Monday, May 22, 2023

Miss Show Business

By the time Presenting Lily Mars was filmed in 1943, the twenty-year-old Judy Garland had already mastered the clowning, fumbling earnestness in her character’s single-minded pursuit of stardom and, for the first time on film, was displaying some of the world-weary show-biz brass that would point the way to her concert triumphs in middle age — that voice like a Big Band trumpet with a mute on it, moaning low or careening into the stratosphere. Chronologically, the Andy Hardy bloom was just barely off her, but she had come into her own mature talent, inexorably and rapidly. She had made an excellent picture the year before (For Me and My Gal, with Judy and Gene Kelly doing their “Ballin’ the Jack” routine) and had even separated from her first husband by then (having had an affair with Johnny Mercer in the interim). The character Garland plays in Lily Mars is a typical Booth Tarkington teenager, a homely duckling with a pie-in-the-sky dream and the gumption to chase it no matter how many obstacles she smacks into. There’s a lot of Alice Adams in Lily, but it isn’t high society Lily craves — it’s the energy that stage performers lap up from audiences (Garland took that energy and apotheosized it in 1961 at her famed Carnegie Hall concert).

A star is born. Judy Garland, Faye Bainter
I’ve always thought that Garland’s core was comedic rather than dramatic, despite her intelligence and honesty in serious roles like Esther, in A Star Is Born (1954). Garland was always at her loopiest and least self-conscious in movie comedy (she said that she learned how to put a song across from Sophie Tucker). She would have made a dazzling farceur in screwballs, with her verbal and physical gag skills and her short stature and elongated limbs (she looks like a Tex Avery drawing from his 1941 classic “Hollywood Steps Out”), but the genre had all but died out by the early 1940s. Joe Pasternak and Norman Taurog, who made Lily Mars, should have done so much more with her comedy savvy here, but they didn’t have the burn and drive that her better directors often did (Vincente Minnelli, George Cukor, or Busby Berkeley). Pasternak and Taurog misinterpreted her appeal and kept her suspended in the bland Jell-O of wholesome “family” entertainment. Instead of giving her energetic modern numbers to sing, the Pasternak machine saddles her and her irrepressible quiver with mopey love ballads. It’s a huge relief when the movie finale moves from a starchy “Where There’s Music” into “Broadway Rhythm,” but songs like “Every Little Movement Has a Meaning All Its Own” or “When I Look at You” don’t exactly help build the Garland legend. Lily is supposed to be the antithesis of the starched-collar “perfection” of Marta Eggerth (whose operetta swill makes your head drop), much the way Garland herself was the swinging antithesis of the ridiculously popular Deanna Durbin at MGM. 

Despite the family-market machinery and misconceptions, Garland swings through and maps out a route forward for her career in Lily Mars, even if she wasn’t fully aware of it at the time. Her triumph in Lily Mars was a blueprint for Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (1968), which re-created several gags from it in the “Lovely Bride” and roller-skating numbers. By 1943, Garland, who would make Meet Me in St. Louis the following year and dispense with the last of her childhood pudge, was paving her own yellow brick road.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Moldy Camp

Death warmed over.
  Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz
The Mummy (1999) is a stab at camp, a remake of the shlocky Valley of the Kings (1954) with Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker, and the tasty adult adventure movie King Solomon’s Mines (1950) with Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr. This version has nothing at all to do with the arch, creepy, Teutonic 1932 version directed for Universal by Karl Freund, an Expressionist chiller whose troubling imagery is like being entombed with moldy corpses in a graveyard. This version can’t meet any of its humble, imbecile obligations: even the character actors (the movie saviors and scene stealers of the past) are awful. 

The jocularity is so broad and cringe that twenty minutes of it puts you in a sour mood. At over two hours and five minutes of frenetic stupidity, you might come out of it convinced that movies have never provided charm or magic.

Another unintended bit of residue of The Mummy is that it makes you hate the affable Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, Industrial Light and Magic, CGI, Egypt, and even bandages. How can it be ethical — or even legal — to treat the Bronze Age this way? 

