Joan Crawford: If You Want to See the Girl Next Door… Go Next Door

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More than anything else, it was a book that turned me into a movie buff: David Shipman’s The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. This was the first comprehensive set of star biographies, and in those pre-video days of the early ’70s, it told tantalizing tales of films I had no hope of seeing unless they turned up on the late show. Shipman wrote marvelously about many actors and actresses, but maybe too well — his opinions had a way of soaking in. The actors he cared about (Judy Garland, Buster Keaton, Greta Garbo, Deanna Durbin) got love letters, while those he didn’t were pretty much excoriated.

Joan Crawford was one of the latter. The entry on Crawford starts with a putdown by Humphrey Bogart, and Shipman goes on to call her “not much of an actress…as tough as old boots” and to conclude that “she achieved little…her repertory of gestures and expressions was severely limited…(her shoulders) were always so much more eloquent than her face.” And that’s just the introduction. His survey of her career is peppered with words like “artificial,” “heavy,” “monotonous” and “hysterical.” So even before I’d seen most of her work, I was a bit prejudiced against Crawford.

When I finally did, she made it hard to disagree. Her appearance, for one thing. Increasingly through her career, she covered her face in grotesque Kabuki makeup — huge outsized lips, big Groucho eyebrows, piles of dead-looking hair. Her body language was stiff and somewhat mannish, and she did throw her shoulders around a lot. She was especially fond of squaring them off when confronting some hapless male — often a weakling such as Van Heflin, Zachary Scott or Wendell Corey. Although, to be fair, she made most men look weak, even big macho guys such as Jeff Chandler, Jack Palance or Sterling Hayden. When she turned her huge, furious, reproachful eyes on them, they all seemed to shrivel. So did I. If a movie star is someone you idly daydream about making out with, Miss Crawford did not do it for me.

Maybe I just needed to grow up, because sometime in my 40s, I started to change my mind. By then I’d seen some of her best work: Possessed, Grand Hotel, The Women, Strange Cargo, Mildred Pierce. Of course, in these movies she had vivid co-stars and wasn’t the whole show; I still didn’t think she was a very good actress, or even particularly attractive. What finally turned me around was Humoresque. It’s a big, thundering ’40s soap opera about a struggling young violin prodigy from the New York ghetto (John Garfield) who is taken up socially, artistically and sexually by a rich older married woman. This role is a field day for Crawford, who gets to fling diamond-hard insults (written by Clifford Odets), ride a horse passionately, have an orgasm during a violin concerto, smash martini glasses against the paneling of swanky bars, and walk into the surf in full evening wear. Ridiculous. And yet she’s gorgeous to look at and completely persuasive as an actor. At every moment, she makes you aware that this is a woman who doesn’t like herself, whose loveless marriage for money has left her bitter and empty. Her awakening from cynicism into love, and her desperate awareness that it’s come too late to help her, is finally quite heartbreaking.

She was a hard woman, no doubt about it. She had a terrible childhood — abandoned by her father, carted around the slums of El Paso by her impoverished mother, learning much too early that men were a meal ticket and what the price of that ticket was. She was rumored to have made a stag film, to have been a stripper and a hooker. When she arrived in Hollywood in her early 20s, one observer remembered her as “an obvious strumpet.” Show people can be terrible snobs and the unconcealed disdain of her colleagues must have marked her deeply. Her whole life seems to have been an effort to scour off the dirt of West Texas and make a lady of herself. More than most performers, she kept reinventing herself and assuming new identities. Born Lucille LeSueur, she became Billie Cassin and then Joan Arden before the studio ran a contest to come up with Joan Crawford. She often spoke of how the movie industry educated her about virtually everything. When you watch her, you can feel the untold hours of effort she has put into her appearance, her diction, and her carriage, to covering up her dark, freckled skin. Much of her falseness comes from this fierce determination to be someone else — someone better.

But it’s also where her power comes from. For example, in Strange Cargo, she plays a prostitute in everything but name (the Production Code was in full force). Although she was at the height of her stardom, and working with Clark Gable in his first movie after Gone With the Wind, she gives absolutely no quarter. Her wardrobe consists of three print dresses that reportedly cost a total of $40 (and she looks fantastic in them). Whatever her own experiences, she makes a mighty convincing whore — cold and hardened on the surface, bitter and hurt underneath, and deeply wounded and desperate at the core. She has a great moment where she tries to pretty herself up a little bit after days of crawling through the jungle, and Gable mocks her in the cruelest and most disrespectful way. She maintains her toughness with him, but as Frank Borzage’s camera moves slowly in on her, she lets you see the immensity of her shame and self-loathing. She handles the character’s transformation into a sweet and hopeful woman very subtly and convincingly as well. At no point does she signal that she’s a big star, or a lady pretending. She doesn’t ask for sympathy — she earns it.

Crawford didn’t act in many comedies, and when she did she was often completely humorless (They All Kissed the Bride, a misogynistic screwball farce intended for Carole Lombard, is Exhibit A). She did have a sense of humor, but it was too black and caustic to work in the frothy nonsense of her era. However, just once she was awesomely funny: in The Women, playing a comic version of her own tough persona. She plays Crystal Allen (a wonderful name for a hard, glittering woman). In her first scene, she’s on the phone with her married lover, who is trying to cancel his date with her to be with his family. On the phone, she’s a parody of a sweet innocent young thing. But fending off the interjections and insults of her disbelieving co-workers, she’s matter-of-factly rapacious and cynical. When she finally gets him to cancel on his wife and come to her place instead, she does a silent little shoulder-shaking fist pump of victory… the kind of moment that makes you fall in love with a performer. “How do you like that guy?” she snaps, and then spitting out the last word: “He wanted to stand me up for his wife!”

Let’s also take a moment to consider her fine work in Grand Hotel, the first all-star film. She shares much of her screen time with John and Lionel Barrymore, acting royalty of the time, and she’s pretty much their equal. It’s not saying much in Lionel’s case, I know, but she’s great with him. He has a banal role: a meek desk clerk who’s dying and on a last spree, and as usual he overdoes it and acts all over the place. Crawford’s secretary is at first professionally kind and slightly amused, later genuinely interested and concerned, and finally loving and protective. They have the only happy ending in the movie, and again, she earns it. In the meantime, with John Barrymore she’s poised, if a bit self-conscious… until they too make a connection based on mutual disenchantment. She also has a terrific scene with Wallace Beery in which she tacitly agrees to be his mistress and subtly masks her visceral disgust with a brilliant smile. Great stuff. Greta Garbo is the other star of the film, playing a prima ballerina with grotesque theatricality (she’s prima, all right), leaving Crawford the clear winner among the five of them.

