Destry Rides Again (1939)

Destry Rides Again doesn’t take itself too seriously. Destry posterThat’s got a lot to do with the director, George Marshall, who went from making traditional Westerns during the Silent era to making comedies with Laurel and Hardy (among others) in the 1930s. Here he assembles a quirky cast, actors you wouldn’t expect to see in the same picture.

Jimmy Stewart plays himself, as always: sweet, uncomplicated, as decent as they come. You’d expect Marlene Dietrich to eat him for breakfast. The character she plays, Frenchy (those naughty Frenchwomen, even one with a German accent!), chews up the little Russian (Mischa Auer) in the first ten minutes of the film. He’s highly susceptible to her charms, and she convinces him to gamble away his pants, just for yuks. His wife is not too pleased about it, when he comes home.

Lily Belle : Hey you! Give me those pants. And from now on, leave my husband alone.

Frenchy : I don’t want your husband, Mrs. Callahan – all I want is his money. . . and his pants.

Lily Belle : And how’d you get ’em? By making eyes at him while you cheated, you gilded lily!

Frenchy : But Mrs. Callahan, you know he would rather be cheated by me than married to you.

Fresh from playing a Russian ballet master opposite Jimmy Stewart in You Can’t Take it With You (1938), Auer delivers a delightful performance here. What’s a Russian doing in the old West, alongside a “French” dance hall chanteuse? Who cares! auer stewart dietrichMarshall makes this ensemble piece sparkle. I like Jimmy Stewart’s folksy sheriff’s deputy better than the congressman he went on to play that same year in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He’s less uptight, succumbing to Frenchy, surprising himself, and you like him better for it. Supposedly the two stars had a brief romance on the set. Nobody could resist Dietrich.

Marshall directed a remake with Audie Murphy in the title role in 1954. Skip it and watch one of the eleven episodes of “I Love Lucy” he directed instead.

Blonde Venus (1932)

You can watch this film to White tuxedo and grant close-upsee naughty Marlene Dietrich and you can also watch it to see how the studio tried—and failed—to rein her in. The cabaret singer we met in The Blue Angel, the cold-hearted seductress who wears a man’s top hat, reappears here in a glittering white tuxedo. Marlene swings both ways in Blonde Venus (as the actress did in real life). Sauntering onstage in the Paris nightclub where she’s become the star attraction, she frankly admires another showgirl, giving her a fleeting caress in passing, as if to say, I’ll catch you later, sweetie. And yet she also manages to convey an aloofness. It’s part of her allure. Nobody steals her heart, but she dares you to try. (According to her biographer, Donald Spoto, French actor Jean Gabin was the only one to succeed.)

Admiring Dietrich’s performance is the millionaire playboy (a very young Cary Grant) with whom she’d had a brief liaison a couple of years earlier. He fell for her opening number, “Hot Voodoo,” you know, the one where Dietrich comes out in a gorilla suit?

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I probably should have included a warning: some viewers may find the staging of this number disturbing. And get a load of those lyrics!

That beat gives me a wicked sensation. My conscience wants to take a vacation. Got voodoo, head to toes. Hot voodoo, burn my clothes. I want to start dancing, just wearing a smile. Hot voodoo, I’m aflame. I’m really not to blame. That African tempo, is meaner than mean. Hot voodoo, make me brave. I want to misbehave.

So, there they are, in the Paris nightclub, the seductress and the millionaire. He’s still smitten. Dietrich blows smoke in his face and, the next thing you know, they’re engaged. Yep, he’s a decent guy. So decent that he brings her back to New York so she can reunite with her husband (Herbert Marshall) and young son (Dickie Moore). We’re supposed to believe that beneath the sultry exterior, Dietrich is a devoted mother (as the actress was not, in real life).

