"Now Listen to Me..."
Just some thoughts on current happenings:
There are 4 recommended films to watch on Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. this month:
The first is Strange Cargo which I previously listed as one of my TOP TEN Guilty Treasures. I have re-printed the review here:
Strange Cargo (1940, U.S.A.)
Director: Frank Borzage
The "cargo" isn't the only strange thing on this journey. The title does, however, symbolically refer to its most unusual factor: A rather too obvious Christ-like figure, Cambreau, played by Ian Hunter. He tags along with some other prisoners attempting an escape from Devil's Island, a penal colony off the coast of French Guiana. One might suspect that this character's persistent appearance in the storyline would become an annoyance yet that's really not the case. He's rarely judgmental. His remarks about the others are always creatively intelligent, often unexpectedly helpful. Cambreau is even forgiving given these inmates' sordid backgrounds and especially after witnessing their self-centered actions during the long and difficult escape. One of his surprising responses occurs when a very close relationship ends between two of the convicts: Moll and his younger companion Dufond (portrayed by Albert Dekker and John Arledge respectively). The younger Dufond dies. Moll, not being able to cope without his friend (lover?) decides to take his own life. Yet Cambreau neither condemns the suicide or the rather obvious homosexual feelings between the two. Instead he only reinforces the idea to Moll that it's not too late for a spiritual awakening. Besides, this religiously symbolic figure is not just an observer he's a participant: Cambreau goes to great lengths (sometimes miraculous) to help the other criminals remain free! His presence right through to the end will remain mysteriously, and perhaps awkwardly, ambivalent. All of these characters are unique and multidimensional. Most are depicted as ruthless, albeit creative, opportunists. Foremost is Paul Lukas' serial killer Hessler whose past includes disposing of his many wives for purely financial gain. Hessler cynically but respectfully rejects Cambreau's religious overtures including when they part company, which brings further realism to the proceedings.
Now did I mention this film stars Clark Gable as one of the convicts and Joan Crawford as a thinly disguised prostitute? No? Well then I saved the best part for last. Their on and off again relationship (not to mention their dialogue which is snappier than a busload of Japanese tourists) is priceless. Add the weird Peter Lorre as a prison informer who vies for Crawford's affections and you have one mismatched, strange, yet highly enjoyable and fascinating motion picture.
Strange Cargo docks at TCM Monday, August 10 at 3pm PST.
The Marx Brothers’ most inspired and daringly edgier films were made for Paramount Studios (aside from A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races which were produced by MGM) and include Horse Feathers, their masterpiece Duck Soup, as well as my personal favourite Monkey Business.
These are the brothers’ early, ‘rough and ready’ movies possessing a more spontaneous, improvisational feel. Monkey Business has all 4 (including Zeppo) illegally on board a ship. It can be seen as a successful parody of gangster films, but its real emphasis is on the Marx's anti-authoritarian, rebellious nature... the filmmakers don't even bother with character names for the boys, they're only referred to as "stowaways." A master of comic timing directed: Norman Z. McLeod who also helmed W.C. Fields' greatest comedic triumph It's a Gift.
Is Monkey Business like its title suggests, nonsensically silly? Of course. Is it absurd? Absolutely. There’s only one question for this, or any comedy really, that might take its worth just an inch outside the confines of personal taste: Is it creative? For Monkey Business, the answer is: Indubitably! Groucho may not have Margaret Dumont to throw his barbs at, but he does have a fiery Thelma Todd to outrageously toy with. Plus Groucho and his 3 brothers run into plenty of gangsters and ship personnel who are assailed with his (and brother Chico’s more deadpan) spectacular witticisms.
I love Monkey Business’ rapid pace, and audacious pre-code rapport with crime and the ‘fairer sex’. The monkeys really get down to business however in 2 hilarious set pieces: One where Harpo infiltrates a kids’ 'Punch and Judy' show, and the other, (perhaps the brothers’ most famous), where they try to disembark the ship with Maurice Chevalier’s stolen passport (See: Capturing a Golden Moment #6).
The antics will ensue on TCM Friday, August 14 at 5pm PST.
My next TCM recommendation establishes a tone far apart from the film immediately above. Sam Peckinpah unleashed an all out cinematic assault on audiences in 1969. Today, even for those familiar with his visionary opus, The Wild Bunch’s confrontational temperament is hardly diminished. It has much to say about the uglier, violent side of human nature while probing deeply into the “how and why” behind it all. Toward its conclusion, the surviving title characters are brought to a point of self-reflection, evidenced by their cathartic and sacrificial final act. I have previously called this film the greatest western ever made. My review, Opening Up A Treasure: The Wild Bunch, will explain why.
The explosion is set to go off on TCM Monday, August 24 at 11pm PST.
The next recommended TCM film is the 1941 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Critics and audiences alike have often compared it unfavourably to the previous 1931 film with Fredrick March playing the title role. Even the latter version’s star Spencer Tracy disliked his own performance. There was very little make-up used for Tracy’s Mr. Hyde; the actor instead primarily relied on facial contortions. That together with Tracy’s less defined delineation of the two characters resulted in some critics complaining that his scary alter-ego simply wasn’t scary enough.
Neither version is taken in full from the Robert Louis Stevenson novel. Both films' integral female characters emanate from the original stage production. The earlier film translation moves faster and contains a pronounced disparity between good and evil. In addition, the Fredrick March vehicle was made by Paramount Studios and its Pre-Code origin gives it (like the Marx Bros. film recommended above) a more impulsive, vibrant look than its polished, later made, MGM counterpart.
