Friday, August 19, 2016

Blood and Sand (1941)

Well, it was bound to happen: I finally came to a selection in the Fox 75th Anniversary Collection that I’m not exactly jumping for joy over. I don’t research or read about any of these titles before I see them, so I thought Blood and Sand was a war flick, or at least some sort of “fighting in the desert” picture. Turns out, it’s about a legendary bullfighter, Juan Gallardo, and follows his life story from a young chico to his ups and downs as a successful matador. Along the way, he learns that true fulfillment comes from friendship and love, not necessary the dangerous sport he’s so expert at, but he decides to give it up just one Sunday afternoon too late. “You must e brave,” a priest tells his young, widowed wife, Carmen. “I don’t need to be. I have his bravery now!”

I think part of the problem for me is that I’m not a big bullfighting fan – in fact, I hate the barbaric sport. But Blood and Sand did educate me about it. I learned, for example, that there’s not much running around; it’s really all about dodging and cape-waving. As a matter of fact, the bullfighting sequences are rather well-done – there’s even an early POV shot of the bull heading for the cape. And the moment when the poor creature is slain, we cut away to a spectator stabbing his chunk of meat with a knife, and the metaphoric blood flowing down is just as disturbing as actually witnessing the slaughter (which the Hayes could would have prohibited).

But the film is yet another reminder of why Hollywood during its Golden Age was the greatest purveyor of entertainment of earth. The two things that distinguished its product – storytelling and star power – are finely exemplified here. We have a nearly perfect bildungsroman structure of a man finding his way, following his family’s footsteps, finding fame, fortune and the accompanying tragic flaw of unchecked hubris. Of course, you know the ending the minute he announces he’ll do “one more fight” to his wife, but never mind – turn off your 21st-century cynicism and you’ll savor the simpler, less-ironic sensibilities, overripe acting and all.

Publicity still

But of course, it was acting nonetheless, just more theatrical (as was all film acting in those pre-Brando days). And no one did it better than those stars (despite the modern-day troubling fact that none are played by actual Hispanics). I had not been familiar with lead Tyrone Power – I though he was a towering, dashing Errol Flynn-type – but he actually looks like an ordinary guy, which I found refreshingly real. Of course, very little is ordinary about Rita Hayworth, the homewrecking femme fatale responsible for Juan’s Dark Period at the film’s midsection, but her effortless presence – most visible in scenes where she’s just standing and doing nothing – typifies those ineffable qualities the Studio Stars all possessed, and why they we paid millions for it.

And speaking of money, for mine, the most appealing face in the film belongs to Linda  Darnell as wife Carmen – an apple-faced, cherubic visage that manages both chaste innocence and smoldering sex-appeal. She reminded e of a Skinemax star named Gabriella Hall – both with raven-black tresses that convey an unassuming classical beauty. It’s a comparison you won’t find in film history class, but I just gotta be honest!

And don’t forget to look fast for a young Anthony Quinn toward the end, the “new” Juan, bound to make the same, fatal mistakes as his predecessor.

Solid Hollywood product, just didn’t set my world on fire.

Rating: ***

(Upon looking on the imdb, I see that Darnell and Power starred together a few times before, and that this is the third remake of the story.)

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

In preparation for viewing the next entry in the Fox DVD collection, The Grapes of Wrath, I went back and read the John Steinbeck classic on which the film is based. I loosely skimmed it back in high school, certainly with no more than perfunctory rote (I probably crammed it in order to write a most-likely lame-O term paper). But now, visiting it again, and a certainly more mature point in my life, I savored it. It transcends its collective conception as being a stodgy, “important” work to become a living, breathing, exciting story, engaging for its nearly 500-page count. But beyond that, it’s an important book. No not important like a term-paper prerequisite; it’s an angry, unnerving book, showing us the ugly injustice that every so often rears its ugly head in our nation’s woefully checkered history. It’s a vital, invigorating narrative that matches its anger for the social malaise it depicts with a lump-in-the-throat hope: a reminder that systemic obstacles can be overcome so long as everyday, ordinary folk work together – families, friends, strangers – to achieve prosperity.

Now this is a film review, so I won’t get too much into the book, but I would like to explore just how Steinbeck does this. The author is famed for his simple, spare prose, but he also uses detail, expertly, to convey his message. Tom Joad, one of the male members of the large Joad family, returns home from prison a parolee, convicted for murder (self-defense), only to find his homestead razed and sharecropping family gone. He later learns of their eviction by the landowning banks, eager to develop the land themselves when years of Dust Bowl family kept the farm from turning a profit.

