Review: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

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“Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness.” ~ John Wayne as Nathan Brittles

Instigated by one of the cataclysmic massacres of the West, Custer’s Last Stand, the word is sent by telegraph and pony express all across the country. Simultaneously, members of numerous tribes including the Sioux and Cheyenne are on the warpath. They have a new resolve to make war with “The White Man” who has continually lied and cheated them out of their land. It brings deep-seated issues at the core of American’s history to the surface.

However, for what initially appears a heavy drama, Ford’s picture comes off surprisingly light and quite comical in patches. Frank Nugent’s script forges a story about the U.S. Calvary at Fort Stark. Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) is counting down the days until his retirement not so much with anticipation; it’s all but inevitable. Because you see, he’s been in the service of his country for a good many years and it’s about time for him to step down.

John Ford gave Duke the part, realizing after Red River (1948), Wayne was not simply a warm body with an imposing presence; he truly was an actor by this point in his career. Resultingly, he makes Ford’s decision to cast him in a slightly more demanding role pay off handsomely. To his credit, he makes a fine showing imbuing the part with a certain world-weariness that comes with age but also immense good humor.

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Victor McLaglen, as the burly First Sergeant Quincannon, calls on his Colonel every morning taking a nip out of the bottle he has conveniently hidden in the other man’s quarters, as they commiserate about their military careers coming to a close.

Meanwhile, the two hot-blooded young men under his command (John Agar and Harry Carey Jr.) turn foolish in their pursuit of the prettiest (and only) flirt in camp, niece of the commanding officer Allshard, Ms. Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru). Brittles observes with mild amusement as they vie for her affection, barking reprimands at them for their undisciplined behavior, while simultaneously stirring them on — noting that she wears a yellow ribbon in her hair denoting a beau. The question remains who she will pick and it becomes one of the film’s running gags as much as it is a source of easy conflict.

Initially, there seems to be little nuance in how the Native Americans are portrayed, prone to indiscriminate violence, yet at least, even for a moment, the film suggests it is not a cultural divide but one defined by generations. Young men are intent on making a name for themselves and finding glory on the battlefield. It is the old man who have gotten past that. They have seen how war ravages the earth and humanity. They are weary of such ordeals.

Nathan Brittles goes to Chief Pony That Walks (Chief John Big Tree) on the eve of his retirement to forge some fragile peace. But his old friend is powerless to do anything so Brittles takes yet another approach to save lives. It’s his one final gift to his men. Mind you, he was not required to take on any of this and yet a man such as Brittles would have nothing less because he cherishes his command and the men who ride beside him. They mean just as much to him as the U.S. Calvary itself has for well nigh 40 years.

What makes all these preceding events genuinely striking is the stunning Technicolor frames. The continuous processions over the plains are breathtaking panoramas with skies as immaculate as the western backgrounds themselves.  The most well-conceived moments come in capturing thunderbolts out on the prairie as Brittles leads his caravan on their mission with their two female cohorts.

In such instances, there’s a scope and grandeur that gives the impression of an intricate painting even more than a film and it’s true Ford and his director of photography purportedly drew inspiration from the works of Frederic Remmington. In this regard — and I’ll try to not overstep my bounds — Winton Hoch’s cinematography stands up to if not surpasses the imagery of The Searchers. Likewise, there are wonderfully decadent period costumes evoking the era nicely but as always John Wayne dons his worn in, one-of-a-kind pride and joy that he would wear until his Rio Bravio (1959) days.

Though relatively forgotten alongside more formidable offerings like The Searchers, Stagecoach, or even The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon might just be one of Wayne’s most fascinating performances in a Ford picture. Not only is he playing a man 20 years his senior — and doing it with surprising credibility — he makes the old calvary man into a figure with true heart and soul. He’s not too hardened or unfeeling to hold onto lifelong friendships, enjoy a good joke, or grin at the young love that besets the hearts of the men under him. They respect him and he cherishes them in return.

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There are numerous poignant moments as his tenure winds down but one of the finest comes when he gives his beloved troops one final inspection. They surprise him with a gift paid for by all of them — a solid silver watch with a remembrance on it. It’s a token of respect to a man they deeply admire. In a move that can’t help but conjure up George Washington himself, Brittles pulls out his granny glasses to read the inscription and we see yet again this great man of strength was, as we always suspected, a man of a certain sensitivity too. He’s deeply touched.

He rides off, a job well done, but as it so happens the cavalry is not done with him as trusty Sergeant Tyree (Ben Johnson) comes to fetch him one final time. Not by a long shot. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is simultaneously an elegy to those who served and were lost in the line of duty and more specifically to a man who took great pride in his post.

4/5 Stars

Loves of a Blonde (1965)

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We lost the inimitable Milos Forman not too long ago and it was a minor embarrassment I had yet to watch one of his earlier works from his native Czechoslovakia where he was an integral member of what is now termed The Czech New Wave.

He was, of course, best remembered in the U.S. for a pair of films, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984). However, looking at a picture like Loves of a Blonde oftentimes proves more elucidating because with smaller more intimate stories you sometimes are able to glean more about the director and gain a better sense of who they are.

True, those in the mainstream might find Loves of a Blonde‘s plot too featherweight and arthouse aficionados might be surprised to find how humorous it is. It’s hardly self-absorbed with its own importance. But if the right viewer finds it, they’ll surely be delighted.

The title track is the Czech equivalent to sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, signifying a story that took full advantage of the temporary thawing of censorship behind the Iron Curtain. In this regard alone Loves of a Blonde is a remarkable relic.

In the opening moments, a girl in a dormitory tells her friend about an encounter she once had with a soldier. They shared talk of deer and how animals don’t have obligations like people. They only come together during mating season. There you apparently have nature’s argument for free love. Except for geese. They sometimes stay together for upwards of 120 years.

Simultaneously, a local factory supervisor — an older gentleman — looking to somehow boost the morale of the local female population, because all the resident males have been conscripted, strikes up a deal with a military man to ship in some men.

The People’s Army is welcomed into the town with all the trimmings. It’s the scene straight out of Hail The Conquering Hero (1944), albeit played realistically with men piling off the train to the sound of a brass band and fanfare. Girls waiting to view the smartly dressed men wander by in their uniforms. The destination in question: A dance.

