Archive for the 'Classic' Category

06
Apr
14

Sea of Grass

hepburn tracy

Kathryn Hepburn plays Lutie, a St. Louis woman who falls for Spencer Tracy, an older rancher named Jim. She marries him despite warnings that life on the prairie won’t be easy, nor will living with Jim may be hell. Tracy’s character is a real so and so. He drives homesteaders off government land. He owns plots that dot the area and wants his cattle to graze wherever. The town folk consider him irascible and bull headed. His cattle hands and cook seem deeply loyal. Marriage to this taciturn loner soon gets hard. While Jim occasionally gives in to Lutie’s requests, his indifference to their suffering neighbors and his schemes to keep homesteaders out, is at odds with Lutie’s beliefs. Besides there’s little for her to do and no one to talk to on the ranch. She loses her one friend due to Jim’s hard hardheartedness.

Eventually, Lutie gives in to temptation and has romantic encounter with a sympathetic lawyer who’d warned her about Jim. She gets pregnant and has a son. Her infidelity becomes public knowledge.

I liked the film as it offers a different look at life out West. The ranch is pretty comfortable and Jim gets Lutie a piano and gets the furnishings she’s used to. The challenge isn’t the tough living quarters or manual labor (Lutie does none), but rather the barren emotional life. The way infidelity and illegitimacy are handled seemed novel, even by today’s standards.

I wouldn’t say this is a “must see,” but it is compelling and held my interest. Hepburn and Tracy always do though, don’t they?

23
Mar
14

Lifeboat

Lifeboat-(1944)---Tallulah-Bankhead,-John-Hodiak,-Walter-Slezak-715067

I loved Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) and am so glad I’ve embarked upon this challenge to watch one old movie a week. With Tallulah Bankhead and Hume Cronyn in an ensemble of survivors whose ship has been sunk during WWII, Lifeboat blends tension and morality. In Hitchcock’s hands, there’s ambiguity and sophistication in every scene.

The film opens with the high class Connie Porter, a self-absorbed, jaded newspaper columnist, sitting alone in a lifeboat. Not a hair out of place, she looks bored as if she’s waiting to board a first class flight to Paris. One by one, other survivors make it to the boat. In its 1944 review, the New York Times describe the cast as

Within their battered lifeboat are assembled an assortment of folks who typify various strata of a free, democratic society. There is, first, a parasitic woman, representative of the luxury fringe, who is opportunistic and cynical—a picturesque trifler in every respect. Then there is an American business tycoon, likewise opportunistic and cynical; two meek and pathetic women and four men of the torpedoed ship’s crew. These latter are two tough but aimless fellows, a Cockney dreamer and a pensive Negro—all of them clearly indicative of an inarticulate class.

While one character has a British accent, I wouldn’t call it cockney. The African American character doesn’t say much and is rather stereotyped, but I wouldn’t call his class inarticulate. He didn’t talk much and allegorically I suppose you could say his group has been silenced. Since the War’s over and won, viewers won’t share The New York Times’ concern about showing the German as more capable than the others. He was their prisoner in many ways and they chose to defer to him at times, but weren’t under his control exactly.

The last person to make it to the boat is a Nazi, from the U-Boat that torpedoed the other characters’ boat. Should he stay or not? Should he be trusted or not? While their survival matters, the Nazi issue adds great tension and is, where the most drama rests. At first just the working class guy wants to chuck the German overboard. The others outnumber him. Later the German proves both useful and deceptive. The plot isn’t predictable and the ending isn’t what they’d do today.

My DVD came with a scholarly commentary, which was of interest, but since the film itself was so compelling, I turned it off. Perhaps I’ll watch again with it. I did learn though that Hitchcock and Bankhead got along exchanging barbs as they worked. He called her Baghead and she “pronounced his name like it began with a B.” Also, while Steinbeck received credit for the film, he didn’t write the script they used. He sort of put together a short story and wasn’t able to transition from fiction to film.

I enjoyed Bankhead’s wit and strength and will look for more of her films.

References

Crowther. B. (1944). Lifeboat. The New York Times.

Related articles

Gill. B. (1972). Profile: Tallulah Bankhead. The New Yorker.

18
Mar
14

On Harold Lloyd

h lloydeAfter watching Harold Lloyd in Safety Last, I became curious about what the newspapers of the day said about him. So I went to my library’s website and searched for him and the years 1922 – 1923 (when this film was made and was released in the Chicago Tribune archives.

