Films in Threes 1: A Star is Born

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Films in Threes 1:   A Star is Born   
            It’s hard enough these days to get people to watch films from other eras.  Most people get their food in a linear manner, like meals to a milk cow.  Eat, chew, produce milk. But life can be a rich, profound, deeply satisfying place outside the fixed, cud-chewing glazed stare of the force-fed ‘new films’ beast.
            ‘A Star is Born’ has been made twice very well.  A third – the Streisand version – is a travesty, and not worth intelligent consideration.
            Instead of ‘A Streisand is Born’, I’ll substitute a film which does belong in the mix.  This film is ‘What Price Hollywood?’ from 1932.  This film is the true foundation of the trilogy, despite the fact that it is a different story.
            The spine of all three films is that a successful director (What Price Hollywood?) or movie star (A Star is Born) is destroying his great career with alcohol.  He comes across an unknown young woman.  He sees instantly she has great potential.  He uses his contact with the head of the studio to get her a Screen Test.  The girl is signed to a contract. The two fall in love.  As his star fades, hers rises. But she will not abandon him.  It ends badly in all three films, but her inner strength and love for him pulls her through.           
            ‘What Price Hollywood?’ is based on an original story by Adela Rogers St. John, the daughter of legendary Los Angeles attorney, Earl Rogers.  She went to work as a reporter in San Francisco.  Her reporting gave her the foundation for the stories she wrote.  So you might say she is the source of these films.
            Of the two good versions of ‘A Star is Born’, my favorite is the original William Wellman written and directed version of 1937.  This has no songs, but they are not missed. The female lead is Janet Gaynor, all but unknown today.  She was the star of F. W. Murnau’s ‘Sunrise’.  In fact, in 1927 she was the first to win the Best Actress Academy Award. She won it for 3 films: ‘Sunrise’, ‘7th Heaven’ and ‘Street Angel’.  At that time, winning for more than one film was an accepted practice.  The rules were changed shortly after.
            I didn’t see this 1936 version of ‘A Star is Born’ until 1978, when I was 32.  A friend – Barbara Taft – told me she always preferred this version.  ‘Janet Gaynor has such a special quality that she gives to the part.’  The statement sums it up perfectly.
            In this original version, we see Esther Blodgett still at home, on the family farm, out West, with no future.  People weren’t supposed to want more than ‘was their Lot’. Something is wrong with you if you do.  it’s considered a character flaw.  Esther is teased for day-dreaming all the time about the Movies.  I know what this is like.  Being raised in the Mid-West, anyone with dreams of other than of plodding mediocrity is scorned.  This happened to my mother and to me. 
            Esther’s grandmother, played by the great May Robson, who has kept pretty much quiet until now, takes Esther aside and tells her not to let them destroy her dreams.  She describes the long trek across the country by wagon train and foot as a young women.  She sees that Esther is the only one in the family to still have that spark that tells you to follow your dream.  She gives Esther money she’s saved for her old age (she’s already in her late 60s), and tells her to go on out to Hollywood to follow her dream.
            In this 1936 film, Esther really is an unknown.  She comes to Los Angeles and gets herself a room in Hollywood.  The old rooming house is a ringer for one I lived in myself, in Hollywood, called The Re-Tan.  It is still there, on Whitley, just above Hollywood Boulevard.  I love that old place.
            The landlord of this rooming house is played by Edgar Kennedy, of the Slow Burn, (seen everywhere from the Marx Brothers to Laurel and Hardy shorts).  He is a no-nonsense guy, but is touched by nice, naive Esther.  He introduces her to a fellow lodger, played by Andy Devine.  He’s an out-of- work Assistant Director.  They become pals.  No romance.  Just pals. 
            One night they go to the famous Hollywood Bowl.  It is actually filmed there, looking just the same as it does today, but it was 73 years ago!  Esther is enjoying every second.  Down in front of them a drunken man and his date come in late.  He mistakes the applause for the Conductor as being for him.  When he goes to sit down he fall to the floor, bringing laughs from those nearby.
            This drunk is Norman Maine, the great Movie Star, played by Fredric March.