Forman in such a document is willing to take his time on people who normally would not carry the screen, at least in a Hollywood picture. That in itself is refreshing and brazenly real or at least as real as it can be creating this lovely blending of professional and untrained actors all together.

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We settle in on a scenario that is reminiscent of a Middle School dance in America. Totally inept and awkward, as a trio of older men looks to catch the eye of three young gals — except these fellows are no Don Juans. Even the one who fancies himself the leader doesn’t know what he’s doing.

First, the waiter botches it all by dropping the expensive bottle of wine they bought off at the wrong table. They receive the inquisitive gazes of the women on the receiving end. It only gets worse when the waiter proceeds to remove said bottle and take it to the next table to rectify his error. They have made contact but it’s the ugliest of executions. Meanwhile, the girls who’ve caught them looking, again and again, aren’t quite sure if they’re flattered or not.

Then the normative rituals commence with the men bringing the girls over for a drink and the girls oblige almost as a nicety rather than for any want or desire. A ring rolls under the table which one of the bespectacled bumblers struggles to recover. The whole extended mishap features some of the most cringe-worthy comedic moments that I can recently recall. Only for bickering to ensue as the evening falls apart entirely. First, one man decides to go to bed and then the girls follow suit.

Andulla (Hana Brejchova) goes up to the room of a pianist warily, where he tries to teach her self-defense tactics. The inevitable happens and they wind up in bed together though he struggles to get the blinds in his hotel room down.

Afterward, he gives her the most peculiar compliment. She’s angular like a Piccaso guitar. And he’s generally kind but we know this is just a minor thing to him. Not that he’s trying to take advantage of the girl per se but it doesn’t carry much weight for him. There were other girls in other places. And yet for her, it’s possible that she’s never felt so close to someone before. For her, this is love or at least something close to what she is searching for. He vaguely invites her to come see him sometime and she resolves to take him up on the offer.

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There are these moments that follow where it feels like we are watching a screwball comedy. She meets the parents, suitcase in hand, asking for their son. And they have no good answer for where he is. They’re even more confused about what she’s doing there and why.

Father just wants to watch TV and mind his own business. He thinks his nagging wife is nuts but not as nuts as his son. Bless her soul, but the mother is a certified worrywart thrown in a tizzy about just about everything. I’m sure most of us know the type played to the extreme here.

Son arrives home and his disapproving mother makes him join the parents in bed. She’s not about to let him sleep in the same room as the girl. They’re like the three bears crammed into a bed together, bickering and saying that the girl should have never come in the first place.

It fascinates me how one seemingly ephemeral idea that might only be a quick flash of an image or a concept can lay the foundation for an entire picture. Forman was himself a child forced into migration at an early age by the Holocaust and in his young adult days witnessed a girl lugging her suitcase around the big city without anywhere to go. He gave her a lift and heard her story.  She had been invited by a man she’d met who really had no intention of having her at all. It’s just what you say. It’s the etiquette of it all but it doesn’t really mean anything. At least not to most people. There we have the story’s defining motif.

There’s an innocence that radiates from Hana Brejchova’s eyes; she’s so very youthful and still trying to figure out her life. In dismissive terms, we’d call her a dumb blonde but this film suggests something more — a person who is trusting and wants real love.

So due to a temporary relaxation of censorship, Forman’s film could be broken down to frank depictions of romance and free love but that is not its end goal. Because even in those forms of expression, we find a surprising amount of, not only astute observational humor about humanity but an equally telling melancholy. Loves of a Blonde is a testament to both.

4/5 Stars

The Americanization of Emily (1964)

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“Don’t show me how profitable it will be to fall in love with you, Charlie. Don’t Americanize me.” – Julie Andrews as Emily

Yes, Kubrick’s film is definitive. Though something inside of me wants to rale against convention and wave the flag for The Americanization of Emily instead, a movie that came out the same year as Dr. Strangelove (1964) and could probably use the acknowledgment. While not technically as renowned — Arthur Hiller is no Stanley Kubrick — this is probably the director’s best work and we do have a script by Paddy Chayefsky, the man famed for penning everything from Marty (1955) to Network (1976).

Our stars are to die for in James Garner and Julie Andrews while in its satirical bleakness, the movie predates the absurdity of Mike Nichol’s Catch-22 (1970) adaptation or Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970). At any rate, it deserves a place in the conversation among the seminal anti-war statements of the 20th century.

Though Chayefsky can get verbose with his quill, it’s all quite eloquent; between the stars and the dilemma they find themselves in, the resonance of The Americanization of Emily cannot be overstated. It starts with of all things a “Dog-Robber,” the pet name and vernacular shorthand used for personal assistants of military big wigs.

Garner always the conman, grifter, or otherwise likable trickster, is seamlessly fit to play Charlie Madison, a rapscallion who is also very good at his line of work. As right-hand man to Rear Admiral Jessup (Melvyn Douglas), Charlie is tasked with laying out the red carpet for his superior, charming and cajoling his way to get the best of the best. That means the finest food and the most charming female company that wartime Britain has to offer.

A couple of the assumed premises of the picture are troubling, starting with the prevalence of what can only be termed “tush slaps” of nearly every female attendant. Nearly everyone seems to enjoy the attention. The second is how the war takes a back seat as does the fact, despite Man being infallible and the reasons for war being muddied, Hitler was seemingly a power that necessitated some counteraction. For that matter, D-Day feels like it’s an open secret among every Tom, Dick, and Harry.

But this is all part of the groundwork which all comes into relief as we begin to visualize the story. Consequently, it doesn’t much feel like a bombed out or rationed Great Britain at any point in time. There’s little need for historical accuracy — the trail of a cynical war comedy with all its biting fury is what’s most importantly on display.

After getting off on the wrong foot, Charlie and his assigned chauffeur Emily (Andrew) joust a bit only to fall into each other’s arms. She brings him over to tea with mother and there he sees the shrine to all the deceased war heroes in their family (a lah Hail the Conquering Hero). Except Charlie sets the record straight on what he thinks of war and how other people go about it. Some might consider him callous but the way he sees it, being brutally honest, in such a case, is the most humane thing to do.