Blonde Venus was pre-code, but Dietrich was problematic.english poster Married and the mother of a young daughter, she’d been sexually entangled with her director, Josef von Sternberg, during the filming of the three previous films they’d made together, and was romantically linked to various actors and actresses, carrying on with two or three lovers at a time. With the proceeds from her Hollywood career, she supported her husband and his mistress back in Berlin; the three of them traveled together in the summers, with the daughter in tow. All this was known, and disapproved of, and von Sternberg may have been trying to rehabilitate his protégé’s image with this film, but nobody was buying it. They wanted the seductress. Just look at the poster. Dickie Moore is nowhere in sight. Then there’s the tagline: From the lips of one man to the arms of another.

You know what I love most about Marlene Dietrich? She got away with it.

Grand Hotel

Garbo got me into the building, but she’s not the reasongarbo I stayed. Her tired Russian ballerina falls for the same kind of man she would fall for as a humorless Russian revolutionary in Ninotchka. Can I help it if I found the revolutionary more enchanting?

Fortunately, the ballerina’s story is just one of many that weave through this picture. That man she falls for, a dissolute aristocrat (John Barrymore), also flirts with the stenographer (Joan Crawford) who was hired by the swindling businessman (Wallace Beery) to take dictation and possibly provide other services . . .  There’s also a wounded veteran of World War I (Lewis Stone) and a little bookkeeper (Lionel Barrymore), who recently received a terminal diagnosis and has determined to spend his final days in style. John Barrymore may have had the looks in the family, but Lionel’s quiet charm won me over.

Such goings on, before the Hayes Code went into effect! The ballerina and the aristocrat spend the night together. The stenographer contemplates selling her body to the businessman for the price of a few nice outfits and a junket to London. The bookkeeper wins big at poker, helped along by the aristocrat, and goes off to Paris with the stenographer in the hope of finding a cure.

Did Grand Hotel deserve to beat out Shanghai Express for Best Picture in 1932? I wouldn’t say so, but it’s an enjoyable enough romp through Berlin in its heyday.

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The Boy with Green Hair

I’ve been curious about The Boy with Green Hair (1948) because it was was the first feature film by blacklisted director Joseph Losey and blacklisted screenwriter Ben Barzman, and they were pretty proud of it. Both men subsequently fled to Europe with their families rather than testify before HUAC, and managed to keep in work. Losey, who went on to direct The Go-Between — from a screenplay by Harold Pinter — was so successful, he never went home.

I admire those blacklisted artists who didn’t sell out. The first book of my historical mystery series opens in London, where my heroine, aspiring actress Cara Walden, is living with her brother Gray, a blacklisted screenwriter who chose exile over betraying his fellow travelers, just like Barzman and Losey. So I was prepared to like this film. Really, I was. But I cringed the whole way through, starting with the chorus singing “Nature Boy” over the credits.

“Nature Boy” was Nat King Cole’s first hit. It’s got a haunting melody (inspired by a Yiddish tune) even if the lyrics are inane. Everyone recorded it. At the risk of hijacking this review, I will point you to the memorable versions by Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and the Gypsy Jazz guitar trio led by Romane and Stochelo Rosenberg. Worth noting are covers by Django Reinhardt, David Bowie (from the film Moulin Rouge), Johnny Mathis, Celine Dion, and, for curiosity’s sake, period pieces by Bobby Darrin, Michael Jackson, Grace Slick and the Great Society, Cher, and James Brown. There’s also Leonard Nimoy’s unforgettable version, from his album A Touch of Leonard Nimoy. (Just try and forget it. . .)

The guy who wrote “Nature Boy” has a claim on being the first hippie. eden ahbez (in the e.e. cummings mode, he preferred to leave his name in lowercase) ate raw food, lived out in the open, under the L (for Love) of the Hollywood sign, was interested in mysticism — all this in the 1940s. After his song made it to the top of the charts, he was featured in Life magazine. He wrote songs for Eartha Kitt, Sam Cooke, Hoagy Carmichael. People made pilgrimages to meet him and learn from him, he was such a sage, from various members of the Beat generation to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, novelist Thomas Pynchon, and wistful singer-songwriter (and Bob Dylan nemesis) Donovan. You can read more about ahbez in a recent Vogue piece. I understand there’s also a documentary in the works. 