            Esther asks: ‘Is he always like that?’  Norman Maine hears her and gives her a ‘shush!’ look.  This is the man she will fall in love with and who arranges for her to have a Screen Test. 
            Her rise is meteoric.  His fall is almost as fast.  This tragic love story goes on its way to the inevitable sad, but hopeful ending.  The acting is uniformly excellent.  The style of 1930s acting might put you off, but do not be fooled, it is solid.  Take a moment to adjust your eyes for another time.  See what they did then and see how good this film really is.
            The acting is very good throughout.  Also, did I mention it is in Color?  Yes, good old 3-Strip Technicolor, just introduced in ‘Becky Sharp’, looking slightly ancient here but with real, true tones.  A great film.
            Much later, in 1954, Judy Garland and her husband Sid Luft needed a comeback vehicle for her.  She’d been fired by M-G-M studios from the film of the Irving Berlin musical ‘Annie Get Your Gun’.  Her erratic behavior due to drugs, alcohol, and her inner demons was costing them too much money.  The vile Louis B. Mayer had introduced her to these drugs to squeeze extra filming time out of her early in her career, and it all caught up to her.  Looking broken and older than her years, she was let go.
            But she and her husband saw this remake of ‘A Star is Born’ as her ticket back.  It is an ‘A’ Picture, all the way.  Color, CinemaScope, top songwriters and top songs, and George Cukor as director.
            This film turned out to be everything they hoped, but she never again was a big movie star.  In it she sings my favorite Judy Garland song: ‘The Man That Got Away’.  This leads me to the differences in the two versions of this story.
            In this film, Judy Garland does not play an unknown.  She is a singer with a Jazz Combo, and is already on her way in that world.  That is the big difference, that and the songs.  No grandmother.  No assistant-director neighbor.  Here he is the piano player in her Combo, played by Tommy Noonan (not to be confused with Tom Noonan, who played the killer in ‘Manhunter’ in the 1980s).
            But here, as in the earlier film, the Acting is excellent.  James Mason was never better as Norman Maine.  Charles Bickford is just fine in the old Adolphe Menjou part of the Studio Head, Oliver Niles.  Jack Carson does a great job as the Studio Publicity head.  His characterization is very hard-edged, and miles from the lighter Lionel Stander version in the 1936 film.  It is in this film that Jack Carson delivers one of the great lines, one which I use to this day, when I see anyone in the world going just ‘too far’: “He has a serious case of ‘the Cutes.’”  A perfect line.
            The film was weighed down in the second half by too many, too long production numbers (to my taste), although they are wonderfully done.  Also, this film was heavily cut on wide release.  In those days a big picture opened in one theater in town and played there for as long as they could get away with it, before being released to the neighborhood theaters.  This is when Judy Garland’s ‘A Star is Born’ was heavily cut.
            An attempt was made to restore the film many years ago.  It was one of the earliest of the Restorations. However much of the cut-footage was lost, with only the soundtracks remaining.  So they slugged the film with Production Still photos to go with the existing soundtrack.
            Don’t get me wrong.  Judy Garland’s version is a great film.  But for me I’ll always prefer the William Wellman - directed 1936 version.  It just has ‘a certain quality’ that makes it separate and special.  Also, it is more authentic about being unknown in Hollywood.  Also, to my mind, it makes a better statement about having Character and going for your dreams.
            While you’re at it, catch ‘What Price Hollywood?’ sometime on TCM, or wherever you can.  It is a good film on its own, and it is interesting to see the similarities and differences between the films.  Also, the Movie Director is played by an actual film director, Lowell Sherman.
            I should make the point that while I see ‘What Price Hollywood?’ as a direct ancestor of ‘A Star Is Born’, the excellent writing by William Wellman is what makes ‘A Star Is Born’ unique.  He’s not afraid to show a hard truth.
            I recommend that you see all three versions.  You will not be disappointed.  That’s my Christmas Gift to you.
             - December 25th, Christmas Day 2010,  Electro deFog / JBW.