Ten or 15 years after Grand Hotel, all her co-stars were gone, but she kept going for another 40 years after that movie.  Something not generally mentioned about her is that she ran a long career with imagination, taste, and self-awareness. Entering the decade of the 1950s at the age of 44, a former silent star like Norma Desmond, she was far from washed up… in fact she became more protean than ever. She went to Columbia to be perfectly cast in Harriet Craig as a control freak who controls her household with an iron fist and her husband with a velvet glove. She put together an independent vehicle, Sudden Fear, and got an Oscar nomination for her bravura work in a tightly wound and very tricky thriller. Next she made a bona fide masterpiece, Nicholas Ray’s geometric, operatic Western Johnny Guitar — another movie she put together as a package, including the property, script, and director. Stories of her temperament on the set dominate most discussions about it, but she deserves more credit as its co-creator and for her gender-bending performance as the tough-as-nails protagonist. In case that sounds like typecasting, let it be noted that soon after she gave an untypical and beautiful performance as a shy spinster finding love in Autumn Leaves, convincingly vulnerable for a change, and making you feel her confusion as she’s forced to find some inner strength. And she ended an impressive decade with The Best of Everything, a gorgeous and hugely entertaining movie that uses her fierceness very cleverly, as Hope Lange’s Boss From Hell who’s actually as abused and misused by men as the trio of younger women she’s terrorizing.

And we haven’t even gotten to Mildred Pierce, her most famous and Academy Award-winning role. Earlier this year, in HBO’s epic miniseries, Kate Winslet played Mildred exactly as written by James M. Cain — a mixture of likable and dislikable qualities. Mildred is plucky, determined, indomitable and cunning but also naïve, clueless, misguided and weak. This is not the woman Joan Crawford played. Her Mildred may be determined, but she has only the noblest intentions. The drama of the movie is the series of betrayals and humiliations Mildred undergoes at the hands of virtually everyone she trusts. Every single scene builds to a dramatic climax and then ends with a payoff, and they keep coming boom! boom! boom! It’s probably the best-made movie she was ever in, and while it might not be her best performance, she’s perfect for it because her steely determination is consistently misplaced, off-point, self-destructive, and thwarted. Many commentators over the years have pointed out the obvious irony of Crawford, the abusive virago of Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest, winning an Oscar for playing an over-indulgent mother whose only sin is loving and spoiling her daughter to excess. But clearly it was more complicated than that — Joan and Christina’s relationship seems to have been a pitched battle of wills that extended beyond the grave. Something many of us can relate to, in fact.

But Joan Crawford didn’t want complexity. Life, as she knew better than most, is a messy, dirty, terrifying business. Her response was to envision something better, and go after it with laser-like intensity. In 1931’s Possessed (the first of two movies she made with this title), she plays a poor girl in a working class town who can’t reconcile herself to marriage to a cloddish boyfriend and a life of drudgery. One evening, a train pulls into town. She stands there in her cheap dress, looking at the train windows as they pass slowly by, revealing a series of elegant tableaux: rich passengers dressing up, dancing, drinking cocktails, being attended to by servants. Her longing is palpable. She’s still years away from becoming the implacable survivor staring down the world, stubbing out cigarettes and torturing Hope Lange. She’s young and full of hope, and you’re with her all the way when the next scenes show her penniless but ready for anything in New York, having decisively left her squalid life behind her.

Of course, we don’t leave ourselves or our demons behind when we try to move onward and upward — that’s only in the movies. Shipman’s book includes a famous put-down of Crawford’s unnuanced acting by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote screenplays for her during the ’30s. He missed the larger truth about her, the larger performance that her life was all about. He’d have recognized her if he’d looked more deeply, because in her unwavering faith that poise, money, and class can erase all the compromises necessary to achieve them, Joan Crawford was as quintessentially American as Jay Gatsby.

Show Boat

The landmark musicals of theater history haven’t fared very well on film. Usually, they’ve had their scores trashed (such as Lady in the Dark and Pal Joey), suffered from big-movie-star miscasting (such as Guys and Dolls, Gypsy and Chicago) or been presented intact but with such fussy over-fidelity that they’re dead on the screen (such as South Pacific and My Fair Lady).

So it’s something of a miracle that the first great musical, maybe the greatest stage musical of all — Show Boat, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein — reached movie theaters with its beautiful score intact, with the best and most legendary cast members playing their original roles, and filmed with cinematic intelligence by a great director. And most miraculously of all, the movie Show Boat came from the cheapest, blandest and most mediocre studio in Hollywood history — Universal Pictures.

Universal had tried before in 1929. They had bought the film rights to Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel, which had been a big best seller, and were filming a silent version when lightning struck twice. First, Ferber sold the stage rights to Florenz Ziegfeld and the resulting musical became Broadway’s biggest hit and a groundbreaking leap forward in terms of seriousness of story and theme. Second, the movies were swept by the craze for talking pictures. So here was Universal, having just finished making a silent version of a book for a public that wanted to see a famous musical. The solution was to add a talking prologue, with songs performed by a few original cast members, like a variety show, and shoehorn a couple of songs by other composers into the movie randomly. Though it was a financial success, the result was widely regarded as a hodgepodge and an artistic failure, as it is today.

I’d be hard pressed to think of another time in the history of movies that something like this happened, but Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal, decided to try again and do it right. Only seven years after the first film, he hired Oscar Hammerstein, who had written Show Boat’s libretto, to write a screenplay with story and songs true to the original. The score was largely retained; a couple of fine new Hammerstein/Kern songs were added (in fact the two went on adding and subtracting songs to Show Boat into the 1940s). Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan were signed to repeat their stage performances, which was very brave of the studio — Robeson was a pariah due to his left wing politics and refusal to kowtow to anyone; Morgan was on a career slide due to alcoholism, and Hollywood had long since washed its hands of her. The decision to include them shows how serious Laemmle was about rectifying his earlier error. And so Show Boat offers the opportunity to see two of the most legendary performances in the history of American musical theater in one film.

Laemmle also put his best director on the project. James Whale is famous for a quartet of Universal monster movies (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man), so much so that horror has taken over his resume. But what makes his horror films among the best, if not the best, is the kinetic aliveness of his direction (which sometimes meant that his shots don’t match; the film’s only flaw is that it’s choppy in places). Show Boat could have been a static record of a famous stage production, but in Whale’s hands, it’s a movie. There’s so much going on in every frame that it almost feels like 3-D, and you’re always aware of the characters watching each other and reacting to each other. When Helen Morgan sings her great torch song “Bill,” with its famous lyric by P.G. Wodehouse, chorus girls, janitors and washerwomen slowly stop their work and gather at the edges of the room; one discreetly wipes away a tear with her apron. When Paul Robeson sits on a dock and sings “Ol’ Man River,” maybe the most famous performance of the most famous song in theater history, Whale’s camera circles him ecstatically, finally ending on a sustained closeup that you hope will never end. Sadly, it does: someone foolishly intercut scenes of Robeson acting out the lyric (toting barges, lifting bales, getting a little drunk and landing in jail). But then we go back to Robeson singing, and it’s one of the most beautiful, stirring sights anyone ever saw.