Such fascinating stuff I discovered, researching this picture! But the picture itself? I can’t disagree with Bosley Crowther, who called it “mere sentimental entertainment” in his New York Times review. “One gets the uncomfortable feeling,” Crowther complained, “that it is just a bright adult notion gone wrong.” Actually, I’d quibble with the use of the word “adult.” Hard to believe adults wrote this. The original story by Betsy Beaton was a parable about racism. A boy’s hair turns green, people shun him for being different. As if that’s all there was to prejudice. The best Variety could come up with was “well-intentioned,” which does describe characters like the child psychologist played by Robert Ryan and the boy’s foster parent, “Gramp” (Pat O’Brien), an Irish singing waiter. No, I’m not kidding.

There’s an anti-war message to The Boy with Green Hair, but it seems tacked on. The cloying sincerity of this picture is revealing of the naivety of late-forties activists, I suppose. In this regard, eden abbez’s song was an inspired choice.

Happy Holidays

How many times can you watch Miracle on 34th Street? Settle down with one of these classics instead. (Click on the titles to read the full review)

NINOTCHKA

 

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French champagne. One sip and you’ll become a convert to capitalism. Trust me, it works.

There’s Greta Garbo’s humorless Soviet envoy, a model revolutionary if ever there was one. She believes in the righteousness of the cause and has nothing but contempt for the west. “The last mass trials were a great success,” she assures her three comrades.“There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”

Ah, but she is in Paris. Who can resist the charms of the city of light? Pour yourself a glass of bubbly and savor this delightful film.

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT

 

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I read somewhere that Clark Gable’s talent was in playing himself. Fans lined up to see him, whatever the role, and they were never disappointed. Could he act? Ask me if I care. The version of himself he played in “It Happened One Night” was genuine, charming, and way too handsome for that control freak, Claudette Colbert.

“Cheerfully insolent” is the way a friend of mine describes Gable’s performance. Him I could imagine traveling with across the country or around the world. We’d probably end up going standby, and no doubt there’d be any number of mishaps along the way, but that would be part of the adventure. One thing for sure: we’d never be bored.

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO

 

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The soulful Egyptian heartthrob Omar Sharif plays a Russian and Doctor Zhivago was shot mostly in Spain by a British director, produced by an Italian. “Lara’s Theme,” the schmaltzy leitmotif that evokes the Julie Christie character, can still be heard in elevators today. But there’s lots of snow and that makes this a perfect Christmas epic in my book.

The Cimarron Kid

Another Western, you say? But why this one? Even the director, Budd Boetticher, admitted it wasn’t very good. Audie Murphy wasn’t right for the part of the Cimarron Kid. “He’s sensitive, he’s got taste, and guts.” Presumably those qualities weren’t wanted for Bill Doolin, the character Murphy plays. Doolin comes across as a reluctant outlaw, a crack shot who takes no pleasure in using his weapon and seems pained to be leading a life of crime.

I’ve got a rule of my own that might do you good to remember: there will be no killing unless it’s forced upon us.

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Murphy on the left, with some of the Daltons. Natty dressers, the lot of them.

Other members of his gang have cool, tough guy nicknames like Bitter Creek and Dynamite Dick. Granted, Murphy’s short stature (he was 5’5”) made him well-suited for “kid” roles—he played Billy in The Kid From Texas a year earlier—but here he’s too well-dressed to be plausible as the defacto leader of a gang of ruthless bank robbers. Really, he just wants to hang out with his girl.