Although the 1941 version is stately and refined, it’s also fascinatingly cerebral. This rendering's leisurely pace allows us to soak up the thought processes of the characters which, as they develop, increasingly engage us in their plights. As far as performances go, Tracy is revelatory. His subdued interpretation of Dr. Jekyll’s highly inquisitive nature presents us with a conflicted, engrossing individual even before he engages in his perilous experiment. Director Victor Fleming’s take on making Jekyll and Hyde closer aligned provides a recognisable human dimension to both personalities and therefore a stronger identification with what they, and those they encounter, experience. This especially applies to poor Dr. Jekyll when he loses control over his transformation.
Mr. Hyde may not look that monstrous, but his behaviour toward others is dastardly degrading and vigorously repugnant. Hyde’s enthusiastically embraced evil subconscious is further enhanced by some intensely Freudian hallucination sequences. These, care of Peter Ballbusch’s montage artistry, are an absolute wonder to behold with their symbolic displays of sadistic, psycho-sexual desire. Tracy’s scenes with the barmaid/prostitute Ivy are provocatively electrifying when he’s either Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. The actor’s persuasively dominating demeanour is applied to both split-personalities which coalesce perfectly with the far less apparent line separating the two. This similarity between the good Doctor and his evil nemesis is also effectively used to elicit strong sympathetic support for the confused, tormented Ivy. And because these scenes depicting a kind of modern-day co-dependent relationship are pronounced, the tension between Hyde and his brutally victimised subject is practically unbearable, the suspense palpable. These unsettling moments are certainly capable of stirring up feelings that hit mighty close to home. Ivy is portrayed to alluring perfection by Ingrid Bergman who even manages to out-seduce Jekyll’s fiancé played by Lana Turner in her prime! Later with Hyde, Ivy becomes giddy with fright communicating a manic terror so complete she appears to be losing her mind.
Unfortunately, both versions have at various times undergone censor imposed cuts with dedicated fans hoping that their missing scenes will someday surface. The 1931 Rouben Mamoulian directed film does have a certain visual flair and experimental style missing from Fleming’s version. It also maintains a greater fidelity to the horror genre. Nevertheless, not all horror is physical. Sometimes it's applied mentally. The post Gone with the Wind director Fleming does deliver scenes of frightening power and has the edge in examining the thought-provoking undercurrents of man’s more sinister aspirations. A couple of other pluses in the 1941 version’s column are Joseph Ruttenberg's evocative cinematography of Cedric Gibbons' (Art Direction) and Edwin B. Willis' (Set Direction) beautifully recreated foggy Victorian London and Franz Waxman’s exhilarating score.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde will arrive at TCM (updated) Wednesday, April 19 at 9am PST.
TCM's current monthly schedule can be confirmed by clicking on any of the above images. For those who live in parts of the U.S. other than the western region, the time zone can be adjusted in the upper right-hand corner of the schedule.
My Soundtrack recommendation for the month of August is composer Miklos Rozsa’s compositional masterpiece to The Lost Weekend.
This is the next to be reviewed Top Ten: Motion Picture Music Treasures. A CD recording from Intrada Records was produced because of the recently located 35mm magnetic transfers by Paramount Pictures. It can be read about and ordered by clicking on the accompanying image.
A Happy Birthday shout-out to the remarkably talented actress and singer Ann Blyth, who turns 87 on August 16th. She is probably best known for her performance as Veda Pierce, Joan Crawford’s scheming, rotten apple of her mom’s eye, in Mildred Pierce. This gutsy portrayal led to her being cast in a number of subsequent noir films of the ’40's i.e. Swell Guy, Brute Force, Killer McCoy, and A Woman’s Vengeance. Her exceptional singing ability helped make her a star of the 1950’s MGM musicals Rose Marie, The Student Prince, and Kismet amongst others.
I’ve included a fascinating and lovely video interview with Ann by The Hollywood Reporter.
This month’s DVD recommendation is the noir/melodrama No Man of her Own.
Barbara Stanwyck stars and that’s a big pay off right there for any classic movie buff. A master at conveying genuine but heady emotions, she was especially adroit at handling her characters' mature confidence or nervous anxiety, but never by going over the top. This film was adapted from a Cornel Woolrich novel. He's an author known for letting his imagination "run a little wild" often resulting in some rather bizarre and surprising narrative developments. For that reason, adaptations such as No Man of her Own are best discovered “cold.” Suffice to say that when Lyle Bettger’s persona Steve Morley takes charge, the melodrama disappears and everything becomes noir BIG TIME. Morley is a nasty heel and Bettger (making his film debut) is menacingly perfect in the role. The filmmakers, including director Mitchell Leisen, wisely chose not to justify Woolrich's fanciful premise. They trusted audiences to accept and go along with their film’s unpredictable elements, focusing instead on developing their characters and absorbing sub-plot. This allows viewers to be cleverly engaged as their yarn spins toward a most satisfying (albeit implausible) resolution. I honestly don't think the endings of these films would be so remarkably gratifying if their premises were not so crazy. I love 'em. No Man of Her Own (which was remade as Mrs. Winterbourne) is from Olive Films and can be ordered from Amazon U.S. by clicking on the image.