The leads are great as well. It can’t be the easiest thing in the world to play Magnolia Hawkes and Gaylord Ravenal, Southern belle and riverboat gambler, and not look just a little bit ridiculous. And singing, yet. I’m not a big fan of operetta, with its stilted and formal performance style, but Irene Dunne and Allan Jones are the two best performers who ever attempted it. Dunne is particularly skillful, convincingly aging from innocent late teens to worldly wise 50s (she was about 38) without hitting a single false note. She does a crazy, eye-rolling shuffle to “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and performs “Gallivantin’ Around” in blackface, and manages to keep her dignity as an actress and keep you focused on Magnolia, not on Irene Dunne. And it must be said that she never looked more girlish or more radiantly beautiful than in this film.

If Jones is remembered at all today, it’s as the only bearable male lead in the Marx Brothers’ film career (in A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races). In Show Boat, he has a tricky role, as a riverboat dandy who’s dashing and charming but also weak and irresponsible. He’s a gambler who loses spectacularly, and losing doesn’t bring out the best in him. He’s much softer than Magnolia, who turns out to be the strong and resilient one. Late in the movie, he takes a menial position just to be around his grown daughter, who doesn’t know him. You accept this melodramatic, masochistic turn of events largely because of the gentleness and simplicity Jones brings to it. His daughter is his legacy; she’s all he has. He makes you understand that Ravenal is a sensitive man who doesn’t like himself very much and clings to a dignity he doesn’t really feel; it’s a terrific, subtle performance.

But everybody in Show Boat is great. As Magnolia’s parents Captain Andy and Parthenia, Charles Winninger and Helen Westley bring out all the comedy and pathos in their parts without overdoing it. Not easy: in the MGM remake from 1951, it’s hard to even look at Joe E. Brown and Agnes Moorehead thrashing around in the same roles. Winninger is particularly outstanding in a scene near the end where he saves his daughter’s singing career by coaching her from the footlights, and his emotion is so full that he can only express it by leading the entire audience in a sing-along reprise. All through the movie, song is a vehicle for emotion rather than an excuse to wow you with a big production number. “Make Believe,” the gorgeous love song that brings Magnolia and Ravenal together, also is a brilliant foreshadowing of their self-delusion and ultimate missed connection.

Maybe the most remarkable thing about Show Boat is the relationships between the black and white characters. In no other ’30s movie, and maybe no other movie before the 1970s, do blacks and whites mingle so freely and with so much ease. Though the movie shows you a world in which African Americans are subservient, poor and ignorant, it’s not trafficking in stereotypes or endorsing prejudice. Far from it. The most sympathetic character is Julie (Morgan), who has mixed blood and loses her job and her husband after being hounded by the law. The movie, like the show, is suffused with the idea that racism is evil, ugly, and ruinous. The characters, living in the post-Civil War South, can’t change the world around them but nonetheless treat each other like human beings. When Irene Dunne does her shuffle and her blackface number, it isn’t condescending — Magnolia has been brought up and nurtured by African Americans; she’s one of them.

Quite a progressive movie for 1936, and for a minor studio in some financial trouble. Laemmle had a lot riding on Show Boat. Like Ravenal, he was a gambler. And he lost: the movie was a hit, but due to the time and care he’d invested, it was so expensive that it failed to turn a profit. As a result, the receivers moved in and he was ousted from the studio he had founded. But again, like Ravenal, he left quite a legacy. Show Boat is many things… an irreplaceable record of a key moment in theatrical history, a high point in classical Hollywood filmmaking, a moving bit of make believe, and an eloquent understated plea for tolerance and decency. And for all its antiquated technique and performing style, maybe the finest movie musical ever made.

The Lady Eve

She takes a bite from an apple, then wonders aloud what would happen if she “clunked him on the head with it” … just before dropping it on him from a three-story height. She sticks out her foot to trip him, and when he gets back up, berates him for damaging her shoe. She cozies up to him so her crooked associates can cheat him at cards. She calls him by a babyish nickname he loathes. She blatantly cock teases him, and when he’s bashfully choking on his own desire, tells him “you should be kept on a leash!” Later, she has him tripping over himself without any help, as he takes a series of embarrassing stumbles in front of his entire family. Finally, she marries him, and then on the honeymoon coldly and ritually humiliates him sexually. Mustering up the tatters of his shredded self respect, he leaves…and takes his final inexorable fall into a huge oozing pit of mud.

It’s a love story.

It’s also a romantic comedy, maybe the greatest. The Lady Eve, written and directed by Preston Sturges at the peak of his powers in 1941, is not a boy-meets-girl story. It’s a Paradise Lost story, only in this case “paradise” is living in a comfortable, smug world of ignorance and illusion. A woman introduces sin into a backward young man’s life, he responds by being hurtful and unforgiving, and she makes him pay the price for his narrow-minded weakness by reappearing in a new incarnation and making him fall in love with her all over again. Despite the dazzling wit and slapstick comedy, it’s a fundamentally serious movie, starring two fundamentally serious actors — Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda.

Stars of the classic era were expected to be able to do everything, but Stanwyck and Fonda made few comedies in their long careers, and most of the others are dismal. She usually played tough lower-class women fighting for respect, and he’s remembered as a prototypical mid-century liberal hero: quiet, slow to anger, judicious, and upright. Their skill at drama gives The Lady Eve an unusual undertone of seriousness — when they wound each other, you really feel it. In most classic movies about the battle of the sexes, especially movies of the 1940s, the woman has to be tamed, subjugated, put in her place. In this movie, the man has to be stripped of his immaturity, insensitivity, and self righteousness — his unconscious belief that the woman is an extension of his own vanity. What’s remarkable is how exhilarating it is to watch that happen.

Some of it is Fonda. With his open face, drawling Midwestern speech, and lanky physical coltishness, he’s basically asking for it. There’s something vaguely infuriating about Henry Fonda; maybe it’s all that goodness. In the late ’60s, he finally played a villain, in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, and it’s revelatory to see cold menace finally glaring from those blue eyes — the meanness that seemed to be there all along, buried beneath his sanctimonious blandness. In The Lady Eve, the repeated humiliations he undergoes aren’t just funny, they feel almost liberating. The air of the film is charged by the excitement of watching her slap him around. “I need him,” she murmurs at one point, staring off in the distance, “like the axe needs the turkey.”

Sturges created the script for Stanwyck, after her remarkable performance in Remember the Night, a movie he wrote (but didn’t direct) the previous year. In Remember the Night, she plays a hardened shoplifter who gradually rediscovers her own humanity and goodness during a Christmas holiday in the heartland. It sounds terrible, but it’s beautifully written and Stanwyck makes the character’s evolution utterly convincing and deeply touching. She makes you feel how precarious vulnerability is, and how much strength it takes to maintain it. In The Lady Eve, the same dynamic is at work, but the balance is shifted. We feel the tenderness, shame, and hurt feelings underneath her tough exterior. She’s a grown up: she shows how idealism and cynicism can reside in the same heart in an uneasy truce. She has a wonderful little riff about her ideal man — a little short guy, a practical ideal you can find in any barber shop — that would be typical screwball-comedy dizzy-dame chatter if it weren’t for the genuine world-weariness Stanwyck and Sturges convey beneath their bright remarks.