Murphy had an image to keep up. Three years earlier, he’d published a best-selling memoir about his wartime experiences, To Hell and Back (1949). A World War II hero, and a Texas boy who really could ride a horse and shoot, he was surprisingly humble in his book. People liked that about him: Audie got the job done.

Of course, there was more to it. Murphy didn’t become the most decorated combat soldier in US military history without tremendous suffering. He was involved in some of the worst battles of the European theater, including Sicily, Salerno, Anzio, and Southern France, where he saw his closest friends die. Half-crazed, he single-handedly wiped out an entire German squad in the Ardennes; wounded, he also managed to commandeer a burning tank, using its .50 caliber machine gun to drive the enemy away.

He would be plagued by nightmares for the rest of his life and was, as Boetticher recognized, “a complicated young man.” But audiences saw only the earnest kid. At the end of this picture, he agrees to go to jail. with his girlHis girl promises she’ll be waiting for him when he gets out. Not your typical Western ending, but it fit with the image of the damaged, war weary young veteran.

Gregory McNames quotes his New York Times obituary. “When Murphy was asked how soldiers such as he managed to overcome the horrors he had seen, he replied, ‘I don’t think they ever do.’ ” That message doesn’t come across in The Cimarron Kid as strongly as in Shane, but you can’t help feeling sorry for Murphy in this picture.

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

The Shanghai casino run by Mother Gin Sling is like Disneyland for the depraved: a stately pleasure dome (to borrow Coleridge’s phrase from “Kubla Khan,” his opium-induced fantasy poem about the East) where Westerners go to indulge in illicit activities. tierney“It smells so incredibly evil,” says Gene Tierney, who’s there to do a little slumming. “I didn’t think such a place existed except in my own imagination. . . Anything could happen here.”

Fresh out of finishing school—and absolutely stunning in this role—Tierney’s character “Poppy” is easily corrupted. She can’t wait to lose control. Seduced by Victor Mature’s fez-wearing Persian gigolo, she’s soon addicted to drugs and reduced to pawning her jewelry to pay her gambling debts. It’s all part of Mother Gin Sling’s plan to wreak revenge on Poppy’s father (Walter Huston), a wealthy Englishman who’d toyed with her years earlier, taken advantage of her innocence, then tossed her aside when she became pregnant.

Ona Munson, the white actress who plays Mother Gin Sling in yellowface, is lacquered to within an inch of her life in her dragon lady hairdo. Hosting a dinner party in her private quarters, she has her bare-chested minion (professional wrestler Mike Mazurki, billed simply as “The Coolie” in the credits) open the curtains in the dining room to show her guests the spectacle of women in bamboo cages being auctioned off as sex slaves. mother gin slingShe was reduced to selling herself after her abandonment, and describes the brutal treatment she endured: “My soles cut open and pebbles sewn inside to keep me from running away . . .”

The Shanghai Gesture was a play in the 1920s, and even more louche than the film. You could get away with more in the theater, and audiences at the time were especially receptive to fantasies about Asian decadence. Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, the first Asian to play an Asian character onscreen, was a matinee idol well before Valentino. Best known today for his performance as the sadistic but honorable Colonel Saito in Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), he gained notice in the role of a Japanese ivory dealer who brands the white woman he lusts after on the shoulder in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat (1915) — an act that seemed to enhance his appeal in much the same way that Valentino’s rape of the dancing girl would in Son of the Sheik (1926). “My crientele is women. They rike me to be strong and violent,” Hayakawa allegedly told a reporter.

An early Frank Capra film, The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), yen 2features an interracial romance between a white missionary played by Barbara Stanwyck and a Chinese warlord (Swedish heartthrob Nils Asther in yellowface). Stanwyck’s character is captured by the warlord and she has an erotic dream about him, imagining him as a brutal and passionate lover, although he turns out to be a gentleman and, in a departure from the novel upon which the film was based, their mutual attraction remains chaste. Miscegenation was taboo, even before the Hays Code, and General Yen was yanked eight days into its run, the sight of “a Chinaman attempting to romance with a pretty and supposedly decent young American white woman,” as Sam Shain put it in Variety, too shocking for audiences at the time. Nevertheless, the film was selected for the opening of Radio City Music Hall.

