Swing Shift (1984): Underrated Classic with Caveats

Swing_shiftAside from films actually produced during the war years, I’m not sure if I can think of a film that highlights the homefront to the degree of Swing Shift. The soundtrack is also perfectly antiquated (sans Carly Simon) fitting the era and mood to add another definite dimension. It effectively takes us back with the auditory cues of Glenn Miller, Hoagy Carmichael, and the rest.

We read in our history books about Rosie the Riveter and women gaining a newfound freedom as they fell into work formerly held only by men. But here this reality is put into practice in a manner that makes tangible sense.

The events of the war happen to them as they walk along the pier, sit in their living rooms, or do their work. Instantly they become current events.

We understand the certain amount of independence women would have been allowed in this time, where they were given a part to play in the struggle against the Axis powers. War can simultaneously cause deep wells of tragedy and bring us the greatest joys.

Our relationships become entrenched with a profound camaraderie and yet we can hurt the ones we love. We change and they change. Things very rarely remain the same after something so cataclysmic.

There are several intentional and formative relational dynamics in Swing Shift. It is about two working women: Goldie Hawn and Christine Lathi. They are by each other’s side through the thick and thin of friendship. Putting in a solid day’s work and then getting dolled up to go out on the town. They’re inseparable. However, sometimes it’s relationships like these that can suffer the most.

It is about a husband (Ed Harris) and a wife (Hawn): one going off to war and the other staying behind — prepared to walk alone. This isn’t what they were planning, but it’s happened and they move forward through the paces of it the best they can. And yet life gets in the way — where time and space separates them — and makes the waiting and the worry all the more difficult.

It’s about a woman and a man who cannot contain the genuine feelings they foster for one another (In real life Kirk Russell and Goldie Hawn fell in love and never looked back). Because he is present, in the flesh, good-natured and available in a way her husband never was — even when he was around. And yet Lucky (Russell), when he’s not riding his motorbike or playing the trumpet, is a wounded soul in his own right. War only works to exacerbate the clouded emotions of the day and that goes for all these relationships. They are interconnected issues.

But I think this is the best compliment that can be paid to the story. Because sometimes it looks a bit like a TV soap, and the story doesn’t always fall together, and yet there is a broader sense of what this movie is and what the focal points must be. This I believe we can attribute to Jonathan Demme. It’s meant to be more than conventional romance and we get tastes of that.

I say tastes because Swing Shift also has to be one of the most notorious cases of artistic tampering, right up there with The Magnificent Ambersons or Terminal Station. Warner Bros., at the behest of Goldie Hawn, edited the movie and reconstructed the story after Demme had finished principal photography.

Aside from story or continuity questions causing a few head scratches, the issues seem to go deeper still. I am by no means an insider, but from what I can gather, Hawn’s version tried to center the story around her and Russell. There’s an obvious reason for this. They have more than chemistry. They have romance. However, it also attempted to simplify her image and rectify any conflict we might have with her character. In essence, the goal was to make her more likable.

It causes her to maintain some sense of moral dignity and still the movie ends on an unfulfilling, empty note. It’s as if some kind of greater catharsis was possible, and we are robbed of it all with a final tear and a whimper. The resolution is not quite a cop-out as it is an exercise in indecision. The picture dissolves when something more complex, something more evocative, was probably called for and just waiting to be excavated.

Someday I hope the Demme version might go back into circulation, not just so we can see the movie as it was meant to be seen, from the untarnished vantage point of its creator. That’s part of it. But there’s also a sense Demme attempted to develop something more full-bodied and well-contoured.

Hollywood is always obsessed with primary action — the characters at the center of the story — but so often what is most interesting is what remains on the periphery. The supporting characters or the elements of the world that make it come off the screen and feel real.

One is reminded of the moment a smartly dressed soldier boy comes up to one of the swing shift members (Holly Hunter). He’s there to give her the horrible news, and she knows it before the words leave his lips. She falls onto him and he apologizes — he’s never done this before. How horrible and pitiful and lovely it is because it feels so innocent and honest.

Moments like these are a testament to a movie with so much to offer, bubbling up under the surface. It’s a shame it was so badly mangled. We must be thankful for what we have and hold out that someday we might get to see the cut that kept to Demme’s vision. Here’s to hoping. For what, it’s worth, Swing Shift might well be an underrated classic with a couple substantial caveats to include.

3.5/5 Stars

The Young Philadelphians (1959): Paul Newman Takes on Family Skeletons

young phil

What’s most intriguing about The Young Philadelphians is how it manages to be a composite of several standalone genres. It’s a rags-to-riches tale. There’s romance. Stunning courtroom drama. But the sinew holding it together are sudsy soap opera tendencies.

Like most any life, our story begins before our main character, Tony Lawrence (Paul Newman), was ever born. Back in the old days, his mother (Diane Brewster) was to have a church wedding with William Lawrence III, a man who was desirable solely due to his family name. Being attentive to such things, Kate is happy to marry him — leaving behind a lifelong friend Mike Flannagan (Robert Keith) to drown his sorrows.

What unravels in a matter of seconds is the kind of juicy drama offering up Adam “Batman” West himself in a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it debut, though he does have a crucial role in the ensuing tale. There are implied sordid details that need not be parsed through now. Regardless, Kate is left as a widow and looks to raise up her infant son to bear the reputable name of Lawrence. He doesn’t know his protective mother is sitting on a stick of dynamite for the sake of her son.

Tony grows up to be a fine, strapping young man of substance. The instant magnetism of Paul Newman is on full display. Not animal magnetism but the kind of charisma that would keep him a beloved figure long after many of his peers from the Actors Studio had mostly dissolved and given way to younger talent. The intensity comes later.

For now, he’s a Princeton boy working in construction because it pays the bills, though his ambitions are to pursue law — all in due time. What follows at the worksite is a contrived meet-cute but no less delightful do to the instant charm of Paul Newman and Barbara Rush. Not only are they beautiful people, but they have a playful rapport to back it up.

Later, he attends a high society party — his mother hopes he can make some invaluable social contacts — but he consorts with Chester Gwyn (Robert Vaughan), a prodigal rich boy with greased back hair and a penchant for getting plastered. His relatives, who run his trust fund, heartily disapprove of his carrying on even as Tony impresses them.

The other person of interest is the same debutant, Joan Dickinson (Rush), who tells them all her classmates are married to very nice young fellows, cautious prudent young men with button-down families. All and all, they are representative of the idle and affluent segment of society looking to find a nice life for themselves complete with a fine salary, a gorgeous wife, and an equally gorgeous home to boot. For those who haven’t had to work like Tony, it sounds like utter drudgery. It’s a lifestyle that has eaten many people like Chet and Joan alive as it molds them into their assigned conventions.