Maybe the greatest joy of Preston Sturges is his unique, but very accurate, vision of America as a nation full of wiseasses. In his movies, the leads don’t get all the jokes; every character has something snarky to say. In The Palm Beach Story, he gives the best line in the script to a Pullman porter (“Gentleman tipped me a dime all the way from Jacksonville to Palm Beach — she’s alone but she don’t know it.”). He loved his actors, but his sin as a director was his weakness for letting them amp up the comedy with too much shouting, running around and arm-flapping. That wild energy becomes a muted, urgent subtext in The Lady Eve. Because Stanwyck, her father and his gang are criminals moving among the rich in their world of steamships and country houses, their acerbic comments are subtle signals to each other (and us) that they’re the most trustworthy people on the screen, because they’re the most experienced, and the smartest. Watching Stanwyck take Fonda for a ride and give him the shellacking he deserves, we get to share in and enjoy that smartness.

Even their tenderest love scenes contrast her hard-earned wisdom with his obtuseness: “I don’t deserve you,” he says at one point (most of his remarks are just about that fatuous), and she reveals a world of complicated self-awareness as she answers ardently “oh, but you do… if anybody ever deserved me, you do… so richly.” Most romantic comedies come down to this: will they/won’t they, and when? The Lady Eve asks more timeless questions. Will he finally see her as more than a mere appendage? Will she wise him up and make a man of him? Can love survive the loss of innocence?

One Way Passage / Two Seconds

Daydream and Nightmare

Think these are hard times? Try 1932.

It was the worst year of the Great Depression. The economy had already been in free-fall for three years. The latest in a series of oblivious and inept Republican presidents had helped further deregulate markets, which had then spun out of control. Since the crash, Herbert Hoover had been preaching the standard Republican doctrine: self reliance and charitable giving. The tent cities that sprang up all over America to house the legions of newly homeless were named in his honor: Hoovervilles. In June of 1932, when veterans of the previous World War marched on Washington demanding payment of their bonuses, Hoover’s Administration met them with tear gas and bayonets. By the end of the year, 40% of U.S. banks had failed. Drought decimated the Midwest, turning farmland into the “Dust Bowl,” and food was scarce. Some farmers burned their crops for heat, as the coldest winter in history — and a mood of real despair — settled over the country.

Only one thing got better in 1932, and that was the movies. The coming of sound five years earlier had brought a number of technical problems, but these had finally been ironed out. There’s an enormous difference between movies made in 1931 and 1932. The former are static and stiff, with performers who stand and declaim their mostly gawdawful dialogue to the back of the theater. But the movies of 1932 began to move again, with the camera venturing outdoors, the film stock brighter and more textured, and the performers lighter on their feet and acting for the camera instead of imitating stage technique. Movie attendance was down, and so the studios took advantage of the unenforced censorship Code of the time and lured patrons back with sex and violence, to a degree that’s still startling today. And with the economy so bad and life so hard, the movies began to reflect the tough, cynical outlook that was in the air.

Among a bunch of terrific pictures made in 1932, two especially stand out. The first, One Way Passage, is a perfect little daydream of a movie, with the absurd gallantry of the characters nicely set off by the crude pre-Code realism of the settings and details. The other, Two Seconds, is pure Depression-era nightmare.

One Way Passage begins in a Singapore gin joint. To an American audience in its 12th year of Prohibition, the daydream had already begun right there. A bartender is talking to an unseen customer while making a Paradise Cocktail and lovingly describing each step. By the time he makes a flourish out of twisting a lemon rind over the top, you want it as badly as the customer. He turns out to be exactly the actor you’d expect to see at a bar in the 30s — William Powell. The epitome of suavity and sophistication, and that rarest of things: a grown up. He holds the glass out to savor the cocktail and leans in for his first sip, only to be jostled from behind and have most of it slosh out. Turning to curse out the jostler, he finds that it’s a beautiful girl. She’s Kay Francis, an ineffable, strange actress known mostly for being a clotheshorse and for her inability to pronounce the letters R and L. It’s love at first sight, maybe helped by the fact that this was Francis and Powell’s fifth movie together. She smiles brightly and then sees what she’s done.

“Always the most pwecious, the wast dwops,” she comments breathlessly. It’s not just positive thinking. She is, you see, dying of an unnamed but incurable disease. Her doctor has ordered complete rest, but she’s determined to live life to the fullest before she goes. What she doesn’t know, but we soon find out, is that Powell is doomed also. He’s a convicted killer who was sentenced to death in the States and has (as they said back then) taken it on the lam. He can’t stay and chat up Francis, so they drink to their mutual health and then break their glasses on the edge of the bar and lay the stems over each other in honor of their brief meeting. Powell hustles out of the bar, but not fast enough. He’s immediately arrested. A San Francisco cop has been hot on his trail, and plans to take him back to face his fate in the electric chair. His consolation is that he and Francis are on the same boat.

And so romance blossoms, with each aware that doom is around the corner, but neither telling the other. The very real doom that threatened the audience in 1932 is refracted and stylized, but still hangs over the movie and gives it a bitter edge. And the silly old-movie tropes, like the love theme that plays each time Powell and Francis meet, and their ritual of breaking their glasses, pay off beautifully in the final scene. Like the first scene, it’s set at a bar—the movie comes full circle. It’s ridiculous and yet it’s powerfully, hauntingly romantic. You laugh at yourself, but you choke up anyway.

In fact the whole movie is corny as hell, yet it never comes off that way. The actors defuse the sentimentality of the material by underplaying it and playing against it. This includes the supporting cast. Warren Hymer and Frank McHugh, usually quite unendurable little toads, have the good luck to share their scenes with the serenely grounded and generous Aline MacMahon, whose sure touch turns them both into princes. The three of them play, respectively, the arresting cop, a drunken thief, and a phony countess who get involved with the lovers and turn out to be their guardian angels. What’s so wonderful about One Way Passage is the balance between the frankly silly fairy-tale plot and the toughness of the characters. Life has battered these people, and their futures are grim. They respond, ultimately, with integrity and generosity. It’s a beautiful vision of Americans: back them against the wall, and they reveal their best selves.

Or… not. In Two Seconds, the hardship of the Depression doesn’t bring out the nobility of the characters. It brings out fear, greed, lust, despair, and ultimately madness. Two Seconds also features a hero who’s on his way to the Chair — John Allen. A crowd of reporters and jail officials has gathered to watch the execution, and one of them comments that after they flip the switch, Allen will have two seconds of consciousness left. Gosh, says one, in those two seconds he’ll remember everything about what brought him to this moment. They flip the switch. And the rest of the movie is those two seconds.

The hum of the electric chair blends into the noise of a riveter. Two men are standing on the girders of an unfinished skyscraper. It’s John and his best friend Bud, played by Edward G. Robinson and Preston Foster. They’re a couple of young guys who are making good money in the Depression, but only because they’re doing this frightening and dangerous work. Bud is a hedonist who blows the money on gambling and women, but John is an idealist. He has big dreams for himself, and he’s picky about women. The truth is he’s the runt who gets stuck with his studly friend’s castoffs, and as the movie proceeds like dirty water swirling down a drain, his aspirations and airs of superiority get thrown back in his face in breathtakingly and increasingly cruel ways.