I was struck by the tone of the paper – very casual. The movie Gal Friday seem realistic. One article I found was “The Real Inside Dope on the Movie Stars: Yes, Hard Knocks Made Harold Lloyd What He Is Today.” I chuckle at the “The Read Inside Dope” phrase. The article begins:

Harold Lloyd is one of those intrepid, joyous young persons who would attempt to dig a transcontinental canal with his fingernails if he thought the effort would benefit anybody. His character has been battered into shape by hard knocks — into such shape as he is spoken of as “the finest chap in Hollywood.”

The article goes on to explain how he isn’t conceited like Conway Tearle, whoever he was, nor a “rounder.” He exemplified the rags to riches archetype as he started work at age 11 selling popcorn at train stations. Later he sold newspapers, was a waiter, and an amateur boxer. As a teen he had the savvy to enlarge his paper route and then hire other boys to deliver segments of it.

Lloyd’s father owned a restaurant, which failed. The family was in dire straits and Lloyd wanted them to move to New York so he could work on the stage. The father thought Los Angeles and movies would be better. The father decided to flip a coin to determine where they’d go. I can’t imagine flipping a coin for such a decision. The coin decided they’d go to L.A.

Getting a foot in the door was tricky. Lloyd couldn’t get past the guards. He figured out that if he put on his grease paint and walked in with the extras returning from lunch, he could breeze by the “fish-eyed guards.” That trick worked and eventually Lloyd was hired for $3.50/day. Opportunities came his way after than and he rose from extra to star. He got the idea for his signature glasses from a comic he saw. His were specially designed so his expressive eyebrows could be seen.

How did he lose his thumb and index finger, I wondered. Seems he was posing for a still ad. The concept required that he be holding a bomb. It was supposed to be fake but wasn’t. Lloyd had a cigarette at the time and BOOM! He was blinded for 4 days and lost his fingers. If you’ve seen him scaling the walls in Safety Last, you can see he didn’t let that stop him.

Next I read the Chicago Tribune’s review of Safety First. I didn’t realize that movies would be shown at Orchestra Hall, a rather posh site. Then again those were posh-er times than ours and the era of the movie palace. The reviewer, Inez Cunningham admitted to not watching the half hour of the film when Lloyd has to scale the building because she was afraid of such exploits and didn’t see why anyone would like them. I’m wondering how such a stick in the mud got a job as a movie critic in the era of Lloyd, Keaton and Chaplin. Upfront she writes that she doesn’t generally like Lloyd, but admits that on this film he was on his best behavior and left out his usual vulgarities and “blythe.” I suppose I’ll have to watch some of his earlier films to see these vulgarities.

Works Cited

Cunningham, Inez. “Harold Must Be Good: Even Critic Laughs.” Chicago Tribune. 28 May 1923: Print.

Harpman, Julia. “The Real Inside Dope on the Movie Stars: Yes, Hard Knocks Made Harold Lloyd What He Is Today.” Chicago Tribune. 3 Aug. 1924: Print.

16
Mar
14

Safety Last

h lloyd1923′s Safety Last

If it weren’t for my New Year’s resolution to watch more old movies, I’d probably never have made time for this national treasure: Safety Last by Harold Lloyd.

Just as I don’t much like coffee or milk, but do like coffee with milk (in the form of a cappuccino), I’m not one for silent movies nor am I one to watch movies with the commentary track playing — but together they’re great. At least for the Criterion Collection Safety Last, they were. In Safety Last, Harold Lloyd plays a hapless sales clerk who’s in love and hopes to make enough money in the city to marry his sweetheart. When he writes her, he suggests that he’s got a high level job and is making great money. In fact, he’s barely able to make his rent. kick me Her mother tells the girl to go visit Harold now that he’s doing so well. That’s when things really get out of control. It’s such genius how Lloyd and his cast pack so many laughs into a scene. What I really enjoyed was the commentary by Leonard Maltin and Lloyd’s archivist, Richard Correll. Though the film’s great, I think I wouldn’t have enjoyed it without all the tidbits and background. Some facts of interest:

  • Lloyd got the idea from watching a dare devil scale a building. That man, a welder, is in the movie and in spite of having broken his leg, does a lot of the stunts and plays Lloyd’s friend, Limpy Bill.
  • Lloyd lost his thumb and index finger a few years prior to this movie, but still does all kinds of climbing wearing a glove with the missing digits.
  • Much of the filming shows Culver City as it was in 1922. They’d shoot with normal traffic going through the street.
  • Lloyd wound up marrying his co-star, Mildred Davis.

Safety Last is still funny, in a way that movies just aren’t and can’t be anymore. Just a delight.