In their own way, Tony and Joan look to pursue their own happiness which — although it fits within the confines of society — still has a hint of the reckless, impetuousness of youth. They still have enough fervor and passion in their chests to see the world as an idealistic space meant to be conquered. However, their parents have other plans for them…

In mere moments, the entire story careens in another direction with twists and turns worthy of a soap opera. Suddenly, the romance burning between them is snuffed out and sullied by insinuations. Tony learns the rules of the game the hard way. Society, as they know it, is built on the bedrock of backroom deals, saving face, and family reputations.

He resorts to making the connections, climbing the social ladder, and running into some old acquaintances. It’s in these crucial interludes where Newman channels his youthful intensity by ripping off the band-aid of a broken relationship and charging forward with a newfound tenacity. Under the circumstances, he foregoes the law firm of the reputable Mr. Dickinson (John Williams) and makes a name for himself in the service of someone else. He lands a big fish by swiping one of his largest clients (played by the perennially bubbly Billie Burke), who literally wanders into his office.

Even as he’s driven by his own private ambitions, Lawrence never completely sheds his conscience. He rebuffs the advances of his boss’s sex-crazed wife (Alexis Smith), stomping out an affair before it can begin.

With the passage of time, we are led to ponder how these lives could have ended differently if given the chance? Tony is still unmarried. Joan found a rich money bags, who unfortunately died fighting in Korea. The war also took Chet’s arm leaving him a crippled and degenerate drunk.

In fact, Vaughan gives the final act all he has, and he is one of the film’s unsung heroes; he provides some outward manifestation of the myriad of issues conveniently swept under the rug by the city’s foremost families. When he hits the papers with a murder rap pinned on him, it rattles all the skeletons buried in the closets. His patriarch, the esteemed Dr. Shippen Stearns even says, “individuals are less important than the whole.” What matters is coming out of the mess without a scandal.

I do adore Billie Burke particularly because we never saw enough of her in this later period of her career, and she still brings the same genial energy she always had in her golden years. She’s another outlier in the film’s stuffy landscape.

However, it’s also a test of Tony’s true character as he juggles his own reservations and allegiances to people like his mother and Chet. Joan reopens wounds, now a decade old, going to the core of who they are as human beings — their ambitions and the ways that they have been changed due to the hotbed of the surrounding society.

It’s the kind of scene I wanted to playback because it feels like it comes at us out of nowhere. She wants to hire another lawyer to take him out of the grinder — fearing he may have sold out again — and he proceeds to bristle knowing he never meant to sell out. At least not really. Their fight, if we can call it that, is what spurs him on in the courtroom. However, there is something else.

We remember where this story began. His mother is forced to tell him something about his untold life and what happened before he was born. Suddenly, this isn’t just a matter of someone else’s life — that would be enough — but this holds implications for his reputation and that of his mother’s. Everything hangs in the balance.

So when he gets to the courtroom the stakes are heady. But he comes at the case with a level of acumen and genuine discernment (although the judge does seem to be giving him far more favor than the prosecutor receives). This observation is mostly immaterial. He puts the key witness, George Archibald (Richard Deacon), up on the stand and does everything he’s been training his whole life to do.

Somehow he’s never spoken a truer word when he says, “I’m not as good as I hoped I could be, but I’m not as bad as I thought I was.” Let them sink in for a moment. As we look on, we see a man who has found his happy medium as he’s slowly learned to be contented with the life put before him without any regrets. He can walk out of that courtroom, his best girl in hand, confident that his reputation is intact, but most importantly his moral conscience is as well. And we are right there with him.

3.5/5 Stars

Bhowani Junction (1956) and Racial Identity

Bhowani_Junction

“It’s about time the Lord started making all human beings the same on the outside as well as the same on the inside.” – Stewart Granger as Col. Rodney Savage

“They’d only change it back again, the moment his back was turned.” – Ava Gardners as Victoria Jones

Some will easily take offense with Bhowani Junction for its portrayals. To be sure, it’s working in terms of imperialism, British-Indian relations, and biracial identity. Oftentimes Westerners, and Hollywood in particular, are suspect of taking an oversimplified, superficial perspective when we represent other cultures. It could be the “White Man’s Burden,” The Nobel Savage archetype, or even “The Tragic Mulatto.”

Certainly, a lot of these stereotypes — now decades later — aren’t only indicative of a skewed or misguided sense of portrayal. Rather they get maintained through prolonged underrepresentation. It starts with ignorance and the kind of clumsy cultural shorthand that tries to make sense of other people who are different than ourselves. However, its continued pervasiveness lasts partially because it’s never fleshed out or totally dismantled by a flood of new portrayals. In many cases, we’re still getting over this very same hump in the 21st century.

For this reason alone, Bhowani Junction makes an admirable go at offering a slightly different perspective. It’s hard to say the Indian characters get to reclaim their own story because this narrative is still dominated by colonialism like its predecessors.

Granted, we must also still court issues of whitewashing (if not simply with Ava Gardner). You have both Bill Travers and Francis Matthews playing a mixed-race and a native Indian respectively. It feels especially regrettable since an actor like Sabu was passed over for a role.

Likewise, there is something convenient about Gardner ending up with the strapping white man (her fellow Anglo-Indian dies a sacrificial death). Meanwhile, the kindly Sikh she nearly marries out of gratitude is forgotten in the wake of ensuing drama. Still, these are only a few qualms.

The backdrop of the story is of vital importance in order to contextualize what’s going on. The British Empire’s foothold in India is crumbling. You have the peaceful protests of Gandhi sweeping the country. Meanwhile, more militant riots are being instigated by a local troublemaker named Davay (Peter Illing). Deciphering the socio-political climate is hardly easy and that’s why the conquerors usually got it wrong wherever they wind up.

The curious thing is how Bhowani Junction is not about holding the empire together. One of its main representatives, Colonel Rodney Savage (Stewart Granger), knows it’s only a matter of time before it crumbles. What gains importance is the process of leaving well. The primary objective is based on creating stability and relinquishing power honorably with as little bloodshed and animosity as possible.

It’s people like Victoria (Gardner) and her childhood friend Patrick Taylor (Bill Travers) who must figure out where they fit into this narrative. However, it’s noteworthy that the dissociation going on inside her own being goes beyond existing as a mere social pariah. Far from being an outcast, she’s a respected member of the British military and not completely rejected by the local Indian population.

Still, she is different than both. It’s reality and she must come to terms with it. What presents itself is a surprisingly unique perspective for 1950s Hollywood and even if it is imperfect, it proves willing to grapple with history in an altogether different manner. Thus, Bhowani Junction is a welcomed contour of 1950s Hollywood filling in and shading a cross-section of society we very rarely see.

Subsequently, the film does is offer up a case study of racial identity with Gardner caught between three men representative of the three “cultures” tugging at her very being. Because Victoria Jones, half-English, half-Indian, has her affections and allegiances split threefold.

