony ideas and plots. He seems more interest in offering lessons than in being this scientist caught up in his nephew's twisted world. Much better were Field and Carroll as Mike's fiancée and daughter, both of whom showed a caring that Mike, despite his alleged open-mindedness, couldn't or wouldn't.

Tomorrow, the World! is interesting to those who want to see how neo-propaganda World War II films came across. I think now Tomorrow, the World! is less shocking than silly.

Monday, August 30, 2021

The Public Enemy: A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is James Cagney.

James Cagney first came to major prominence playing gangsters, and The Public Enemy was the film to put him on the map. An exciting, brutal look at the early days of Prohibition, The Public Enemy may try to pass itself off as a cautionary tale, but it does glamorize this seedy world a bit.

Ever since they were boys, Tommy Powers and Matt Doyle had gotten involved in petty crime. As adults, Tommy (James Cagney) and Matt (Edward Woods) have increased their criminal activities to grand larceny, but after a botched robbery leads to a dead cop their fence Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell) leaves them hanging.

Fortunately, both World War I and Prohibition go in Tommy's favor. His more upright and moralistic brother Mike (Donald Cook) goes off to war, while Prohibition lets Tommy and Matt become enforcers to bootleggers under the protection of Samuel "Nails" Nathan (Leslie Fenton). Tommy's raking in the dough, keeping his sweet mother (Beryl Mercer) oblivious to his criminal acts.

Now with Tom as one of the Kings of Chicago Gangland, Tommy feels all-powerful. Mike, back from the war, is appalled at his kid brother profiting off "booze and blood" and reproaches him, but neither want to hurt Ma, so they have a most uneasy ceasefire. Tommy takes up first with Kitty (Mae Clarke) then with glamorous Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow). However, ultimately we find that crime indeed does not pay, and our public enemy, having taken his revenge for Matt's killing, pays for his sins in a brutal and sad way.

The Public Enemy starts and ends with text making clear that it does not set out to glorify the hoodlum or criminal, and that this is a problem society must address. This is a case of having your cake and eating it too, for The Public Enemy makes a case that Tommy's life is more exciting than that of the morally rigid Mike.

Tommy gets beautiful girls, goes to swinging nightclubs, gets to slap people around and even kill with no consequences. Running gin by sneaking it in gas delivery trucks looks more fun than riding the streetcar or working there. If it weren't for the affection he has for his mother, Tommy would be a totally repellant psychopath. 

I would argue that he is, but it is to Cagney's extraordinary performance that Tommy is almost likable and sympathetic, his brutal end shocking and terribly sad. The Public Enemy is one of if not James Cagney's greatest gangster role, with perhaps White Heat being the bookend to the types of roles most often associated with him.

His Tommy is unapologetic, cruel at times but also with his own code of morality. Though he has no issue with plugging his former mentor Putty Nose, part of us feels that he did the right thing given what Putty did. "If it hadn't been for you, we might have been on the level," Matt tells Putty when he and Tommy confront him. Cagney gives a quick look to Woods that suggests Tommy does not regret his life, but goes along with Matt's genuine anger to back up his buddy.

Cagney isn't afraid to go into dark places, to make Tommy unsympathetic. However, he also shows him as vulnerable and ultimately tragic. He, for example, does something of a dance after dropping Gwen off, a surprising turn amidst the gangland killings. After achieving his revenge, we see him, wounded, literally in the gutter as he says to the rain, "I ain't so tough", as true a confession as heard. The Public Enemy has to be among James Cagney's finest performances.

The Public Enemy has strong performances from Beryl Mercer as Ma Powers, loving to her two boys. The cheerfulness she has preparing Tommy's room for what she thinks is his safe return will break your heart. Joan Blondell in an early role too does excellently as Daisy, Matt's eventual wife who loves her man but fears for him too. While The Public Enemy is an early role for Jean Harlow and we can see she hasn't quite mastered the art of acting, we see hints that she could become a strong dramatic actress and not just a comic foil or alluring temptress. She has a monologue in her final scene with Cagney commenting on how he's a bit of a little boy in his desires that is quite well done.

It is only some of the other performances, such as Cook as the rigid, almost priggish Mike and Woods as Tommy's toady Matt where I would argue the film flounders a bit. Both appear to act as if The Public Enemy is a silent film, which is understandable as the industry was still struggling with the transition. 

The film, under William Wellman's direction, is surprisingly fast. The scenes run quickly and are brief, transitioning from one to the other to where many of them last less than five minutes at most. There are quite a few scenes where the dialogue is unnecessary to say what is going on, such as the mass booze buying spree the night before Prohibition starts or Tommy's rain-soaked stakeout of his rival's headquarters.

The Public Enemy, if remembered by most, is for the infamous scene where Cagney slams a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face. I figure that many modern viewers would either laugh or be enraged at this moment, but it is perfect for the character of Tommy Powers, selfish, arrogant and unapologetic.

The film also has a great use of the vernacular of the time, which would serve well for those attempting to study how the Roaring Twenties and Thirties sounded like among the less posh element. After Matt berates Putty for their life of crime, Tommy joins in. "Sure, we might have been ding-dings on a streetcar", he adds. The film captures the authentic sound of the era that sounds contemporary for the times but that now may be a bit opaque. That, however, does not make it inscrutable to present-day viewers.

The Public Enemy is beautifully filmed with a powerhouse performance from James Cagney as this reprobate who will break your heart. It may try to pass itself off as a moral warning, but gangsters never came better than The Public Enemy.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Cactus Flower: A Review


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Ingrid Bergman.

Ingrid Bergman was seen as the height of Continental elegance and sophistication, so it's more than startling to find her in something as wild and as daffy as Cactus Flower. The sight of the posh Swede cutting a rug and openly flirting with a man old enough to be her son isn't shocking so much as it is genuinely funny, not in a bad way but as part of a good romp.

Ditzy but sweet record shop employee Toni Simmons (Goldie Hawn) attempts suicide after her lover, dentist Julian Winston (Walter Matthau) ditches her at the last minute on their anniversary. She's saved only by the intervention of her neighbor, aspiring writer Igor Sullivan (Rick Lenz). Toni has been Julian's mistress for a year, but now wants out. Horrified and moved by Toni's actions, Julian tells her he'll divorce his wife and marry her.

Only one problem: Julian isn't married. 

He's been using the "wife and kids" line to avoid entanglements, but having fallen for the much-younger Toni, he opts for marriage. Things get complicated when Toni insists on meeting "Mrs. Winston" to see if she does agree to a divorce. Julian attempts to get his loyal nurse Miss Dickinson (Bergman) to pose as his wife. 

At first appalled, she ends up going along with it, inadvertently making things worse. Now drawn into this web of deceit, "Mrs. Winston" has to find a boyfriend of her own. All this leads to Miss Dickinson liberating herself to wild abandon, Julian becoming more flustered by all the confusion his lies get him into, and ultimately the right couples end up together.