And Steinbeck somehow does a masterful job of conveying to the reader the despair that the Joads, along with their destitute counterparts, must enduring all along their 1,000-mile trek from Oklahoma to the so-called Promised Land of California. He explains, specifically, how the Golden State farmers exploit the then-unregulated system by sending bills out to thousands of starving migrants, withholding their pay amount so they can pull a bait-and-switch. He describes the pain and humiliation Ma Joad must endure when she has to buy a dollar’s worth of groceries from the farmer’s marked-up food store. And every few chapters or so, Steinbeck adopts the voice of an unnamed, third-person narrator, a Greek Chorus of sorts, observing, in a stream-of-consciousness style, the economic status-quo of the times, and how its rigged system can keep the poor from buying a serviceable automobile, or have a fighting chance against landowners, or can even organize labor groups lest they be marked “Reds” and risk imprisonment.

I dwell so heavily on the book because the film is able to replicate so many of the book’s theme’s, despite its operating in a wholly different medium. Director John Ford’s decidedly sober tone, combined with cinematographer Greg Toland’s spare but beautiful B&W photography retains the somber mood that so characterized the book. There’s almost no score, and scenes are played out lengthily, with dialogue taking its time to build dramatic energy. At its heart, of course, is Henry Fonda, in his greatest role. No other actor could’ve played the role with such earnestness, and seeing it now with the hindsight knowledge of all his social activism only underscores the potency of the performance. And of course, that scene, coming near the end in which a now-marked Tom must flee the family, is just as emotional as its notoriety suggests. “Wherever people are hungry, I’ll be there…” and somehow Fonda makes it work, delivering it not as trite tripe but as a speech a honest-to-goodness good man would deliver. It’s a masterwork within a masterwork.

Only a few changes were made in the transfer from page to screen. The biggest involves the last act of the film – in the book, the Joads first arrive an idyllic government camp, where they thwart of group of local cops from staging a riot and busting them up. The film moves that to the end of the film, excising Steinbeck’s decidedly less-cheery climax in which the Joads narrowly escape getting flooded out; their daughter-in-law, Rosasharn, suffers a miscarriage; and the prospect of work is yet again troublesomely unknown. (I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the very last scene, in which Rosasharn breast-feeds a starving boy, would never make the Hayes Code-enforced cut).

But beyond that, the film manages to attain the ultra-rare feat of being just as good as its source material, and that’s mainly because Steinbeck’s primary theme, that if there’s anything worse than economic depression it’s the way humans treat each other during such trying times, is left fully intact. It’s a theme that can be well dramatized, and with Ford’s knack for character development and setting exposition, it is.

And then there’s another important theme – that the endurance of people working together can overcome the forces which oppress them – and that’s equally well-expressed.

For me, that expression is best represented by a single scene about halfway through. Grandpa Joad enters a truck stop and requests a loaf of broad, which the proprietor sells begrudgingly (it’s ‘old bread,’ he rationalizes). On the way out, the kids want candy; Grandpa asks the price and informs him they’re two for a penny – sold! A customer calls her out: “They’re a nickel apiece!” “So what if they are?” she responds. On the way out, that customer refuses his change. “You don’t want your change?” she asks. “So what if I don’t!” as he walks out the door.

Charity begets charity, just as greed begets greed. The same forces which enable bad can work for good. It’s that elemental concept, beyond the Dust Bowl and Socialism, which realizes The Grapes of Wrath, both book and film, as a work for the ages.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Little Princess (1939)

Lil’ Orphan Annie, the apple-faced girl whose plucky spirit helped America get through the economic and spiritual malaise of the Great Depression, was of course fictional. But if she were to have a real-life counterpart, it would doubtlessly be Shirley Temple, for there was no bigger box-office draw, and certainly no film star more dearly beloved in the 30s, than her. It’s easy to see why she’s represented on this collection; as 20th Century Fox’s first big star she helped put the studio on the map, and represented founder Daryl Zanuck’s first big feather in a long line of illustrious accomplishments.