However, Bhowani Junction adds a bit more nuance when it comes to the representation of biracial characters. I will dance around these lines gingerly as I know some might vehemently disagree. I can only speak from my own experience as someone who grew up with a similar background. Even if I am rarely accustomed to this kind of racism or private dissonance, questions of my own identity still creep into my mind from time to time. It’s only natural.

Yes, the romance with Granger and the melodramatics might fall within the realm of accepted convention, but under Cukor’s sympathetic eye, Gardner comes at the part with a ferocity — giving it her all. One particularly scarring moment involves a devastating rape scene.

Far from being a mere lynchpin of the narrative, it’s actually suffused with the terror and concern it should rightfully engender. What a horrible experience to be privy to as Gardner struggles for her life by the local train tracks. In truth, it left the actress so affected she had to make peace with her onscreen aggressor (Lionel Jeffries) off-camera. It’s graphic in movement and emotion and that’s terrifying enough.

Amid the foreseeable beats, there is a far more intimate and engaging story attempting to court themes of a far more personal nature. The hubbub and crowded train depots are momentarily diverting, but they are not Cukor’s prime concern nor his forte. He’s no Demille or David Lean. Give him the relationships, person-to-person, and on this scale, he is a wonderful handler.

Cukor also remains vindicated by history. Because the epiphany that his original structure was ruthlessly bastardized by the studio, through hastily constructed voiceover and other such shortcuts, gives me greater faith in the man. It’s only a shame we cannot see his personal cut of the movie. Not only does the thrown-together bookend narration kill the climax, it feels stilted, wrecking the basic integrity of our story. Alas, what could have been.

3.5/5 Stars

The Barefoot Contessa (1954): A Cinderella Story

Screenshot 2020-04-18 at 51159 PM

While it shares elements with the earlier Pandora and The Flying Dutchman in both its techniques and the mystique projected around Ava Gardner, The Barefoot Contessa ultimately evolves and settles into the narrative rhythms one might expect from its creative partners.

Jack Cardiff returns to give Ava Gardner phenomenal lighting and color — flattering her complexion — beams bursting with radiance and vibrant pigmentation. The extraordinary tones of the cinematography are married with Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s penchant for substantial but well-wrought dialogue and a kind of suave dinner repartee dating back to the days of All About Eve. Likewise, the spine of the story is derived from a very conspicuous novelistic device — starting at the end to illuminate the beginning.

Because someone has died. There is a funeral in the gloom of a rainy day in Spain. Although rain falls mainly on the plain, that is no concern of ours. Instead, we meet the onlookers from many walks of life, all sheltered (for the most part) under their respective umbrellas.

Humphrey Bogart is Harry Dawes a veteran movie director and screenwriter halfway around the world from Hollywood & Vine, attending the funeral of one of the industry’s incandescent starlets who burned out far too quickly.

As is commonplace with many of these self-reflexive industry portraits popular specifically during the 1950s, you begin to suspect where stories gleaned their inspirations by weaving fact and fiction together into a new amalgam of the Hollywood dream factory.

This tale of a nightclub singer in Madrid rising to the heights of Hollywood is hardly a far cry from other real-life origin stories. Rita Hayworth was reborn as a screen goddess and eventually married a prince. Lana Turner was discovered at a drug store counter or the likes of Linda Darnell and Ava Gardner herself had Hollywood contracts thrust upon them at such an early age. In other words, this wasn’t just another wishful Hollywood story. There are obvious antecedents floating around the industry.

The world is instantly placeable. Flamenco guitar. The unmistakable Enzo Staiola from the Bicycle Thief as a busboy (in Spain no less). What sets Maria Vargas apart is her startling frankness, hardly enamored with the movie industry.

She makes a startling first impression as much for what she won’t do as for what she does. Because she’s a very hard girl to see — not easily swayed by Hollywood glitz — and terribly grounded when it comes to what she wants for her career.

The wheeling-dealing P.R. man Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien) talks up what she has to look forward to, continually dabbing his forehead with his hanky from his exuberant bouts of hyperventilation. Meanwhile, the tense and controlling financier, Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens), sits by expecting everyone to cave to his will.

He’s no Hollywood wunderkind, but he has money to finance the industry’s next big hit. His money speaks and so Dawes and Muldoon follow his lead. He makes the world turn. Maria Vargas knows no such convention. She is the master and perfecter of her own destiny.

Harry’s the first person she feels akin to; he’s a real person without throwing around the pretense of his purported fame. Meanwhile, she’s not completely ignorant of the movie industry, throwing around the names of Lombard and Harlow, Lubitsch, Van Dyke, and La Cava from the golden days.

Even as the lovely dancer sets her sites on Hollywood, she carves out an individual path. She began as an untouchable with no interest in the enticements of men or romance promised by the industry around her.

Because she knows who she is and her grounded roots are signified by her affinity for having her feet in the dirt. You can’t easily change someone to the core of their being. Though she’s not Spanish nor does she exude the qualities of a girl from humble means (looks can be deceiving), Garnder makes the most of it.

There are men jockeying for her affections (or at least ownership of her career) among them Kirk and a frivolous Latin American gigolo, Alberto Bravano (Marius Goring). He is little better, enslaved by his own excesses be it gambling or drink. The man who admires her from a distance and subsequently takes her away from the place is Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi), the closest thing to a decent man she’s ever had in her life thus far.

barefoot contessa 1

Harry remains a steadfast friend and a protector of Maria when the world seems full of ravenous wolves and superficial opportunists. He knows Maria better than most; she owns an acute Cinderella complex, looking for her Prince Charming, even if the glass slippers were never meant for her. The Count seems to be the man. Alas, in life midnight often strikes and there’s no way to reclaim the time. Her fairy tale ends in tragedy.

No fault of her own, I never felt the weight or magnitude of Maria and the loss of her life. The way the story continually circles “the round” of funeral guests somehow hinders us even though the myriad of perspectives are meant to help us comprehend her better.

I found myself wanting more Bogart or at least more O’Brien, who gives an impeccable showbiz send-up, but when topics turned to the other men in Maria’s life, the story grows turgid and uninteresting — partially alienating the audience. They were never established in the same way nor do I have the kind of instant rapport with Goring or Brazzi that I instantly feel for Bogart.

Most regrettably, Gardner’s performance is never truly allowed to cast a spell of enchantment aside from a few intermittent scenes. Yes, once again, she’s remarkably beautiful and Jack Cardiff’s camera does wonders to ignite her God-given features in an extraordinary light. When she dances with gypsies or wanders through grand estates in luxuriant gowns, she has powers to entrance the audience.