Cactus Flower works because it has an eccentric logic. As the situation becomes more and more convoluted there is still a semblance of sense throughout it. I.A.L. Diamond, adapting the stage play, gives the script a smooth flow, allowing the situation to build on itself despite the outlandish nature of things.

Take for example when Julian gifts Toni a beautiful mink coat. Toni thinks "the wife" should get it, but it ends up with Miss Dickinson. A disinterested Julian tells Miss Dickinson the box is "his gift" to her, unaware of what it has. When Miss Dickinson opens the box and not only sees the coat but the love note he intended for Toni, she naturally mistakes both are for her.

It's really crazy, but it's all perfectly logical. Cactus Flower is built entirely on the situation never being forced but moving from Point A to Point B with ease.

The film also has a lot of wry wit and humor. At the Slipped Disc Club the various parties all meet, and we see how Igor finds the newly liberated "Mrs. Winston" to be an older sexy lady. Trying to dissuade the younger man by pointing out their age difference, Igor will have none of it. "Let's run away and live off your Social Security," he tells her to her amused delight. 

While the term used to describe Miss Dickinson is a "barracuda", today it would be more "cougar". 

This blending of wit and logic find a perfect fit when Toni observes "Mrs. Winston" getting down and dirty with Igor. After having previously seen her with Julian's friend masquerading as "Mrs. Winston's" boyfriend then seeing her arrive later with another man, Toni essentially declares her rival a nymphomaniac. She points out that in the course of twenty-four hours "Mrs. Winston" has been with her husband, her ex-boyfriend, her current boyfriend and her potentially future boyfriend!

The performances match the farce. Hawn won Best Supporting Actress for Cactus Flower, a rare time when a comedic performance won. She is that bubbly persona Hawn is known for, but her Toni is sweet and guileless throughout the film. Despite thinking herself a mistress Hawn makes Toni a delightful, innocent person, one who genuinely cares about others. Her wide eyes and own wacky logic ensure that you like Toni.

Bergman for me is the big surprise here. I don't think she was known for comedies, let alone sex farces like Cactus Flower, but what makes Bergman's performance brilliant is that she underplays the lunacy of the situations. She is perfectly droll in the beginning, showing a deadpan manner to the somewhat uptight nurse. When patient Harvey Greenfield (Jack Weston) attempts to flirt with her by saying he'd read an article about topless nurses, she retorts with "I wasn't aware you were interested in reading" with a perfectly straight face.

Once Stephanie Dickinson discovers "the woman within", it's wild seeing Bergman so frisky and liberated. Bergman was hilarious throughout and a joy to watch her try another side to her many talents.

Cactus Flower is a delightful romp, an oddball but thoroughly logical film that more people should see. Perhaps a bit hampered by a sometimes stagey manner, it's still witty and amusing.


Saturday, August 28, 2021

Gorky Park: A Review (Review #1525)



This review is for the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Lee Marvin.

Murder in the Soviet Union is not a simple matter. Gorky Park, based on the Martin Cruz Smith novel, has some good moments towards the end of the film. However, a lot of it feels a bit rote to dull.

Moscow police detective Arkady Renko (William Hurt) is not enthusiastic about a gruesome murder case he has. Three bodies have been found in Gorky Park, normally a quiet family-friendly area with ice skating. The victims had their faces removed, along with their fingerprints and anything that could identify them.

Renko is almost eager to have the KGB take this case, especially as he thinks they are involved. However, the investigation takes a strange turn when Renko is invited to a dacha by a high government official. Here, he encounters Jack Osborne (Lee Marvin), an American millionaire and sable importer. Osborne's companion is Irina Asanova (Joanna Pacula), a beautiful Soviet film costumer whose skates were found on the female victim.

What are Irina and Osborne's involvement with this case? Why is the strange American William Kirwill (Brian Dennehy) following Renko? It turns out Kirwill, a New York detective, is related to another of the victims, an American whose born-again Christianity got him mixed up in helping people flee the Soviet Union. However, there is more to this case, one involving both human and sable smuggling, corruption, and betrayals. A climatic shootout will lead to many deaths and freedom for some but not all.

What is interesting about Gorky Park is that it does not treat the Soviet system as anything exceptional. By that I mean that in essence Gorky Park is a police procedural, with the oppressive Communist regime as almost a backdrop versus a central part. Renko is presented as essentially an honest cop in a dishonest world, one who is interested in solving the crime and is appalled at what people will do to gain money. His methods stick within the traditions of an investigator who is set in finding the truth, but he is not in any way belligerent unless he has to be. 

In fact, I remember only once does Renko show a threatening manner, and that is when he faces mortal danger. 

Director Michael Apted brought a surprising stillness and perfunctory manner to Gorky Park, which may explain why the film felt longer than its already tiring two hour mark. Because the film is sometimes so still and quiet, it can feel stretched out to boring. There are certainly no big fight scenes until the end, and even here at times it's more restrained than other filmmakers would have made it.

I have an issue with William Hurt's performance. I think he was trying for a Russian accent, but sometimes it sounded more British than Russian, perhaps to match the British accents of some of the other cast members. Sometimes it sounded like a strange blending of British and Russian, and sometimes he sounded American.

Apart from his dodgy accent I'm beginning to warm to Hurt's overall performance. His Renko was honest, direct, and even allowed himself some moments of humor when interacting with his fellow detectives. I will admit that the romance between Renko and Irina struck me as both predictable and unbelievable, but apart from that it was a generally strong performance of the strong, silent figure.

The aspect about his father's heroism during World War II, along with his final fate, suggest that maybe there was an eye to making a film series out of the Cruz Smith Renko novels. As there were none, the repeated mentions of him trying to live up to his father fell flat.

Lee Marvin fortunately didn't have to don an accent and his Jack Osborne was equally strong. Quietly menacing. Marvin's Osborne was wily and capable of anything to get what he wanted be it pelts or a beautiful woman. His gravelly voice and stillness gave Osborne more menace, and the interplay between Hurt and Marvin when discussing sable hats shows both knew they were essentially speaking in code.

Pacula's Irina at times seemed almost blank, someone who did not seem to express any emotion. When she did after being shown her friend's head, it seemed a bit over-the-top to comical.

I think the stillness at times harms Gorky Park, leading to somewhat comical reactions such as when William Kirwill is discovered (both alive and dead). However, on the whole I found Gorky Park not a bad film, but a bit slow. 


Friday, August 27, 2021

The Epic That Never Was: The Television Documentary



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Merle Oberon.

In 1976 the television miniseries I, Claudius successfully adapted the Robert Graves novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God in its twelve episodes to become in my view one of the greatest miniseries events ever made. However, this was not the first time someone took a stab at adapting the Graves novels. The Epic That Never Was tells of the aborted first effort, a 1937 production that was stopped production a month after beginning. 

