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The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013): Takahata’s Swan Song

The_Tale_of_the_Princess_Kaguya_(poster).jpgDuring the period of time I lived in Japan, I became acquainted with the works of Isao Takahata, and by that I mean I watched both Grave of The Fireflies (1988) and Only Yesterday (1991). This was all that was required because these two films on their own left a profound impact on me.

While Hayao Miyazaki is, rightfully so, the benevolent poster boy of Ghibli Studios, you might say Takahata was, in his own way, a visionary and the hidden engine behind the company. He was rarely as prolific as his counterpart, but the films he left behind are thoughtful masterpieces — even more pensive in nature — while arguably boasting headier themes. In fact, you might say the partnership between the two directors exerted an influence on Miyakazi’s films specifically.

While living in Tokyo, the news Miyazaki would come out retirement had the world in a tizzy of excitement. About a year later his colleague would pass away, and I’m not sure as many folks were aware, but those who’ve admired his films took note and quietly pondered the glorious oeuvre he left behind.

Today I can finally say Tale of Princess Kagura is more than worthy of joining the company of his best films, sharing his usual affinities while bursting forth with an altogether new leaf — a lifetime in the making. Whether it’s serendipity or not, it seems like an impeccable summation of the director’s work, still so vibrant and serenely mesmerizing at this, the tail end of his career.

In full transparency, as someone who knew next to nothing about The Tale of The Bamboo Cutter (this film’s ancient inspiration), it’s easy to come at the material a bit wary. But soon enough, this guardedness begins to fade away. Because like any of the great tales — Aesop’s Fables, The Brothers Grimm, The Odyssey, even Biblical parables — this story is equally built out of the archetypes of humanity. In some way, it speaks to universal themes we can imbibe on some deeper human level.

The initial jumping-off point is unfamiliar and yet it bears some resemblance to what we might know somewhere deep down in our being. Because on one auspicious day, the Woodcutter happens to cut down a bamboo shoot and when it breaks open, with radiant light, a tiny creature is birthed into the world; he christens her a princess sent from the heavens.

So he and his wife act accordingly, taking this small yet significant creature as their own to raise up so that she might one day earn a status far beyond their humble origins. It begins as a story about how Providence can smile down upon the most unremarkable of souls.

The Woodcutter is a doddering man even hilariously so, devoted as he is to his new daughter. Whereas his wife is more tranquil and a comforting maternal figure. As their new daughter is taken in, she rapidly grows by the moment, earning the name “Bamboo Shoot” from the local pack of children, although her father is adamant she’s a princess, and he resolves to do everything in his power to make this vision a reality.

It’s in these earliest interludes, set in the meadows and forests of God’s green earth, where we realize what a hallowed place nature will hold in this story as the words of a ubiquitous tune about “birds, bugs, beasts, trees, etc.” keeps on being repeated — a song that feels as old as time.

While The Tale of Princess Kagura is about so much and it’s lengthy, especially for a hand-drawn piece of animation, there’s something very primordial about it — again, going back to the base tenets of our very existence and our collective consciousness.

The child joins the company of a strapping woodsman named Sutemaru who is admired by all the youth, despite his own common origins. Our heroine shares their mutual affection for him.

Meanwhile, her father continually invests in the life he’s vowed to give her — sending her to the city, setting her up under the tutelage of an eminent woman of etiquette, and promoting her to all the surrounding nobles. Kagura is bestowed with the blessed new name, and her renown grows.

However, this is the juncture where her old life — one of humble means, communing with nature, and Sutemaru — ceases to exist as it formerly did. She must try and acclimate to a new life at first glorious, then constricting, and ultimately devastating.

She’s pursued by five prominent suitors, all vowing to bring her glorious treasures to consummate their love. Instead of taking their proposals subserviently, she boldly asks for them to prove not only their resolve but their true affections. There’s something utterly modern about this young woman navigating her way in a world dominated by men. Where she willfully challenges convention as dictated by traditional patriarchy with the ultimate symbol being the emperor, a man accustomed to getting whatever he so desires.

The story readily evokes numerous elements of Japanese culture, and they inform the folklore, whether unfurling scroll paintings, virtuoso koto-playing, and the antiquated customs of nobility. But Takahata’s film works on an even more basic level.

Beyond all else, at it’s very best, The Tale of Princess Kagura is blessed with breathtaking visuals, making full use of the format. Mystifying developments are brought to the screen with a matter-of-fact immediacy we come to accept. It’s the kind of film where you must let it happen to you. If you relinquish your doubts and come to accept everything generously, you stand to be rewarded. Only then are you allowed to revel in its intricacies, simplicities, and the marvels it puts forth in any number of ways.

The palette breaks with so much of what we’ve come to expect from animation, both the western status quo with the proliferation of computer-driven images and also Japan’s own distinct stylings. It’s the epitome of sartorial splendor and in an era where animation — both western and eastern — is easily earmarked and pigeon-holed,  it’s very rare to view something so singular. In fact, it’s an unassuming revelation in terms of harnessing the art form in an altogether definitive manner.

It’s bold in its willingness to be spare, recalling the impressionistic recollections featured in Only Yesterday. And yet the style readily evolves, waxing and waning amid the seasons, the changing plot points, and subsequent emotions that overtake our heroine.

The watercolor-like sensibilities and bursts of colors demand a fearlessness when it comes to using white space and minimalism. Because what it really does is continuously impress upon us a particular mood, a feeling, or sensation.

I am reminded of one scene that totally overtook me as the Princess zoomed off into the night as a blur of charcoal and color, the score hitting staccato notes to capture the pace in which she darts off into the night — grieved and agonized by the current world she’s being subjected too.

Then there’s the other moment amid the cherry blossoms that feels like swirling, whirling euphoria under the falling pink petals. For an instant, we get lost up in the moment with our heroine. And because this is a Takahata movie, there has to be an element of this mystical realism where the film’s world and the medium of animation afford this fusing of the every day with the supernatural. Sure enough, it comes with the same magical flourishes we would come to expect from Ghibli. We watch our protagonists soar through the air with a visceral abandon personifying their overflowing joy.

Later, we are caught up in the awe of an ethereal decension bringing the gods down to us on a cloud from the luminous moon above. This is what we come to expect from Ghibli — this swelling exhilaration — although each moment feels fresh as if seen with new eyes.

However, and this is no slight on Miyazaki whatsoever, it feels like Takahata has a greater stake in depicting both the somberness and the elation. He reminds us sometimes it takes one to bring out the other. But in the end, as he suggests time and time again in his story, it’s all part of this cycle. It’s the tale of nature and life — the birds, the bugs, and all the creatures. That includes us.

The film subtly evokes Buddhist, perhaps even some Shinto traditions — this inbred environmentalism — and the relationship between humanity and nature. Though we might see the same themes echoed in many slightly different forms. There is the Christian mandate to “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

There were later generations of Romanticists kicking against the goads of the Industrial Revolution, looking to salvage nature from the soot-filled pyres of modernity. Then the Transcendentalists who called for finding meaning in the solitude of nature while also finding a spiritual presence in all things. Even now there is the ever-current fight in the war against climate change, in spite of a sea of skeptics.

Thus, if we do this admittedly cursory run-through of history, it reminds us this is not really a matter of Eastern vs. Western thought at all. Surely, there are differences, but our struggles, questions, and hopes are not totally dissimilar. They are wrapped up right there in our elemental narratives. Isao Takahata gifted us with one final revelation executed with his usual care and thoughtfulness. It’s a delight to proclaim it good. It’s even better to say it’s not just for Anime aficionados. I want to believe it’s for everyone who will give it a chance.