However, her actual performance — going beyond her casting as a Spaniard — never seems to play to her true strengths. If I may be so bold, I never consider her much of an actress, but she’s at her most sublime playing shades of who she really was or at least what her reputation made her out to be.

I look at Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, even in its heightened state of reality, or Mogambo and The Night of The Iguana, and I feel like I know and understand Gardner a bit more intimately in and through her performances. Perhaps this is precisely the point, but in The Barefoot Contessa, we only know her due to the recollections of others.

For me, she is merely another portrait of inevitable rising and falling human tragedy. Unfortunately Hollywood has engendered many of those storylines. She feels more like the postscript to other people’s stories than the definitive protagonist of her own biography.

Because a Barefoot Contessa is such a stirring image, both dissonant and complex, well-worth eulogizing about. Sadly, it never harnesses all its assets, and when the credits roll it feels inconsequential at best and at worst disrespectful.

Such a woman deserved a better remembrance. If nothing else, it’s a sad commentary suggesting a woman’s legacy is made by the men who helped shape her and are consequently the ones who live to tell her story. The Pygmalions might live in regret, but it is their creations who are buried in the dirt. “Che Sara Sara” feels like too pat an answer for this tragic Cinderella story.

But, after all, this is Hollywood we’re talking about where it’s tempting to mold everyone into easily digestible, one-dimensional media icons ready for immediate consumption. For all their glamour and tabloid-worthy headlines, Rita, Lana, Linda, and Ava (as well as any other Hollywood casualty) were human beings too.

3.5/5 Stars

Pandora and The Flying Dutchman (1951): Love Across Time and Space

ava gardner pandora 4

Albert Lewin’s romantic fable opens in Esperanza on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. If the director is a generally unknown name, then Jack Cardiff might just as easily draw your attention with his distinct, intoxicating color tones. It’s true the picture opens with a wonderful shot perched from a bell tower. It’s sounding the alarm and, true to form, all the local populations are flooding the beach.

As we get closer, we see what has elicited such a rapid response: a boat beached on the shoreline. How it got there is really the whole reason for telling this story. Geoffrey Fielding (Harold Warrender) is a distinguished and learned fellow of linguistics and ancient antiquities who was an observer of these curious events.

However, he also proves an apt entry point into the story, which is fundamentally obscured from the outset. The erudite chap helps us out by recounting the details, how they happened from the beginning. Breaking with Hollywood convention, for some puzzling reason, he speaks directly to us, and it’s just as well. The movie is replete with these kinds of mystifying pieces of logic.

Whether it’s something in the water, the air, or just the script, characters float through scenes in this mesmerizing near-dream state. Nearly every male, in particular, orbits around a woman named Pandora (Ava Gardner) as if she is the Sun at the center of their solar system. Drunkards, race car drivers, artists, matadors — it’s all the same — and the gorgeous nightclub singer from the Carolinas seems to welcome their advances.

While Pandora Reynolds is not Ava Gardner exactly, it’s difficult not to see how the part plays on her own reputation — one of beauty, high times, and carousing with a penchant for drama. She famously moved to Spain to get away from Hollywood (and probably Frank Sinatra) only to make a life for herself abroad.

Again, this is not an exact representation of Gardner, but Pandora tosses men around like playthings. She gets emotional highs off other people’s passionate pronouncements of romance. She’s also an impertinent even impetus woman who measures love in the most reckless ways with a hedonistic comprehension.

One man (Marius Goring) turns into a blithering alcoholic falling over himself with jealousy. Another man (Nigel Patrick), madly in love with her, gladly pushes his most prized possession — a racing car — off a cliff into the oceans below as a show of devotion. She agrees to an impromptu marriage in its wake. He’s proved his undying commitment at her behest.

However, there is someone else, a Dutchman named Hendrik van der Zee (James Mason), who is quite different. She is drawn to him; his ship is anchored off the coast and she swims toward it — the solitary light it casts in the night sky. For the first time, someone is unphased by her allure and the directness she goes about her affairs.

In fact, he somehow knows more about her than she knows about herself. He’s an artist painting her or at least painting Pandora and her box as she is a present embodiment of a creature who was incarnated eons before. In this way, Pandora and The Flying Dutchman evokes a broader scale by turning a belle, Pandora Reynolds, into a transcendent archetype. It trades worldly coincidence for the heights of mythology.

When Mason and Gardner witness each other for the first time — both garnering a striking closeup — we know we’re in for something ignited with the flames of passion.  Because they’re both the picture of attractive Hollywood A-Listers. Mason, of course, started out in the U.K. and this is a British production but he would hop the pond soon enough.

mason and gardner 2

From thenceforward, the movie is ruled by this uncanny lucidity bridging the years between encounters across time and space. Mason brings with him an aura of his own, and there’s a newfound mystical ecstasy around the frames.

Still, there is some semblance of reality. Pandora Reynolds is to be married. Another past suitor, a cocksure Matador (Mario Cabre), is quick and bold in his new professions of love. Whereas the Dutchman lets her go, the bullfighter tries as brashly as he can to pull her away from the man she is betrothed to. He probably believes rightfully so that she doesn’t truly love her fiancee. It’s more of a token agreement based on his devotion.

Because while the racecar driver is a miserable sot and probably oblivious to the kind of wavelength all the other characters seem to speak and react on, the Matador knows who his true rival is. It goes unspoken and yet he goes to the Dutchman to have it out.

In one of the most curious scenes splitting with any shred of reality and narrative logic, there is a confrontation, a murder, a nightmare — whatever you want to call it. And yet inexplicably the story wakes up the next morning as if nothing has happened.

James Mason and Ava Gardner and Geoffrey take their places at the bullfight only to watch the famed Matador get gored to death. The fates of love are not working in his favor.

If you’ll remember, Pandora and The Flying Dutchman opened with the beaching of a ship with bodies aboard. In the end, this hardly seems to matter. It is material only on this celestial sphere we call earth where living and breathing are of the utmost importance. This is a story not so much concerned with such mundane themes. Instead, it tackles love on this cosmic scale spanning the centuries even the millennia and brings people together like ships passing through the nights of time.

They conquer death — and we are led to believe even eternity — for the sake of their all-encompassing love. The grandiose metaphors are always arresting and make one’s heart swell with an appreciation for the throes of romance. Gardner and Mason aren’t a bad couple to hang our hopes on in this regard even if the narrative shards feel thin or at the very least discombobulating.

It’s more an exercise in Delphic style than it is riveting storytelling and yet there is something moderately powerful in working in ambiguous shades of dream-like reality, where players walk around in this heightened state bursting with almost obscene amounts of color. Romance is considered in these glorious arenas of speed racing and bullfighting and then stretches across great fathoms of time into the annals of history and myth itself. There’s nothing subtle about it, and visually it’s too gorgeous not to appreciate on that level alone.