With film star Dirk Bogarde as our guide, The Epic That Never Was uses interviews with the then-surviving cast, crew and I, Claudius author Graves to detail their memories and experiences on I, Claudius, with particular emphasis on its star, Charles Laughton. 

I, Claudius was meant to be the ultimate triumph in the career of British film impresario Sir Alexander Korda. Fighting against the "quota quickies", British films made on the cheap to fill up government quotas, the Hungarian-born Korda wanted to challenge Hollywood. He had a surprise hit with The Private Life of Henry VIII starring an Oscar-winning performance from Laughton, and this led to a series of films. 

Korda pulled out all the stops to make I, Claudius. Alongside Laughton would be a Who's Who of actors: Flora Robson as his grandmother Livia, Merle Oberon as his duplicitous wife Messalina and directing them would be none other than legendary auteur Josef von Sternberg.

Then, it all fell apart.  

Laughton had difficulty "finding the character" according to Oberon, which made it difficult for him to act. It wasn't until he decided that Claudius was King Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor that he was able to give the role his all. However, von Sternberg was lost in his own sumptuous vision for I, Claudius to endure Laughton. Von Sternberg, for example, balked at having a mere six Vestal Virgins in era-appropriate costumes. He decided he needed sixty Vestal Virgins, all nude save for thin coverings, to fulfill his vision.

Finally, Oberon was involved in a car accident that put her out of commission. Von Sternberg decided he could not wait and that Oberon could not be replaced, and as such, I, Claudius was shut down. 

The highlight of The Epic That Never Was is seeing the footage from the failed I, Claudius adaptation. Of particular note is the sequence where Laughton's Claudius takes the throne and speaks before the Roman Senate. In those five minutes we see an actor in full possession of extraordinary skill, his voice and movements so excellently crafted that the viewer forgets he/she is watching a clip from an unfinished film. Instead, the viewer gets wrapped up in I, Claudius and we get a tantalizing view of what could have been.

We also see how a film is put together, when the actors and extras are on set working. There's no music or sound effects to enhance what we normally would have seen had I, Claudius been completed. It's almost eerie how film sets, particularly large sets like I, Claudius, sound like when we get the raw materials of film.

The reminiscences of the surviving cast and crew, however, do not paint a positive picture for some of them. Von Sternberg, who looks like Colonel Sanders without his beard, seems highly contemptuous of I, Claudius in general and of both Laughton and Oberon in particular. The actors, according to von Sternberg, had truncated his film. As Emlyn Williams, who played Caligula in this unfinished film observed rather bitterly, "truncated his film" was a pretty dismissive way of referring to Oberon's car accident which left her physically scarred at the time. 

Williams also remembered that he didn't have a makeup or costume test before starting filming. "I only met the director on my first day of shooting, which was a Roman orgy starting at 6:30 in the morning on a January or February day and ending at 6:30 at night". Unintentionally, Williams' turn of phrase of "a Roman orgy starting at 6:30 in the morning" almost startles the viewer.

Oberon for her part all but states that I, Claudius was a vehicle for Merle Oberon. The surviving footage however gives little to suggest that I, Claudius would have been the Merle Oberon starring film that Merle Oberon suggests I, Claudius was intended as. In fact, she appears in one brief scene where Caligula orders her to marry the stuttering, limping Claudius. Oberon is pretty in the footage, but she has so few lines that it does not suggest the true evil, dare I say bitchiness Messalina is meant to be.  

To be fair as this was one scene it is difficult to say if a completed I, Claudius would have made her performance a better one, but from the footage shown it suggests Oberon was more a pretty face than deep actress. 

In her scene, Dame Flora Robson was much stronger as the old, cantankerous and cynical Livia. It's a curious thing that in reality Robson was only thirty when playing the eighty-year-old Livia.

In his own interview, Robert Graves is either blunt or unaware of how his motives for writing I, Claudius sound. "I'll write the true story (of Claudius) if I ever need the money", he says, but with no suggestion of humor to that comment. Whether he was just acknowledging the truth or making a joke is unclear.

The Epic That Never Was talks about Oberon's accident but does not state exactly why Oberon could not be replaced to keep the production going. As I understood it they had been in production for about a month. If so, I don't think there was that much footage as to make it impossible to recast the role. It could be that there was more footage, perhaps now lost, that would have made recasting impossible. However, it is a bit unclear.

It's accepted that Oberon's accident was the main if not central reason for I, Claudius dying, but von Sternberg hints that perhaps his difficulty with Laughton was the real reason, with Oberon's accident a fortuitous occurrence. Von Sternberg does say he found Laughton difficult, and while we can see that suggested by others (Williams called him "a brilliantly gifted child"), the final results showed that Laughton would have made a fine Claudius.

At the end of The Epic That Never Was, Graves suggests that the production died because the Emperor Claudius himself did not want to be photographed. Written about he can accept, but not filmed. Bogarde, who mentions he visited the set as a sixteen-year-old art student, wonders if in the future others would tackle the Graves novels. 

Thirty-nine years after the first failed effort and eleven years after The Epic That Never Was, the miniseries adaptation proved him prescient.


Thursday, August 26, 2021

Down With Love: A Review


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Tony Randall.

Down With Love is sold as an homage to the Rock Hudson/Doris Day "no sex sex comedies", and while the film has certain elements of the Hudson/Day films in it, I think it focused more on the style than on the substance of said Hudson/Day films.

Barbara Novak (Renee Zellweger) has just published her feminist manifesto Down With Love, arguing that women should focus on career over marriage and have sex without love. Finding no help from stuffy male publishers, her agent Vikki (Sarah Paulson) suggests an interview with dashing man's man, ladies' man and man about town Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), as swinging a Lothario as ever walked the Earth. Catcher is the star journalist of Know Magazine (the magazine for men in the know), but Cather is nowhere near interested in Ms. Novak's theology on sexual equality. 

His disdain is so great that he stands her up three times, each time for a stewardess he beds. Much to Know Magazine's editor Peter McManus' (David Hyde Pierce) exasperation (who harbors secret passions for Vikki), Catcher is nowhere to be found. Despite this snub, Down With Love is a massive success, initially delighting Barbara's publisher Theodore Banner or TB (Tony Randall). Its success, however, is now affecting Catcher's sex life, so he cooks up a scheme to seduce Barbara by getting her to fall in love with him. Once she is under his spell, he'll write a damning expose on her.

To do this, Catcher creates an alternate persona: Captain Zip Martin, astronaut unaware of who Barbara is. Barbara appears to be taken in by this rouse, but soon it becomes a case of who's zooming who as Barbara has a few tricks up her own lavish couturier. However, as in all romantic comedies, our foursome find that love can conquer all, as Catcher and Barbara sing Here's To Love.