4.5/5 Stars

When a Women Ascends The Stairs (1960): A Prescient Portrait of Japan

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A version of this review was first published in Film Inquiry

If director Mikio Naruse’s Floating Clouds is a film about making peace with the war years, then When a Woman Who Ascends The Stairs is a far more forward-thinking endeavor. In fact, I would say it’s a near-prescient portrait of where Japan has ventured now over 60 years onward.

One lady comments you can still see the old Tokyo but it’s obvious — even the classy scoring and the generally sleek compositions suggest as much — modern society is upon us in full force.

It’s the 1960s built on the bedrock of a post-war economy. In a highly fashionable area like Ginza — renowned even today for its shopping and glamour — the western influence is undeniable. Most of the film doesn’t take place on the main streets, however, but in the back alcoves in the lines of bars hidden away. Even here the American influence is felt with many of the bar names deriving from English.

What’s presented is a different type of life, even as it presents its own fashionable conception of the world.  Mama-san (Hideko Takamine), as she is known by all, is one of the women living in this world. She is a kind of hostess. If it’s a euphemism or not, I can’t entirely say.

Still, her entire existence can be summed up by one early shot. The daunting stairs winding up in front of her toward her work. In a practical sense, they lead up to the bar she frequents every evening dutifully, but Naruse’s shot comes to represent something far more.

I’m not sure if we could call it the stairs toward the glass ceiling exactly, but it is true she enters a new world when she steps into work every day. She must fortify herself. She has an untenable veneer built up over the years.

It braces her to be the perfect hostess to all, balancing her customers’ entreaties and come-ons with the utmost ease and floating from each conversation with impeccable tact. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, she works with her longtime manager and bill collector (Tatsuya Nakadai) trying to eke by paying off the creditors they must rent from.

It’s never a sustainable life. Trying to keep customers happy while getting by on only the smallest of margins. Even a regular, named Minaboe, has started frequenting another place. His absence hurts her business. Thankfully, there is other clientele to work on and so she does her best to keep them happy while never quite acquiescing to their wishes. For 5 years in this tawdry business, she’s kept strong in this regard.

Because this is a film all about sex really, though we never see it outright. And if it is about sex, then it’s only as a commodity, a tool, a bargaining chip to be used. Despite being a story about women giving companionship to men on their business trips and away from their wives, for the longest time, no notion of actual love is developed. This should not catch us by surprise.

It is business first. Mama-san is expected to supply small talk and the girls that work under her flirt with the patrons over drinks. But as Keiko later admits, when she returns to her humbler roots, it’s all a created fabrication. They wear kimonos, buy perfume, and pay for taxis and apartments they can barely afford, way above their paygrade just so they can maintain the fantasy for their obliging audience. Meanwhile, there’s another side, a lot more disheartening and downright heartbreaking.

It’s the undercurrent of Tokyo if you wander into the red district or happen to step outside the confines of the beautifully cultivated exterior. It’s not a lie — all the things in front — but there is so much more to contend with. Love hotels, geishas, and hordes of hostesses to go with them. What do they beget? Among many things suicide, loneliness, and helplessness.

If there is any other film I found myself cycling back to it was actually Imitation of Life, directed by the master of luscious American melodrama Douglas Sirk. It also was about a strong single woman trying to make her way in a world all but dominated by men. If it was true in America, it was even more so in an albeit modernized Japan.

Hideko Takamine faces much of the same struggles as Lana Turner in the movie from a year prior when it comes to her own dreams — in this case, gathering enough funds to open her own bar. The only way to get ahead seems to be settling and giving in to the constant implicit or explicit demands of men. Because they hold the power. Society has certain set expectations. So they must play the game or live a life like hamsters on a wheel, in a constantly spinning wheel of survival.

Turner’s life is equally complicated by her relationship or lack thereof with her daughter (Sandra Dee). But in a manner indicative of Japanese culture, Reiko must deal with a nagging mother and a timid brother who are constantly dependent on her for money. It’s the tug and war between familial duty and what she aspires to.

It starts being a film about love once Mama-san finally relents and opens herself up to be hurt. She’s finally human and loves, and the scenes that evolve out of this development are the film’s most devastating. What makes them even more impactful is how they just keep building off one another, scene after scene. There is no relief in this barrage of pain, rejection, and heartbreak that our heroine is taxed with.

There was a certain continuity created between Hideko Takamine and Masayuki Mori thanks to their work together in Floating Clouds and yet the relationships go still further. She’s proposed to and berated and lied to and loved. And yet at the end of the day, she must put a cap on her emotions and saunter up those same solitary steps and put on the genteel facade expected of her. The final action, the smile on the face, and then the token salutation, a last touch of irony.

Even with its touches of humor, in an expression or a line of dialogue, it’s nowhere close to the campy, technicolor crescendo Sirk cooked up for Imitation of Life. But as Sirk was capable of dissecting American life, I would wager Naruse is equally perceptive and adept when it comes to Japan.

Satire and sarcasm infused in drama do not function in the same manner in Japan. In its place, Naruse commits irrevocably to his story and consequently provides another moving examination of his culture. It has a lot to say about a Japan that still seems to exist to this very day in ever-evolving forms.  Loneliness, suicide, and patriarchal ways are not just specters out of the past; they are alive and well to this day.

My last thought is only this. Setsuko Hara was the first Japanese actress I truly recognized across a body of the work; she was a luminary personality, and Hideko Takamine might be right below her, proving herself to be incomparable in her own right.

The performance she gives her yet again is so potent with the range and verisimilitude to all but carry the picture. She’s spellbinding, beautiful, and simultaneously breaks our hearts with the depth of her vulnerability. I won’t be forgetting it any time soon. Because in one go she effectively represents an entire subset of human beings and imbues them with unmistakable pathos.

4.5/5 Stars

Hell to Eternity (1960): The Story of Guy Gabaldon

Helltoetpos.jpgAs someone of Japanese-American heritage, it’s become a personal preoccupation of mine to search out films that in some way represent the lives of my grandparents and their generation. This means the rich Issei and Nisei communities of Los Angeles, the subsequent internment camps, and even the famed 442nd Infantry Battalion.

Obviously, Hollywood has always had a complicated history with minorities, mirroring broader historical context. Thus, the opening images of Hell to Eternity feel like a bit of a surreal pipe dream — something I’ve looked for a long time and finally discovered. You almost have to pinch yourself into believing the industry actually made this movie.

A young punk (Richard Eyer) and his friend (George Matsui) stare down a trio of thugs who look ready for a fight. Its fitting proof Phil Karlson’s bloody knuckles aesthetic can enter the schoolyard as the two battling adolescence are pulled apart by their physical education instructor (George Shibata)

Japanese-Americans and their culture play a rich and integral part in this biography of celebrated war hero Guy Gabaldon. No, he was not one of them, but he might as well be. Coming from a broken home, his only place to turn is the Une family who gladly welcomes him into their home.

In some small regard, these scenes play out quaintly if not altogether conventional. Guy begins to pick up Japanese quickly and even teaches his benevolent “mama-san” a few terms by pointing to objects around the house. Despite, the stilted acting and out-and-out authenticity aside, the images themselves are powerful. And some background is in order on multiple accounts.