3.5/5 Stars

The Night of The Iguana (1964) and The God-Shaped Hole

night of the iguana 2

It’s a Sunday morning in St. James Episcopal Church. The minister pulls his sermon from Proverbs 25:28: “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” But there is an elephant in the room, an unspoken force coming between the shepherd and his sheep. He starts to stutter before he erupts in an indignant tirade lambasting his parishioners.

There’s something unsettling in seeing Richard Burton as a minister. I would have felt a similar unease with Peter Finch as a preacher (he was a surgeon in A Nun’s Story). Although it’s true, the similarly resonant actor, Richard Todd portrayed one of the most sincere clergymen ever in A Man Called Peter.

But Burton has the largest and most volatile personalities of all three.  So when he loses his train of thought during his Sunday sermon, perched from his pulpit, it’s not altogether unwarranted watching him implode on the spot. We expect as much.

It feels like Reverend Lawrence T. Shannon (Richard Burton) has inherited the lectern from Barabara Stanwyck in Miracle Women, though his conflict is more difficult to sort out. It’s as much about the watch-dog hypocrisy in his own church as it is his personal crises of conscience. We don’t know what his presumed sins are, but as the pews clear and he thunders down the aisles, he calls out the fleeing congregants, denouncing them thusly:

“You’ve turned your backs on the God of love and compassion and invented for yourselves this cruel, senile, delinquent who blames the world and all that he created for his own faults! Close your windows. Close your doors! Close your hearts – against the truth of our God! ”

Be that as it may and totally regardless of his innocence or guilt, the next moment we see Shannon, he’s fallen to a new low — taking a busload of Texas schoolteachers down through Mexico so he can serve as their tour guide past all the religious relics below the border.

night of the iguana 3

What a sorry figure he is — a tortured, broken, smarmy man just trying to get by. This portrayal is generally enhanced by the realization that Richard Burton, though he probably grew up in The Church of England, was at the very least a cultural atheist. Nor does he come off as a ministerial type. He was notorious for drinking like a fish. Meanwhile, his highly publicized off-screen tryst with Elizabeth Taylor was commanding the contemporary tabloid covers. It all fits into this conflicted, mercurial performance of his. Hardly likable but strangely compelling for all its wild instabilities.

James Garner is said to have turned down the role because “it was just too Tennessee Williams” for his taste. He’s not wrong and frankly as much as I love him to death, the part wouldn’t have fit. Burton can carry it off because his demons, whether real or imagined, are far more visible onscreen.

However, there is another pressing question. How in the world do you get the creative marriage of John Huston and Tennessee Williams? I’m not sure if you could call it a perfect match, but it’s ceaselessly interesting. It’s a new side of Mexico — in the fishing village of Puerto Vallarta — well after The Treasure of The Sierra Madre. Consequently, the setting seems a bit left-of-center for typical Williams fare even as the sordid dramatic content is much what we would expect. In the middle somewhere the two men meet.

The words from Proverbs are easily recalled as the disgraced Reverend finds himself being pursued by a loquacious young blonde (Sue Lyon continuing in her Lolita vein). She finds him easy to talk to and fascinating — his life is engaged with people’s souls and yet he’s young and virile. Charlotte takes a dip with him innocently enough and still notes she could never do this with the preacher back home in Texas.

It’s the first sign of hot coals. He wants nothing of her coquettish advances even as the acerbic chaperone Ms. Fellowes (Grayson Hall) watches him like a hawk — ruling over the girl with an iron fist of ascetic repression. It makes her a tiresome thorn in Shannon’s side; he’s about ready to go mad. Eventually, he does.

Having just about enough of their campfire songs and rigid drudgery, he shanghais the busload of priggish Baptist schoolteachers, taking them on a harrowing ride, bumping their way down the dusty backroads. He screeches to a halt, jumps out, rips out the distributor head, and proceeds to streak up the hillside with his suitcase. They might as well be in the middle of nowhere.

For the sake of this movie, they are not. The tropical Costa Verde hotel is hidden up in the forest overlooking the water, and it just happens to be run by an old friend of Shannon’s. Fred is dead, but his wife, the larger-than-life Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner), is still running the place. She’s an earthy force to be reckoned with indebted to Gardner’s lively showing.

If not for her, Burton would probably steal the show, but he’s met with another gale storm of enduring cheerfulness and utter obstinance. Their impact is such you almost forget about Deborah Kerr. Sure enough, she appears on their doorstep as the peripatetic painter, Hannah Jelkes, who travels with her grandfather, a diminutive, 98-year-old poet.

night of the iguana 1

Though the other two dominate the screen, she quietly commands it. When Gardner and Burton get to shoving the drink cart at one another, it is Kerr who becomes their unofficial mediator. Because she is a voice of reason, an artist with a pensive gaze, and a surprisingly lucid perspective despite her meager lifestyle.

Later Charlotte bursts into Shannon’s room yet again causing him unwanted torment as she tries to get him to go away with her. She’s very good at stirring up men’s hearts and instigating mini scandals in the process. In another scene, a fistfight for her affections breaks out between the tour’s bus driver (Skip Ward), and some local boys replete with music, maracas, and stereotypical flourishes. Huston plays it for a laugh. It’s inconsequential if not altogether inane.

Because it is from the stage, The Night of The Iguana does seem to stall. Eventually, the bus leaves without Shannon and the second half of the story feels like an existential dialogue more than anything else. It could be a dead-end, though on the merit of our three established stars, it remains something intermittently though-provoking if not entirely compelling.

The curious thing is how the adversary melts away. True, the bus leaves with both his temptation and condemnation and yet he has pity even on his adversary. “Miss Fellowes is a highly moral person. If she ever recognized the truth about herself it would destroy her.” He recognizes her as another conflicted, constricted creature — a fellow Iguana tied up to a post.

With the bottom dropped out of his life, Shannon wants to swim to China, seemingly a handy euphemism for ending it all. He’s taken to the brink of his wits, lashing out at Maxine and anyone else who will avail him. It’s Kerr who rules the final act amid the paucity of moral rectitude. She perceives that his version of Golgotha is on a green hillside overlooking the water. His cross being strung up in a hammock on the verandah. In comparison, it seems like a fairly cushy alternative. She strips him down to who he really is.

Far from condemning him, Jelkes feels strangely sincere and genuine, particularly for Williams. She perceives that his problem revolves around “The need to believe in something or in someone — almost anyone — almost anything.” It’s Augstine or Pascal’s God-shaped hole rehashed. Likewise, she deflects his metaphors. She is not a bird but a human being. Nothing human disgusts her except if it’s unkind or violent. What extraordinary statements they are, and Kerr delivers them with a perfectly composed performance.

As each person tries to decipher their own religion or least some semblance of existential understanding, whether through legalism, drink, or sex, even cutting Iguana’s lose as a private act of personal Godship, she’s the one character who brings down the thoughts and words of the wise and makes them feel foolish.