It's a curious thing that Rock Hudson and Doris Day are seen as the quintessential romantic screen duo when they in fact made only three films together: Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers. More curious is that despite what Down With Love may suggest, in only two of their three pairings did they play rivals (Send Me No Flowers had their characters married to each other already, deviating from the formula). 

Down With Love is, or at least appears to be, perfectly open about how it thinks the formula for the Hudson/Day films worked: successful career woman meets sexual heel and they loath each other instantly, until through circumstances and mistaken identities the most mismatched couple find passion and romance. While Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake's screenplay has certain elements that use said formula, the film is actually all style and little to no substance. Down With Love drowns in its own self-conscious and aware manner that it ends up not as an homage or even parody of the Hudson/Day films but almost a desecration of them.

The Hudson/Day films were exaggerated, farcical perhaps but never idiotic. The sexual tension was built around, in part, the double entendres and sly suggestions going on. Down With Love, for better or worse, is more overt while attempting to masquerade as innocent but naughty fun. The split screen scene that Down With Love riffs from Pillow Talk is a case in point. 

For those who haven't seen Pillow Talk, a split screen was used to suggest that our leads were playing footsie in their separate bathtubs, whereas in Down With Love we see Catcher and Barbara appear to be simulating oral sex. While the former was suggestive and playful, the latter was almost vulgar, idiotic and nasty.

A major issue with Down With Love is that the script and director Peyton Reed focused more on the aesthetics than on the substance. The film in its costumes, sets and score is overt in its wild over-the-top manner. It, in short, refuses to take any of this seriously, mistaking open insincerity for humor. Down With Love is more about an homage to the late fifties style than to the Hudson/Day films themselves. Everything we see makes clear that Down With Love isn't going to even try to ground any of this in any sort of reality. Fully aware of itself, it thinks it can (like Catcher) get away with surface charm. Instead, by being so open about its exaggeration, Down With Love misses the charm of the Hudson/Day films.

The performances equal the broad nature of Down With Love. To her credit Zellweger does capture some of Day's facial manners, particularly the look of exasperation at situations. She also has a wonderful monologue where she reveals her motivations that is a strong piece of acting. However, she is not matched by McGregor, who swings into the parody of a parody of the Rock Hudson role with an almost too-cartoonish ferocity. Far too cocky for even what ends up as less a tribute and more an almost meanspirited spoof, McGregor's Catcher ends up quite repulsive. Moreover, you don't see how the romance blossomed between Catcher and Barbara. 

However, you do see McGregor shirtless three times, so if that piques your interest, there it is.

As a side note, we see Judy Garland in archival footage singing Down with Love (billed as being from The Ed Sullivan Show but in reality from her eponymous show). Zellweger would, in a curious turn, end up playing Garland in the biopic Judy.

With Rock Hudson sadly dead from AIDS and Doris Day in happy retirement, it falls upon Tony Randall to serve as the only original piece from the three Hudson/Day films to tie it to Down With Love. His role in the Hudson/Day films was always that of the third wheel, the neurotic, slightly befuddled best friend forever trying to help or get something from either or both of the main characters. His role of the publisher who ends up cursing his main success is a sad waste of Randall's talent. He was so unimportant to the film it might just as well have been a cameo, and it's a puzzle as to why he couldn't play a larger role.

Much better were Pierce and Paulson. Pierce manages to balance being an homage to the Tony Randall-type role while making it his own. Paulson too balanced being exaggerated without making Vikki look stupid.

To be fair Down With Love has at least one highlight: the closing song Here's To Love. It has a nice swinging style and unlike the film itself it's cute and witty. "I hear the march that's calling for us/We'll walk down the aisle to an angels' chorus/I'll be your Rock if you'll be my Doris" go the lyrics. You have to tip your hat for a song that rhymes "chorus" with "Doris".

Down With Love is too self-aware to be the Rock Hudson/Doris Day homage it wants to be. It's cutesy but it's better to go for some Pillow Talk than to be Down With Love.     


Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Stage Fright (1950): A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Jane Wyman.

Murder and death take stage in Stage Fright, a lesser-known and I would argue lighter Alfred Hitchcock film. With a bit more humor and some strong performances, Stage Fright is entertaining though not among The Master of Suspense's greater works.

Aspiring actress Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) learns from her love interest Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) that famed chanteuse Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) has come to him for help after murdering her husband. Johnny has been having an affair with Charlotte, and as a result he was seen fleeing the scene of the crime by Charlotte's maid Nellie Goode (Kay Walsh).

Now, Eve is determined to clear Johnny's name. With help from her father Commodore Gill (Alastair Sim), Eve uses her acting skills to infiltrate Charlotte's circle, though she has to bribe Nellie to get her to pass Eve off as her "cousin", Doris Tinsdale. Eve becomes Charlotte's maid/stage dresser, while also starting something of a romance with Detective Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding), who likes it when she calls him "Ordinary" Smith.

Charlotte maintains her innocence, but there are more twists in the tale until we discover that not is as it appears, with deadly results for one and romance for another.

Starting from Leighton Lucas' opening music on down to some of the performances, Stage Fright feels less thriller and more light entertainment. It is not surprising given that a highlight is Dietrich's rendition of The Laziest Gal in Town, a song written by Cole Porter specifically for her. Dietrich seemed to be having a ball playing up a bit as the great musical star, but she also can show a good, strong dramatic manner when reminiscing about how she had to kill off a dog who bit her.

As Dietrich was playing diva, it leaves Wyman to play a bit more mousey as Eve. Stage Fright did give her a chance to play dual roles: Eve Gill and Doris Tinsdale. It speaks to the more lighthearted manner of Stage Fright that there's an extended scene of Eve preparing to masquerade as the Cockney maid only to end up easily recognizable to her nearsighted mother (Sybil Thorndike). Wyman did well not just in these dual roles but also when showing her conflicting romantic feelings for Ordinary Smith.

More lighthearted elements come through Sim's performance, which for me was a highlight. With a slight twinkle in his eye and a generally amusing and amused manner, Sim's Commodore Gill showed himself to be less addled than his estranged wife but still able to show lightness. Like Wyman though, he was able to play the more dramatic elements, especially when warning Eve of how dangerous Johnny was.

I think a lot of Stage Fright is more light due to seeing how Eve continuously tries to hide her undercover work. Most of the film is Eve/Doris trying to keep others from discovering her double-act. This, along with Sim and Dietrich's performances indicate that Stage Fright is not intended to be deep or intense. Rather, it is a bit of a lark, not a full-on romp but not something to put one on the edge of one's seat.

Finally, in regards to what is called "the false flashback", I can see how it would be needlessly misleading the audience and think it should have been reworked. Rather than show, perhaps merely telling would have been enough, or at least indicate in some way that things were not as presented. However, it is not a deal-breaker for me.