The Razor's Edge (1946)

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Razor’s Edge (1946 - 20th C. Fox):
         This film of the W. Somerset Maugham novel is always a wonder to me, with more there for me to find each time I see it. You can start in any direction and follow it, and never be disappointed.
         As a very young child I endlessly played on the floor by my mother’s bookshelves. I saw the book ‘The Razor’s Edge’ there for years, but hadn’t read it. In the late 1950s, this film came on TV in Kansas City, where we lived. Because I knew how much she loved the book, I made a point of letting my mother know it would be on. I don’t remember what I expected, but the film itself, even with commercial interruptions, left me profoundly touched.
         Much like the moment when you realize you are truly in love, and are flooded with the beautiful seriousness of the emotion, yet never want it to stop or go away, this film speaks to me. I’ve seen it so many times over the years, in possibly every kind of mood, yet I have never failed to be held close by it and all it speaks about people and life itself.
         After seeing the film, I read the book. One notable thing about both the book and film is the device of having the author, Mr. Maugham himself, as a character in the story. An important character. That always impressed me.
         The film’s director Edmund Goulding isn’t a familiar name these many years later, but his career stretched back to silent film days, and forward to 1959 and his death. Not only did he direct the film but wrote many of the songs used in it. One, ‘Mam’zelle’, became a giant hit in 1947, after the release of the film.
         Where to begin with this great film! First, be warned that Spoilers abound.
         There are six major characters in the film. Larry, Isabel, Sophie, Gray, Eliot Templeton, and Somerset Maugham himself. Over the course of the film, our early perceptions of them are either verified, or radically changed.
         We first see them together in 1919 or 1920, right after the end of World War I at a country club outside of Chicago.
         Country clubs, do they even exist anymore? I remember, in the Mid-West, as late as my childhood in the late 50s, that a country club was a dazzling place for those of some means to recreate and meet each other.
         The film is narrated by Somerset Maugham. The great Herbert Marshall plays Maugham. A very subtle bit of work, much of it done with just his eyes and reactions. He is the continuity that keeps the film from being seen as episodic or unfocused.
         At this dance the former school chums reunite after the War. First we meet Isabel. a beautiful young woman. She introduces herself to Mr. Maugham, a friend of her very rich Uncle Eliot. Maugham is in Chicago, passing through on one of his travels. She is looking for her fiancĂ©e, Larry. She seems so idealistic and hopeful, the ideal young woman.
        Somerset Maugham’s career pre-dated World War I. Already world famous, he still is seen as lower socially than the Templeton family by Isabel’s mother. After all, at that level of society it is a badge of honor not to have to work. No Kennedy, Rockefeller or Roosevelt sense of wanting to ‘give something back’. No, these folks are content to just bask in the radiance of their wealth, and if the ‘others’, the non-moneyed, see their glory, they should feel blessed. Through her mother, we actually have one of the earliest glimpses into Isabel’s character.
         We next meet Sophie, a sweet young woman, not wealthy like the Templetons, but brought to the dance by her school friend Isabel, who even lends her one of her dresses to wear. She is engaged to Bob, who isn’t at the party, but working late. A serious young man, their love is real and good.
         Isabel’s Uncle Eliot, played masterfully by Clifton Webb, appears. Snide, with a caustic wit, we see in the talk between him and Mr. Maugham some glimpses into their world and friendship. We gather that both characters are homosexual. Although the evidence for this is underplayed, it nevertheless is there.
         At last we meet Larry, played by Tyrone Power. It is pretty evident that Uncle Eliot does not like him. Larry’s ideals have no place at all in the shallow world of Uncle Eliot, where everything is who you are and who you know.
         Somerset Maugham, however, immediately notices that Larry is a serious young man of truly good character.
         In fact, Larry is the strong center to the story. He seems to be the perfect compliment to Isabel, but when he tells her he wants to take time to go away to ‘find himself’ before he settles down to a life at a regular job, she is repulsed. But Larry, just back from the War, knows how quickly a life can be horribly altered, and that you should not casually regard your opportunities in life. Remember, this was World War I, when life was especially cheap. Larry knew that this was the moment when he best had a chance to check out his options. He knows that when you start down the steady job route, you’re not likely to be free again. For now, he tells Isabel, he is content to ‘loaf’, living off his inheritance as he seeks answers to the questions that bother him.
