The Bank Dick

With one of the best car chases I’ve ever seen, W.C. Fields’ The Bank Dick was a nice change after watching Russian drama. Fields plays Egbert Sousé, the head of the house full of women who constantly complain. He’s no angel, but you sympathize with him because his family treats him awfully. As the name without the accent grave suggests, Sousé drinks a lot and is a layabout. By accident, he thwarts a bank robbery and is hailed as a hero. As a reward, the bank president makes Sousé is given a job as the bank detective. Soon he gets his daughter’s boyfriend into financial trouble through a hare-brained scheme to buy bonds. As he’s basically a decent fellow, he tries then to save his future son-in-law, but everything goes wrong.

The film was at times clever and at times corny in a way that delights. Not only did I smile, but I learned a host of new words like adscititious and several others (below). The characters are stock and the humor often just plain silly, but The Bank Dick is fun and entertaining. I hadn’t seen a W.C. Fields’ film in years and will look for more.

Ivan’s Childhood

I hadn’t heard of director Andrei Tarkovsky before. Nor had I ever heard of actor Nikolay Burlyaev. I haven’t seen many Russian films and I wasn’t particularly looking for a difficult film but something about Tarkovsky’s WWII film Ivan’s Childhood (1962) grabbed me though it took a while.

Around 12 years old, Ivan dreams of his idyllic childhood playing at the beach, chatting with his young mother, running freely. Then he wakes up. He’s in a dark, war-torn, God-forsaken landscape. He trudges through a murky river (which looks like a marsh, but it’s a degenerated river and a symbol the effects of war) before he’s captured by Russian soldiers. Back at the soldiers’ post, Ivan is fierce and orders the soldiers about. He orders the soldiers to call “Number 51 at HQ.” They try to put him in his place, but you’ve never seen a fiercer 12 year old. Played by Nikolay Burlyaev, Ivan is like no character you’ve ever seen. In the dream sequences he’s pure and innocence; once he’s orphaned and becomes an army scout Ivan’s transformed to a force of nature on par with a hurricane.

Ivan prevails in convincing his comrades in arms that he should continue his reconnaissance work and not get shipped off to the much safer military school. Viewing the film, I knew that the soldiers should not have agreed, but that’s where the suspense comes in.

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Tarkovsky gives us amazing images like none I’ve ever seen. He believed in using the environment like the murky river, a bombed peasant farm house and a white birch forest speak volumes. I’ll never forget the dream sequence when Ivan and a little girl are riding in a pick up truck filled with apples. The sky and trees are shown in the negative, which was mind-blowing.

There’s a lot of intense emotion. One example is a scene with an officer flirting with a female junior officer who’s very tentative. He wants her; it’s not clear what she wants. Without graphic nudity or direct language Tarkovsky gives us a powerful scene of cat and mouse in the birch forest that goes on forever.

The Criterion Collection DVD comes with fascinating extras including an interview with the now grown (i.e. middle aged) Nickolay Burlyaev, who recalls how hard Tarkovsky made him work to get the part and then how kind and sensitive the director was during the filming of this emotionally intense story.

I found the film challenging to watch. It’s no day at the beach, which is fitting for a war film. Yet Ivan’s Childhood is well worth watching.

 

 

Cat’s Paw

Harold Lloyd’s talking Cat’s Paw (1934) satirizes dirty politics. (You can watch the whole film on YouTube by clicking above.) Lloyd plays Ezekiel Cobb, the son of a missionary who grew up in rural China. Cobb comes to California to find a wife. He’s supposed to stay with a minister, who for years has run for mayor against a corrupt machine politician. The minister is a puppet who doesn’t realize he’s simply used   to make it look like there’s democracy in this town.

When the minister suddenly dies, his corrupt campaign manager needs a chump to run in his stead. He decides this naive newbie Cobb is just the man for the job.

Cobb’s an endearing character. He’s a fish out of water in America. Though he looks like he belongs here, China is his home. So he’s constantly bowing and has no idea what our slang means. He’s often mistaken for a “native” and this often gets him into all kinds of scraps. He lacks the street smarts and skepticism frequently found in corrupt cities.

Yet while the film never directly says as much, God helps the innocents and through a hilarious series of mishaps, Cobb is photographed punching the corrupt mayor and becomes a sensation. He’s swept into office. He’s as upset as anyone. He wants to return to China where everyone understands his references to the revered Ling Po, who’s wisdom he frequently imparts.

Cobb accepts his office and brings his innocent honesty into practice. He outfoxes the foxes and it’s a delight to see.

Lloyd is delightful. It offers satire with a clever story that still entertains. There are times when supporting characters use words like “Chink” which are derogatory and wouldn’t be used in a film today, but the characters who use such terms are portraying prejudiced people in contrast to the hero who respects and understands Chinese culture.