At first, Preston Foster is slightly hard to take as Bud. He had recently played the role on stage, and he’s still a bit “big” for the movie. I always thought Foster was a lousy actor until I found out that he was also a guitarist and composer; essentially he was a proto-beatnik, and maybe too hip to take seriously the cardboard roles that usually came his way. Despite his overemphasis, he’s intensely likeable as Bud. His love for John is the motor of the movie and one of its few grace notes.

The other grace note is Edward G. Robinson. You wouldn’t think he could play John Allen, who is a muscular, working class, somewhat stupid young guy who gets in way over his head. But Robinson was one of the most skillful of all performers, and he does much more than play the character. He takes you on a journey. I can’t improve on Mick LaSalle’s description, in his book Dangerous Men, of Robinson’s final speech as he’s being sentenced to die. “This is Robinson, great American actor, in the most intense minutes of his film career. He endows the speech with the shape and size of melodrama but maintains the precision of a ballet dancer. Remaining true to his core and so in control, he goes to a deep place, without fear, hesitation, or bluffing, using himself unflinchingly. No movie star ever looked like Robinson, and he’s beautiful.”

I don’t want to say any more about the plot. We know from the beginning that Robinson is going to fry. The drama is seeing the steps by which his ordinary life, and ultimately his mind, comes completely unraveled. As with One Way Passage, the sense of fate closing like a trap is clearly a metaphor for the Depression, and the feeling that ordinary hard times were deepening into something more existentially threatening and terrifying. The movie itself changes from stark realism to near-abstract expressionism. And the ending hits you with the force of a brick hurled in your face. This nightmare offers no salvation, except the sweetness and humanity of Robinson’s art. That’s more than enough.

Each one of these movies runs about an hour, and each packs more story, more honesty, and more maturity into that hour than 90% of the movies being made today. Maybe hard times were good for something.

 

 

Originally published on Edward Copeland on Film.

Lucky Lady

Blog Art - Lucky Lady2

In advance of a DVD release, Fox Movie Channel showed Lucky Lady one afternoon recently — the first airing of this unlucky movie anywhere in my experience since its premiere in 1975. I saw it back then, when I was — ahem — in my teens, and I thought it was pretty good… my strongest memory was of Liza Minnelli playing a Bessie Smith record (“Young Woman Blues”). I’d never even heard of Bessie Smith, but her deep growling and wailing on the soundtrack made a huge impression on me. And any movie that introduces you to Bessie Smith can’t be all bad.

So I was pretty excited to see the movie again after 35 years. As a movie buff, it’s always nice to discover a “forgotten” film and tell people about it. Maybe it would turn out to be a lost treasure. They’re out there — great little movies that most people have never heard of, and you read about them on the blogs sometimes… Two Seconds, Desert Fury, Strangers When We Meet, No Down Payment, Daisy Kenyon, just to name a few that you can find rapturous little posts about here and there.

Alas, this won’t be one of them. Lucky Lady was supposed to be Fox’s big Christmas hit of 1975: Minnelli’s first movie since Cabaret, co-starring the biggest star of the decade, Burt Reynolds, plus Gene Hackman fresh off his Oscar for The French Connection. It was only a couple of years after The Sting, which had been a hit of immense proportions, and this was an imitation — another story of darling, roguish crooks set in the Roaring ’20s, with cutesy ragtime music and movie stars grinning with cigars in their mouths.

It was even a bit daring for its time: the stars play a floozy and two bums during prohibition, and as they bicker and laugh their way from down-and-outers in Mexico to filthy rich rum runners, they eventually become a ménage a trois… we even see them in bed together. You can tell that the filmmakers were trying for an update of the old ’30s MGM Powell-Harlow-Tracy formula, with a raucous tart battling a tough guy and a mug. Lucky Lady, by the way, is the boat they use to transport hooch up and down the California coast, chased by the Coast Guard and murderous yet comically inept rival bootleggers.

None of it works. There’s no chemistry, for one thing. Hackman was a late replacement for George Segal (who wisely bailed at the last minute). He turned it down also, until the studio offered so much money that he couldn’t refuse, but he looks shamefaced, as if he knows he shouldn’t be there, and as the movie progresses he seems to almost disappear while you’re watching him. Burt Reynolds has a more interesting role, as a klutzy puppy dog with a sad little crush on Minnelli. He’s convincing as a total boob, but not very funny or appealing. You expect Hackman and Reynolds to do the movieish thing and scrap over the woman they both love, but nobody in the movie shows enough feeling to suggest any emotion, much less love.

You couldn’t be in love with Minnelli’s character anyway. Sour and snarling one minute, emotionally vulnerable the next, she’s pigeon-toed and graceless and utterly unappealing. Abrasive boorishness worked for Harlow because her wisecracks were witty and you could feel the joy she took when she told somebody off — she was our heroine, a no-class gal giving the snooty swells a big fat kick in the rear end. Liza Minnelli is (or was…) a very talented woman, but she can’t pull off this particular act. Four or five minutes into the movie, she’s in a dive cantina in Mexico, singing a frowzy fake-cynical Kander and Ebb song, wearing a Harpo Marx wig and a gaudy print dress, and you get the dismal but unmistakable sense that you’re watching a flop.

Not that Fox didn’t try. They poured $13 million into the movie, and there are spectacularly mounted scenes of boats racing along, gun battles, explosions, etc. Some of the sets are huge, though the Teflon-coated fake art deco looks more mid-’70s disco than Jazz Age. They shot three different final scenes, too, after test audiences rejected the original “serious” ending. One of the several attempts found the three characters many years later, still in bed together; this hastily discarded scene of the three actors in lousy old-age makeup is a minor inside-Hollywood legend.

Blog Art - Lucky Lady

Most catastrophically of all, the director Stanley Donen (or someone; the movie reeks of too many chefs) opted to shoot the film using “flashed” cinematography. This technique lets some extra exposure in as the film is being processed. The result washes out the colors and details, puts a smeary haze around the edges, and brightens and softens everything. Basically, it makes the movie excruciating to look at. Have you ever awakened hungover on the deck of a boat in the glaring midday sun? Well Eddie has, kids, and I can testify that that’s how Lucky Lady looks, for two solid hours.

There’s one saving grace note… watching again 35 years later, I was still enchanted for the brief moments when Minnelli put Bessie Smith on the gramophone. Here was the real voice of the 1920s: smoky and defiant, steeped in rueful experience, but joyful, free and bracing as a shot of bootleg gin. When she belts out her timeless lowdown blues, the contrast with the phony, uneasy little movie surrounding her couldn’t be greater.

Cyrus, A Single Man, Life with Father

Small Movies, Big Movie

I watched three movies in the past week, two of them new and one of them 63 years old. The two new ones, Cyrus and A Single Man, have pretty much vanished from my consciousness like breath on a mirror. The old one, Life With Father, is still running through my mind.