We have George Shibata who was the first Japanese-American graduate out of West Point. Then, Tsuru Aoki was one of the premier stars of the Silent Era even before Sessue Hayakawa. But the connections run deeper still because due to their Hollywood roots and the anti-miscegenation laws at the time, Aoki and Hayakawa wedded and remained married until her death in 1961.

The slightly older George is played by an extremely youthful George Takai. Meanwhile, there’s further Japanese-American representation in Papa-san, Bob Okazaki, and the likes of Reiko Sato and Miiko Taka.

It should be noted the Unes are some sort of amalgam of the real-life Nakano family whose son Lane fought in the 442nd and later become a short-lived actor in the likes of Go For Broke! and Japanese War Bride (1953). All of these basic details are based on fact.

However, with this necessary context in tow, it’s about time to turn our attention to the man himself who held such a unique background in his own right. Because make no mistake, Guy Gabaldon is certainly worthy of the biopic treatment even if a picture like this can’t quite do the man justice. That’s fine.

Although what it develops into is an unwieldy drama and having Jeffrey Hunter portray Gulbadon is one of the most hilarious examples of overstated Hollywood casting.  It feels like having John Wayne play Audie Murphy. However, what Hunter lacks in similar likeness and physique, he more than makes up for by capturing the resiliency of his subject. He offers believable candor and the embodiment of American exceptionalism.

Allied Artists was a B movie mill and Hell for Eternity was their wealthiest, most expansive undertaking to date, with their number one moneymaker on assignment: industry workhorse Phil Karlson. In one sense, Karlson seems well-equipped for some elements and then woefully disadvantaged for others.

Hell to Eternity proves itself to be wildly uneven because without jumping the gun, the opening scenes are quietly revolutionary and truly unprecedented when you consider Hollywood’s track record. Then, there’s a shift as his family is unceremoniously shipped out to internment camps, and you have Guy rushing to every branch of the service only to be rebuffed at every turn. Still, his remarkable qualifications — namely his Japanese abilities — gain him an in-road.

We also have the introduction of his buddies. Despite getting off on the wrong foot, Sergeant Bill Hazen (David Janssen) proves himself to be an intense adversary and an even fiercer companion. As they foster mutual respect and camaraderie, it becomes evident he’s the type of buddy you want in your corner. And if he’s too intense, the swinging, snapping, undulating lady’s man, Junior (Vic Damone), more than brings the party.

It’s around this time where the film reimagines itself as what could easily be considered an entirely different movie. The midpoint in Hawaii has them left entirely to their own devices with one glorious night of freedom out on the town before they ship out. Not to be disappointed, they are treated to a titillating striptease show, courtesy of Sato, with the steamy hot jazz cutting through the night. The men cheer on the women with a rueful round of inebriated leering.

Where does this all end? How does this tie into Guy Gulbandon’s story; in short, it doesn’t. What does happen is the softening of the so-called “Iron Petticoat,” a woman journalist, who has gained notoriety for her prudish ways. It’s by far the most cringe-worthy sequence as Ms. Lincoln (Patricia Owens) lets her hair down, as it were.

What follows is a barrage of lingering shots over heels, tights, legs — you get the salacious idea — and from a distance, we can admit to it being fairly risque for the 1960s. It becomes amusement for their entire company. The woman’s impregnable defenses have finally been conquered. Whatever that means.

However, with a few abrupt cuts the whole meaning of these scenes is almost salvaged. Effectively, there is no interim. We get thrown directly into the campaign and their wild bender of an evening is only a distant memory as they cut their way across the shores toward the enemy embankments.

Even as Karlson isn’t able to make every crosscut of action fundamentally compelling, he’s far more in his element amid the volatility and constant barrage of bullets and bodies. What felt initially so quietly groundbreaking and devolved into needless exhibitionism, finally settles into his forte.

Here he can dig knee-deep into the nitty-gritty and give us something that packs a wallop. Hell to Eternity is a lot less sanitized than I would have surmised, especially given its era. However, there is no mincing when it comes to what we are privy to on the simulated battlefield. He capably mobilized thousands of extras from Okinawa for some of the most spectacular scenes where the large scale is matched with tumultuous elements of very intimate trauma.

And even as the skirmishes settle into a kind of chaotic equilibrium, Galbadon — using his Japanese skills — earns his moniker as the “Pied Piper of Taipei.” Using the talents he’s been gifted by his incredible upbringing, he does his best to coax the already cowed but testy enemy to surrender using their native tongue.

The one figurehead emblematic of the proud foe is portrayed by Sessue Hayakawa, emulating his similar role from Bridge on the River Kwai as a derisive Japanese officer. Once Galbadon can conquer him, he’s all but won the fight behind enemy lines. More than anything, I’m disappointed in the fact that we never circle back around to his adopted family nor the exploits of his brothers. Still, for more context, Go For Broke! plays as a decent companion piece about the 442nd.

So although it’s an imperfect and often befuddling vehicle, Guy Gulbadon was a hero more than worthy of a biopic. Regardless of any faults, Hell to Eternity is bristling with not only action but specific depictions of a historical time and place that often remain overshadowed in Hollywood to this day. It’s been one of my missions to discover more representations of Japanese-Americans in American cinema, and in this regard, Hell to Eternity is a stirring success. It can’t help but be groundbreaking even in spite of its unassuming nature. I look up at the screen and there’s a personal connection.

3.5/5 Stars

Winchester 73 (1950): James Stewart The Western Antihero

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Winchester 73 has the initially dubious reputation of being a portmanteau western. Whether or not this is a one-of-a-kind distinction, any number of popular culture vehicles have employed the device in often gimmicky fashion. It makes for a La Ronde-esque sitcom episode in a pinch.

However, this James Stewart-Anthony Mann collaboration succumbs to no such fate. It’s positively stuffed with quality talent and vignettes woven quite closely together. There is a compounding weight to them even as characters both minor and substantial all but stand on their own two feet.

Equally compelling is Anthony Mann’s usual dynamism — continued from his film noir days — and also the very specific mise-en-scene he develops. The opening shot behind the credit is an exquisite first impression with a pair of silhouettes trodding along the ridge in a perfect arc off into the distance. It’s a type of instant exposition in the most primal sense: two men riding toward their unseen destination.

The two strangers sidle into town, the hard-bitten gentleman Linn McAdams (Stewart) and his trusty sidekick (Millard Mitchell), who takes a calculated stance on just about everything. We know they’ve seen a lot of the world together and all sorts of people…

One of them just happens to be Dutch Henry Brown (Stephan McNally, who they happen on in the local watering hole. In another western, guns at the ready, they would have obliterated each other on the spot. However, in this picture, where a fairly obstinate rein of law and order rules, they are forced to bide their time outside the watchful eye of the city limits.

Will Geer does surprisingly well as a wry and affable Wyatt Earp. His characterization is just personal enough to take some of the mystique out of the legend and make him into a real human being we can appreciate in relatable terms.

But these scenes are a mere setup for a whole slew of encounters. It’s as if we lose our characters for a time as McAdams and High-Spade ride along the trail. However, Mann has a lot of fertile material to work with.

It transcends the simple conceit and builds into a genuine story rife with conflict, both personal and circumstantial. The story obliges by rolling over on itself as it continues to introduce new players at its own leisure.

In one roadside establishment, an insouciant horse trader (John McIntire) sits at the table playing solitaire. He sits by ready to play middle man to the Indians emboldened by Crazy Horse’s victory at the Little Bighorn, while gladly supplying Dutch Henry and his cronies desperately-needed weapons of their own.