Cobb does search for a wife and looks for an idealistically innocent, poised woman. Pet Pratt, a woman in his boarding house is a worldly woman who tricks him by taking him to a nightclub with 1930s adult entertainment. She’s just the woman to help Cobb govern. It’s an added twist to the film, especially since Harold Lloyd films usually feature American sweethearts. Pet Pratt does not fit that mold and is fun to watch.

I was amazed by Cobb’s plan to clean up the city. He wasn’t the goody-two-shoes he seemed at the start.

Cat’s Paw was a fun film, which shows 1930s views of China.

Lucky Partners

I’d never seen a Ronald Colman film, though I’d heard the name. I ran across this title and thought I’d get the DVD from the library. (Note: the DVD has much better quality than the blurry trailer above.) Starring Ginger Rogers and Ronald Colman, Lucky Partners is a romantic comedy filled with style and wit.

Walking down the street one day, David Grant (Colman) wishes Jean (Rogers), a pretty passerby, “Good luck.” She stops and asks him why the “Good luck” and he smiles and they chat about her practical engineer fiancé before she goes her merry way.

When she arrives at her destination to drop off an order of books, she lucks into a free $300 (in 1940’s value) dress. Hmm, meeting that dapper fellow was lucky. Jean decides to take advantage of the luck and buys an Irish Sweepstakes ticket and convinces David to pay her half. That should increase their luck.

Lucky_Partners_film_posterDavid places a condition on his going in on the ticket. If they win, which is highly unlikely, Jean will accompany David on a fabulous trip prior to her marriage. She’s unsure. What will people think of an unmarried woman traveling with an unmarried man? David sees it as an experiment. When Fred, the fiancé turns up, his assumptions and attitudes, compel Jean to go along. Besides, it’s unlikely the ticket will win, so there’s no real risk, right?

Well, next the ticket does win the first round of the sweepstakes. Now Jean and David need to decide whether to cash in for $12,000 or to hold and wait to see if they can win the full $150,000. There’s some back and forth and mainly dapper David just aggravates Jean, but then so does flat-footed Fred. In the end they decide to risk it all and Fred holds on to the tickets.

But rather than do as he was told, Fred sold Jean’s half of the ticket, so after they lose the sweepstakes, Fred proudly presents Jean with her $6000. He’s shocked that his independent-minded fiancée is livid that Fred went behind her back. Jean grabs her money and storms across the way to give David the money. He then insist that they go on a pared down version of the whirlwind experimental trip. Now Jean’s nervous, but a deals’ a deal.

Based on a film by Sacha Guitry (the French writer/actor who made films like The Pearls of the Crown  or Le PoisonLucky Partners delights with a zany situation that dances around feminine virtue, trust, and whether one should marry a safe guy or the dashing artist with the mysterious aura. As is true of so many

Kind Hearts and Coronets

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Starring Dennis Price and Alex Guinness, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) is a black comedy of revenge. Louis Mazzini’s mother’s upper class family disowned her when she married an Italian musician. After she dies, Louis seeks revenge. Using a different weapon or means for each subject, Louis plots to kill all eight of the relatives ahead of him in line for the family fortune.

Louis falls in love with his childhood sweetheart, but she throws him over for a rich man, whom she finds as dull as dishwater. She’s clearly mercenary, but then so is Louis as he’s reptilian in his ability to murder relatives one after another without feeling any remorse.

One quirk of the film is that Alec Guinness plays each of the eight relatives that kills. He plays young and old, male and female. It’s a clever technique.

The Criterion Collection DVD includes the American ending. The Hays Code prohibited films from showing a situation where crime paid.

Before I saw it thought it would be a much weaker ending, but they just added a few seconds with an action that I imagined would follow the end of the film. The British version led me to expect that action to occur. Nonetheless it’s interesting to see how the Hays Code influenced filmmaking.

Samurai Rebellion

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What a film! Starring Mifune, Toshiro* Samurai Rebellion (1967) blew me away. The Japanese really do know how to play on one’s emotions. Far from our stereotype of this culture, they’re capable of intense emotion, stubbornness and defiance.

Set in the early 18th century, Samurai Rebellion tells the story of a samurai family that’s more or less forced to make their son marry their Lord’s cast off mistress. Mifune plays the head of the family, Sasahara Isaburo, an older master swordsman, who had to marry his cold-hearted, domineering wife because he lacked social status. Sashara often jokes about how he’s just a hen-pecked husband. When the message comes that the regional warlord wants Sasahara’s son Yogoro to marry his troublesome mistress, Sasahara tactfully says, thanks but no thanks. He’d like a better marriage for his son. Sasahara’s wife thinks this is stupid. In this culture when the warlord asks you to do something you do it. she clearly has no respect for anyone but herself. This woman makes the farmer’s wife in Grant Wood’s American Gothic look cheerful.