Cyrus and A Single Man aren’t much alike, at least superficially. The former is about a lonely slob (John C. Reilly) who finally meets a great woman (Marisa Tomei) at a party, but finds his relationship cockblocked by her clinging, obese, devious 20-year-old son (Jonah Hill). The film sets up this kind of creepy incestuous situation but then chickens out and dribbles away, maybe because the actors did a lot of improvising. It’s also damaged by the fact that you have to spend an hour and a half looking at Reilly and Hill, not the prettiest of specimens, and wondering how the hell a woman like Marisa Tomei got mixed up with them.

The latter is about a professor (Colin Firth) struggling to get over the death of his longtime male companion. He plans to commit suicide, and during his last day on earth, he encounters his old lover and best friend (Julianne Moore) and a flirtatious student (Nicholas Hoult) who wants to get closer to him. Directed by fashion photographer Tom Ford, it’s a meticulously designed GQ photo spread come to life, with the camera lingering endlessly on impossibly beautiful male faces. Firth is great at suggesting the gravitational pull of enormous grief, though, and Moore is funny and inventive as always.

What they do have in common is their scripts. Both keep close to a tight little interpersonal situation, with a troubled protagonist slowly fighting his way to some sort of meaningful connection with others. The dialogue is functional and uninspired, and you’d be hard pressed to remember a single line from either. Both depend on the actors to give them depth and make the audience give a damn about the selfish, closed-off characters.

Life With Father couldn’t be more different. It was based on a play, the longest running non-musical play in Broadway history (still). Set at the turn of the century, it’s a big semi-ironic valentine to the Victorian era, with loud blustering supremely know-it-all Father (William Powell) subtly thwarted at every turn by sweet, not-as-rattlebrained-as-she-seems Mother (Irene Dunne). It was shot in bright Technicolor (though the prints are very bad, since it’s never been restored). The performances are very “big” — this was a hit movie based on a hit play, and the actors sock every line out into the depths of the cavernous movie palaces of the 1940s. The script is a beautiful piece of work, right down to the last line… a funny, clever laugh-with-a-tear-in-it that the entire movie has carefully been setting up.

Life With Father isn’t a good movie, exactly, but it’s like a pyramid or an old ornate bank building: an imposing example of dedication and craftsmanship that isn’t possible anymore. It’s really built. Nobody has the time, money, or theatrical know-how to create something like that anymore, and even if they wanted to, it’s gone way out of style. The movie was made for (and reached) a wide popular audience, so it’s broad and obvious, but the clueless man vs. loving wife stuff that worked in 1947 still works. And the timbre of William Powell’s voice is still ringing in my ears.

Cyrus and A Single Man, like most movies now, are made for fragmented audience segments — in this case a few hundred mumblecore fans, or the gay-friendly NPR-listening art house crowd. You either like them or you’ve never heard of them, but either way their lack of inclusiveness is part of what makes them so worthless. Years of test marketing and focus groups have done this damage, and not just to movies but to politics, literature, education, music… everything. Cyrus doesn’t work and A Single Man does, but either way they’re both tiny movies that will be forgotten in another year or so. Whereas Life With Father, if someone bothers to restore and preserve it, will probably be playing forever.

Cyrus

George Castanza’s Dream Comes True in Cyrus

A couple of years ago, watching Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, I was seriously offended on behalf of Marisa Tomei for her having to participate in some fairly explicit sex scenes. The problem wasn’t Tomei, who looks more devastating than ever in her 40s. The problem was that she was in bed with the last actor on earth who should be seen unclothed (even a little bit): Philip Seymour Hoffman. Though Hoffman was great as always, the physical disconnect between them made it impossible to suspend disbelief… she was acting all turned on by him, and man, that was some acting.

Now, three years later, here is Tomei cast as a “sex angel” to the lumpish, skeevy John C. Reilly in Cyrus. She hasn’t had a relationship in years, the movie would have us believe, but she’s attracted to Reilly. Uh-huh, as my father used to say when something or someone was full of shit. To add insult to injury, Tomei also plays the mother of the spectacularly bloated and unattractive Jonah Hill. The unlikelihood of either of these gentlemen getting anywhere near a woman like Marisa Tomei isn’t the main problem with Cyrus, but it was the one that irritated me the most.

Reilly plays John, a film editor who has been divorced for several years and lives alone in a messy apartment, eating junk food and staring at his computer screen. As with the heroes of so many of today’s slacker movies, whether mumblecore or not, John is a slovenly loser with no looks, physique, hygiene, money or career prospects… and who yet manages to have giddy, happy sex with a hot woman who responds to his sincerity, or basic decency, or something. Cyrus opens with John’s unbelievably non-acrimonious ex-wife Jamie interrupting him in the middle of masturbation; later he meets Tomei while peeing in some bushes. Are these the sorts of moments that bring hot women into a man’s life? Only in the minds of male screenwriters who have spent way too much time staring at their computer screens.

So John and Tomei’s Molly hook up, and things are going great until he meets her son Cyrus. Fat and beady-eyed, Cyrus is an antisocial lout who has an unhealthy Oedipal obsession with his mom and no intention of sharing her with a boyfriend. (Hill, by the way, looks more like the child of Danny DeVito’s Penguin than that of Marisa Tomei, but let it go.) The first third of the movie is standard comedy-of-social-awkwardness as this situation is set up, but as John moves closer, and eventually into Molly’s house, Cyrus begins a passive-aggressive campaign to break up the relationship. For a while, with the handheld camera moving through the bluish darkened rooms of the house, it’s like a horror movie, and you half expect Cyrus to pop out with a knife like Norman Bates. Then for the last third, the movie makes another shift in tone, and goes all soft and sensitive as we see how much Cyrus is hurting, and he and John forge a tentative reconciliation.

This is one shift too many for the audience, whom I felt were ready for something darker and edgier. There are suggestions of an incestuous relationship between Cyrus and Molly — she spends the night in his bed when he’s upset, he uses the bathroom while she’s showering, etc. But these scenes don’t go anywhere, and Molly is ultimately portrayed as a sane, sweet earth mother who has evidently played no part in making her son a borderline psychopath. Like Mildred Pierce, her only sin is loving her child so much that she’s blind to what a monster she’s created. Or hasn’t created. Again, these are screenwriter contrivances — everything that happens in the movie is for an immediate effect and has no grounding in psychological truth.

The performers are left to make the movie work, and it must be said that Reilly almost pulls it off. He’s a very likable actor, maybe because of the glints of suffering in the little raisin eyes set too close together in his doughy face. We’re with him all the way, and when Cyrus begins his campaign of lying and manipulation, we want John to come up with some clever strategies to beat the little bastard at his own game. But although the movie makes a couple of feints in this direction, evidently the writer/directors Mark and Jay Duplass aren’t up to writing a battle of wits. In fact, much of the movie was improvised by the performers, and several scenes have that repetitive, vamping tediousness that improvisation gets when there’s no inspiration behind it.