Stage Fright, while nowhere near the same level as Vertigo or Psycho, is pleasant enough and worth the price of admission to see Marlene Dietrich be The Laziest Gal in Town


Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Savior for Sale: The Story of the Salvator Mundi. A Review



In the annals of art, the Salvator Mundi is in a class of its own. The reputed "last da Vinci" sold for a record-shattering $400 million ($450 with auction premium). What could have been a dry telling of a very old painting turns into a bizarre yet fascinating tale of high art and low characters in director Antoine Vitkine's documentary Savior for Sale.

Except for the opening that takes place at the spectacular Christie's auction, Savior for Sale tells its tale in chronological order with almost all the participants in sit-down interviews. We begin with when New York art dealer Robert Simon spots a certain painting on a New Orleans auction house website being sold as part of an estate sale. Believing it to have a connection to Leonardo da Vinci, Simon buys it for $1,175. After restoration, Simon believes it to be an original da Vinci and not from merely da Vinci's workshop or his apprentices.

This potential rediscovery of a genuine da Vinci painting is enhanced by Britain's National Gallery curator Luke Syson and art expert Martin Kemp, both of whom believe it to be genuine. Syson's faith is such that he includes Salvator Mundi as part of the National Gallery's da Vinci exhibition in 2011. 

Despite its questionable provenance and a small group of skeptics who hold that it is at most from Leonardo's workshop and not his work alone, the Salvator Mundi is a hit. However, the cost is too high for the many museums and art patrons who might take it. That is, until Russian oligarch and art lover Dmitri Rybolovlev learns of it.

From here, Savior for Sale turns into part thriller, part freak show. We have the machinations of middle men, the shrewd selling of a dubious painting by Christie's "marketing genius" Loic Gouzer down to the painting's eventual owner, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). Is the Salvator Mundi the seed that will make Saudi Arabia an arts & culture mecca (no pun intended)? Will he use that as leverage against the French to get both prestige and lucrative funding for his Vision 2030 modernization program?

Those questions, however, don't take on the two biggest questions regarding the Salvator Mundi: is the Salvator Mundi a genuine Leonardo da Vinci and where is it now? It was, despite intense Saudi pressure on the Louvre not included in a da Vinci retrospective and has not been seen publicly since the 2017 auction. Is it in storage somewhere? Is it on Crown Prince Salman's private yacht? 

Savior for Sale moves methodically through this story of how what looked like a third-rate, heavily damaged and insignificant portrait of Christ became not just a cause celebré but a major point of international diplomacy. The various figures involved in the Salvator Mundi saga are a fascinating lot, from true believers like Simon and art expert Kemp down to doubters like New York Times British journalist Scott Reyburn and Rybolovlev art consultant Yves Bouvier, who may have pulled off a masterful yet perfectly legal swindle on his Russian tycoon.

The story behind the Salvator Mundi and its ultimate fate grows slowly yet is in many ways bizarre. We see how Gouzer essentially hyped the painting through a series of shrewd publicity stunts such as selling the painting in the contemporary painting sale and videotaping audience reaction to the painting as part of its ad campaign. Then there's the various shell company subterfuges buyers go through to keep their names anonymous. Add to that how the Salvator Mundi's true ownership was revealed in part due to when MBS held his fellow princes in elegant house arrest to squeeze badly-needed funds out of them and this tale grows wilder as it goes on.

Savior for Sale allows the interviewees to state their information good or bad, weaving a story of how a mere painting that perhaps is the work of a Renaissance genius grew to insane proportions. The few intertitles state facts as they are save for the last, where it allows itself a pun.

"In New York, where it all began, two art dealers still believe in the savior of the world", a deliberate and clever wordplay on the painting's title. Whether either believe in the Christ Himself is another matter.

The drum-centered score is a bit reminiscent of all things Birdman, but that's not a negative.

Finally, on a personal note, I am of those who thinks Salvator Mundi is not a genuine Leonardo da Vinci. I don't even think it's a particularly good painting. Even if it turned out to be genuine, I still wouldn't pay $50 for it, let alone $400 million. 

I think people who watch Savior for Sale will be amazed at the lengths wealthy people will go for something that trivial. Art should be there to be enjoyed, but that so many would risk vast fortunes, reputations, even whole nations for something that is perhaps not real is astonishing. 

Monday, August 23, 2021

Stage Door: A Review


This is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Eve Arden.

The lives and loves of aspiring actresses forms the basis for Stage Door, the loose film adaptation of a successful Broadway play. With an all-star cast featuring established and rising stars, Stage Door moves quickly as we learn the trials, tribulations and joys of following those bright lights of Broadway.

Posh upper-crust newcomer Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn) arrives at the all-female Footlights Club to find lodgings while jumpstarting her theatrical career. Her grand manner instantly run afoul of the more working to middle-class boarders, in particular her new roommate, hoofer Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers). Jean has no fondness for her former roommate Linda Shaw (Gail Patrick), who is essentially the mistress of Broadway producer Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou). 

Tony Powell now sets his wandering eyes on Jean, and while she's not enthusiastic she at least knows teaming up with Tony will get her and her dance partner Annie (Ann Miller) jobs and will spite Linda. Meanwhile, the other denizens of the Footlights Club work to get acting gigs. There's quippy Eve (Eve Arden) and less quippy Judith (Lucille Ball), who goes out with men from her hometown of Seattle to keep body and soul together. And then there's Kay (Andrea Leeds), who scored a great triumph last year but hasn't found a job since. Dangerously in need of nourishment, Kay pins her hopes on an upcoming show, Enchanted April, which she knows will give her something of a comeback.

Alas, the lead in Enchanted April goes to Terry, who inadvertently stole the role when ironically enough she stood up for Kay to Tony. However, Terry wasn't about to give up the role. Tony is having buyer's remorse with the difficult Terry, who persistently questions everyone's judgment in the production. It isn't until tragedy strikes that careers are built up, true identities revealed and friendships restored.

There once was a time when actors were seen as slightly higher than prostitutes, but now they are seen as arbiters of both good taste and esoteric wisdom. Stage Door does not have those types of aspirations, but Morrie Ryskin and Anthony Veillier's adaptation of the Edna Ferber/Moss Hart play keeps things going with these starlets letting the quips fly fast and furious. Almost everyone in Stage Door lets wisecracks go zooming past, whether it's criticizing each other or the randy producers who may be a little too friendly. Seeing how smooth and adept the women are in rattling off zingers is one of Stage Door's great enjoyments. 

Everyone that is except for Hepburn, who maintains Terry's very elegant yet realistic view of the acting profession. The closest is when she throws some shade at her frenemies. "If I can act, I want the world to know it. If I can't act, I want to know it," she informs the gaggle of girls. When Eve retorts that even your best friends won't tell you (a left-handed compliment given most have given Terry the cold shoulder due to her manner), Terry retorts that it would be a great innovation for Eve if she could get her mind past the next wisecrack.