This forced marriage is not kosher in this society. The warlord is abusing his power. Sasahara keeps politely refusing. In time the son, breaks in on a visit from the steward and agrees. No one expects much from this marriage.
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When Ichi, the mistress arrives with her daughter, she explains to her new husband that she was exiled because after bearing her child, she returned to the castle to see that the Lord has found her replacement, a cutie, who’s now making the Lord’s heart race. Ichi never wanted to be this guy’s wife or mistress, but is disgusted that after giving birth she’s been displaced. By speaking up, Ichi finds herself cast out.

Surprisingly, Yogoro and Ichi fall in love. Ichi is an ideal daughter-in-law who puts up with her grouchy mother in law and is a great asset to the family. But the course of true love never runs smoothly. When the Lord’s firstborn dies, Ichi is summoned back to the castle. She doesn’t want to go. Yogoro doesn’t want her to go and neither does Sasahara. In fact, the men are willing to defy the lord and fight to the death to keep Ichi.

The film kept me in suspense from start to finish. Mifune gives a powerful performance and the director Kobayashi Misaki provides a beautiful drama. There were some times when the cinematography was too much like when there’s an intense meeting at the castle during which lots of bold, distracting shadows come through the windows, but that’s a minor fault. Much of the cinematography is gorgeous as the filmmakers use the aesthetics of Japanese homes with little furniture, tatami mats, and dark beams against white walls to good effect.

Though there are only two female characters, they’re both strong women who hold their own in a man’s world.

I highly recommend Samurai Rebellion, which I bet you can get the DVD from your library as I did. (Thank God of inter-library loans.)

You can read the illustrious Donald Richie’s Samurai Rebellion article here.

*Note, I’ve used the Japanese practice of writing the family name first and the Western first name second.

Morning for the Osone Family

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Keisuke Kinoshita’s Morning for the Osone Family (1946) probably couldn’t get made today. It’s an anti-WWII film that exposes how the military and government squelched free speech and exploited citizens even when Japan was at a point when it was clear they were bound to lose.

Curiously, the film begins with the Osone family celebrating Christmas and singing “Silent Night.” After some chit chat, the eldest son is summoned by law enforcement and is soon imprisoned for writing an article that subtly questioned Japan’s militarism.

It’s a big hit for a family whose father died a while back. The mother has tried to live up to the father’s pacifist philosophy. She continues to support her second son, who’s a struggling artist, and her daughter who wants to marry for love, but now that her fiancé has been drafted, is getting pressured by her uncle to marry a scion he’s lined up.

The family unity continues to dissolve. The painter gets drafted and the daughter goes to work in an army support job. The uncle, who’s an officer and very pro-war moves into the family home with his haughty wife. Their presence, and particularly their lavish lifestyle enjoying black market goods, while most citizens starve, sickens the mother and daughter. The final straw is when the uncle urges the youngest son, who’s still in high school, to enlist in the army.

Morning for the Osone Family offers a beautiful, moving view of history. My hunch is few Japanese have seen this film, but they should. We should too. I’m glad I did.

All Through the Night

If you’re looking for a fun gangster movie with a message, pick up All Through the Night (1942) starring Humphrey Bogart, Conrad Veldt, who played Major Strasser in Casablanca, and Peter Lorre, who was also in Casablanca, William Demerast (of My Three Sons), Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason. Bogart plays Gloves Donnahue, head of a minor gang of gamblers in New York. Devoted to his dear old mother, when she calls Gloves because she’s got a weird feeling about the disappearance of the baker who lives below her, Gloves comes running. Soon the baker’s body’s found and Gloves gets wrongly implicated in the man’s murder.

To get the police off his case, Gloves must get to the bottom of this mystery and he soon encounters a group of Nazi spies operating under the U.S. government’s nose, planning all sorts of evil. Some romance is added to the story through a pretty German singer Gloves meets. Whether she should be trusted remains to be seen.

The film moves briskly and there are plenty of quips in every scene, as you’d expect in a Bogart film. By the end, the jaded gamblers are protecting their country and offering examples to the audience on how we should all band together. All through the night entertains, despite its occasional hokey joke.

Gold Diggers of 1933

“We’re in the Money” is just one of the memorable tunes in Gold Diggers of 1933 is a romantic comedy about some dancers whose show gets nixed because the producer couldn’t pay his bills. Next they’re seen shivering in their beds unwilling to get up as it’s easier to starve in bed.

Soon the producer comes to their apartment and hears their talented piano playing neighbor. He convinces Brad, the piano player to write some songs for his new show which will be a smash, if he can just get the funds. Brad, who’s sweet on one of the dancers, turns out to be a rich boy and he finances the show. When the male lead falls sick, Brad must go on and his true identity is revealed, which leads to family interference in his love life. In response to his brother’s meddling the other dancers pretend to be money grubbers to teach him a lesson.

It’s a light-hearted romp, that entertains, unless you judge past eras for their gender stereotypes. The most surprising part of the film was the closing number, “Remember My Forgotten Man” a tribute to the men who served in WWI and whose lives were ruined as a result.