For a film suffused with a great deal of religiosity, she’s startling unprepossessing. And yet in her words and in her humanity are the roots of something bountiful and beautiful in their very simplicity. It’s the kind of simplicity that can help loosen the Iguana from the hitching post, where we find out by sojourning, it’s possible to fill up the vacuum inside each and every one of us.

4/5 Stars

Mogambo (1953): John Ford Updates Red Dust

Mogambo

Whether it’s apocryphal or not the term “Mogambo” is purported to be the Swahili word for “passion,” although it’s difficult to know if this was only hearsay propagated by westerners (now including myself).

Regardless, it boasts an intriguing if altogether curious assemblage of talent. One would be remiss not to acknowledge John Ford as the story looks ripe for his kind of gripping panoramas. What’s lovely about the exterior shots is how it feels like a new prairie — a new landscape for Ford to photograph and bring his exemplary eye for portraiture and compositional space to.

Against this backdrop you have both people and animals living in this symbiotic give and take of aggression and nurturing — in some ways hearkening back to the primordial roots of Adam and Eve taking care of creatures in the Garden. Is it a stretch to wax lyrical in such a way? For another director, it’s quite possible, but because Ford was always the propagator of myth and parables it seems only fitting to use this language to describe the picture.

On a more pragmatic note, Mogambo is Red Dust transplanted to the African plains and maintaining the heavy influences of Western Imperialism. Though there is one fine concession, a “score” made up entirely of Congolese tribal music providing what feels like an authentic backbeat and rhythm to the movie. Otherwise, it’s a Hollywood Technicolor extravaganza in toto, albeit one delivered courtesy of Pappy Ford.

The plot isn’t of exceptional interest given the fact it already has antecedents in other movies, and it feels especially antiquated now. However, it’s also a double-edged sword as they don’t make any movies quite like this anymore, and so there’s a certain amount of novelty in the established panoply.

Vic Marsell (Clark Gable) is a big game hunter for pay in the modern world. Eloise “Honey Bear” Kelly — a real firecracker of a woman (Ava Gardner) — winds up at their secluded outpost on the invitation of a maharajah. The main problem is the man picked up and left without bothering to tell her. She’s good and stranded.

Her attempts to make her way back to civilization don’t work so well, and their outpost becomes quite the mating ground with the arrival of a callow man of learning (Donald Sinden) and his wife (Grace Kelly). You need not be a soothsayer to wager a guess what might happen in this sweltering country.

Ava Garner’s no Harlow gold, and she doesn’t have to be. If it’s not plainly obvious, she’s Ava Garder, a cloying, sassy icon in her own right more than capable of finding her place among the animals and everyone else on the African Safari.

She’s a barrel of laughs to have around, and she has a quip for every occasion be it Secretary birds or (Bobby) Thompson’s Gazelles. Consequently, she also proves herself to be an incorrigible pot-stirrer and, thus, the film’s most enchanting asset.

While Gable still feels adequate doing the rounds as his prototypical gruff hero (over 20 years after his initial success), Gardner gives off this sensual aura of sport and irreverence. Grace Kelly has the naive sheen of a prim and proper anthropologist’s wife out for an adventure, which of course, she is.

Given our players and Ford’s manning of the romantic drama, it’s the broader themes paired with the laid-back sense of fun — reminiscent of a Howard Hawk’s picture — that become the most agreeable moments.  This is before it burns with the imminent flames of passion.

Every detail and accent of the environment seem to reinforce the romantic tensions creating these parallels between mating rituals out in the wild and their human equivalents. It’s an open-air Noah’s ark. Every creature is looking for its respective mate.

Ava Gardner pacing with her parasol joined by the Leopard pacing in its cage. A lion in the bush growling for a lioness. Hippos fighting in the local riverbed no doubt over a female companion. There are even polygamous males in the local communities with tribal premarital rituals to guarantee fidelity.

In lieu of a flood, Mogambo swipes the famous storm scene from Red Dust, but it’s punctuated by a singular moment of its own. It’s the first sign of electricity. Gable yanks off Grace Kelly’s headscarf and brings it about her neck with a forceful tug. Nothing else happens, but the animalistic fury and the passion is obvious, matching both the animals and the weather right outside the window.

There is another element we could consider and as I don’t like to spend too much time on these things, I only mention it in light of the film. Garble and Kelly famously had a romantic fling on set. Far from being a real-life love triangle — Gardner was still married to a devoted Frank Sinatra at the time — the younger starlet went to her elder for worldly counsel. And she provided it. If intuition proves correct, Gable wasn’t a far cry from the man he portrayed in this film, at least when women were concerned.

It’s no coincidence, the final act takes them out into the jungle in pursuit of gorillas, “the truest link between man and his primordial derivation,” although a local father might have a word or two to say on the origin of species — Man in particular. Soon thereafter, relationships get more complicated and they begin to splinter under pressure as per the expected conventions.

If I can make a summation, you come to Mogambo for how the milieu informs the romance and not the other way around. Length catches up with it in the end with the steaminess slowly burning off. What we are left with are the palette and the performances. It’s well nigh enough to make this movie spectacular entertainment. Fans of either Ford, Gable, Gardner, or Princess Grace should at least prick up their ears. Although, in the end, Ava steals the show.

3.5/5 Stars

The Uninvited (1944) and Stella by Starlight

To place my cards on the table, next to the ouija boards and ghost catchers, I’m not always fond of haunted house movies because how many truly original iterations can you have out of one premise? Granted, there are lots of houses in the world, but how do you make each one stand out among the crowd? If it’s not obvious already I’m already originating from a place of skepticism and apathy. There you have it.

There is some good news. Although The Uninvited won’t exactly make a convert out of me, it is freed up by the fact it was the instigator of many of the archetypes the genre holds onto even to this day. Since this is a movie from the 1940s, the onus is not on the picture to be pop-out scary; instead, it uses its assets of music, mood, and atmosphere to project an inedible impression.

The brother-sister relationship between Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey on the screen is not so common in movies, and you could easily see them playing romantic partners in another movie. The novelty is agreeable enough as they gayly happen upon an old house in Cornwall that they are just thrilled to see since it reminds them of warm childhood memories.

So they walk in of their own accord — their yippy dog scurrying after a squirrel in a fairly spectacular bit of choreography — waltzing around the place just as if they own the place. They have no misgivings until they walk up to an eery room overlooking the cliffside. Just being there makes them heavy and already we have a portent of things to come.

As it turns out, the siblings get an opportunity to buy Windward House and at a real steal too. The owner, a somber commander named Beech (Donald Crisp), is more than happy to get rid of it even as his earnest granddaughter (Gail Russell) can’t bear to see the place leave their possession. You might say she has an attachment, even a compulsion to be there. The old man goes so far as to say the house is filled with malignity against the girl.