Mrs. Barnham has long been pressing on in life as if her son was still alive. However, Charlie brings the tea conversation to the cold hard facts. In his estimation, it’s the most profane thing in the world to enjoy war. Enjoyment in the same sense that he sees grieving as a sensual thing for a woman — when she can mourn her husband who gave his life so gallantly for his country. He doesn’t see anything noble about needlessly making heroes of our dead, venerating them, instead of allowing them to rest in peace.

When probed about his religious views, he retorts quite blatantly he’s “a practicing coward.” He learned it in Guadalcanal in the midst of buddies dropping all around him. “Wars are the only time a man can be gallant and redeemed. Wars are always fought for goodness, except virtue is so unnatural to us. God save us all from people doing the morally right thing.” These are little nuggets of wisdom he drops.

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The complete absurdity of it all comes into focus when his commanding officer cooks up a cockamamie plan to shoot a movie during the storming of Normandy to capture the first dead man on the beach — who will obviously be a sailor — proving to the world that the Navy is just as important as anyone else. They know he’s really flipped when Admiral Jessup dreams up the Tomb for the Unknown Sailor too.

Still, no one has the gumption to disobey so Charlie’s buddy Bus (James Coburn) looks to stall operations as long as possible and yet, in the end, they find themselves hurtling toward Normandy on an utterly pointless suicide mission. Except Bus gets bitten by the patriotic bug too and goes nutty for his duty with Charlie and his lackluster movie crew hoisted onto the LST like stray cargo. They’re going whether they like it or not.

The comedy is solidified for me in the D-Day sequences as Charlie finds himself dumped out in the ocean, flailing around in the cold, half-heartedly trying to hold onto a camera he doesn’t know how to use, probably already decommissioned by sea water. It’s utterly pointless. Here he is amid the chaos with his former friend goading him on only to wing him with a pistol in the process. Charlie’s left for dead but on the bright side, at least he’s positioned himself as the first casualty on the beaches of Normandy — a navy man, no less.

True to form, the images of him are soon plastered all over every magazine back home. He’s been christened a hero and every type of idolatry he would never care to give anyone else is lofted on him. It’s far from done, rolling over on itself one final time.

There must be continuous punchlines to underscore the sheer looniness of it all. Whereas a picture like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) is bleakly cynical, here James Garner is able to inject his grouchy strain of comedy into the part, aiding the story to its conclusion. But the final zinger goes to Julie Andrews as she is and always will be his equal in the film.

“Honestly, Charlie, your conversion to morality is really quite funny. All this time I’ve been terrified of becoming Americanized, and you, you silly ass, have turned into a bloody Englishman.”

So you see, it might have just as easily been called the Anglification of Charlie. There you have the irony at work again. Somehow it makes sense and it doesn’t at the same time. That’s war in a nutshell.

4/5 Stars

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

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With the opening number “We’re In The Money,” this musical sticks it to The Great Depression and gives their audience a respite from the poverty waiting outside the theater doors. The tone is set as Ginger Rogers, surrounded by rows of scantily clad coin-covered women, sings out one of the song’s lines in Pig Latin. It’s one in a million.

Like its predecessor, the smash hit 42nd Street (1933), this is yet another hybrid of backstage drama and semi-extravagant production numbers. An incoming rapid-fire line of close-ups featuring Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, and Ginger Rogers all giving the camera a mouthful is a delightful portent of all that it to come from this bevy of talent. The sass meter goes through the roof.

But we never forget that it’s the Depression, though it would be an unnecessary reminder for audiences already living through the reality. As Carol quips when she hears the timeliness of their newest project, “We won’t have to rehearse that.” Because they’ve been living through it along with everyone else.

It means that they share a measly flat together. Get by from swiping milk bottles from the upstairs neighbors and fighting over clothes to make at least one of them look presentable for the prospect of an audition. There’s a lightness to it all as much as there is a camaraderie. They’re all in it together and that allows the picture to work. Otherwise, it would be too depressing. There needs to be that assurance and resolve driving our characters. They never get too low.

Ruby Keeler has time to fall for Dick Powell yet again, this time by simply sticking her head out the window to swoon over his piano ballads. Of course, things hit the pits when they find out that despite a swell idea, their backer and potential savior Barry (Ned Sparks), still is broke and so his visions of a showstopping triumph are all for naught. The insouciant joking of Powell has everyone a little hurt until he actually comes through in shelling out $15,000 just like that. He was never more serious.

So there we have it. Another stage production is in the works. Everything is coming together dandily but in a role reversal of 42nd Street, it is Powell’s Brad who is called upon to fill a void in the production when he’s needed most.

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The original juvenile lead is not able to make the cut due to lumbago and so despite his continuous rejection of the part, he finally folds realizing so many folks are counting on him. We’ve already said it and we’ll say it again. The show must go on!

Their first number, “Pettin’ in the Park” is a near-surreal exhibition in sauciness utilizing a midget dressed as a baby, a studio orchestrated rainstorm, and women donning metal garb to foil their male suitors. Weird but it’s an unequivocal smash.

So big in fact that news gets out. Brad’s family hears he’s been moonlighting in the theater and is appalled. Because you see, he comes from a well-to-do family. Such a line of work would never do. Cavorting with chorus girls and acting is out of the question. He returns home but to no avail as his older brother Lawrence (Warren William) and the family’s lawyer Fanueal H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee) agree to come out to put an end to Brad’s career — not to mention his romance. After all, showgirls are reputed to be parasites, chiselers, gold diggers…

They get far more than they bargained for when a bit of mistaken identity causes them to get whirled away by the streetwise sauciness of Carol and Trixie who have these rich boys pegged and know exactly how to capitalize. It’s like taking candy from two stuffy, overgrown babies.

Beyond being Fred Astaire’s supremely talented collaborator on taps, it’s easy to rate Ginger Rogers as a first-rate comedienne even in this earlier juncture of her career. However, it’s Aline MacMahon with the juiciest part and the greatest showing which ultimately upstages Rogers and gives the picture its greatest buoyancy of sing-songy opportunism.