Looking at her in The Little Princess, her first color film and the first color film in the Fox collection, I can understand why so many flocked to her pictures some 80 years ago. She looks like a child but has all the mannerisms and maturity of an adult. It’s almost uncanny how she can hold her own with her adult co-stars because there almost seems to be no non-physical differences between them. But these adult attributes are filtered through the innocence of childhood, and the result is a truly perfect embodiment of both worlds.

In her role as Sara, she artfully exploits this special quality. As the English daughter (ok, we’ll let the American accent slide) of a single rich Briton, soon to be shipped off to fight the Boers (the second time that war is represented in this collection), she must herself attend a girls’ boarding school in London. But she’s no prima donna; rather, she proves herself to be quite the na├»ve egalitarian, befriending the servant waif Becky and bequeathing presents for all the girls even though it’s her birthday. When news breaks of dad’s death o the battlefield, the evil headmistress demotes her to an upstairs attic room, bitter that her ward’s Daddy Warbucks will no longer be supplementing the old bank account.

But Sara bridges the divide by befriending the adult employees too: Miss Rose, a sensitive teacher also at odds with her surly boss, and her husband, an equally nice chap soon to be shipped off to war. I must confess to guessing wrong the film’s ending (I never read the classic Burnett book). I thought they’d wind up adopting the now fatherless Sara, but it turns out Dad s still alive and Sara must scour the VA hospital to find him. And when she des, it’s a perfectly sublime moment, and Temple’s maturity keeps the scene from getting too cloyingly drippy, as well could’ve happened with just about any other juvenile performer.

But yet, people remember Temple as the cutesy “Good Ship Lollipop” curly-top, and indeed she was. But that alone wouldn’t have been enough to catapult her above the likes of mediocre kid actors like Jackie Coogan. Temple had something going on beyond the dimples, and she raised the bar for child actors of the future, essentially defining the role. It’s hard to imagine talents like Jodie Foster, Tatum O’Neil and Haley Joel Osment without such a measure.

Aside from Temple, the print looks great, with its early use of color a standout quality. Arthur Treacher (yes, of fish & chips fame) offers fine support as a school employee who also does a couple of song and dance numbers with the girl. Abd there’s even a fun fantasy sequence ear the end, involving all the major players in fantasy/medieval roles. A real hoot.

And the film itself is a real treasure.

Rating:  ****

Monday, August 1, 2016

Steamboat Round the Bend (1935)

I had neither seen nor heard anything starring the legendary humorist Will Rogers before I watched him in Steamboat Round the Bend, the second feature of the Fox 75th Anniversary Collection. Sure, I knew of him; who of my age didn’t? He’s got those famous quotes, that musical that ran on Broadway in 1991, and the foundation for which Marlo Thomas is a spokesperson. But I finally got to see him perform in this film, no doubt designed as a vehicle to showcase his homespun witticisms and affable everyman persona. I was not only surprised at how much I liked him but also the movie itself: an engaging story peppered with memorably quirky characters and a rousing race to the finish (literally) that must’ve been quite the crowd pleaser for its day.

Rogers is Doctor John, a “miracle-elixer” (alcohol) salesman, and recent co-owner, along with his nephew, Duke, of a disheveled riverboat. But all’s not rosy with the lad – he had taken up with Fleety Belle, a pretty but downcast “swamp girl,” and killed a man in a fight over her, with a temperance preacher, the New Moses, being the only witness of its justification as self-defense. John’s prediction that a judge would show leniency is disproven when Duke is sentenced to hang for his misdeed, so he and Fleety ride up and down the Mississip, raising money for a good lawyer by turning the watercraft into a floating wax museum of great historical figures. Their crew enlarges to include a few other wayfarers – and soon the money rolls in. But their appeal is rejected, and their only other option is to sail to Baton Rouge and appeal to the governor for a pardon, using Moses’ testimony, and aw hell why not compete in the boat race going on down that route while they’re at it. Happy endings for all.

Rogers is of course the star here, and he has a natural charm and charisma, but he gets some mighty fine support from his ensemble. Anne Shirley is perfectly beguiling as Fleety; sure she transforms from a backwoods rube into a refined young woman pretty fast (that dress helps), but she possesses that “it” which defined so many stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. And Steppin Fetchit, the African-American actor from the 30s whose name nowadays serves as a metaphor for black stereotyping, is pretty damned funny. I like the way he rambles his lines and sort of trails off at the end – it sounds far more contemporary than the theatrical, pre-Brando histrionics of his co-stars. Call me politically incorrect but I didn’t see this guy’s performance as offensive, just refreshingly real.