         At this point we see that the ‘ideal’ Isabel is actually rather shallow. She is willing to love Larry, but only if he is willing, right now, to make a life for them in keeping with her wealthy upbringing. She knows the proper stages expected of a young lady. Waiting for ‘your man’ is acceptable, but poverty is not.
        When Larry does not immediately bow to her wishes, she agrees to an arbitrary date in the future for him to come back to her. But we see that it will be unlikely for these two to ever be together.
         In the background is Gray, played by John Payne. He, too, loves Isabel, but is more the kind of man she is seeking. A good young man, but not exceptional as Larry is. Just good and decent and rich.
         We next see Larry high in the Himalayas seeking the answers to his questions. What truths he found in his sojourn in ‘the East’ are never delineated, but we see how Larry has grown. He has a new depth to his character. He was like this before, but now it is as if he is focused.
         When Larry does return, with these ideals of his only strengthened, Isabel sees something must be done if she is not to lose him. She tries to entrap Larry into a situation – sex, then later, a false pregnancy - where he will have to marry her. But at the last moment, she just can’t do it to him. He leaves.
         Her Uncle Eliot, has observed how she has handled Larry and confronts her. She is angry at first at being seen with her ‘trap’ exposed. But Uncle Eliot in fact tells her she should not have stopped, but continued with her plan. Now, facing her nature, she makes the decision to marry Gray. He will be the kind of man she is after, although she doesn’t care for him nearly as much.
        We don’t see Larry for a bit, but we are part of a tragic time that will destroy Sophie’s life. Her beloved husband Bob, and their infant daughter are killed in a car accident. After this, she isn’t seen until later.
         We next see Larry, in Paris. He is back from India, and runs into Somerset Maugham. He hears that Isabel, who has married Gray, is staying with her Uncle Eliot, due to Gray having a nervous collapse following the catastrophic failing of his father’s company, which he, since his father’s death, has been running.
         Larry goes to him, and using a method of planting a suggestion in Gray’s mind, succeeds in eliminating his illness. They go out to dinner and then later go slumming. At one of the dives they visit they see Sophie, who since the death of her husband and baby has thrown her life into the trash, becoming promiscuous, an alcoholic and drug user.
         Larry chooses to help her. We next see them together and planning to be married. But Sophie is barely hanging on, her sobriety of the white-knuckle kind.
         Seeing this, and jealous of her having Larry, Isabel sets Sophie up to fail. Giving in to her weakness for alcohol Sophie disappears.
         Larry seeking to find her, goes from dive to dive. In a den in Marseille, Larry seeks to bring her with him but the men abusing her fight him back. Sophie flees again into the night.
         Later, the police contact Maugham. They question him about a young dead woman. It is Sophie. Larry appears, having come from identification of her body.
This is the end of Sophie’s story. Now there is another.
         Maugham and Larry go to visit old Eliot Templeton, who is dying. On his deathbed he is upset that he hasn’t been invited to ‘the party of the year!’ How this moment plays out, and the final face-to-face moments between Larry and Isabel sum up this beautiful statement by Somerset Maugham on the nature of character and honor. No cardboard heroes and villains here, but people who, like us all, only become what we are inside over a lifetime of reacting to the events of our lives.
         Most American films proceed from point to point along a direct path. occasionally the structure will change, but most often it is straight on; A to B to C.
         Amazing things have been done using this straightforward structure, but it is a special film that within those bounds creates a world of its own, where your mind can soar and you see great truths in the events on screen. This is one of those films.
         There are many amazing performances in this film. The main characters of course are very good, but great moments are found even in smaller parts. Fritz Kortner, the German actor (Pandora’s Box), is amazing as a haunted man Larry meets in a workers bar. The intensity of his performance lays the groundwork for Larry’s quest. Much later Elsa Lanchester has an important bit as a wealthy woman’s secretary / companion.
         The writing, the acting, the music, everything in this great film combine to make a strong statement for honor, sincerity and personal integrity.