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

East and West

Toshiro Mifune and Keiko Awaji
Stray Dog (1949) is Akira Kurosawa’s tenth film and only his third with the charismatic young actor Toshiro Mifune (his seventh film role). It is one of the rewards of movies to be able to see a budding genius director so openly display his love of American directors: Ford, Welles, Huston, Walsh. Kurosawa takes the police procedural form and inventively expands it in various directions: a buddy picture, a psychological–existential drama, and an Expressionist morality play. The movie is bursting at the seams. It’s a Bildungsroman by a director who is finding a new language to express everything he can in a humanist spirit. Stray Dog has a purity of purpose. Kurosawa directed his first movie in 1943; by 1948, in Drunken Angel, and 1949, in Stray Dog, he was already the greatest master of pastiche and action technique in the world. You can feel the simultaneous forces of the East and the West, yet there is no unease with the material: the tableaus of the desperately hustling, naïve young cop (Mifune) in the ramshackle side streets of Tokyo are both triumphantly personal and universal. Takashi Shimura, a Kurosawa stalwart from Rashomon (1950), Ikiru (1952), and The Seven Samurai (1954), plays the mentor detective. He was an old pro even by 1949. Kurosawa here is right on the cusp of surpassing his American idols. The following year, with Rashomon, those same American directors had the opportunity to see how they’d been topped by this Beethoven of the East.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022


Downton Abbey: A New Era (2022) is a saccharine atrocity. Virtually all the characters are back from the final TV season, but they’ve had the blood squeezed out of them. The script leaves no one any dignity; the actors aren’t just actors anymore — they’re cardboard symbols of the resilient English spirit, diamonds of the Empire with stiff upper lips. This lame, pointless rip-off of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is presented earnestly, as if nobody had ever heard of the silent-to-sound transition, and despite the fact that the film studio in the current story is the London-based producer of “quota quickies,” British Lion, all the characters keep mysteriously referring to their surroundings as “Hollywood.” What can you say about the writing in a movie that shamelessly treats all these dowagers, lords, ladies, and lackeys as wooden tokens of British class divisions and old-movie stereotypes (This Happy Breed [1944], Mrs. Miniver [1942], The White Cliffs of Dover [1944], and so on, where the only humor in the dialogue is inadvertent), or that relies on piled-up happy outcomes? I don’t remember a single moment in the two-hours-plus romance that was sexy or passionate, and when a baby is carried in at the end, I was baffled as to how it got there. At a time of our current upswing in erotic dramas in streaming programs, Downton Abbey: A New Era is presented as a chaste throwback to the sexless “family” entertainment of Joe Pasternak and Henry Koster. It’s a shame there isn’t a singing nun in it somewhere.

Static pose. Maggie Smith
The directing is truly primitive; scenes aren’t shaped for dramatic action or montage but for static tableaus. The camera pans slowly across each grouping of primped, posing characters while they deliver measured, mechanical dialogue: “We got through the war — we can get through this.” “You’ve been everything to me. Everything.” Lady Grantham sums it all up patly, in case anyone missed it: “Individual Crawleys come and go, but the family lives on.” This is the sort of sludge that E. F. Benson and Evelyn Waugh were making fun of in the thirties. Nobody raises his voice or spills his tea in this celebration of fortitude and tradition, and even Maggie Smith’s peppery dowager dragon from the TV show is defanged. (Where are all her tart one-liners? The director turns her into a snookums.) All the youngsters are paired off and squared off with clinical precision (the butler gets snapped up by a visiting movie star), but Dame Maggie is left spending most of the time in bed, thinking of an incandescent girlhood love, and we’re not sure whether she’s nobly remembering or just dotty. Dozens of details are either entirely phony or contrived to show off the landscape (the movie closes with a funeral procession that has rarely been equaled in the movies for frosty grandeur). Even the jazz band on the terrace is all wrong — it’s 1927 but the playing and singing sound like a contemporary cruise ship act. Downton Abbey: A New Era isn’t a family saga — it’s a commercial trade name, and Julian Fellowes makes a terrific living by appealing to his audience’s craving for wholesome blandness.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021


