February 28th, 2011
You be careful, madam, or you’ll turn my pretty head with your flattery.
I often wished I could turn your head – on a spit, over a slow fire.
Happy (VERY) Belated Valentine’s Day, dear readers! This year for Hallmark’s most important holiday, I wanted to watch something a bit off the beaten rom-com path without delving into territory too arcane. When I asked myself what elements I felt were important for an enjoyable romantic comedy experience, I came up with a pithy list of adjectives that included “sexy” and “sophisticated.” Who better personifies such a combination than that comedic dream team of William Powell and Myrna Loy? Answer: NO ONE.
So, I queued up W.S. Van Dyke’s 1940 love letter, I Love You Again, in which Powell plays a stuffy, by-the-book teetotaler named Larry Wilson. Loy is along for the ride as his suffering wife. When Larry is knocked unconscious after a decidedly screwball accident (during a pleasure cruise, one too many grape juice and gingerales has him jumping overboard to save a drunken man), he awakens with amnesia and the revelation that 10 years prior, he used to be a con man named George Carey. Apparently the only thing that Wilson and Carey have in common is their attraction to Kay Hijinks ensue.
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January 28th, 2011
There you are, Norton: The People! Try and lick that!
Two of my favorite films of all time are 1957’s A Face in the Crowd, and 1976’s Network. In this age of 24 hour news networks, both pictures seem crushingly relevant to modern day concerns regarding the corruptive relationship between politics and mass media. (I accidentally wrote “mess media” before I corrected myself. Maybe I should have left the mistake in!) Yet when the time span between the two is considered, it appears that America has been suffering from these ills much longer than many want to admit. From this, it would appear that the halcyon days of integrity and honestly are an imagined smoke screen, or coping mechanism, for those among us (and I admit that I’m often guilty of this) searching for a point in time before “it all went wrong.”
Since neither film falls within the time construct I am studying here, let us instead look at what some may call a prequel, or even a first installment in this trinity of American political cinema: Frank Capra’s 1941 film, Meet John Doe. For those who are familiar with Capra’s work, the predominant themes of big government and the common man will come as no surprise. What is startling, however, are the foreshadowed strains of soulless ambition at the expense of the common good (shades of Network’s Diana Christensen), and manipulation masquerading as entertainment, like that of A Face in the Crowd’s Lonesome Rhodes. In this film, the all consuming, ever present threat of something bigger than the body politic, some “man behind the curtain” who pulls the strings and adheres to an agenda not of our making, looms above what the average person’s sightline is privy to.
Meet John Doe is billed, curiously, as a comedy/drama. But the laughs are far and few between, and those that exist germinate from a caustic sarcasm more than anything genuinely side-splitting. Surely, for box office purposes, the safe bet is to always market a film “down”, and yet the success of Meet John Doe belies the sleight of hand used to lure audiences into the theatre. Generally speaking, viewers are far more sophisticated than the PR machine gives them credit for. Thus, the irony of how this film is presented in relation to what it really is, should not be lost on us as we undertake an analysis of its content.
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October 18th, 2010
A woman is compromised the day she is born.
1939. It is a year cited by many as one of the greatest in cinematic history. Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? All released in 1939. On the eve of a war that would forever change predefined notions about humanity, it seems fitting that Hollywood should produce some of its most memorable meditations on the nature of good versus evil, preservation in the face of destruction, idealism apropos reality, and the toll that such struggles reign over its subjects.
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. That very same day, on the other side of the Atlantic, MGM released George Cukor’s comedic classic, The Women. At first glance, The Women seems nothing more than a marriage of style, wit, and star-power, thereby marking it anachronistic to the geo-political battles raging behind its birth. And yet, it proved to be one of the year’s top grossing films, a box-office juggernaut that lifted itself beyond the laurels of Clare Booth Luce’s play, and into a territory all its own. Why? Let’s peel back the onion’s layers and take a peek. . . read more »
September 29th, 2010
Would you mind putting that gun away? My wife doesn’t care, but I’m a *very* timid fellow!
I had every intention of writing about 1936’s Satan Met a Lady this week, mainly because I wanted to do a three part series about Golden Age productions of The Maltese Falcon. Satan Met a Lady is the middle child of these efforts, and also the only one to deviate from a strictly dramatic treatment. As a comedy/crime hybrid, I was intrigued and willing to give the film a far greater latitude than I usually would when regarding incarnations of a famous work. However, despite the best efforts of one, Bette Davis, the entire film was so haphazardly put together that I barely made it through the modest 74 minute running time.
While I certainly do not think that only “good” films are worthy of deconstruction, sometimes it only takes a single fatal flaw to kill a picture. When that happens, there’s only so much you can say. In this case, the failure had less to do with reconceptualizing Dashiell Hammett’s classic tale of murder most foul, and more to do with someone’s insistence that Satan Met a Lady follow in the footsteps of another Hammett property: the wildly successful cinematic rendering of The Thin Man. Unfortunately, the dialogue is so turgid and the laughs so forced, that instead of enhancing the criminal aspect of the plot, they create a schizophrenic effect which in turn renders both elements impotent.
Certainly Satan Met Lady was not the first, nor the last, attempt to capitalize on the success of the crime turned comedy procedural. A whole slew of debonair detective themed pictures cropped up around the same time, indeed William Powell himself was involved in the Philo Vance pictures, a series which predates The Thin Man by a few years. Then, of course, there is the “Fast” series that revolves around Harry Kurnitz’s novels about Joel Sloan, a rare-book dealer moonlighting as a detective. Yet I am hard pressed to think of any effort that out performs, or even pulls fair with The Thin Man. So that, dear readers, leads us to the topic at hand. . .
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