         I love this film and recommend it to everyone.
                                                                        - Electro de Fog / JBW, November 15, 2010.

Harper (1966)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Harper (1966):          
         This Paul Newman detective story might as well be ‘The Big Sleep’ or any of the good hard-boiled detective stories of the ‘30s or ‘40s.  All the interesting characters are there. 
         This was 1966, and Paul Newman was at the top of his game.  The supporting cast is all-star, too.  Lauren Bacall, Robert Wagner, Julie Harris, Shelley Winters, Arthur Hill, Janet Leigh; I could go on and on. They spent the money, they got it right.  Bright, slick and Technicolor, but also tough and true.
         It is a good story, a great detective story and all you could want from a mainstream Hollywood ‘A’ Picture in 1966.
         What makes this picture so special that I mention it here? Well, historically, this is the first U. S. film that - by it's ending - has the perpetrator of a crime go unpunished. Since the early Thirties the Hollywood Production Code had kept a strict hand on anything they considered morally unsuitable.
         Even Edward G. Robinson in SCARLET STREET – who got away with his crimes - went insane at the end.
         Warning, I have to use a SPOILER here to make my point.
         At the end of the film, and all its convolutions of plot, our hero Lew Harper discovers that his friend - the Arthur Hill lawyer character – has killed the missing kidnapped millionaire.  He didn’t do the kidnapping; just the opportunistic killing.  After having to take the millionaire’s abuse for many years, the lawyer made a choice and went for the money.
         When all the other matters are settled, Lew Harper, riding with his friend back to the millionaire’s wife, tells his friend he knows he did the killing.
         Quietly, still just talking, the lawyer tells Harper he’ll have to stop him from giving him up.
         Well, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, says Harper. He gets out of the car and slowly walks toward the door, he knows his friend has a gun trained on his back.
         At the last minute Newman (Harper) throws up his hands in a Christ-like gesture, they both say ‘oh, hell.’ and the film is over.  A sigh of relief all around. 
         Without saying a word more, Harper agrees not to turn his friend in for the killing. He is not going to cast his best friend to the wolves (the cops) over a dead kidnapped millionaire no one in the film liked. A bad man, forget it, let's split the money and just go on with our lives.
         Essentially, it's a "whoever is without sin, let him cast the first stone" ending.
         This was the first US film - by my reckoning - to do this.  After HARPER, any film could end any way it wanted, with no fear of the release being blocked by the Production Code.
         Unlike so many of the mid-‘60s Hollywood’s desperate attempts to be hip, slick and cool – trying so very hard to be as honest as the foreign films of that era - this one got it right.
         From this point on, no one had to go to jail or die by the last reel. Morally dubious? Yes. Realistic? Also, yes.
         For this, HARPER is a milestone. – Electro deFog / JBW.

The Exiles (1961, b+w)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

  The Exiles (1961, b+w):           
            I came across this wonderful film recently on Turner Classic Movies.  Made by Kent MacKenzie, a USC Film School graduate, it seemingly is a documentary.  Amazingly it is, rather, a film with a cast that goes through a day in their life, filmed by a small crew, in real locations, using their own written words over their actions.  No scripted dialogue.  Just a general direction for the plot.
            Three young people in their early 20’s, make up the cast.  American Indians, they left their Reservations, where there was no hope of a future free from poverty.  Their new life is Bunker Hill, in the northwest corner of downtown Los Angeles.  But Bunker Hill in its way is as desolate and unforgiving a life as any Reservation.  Long since destroyed, Bunker Hill was a home to not only Indians, but old people, Latinos, homosexuals, and low-level criminals and drunks, all mixed together.  Poor people, edgy people, outcasts.
            These people live, jammed together in very old buildings, many of them once large homes that had been changed into one-room or two room apartments.  Many people to a room.  Men with no jobs who gather together for spiritual survival and the illusion that something is happening in their lives.
The something happening is decay.  Friends who smile at each other while rifling their pockets if they nod off.
            Only a few years after this film was made, all these homes were destroyed and replaced by sleek buildings, business and residential, for the wealthy.