Before he directed and starred in his marvelous Henry V in 1944, Laurence Olivier made several propaganda films for the war effort: That Hamilton Woman (1941) with his wife Vivien Leigh, in which Napoleon is a clear stand-in for Hitler, The Invaders (1941, 49th Parallel in the UK), with actual Nazis as Nazis, various Ministry of Information shorts, and The Demi-Paradise (1943). The latter, directed by Anthony Asquith, was intended to rouse British support for the Soviets in the wake of the 1941 German invasion, which abruptly terminated the German–Soviet non-aggression pact. (The title is from John of Gaunt’s deathbed speech in Act II of Richard II.) Olivier plays an Englishman’s idea of a Russian: officious and overwhelmingly critical of British reserve and “cruelty.” The screenplay (by Anatole de Grunwald) turns the proletariat Soviet engineer into a bourgeois provincialist — what has always been said about Englishmen — but Olivier is strangely listless. He overlooks the comic potential of the character, which is odd, considering Olivier’s triumphs in so many comic roles in the theater, from Sir Toby Belch to Sergius (Arms and the Man) to Justice Shallow. The artist who so successfully tapped the wit in a madman like Richard Gloucester should have, one would think, been inclined to play up the humor in Ivan Kouznetsoff. Olivier’s halting, overstudied delivery is perhaps a miscalculation. The effect on his characterization turns an engineer into an artistic temperament and gives the impression that Olivier has forgotten his lines. This may have been Olivier’s idea of Slavic dispiritedness.

Planting her feet apart and adopting martial poses, Margaret Rutherford seems to have taken the propaganda mission much too seriously. She plays the town busybody who makes “stirring” speeches and chews through everything around her. Rutherford’s amateurish histrionics obliterate the casual humor of most of the crowd scenes. (Rutherford was always impossibly broad — she can’t deliver a throw-away bit of dialogue without jerking her head from left to right.) 

Despite its occasional warm charm, including a lovely performance by Penelope Dudley-Ward and a brief bit by Leslie Henson in a music-hall number, the movie is prosaic and at least thirty minutes too long. A year later, Olivier’s heroic phase reached its artistic and commercial apex with Henry V, Shakespeare’s emblematic patriotic achievement and the British film industry’s glorious tribute to English empire.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Robert Altman’s Flying Machine

Brewster McCloud (1970), Robert Altman’s second feature film, is wildly fluid. Even fans of M*A*S*H (1969) might not be completely tuned in to this movie’s disjointed counterculture lightness. Scenes of episodic, oddball humor, visual shocks and sexual arousal (the movie was originally called Brewster McCloud’s Sexy Flying Machine) butt up against each other like pinballs, and Altman, who heavily rewrote the Doran William Cannon screenplay, is tilting the machine.

In M*A*S*H, the satire was equally manic but a lot clearer; scenes were constructed to puncture bureaucracy and skewer the military officers and aides who peddled it to the American troops. We know what’s going on in Brewster McCloud and we can catch all the often very funny movie references and in-jokes, but we don’t often know what those references are doing there or why a disparate group of Houstonians are being strangled. The movie doesn’t ever tell us why these particular victims were targeted or even who the killer is. It could be the sensual but mothering older woman (Sally Kellerman), the dimwit tour guide (Shelley Duvall, whose eyelashes are painted in Raggedy Ann spikes), or the taciturn Brewster himself (Bud Cort, who played several of his movie roles as if they were on the spectrum). Are the victims Brewster’s persecutors, establishment materialists threatening to derail his desire to fly, or are they only in the wrong place at the wrong time? The victims are all found contorted in grotesque shapes, with bird droppings on their bodies or faces, but if Altman is attempting to make a deeper satirical point and not just a scatological one, that point is lost. The comic visual scatology is everywhere, in fact: bird shit is constantly being dropped (by unseen birds) on important papers, wallets, badges, and windshields. The movie is practically awash in it. The freedom that Altman gives his cast to improvise dialogue saves a lot of the non sequiturs in the script — for example, while the suave detective (Michael Murphy) is examining one of the victims at a zoo, an enormous tortoise lumbers into the frame, nudging the detective’s right elbow, and Murphy, without losing character, says, “Somebody get this turtle out of here.” Moments like that reinforce the improvisational personality without adding to the confusion.