Though not from either the original stage play or the film's script, perhaps the most famous line in Stage Door serves as almost an in-joke to one of its stars greatest fiascos. Much parodied to where no good Katharine Hepburn impersonation would be without it, we hear Hepburn recite "The calla lilies are in bloom again," a line taken from The Lake

The Lake was supposed to be Hepburn's triumphant return to the stage after her foray into films. However, even Hepburn remembered opening night as a disaster. "I walked through the entire performance," she remembered decades later. "I couldn't act, I couldn't emote," she added. The reviews were brutal, with Dorothy Parker's quip that "Miss Hepburn's performance runs the gamut of emotions from A to B," being perhaps the kindest. Using "the calla lilies are in bloom again" for Stage Door allows us and perhaps Hepburn a chance to take a negative into a positive. Perhaps unfortunately for her, that "calla lilies are in bloom again" line became so connected to Hepburn that it became something of a catchphrase.

To be fair, the difference between her rehearsing the line and performing it at Enchanted April's debut shows her incredible range. 

Stage Door gives all the actresses a chance to show audiences just how good they were. Ginger Rogers' Jean is no pushover nor a sugar baby. Instead, she's a tough broad with a tender side, able to hold her own as a dramatic actress while still showcasing her dancing skills. We get a nice surprise in Lucille Ball, who blended Judy's aspirations with cynical realism about why she had to keep going out with guys she didn't care for.

Adolphe Menjou was not as sleazy as perhaps the role asked for as Tony Powell, but he could showcase that slightly creepy manner of the casting couch. In smaller but no less important roles, Ann Miller showcases a naivete with intelligence as Annie, and Eve Arden showcased her mastery of witty lines when she had the floor. We even get a brief moment with Jack Carson as one of Judy's Seattle lumberjack dates. 

Surprisingly, only Andrea Leeds was singled out for award consideration as the tragic Kay. She was strong and vulnerable, thought a couple of times it did seem a bit too dramatic. On the whole though, it's a credit to director Gregory La Cava that things flowed fast and the performances were universally great.

It's interesting that despite nearly eighty-five years, Stage Door is still relevant in how the theatrical/film industry still struggles with its treatment of women. You have the issues of rejections, casting couches, ageism and struggles to find roles, all things that the industry still faces. With a fast manner and strong performances all around, Stage Door works exceptionally well as both a thought piece on women in the theater/film and as sharp, amusing entertainment.


Sunday, August 22, 2021

In Old Chicago: A Review (Review #1520)



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Tyrone Power.

*Author's note: this review is for the shorter theatrical version not the longer roadshow version.

Mrs. O'Leary was framed. 

The woman held responsible for the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and her family are the main attraction of In Old Chicago, mixing fact and fiction to weave our characters in its tale of life and love that impacts them at a major historic event.

After becoming a widow with three sons on their way from Ireland to the new city of Chicago, Molly O'Leary (Alice Brady) becomes the Queen of Washerwomen, creating a lucrative business. Her oldest son Jack (Don Ameche) is a crusading lawyer, her middle son Dion (Tyrone Power) makes his business via gambling and questionable means, and her youngest Bob (Tom Brown) really didn't do anything apart from marry a German girl, Gretchen (June Storey) and give Mrs. O'Leary a grandchild.

Dion, the rascals, falls madly in love with chanteuse Belle Fawcett (Alice Faye), stealing her away from his rival Gil Warren (Brian Donlevy) and eventually opening up a theater/bar with her. Belle loves Dion but he forever seems to be hoodwinking her and everyone. That includes Jack, whom he fools into running for Mayor of Chicago against none other than Gil. Jack wins but his reform plans to clean up their old neighborhood, The Patch, run against Dion's plans to keep things as they are. Their growing battle ultimate leads Mrs. O'Leary to leave the barn, where her cow Daisy kicks over a lantern and literally sets Chicago on fire. 

As Chicago burns and chaos ensues, the O'Leary brothers separate and unite against both the inferno and Warren's mob which thinks this is an O'Leary plot. Though not every O'Leary lives, you can't keep the Irish or Chicago down.

In Old Chicago reminds me, curiously, of another film where a natural disaster gets in the way of a romance. While I have not seen all of 1936's San Francisco, I can't help thinking In Old Chicago is its Midwest cousin. I think that comparison comes to mind as both revolve around cabaret singers and the rascals who love them. Yet I digress.

What makes In Old Chicago extremely effective is the final third of the film, once poor Mrs. O'Leary's cow Daisy kicks the lantern. The scenes of the growing chaos and terror as citizens flee the growing conflagration are intense and gripping. One is invested as our various characters make a desperate effort to save themselves and each other as Chicago goes up in flames.

The scene of Mrs. O'Leary seeing terrified citizens crush the portrait of her late husband, a gift from all three of her sons, will break your heart. I freely admit I was both on the edge of my seat and in tears as Mayor O'Leary tried desperately to gain control of the growing crisis, Gretchen with her son Pat screaming to get Bob's attention, and Dion making determined efforts to stop Warren's mob from taking revenge on Mayor O'Leary whom they blamed for the fire.

It is a credit to the filmmakers that despite nearly eight-five years the special effects, particularly the Great Fire itself, still hold up. However, director Henry King deserves more praise in getting strong performances out of his cast.

Alice Brady won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award as Mrs. O'Leary, this loving but strict Irish matriarch who valued her sons and the grandchildren they should provide. Whether it is in refusing to meet that hussy Belle, her great pride as she rides with Jack on his victory parade, or reproaching Dion for not going to Belle after she saves Mrs. O'Leary's life, Brady is in turns sweet and strong.

Tyrone Power was a rare figure in Hollywood: a breathtakingly beautiful man who could also act. As the rakish yet ultimately noble Dion, Power shows how he could easily charm everyone around him with a bit of shenanigans yet still like and root for him. His love scenes with Faye, though perhaps questionable given how he used and manipulated her (I won't even go into him breaking into her home repeatedly) showed a romantic side. He could also be dark and menacing, such as when he tells Warren that the jig is up or warning his brother against cleaning up The Patch. "Yes, you're Mayor, but I'm Chicago", he eerily tells Jack. 

Ameche's more noble Jack too does well, his personal courage and integrity mixed with a deep love for family. Donlevy was in fine form as the villain Gil Warren, shrewd and dangerous, but not without a bit of charm. Faye is a standout thanks to In Old Chicago, her low, sultry voice mixing well with her personal beauty and making her musical sequences entertaining. She, however, could also act: the genuine heartbreak she shows when she realizes why Dion married her is moving, as is when she is determined to save her stubborn mother-in-law. 

Poor Tom Brown, as Bob was a nonentity to where he had nothing much to do with the story. 