It just so happens a Winchester becomes a fine bargaining piece. And yet even a secondary character like him is provided subtext. A man like him — a purported half breed — is deemed as an outsider by two nations.

Certainly, the Indians always carry the subjugated and degraded station in the western. Winchester 73 has its own issues assuredly, starting with Rock Hudson playing a Native American. However, the one equalizer is the universal avarice for the Winchester Rifle. Everyone wants it; some even to the point of death.

Other involved parties are a couple fleeing for their lives — a forthright woman with a gleam in her eye (Shelley Winters) and her craven man (Charles Drake). Alongside our heroes, they find some shelter in the company of a cavalry unit pinned down by the same Indians (a youthful Tony Curtis among them). Their leader, a crusty old vet (Jay C. Flippen), is astute enough to take advice from the men around him, and they make a valiant defense of their position to live another day.

It’s about this point in time where a viewer might realize we still have yet to see that perennial sleazy scene-stealer Dan Duryea and he makes his auspicious entrance as his usually snide gunman, the left-handed Waco Johnnie Dean pinned down in a farmhouse with his gang. There’s more hell to pay.

The glorious fact is how the film peaks at so many points. We have the battle over the rifle’s rightful owner in town, first, through competition then treachery. What follows is a Custer-like resistance with far better results, a homestead hostage standoff against authorities, the makings of a bank robbery, and, of course, the ultimate showdown on a craggy rock face.

These moments are easy to acknowledge because they are so prolific but what makes these exclamation points are the very fact the script knocked out by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards and as executed by the actors and its director, finds the time for conversation, lulls, and lit cigarettes.

By no means does it search out the utterly stylized extremes of Sergio Leone, but it understands the same dramatic gradient. Action means so much more if we have time and space to truly appreciate its impact.

What also matters are the stakes at play. Thankfully, Winchester ’73 makes itself about more than just a gun. A gun is a stand-in and indication of any number of grievances and human vices. It brings out all the issues already in play.

James Stewart was still fairly fresh off WWII. He was a different man from the gee-shucks everyman — more complicated and torn than he had ever been before. The films he made upon his return had yet to truly catch fire until Winchester ’73. It was a portent and signaled a true resurgence for the actor. Joining with the likes of Mann and Hitchcock, he very effectively redefined his image in a fundamentally intriguing way.

He became a man of vengeance with goodness soured by hate and desires tainted by darkness. When you look into his eyes in any of the number of pictures he made with Mann and Hitch, you begin to recognize something else. It’s not unadulterated innocence or even indignance. His eyes now burn with fury and genuine malice. His hands are calloused, comfortable cramming bullets into the stock of his gun. Because he’s not afraid of using it.

Reconsidering the mise-en-scene, it’s a joy to watch how Mann handles shots in such a blistering manner. But there is also a closeness and with it a violent intimacy to his direction. One scene might have a sleepy-eyed cowboy all but stretched out in the foreground as the camera peers over him into a cabin as two men converse.

Then, we have a bar room mauling in the most claustrophobic manner. Foreheads sweating, bodies writhing in palpable pain, and blood-vessels bulging with rage. It’s astounding how the man’s films almost inevitably feature such images and yet, despite their prevalence, I never grow tired of them.

They put many more technical or cashed-out sequences to shame because what is not scrimped on is the very transparent humanity in its most righteous and ugly iterations. Mann understands that there is not only primacy in the images of the West — we often think rolling plains and panoramas — but the western would mean nothing without morality. Hard unyielding codes, or a lack thereof, warring against each other. Where do these originate from if not the hearts and souls of men?

What Winchester ’73 hints at is how even a man like James Stewart can be consumed by demons. Over the course of a film, a story of a mere rifle, repeatedly develops character until it settles on something splitting right to his core identity. The beauty is in how swatches of dialogue, interweaving character arcs, and splashes of light and dark help in illustrating his singular journey.

This was the first in a thoroughly distinguished partnership between the western’s newfound antihero, Stewart, and one of the genres unsung mavericks in Mann. It just might be the best of the batch, which is saying something.

4.5/5 Stars

Departures (2008): Agents for The Dead

Okuribito_(2008)One could choose any number of labels to attempt categorizing Departures. It’s a film indebted to the rapturous compositions of the past. It shares elements akin to any police procedural ever made or for that matter, the veterinary antics from a British gem like All Creatures Great and Small.

They are admittedly disparate reference points, but they seem fitting given Departures subject matter. No, not a travel agency as our main character Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) supposes.

The job title of NK Agent, picked out of the local ad section, relates to something entirely different. They take care of the dear departed — that is — they work with dead bodies.  There’s the aloof veteran trained in all facets of the trade and the young newcomer aching to prove himself.

Each case brings with it, its own unique complications. It’s not a common art nor one that is held in much regard. But as the film explores over time, it plays a crucial role in a society that must grapple with death and bid adieu to loved ones like everyone else.

In his former life, Kobayashi had a position of repute. The Greeks might have liked him. He didn’t denigrate himself with toil and sweat as much as the common man. He was an artist; a cellist to be exact, and he brings joy to the masses and swelling pride to his devoted wife Mika (Ryōko Hirosue). The only problem is no one is showing up to their concerts and so the orchestra is unceremoniously dissolved.

In keeping with spousal protocol, Mika stays supportive and suggests they move to his old family home in the country where they might live for free as he figures his affairs out. But as one who is even only minorly familiar with Japanese culture, there is an inkling something else dwells hidden from view — just waiting to reveal itself.

Daigo answers a job description on a whim and finds himself greeted by the quizzical secretary (Kimiko Yo) and a boss (Tsutomu Yamazaki) who has an unorthodox manner of doing business, especially in such a highly methodical, procedure-heavy culture like Japan.

Needless to say, the new hopeful sits down for about two seconds and comes home with the job and his first bonus. It’s a hilarious initial interaction setting their relationship in stark relief. We like his workplace for how very unique it is. Because these people feel like they might easily be punchlines and nothing more, and yet we grow to appreciate them even as Kobayashi remains our protagonist.

This is what Departures is able to manage. It’s drama but never squeamish about utilizing comedy. Take, for instance, the moment he’s called on to play a cadaver in his senpai’s sponsor spot or when he throws up in the presence of a particularly grizzly undertaking. In the aftermath, some schoolgirls comment on the rancid smell on the bus leading him to take an expedient trip to the local bathhouse to clean up.

But in contrast, Departures is full of all kinds of emotion and soft strings of pathos, whether hyper-realized or not. In between the lines are complications and relationships wrought with both warmth and the tension of lives shaped by regret. The best moments are unspoken, reflected by totems or actions. The handling of a weathered stone, the heart-rending notes of a cello, and certainly the ceremonial burying of bodies.

Even the moment where Daigo must fess up and tell his wife what he’s really been up to, it tears her apart; she’s so very ashamed that he would take part in something so defiling. It bores into the heart of this narrative.

Because to its very essence, the movie not only puts words to a very archaic Japanese art no one wants to acknowledge, it also supplies a space in which to grapple with death and how we grieve — how we let our loved ones go into the great beyond.

Since the dawn of man, it has been a prevalent theme throughout the ballads and religious convictions of mankind, whatever the background. Even a basic deist like Ben Franklin noted that the only things we may count on are “death and taxes.”

Egyptians were embalmed for a future afterlife with relics now found in the British Museum for us all to fawn over. Norse heroes dreamed of Vahala, a place to glory over their valorous feats with their countrymen.