Catherine Keener fares particularly badly — she has now officially tilted her head, squinted compassionately and laughed unexpectedly in one too many movies. She plays Jamie, the ex who dumped John several years previously, but still hangs around solicitously, trying to get him to socialize and find happiness in a new relationship. Uh-huh. Cyrus is like a loser’s daydream in which he doesn’t have to change a thing about himself: everybody loves him anyway. Even Marisa Tomei.

Flynn at Sea

Probably no actor ever got luckier with a first starring role in the movies than Errol Flynn. At the age of 25, he was given the lead in Captain Blood on the basis of his looks, intense lobbying by some well-connected lady friends, and the fact that the film had no leading man and an imminent start date. At the time, Flynn’s experience amounted to a year of repertory theater in England and minuscule roles in about four B-movies. Raw-boned and gauche, he acquired authority and panache as filming went on, so much so that the first sections of the movie were re-done at the end of the shoot.

But what made Flynn lucky wasn’t just the opportunity. Captain Blood is still the greatest pirate movie ever made — thanks to clever, dynamic direction by Michael Curtiz, a stirring score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and a strong cast including villainous brigand Basil Rathbone and 19-year old leading lady Olivia de Havilland. De Havilland had as little experience as Flynn, but as Rathbone wrote almost 30 years later, “a more enchantingly beautiful young girl it would be impossible to imagine.”

A big hit, the movie was nominated for the best picture Oscar (it was beaten by the far inferior sea epic Mutiny on the Bounty) and made Flynn a huge star overnight. More than that, it established a template that Warner Bros. followed, more or less, for the next couple of decades. Flynn made 12 movies with Curtiz, seven with Korngold, three with Rathbone, and eight with De Havilland. But as fate would have it, he made only one more swashbuckling pirate movie for Warners: The Sea Hawk, which debuted 70 years ago today.


Among movie buffs and Flynn fans, The Sea Hawk is highly regarded. There’s a lot to like about it: Flynn, here at the peak of his career, has far more acting authority than he’d had in Captain Blood; Curtiz and Korngold are back with their typically first-rate work; and Warners poured almost $2 million into the production at a time when a movie could gross half that amount and be a hit. In fact, the studio built a huge new soundstage and tank just for this film, as well as two full-scale sailing ships that were moved by hydraulics. The movie also re-purposed huge, vaulting sets and beautiful costumes from the previous year’s Flynn vehicle, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.

But as good as it is, The Sea Hawk doesn’t quite make it onto the list of truly magical movies. The cast and crew are in there pitching, and everyone does a professional, workmanlike job. Swords clash, sea shanties are sung, hordes of sailors swarm over the riggings, dark deeds are plotted in castles, galley slaves mount an escape…and yet you don’t particularly care about any of it. The reasons, I suppose, lie in the script and a couple of crucial casting mistakes.

Captain Blood was based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini and had a literary and beautifully structured screenplay by Casey Robinson. The Sea Hawk was ostensibly based on another Sabatini novel, but in fact used only the title. The original screenplay was by Seton I. Miller and in fact had a different title — Sabatini’s was used as audience bait (his name still meant something in 1940) and because, well, it’s a great title.

Miller’s screenplay was rewritten and sharpened by Howard Koch, a fine writer who had an instinct for how to punch up scenes with intelligent, ironic dialogue. Koch had the idea to make the story more timely by turning it into a metaphor for real-life events — England was already at war with Nazi Germany, and in the two years before the U.S. joined them, there was a widespread effort at solidarity and support in Hollywood. Koch’s angle was to turn Phillip of Spain into a Hitler intent on conquering the world, and Queen Elizabeth into a Chamberlain who attempts appeasement and then a Churchill who fights back openly.

Flynn’s character, Geoffrey Thorpe, is a gentlemanly sea captain who turns pirate in order to covertly serve the Queen and her political needs. Thorpe isn’t a great character like Peter Blood, a foppish doctor sold into slavery who becomes a pirate out of outrage and a desire for revenge — Thorpe is more like one of the anonymous G-men from innumerable Warners pictures of the era. While that may have satisfied the politics and censorship demands of 1940, it robs the movie of some fun…these are the cleanest and most morally upright pirates you’ve ever seen. Flynn, who wanted to be a serious actor and resented swashbuckling roles, plays the role in a restrained and almost dignified way, and you wonder why the inevitable haughty wench on board (the Spanish ambassador’s niece) doesn’t see what a great guy he is right away.

The haughty wench is a problem, too. Maureen O’Hara perfected this part in the 40s; it’s too bad she didn’t meet up with Flynn until 1952, when his lifestyle had begun to seriously erode his enthusiasm. Here, the wench is played by Brenda Marshall. Who? Exactly. This movie was Marshall’s big chance, and it must be said that she muffs it. Her acting is wooden and totally conventional, her face a mask of pouting unhappiness that seems more related to her own personality than to the role. Marshall can’t even make you smile at a line like “Uncle, my jewels!” as her bedchamber is invaded by pirates.

Where’s Olivia de Havilland? At the time, she was fighting Warners for respect and better roles, and wanted something more than to be Flynn’s leading lady. She only played with him a couple more times before going on to prestige movies and a couple of Academy Awards. In her old age she seems to have realized, like Ginger Rogers and Myrna Loy, that her romantic partnership onscreen is her greatest claim to immortality. De Havilland and Flynn had a beautiful rapport as actors — his rashness and boldness seem to excite and offend her at the same time, which is quite funny; her gentle sweetness brings out a sensitivity in Flynn that almost seems to surprise him. “I really believe that he was deeply in love with her,” commented their co-star Bette Davis, and the feeling was very evidently mutual.

Marshall and Flynn, in contrast, have zero chemistry. And so you’re left to ponder the rote quality of so many old movie romances: hidden attraction, conflict, cleared-up misunderstandings and declarations of love, separation, longing and heartbreak, reconciliation, kiss, fade-out. The situation isn’t lost on Curtiz, who resorts to director’s tricks to make this non-romance come alive. When the two are parted, he alternates shots of them looking longingly into the distance as Flynn sails away — the movie seems to be shouting “LOOK, THEY’RE IN LOVE WITH EACH OTHER!!!”

The villains aren’t much better. Claude Rains returns from Flynn’s Adventures of Robin Hood, but he has no memorable lines and lets his evil haircut and facial hair do his acting for him. In Captain Blood, Lionel Atwill played basically the same role and gave it dark hints of sexual obsession and sadism (OK, maybe it wasn’t too much of a stretch for him). Rains just coasts here. In Robin Hood, he was beautifully paired with Rathbone, who played the fiery man of action to his sly rascal. Here, the Rathbone role is filled by Henry Daniell, and that’s a pale carbon copy. Flynn’s chemistry with Rathbone was as magical as his rapport with de Havilland — they had the same energy level, and when they hurled challenges and insults at each other, you felt an underlying respect and affection. At some very elevated level, they were playacting, and every scene they shared crackles with exuberant antagonism.