            The scenes on the street show a way of life that is long gone.  Cooper’s Donuts, the bars, the sweat and lies of the street.  The floating, hovering sense of danger.  Blood waiting to be spilt.  The old Black Maria Police vans that swept the night streets every night.  Scooping up the scum and those not wanted.
            Other than this film, the only other place it exists is in the modern classic novel ‘City of Night’, by John Rechy.
            I hadn’t thought of writing this, until my son – ordinarily an intelligent and perceptive young man (see ‘Rocksplotch’) – saw the film and didn’t see what I so love about it.  He sees the events, but they don’t register the same.  The difference is that I remember those streets and have tasted that hopelessness.  My son, surely no stranger to tragedy and dashed dreams, sees it, but not as I do.  So I decided to see if I can put some of it into words.
            There are three main locations in the film: an apartment on Bunker Hill, various bars and other locations in the downtown Los Angeles, and a hilltop overlooking downtown L.A.
            The music for the film is by a band called The Revels, known now mostly for their song used over the rape scene in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’.  In fact that song had been written for ‘The Exiles’, but wasn’t used.  Later it was released as a single.
            This film is amazing in many ways.
            How did the scenes get filmed inside homes and bars and no one visibly reacts to the camera?  In one section in particular, the people are in a crowded bar.  Serious drinking here, with escape their goal.  But no one reacts to the camera!  Amazing.  I’ve seen gigantic Hollywood cast-of-thousands Epics, and there is always one yokel who looks right into the camera.  But not here.  Why?
            The black and white photography is crisp, itself unusual to anyone knowing the available Black-and-White film of those days.  Plus X had a good fine grain, but was fairly useless in street lighting.  The best film then for filming documentary work was Tri-X.  This was a good film but could easily give way to coarse grain in darker scenes.  The phrase I used to always use was ‘a bug convention’.
            But here the camera work is top-notch, sharp and clean.  Not only does it catch the action, but the really subtle nuances of the very early morning half-light on the blighted world of Bunker Hill.  The camera work is superlative.
            I love this film, despite the fact that it is not fun to watch.  Really sad stuff here.  The scene on the hilltop – now long since the home of Dodger Stadium – is poignant as these cut-off Native Americans get together at the end of another drunken, hopeless night to reach back for the illusory memory of their heritage.
            ‘The Exiles’ is available on DVD from Milestone, a great DVD company. 
                        - Electro deFog / JBW. Monday, September 13, 2010.

Somewhere in the Night

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Somewhere in the Night (1946, B+W, 20th C. Fox).
Written & Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (House of Strangers, All About Eve).
            This is a John Hodiak picture.  For most of my life I knew him from Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Lifeboat’, of course, and Judy Garland’s ‘The Harvey Girls’.  He was good, but I never sought out him in anything else.  I often even avoided seeing his films.  Then in getting to know some Fox films noir I came across this film.
            It is compelling from the very beginning.  An unknown hero seeking his unknown past.  Soon, he is under the eye of the police and various dangerous people.  In a nightclub he takes refuge in the dressing room of a young singer (played by Nancy Guild – pronounced as in wild, as the Ads said.).  She enlists the help of her boss, played by Richard Conte.  A shadowy character himself, he runs the Club she sings in.  The extremes of our hero’s trap are Lloyd Nolan as a cop, who knows more than he tells, but tells enough for you to know he’s watching you, and the legendary Fritz Kortner (Pandora’s Box, The Razor’s Edge) as the head of a low-rent gang of thugs.  All of them seek a lost $2 million dollars, which can be found only through our unknown hero.  A good complex plot, full of darkness and untrustworthy characters played by great actors, all after a Macguffin.  Soon I was loving every minute of the film.
            It’s not just the stars, but Margo Woode plays an amazing tough chick who puts on airs because she speaks a little French.  Then, there are the two gems of performances: Josephine Hutchinson as a young woman aging too fast due to loneliness, and Housely Stevenson as her father, locked in an asylum because he saw too much.  This is a dark film but you don’t notice, because it is so polished.  Check it out. – EdeF.