Weirdos. Shelley Duvall, Bud Cort
Most of the earlier scenes — the farcical police investigation, the bonehead car chases, a runaway wheelchair, the whacked-out accidents and close calls — may not be linked logically to the movie’s climax, but they are, miraculously, linked emotionally, and that inevitability is probably the movie’s chief virtue and triumph. Altman is brilliant enough to loosen plot threads and abandon linear dialogue and still fulfill an audience’s emotional needs. Brewster’s exultant flight in the Astrodome is scored to Merry Clayton’s lovely rendition of a John Phillips song about the emotional abandon of spreading one’s wings and letting go. One of the great reprises in American movies of the seventies, the scene is a metaphor of the entire movie and its spasmodic narrative, the oversize contraption flapping its aluminum bones in order to climb dizzyingly higher and higher. But the emotional strength of that uplift is real, and the conclusion is devastating. The boy with the dream is the only one in the movie whose death is treated with tragic irony. The movie destroys him to liberate him. The audience knows it has lost something it can’t quite articulate, and Altman is compassionate enough to give us a final set piece of distancing theatricality — a circus of the stars and a Felliniesque view of life-as-theater (a sign saying “Greatest Show on Earth” hangs across the stadium seats). If that’s Altman’s point, he certainly takes a roundabout way of getting there, but the side roads are richly inventive, like early Fellini. The framing device alone is sophisticatedly, bizarrely witty enough for ten movies: a professor (René Auberjonois) lecturing on ornithology grows progressively more birdlike in his squawky speech and body movements each time the camera cuts back to his classroom. Once you see it as a hip, modern fable, Brewster McCloud may seem the giddiest flight fantasy since Miracle in Milan (1951).

This Is War, Not a Garden Party

You might walk out of the theater after seeing Gone with the Wind (1939) into the cool, head-clearing night air feeling a little headachy. The first half is all epic and panorama. The last third is bogged down in expensive romance melodrama, an example of movie proto-fatigue. But the structure works in Wind’s favor: audiences are more energetic when the movie is likewise more energetic — for the first ninety minutes — so all that splendor isn’t wasted. Anyone inclined to wonder whether the mighty Wind really merits its eighty years of adulation usually just remembers the first half. When characters die, like Scarlett’s first husband, it’s sometimes treated comically, and good comedy is always memorable. Even dotty Gerald’s fatal fall from a horse is rather humorous, and I’ve heard audiences titter at his stentorian senility. In fact, all the enjoyable comedy in the movie occurs earlier, from the Peahen and Buffalo League (Laura Hope Crews, Jane Darwell, and Mary Anderson) to Uncle Peter (Eddie Anderson) to Charles Hamilton (Rand Brooks in baby curls) to the rollicking, blunt Mammy (Hattie McDaniel). The “intimate” melodrama of the last third is sodden soap opera and feels a little sour and disjointed (a script issue).