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Joan Blondell does herself proud in her own right romancing Warren William. For the first time, I actually feel sympathetic toward the poor fellow. He’s got no defenses. Peabody is simply putty in the hands of a woman — especially someone as delightfully conniving as Trixie. But remember it’s all for a good cause as Brad and Polly are able to stay together and that’s just the beginning…

It’s almost a misnomer to call Gold Diggers of 1933 a musical outright. The way that Warner Bros. ran things, there were two units one for the romantic drama led by Mervyn LeRoy and then another headed by Berkeley for the choreography of his decadent visions. So what we have is the quintessential Depression-era drama filled in with some song & dance routines. It could be completely disjointed in its execution. But on both fronts there or moments of undoubted noteworthiness. It begins with a cast that does oh so much and the baton constantly gets passed between players who readily play their part one after another.

Then, the rest is pure Berkeley first taking his dreams and turning them into a reality. “In The Shadows” in an exquisite gift to the audience showcasing swirling hula hoop dresses with showgirls gracefully flitting this way and that. Then the lights go out leaving behind the contours of violins dressed with fluorescent light,s which make for another entrancing dance of shape and light. Here we have art where the result is so much more than a mere sum of its parts.

Once again it makes the pretense of a stage performance but right away Berkeley throws off those shackles and lets his camera fly to whatever vantage point it wants proving itself essentially unencumbered and subsequently reworking how musicals could and would be staged.

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But in truth, it’s a back-to-back show stopper and Berkeley sees the film to its crescendo by completely changing his tune with the help of composer and lyricist duo Harry Warren and Al Dubin. They all come through to deliver what can only be considered a timely eulogy to the universal figure alluded to in its title.

“The Forgotten Man” is emblematic of this entire picture and Gold Diggers of 1933 is very much an offering of thanks to the everyday American. The men who stand in breadlines scrimping over cigarettes. The men who fought in the Great War. The women who maintained the diligence and rectitude with which the country could battle poverty. The same people who line up to go see movies every day.

In the end, the movie pulls off this startling balancing act — a tightrope walk of comedy, tragedy, and above all pathos. Gold Diggers is the real deal and I cannot begrudge anyone who would deem it the pinnacle of the Hollywood dream factory sent to reach those in the throes of desperate times. Granted, some might question the merits of fantastical escapism but this effort looks to be more than a diversion — moving beyond that to be a hardy rallying cry of hope.

4.5/5 Stars

42nd Street (1933)

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“Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!” – Warner Baxter to Ruby Keeler

42nd Street essentially feels like hallowed ground even today because it single-handedly gave an entire generation of films plentiful ammunition for tropes while jumpstarting Warner Bros.’s cottage industry of musicals. These included Footlight Parade, Dames, and a whole slew of Gold Digger movies among many others. Not to mention many heirs apparent from Stage Door (1937) to Cabaret (1972).

There are several angles from which to approach this film. One of them has to do with Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), an acclaimed theater director who is nevertheless broke thanks to The Crash and warned by his doctor that the undue stress of such a rigorous career is taking a toll on his health. He knows the clock is ticking for him and he deems that this will be his last Broadway show and it will his best even if it kills him. It probably will.

Meanwhile, the shining star of the forthcoming production Pretty Lady is one Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) who keeps the picture’s lascivious financial backer (Guy Kibbee) onboard while never letting him get too familiar with her. Because you see, she has a secret romance going on the side with a young man (George Brent) who used to work with her in vaudeville. Now he’s jobless.

With all his reputation and finances dependent on the show’s success, Mr. Marsh quickly turns into a berating taskmaster, first, in casting calls and then through the grueling rehearsal regimen.

Three girls who manage to finagle their way into the show through some insider influence are Lorraine (Una Merkel), Anytime Annie (Ginger Rogers) and the wholesome newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler). She knows next to nothing about the tooth and nail competition and so the two old pros gladly take her under their wing.

It just happens that she finds a romantic interest in the baby-faced crooner Billy Lawler (Dick Powell) as they both have parts to play. Meanwhile, the higher-ups catch wind of Dorothy’s male friend Pat (Brent) and he soon is paid a meeting with an influencer — someone to rough him up a bit and keep him from gumming up the show. To a degree, it works as he heads off to Philadelphia and Marsh continues to drive his stock company mercilessly. He doesn’t just want it good, he wants absolute perfection, and despite his greatest efforts, he’ll never be completely satisfied.

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The first number we’re acquainted with is “Getting to Be a Habit with Me” and with it soon comes the opening strains of Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscope choreography — a mere taster of all the fine abstractions to come. But there must be a quarrel to further ignite the already bumpy proceedings. It starts when Dorothy gives it to the biggest sucker Abner Dillon (Kibbee) who is about as insufferable as they come, a buffoon as only Kibbee can play.

But the same night, in the process of blowing off steam, Dorothy is stricken with a fracture the day before her big debut. Things couldn’t be any worse with the pompous buffoon threatening to pull out his funding and Marsh is sunk without his leading lady. However, if you’ve seen any of the movies that this musical inspired, you already are well acquainted with the fact that “The show must go on!”

That same timorous yet sprightly chorus girl, Peggy has her chance at the big stage. Marsh drives her mercilessly through song, dance, and dialogue. Never praises her and essentially tells her that the entire weight of the hopes and dreams of all the cast is on her shoulders. Her quivering shoulders must carry the brunt of the production. That’s a terrible amount of pressure to place on one human being but the true miracle is that, of course, the new starlet manages brilliantly. The crowds want to love her and when she’s through with them they do.

In the latter half of 42nd Street, the dramatic elements give way to the actual musical numbers. “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” is a fine introduction full of romance and cheeky innuendo, spearheaded by Merkel and Rogers consorting in a compartment, chomping away on fruit. The camera is on the move as well, scanning across the train facade between faces hidden behind curtains and the shoes that ultimately get left out for the porter.

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Then, Dick Powell takes the lead in “Young and Healthy” opposite a nameless platinum blonde (Toby Wing in a memorable bit role) which is elevated by more novel shot selections. Namely, the fact that the bench our two performers are romancing on promptly sinks into the floor with them now sprawled out together. We get a signature Berkeley pirouette right after that which still never ceases to amaze me, followed by a tracking shot through a tunnel of legs. It succeeds in being far more cinematic than stagebound and that’s the key.