Of course, director Joseph von Sternberg was drawn to kinky material. “The pain that fascinates and the pleasure that kills,” in Baudelaire’s famous line, was always his subject.

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A Man for all Seasons

Who doesn’t love a martyr?

Here’s Thomas More in Paul Scofield’s powerfulHolbein portrait rendering, a brilliant, quiet man who weighs his words and never gives in to his base instincts. Sure, he gets the better of Henry VIII’s henchman, Thomas Cromwell, but it’s largely a matter of out-classing him, rather than descending to Cromwell’s level.

More: “You threaten like a dockside bully.

Cromwell: “How should I threaten?”

More: “Like a minister of state. With justice.”

Cromwell: “Oh, justice is what you’re threatened with.”

More: “Then I am not threatened.”

Well done, Mr. More! Or, should I say Lord Chancellor More? Or Saint Thomas More, as he became, finally, in 1935? Certainly there is much to admire in the humanist novel he wrote in 1516, Utopia, where he questioned the value of private property.

As long as there is property, and while money is the standard of all things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily; not justly, because the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few (and even these are not in all respects happy), the rest being left to the absolutely miserable.

More’s thinking would later be revived in a pamphlet published in 1834 by the abbé de Lamennais, Paroles d’un croyant [Words of a believer] which railed against the “conspiracy of kings and priests against the people,” earning Lamennais a stint in prison. But a number of utopian socialists took up the cause, and their works were read by Karl Marx. We all know where that led.

We also have this appealing comment from Utopia: “Anyone who campaigns for public office becomes disqualified for holding any office at all.”

But More had his fanatic side. He was Henry VIII’s henchman before Cromwell, and had no qualms about torturing heretics or burning them to death. He was seen as erratic and dictatorial, “using his powers as Lord Chancellor inquisitorially and in a style contrary to the Star Chamber’s accepted procedure.” He once described a Benedictine monk apprehended with books by the Protestant reformers Luther and Zwingli as “a dog returning to his vomit” — this to justify burning the man, who wished to repent.

The unsavory side of More is on full displaywolfhall in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, but you won’t find Paul Scofield calling anyone a dog in A Man for All Seasons, let alone using words like vomit. He is far too erudite. Imprisoned in the Tower, he begs not for creature comforts—furs to ward off the chill, or food—but for more reading material, a request that the dastardly Cromwell denies him.

No doubt I’m viewing the man through the lens of the present, but methinks that martyrdom was all More had left, after he had so thoroughly debased himself for his sovereign.

It’s a pretty good movie, though. Watch the trailer of the newly released version.

Strangers on a Train

With thanks to Tim

I like this posteroff the beaten track from Hitchcock’s 1951 psychological thriller, Strangers on a Train, because it highlights the film’s zaniness. Robert Walker’s character (Bruno) is creepy, right from the beginning. You can’t imagine why Farley Granger’s character (Guy) agrees to dine alone with him in his compartment, even if the business of their feet touching beneath the table in the train’s bar suggests a homosexual attraction. Hitchcock chose the bisexual Granger for the part, knowing full well that audiences would make the association—which was even more explicit in the Patricia Highsmith novel—but Bruno is clearly a psychopath. And yet, you can’t help smiling in the scenes where Bruno appears. Like Guy, you’re drawn in, just as Hitch intended.

As a director, he left nothing to chance. Throughout the picture, we’re meant to focus on Guy’s cigarette lighter. An expensive gift from his mistress (Anne), it features a pair ofMcGuffin Lighter tennis rackets and an engraving: A to G. Bruno borrowed it and we just know he’s going to use it to implicate Guy in the murder of his unsympathetic wife (who was killed by Bruno). In a tense scene, Bruno drops the lighter down a storm sewer and we see his hand, coming through the grate, fishing around among the debris, a wet leaf, a chewing gum wrapper, a bit of orange peel and a scrap of paper, each item carefully selected by Hitchcock.