Father-daughter time. Vivien Leigh, Thomas Mitchell
Gone with the Wind is meritorious for its saturated three-strip Technicolor, gaudy production design (including a number of famous matte paintings), pullback and crane shots against blazing sunsets and silhouettes of gnarled oaks, and actors who manage to stand out prominently against the size and scope of this cinematic gargantua. The power that the actors have, despite the lopsidedness the movie gives to production values, is miraculous. Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Thomas Mitchell, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Butterfly McQueen, Victor Jory, Harry Davenport (“Good heavens, woman, this is war, not a garden party!”), Ward Bond, Alicia Rhett, and even brief scene stealers like Cliff Edwards, Paul Hurst (as the sinister Yankee deserter), and Eric Linden (the amputee who puts real terror in his scene and nearly upends the movie) make Wind a vivid personality parade. I guess that the actors’ all-around success is mostly attributable to the director, Victor Fleming, and the care David O. Selznick lavished on casting. By comparison, think of how many actors get swamped by the production in other humongous movies, from the Joseph L. Mankiewicz Cleopatra (1963) to David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965) to James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) — none of them known for shimmering, zesty acting, the way Gone with the Wind is. Its performances weren’t just stellar but influential, too. Leigh’s Scarlett scared and inspired a generation of actresses after her, from Linda Darnell in Forever Amber (1947) and Hedy Lamarr in The Strange Woman (1946) to Elizabeth Taylor in Raintree County (1957), who copied her enigmatic combination of gusto and regal bearing.
The movie represents another miracle. After all its sweep and energy and calculated precision, it is, after all, an indie movie. Selznick International was an independent studio that nonetheless made movies the Big Studio way, filming prestige literary properties, building a stable of stars and directors, subcontracting stars from other studios, raising funds from East Coast banks and investors, and slathering movies with mass-production gloss without actually ever going into mass production (only a couple of Selznick movies were produced every year, from 1936 to about 1948). There isn’t much difference in the look of the typical Selznick movie and the big-budget movies from Warner Brothers or MGM: The Garden of Allah (1936), A Star Is Born (1937), Intermezzo (1939), Rebecca (1940), Spellbound (1945), and Duel in the Sun (1946) all look and play as if they came right off the major studio assembly lines. That’s their “personality.” Selznick was an intrusive, busybody producer who controlled every aspect of filming, usually driving his actors and directors nuts, and his movies both gain and suffer for it. The Selznick palette is broad and banal, but the details — including the performances — are often crazily energetic.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Moaning on the Prairie

Ophelia of the Prairie. Natalie Wood
What the hell is Splendor in the Grass (1961) about? I’ve seen it twice (no more, please) and I still can’t ascertain its point. There’s a confused, self-destructive high school girl (Natalie Wood) who may or may not love the sensitive, troubled jock at school (Warren Beatty), but she’s in the perpetual throes of a nervous breakdown triggered by — unfulfilled sexual longings? — and unable to articulate anything beyond a sort of pubescent quavering and moaning. Directed by Elia Kazan as if this were serious stuff, the movie frames all its dress-ripping nuttiness as if it were a grand passion in a verismo opera; Kazan and the screenwriter, William Inge, hype virtually every scene with turbulent Freudianism and volcanic neuroses. Teens are yelling at parents, parents are yelling at teens, teens are yelling at doctors, police are yelling at parents — everybody’s frustrated and unhappy out there in Small Town, USA. Nobody tells a joke or eats a good, satisfying meal or plays a little fetch with the dog. They’re too busy gnashing their teeth.

The movie, pitched for soapy hysteria, is both an idealization of misunderstood youth and a criticism of the impetuous promiscuity of high schoolers. Is Deanie, who goes mad, supposed to be a female James Dean in East of Eden (1955)? A teenage Blanche DuBois? Ophelia of the Prairie? The Inge screenplay won an Oscar, but it has much bigger problems than that. Incidentally, Phyllis Diller plays the notorious speakeasy owner Texas Guinan — she may be the stablest person in the cast — and Inge himself plays a reverend.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Consuming Movies

A Year Without Movie Buzz

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

Richard Brody treats movie art and movie consumption as two unrelated things, but movie art (a social art for a social animal) and the way movies are viewed have always been intertwined, and the health of one is tied to the health of the other — which Brody hints at when he says that “the rising tide of publicity and its echoes seems to lift all boats.” With nobody going to theaters this year — the Plague Year — we’re all watching movies on our iPads and phones and TVs. It’s a new dimension of experience for audiences, as Brody says. But I don’t think that consuming movies only in private isolation is going to enrich a popular art. Maybe you can even find the same kind of degradation in pop music and attribute it to the same changing patterns.