“42nd Street” is the tip-toppest number of them all by breaking away from any confinement with the sheer scale and mass of humanity that it puts forth. Only a few camera setups in and one realizes we are no longer a theater audience, unless we transition from sitting in the balcony to the ground level, and finally end up in the rafters looking down on the entertainment with the most impeccable of overhead views.

The final extravaganza is great fun to behold with a plethora of dancers performing in what feels like all but perfect cadence, constructing a cutout city of their own by turning around in unison. Then, they pull away and the camera gives us this wonderfully curious illusion that we are looking up the full length of the Empire State building, our two beaming starlets popping up at the top of the towering heights. The asbestos curtain drops and they have all but sealed the success of their show and the film.

While the musical ends on a rather inconclusive note, it in no way neutralizes the effervescent numbers and performances that bloom out of an otherwise theatrical backstage drama. 42nd Street is still important to us because it is the origin of so many musical traditions but it subsequently still manages to enrapture with even a few feats of artistic ingenuity. It deserves its place among the seminal musicals even if its staying power is moot.

4/5 Stars

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Crazy_Rich_Asians_poster.pngThe opening gambit of Crazy Rich Asians feels like the scene some Asian moviegoers have been waiting for all their lives. We’re in a stuffy hotel lobby with the snooty staff looking to deny service to Eleanor Sung-Young (Michelle Yeoh) and by the end of the conversation she winds up mopping the floor with them. It’s satisfying to get some sweet revenge but short of being malicious, it’s rewarding, setting the tone for the rest of the experience to come.

No one can understate just how impactful Crazy Rich Asians is for the Asian film community. Images speak volumes in this saturated world of ours and they are a meaningful reflection of the lives we lead every day. Thus, it means so much when they are able to reach out and resonate with a wide audience in a totally satisfying way.

Because doing a cursory look back over the past decades, the last times we had anything close to this in mainstream Hollywood would be The Joy Luck Club and then Flower Drum Song decades earlier and yet these movies were like once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Hopefully, those days — when such films feel like noteworthy outliers — will soon be left behind us.

However, the beauty is that this is not just about Asian-Americans but Asians across the world from all different backgrounds. It is a stepping stone to greater representation and I believe that is all we can ask for. It cannot be the perfect film but it can lead to more opportunities in the future for Asian stars. If the box office returns are any indication, we’re on an encouraging road in this regard. This is a landmark picture for Asian audiences and they have shown their support.

It must be stressed above all else, this is not simply a showcase for Asian representation around a lifeless shell of a movie. This is universal, quality entertainment that can reach out and be relished by everyone. Because it starts with a leading couple who are warm and witty with the chemistry to tie a picture like this together nearly effortlessly.

Constance Wu is Rachel Chu, an Economics professor, smart, pretty, funny — all the superlatives of a rom-com heroine — and she is in love with a seemingly great guy. His name is Nick Young (Henry Goulding) and he’s a handsome stud full of warmth and thoughtfulness.

The most pleasant surprise about our central romantic relationship is how it’s forged between two people who genuinely love each other and treat each other well. It does not rely on contrived misunderstandings or sudden swings in character, making mountains out of molehills for the sake of the story.

Everything that threatens to destroy their relationship is the results of outside stressors. Specifically, because they are having to face Nick’s family together for the first time and the expectations that come in such circles. In his romancing of Rachel, Nick never flaunted the affluence he was born into. Growing up in Singapore his family was not just rich, their lives are absolutely overflowing with decadence. Right here, the film (based off Kevin Kwan’s book) earns its title; they are CRAZY rich.

While they are not the core sources of strife, Rachel and Nick are nonetheless taxed and forced to come to terms with who they really are and what their main priorities will be. It delivers a wonderfully satisfying result. We have this cross-cultural chafing between Rachel who was born of an immigrant mother in America. She’s worked hard to get where she is. Whereas Nick is culturally Singaporean and he is part of a rich tradition that cherishes the good of the family name above all else.

Michelle Yeoh proves a venerable and worthy adversary because she is one of the most authentic kind, a conflicted antagonist who has genuine concerns and capacities for immense affection. The key is a devotion to family duty and loving her son. It’s a very real issue that plagues her and the age-old dynamic when her boy brings a new girl to meet the parents. It just so happens they’re really, really rich.

Many viewers with only a nominal interest will probably be engrossed in this world of complete and total excess. You have opulent clothing, jewels, sprawling mansions, and almost unimaginable riches. It will give a view of Singapore — a place many Americans might be unfamiliar with — that we can probably somewhat call into question. Again, it’s important to stress this is not a blanket representation of the entire country but it does give us some sumptuous sights to enjoy.

You have private islands for bachelorette parties, bazookas going off on gigantic yachts, and any amount of other luxuries. True to form, I was most enraptured by the food. Thankfully, this is not a completely hollow world because we are given a road into this space through the vast array of players. The film is especially rich in vibrant secondary characters who breath humorous and touching life into this tale of family and cultural identity.

There are the catty women looking to tear Jessica down because she had the good fortune to catch Nick instead of them; they even go so far as to leave a bloody, dead fish on top of her bed in an act of vengeance. Then, the gossipy old women can’t help but get distracted during their bible study, sharing the latest tidbits and watching Jessica like a hawk when she makes her first appearance. It’s true everything seems to exist inside this magnified petri dish where every action is being monitored and everyone is just waiting for the wheels to come off.

The men are little better, obsessed with money, personal reputations, and their own perceived masculinity. Nick’s closest cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) is saddled with such a relationship. This B story is not as strong nor as beneficial to the full arc of this narrative but for those who have not read the books (like me), there’s an inclination it is setting up future arcs. Regardless, Gemma Chan is a sympathetic figure and she tries to navigate her own guilt about coming from money and concerns over feeling like she’s emasculating her wet-noodle of a husband.

The true standouts are the showstopping trio of Awkquafina in her blonde wig, Ken Jeong as her CSU Fullerton-graduated father, and Nico Santos as Cousin Oliver the one with the family fashion sense and enough covert gumption to help Rachel stand up to his Auntie.