He cared more about the visuals than anything, and in thinking about the look of this picture, he was inspired by the cartoons of Charles Addams. This one, for example (is that Uncle Fester, enjoying himself there in the second row?)

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Hitch has a scene at a tennis match that clearly references Addams’ cartoon, with Bruno in the center, his attention fixed on Guy while everyone else’s heads are going back and forth, following the ball. Offbeat humor.

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Another nice touch, at a cocktail party, involves a society matron (Mrs. Cunningham) who is encouraged by Bruno to imagine how she might knock off her husband. She really gets into the game, coming up with an amusing little scenario where she drives off with her husband, knocks him over the head with a hammer, pours gasoline over him and sets the whole thing ablaze. We’re going along with it too, until Bruno puts his hands around Mrs. Cunningham’s throat and suddenly things get serious.

Raymond Chandler was brought in to write the screenplay for Strangers on a Train, but had a falling out with the director and was removed from the project, his contributions deleted. He considered Hitchcock a philistine for not recognizing “that what is said and how it is said is more important than shooting it upside down through a glass of champagne.”

Sorry, but I’m with Hitch on this one.

High Noon

It’s not news that High Noon (1952)high-noon-1
was really about Hollywood’s cowardice during the McCarthy era. John Wayne knew it. He turned down the Gary Cooper role when it was offered to him. The movie was “un-American,” he said in a Playboy interview, bragging about having helped run its screenwriter, Carl Foreman, out of the country.

All of this can be found in an old book by Anthony Holden, Behind the Oscar: Secret History of the Academy Awards (1992) and in Glenn Frankel’s new one, High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. You can learn a lot from the Wikipedia entry on the film, too, including the fact that, blacklist parable or not, High Noon was a favorite of presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton.

Gary Cooper’s principled marshal may have originated as a stand-in for the blacklisted Carl Foreman.”There are scenes in the film that are taken from life. The scene in the church is a distillation of meetings I had with partners, associates and lawyers,” the screenwriter said. “And there’s the scene with the man who offers to help and comes back with his gun and asks, ‘Where are the others?’ And Cooper says, ‘There are no others.’ I became the Cooper character.”

But High Noon has been co-opted by the Right. A recent article in the Conservative Tribune explicitly invoked the film in regard to Trump’s confrontational stance toward Iran. “If Iran wants a showdown with Trump at high noon, he is willing to give them one, and they aren’t going to be too happy once they see what type of six-shooter he’s packing.”

I think Iran is kidding itself if they don’t think there’s a new president in town, Spicer said, sounding just like a classic line from an old Western.

This wouldn’t have surprised James Baldwin. He had a thing about Gary Cooper, going back to his boyhood days watching Westerns. In a clip from a 1965 Cambridge University debate included in the marvelous documentary I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin said, “It comes as a great shock around the age of 5 or 6 or 7 to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you.”

Cooper was a foil for him, a symbol devilfindsworkof white innocence (as was Doris Day, and Grace Kelly in High Noon). Interviewed by educator and civil rights activist Dr. Kenneth Clark in 1963, he spoke about the anger of young black college students (they were still called Negroes), who had reached the breaking point.

“You can only survive so many beatings, so much humiliation, so much despair, so many broken promises, before something gives,” Baldwin explained. “Those children had to pay a terrible price in discipline, in moral discipline—an interior effort of courage which the country cannot imagine, because it still thinks Gary Cooper, for example, was a man—I mean his image, I have nothing against him, you know, him. . .”

Baldwin may have had nothing personal against Cooper, but he could not stomach the heroic myths that Americans liked to tell about themselves in Westerns like this one.