Daniell, on the other hand, apparently was the cold fish he always played, and as an actor he had only one note of sneering superiority. And in fatal contrast to Rathbone, the best fencer in the business, he couldn’t handle a sword. A studio memo from the middle of production reported that “Mr. Daniell is absolutely helpless and his closeup in the duel will be mostly from the elbows up.” As in all Flynn swashbucklers, the climax is supposed to be the big duel to the death, but Daniell seems to barely be in the scene. As with the romance, Curtiz is forced to use director’s tricks to make it come off. Longshots, doubles, heavy shadows, furious cutting. Workmanlike, but unmagical.

Many commentators on The Sea Hawk have also noted the absence of Technicolor, but the movie does have strong black and white photography. This was an economic decision which allowed Warners to re-use battle shots from Captain Blood and a couple of other older epics…It also allows for a nice effect during the movie’s best sequence: a trap laid for Flynn and his men in the jungles of Panama. Sepia gives this sequence a real feeling for the heat of the swamps and the misery that our heroes endure, and it helps break up the movie as well — at more than two hours, it’s rather a long journey. Finally, England is once again purged of treason; the lovers are reunited, the trumpets flare, and the Warners’ shield announces The End. You’re left admiring the craftsmanship that went into mounting this sea epic on a soundstage, but you haven’t ever really sailed away.

 

Originally published on Edward Copeland on Film.

Help!

Just re-watched the film of the same name, starring the Beatles back in 65, at the height of Beatlemania.

“We were extras in our own movie,” complained Lennon a few years later, and he wasn’t far wrong. There are long tedious stretches of faux-Indian faux humor featuring Leo McKern, who would have to place high on any list of the world’s most repellent and unfunny comedians. And too often the Beatles just cavort meaninglessly in the snow or the surf or the countryside, as anonymous as stop-motion puppets.

Still in the edges it’s a fresh and relevant movie. The director, Richard Lester, was trying to turn the four of them into modern Marx Brothers, and while he pretty much failed, it’s amazing how close Lennon came to being like Groucho. When he looks at the camera and waggles his eyebrows, he makes the same kind of connection with the audience — the smart guy who isn’t taken in, who knows bullshit when he sees it, who rolls his eyes scornfully at piousness and cliche. Just like Groucho, Lennon cuts through the intervening decades and is right here with us now.

Ringo makes a connection, too — he’s a lovable doofus, and a great camera subject. There’s a musical number where he’s playing drums with a cigarette dangling from his lips, and he’s just effortlessly cool. The movie is built around him and his rings, and despite the corny cutups he comes through with his dignity intact, and the same kind of wry sweetness he had 25 years later guesting on The Simpsons.

George and Paul don’t fare so well. George was 22, and while he too was effortlessly cool, he doesn’t have a lot of personality… and clearly the writers and director couldn’t care less about him. As for Paul, he’s a great artist but his busy Gemini brain always makes him look twitchy, phony and cold on camera. He can’t cross his legs without seeming calculating and manipulative. However, even half a century later, you can almost hear the little girls screaming over his handsome little piggy face.

There are glimpses of swinging London, too, and they remind you that once upon a time, there was art and excitement happening somewhere. Change was in the air, and every one of the songs seems to be announcing it. Every ringing chord seems like a rebuke to this empty age we’re living in now. Help — I need somebody! Not just anybody…

All these years later, I know just what you mean, Johnny.

My Life in Bond Movies

Bonds-Clean-DI-to-CW

In honor of Quantum of Solace, here’s a short history of my life, measured out in Bond movies.

Goldfinger. Wow, a toy car that has guns and an ejector seat! I am a little kid and nothing could possibly be cooler. Not even robots.

Thunderball. It’s all about the Aston Martin. Even the producers know it, because it makes an appearance in scene one, bizarrely shooting water out of its exhaust pipes. I am seven now and this is cool, cool, cool. But the movie is long, long, and half underwater. I fall asleep.

You Only Live Twice. Takeme takeme takeme! No? Why the hell not? I fume with impotent rage in the backseat of our Chevy Impala as we drive past the theater. Aw Daddy, doncha love your little Eddie?

Dr. No/From Russia With Love. Reissued with Goldfinger. Mom and Dad dump me at the Saturday matinee… undoubtedly to get rid of me for six hours. Excellent plan. It’s a win-win.

OHMSS. Doesn’t have Connery, so who cares? It’s the end of the 60s. We have all the time in the world.

Diamonds are Forever. Connery is back; this is big. Now I’m 13, and my father takes the whole family. But it’s Easter Sunday and I am sitting next to my grandmother, who is also a minister. Awkward. You know something? Dad can be kind of passive aggressive.

Live and Let Die/The Man with the Golden Gun. Watergate, the weary end of Vietnam, cutesy ragtime music on the radio, and Roger Moore as James Bond. Nobody who lived through the 70s will ever be nostalgic about it.

The Spy Who Loved Me. Wow, a submarine Lotus. I’m a jaded teen now, but this is hot. Ditto Barbara Bach in her black dress. Plus I am old enough to drive myself and my friends to the movies. Things are looking up.

Moonraker. I see this on my first big travels alone, in a grimy grindhouse on a drizzly, icy summer day in San Francisco. The audience is 90% homeless and drunk and happy to be indoors, even watching this gawdawful movie.

For Your Eyes Only. Bonding with Sean MacFalls, who I meet working a loading dock and who is as big a fan as I am. Around this time I see Thunderball on TV while stoned and notice how badly made it is.

Octopussy. Roger Moore is assuming the leathery appearance of an old satchel. Sean MacFalls calls the movie an All Time Low. Little do we know that next up will be…

A View to A Kill. I am married now. Rebecca yells rude things at the screen about Roger Moore’s lack of sex appeal. That’s my girl.

The Living Daylights. Tim Dalton is a breath of fresh air. The new Aston Martin has some cool gadgets… The Pretenders song at the end is terrific. Things are looking up again.

License to Kill. I’m a dad now. Can’t be bothered, except to note that Dalton looks shamefaced about being in this crappy movie. The violence is sickening; the sex is non-existent. Oh, right, it’s the Reagan era.

Goldeneye. Six years have passed. We’ve moved to New Jersey. My coworker does a hilarious impression of Tina Turner growling out the title song. She also imitates Connery’s lascivious Bond. I have a pretty big crush on my coworker. But I skip the movie.

Tomorrow’s World is Not Enough and Dies… whatever those Brosnan movies were called. As a martini drinker, I notice Pierce orders them wrong. I realize I am more sophisticated than the man playing James Bond. And that’s just not right.

Die Another Day. It’s cold and rainy outside the theater. Manhattan is a bleak, sad, empty place after 9/11. Tough room… but then, every single man in the audience groans in unison as Halle Berry wades out of the Cuban surf. And we feel better.

Casino Royale. As played by Daniel Craig, James Bond is battered, vulnerable, and at long last a real man. This is the first Bond movie that Rebecca actually likes. Afterwards she asks me to make her a Vesper. Once you’ve tasted it, that’s all you want to drink.