The final glowing jewel of the movie has to be Lisa Lu who plays Nick’s grandmother. Though a smaller part, she is no less crucial as the family’s oldest matriarch. Lu acts as not only a connection point to the last major landmark of Hollywood Asian-American cinema, The Joy Luck Club, her career also had ties to less heralded but no less historically fascinating work like The Mountain Road where she co-starred with Jimmy Stewart.

Right up until the final shot of  John Chu’s blockbuster romance, I am happily reminded this is an unabashed fairy tale. The wedding scenes have license to feel magical and it’s not merely gaudy decadence anymore but real, sincere fairy dust floating over the moment that makes them feel innately special. Kina Grannis lends her gossamer voice to the moment and even Harry Shun Jr. makes an enigmatic cameo (her costar from Wong Fu’s Single at 30).

I was also somehow strangely entranced by Katherine Ho’s cover of “Yellow” which felt like a perfect capstone. The best movies are an experience and Crazy Rich Asians certainly fits the bill.

4/5 Stars

It Happened Tomorrow (1944)

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Rene Clair makes no justifications for his flights of fancy and it’s true that the stuff is unabashedly whimsical to the zenith. He made a reputation for himself in his native France for his playful cinema and for the decade or so he was in Hollywood (1935-1945) he continued much in the same vein. Most people would say it came with lesser dividends though some of his more memorable offerings included I Married a Witch (1942) and this film, It Happened Tomorrow.

Again, it involves highly unconventional orchestration like he was all but accustomed to in his comedies. It’s nary for everyone. In fact, it probably relies too heavily on its nifty bit of novel storytelling involving a journalist who begins to receive the following day’s news in advance. He can predict the future and it proves advantageous for grabbing the scoop and betting on the horses among other trifles.

Subsequently, the film begins rolling out a red carpet full of tropes upon tropes. But no one can shame Clair for sticking to his own whimsical abstractions and if you do allow it to invade your space you might just find yourself taken with its jungle gym-like acrobatics through time.

It starts 50 years ahead of our story with the golden anniversary of a couple talking about a small matter that happened years before. Then we fall back to the 1890s where Lawrence Stevens (Dick Powell) has the monotonous distinction of penning obituaries for the local paper before finally being promoted to reporter by his grouchy editor Mr. Gordon.

But then something far more miraculous happens. Lawrence doesn’t realize the implications at first when Pop, a veteran newspaperman with a near-saintly demeanor, becomes Lawrence’s guardian angel. To speak in known references, he might very well be this movie’s Clarence. His true gift is offering his young colleague the following day’s headlines.

They involve, of all things, updated classified adds, irregular snowfall and then an Opera House Robbery — offering the first moment of realization that Lawrence might have something extra special in his grasp. Simultaneously he becomes, enamored with the clairvoyant half of a niece (Linda Darnell) and uncle fortune telling duo.

Not until reading a little further into Linda Darnell’s history did I realize just how young when she made it big in Hollywood. Like her finest efforts, she dazzles with that bright-eyed concern next to Dick Powell. Though he would begin the redefinition of his career shortly with his introduction as Philip Marlowe and upcoming hardboiled fare, there’s still time for something light. He carries it with his usual assured comic energy as the headlines continually drive him into action.

One night he’s saving a girl from jumping off a bridge — his own girl in fact — to make a prophecy come true and then the next morning he’s tipping off the suspicious police chief on where to capture some wanted bank robbers.

Lawrence is now the talk of the town and the go-to writer for the paper with his uncanny nose for news. Soon he’s asking for Sylvia’s hand in marriage though a momentous misunderstanding leads her uncle to insist on a shotgun arrangement. If that’s the case he gladly takes the poison. But to bankroll their happy future together he bets on sure thing after sure thing at the racetrack. After all, he can’t lose. Or can he?

If you could know when you were going to die would you know or is ignorance really bliss? The movie begins its downward spiral after Lawrence’s winnings are swiped and it is foretold that he will die the same day in a hotel at 6:25pm on the dot.

Flimsy physical comedy takes over as we plummet toward the inevitable despite Lawrence’s vehement attempts to derail fate. He still winds up in the lobby of the St. George Hotel, within the very confines where he is destined to be gunned down. Like clockwork, everything unspools toward that exact end. The most exasperating thing is he saw it all coming and could do nothing to stop it.

But with a knowing wink, Clair flips the conceit on its head and that’s the story’s flash of momentary brilliance because we see as the narrative gets back around how things can work out in such a convoluted but somehow logical fashion. The paper reads: Lawrence Stevens is Dead. Of course, we know he’s alive. But the movie manages to make the headline ring true. You can have your cake and eat it too.

3/5 Stars

God’s Little Acre (1958)

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If there was an atypical even offbeat Anthony Mann picture, then God’s Little Acre would probably fit the bill. Based on the wildly popular and vehemently decried Depression-era work of the same name by Erskine Caldwell, it essentially serves as a second outing for much of the cast and crew involved with a picture from the year prior, Men in War (1957).

We have Mann reteamed with his favorite, Robert Ryan, and young Aldo Ray. Then, most prominently, we have cinematographer Ernest Haller and composer Elmer Bernstein returning. Even Phillip Yordan once more fronts for blacklisted Ben Maddow. And yet the actual results are oil and water.

The opening notes of a folksy title ballad sound off, seemingly more at home in a live-action Disney classic than a mainstream drama such as this. In truth, it’s an outmoded brand of melodrama. We just cannot hope to look at the pedigree the same way with its southern gothic and a hint of hillbilly.

That’s right. It’s part Jed Clampett, the other section Tennessee Williams, edgy and sweaty as any 50s film at its height. But what leaves an impression is not only the raciness for the day but the unadulterated playfulness. This is real Georgia down-home entertainment and it benefits from these qualities.

Ty Ty Walden (Ryan) is a slightly scatterbrained matriarch, who resolutely believes that his daddy left behind gold on their property. He’s hellbent on getting him a piece of the wealth and he’s pursued his aspirations by leaving his family acreage dotted with holes.