Christians believe in not simply an afterlife but a new heaven and new earth where this current world, with all its flaws, will pass away. On a cursory level, varying strains of Buddhism and Hinduism often delve into issues of rebirth in further pursuit of nirvana or enlightenment.

For Japan, in particular, death is so closely tied to family. Rather like Latin culture, there is this extension of the family unit reaching out into the great unknown where saying goodbye and keeping constant communications with dead ancestors is a part of culture, albeit a dying art.

Taking stock of these themes, it makes sense many have decried the film for its sentimentalities. Yes, there are touches of the saccharine, but what resonated with me most was something else. When it counted most, Departures managed to be a delicate drama in a manner suited to Japanese society where quiet strength is prized and benign tranquility highly sought.

And if you guess the plot points — not an altogether difficult task — it means very little to me. Because for many meaningful movies, these narrative elements are only employed to hang your hat on. What really matters are the characters, the emotions they exude, and whether or not they can reach out to the audience and induce a reaction.

Departures was such a film for me. One of the miracles of life is finding some semblance of humor in the darkest, saddest parts. Death is undoubtedly one of these. However, it begins with coming to peace with the future. Knowing that we were made for something more than this world of ours. We are not destined to be creatures of death, but creatures of life. Of course, that’s only one man’s opinion. We all deal with departures differently.

4/5 Stars

Whisper of The Heart (1995): Take Me Home Concrete Road

Whisper_of_the_Heart_(Movie_Poster).jpgWhisper of The Heart is wholeheartedly a Japanese anime and yet learning John Denver’s “Country Roads” holds a relatively substantial place in the plotline might catch some off guard. After all, as the metropolitan imagery establishes our setting, we hear a version of the song playing against the bevy of passersby, cars, and convenience stores.

Director Yoshifumi Kondō boasts animation both simple and clean yet ever so attractive for those very same reasons. It positively glows with nostalgic yellow hues and employs anime’s preoccupations with the most intricate details — moths drawn to a light being just one prime example.

When I lived in Japan, I became fascinated by foreign music and how it gained a foothold in the country. You only have to look to jazz, The Ventures, The Carpenters, or Mariah Carey to see how deep their imprint is on the collective culture. The same goes for John Denver who made tours of Japan on several occasions.

But whereas musicians often become icons, sometimes Japan cultivates an environment where nuggets of culture can take on a life of their own. This theme serves as a perfect breeding ground for Ghibli’s classic coming of age story.

Shizuku is, at her heart, a spunky and feisty heroine with the kinds of hope and aspirations that often seem buried in a very restrained culture like Japan. In her middle school existence, an unknown person named Amasawa becomes an almost mythic figure in her life as they have checked out all the books she’s so voraciously eaten up in her nascent but ambitious literary odyssey.

They look to be a kindred spirit. It takes a fortuitous meeting with a commuting cat on the JR line to sustain her adventure. The disaffected animal leads her to a Secret Garden of sorts. This one is not found in nature but in the home of a delightful old man.

Because Whisper of The Heart is full of the blushing love of adolescence in its many tangles found throughout the student body. It’s no different in Japan, at least on the emotional level, or for that matter, the utter denseness of the male sex.

But it’s also a very particular world where dwarves and fairies can coexist with the mundane elements of everyday life. Shizuku comes to realize this when she reaches the end of her adventure — the peculiar second-hand shop cluttered with clocks, violins, and shiny doodads of all shapes and sizes. It’s run by a genteel proprietor who also happens to relate to her not so fictitious phantom: Amasawa.

This looks to be the working of Hayao Miyazaki behind the scenes because no matter how mundane we might perceive the world to be, he’s always allowing for bits of magic to seep in and liven up our existences. Implicitly, he always seems to be suggesting we need the richness of our imagination girded around us to make the most out of life.

He also employs the most amicable cultural appropriation, turning Denver’s down-home “Country Roads” into a lively, bright-eyed violin jam session in a Tokyo back parlor. It’s the strangest incarnation of the song I could have ever imagined and yet somehow it manages to be apropos. I only need to remember pop instrumentals of “Daydream Believer” during my former days frequenting 7-Eleven’s in Tokyo. It fits the aesthetic.

But back to Shizuku. Her newfound companion dreams of being a Violin maker and going off to apprentice in Italy. Not to be outdone, she wants to write stories. She’s charged with empowerment and then the subsequent doubts ambushing anyone who’s ever endeavored for such a thing. I am reminded of the artistic encouragement churned up by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien that blessed the world over with two of the most formidable fantasy worlds: Middle Earth and Narnia.

Because we need people who will gladly court our ideas, gives us encouragement, and supply even the brief inkling that our passing daydreams are not complete balderdash. If they provide enjoyment or engage with beauty or goodness for just one person, perhaps even this makes them entirely worthwhile.

The sagely old man charges Shizuku that craftsmanship of any kind is never perfect. But we must begin. We need to start somewhere. To pilfer the film’s own metaphor, we are all unburnished stones waiting to be polished to the point of perfection. There’s the necessity of time and effort to make it work. The diamond must be pulverized. The brass burnished. The grain sent through the thresher. 

Again, Miyazaki’s imprint is all over the picture because he is always and forever the spinner of benevolent fairy tales paired with creative inspiration. His avid imagination never ceases to mesmerize. Surely there are lots of magical beings, soaring through the air, lands full of castles and kings, and yet the seat of it all is found in the revelation these very things can exist in our everyday reality. They need not be distant. Far off lands can come to meet us, be it through books or writing, music, or people with memories that extend far beyond what we see and know.

It’s easy for me to laud Whisper of The Heart for being timeless. Yes, we see word processors, a dearth of cell phones, more antiquated train services, and yet so much of the interactions, the yearnings, and the derivations are universal.

I must turn my attention only to the sound of cicadas, the warning bell near the train tracks, or the clink of a mailbox at the front door. They are so basic, so unextraordinary, and yet they sound so familiar. To my ears, they remain almost comforting. Because this movie is comfort food, whether you fancy udon or steak and potatoes.

Full of warmth. Love. Longing. Passion. Miyazaki and Ghibli have captivated the world over with such sensations. Yoshifumi Kondō more than proved himself capable of eliciting this same type of wonder. It’s only a shame he was not able to give us more films. But there only needs to be one solitary act of creation to leave an impression. Whisper of The Heart is an unassuming monument to his career.

4/5 Stars

A Foreign Affair (1948): Billy Wilder and Post-War Germany

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What A Foreign Affair offers is a curious mix of Billy Wilder’s brand of gleeful satire with docudrama. In this regard, it stands alongside the likes of The Search (1948) as one of the earliest American films to explore the world of post-war Europe with so much rebuilding to do both physically and emotionally. It plays as a precursor to One, Two, Three (1961) certainly, offering contemporary observations of the new world order. Still, one cannot even consider these films without acknowledging Wilder’s own background.

He was an exile from Nazi Germany who was welcomed into the American film industry with a myriad of emigre filmmakers, who, subsequently, helped fashion Hollywood into the worldwide powerhouse it would become. He was eternally grateful but never allowed that to totally cow his pointed barbs aimed at America’s inherent flaws.

During the dwindling days of the war, he even served with the Psychological Warfare Department to help develop propaganda material about the concentration camps. His time abroad and the securing of funding launched A Foreign Affair as his latest project.

In the opening moments, a Senate Committee is preparing to make their official visit to observe the current climate. The script’s aims are twofold, setting up the story while also bringing audiences up to speed about the bombed-out world below.