Still, brother and sister get their wish, moving in, setting up their housekeeper, and trying to get acclimated. What the sibling dynamic does tease out are other romantic interests. Roderick, for one, is fascinated by the “sleeping beauty magic” about the girl Stella, even as they got off on a bit of a wrong foot.

When they finally do make amends, there’s a conviviality born between them. As a musician and one-time music critic, he plays her quite the tribute: none other than “Stella by Starlight.” It’s an immortal tune, and it also, coincidentally, was composed by Victor Young just for this picture. It becomes a haunting song of lament and romance on par with the entrancing theme from Laura also released the same year. It’s yet another case of music having such a mesmerizing grip on a movie.

If the aura around Laura is one adaptable touchstone, another closely related one is the unnerving ambiance of Rebecca. Daphne du Maurier’s novel, turned into the well-remembered Hitchcock drama, played with this same spectral sense of the otherwordly. The house, Manderley, became a character in its own right, and the deceased first Mrs. De Winter effectively made it into her eternal haunt. As an embodiment of obsessive devotion, Mrs. Danvers played so forebodingly by Judith Anderson, knows few equals.

Much of The Uninvited is about set-up and even the delay tactics bringing us to the point of release. It rarely confronts us only inhabiting the corners and peripheries of the story and milking Charles Lang’s delicious cinematography for every drop of darkness it’s worth. It has a lot to offer.

For instance, there are wailing and moaning noises in the middle of the night. Word of some apparition. Smells of mimosa that flood the air on other occasions. At a later date, their housekeeper raves about a crawling mist upstairs. It’s all very peculiar.

Alan Napier comes into the story as a voice of refined observation — a local physician who partners with them. He effectively brings clarity to the situation by disclosing some of the local history. You see, Stella’s mother died on the edge of the cliffs many years before under tragic circumstances.

If anything, it gives the Fitzgeralds more reason to worry about Stella’s well-being. They somehow decide the best option is to face the spirit head-on with a seance. It’s taken for granted that something exists; this is not a total figment of their overactive imaginations.

And it’s true, something fills up the room. There’s a look in the girl’s eyes of terrible happiness, a possessed euphoria. She’s resolute throughout the entire film; if they destroy that house, they’ll be destroying her. In some unexplainable way, it is a sanctuary for her.

Ultimately, the captain sends her away to a sanitarium run by a local plaster saint, Miss Holloway. Her reputation proceeds her; she’s renowned around town for her charity and stately benevolence. However, up close and personal, it’s only too evident there’s something suspect about her. She obviously still harbors a deep affection for the deceased Mrs. Meredith, championing her memory for future generations. It lends the movie yet another level of subtext.

From thenceforward we deal in ghosts, twists of exposition, and jumps in internal logic that must be parsed through. I’m often not a stickler for plot details, but it felt like The Uninvited ultimately relies on them too much. There are some genuine instances of dread or at the very least intrigue, but I’m more enamored with the Lauras and Rebeccas of the world. Their mystery manages to linger over me.

With The Uninvited my greatest takeaway was “Stella by Starlight” and the starring turn for Gail Russell. She, of course, would remain a bright hopeful in Hollywood for a few more years until alcoholism crippled her career and her personal life. However, within the frames of this movie, she is still brimming with the buoyancy of youth. It’s a pleasure to see her in such a place. If nothing else, I consider this a victory. “Stella by Starlight” might as well be a eulogy to a shooting star that burned out far too quickly.

3.5/5 Stars

Arise, My Love (1940): Milland and Colbert

arise my love milland and colbert

“Arise, my fair love and come away” – Song of Solomon 2:13

The screenplays of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder are often literal master classes in hooking the audience. They understand intuitively the construction necessary to bring us into a story so we’re invested. Take the opening of Arise, My Love. Yes, there’s some throw-away text about the Spanish Civil War in the summer of 1939. It’s in the aftermath, but then we’re introduced to a telling scene.

One of these soldiers of fortune, American Tom Martin (Ray Milland) sits in confinement as a father (Frank Puglia) from the local monastery pays him a visit. The firing squads right outside his annex make it painfully clear the hour of his own execution is imminent. Those aren’t rubber bullets. The man of faith feels some urgency to ask the prisoner if he even feels penitent — if he needs to clear his chest of anything.

All this sounds rote so far. Anyone could write this scene like so. Then, individuality sets in. Instead of contrition, he bemoans the fact he didn’t get into the action with Chamberlain and Hitler nor has he gotten a chance to take potshots at Nazis. It has the vitriolic gallows wit of Wilder setting up the gag.

Here’s the kicker. The inevitable is whisked right out from under Martin by the most unexpected of Providences. He’s been granted a pardon! It came through the pleading of his wife! It’s an obvious punchline if I know Wilder (and Brackett): he has no wife!

This plucky mystery woman (Claudette Colbert) is a reporter out for a story and boy does she has a way of making a doozy of a spread. They get out of the scenario thanks to her charm, his flying, and a bit of luck.

We are reminded the movie is planted squarely in its moment from the headlines about the Yankees in the World Series and the hunt for Scarlet O’Hara finally being over. Tom was among three American flyboys, who are a group of idealistic interventionists siding with the little guys against the big boys.

Paris, the city of amour, is still free from Nazi influence, and the pilot does his best to channel what’s already in the air. “Gusto” rebuffs him — albeit good-naturedly — because she’s an all-or-nothing gal. She knows if she says “yes” she’ll be head over heels. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. But she’s a career woman.

Now Claudette Colbert doesn’t quite strike me as a typewriter-plunking type like Rosalind Russell or Barbara Stanwyck — one of the boys as it were — but she comes off as deliriously happy. Because it feels like she’s in her element again in this world, whether or not it’s totally manufactured by Hollywood. As her slighted suitor sits in the Cafe Magenta just betting she’ll walk over from her hotel, she looks to climb the journalistic ladder.

She’s dropped with quite the gig: Special Berlin Correspondent. The previous correspondent was kindly asked to leave by the Nazis. Among other infractions, he went to a reception for Herr von Ribbentropp and yelled “Gefilte Fish!”

The agitated editor (Walter Abel) is a long-running trope, but here it works as well as it did anywhere else in that he provides yet another antagonistic force to push against our heroine. Although, given the state of the world, she hardly needs it. He more likely serves as a bit of comic relief.