12
Mar
14

Downton Abbey’s Finale, Season 4

rose

After being presented, Rose dances with the Prince of Wales

Hmmm. I so love Downton Abbey, that it’s hard for me to criticize it. Even when it’s not at its best, it beats a lot of the fare on TV (e.g. Selfridge or almost anything on the “big” networks). This was a low ebb for Downton though. I think a lot of opportunities were missed and the main story, Anna’s rape, while true to life, was so hard to take.

When the first episodes aired, I thought Julian Fellowes was lining up his characters to present great stories. Of course, it would take time for the audience to know the new lady’s maid or Rose, to give characters like Cora or Bates a new problem, mission or angle. I was disappointed that we never got to know what secret binds the new maid to Thomas. (The fact that I don’t know the new maid’s name suggests her character remained one dimensional.) Rose has been a flibbertigibbet and that’s fine. Some people were and are airheads, but though she had the romance with the jazz singer and a bit of intrigue with the Prince of Wales (no romance, but a slight drama), it all amounted to so little because this flibbertigibbet sort of dwells in her own orbit. She hasn’t been integrated into the family so we have little idea of how she gets on with them. That’s where drama lies — in the relationships between family members or colleagues, be they friend or foe.

Season-4-downton-abbey-35489123-500-392

I did wish Edith could have a career-related season, instead of this sad pregnancy cum lost love story. That could be season 5.

That’s the problem I have with Cora when her relatives appear. She’s barely in a scene with them. They are her family! She doesn’t have any business with them. Clearly, they come to see her, Mary and Edith. The mother has enough money for a hotel in London, where they’d have more fun. Yes, it’s dramatic, potentially for Cora’s mother and Violet to exchange barbs, but how about some sparks or something between Cora and her mother. Cora’s American-ness would probably surface with the Brits and her adopted British ways would chafe the Yanks, who knew her when. Cora has gotten so little story-wise since season one when she helped move the Turk’s corpse from Mary’s bedroom and when due to Sullivan’s machinations she lost the baby. Yes, have Cora host a luncheon or social event, but also give her some real problems. Make her more integral.

Now Edith did get a lot too deal with this season. I was surprised to jump from her being barely pregnant to having given birth and returned from Switzerland. I suppose that was plausible and for that era a good solution. I do think she’s made a big mistake bringing the baby back to England, but that is drama — making the audience tense when a bad decision has been made. I do think the Gregson storyline is hard to buy. His disappearance seems poorly planned. The explanation that Nazi’s beat him up seemed tacked on and implausible. Even in the ’20s I’d believe that the British were keeping tabs on the Brown Shirts and other beatings and disappearances would have been noted. It seemed contrived.

mary season 4

Yes, Mary the stories could be better

Now Bates must have killed the rapist. No one can take the stand to say he’s innocent. As horrible as rape is, we now see that Bates doesn’t trust the justice system and it makes me think he’s a thug when push comes to shove. I also now think he probably would kill his first wife. I’d have preferred Anna finally summoning the courage to report the crime and seeing how the legal channels and family would have dealt with it. Certainly, such trials were rare and the outcome probably unjust, but it would have been highly dramatic.

The story about the Prince of Wales’ scandalous letter getting stolen by the card sharp and Lord Grantham, Rose, Mary and Bates feeling responsible for stealing it back was too far fetched for me. Mary got it right when she speculated that it’s the Prince’s character and his own doing that caused the trouble and that in the end would cause him more trouble. This plotline bordered on farce.

I like that Tom fits in better at Downton and is starting to reignite his interest in politics. Early on his moping about not fitting in seemed overdone. Do something, Man! People have a lot worse problems over on the Emerald Isle. (By the way isn’t it a pity no one will invite his relatives to see their grandchild. Does he get an allowance for spending?) Yet Thomas’ storyline did improve by the end of the season.

I have still loved the clothes and am glad Fellowes didn’t immediately give Mary a suitor. I prefer Blake, the man who helped her save the pigs, but the sudden discovery that he’s rich and aristocratic again, seems contrived. Fellows seems to have lost his touch. I hope he regains it for season 5.

10
Mar
14

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Mr smith

Gee whiz, did I like this classic.

I vaguely knew the theme of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but I never made time to watch it till I flew back to China a few weeks ago. Jimmy Stewart stars as Mr. Smith, the wholesome leader of a scouting troop, who’s as All American as apple pie. He knows and follows the tenets of the founding fathers. When a governor is pressed to fill a congressional seat, he sees the savviest choice is to select Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) and thus avoid trouble with the sharks around him.