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Jean Arthur is more repressed than she’s ever been in her life with some license for her typical comedic chops written in as the narrative progresses. For now, she is a methodical taskmaster very cognizant of her constituents’ tax dollars. Perhaps we need more like her, but for the butt of a comedy, she’s an easy target. The congresswoman entreats her venerable colleagues that they must eradicate moral malaria once and for all as she’s increasingly wary of what they might uncover.

Col Rufus J. Plummer (Millard Mitchell) shows them the sights, stroking his cheek with bemusement (a recurring gag), as he catches everyone up on current events with his wry bent. Meanwhile, serving under him is Captain John Pringle (John Lund), one of the brave boys from home who has taken it upon himself to help rebuild the new world order on the liberating tenets of capitalism.

His typical hobbies include fraternizing with black marketeers to haggle for mattresses using chocolate cakes as collateral. As it turns out, it’s for a girl who drops her key out of the window every time he honks the horn of his jeep. Suddenly the film’s title has become an overt double entendre, and we have our movie.

John Lund is not without charisma and yet somehow the way he goes about this characterization feels all wrong. There’s nary an ounce of genuine charm conjured up by his faux tough-guy persona. It seems ill-fitting. At least he was likable in The Mating Season. Here he can barely hold a candle to the luminary talents of Marlene Dietrich and Jean Arthur no matter how different they might be.

As the Americans make the rounds on their carefully curated sightseeing tour, the representative from Iowa is positively scandalized by all the soldiers with their German gals. She makes a brazen decision, going undercover and winding up at a Hofbrau with a couple of lug head G.I.s,, posing as a reticent German fraulein named Gezeuinheidt.

In the process, she gets the poop on the sultry songstress formerly purported to be in cahoots with Goebbels or Gohring — one or the other. Her gabby companions surmise she still has big brass running interference for her. They’re not too far off and her Phoebe’s detective work brings her even higher up on the totem pole. The very top actually. The Fuhrer himself.

In danger of being ousted in his little arrangement, Captain Pringle starts romancing the congresswoman to keep her off the trail. If the dilemma’s not already obvious, it becomes even clearer in time.

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Unfortunately, A Foreign Affair drags a bit in the middle, and the plot doesn’t always maintain the usual self-assured zip of a typical Wilder picture. There are lulls and distractions, which can be enjoyable in their own right, though hardly bolstering the drama. The core issue is a lack of emotional investment in the characters. I love Jean Arthur to death, but her role flip flops too easily on its axle. Dietrich is striking as she ever was, but, again, she is larger-than-life, while the contours of the role itself feel ill-defined and uninteresting. At the very least, the stars the one making it worth it.

There was some talk that Dietrich got all the attention and the favoritism of from her director. And it’s true that she is beguiling even in this latter portion of her career. Arthur felt undercut. It starts with how the script is laid out. However, as she becomes more daring and uninhibited, one could argue Arthur gets the most out of her performance, even down to her always hilarious facial expressions.

Certainly, the camera loves Marlene Dietrich, her sleepy eyes, the husky yet sensual quality to her singing voice. That was her persona. Still, she’s the one playing mistress to an ex-Nazi so that’s not exactly the most flattering part.

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Consequently, the denouement doesn’t quite sit right with me. It feels like a muddled conclusion where events just happen, winding up in a manner that tacks on a convenient rom-com ending, instead of leaving us with something that feels truly cynical in the vein you grow accustomed to with the director.

What’s most compelling is the intersection of Billy Wilder and the world of post-war Berlin. Others could have told this story, but he seems uniquely positioned to offer a very personal perspective. The curious clashing of his typical tone of trenchant comedy somehow matched with the war-torn panorama. And there are intermittent moments where this is the case.

Namely, how he’s not squeamish about showing the aftermath, nor poking the beehive of Nazism with his stick. In one scene a heel-clacking father is having trouble with his little tyke who can’t stop habitually chalking swastikas on everything. For a brief moment, we are given a reprieve and license to laugh at such a horrible ideology. It’s almost cathartically hilarious.

In another scene, Colonel Plummer notes in passing how there is rubble of all kinds, be it mineral, vegetable, or animal. We know it to be true, but what an opportunity it would have been to see more of it. I’m reminded of the scenes in the Hofbrau with song and dance and cigarette smoke or the bombed-out streets crowded with black marketeering types. I recognize these are spliced together scenes between Berlin and a Hollywood backdrop.

But this is the exact reality that feels like such a ripe birthing ground for Wilder’s comedy. I never thought I’d be the one to say this; the roots of his romantic comedy all but got in the way of what could have been.

3.5/5 Stars

The Lost Weekend (1945) and Alcohol The Femme Fatale

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It might be a futile exercise but at least for a brief moment, I will attempt to get back into the headspace from when I first came upon Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. I was younger then. Bright-eyed and a budding cinephile. It is the film that defined Ray Milland’s entire filmography for me as I had never seen another one of his pictures (although Dial M for Murder followed soon thereafter).

Now I understand the crucial context. To say Ray Milland is defined by The Lost Weekend is analogous to attributing Anthony Perkins’s entire persona to Norman Bates and Psycho. You wouldn’t be wrong but in order to understand this inference, you have to understand how the viewing public viewed them in the moment. They were matinee idols and boys-next-door. They fit in comedies and as youthful love interests.

It takes a subversive and inventive mind like a Wilder or a Hitchcock to take the inherent expectations provided by an actor only to toy with the audience. Milland, in his early years, could be defined by the likes of Easy Living or The Major and The Minor. Even noir like Ministry of Fear and The Big Clock, though clouded by menace, rely on the inherent likeability of our hero thrown into trauma though he maybe.

The Lost Weekend was an unequivocal gamble for Milland, in particular, and history has proven to be on his side. He gamely throws himself wholeheartedly into the drama, and it pays heavy dividends.

Don Birnam (Milland) is a struggling novelist with a persistent drinking habit. He’s playing at being reformed, about to go on a trip to the country with his pragmatic brother, but just out of sight and out of reach is a bottle. He’s still beholden to the stuff. It’s a hidden cache of security just in case he needs a nip.

His concerned girlfriend (Jane Wyman) has the cutest way of remedying their height disparity when it comes to kissing (bend down). Even as I’ve gained a more full-bodied impression of Ray Milland, I would like to believe I’ve also reappraised the stardom of Wyman with newfound respect.

She’s not merely an ironic Sirkian pawn in melodrama. During the bulk of the 1940s, she more than asserted herself as a quality performer.  In retrograde, the likes of The Yearling and Johnny Belinda show an extraordinary range, redefining how I perceive her for the better. The Lost Weekend exhibits her at her most likable while still being bolstered with personal resolve.

This is evident even as her boyfriend so quickly falls into outrage as if the people who love him most are turning against him. It all plays as a symptom of the real problem. He feels hemmed in or could it be the withdrawals from the alcohol crying out?

Regardless, the theremin has never used as effectively to denote menace in such a different context than the ubiquitous Sci-Fi trope it would soon become. Because one bottle is snatched away and yet it’s simply indicative of a far more pervasive problem. Don has stashed alcohol all over his apartment in the most ingenious hiding places though his brother is equally adept at hide and seek.The premises are really and truly dry. That is until the cleaning woman unwittingly tips him off to $10 he can splurge on. He’s up for a perilous road ahead.