Of course, wrangling it all together is director John Ford, commencing his long, illustrious career with Fox with this picture. One can detect his trademark affinity for the grandeur of nature with his lingering shots of the Mississippi River and the anthropomorphic steamboats that trundle on like stagecoaches on a long, dusty road. He also knows the value of clear, concise storytelling (Steamboats runs a brief 75 minutes, although I could’ve used a slightly longer concluding wrap-up, as well as a strong focus on character, character, character).

All these elements work in tandem to create a surprisingly involving Night at the Movies. Oh, and don’t miss the very beginning for one of the first uses of the 20th Century Fox logo, strobe lights and all. Of course, it’s not the true logo until the fanfare comes along… (for you, Star Wars fans).

Rating:  ****

Cavalcade (1933)

The first film of the 20th Century Fox 75th Anniversary Collection technically predates the formation of the studio by two years. Cavalcade hit the picture shows under the banner “Fox Films,” which later merged with Daryl Zanuck’s 20th Century Pictures in 1935, and a studio (later a TV network and ultimately multi-billion dollar media conglomeration), was born. The film won the studio’s first Best Picture Oscar, but surprisingly has been largely absent from the media ever since. Rarely shown on television, and never released to home video, it finally made its DVD debut with this collection.

And it’s hard to imagine why, because this is a wonderfully entertaining, thought-provoking work of art. Even better, it’s not terribly dated, owing in part to the renewed interest in the film’s main subject – the class conflict of turn-of-the-century England – due to the popularity of such programs as Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey. And it also features a broad, sweeping timeframe, beginning around 1900 and concluding 30 years later, offering us a longitude view of lives over time, and the changes which affect them, for better or worse (mostly worse).

The story commences on New Year’s Eve, 1899, on the verge of Britain’s entry into the Boer War, and we meet an aristocratic couple, Robert and Jane Marryot, as well as their servants, headed by Alfred and Ellen Bridges. The two men await their respective inductions into the service, expecting the conflict to last but a couple of months, but they military tenure turns out to be measured in years. They return, ready to peruse their lives, albeit in their respective economic positions.

But life is hardly tranquil for them: Alfred buys a bar, but his alcoholism mars his personal and professional life, coming to a head when he bitterly insults the pretensions of his former employer, and meets his maker in a tragic accident afterwards. The Marryot’s eldest son, Edward, perishes on a little-known ship called the Titanic, and the looming sabre=ratting of World War I once again threatens their tranquility. This time, younger Marryot son Joe is called up, but he’s got love on his mind – that for the beautiful actress/singer Fanny Bridges, daughter of the Marryot’s former servants. Prospects of marriage are promptly dashed, however, when matriarch has reservations about the union, still seeing Fanny as lower-class. In the end, it hardly matters much: Joe is killed in the war, representing the equally horrible wounds incurred by his mother country.

As I’ve indicated Cavalcade winds up conveying a trenchant theme: the tragedies of life are so universal they act as a leveling agent, ignorant of age, race, class or religion. But, despite this, for whatever reason, we keep a firm grasp of our prejudices and judgments. The Marryots continue to scorn their Cockney servants, beneath the veneer of civility and pleasantry, despite enduring two wars, the destructive results of which don’t discriminate at all. The silent wounds suffered as a result are as deep as the external ones beyond their control. But the real tragedy is that they could be avoided.

But through Cavalcade’s third act, which chronicles the “Great War,” something curious happens: the tone shifts. Beginning with a brutal war montage which must’ve really freaked out audiences in 1933, the film gets swallowed up by its decidedly antiwar sentiments. We see harrowing images of blind veterans weaving baskets (the stereotypical metaphor for postwar debilitation), along with the emotional fallout of those grieving for love ones thousands of miles away. The film’s view of the 20s – which we tend to romanticize these days – is also darkened by the wake of the war. Rather than a Jazz Age, it becomes an era of profligate decadence, fuelled by a breakdown of order and control. Remember that our view of the war is eclipsed by its even more horrible successor, WWII. Not so in 1933, when few Americans ever heard of the name Adolf Hitler.

An auspicious beginning to an admittedly ambitious endeavor. But I’m ready for the ride!

Rating: ***1/2

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