In Old Chicago had some funny and clever moments that served as foreshadowing. In an early scene, Daisy the cow had knocked over the milk Gretchen had collected from her. Bob basically tells her not to cry over spilt milk. When Belle's maid Hattie (the beautifully named Madame Sultewan) brings the police to rescue her only to find them in a passionate embrace, she observes to the cop, "Sorry, Boss, but it looks like the fire's out". The funniest is when Dion breaks into Belle's house as both begin packing to flee the city. As both start throwing things at him, Hattie screams "Get out of here, white man!". 

Many a true word.

In Old Chicago may be historically inaccurate but it is both highly entertaining and deeply moving. And yes, Mrs. O'Leary was framed.


Saturday, August 21, 2021

Dragon Seed: A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Katharine Hepburn. 

Katharine Hepburn was firmly on the political Left. I mention this only to demonstrate that even liberals can have a glaring blind spot, in this case when agreeing to be part of cultural appropriation. Dragon Seed casts the embodiment of Yankee WASP patrician as a Chinese woman. While not as remembered as Mickey Rooney's ghastly yellowface in Breakfast at Tiffany's, Dragon Seed is still as stunning in its tone-deaf manner as the other Hepburn's film.

It's also stunningly boring.

Narrated by Lionel Barrymore, Dragon Seed starts with a happy, joyful Chinese village overseen by Ling Tan (Walter Huston), prosperous farmer who is patriarch over his wife (Aline MacMahon) and his three sons and their wives. While his Number One son Lao Tan Tan (Robert Bice) has done his duty and provided grandchildren, his Middle Son Lao Er Tan (Turhan Bey) has not. It is due to having a most unusual daughter-in-law, Jade (Katharine Hepburn) versus Tan Tan's wife Orchid (Frances Rafferty). Jade wants to read, speaks her mind (albeit softly) and has no issue standing out.

She also sees the magic pictures from traveling students who tell the villagers of the impending Japanese threat. While most of the village thinks these troubles won't affect them, Jade grows worried. Fortunately, a child distracts her enough to not make a big deal out of the Sino-Japanese theater of World War II. Unfortunately, the war does finally come. While some, like Ling Tan's merchant son-in-law Wu Lien (Akim Tamiroff) can collaborate with the Japanese, others like Ling Tan's Number Three son Lao San Tan (Hurd Hatfield) insist on fighting.

Things grow more complicated when Ling Tan's third cousin the Scholar's (Henry Travers) wife (Agnes Moorehead) takes out her anger at the Lings by turning informant. With war all around them, each Ling suffers tragedy before ultimately sacrificing the land to fight the invaders, with Jade and Lao Er Tan's son being the new seed of the Dragon.

Dragon Seed is one of those "they meant well" films, where the production company wanted to make a neo-propaganda film favorable to the Chinese allies in World War II. However, it is impossible to overlook the ghastly decision to not cast a single actual Asian, let alone Chinese actors, for any credited roles. 

No one apparently thought to cast actual Asians in major roles for Dragon Seed, and it says something about the nature of the oddball casting that the half-Turkish Bey is the most Asian-looking actor in the cast. While other actors in Dragon Seed like Huston and Travers did not look quite as garish, nothing but nothing excuse Katharine Hepburn from sheer condemnation for her almost freakish appearance.

I suppose we should be thankful almost none of them opted for an "Asian" accent, though the dialogue had this faux-"Confucius say" style of speaking. Dragon Seed has almost hilarious dialogue that will make people either cringe or laugh. After describing the joys of reading to her husband, Lao Er says, "It is magic. Your eyes pick up those bird tracks and your eyes give them to your voice and your voice gives them to my ears". I'm not sure if "bird tracks" is the best way to describe Chinese writing, but this bit just sounds odd. When told he is to be a father, Lao Er's response is "We shall be ancestors!", which again sounds peculiar.

More cuckoo bits come whenever they refer to each other as "Fourth Cousin" or "Third Son". After seeing so much death and destruction, Ling Tan and the wife say when seeing their youngest return, "It is our third son". Maybe they were so traumatized they forgot his name? 

Going back to Hepburn, it is hard not to cringe every time she appears in yellowface, the eyes exaggerated in such an appalling manner as to go past ignorant into almost overtly racist. Why Hepburn agreed to play a Chinese woman despite being a total Yankee has to be one of the worst decisions of her professional career. I don't know if she ever addressed or apologized for this shocking lack of judgment, but Hepburn cannot be excused for this freak show. 

It is already bad enough that Hepburn looks almost ghoulish in Dragon Seed. Add to that her bad performance. Hepburn appears to try and straddle between "demure female Asian stereotype" and "Katharine Hepburn as strong woman (even if encased in yellowface)". There's just such a strangeness to it all, that Dragon Seed comes across as all kinds of wrong.

It's racist in not just the casting but the portrayal of the characters between the noble Chinese and satanic Japanese. As a side note, Dragon Seed reminds me of another Walter Huston-as-noble peasant film: The North Star. Both are de facto propaganda films that portray happy peasants living beautiful lives before their countries (the Soviet Union and China) were invaded by the Axis Powers, and said peasants had to take up arms against them. Dragon Seed almost manages to be sexist. Apart from Jade and Orchid none of the other female characters have names. The insistence of the men overtly minimizing women is not helpful. 

Even if some common sense had been exercised to allow for actual Asian actors play these roles, it would have helped. Dragon Seed is really, really boring. There is a stylized manner to the acting, which the adaptation of the Pearl Buck novel makes more mannered. How MacMahon received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Dragon Seed is astonishing given all she did was show her displeasure at the more modern Jade. There is no reason to have Dragon Seed last a punishing two-and-a-half hours. The first half hour is wrapped up in Lao Er and Jade's alleged love story and the machinations around how they ended up married that by the time the first "metal eggs" drop in, your eyes start shutting down. By the time the peasants start going to war, I think most viewers have finally nodded off.

Dragon Seed, if anything, should be studied to see not just how Asians were perceived in the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, but in how incorrect casting can damn a movie. One could also learn about how heavy-handed some pseudo-propaganda films were back in the time. 

I can't help think of my dear friend, the late Fidel Gomez, Jr., who would always complain that any Asian-centered film seemed to have "Dragon" somewhere in the title. Dragon Seed holds to that tradition, but unless you are studying film I think nothing good will grow out of Dragon Seed.


Friday, August 20, 2021

Patterns: A Review



This is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Van Heflin.

Patterns, originally broadcast as a live television play, proved so wildly successful that in an unprecedented move it was restaged for a second live television performance. While I have yet to see the television version of Patterns, I look at the film version as a bit of a lost opportunity, keeping perhaps too close to a staged play versus a more cinematic adaptation.

Youngish corporate executive Fred Staples (Van Heflin) joins the Ramsey Corporation as one of its top executives, having recently been bought out by tycoon Walter Ramsey (Everett Sloane). Ramsey is a cold, coldblooded and coldhearted corporate leader, interested only in maximizing profits while caring not one bit about his employees major or minor. Opposite views are held by Bill Briggs (Ed Begley), who has worked for the Ramsey Corporation since the time of Walter's father. He sees the human costs of all these deals, but is usually shut down by Ramsey.