John Seitz photographs the drama like a brooding noir, and it is as if alcohol — the siren on the shelf — is the deadly fatale entrapping Ray Milland in its web. His girlfriend even goes so far as to label the “other woman” and confidently intimates she’s not going to go down without a fight; she’ll help him beat it and keep Birnham for her own.

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Eventually, he succumbs to a bender of a weekend, caught as he is within his own self-exile. What becomes so very evident is how isolating addiction becomes. His only confidante is the local bartender (Howard da Silva in an uncharacteristically sympathetic part).

As Don spirals back into his destructive habit, he recounts how he managed to meet a girl like Helen even in the throes of his alcoholism. There he was sitting in the theater like a fine thespian and yet he couldn’t get it out of his mind. Even the play reminds him of the bottle he has in his jacket pocket, currently stashed out in the coat check. It proved a fortuitous evening as his petulant first impression gave way to charms that won his girl over.

However, it is a portent of all his recurring troubles. The want of liquor leads him into distancing himself from the community just so he can get alone with his bottle. Companionship seems so much more vital and yet we tell ourselves backward lies to rationalize our decisions.

He is a man who suffers from the age-old affliction of Jekyll and Hyde syndrome. He even admits there are two sides to his persona. The man about town with a charming public persona, and then the other Don Birnam. The drunk who remains a tortured writer.

He hits the pits of despair, wandering the streets, desperately looking to hock his belongings for one last satiating drink — even a handout if he can get it. But that’s the lie, isn’t it? Just one more time and we’ll reform. Just one more and never again. We gather together the willpower for an hour, a day, a week, a month, until it comes back with a vengeance.

Birnham’s life is indicative of a whole caste of society. The silent and the forgotten in dark rooms and lonely bouts of aggravation. His brother has turned his back, and he won’t respond to his girlfriend. It quite literally feels like a little slice of hell.

The film makes one harrowing detour to an archaic-looking drunk ward where a sardonic Frank Faylen takes care of the jittery new arrival inside the booze tank. He’s confident Birnham will be a regular customer soon enough. It feels like a harsh and unfeeling extension of the world.

For some, The Lost Weekend might be a tempered now antiquated exploration of alcoholism firmly planted in the past. However, I would like to push against this preconception slightly.

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Wilder purportedly penned the piece with his writer partner, Charles Brackett, as a way to explore his relationship with Raymond Chandler and how alcoholism affected their art — the processes of a writer being derailed by drink.  So in this regard, it too is personal and yet about as universal as a picture can be. There is this obvious duality of art and alcohol where one impacts the other in highly detrimental ways.

Wilder’s not always known as a technical director but, if nothing else, he surrounds himself with competent people. A couple names that come to mind in this picture, in particular, are cinematographer John Seitz and then his editor Doane Harrison.

One is reminded of the shots of the overturned lamp repeatedly reflecting the shambles of Birnham’s current life, derailed by drunkenness as it is. In another, it’s Milland’s eyeball spinning psychotically inside its socket. He’s more alive than Marion Crane on the bathroom floor, but we can hardly deign to call this life.

Each of these elements, even the more blatant evocations of his delusions, illustrates the torment of human beings stricken by addiction. It saps our creativity and our energy. It can take away a want for relationships and, in some cases, our desire to live.

The Lost Weekend is a reminder sometimes we need to enter into the storm of our struggles so we might come out on the other side. When you’ve hit rock bottom, the tap is dry, and your body is shaking, the only place to go is up.

However, sometimes we’re not strong enough to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Grit, determination, and resolve only get us so far. We have nothing left. We’re broken, alone, destitute.  Utterly defeated. It’s in this place of helplessness when we are forced to look outside of ourselves…to something or someone else. To reclaim all that is lost and be found again.

4.5/5 Stars

The Major and The Minor (1942) and The Taking of Sudan

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Billy Wilder obviously got his start in screenwriting but much like Preston Sturges before him, he desperately wanted creative control to sculpt the vision of the meticulous scripts he helped forge with writing partner (and producer) Charles Brackett.

He got his breakout chance with The Major and The Minor and hardly squandered the opportunity. This might sound silly and high-minded given the plot of the picture:  a young woman posing as a child to claim half-fare on the train to her home state with ensuing complications…

However, the film flows not only out of the script but the execution and total commitment to the gag by Ginger Rogers. At first, it seems like a curious decision. She went from lavish musicals and heady drama to something so zany. Even today her legacy is first and foremost galvanized out of the magic she created on taps with her legendary partner Fred Astaire.

And yet, she took a chance on the neophyte because he had charisma and a gentlemanly manner, and she wholeheartedly believed in his talents. If you take a look at his trajectory after The Major and The Minor, her observations were very well-founded. From these promising albeit still humble beginnings, Billy Wilder shot to the top of Hollywood remaining one of its premier storytellers for decades.

It comes down to his almost holistic approach to comedy and drama. Somehow they become one and the same, tackled with the same gleeful, frequently trenchant wit no matter the subject matter.

This one begins with a typically pointed tagline: “The Dutch bought New York from The Indians in 1626 and by May 1941 there wasn’t an Indian left who regretted it.”

To put the statement in context, we get to know jaded and long-suffering Susan Applegate (Rogers) as she pays a visit to her latest client for a reinvigorating scalp treatment. Everyone including the bellboy gives her a whistle or a fresh word. It’s little better meeting Albert Osborne (Robert Benchley) as he offers her a martini, and she retaliates with an egg shampoo. While she maintains her business-like demeanor, he begins to flirt, mix martinis, and tell a string of increasingly lame cracks, making her fume.

It’s the final straw. She’s had it with the Big Apple and is now prepared to catch the first train back to the welcoming cornfields of her native Iowa. Here’s the catch. They’ve upped the fare, and she doesn’t have the funds to cut it. This calls for a creative solution.

All these types of screwy comedies have to involve some harebrained scheme, the type of fodder made to order for some of the best I Love Lucy episodes. In a similar manner, what is a screwball comedy without a train?

Since she can’t swing a ticket back to her hometown, she dreams up the wackiest solution. Pose as a child… It’s just about as outlandish as it sounds and looks just as strange.

Ginger goes into the Women’s Lounge and comes out a certified bobby soxer no doubt ready to swoon over Frank Sinatra. It becomes increasingly evident we are witnessing a forerunner to Some Like it Hot, as she pulls off the shenanigan with the help of a purloined balloon, a willing accomplice, and an extra high-pitched tone.

As an added alibi for the conductors, she fibs being of Scandinavian stock even speaking Swedish like the great Garbo (“I Want to Be Alone”). Wouldn’t you know, they catch her smoking underage, setting up the obligatory chase scene giving way to the ever-necessary meet-cute.

Enter Ginger Rogers into Ray Milland’s compartment. In a film crammed with cringe-worthy awkwardness, it has to be one of the definitive moments. To his credit, Milland does the storyline a service by committing to the setup in all earnestness. It’s possible to accept his candor, in various moments, chiding her for using her spare change to buy sweets or stumbling through “The Facts of Life.”

He legitimately believes this is a young girl he’s happened upon and treats her accordingly, even as the irony sets in. His one footfall is failing to defend her better against the ravenous boys under his tutelage.

Because he is a military man with a sterling record who, nevertheless, feels stuck in his current post at the military academy. His fiancee’s daddy is his commanding officer and Pamela (Rita Johnson) is used to having everything her way. So when she comes aboard the train to welcome her man home, boy, is she surprised to see another “woman” in his room (unbeknownst to him, of course). In jealous retribution, she sends a tray full of breakfast clattering into his face, which is more worthy of a few hearty chortles. The game is afoot now.