Though innocent and rather naive, Smith isn’t the sleepy hick the politicians thought they’d get. The land deal they’re scheming won’t go smoothly after all. Coincidentally, Smith wants to set aside this as a park for boy scouts. That plan is set to ruin the money-grubbing schemes of the political machine. At first it seems that Smith has no one on his side, but eventually, his jaded secretary sees that he’s for real and she maneuvers to help him. At the climax, things look bleak for Smith as his political opponents make it look like his virtue is just a ruse; it looks like his scout park was just a get rich quick scheme.

The film still speaks to modern audiences as finagling still occurs all over the globe. It’s encouraging and soothing to see a good person stick to his guns — and win by doing the right thing. While the film’s not slick or fast paced, it still works, which makes it a classic worth watching and sharing.

(I’m still on track with my New Year’s Resolution to watch a classic film a week. Last week I saw Casablanca, which I won’t review and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was for the week prior. )

26
Feb
14

Downton Abbey: Presentation balls

rose mclareOn Sunday’s Downton Abbey finale, Rose finally was presented to society in a majestic ceremony with much elegance. I didn’t realize these women were presented to the King and Queen. I expected something like the presentation balls in the States (not that I’d been to one). I’ve read plenty of books and seen many BBC dramas, where this is mentioned, but I’m glad Downton showed us the real spectacle. Both Cora and Lord Grantham were stunning, as was Rose.

Thanks to my friendly, public library reference services, I’ve found out a bit about all this Presentation business:

From ABC-CLIO’s Daily Life through History website
http://dailylife.abc-clio.com/

debutante balls

The word debutante comes from the French, debut, which means, “beginning.” The young woman is said to be “coming out” when she is introduced, implying that she is leaving the sheltered world of family life to join a wider society. The tradition of formal presentation of a young woman is rooted in an old English practice where daughters of the aristocracy, who married within a very small circle of elite families, were presented to those of similar social standing when they reached a marriageable age. The practice continues to be associated generally with wealthy and socially prominent families.

In England, presentations took place during “The London Season,” which usually coincided with the sitting of Parliament. Generally, it began after Easter and continued until August when the grouse-hunting season started. Families of wealth and position made a mass migration from their country estates to London for “The Season,” to exchange their quiet life of limited entertainment for days of shopping, riding, and visiting; and evenings of theater, dances, and balls. It was regarded as the chance for young men and women of position to mingle and find a marriageable partner. Marriages were more likely to be made on the basis of social connections, eligibility, and finances than on common interests, compatibility, and love.

Before a young woman could join in the social activities of “The Season,” she had to be presented at court to the queen. This typically took place when she reached 18. Prior to that time the activities of a young woman of social position would be restricted to attendance at school and limited participation in any social functions. While the actual presentation would only take a few minutes, preparations for the event were extensive. There were rigidly prescribed rules for presentation that extended to dress and accessories. Unmarried women were expected to wear a white gown, although soft color over a white background was permitted. The gown had to have a train. The headdress had to have feathers and a tulle veil long enough to reach the train. The number and size of the feathers on a headdress varied with the whim of the monarch. Queen Victoria favored three large feathers.
Continue reading ‘Downton Abbey: Presentation balls’

25
Feb
14

An American in Paris

Milo and Jerry

Milo and Jerry

I thoroughly enjoyed Gene Kelly and company in An American in Paris. I’d never seen it before and loved the dancing and singing. It’s the story of Jerry, a surprisingly urbane U.S. G.I. who stays in Paris after WWII to try to become a painter. As the film opens Jerry’s a starving artist, who meets a rich woman, Milo who wants to be his patron. Despite being a bit leery of her, Jerry goes along with Milo who treats him like a pet project. Jerry wants to retain his independence, but he also wants to further his career. We do like him because he can sing, dance and smile. At a restaurant he spots a young French girl and becomes immediately smitten. He arranges to meet Lise, the French girl, who’s engaged to marry an acquaintance of Jerry’s. She hides this fact, as Jerry hides his interest in Lise from Milo his patroness.

An American in Paris 2

Oscar Levant plays Jerry’s wise cracking friend and really adds to the film. The Gershwin songs like “Our Love is Here to Stay,” “I Got Rhythm,” and “S’Wonderful” make the movie. The story itself is predictable and rather fluffy. The audience isn’t supposed to think too much about that Jerry’s either naive or manipulative to think he can take money from Milo and romance Lise with no blow ups. Likewise that Lise would juggle a fiance and Jerry is at odds with her being so innocent. Given the quality of the music and dancing, I overlooked the story and characters’ flaws.

I did think the end was odd. There’s a long dance sequence just when Lise’s fiance discovers she’s meeting Jerry behind his back. It wasn’t plausible that the problem would be resolved as we’re shown. Still MGM musicals have a way of eliciting audience’s forgiveness for such things.