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He’s dragged his two sons into it too (Jack Lord and Vic Morrow), who are both a bit neurotic in their own right. The jealous Buck is constantly at the throat of his ravishing bride Griselda (Tina Louise in a sweltering debut) believing she still has the hots for their brother-in-law Will Thompson (Aldo Ray), a man married to the eldest Walden gal (Helen Westcott). He’s not altogether wrong but he’s not helping the situation any either. Then there’s Shaw. He just repeats everything his older brother says. They’re not the sharpest tools in the shed. They take after their father.

Meanwhile, their youngest sister, the bodacious southern belle Darlin’ Jill, is quite the looker herself. Buddy Hackett is just about the same as we remember him in all his pictures. That voice. That blubbering. That rotund lovable girth. His character, the aptly named Pluto, comes looking to court Darlin’ Jill who strings him alone as is expected.

Otherwise, the cast also features a criminally underused Rex Ingram as a farmhand and Michael Landon in a thoroughly unique role as an albino. Though only a minor player, he proves a crucial component of the plot since Ty Ty is convinced that albinos have an impeccable radar for gold and he pressgangs the boy to use his remarkable abilities. The beauty is that no one seems to outrightly question such a notion. They just move along like normal. In the meantime, Darlin’ Jill has fun tantalizing her rotund suitor and making eyes at the intriguingly pale Dave Dawson.

The latter half of the story follows lusty looks and passionate clenches as forbidden love is rekindled between Will and Griselda. It seems like just about everyone is being pawed over by everybody else. Tremors are going through the household with Ty Ty putting it upon himself to bring his family together and keep them on amicable terms. It’s not such an easy task with so much dysfunction at hand.

Will’s wife is beside herself as her man gets drunk and has some vague notion of turning the power at the old plant on so work can commence again for all the impoverished locals. But Ty Ty’s also in a scrape for cash and relationships have only deteriorated into fiery hell between Buck and Will — a woman still caught between them.

What are the main takeaways from the picture? It’s a rather incredulous piece that’s provocative and dull and maladjusted all at the same time. Ryan once more shows his capability at ably anchoring an entire film. However, all I could think of was the fact that if God’s Little Acre had been a bit more conventional and garnered a few more accolades for hard-hitting drama, we might be remembering Tina Louise as a cinematic sex symbol instead of a “Movie Star” from Gilligan’s Island. Maybe some movies get buried serendipitously.

3/5 Stars

 

Help! (1965)

Helponesheet.jpgWhat can I say? I am one of the proud and the many who loved The Beatles before they loved any other type of music. So when I watch Help! I look for all the best in it because that’s all that I can do.

However, if you are familiar with this follow-up to the frenzy and the success surrounding A Hard Day’s Night (1964), then that picture will feel like a serendipitous accident where everything came together for 90 minutes of magic. Help! is more of what one might actually expect from distributors trying to capitalize on The Beatles fandom before “the fad” ran its course. It’s less inspired and hammered out with what seems like little forethought at all. Because that’s what it was. Except previously a better job was done to fake it.

Though a quality filmmaker, Richard Lester was hampered by time constraints even going so far as to edit his daily footage while he was making the film. The ending results showcase a purposely disjointed narrative with a ludicrous script following a Far Eastern cult’s attempts to swipe Ringo’s prize ring for their human sacrifice. There’s not much more to it than that. It would prove ample fodder for many an episode of The Monkees which made no qualms about being a Beatles knockoff.

The rumor mill even provides accounts that the Fab Four were to have made a western picture with the lads all fighting for the affection of a rancher’s eligible young daughter. Maybe it’s the novelty of an idea never realized but I would have liked to see that picture in lieu of this one. However, we must content ourselves which what we have.

Stacked up against some of its more forgettable contemporary spoofs and scatterbrain comedies, Help! could have done a worse job blending the exoticism of Bond with its attempts at comedy. There are numerous Eastern influences and if anything the film facilitated Harrison’s introduction to the sitar. We even hear a version of “Hard Day’s Night” on the Indian instrument.

Otherwise, the boy’s flat is decked with Tati-like contraptions and coloring that evoke the Frenchmen’s work in Mon Oncle (1958). The lines of disparate gags owe a debt to Peter Sellers (especially The Goon Show) and act as a less inspired precursor to Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

These are the only reference points I can manage and yet this suggests that Help! might have been so much more. Instead, fueled by their new infatuation for marijuana, the boys are in a bit of a garbled haze and it reflects the mess of the film full of flubbed lines and absurd non-sequiturs.

Nevertheless one could argue that much of it feels akin to the world The Beatles were finding themselves adrift in. Their fame had blown up to outrageous proportions that were almost laughable. It would make someone go batty. Perhaps they needed a trip to the Alps and the Bahamas, play acting with tigers and then tanks on the Salsbury Plains. For a few stray moments, they were not a commodity. They could muck about and be themselves.

That gets down to one of the primary takeaways. We still have The Beatles. True, John Lennon later commented that it felt like the boys were sideshow attractions in their own movie. I get the sentiment but I would disagree it in the sense that I’m hardly drawn to any of the other characters. There’s little interest in their antics because I’ve seen countless more inspired takes on the same material.

But we have Richard Lester directing The Beatles’ music so we have something iconic to grab ahold of. It’s not a total loss. What you gain an appreciation for, especially in this effort, is how Lester has almost single-handedly invented the language of the music video whether he meant to or not. At its best that’s what this manic comedy is — an early exhibition in the music video — using spliced together standalone sequences showcasing the boys in various situations most memorably attempting to ski or playing curling.

“Ticket to Ride” in the snow, “I Need You” out in the brisk British air, and “Another Girl” shot in the Bahamas are able to bottle just a little bit of The Beatles because it’s their music that stands the test of time meshed with those playful personas.

While it’s momentarily amusing for flashes of humor and memorable for the unparalleled tunes, in many ways, it pales in comparison to its predecessors.  It lacks the perfect docudrama zaniness of A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and the pure animated invention of Yellow Submarine (1968). Instead, Help! slates itself as an often shallow even dopey picture.  But, I’ll say it again. We still have The Beatles. Surely that is enough for most of us.