“Susu” as she’s now called is able to smooth things over while maintaining her cover and keeping the good major from public disgrace. As a reward, she gets to experience all the pleasures and perils of Wallace Military Institute, including Rita’s baby sister. However, the aspiring Madame Curie named Lucy, though initially skeptical becomes a willing accomplice in the other “girl’s” ever-evolving plans.

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What begins as a fundamental story of escape morphs into a mission of mercy to salvage the life of Phillip Kirby from soul-crushing mediocrity. On his behalf, “Susu” weathers an army of handsy young Cadette Adjutants, who have been trained in, among other things, “The Taking of Sudan,” a handy piece of history if you want to kanoodle.

Using her beguiling feminine wiles to her advantage, Applegate tries to snag the switchboard to send an outbound phone call to get Uncle Phillip’s orders altered. Not only does her ineptitude throw the camp into an uproar; she also raises suspicions.

It only makes sense that the academy’s ball is a space for everything to implode. But first, we must take a moment to acknowledge what a peculiar pairing it is having all the kiddos dancing with Ginger Rogers. Again, she takes it like a sport sans feathery boa or suave dance partner.

Although this is the least of her worries. Something is fated to go awry. It comes in the form of a ticking time bomb of a man who finds little Susu very familiar indeed. The final act falls heavily on the shoulders of the leads’ charismatic powers to rescue it from utter triteness.

Since I’ve been in the habit of mentioning Wilder in the same breath with Preston Sturges as of late, it’s fitting enough to note how The Major and The Minor steals liberally from The Lady Eve‘s playbook. In the end, the after-hours military maneuvers and “The Taking of Sudan” are its own contributions to the screwball genre courtesy of Brackett and Wilder.

3.5/5 Stars

The Palm Beach Story (1942): Another Screwy Sturges Freight Train

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“After you’re married… That’s a funny thing to hear your wife say!” – Joel McCrea as Tom Jeffers

All the timeless Preston Sturges pictures have the pace of a freight train barreling down the tracks in loop de loops and figure eights. The Prologue of The Palm Beach Story sets up a raucous race to make it to a wedding ceremony involving a bride and a groom…and a woman tied up… It’s gone in a blink. Hold that thought.

Cut to present. There’s Franklin Pangborn, always hustled and harried. This time as an apartment manager trying to show off the new apartments he has for lease to the grouchy, incessantly deaf Wienie King and his bubbly wife.  These two initial scenes are textbook examples of how to juxtapose people and places for comic effect. In fact, sometimes Sturges will gladly lean into the joke before giving us any indication of what his story really pertains to.

When we finally find a premise, he’s already taken us for a spin. Because the previously revealed bride and groom, Tom and Gerry Jeffers (Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert), sunk all their money trying to get a bite — namely the $99,000 he needs to get his suspended airport project off the ground. As of right now, there are no takers, and their marriage has tanked. Strangely enough, they still love each other madly. At the very least, their constant quarreling seems to hint at their continued devotion. That’s the wrinkle.

She wants to get a divorce (sacrificially, of course) so she might hook a rich husband to pay for his pet project. He selfishly wants to stay married to her. He tries to hold onto her, racing out of their apartment, in only the bed linens, as she resolves to go to Palm Beach — to find herself a millionaire — for him.

Sturges relishes the comic situation, which verges on the risque, especially for the day and age. The script was even repeatedly balked at by the Production Codes for the very same reasons and still they manage to mention the word “sex” quite frankly (Gasp)!

What becomes most evident is this increasingly flippant disregard for the institution of marriage. The ensuing world and the situations arising make sense originating from a man who himself came out of affluent circles with a row of marriages left in his wake. He’s in a sense writing what he knows intimately while still utilizing his own idiosyncratic perspective.

It’s a glorious trip to Palm Beach as he loads the cars end to end with his stock company, comprising a traveling circus of dopey millionaires making up the Ale and Quail Club. Gerrie gratefully becomes their mascot as they pay her way to the far off land of the Florida coast.

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In typical Sturges fashion, he overwhelms the screen with the sheer force of bodies and figures from the likes of William Demarest, Al Bridge, and just about anyone else you’ve ever seen in a Sturges film before. They divert themselves with any number of dalliances including hiccups, trap shooting crackers, and nighttime serenades of “Sweet Adaline.”

What’s even more hilarious is how we never actually see these characters again. They serve their purpose and service the writer-director’s scatterbrained devices. The extended sequence functions as its own standalone vessel of amusement.

He really is the king of writing robust character parts that, while never throwaway, need not be overly important. Today it feels like every bit role must be functional. For Sturges, a character functions, first and foremost, if they add to the comic maelstrom he’s whipping up. When they serve their purpose he can zip onward toward further zaniness.

Likewise, aside from being entertaining, The Wienie King is Sturges’s great enabler within the entire picture, gladly shoveling out money as if it were nothing, for rent and plane tickets — whatever the story requires — and despite his apparent obliviousness, he has these near-surreal bouts of hyper-lucidity. In considering his character, one cannot help surmising a stopped clock is right twice a day – even a tone-deaf one.

There must be a story, but the script gladly supplies a vehicle full of hilarity to deliver the goods for the benefit of the audience. As we progress with the ever-whirling thingamajig of wackiness, there’s the introduction of Rudy Vallee. The former matinee idol shows a certain penchant for comedy in his own right, added to the Sturges hall of fame of crazy aristocrats.

His dry idiosyncrasies serve him well, from the methodical removal and placing of his specs to the ongoing accounting he does in his little black book. Even a couple rueful in-jokes to his earlier crooning days, including “Isn’t It Romantic?,” send a few knowing winks toward the perceptive viewer.

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Although she purportedly struggled with her director’s style of mile-a-minute dialogue, Mary Astor, nevertheless, does the corkscrew language a major service as the ably speedy-mouthed Princess Centimillia, who bowls one over with her mixture of glitzy upper crust exuberance and ready-made amorousness. The perfect foil for her dry brother dear “Snoodles.”

To round out the quartet (quintet if you include the single misfire Toto), Tom Jeffers arrives to reclaim his wife but finds himself being turned into a brother named Captain McGlue before he can get in a word edgewise. The quarreling goes on behind closed doors as estranged husband and wife both find themselves romantic objects — currently pursued by other people.

One can’t help to compare it to Midnight, the Billy Wilder penned film with all sorts of little white lies and shenanigans being pulled to keep the charade going for as long as possible. It’s true often the best screwball farces — including some of Sturges’s successes — involve people donning aliases with highly comic ends, of course. Even in this frenetic company, The Palm Beach Story might be more outlandish than most, on par with the rambunctious insanity of Some Like it Hot.

What a glorious wisenheimer Sturges is holding off on the one loose end we’ve been wondering about since the outset of the movie only for it to be the final payoff, setting in motion another story that we’ll never hope to see. Everything is bookended by this ultimate gag that plays as pure Sturges. He’s shoehorned the whole story just so he can swoop in from left field with the most propitious footnote.

At its best, The Palm Beach Story exudes all the zany charms of Sturges’ screwiest works between a finely wrought cast with plenty of whiz-bang patter that time and time again gladly succumbs to silliness. Preston Sturges does his secondary characters a major service, and they more than return the favor. It’s a picture totally stolen away by the supporting cast and rightfully so.

4/5 Stars