24
Feb
14

Japanese Girls at the Harbor

Sunako (L) and Dora (R)

Sunako (L) and Dora (R)

I’m catching up with blogging. My last week in the US and first week of school have made it hard to blog.

Even with the busy schedule, I’ve been able to keep up with my New Year’s Resolution to watch one old movie a week (except for finals’ weeks). I just haven’t been able to blog about them.

The week before last I tried Hiroshi Shimizu’s Japanese Girls at the Harbor. I didn’t realize when I picked out the DVD at the library that it was silent. What’s more the DVD I had had no music sound track, though the box mentioned a new sound track. Not a big deal.

Japanese Girls at the Harbor follows two school girls,  Dora and Sunako, who promise to be loyal friends forever. The promise lasts for about three minutes. When Henry, a Japanese young man with a Western name, catches the girls’ eyes as he nears them on his motorcycle the friendship shows its fragility. Sunako waves at Henry and feels he’s hers. They talk briefly and soon Henry sees Dora, and she’s pretty (prettier, I’d say). When Sunako pouts, Dora promises to give up Henry. Then the girls go to a church for some reason and discuss their Henry problem. I wasn’t sure what to make of Henry’s Western name or the scenes in the church. The conflict over this boy was true to life, despite the girls’ apparently superficial loyalty to each other.

Eventually Dora and Henry marry. Sunako becomes a low level geisha. She dances with men in Western suits at an establishment where some of the party girls are in Western dress. Sunako’s acquired an admirer who’s something of a pet. He’s a Japanese man who claims to be an artist. He does paint her all the time and he wears a beret, so he must be an artist. He just hangs around her like a moon orbiting the earth. Sunako isn’t rude to him, but she doesn’t seem to care about him that much either. Sunako pouts a lot and Henry starts visiting her at the club. It’s unclear whether he’s there to watch over her or to take advantage of the sleazy (for that era) scene. I think it’s a bit of both. Henry and the man in the beret are a bit jealous of each other. Dora’s pregnant and unaware of Henry’s visits. In time she learns how Sunako’s life has gone down hill from her youth when she wore her innocent school uniform. Sunako smokes, pouts and looks sullen quite a bit. It’s amazing that her customers would spend time with her.

Sunako and a friend who works at the same bar

Sunako and a friend who works at the same bar

I can’t recommend the movie. It had potential, but was rather sentimental and dated. I think you could do a lot with this story even with the constraints of an era when sex wasn’t openly depicted.

Evidently, Shimizu is a popular director and contemporary of Ozu. I think Ozu’s a lot better. Shimizu was able to crank out films and made over 100 in 40 some years. I am more impressed by quality rather than quantity. To really decide what I think about Shimizu, I’d need to see a talkie and understand any themes or symbols I might have missed in this one.

21
Feb
14

The Most Beautiful

Akira Kurasawa’s second movie was a propaganda film for World War II called The Most Beautiful. He tells the story of a group of young women, teens most likely, who leave their hometowns to support the war effort by working in an optics factory. The factory has had to increase its quota and the girls object to the 50% increase and ask their manager for a 70% increase. From the start the Japanese cohesiveness is evident. While four or five girls’ experiences are highlighted often we see a large group of 50 or more marching, laughing and working together. The group is the star and how they react when one falls ill or leaves is so Japanese. So is the fact that in addition to their work responsibility, they must play volleyball and practice their drum and fife band’s drills. These girls are the Japanese equivalent of Rosie the Riveter, but they’re far more docile and group oriented. I know I would have balked at having to march and play volleyball. The minute the fun is mandated, it loses its fun.

Much of the story is predictable. One girl receives a letter that her mother’s ill and it’s easy to guess that outcome. The idea of self-sacrifice and following the rules is blatant. Yet, I enjoyed the cinematography and did cheer the girls on as they endeavor to meet the higher goal they insisted upon. I was touched by the kind dorm mother and the managers who truly looked after the girls’ wellbeing.

Band Practice After Work

Band Practice After Work

The film has its comic moments, for example at one point the camera focuses on various signs stating rules. We see a sign admonishing the girls not to stand on the roof and another saying they should air out their bedding daily. Next we see a girl playing on the roof as she airs out her futon. Of course, she tumbles off the roof. She breaks her leg and can’t work. It was fascinating, and I think truly Japanese, that no authority yelled at this girl for being a knuckle head. Instead, there’s an outpouring of care. Also, the animated graphs that show the girls’ increase and decrease in productivity made me chuckle as it’s quite dated.

While the film is sentimental and the unquestioning support of the war, troubling to modern pacifists like me, I enjoyed the slice of life, which made me understand wartime Japan much better.




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