Staples now finds himself caught in the struggle between Ramsey and Briggs. It's clear that Ramsey brought Staples in to replace Briggs, but Briggs won't resign or retire. Staples thinks highly of Briggs but Ramsey undercuts them at every turn. At the climatic board meeting, Ramsey and Briggs' back-and-forth over Ramsey's efforts to not credit Briggs for a study Briggs and Staples worked together on leads to Briggs' death.

Staples confronts Ramsey, who lets him know he sees Staples as the perfect man for Briggs' job, insisting he not resign. Staples agrees on condition he reserve the right to punch him in the jaw. Ramsey not only agrees to these terms but adds that he reserves the right to do likewise.

Patterns came from the pen of Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, and one can't help think that he poured out all his contempt and cynicism for the darkness of the human soul. Perhaps my views are colored by the last Serling television-to-film production I saw: Requiem for a Heavyweight, which to be fair came after Patterns. The television Requiem for a Heavyweight has an optimistic ending, the film version has a pessimistic one. In Patterns, Serling can't seem to resist having people in purely black-and-white terms of good or evil. 

Part of Patterns struggle is that it came after a similarly themed film, 1954's Executive Suite. They both touched on the struggles of keeping your morality in a cutthroat corporate world, but Executive Suite gave some texture and complexity to all their characters. Patterns, save for Staples, did not. Again, it's probably unfair to compare Executive Suite with Patterns but it's a struggle not to.

Curiously, just like with the future Requiem for a Heavyweight, Patterns also had the same director helming both projects. In another article I will compare the television and film adaptations, but for now my only major observation is that with one exception Fielder Cook got strong performances out of his cast. Heflin was strong as the conflicted and ultimately angry Staples. He has a particularly strong scene at the end when he confronts Ramsey in righteous rage. You see the full force of his ferocity after seeing a good man die needlessly.

Begley too was strong as Briggs, a man of principle in an unprincipled world. Begley recreated his performance from the television version, and if it was similar to what was shown on television then one can see why there was such demand to rebroadcast Patterns. He has a frightening and intense scene where he becomes almost unhinged at Ramsey's cruelty while waiting for his son to pick him up from a baseball game he couldn't attend. Begley also has a wonderful scene with that son, Paul (Ronnie Welch), showing a softer side. 

The one major player whom I found over-the-top was Sloane, who like Begley was recreating his performance. It seemed one-note, forever barking orders and rationalizations. Even when attempting to show some semblance of humanity, Sloane appeared to be directed to be always angry. One wonders if perhaps some coldness or subtlety would have made Ramsey if not human at least slightly more believable.

It is a shame though that despite having the opportunity Patterns opted not to open up the story more. It would, for example, been nice to see those factory workers the board was talking about, see how Ramsey, Briggs and/or Staples interact with them. We get brief bits of the secretarial pool and a party the Staples are throwing, but on the whole Patterns is more self-contained than perhaps it should be.

Patterns is worth watching for Heflin and Begley's performances and is worthy of a remake. Neither brilliant or horrible, I can't quite see the Patterns.


Thursday, August 19, 2021

No Regrets For Our Youth: A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Setsuko Hara.

Japan's defeat in World War II was the nation's greatest and most traumatic turning point, one that nearly eighty years on it still grapples with. Released a year after the war's end No Regrets for Our Youth is a sharp, albeit not subtle condemnation of how the imperialists destroyed its young people.

Young, idealistic Yukie (Setsuko Hara) is the privileged daughter of a local high-ranking professor (Denjiro Okochi). Professor Yagihara is expelled for opposing the growing militarism in Japan, outraging his students. However, out of them only two pique Yukie's interest: moderate Itokawa (Akitake Kono) and more radical Ruykichi Noge (Susumu Fujima). Both vie for her attention, but Noge's radicalism gets him in prison, with Itokawa now serving as a prosecutor.

Yukie opts to go to Tokyo as the nation enters war in China, upsetting her parents. Here, she reencounters Itokawa and later Noge, who has clearly won her heart. She and Noge begin a relationship which leads to marriage, but Noge insists on keeping his real work secret.

It isn't until his secret plans are discovered that their lives are thrown in upheaval. Noge and Yukie are arrested as spies, but as Yukie knew nothing she is eventually released though shattered by not just her overall experience but Noge's death. Shamed as the wife of a "spy", she shares this burden with Noge's poor parents, rural folk who felt isolated from Noge long before he died. However, Yukie takes up her burden and after Japan's defeat, both Noge and Professor Yagihara are vindicated. Yukie opts to return to the land rather than the comfort of her past life.

No Regrets for Our Youth at times is a bit too blatant about its antiwar stance. Made in 1946 one can see how at least in this film there is a deliberate effort to show how those opposing the war were right. It's almost as if the population was not enthusiastic about Asian domination. Granted, they were led into it to some degree, but somehow it seems strange to imagine that everyone either agreed with Noge/Professor Yagihara prior to the war or recognized they were right shortly after.

This is early Akira Kurosawa, and here we see him developing his craft as a director. Some of his montages are exceptional and brilliant. There's when Yukie pauses at her door to see if she will go downstairs to say goodbye to Noge. Rather than show her on film, Kurosawa opts to have Hara strike a set of poses that show her conflicted state. It's a fascinating sequence.

Kurosawa uses many montages to great effect. The sequence of Yukie going to Noge's work has nothing but music, but we see her approaching the business in all sorts of weather, with her forever hesitating to go in until Noge himself catches her and greets her outside. Same for when as she struggles with her bundle while being taunted by her rural neighbors, she stumbles. Whenever attempting to get up, we see trees and hear laughter, as if to say even nature mocks her. 

At the heart of No Regrets for Our Youth is Setsuko Hara's performance. Hara is a beautiful woman, and Kurosawa is smart enough to make her first appearance a thing to admire. Hara, however, showcases her ability to transform from a posh, sophisticated girl to gritty, beaten down but not beaten woman. The tragedy of her experiences are etched in her face as she is shell-shocked at her arrest and imprisonment.  

At times to be fair Hara can slip into an almost theatrical or silent film performance where she appears overdramatic, but one can cut her some slack given how much misery and trauma Yukie endured.

Again, about my one great issue with No Regrets for Our Youth is its lack of subtlety. Hindsight is 20/20, and No Regrets for Our Youth makes clear that those opposing the war were right. There's no absolution for the imperialists and warmongers who brought Japan to a disgrace and shame greater than that the Noge family suffered. 

However, with a strong central performance from Setsuko Hara and equally strong direction from Akira Kurosawa, No Regrets for Our Youth is a fine film that speaks to how individual lives can be shattered by the plans of those far above and removed from them.