3/5 Stars

 

 

Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

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Though Preston Sturges would never eclipse the heights of the early 40s again and his stellar run was slowly spiraling down, we do have Unfaithfully Yours and for my money, that’s recompense enough.

It documents the life of a prestigious conductor, Sir Alfred De Carter (Rex Harrison), happily married to a gorgeous woman (a stunning Linda Darnell) with ample help from a staff including an efficient personal secretary (Kurt Kreuger) and a crotchety Russian played by Lionel Stander. The entourage includes his wife’s wisecracking little sister (Barbara Lawrence) and the sister’s husband, an insufferable bore of the bourgeoisie named August (“He’s got $100 million don’t also be expecting Mickey Mouse”).

The whole issue arises when said brother-in-law, played by Rudy Vallee, takes Alfred’s passing entreaty quite literally to “watch over his wife” while he’s away. As August was also away paying a visit to mother, he has a private detective check in on his sister-in-law. The P.I. collected a comprehensive dossier on her activities while he was gone, which Sir Alfred promptly rips up.  It doesn’t help that the hotel house detective (Al Bridge) is very thorough in his job, driving the conductor to burn the documents decisively, followed by a valiant effort to put out the subsequent conflagration in his dressing room.

However, all his attempts are to no avail and the conductor starts getting ideas; the rumors that were in the back of his mind now start moving to the front, making him irritable.

What other film, featuring a tailor just trying to eat his lunch in peace, winds up leaving an impression because the man is given enough to say? It’s quintessential Sturges and he doesn’t disappoint many of his faithful players either. Each gets a spot of their own. The private detective (Edgar Kennedy) gets a contentious visit from De Carney and turns out to be a patron of the arts. He’s a keen follower of De Carney’s oeuvre even. Sturges gives him the perfect summation of his opinions, “For me, there’s no one who handles Handel like you handle Handel.”

There are also a few choice Sturges lines that I couldn’t help but recall being recycled from other pictures such as being “left to hang on a meat hook” and the age-old favorite “nuttier than a fruitcake.”

As the director slices through the material, De Carney thrusts and waves his way through Rossini, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky. He’s so attuned to his craft, in fact, that he daydreams through each, the music setting the perfect melody to each of his mental confrontations with his wife.

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The first arrangement of events is calculated yet diabolical, played to a piece booming with sweeping, all-encompassing, passionate rage. Using a voice recorder, he stages the perfect murder to entrap the other man. He ends up cackling in the courtroom with relish as he watches Tony get his sentence. It’s all too easy. Hitchcock might have been proud.

His middle piece captures the pure melancholy of the entire scenario. Both maudlin and chivalrous, as he decides the greatest act of love he can perform is to let her go to her true love while writing her a check that she might never have to work her pretty hands ever again. The final coda picks up the tempo again in a ragingly melodramatic fashion that culminates in the proposition of Russian roulette between a gentleman and his rival.

What actually happens is like so: It entails an inexplicable trashing of his apartment after dipping out of his finest hour prematurely. Lamps and wicker chairs are systematically demolished, not to mention the knocking of the telephone off the line and unwittingly pranking the operator again and again. Glass shatters, pratfalls, miscues, clunking about like a witless neanderthal. It is all present.

There is a Georges Rouault painting up on a wall that I distinctly remember from an Art History textbook I once read. So, obviously, this makes this picture the height of culture and it might as well be. Juxtapose that with Rex Harrison, always so refined and erudite, seen stomping about and making a shambles of his apartment and you have one of the film’s high points. And the picture has much to offer us even amid its bleak and admittedly dark deviations.

What’s striking is not simply that this is a physical comedy (typical Sturges) but that it wholly relies on Rex Harrison’s abilities and is nearly a wordless sequence. For a man who was so renowned for his pen, Mr. Sturges shows an apt restraint. This long extended scene says in visual terms that the very way we envision things never hold a candle to actual reality, where things get complicated and muddled by this or that. Nothing is left where we remember it or sudden onslaughts of sneezing come out of nowhere.

Recording machines, that despite being “so simple they operate themselves,” never seem to behave properly, foiling us at every possible interval. In fact, each of his nefarious ploys that he dreams up get thwarted.

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His wife comes home and they have a normal, healthy, human misunderstanding. Husbands get accidentally cut by razors, spill ink pots all over the desk, and wives innocently confuse the marginally different games of Russian Roulette and Russian Bank, worrying about the moods of said husbands.

The only flaw in Unfaithfully Yours, if we can call it that, is the fact that the husband has no open line of communication with his wife. Of course, not having it allows the film to cycle through each of its subsequent movements, thanks to our protagonist’s mercurial nature.

What I find most troubling about it is how he jumps too quickly to accusatory behavior in taking the higher moral ground. His better half is given the lower position as the doting wife, though her sincerity is never in question like his. I suppose it’s precisely why we must see Harrison acting like such a numbskull lunatic; we have a counterweight.

It’s true that the picture could have featured the pairings of Ronald Colman and Francis Ramden then James Mason and Gene Tierney at different intervals. Rex Harrison was brought on with Carole Landis to play his wife, only to have the actress replaced due to difficulties between her and Harrison. Landis is remembered today namely for her romantic ties to Harrison, her figure, and a terribly unfortunate, premature death.

It seems nearly impossible to separate the two as the picture’s release date was pushed back in part to the actresses death and her close romantic ties to Harrison (married to Lilli Palmer at the time). He was the last person to see her alive as well as one of the first people who discovered her body. While the parallels to this film aren’t altogether obvious, there’s nevertheless still some controversy swirling around both.

What we are left with is that Unfaithfully Yours is funny and then sad and then sadly funny again. We can’t laugh but we must just as life must be full of laughter. For it is one of the grandest antidotes for poison. The acerbic poison that crops up in people due to jealousy and distrust. The picture might be truer to life than we would care to admit. I’d generally be interested in hearing Rex Harrison’s thoughts. I guess we’ll never know. The viewing public in 1940s America certainly wasn’t ready for such a perversely pitch-black picture. It was probably too far ahead of its time. Even today it still maintains that sting of biting wit.

4/5 Stars