Many movies, like The Godfather (1972) or The Conformist (1970) or Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan (1982) — you could go on and on listing such movies — are great, immersive experiences that unleash their full power only in a theater with an audience, where visual dimensions can be appreciated in cinematic terms. The silent comedies, for example (Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman [1928] or Seven Chances [1925], Harold Lloyd’s Speedy [1928] or The Kid Brother [1927], Chaplin’s The Gold Rush [1925]), certainly deserve to be seen in a theater, a collective setting for which they were specifically designed. Those moviemakers intended audiences to feed off the explosive, balletic inventiveness and bust up at the visual gags and camera tricks. Those gags developed in live theater and vaudeville and probably circuses, and were extended and perfected by these artist clowns to make full use of the new medium. And an audience’s enthusiasm for silent comedy has as much to do with the responses of fellow moviegoers as with what’s on screen.

But imagine watching movies only in privacy or on your personal thingamabobs for the rest of your life. That changes you and that changes movie art. When your reactions are isolated from the reactions of others, the things you’re responding to don’t resonate with the same power; the effects are deadened, and you’re likely to assume that the moviemaker has failed, somehow, to make you laugh. Sooner or later, that “failure” gets back to filmmakers, who make contrived modifications in later projects — usually in kinetic, dizzying extremes in camera work or incompetent scripts — and, slowly, there’s an erosion of quality and sensibility. Movies started as a communal art, although they may not end as one.

Friday, December 4, 2020


I managed with little effort to miss Twilight (2008) until very recently. I knew it was intended for a young adult audience (adapted from a wildly popular series of teen novels by Stephenie Meyer) and figured it probably didn’t have any of the macabre fun of the old Universal horror classics, but I was unprepared for the lurid look and the stoned, senseless rhythm (everybody’s face, human and vampire, is the same sickly gray-green, the same color as the landscape). It’s been awhile since I’ve seen something this mediocre take itself so seriously. It looks and sounds like an Eighties rock opera in some parts and an indie chamber drama in others, and it’s unrelenting. It’s also weirdly static. In many scenes, the actors just stand there, glancing around nervously, hesitating to deliver these awful lines while their mouths twitch, and you wonder whether they’re parodying youth or paying tribute to it. 

Postpubes. Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart
The pictorial effects are gloppy–beautiful, like an issue of Condé Nast Traveler, and despite periodic moments of suspense, the movement of characters through the frame is poorly staged, and scenes repeatedly turn into pudding before they end. The production feels like a revolving tableau of celebrity glossies without any actual celebrities. Some sort of bizarrely postpubescent world view motivates it all, so the emotions all feel wobbly and terribly phony to adults. These bloodsuckers, who can swim underwater, experience all sorts of internal anguish, and they talk in pained, halting tones. All the actors appear to have used the same acting coach, and whoever it was probably works a day job in the food truck hospitality industry. Aside from their acting, the leads in the movie don’t embarrass themselves because they so obviously belong there; they’re of a piece with the somnambulant banality of the conception. But that unity of form and function is still pretty feeble; these young actors give you the impression they were hired at random in the school cafeteria. It’s obvious they’ve had little experience and even less training, and this movie is perfect for them. But the adults — the parents — all seem lost; in scene after scene, their faces wilt, possibly with shame over being stuck in a movie that is so patently not their own. (Maybe the adults were hired at random in a post office?)

I can understand why this movie was such a huge hit. It feeds a primal longing not for shocks or gross-outs (the staples of most teen horror films) but for liberation from high school routines or smothering parents or middle-class values, and I think young audiences projected themselves onto the hip, confused characters. It’s vampire psychodrama. But it all seems the product of an unformed mind and personality; it could have used some comic subtext instead of all this lugubriousness — the two leads must have the heaviest eyelids since Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell in Macao (1952). The idea that some vampires don’t want to kill people and so resort to chasing after forest critters does have comic potential (remember how Dwight Frye’s eyes lit up when he ate juicy flies?), and the soundtrack works best when it ditches the gloppy score and incorporates some funky pop songs, but practically none of that potential is tapped. This movie bungles its chance to put the groove back in the undead — it could have been the best thing since Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”