Because while Tom decides to go off to Warsaw, Poland to fly with his buddies (“I’ve always wanted to drop something on Hamburg after I got ptomaine from that hamburger”), while simultaneously stealing a few more hours with Gusto, Hitler rudely kicks off WWII. They plan to get out of town on the fated S.S. Athenia. No one told them the battle for the Atlantic has already geared up. Though hit hard, they are luckier than most. At the end of the day, Tom and Gusto are still together (and alive)…

Screenshot 2020-03-30 at 81502 PM

If you humor me for only a moment, there is a habit that can get me into trouble. Reading other people’s reviews. I’m as insecure as the next fellow about my writing. I could never do it as good as so-and-so or why didn’t think of that! That’s all that comparison gets you. Worse yet it can start infecting your own point of view if you consider other voices. Usually, I hold off until after my words are set in cement.

However, in a rare instance, I happen upon a contemporary review of Bosley Crowther, and it gave birth to some thoughts. He ends his piece on Arise, My Love in this manner:

“It is simply a synthetic picture which attempts to give consequence to a pleasant April-in-Paris romance by involving it in the realities of war — but a war which is patently conceived by someone who has been reading headlines in California. Miss Colbert and Mr. Milland are very charming when tête-tête. But, with Europe going up in flames around them, they are, paradoxically, not so hot. Same goes for the film.”

While I understand where Crowther is coming from, I will politely dissent, armed with hindsight as I most conveniently am. I’m often of the mind Hollywood folks are too self-important. How much influence do they really have? And yet even to look back at cinema in 1940 there is a sense there was real social importance in the movies being made — at least the ones that were truly aware of the cultural moment.

I am reminded Hitler was a cinema nut and Goebbels (derided briefly in this film) was deeply engaged in harnessing film for propagandistic purposes. Hitler even had a special prize for capturing Clark Gable. They really could be taken down a few pegs by the medium they too seemed to admire in spite of all their dementedness, and it’s quite a fitting mode of attack.

Think of Chaplin’s lampoon. Think of the various contours of Nazi menace explored in the likes of The Night Train to Munich, Foreign Correspondent, and The Mortal Storm from both inside and out. Hold Back The Dawn shows the implications on the American homefront. Even the passing remark from Cary Grant in His Girl Friday to stick Hitler on the funny pages brandishes something momentarily powerful.

If Billy Wilder is not considered to be an integral part of this company, he deserves to be. Because Arise, My Love taps into the same immediacy available only in those uncertain months. He gladly sticks his nose out to be bitten and whether it was from the relative comfort of California, Wilder was not a stranger to personal heartache. He lost loved ones at the hands of the Nazis. It’s a personal context I doubt Crowther could have been aware of. Arise, My Love was promoted as a romance that could only happen in 1940, which is a key to its resonance; it’s effectively encased in the amber of the times.

The final interludes are in a forest, a pasture, as Colbert stands on her soapbox, as it were, in a lasting embrace with her love. It’s not as stunning as Joel McCrea’s delivery of Ben Hecht’s prose in Foreign Correspondent, nor is it Wilder/Brackett’s finest hour. But that’s just it.

For an effort that’s not even that well-remembered in Classic movie circles, Arise, My Love is a charming picture. The word proves apt for much of Mitchell Leisen’s filmography. And yet there is the undeniable wit and sophistication of its writers. Right down to its title. The full passage reads like this:

My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away,
11 for behold, the winter is past;
the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree ripens its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away.

So you see, it’s not only an inflection of passionate love but also naturalistic hope.

3.5/5 Stars

It Happened One Night (1934): Carrots and The Walls of Jericho

it happened one night 1934

When I was growing up we had a VHS of Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny cartoons and like any lad my age, he was an immediate sensation. Casual, mischievous, and yet generally good-natured and out-and-out hilarious. I had no concept of cartoon logic and what made him so memorable as a cartoon character; you didn’t have to tell me. I knew he was because he made me laugh.

Well, it turns out I must attribute some of this childhood entertainment to It Happened One Night because, without the inspiration of its own fanciful whimsy, Bugs Bunny as we know him might never have been born.

But let us rewind for a moment. The movie itself is conceived with one of the great screwball openings as spoiled Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) quarrels with her protective father (Walter Connolly) about being held against her will on his yacht. Not to be outdone, she dives off the side of the boat and swims away ready to join her suitor.

Meanwhile, Clark Gable is Peter Warne, a man of the people — drunkards, vagabonds, and newspapermen — recently fired from his paper and looking for a way to get back in his editor’s good graces.

There’s a sense he would not have gotten this kind of rounded, contoured part at MGM, which was more intent on casting him as their ever-reliable, hard-edged he-man keeping all the hearts of their leading ladies palpating. It has to do with audience supply and demand. It Happened One Night allows him to live a little — to burst out of the mold created for him at his home studio — and the results are a divine departure.

Today the night bus circuit feels like an antiquated or at least a bygone segment of society. Not that Greyhounds don’t exist, but the world’s been proliferated with commercial air travel made available to the economy classes over the past 80 years.

In It Happened One Night, it’s a convenience only to be utilized by those affluent enough to afford such luxury. Hence, the reason Ellie’s father goes searching for her by aeroplane.

What the road trip becomes is a kind of universal equalizer where everyone is on the same playing field, low on money and just getting by. As an audience, for the majority of time, we are resigned to view life from the cheap seats with everyone else. It breeds this kind of communal rapport that only builds over time. Because, of course, two of our co-passengers wind up being Colbert and Gable.

So we have an element of class injected into the action as Ellie is forced off her high-horse. She gets a reality check of how real people live and what life’s like with moderate inconveniences and discomforts. These are sensations she has never experienced. They are foreign to her world. She’s also an easy target getting her suitcase swiped from under her nose.

Being on the lam, it’s not like she can wire dear old dad for more funds. Likewise, lowlifes like the skeezy Roscoe Karns, one-on-the-side Shapely, with an accent on fun, are on the prowl for a pretty dame to annoy. However, it’s Karns portrayal giving the world one of its other foremost cultural icons. That’s right, doc. Bug Bunny!

In the end, Gable dreams up a farfetched gangster plot to keep him quiet sending the spineless sot fleeing for his life. Because this is the role of Peter. He’s a real person; he’s seen the world and knows how to take care of himself. So despite their initial antagonism, Ellie sheds her ignorance and grows to appreciate the man’s watchful eye verging on moments of brusque thoughtfulness.

He sets them up with two separate beds at Dyke’s auto camp when they are forced to take a rainy evening detour. For Ellie, she has the unpleasant sensation of playing his wife, and it adds the tension to the preempted romance.

Gable dominates the evening when he strips down to his bare chest and supposedly helped increase the mortality rates of male undershirts all across the country. You can’t say people didn’t notice, Ellie included. So she joins the Israelites on the other side of “The Walls of Jericho,” the blanket keeping them at a respectable distance.

This scene is a lynchpin moment based on what happens the following morning. Ellie wakes up, and it’s like a switch has gone off. She meets the day disgustingly cheerful as if a screwball dame has replaced her formerly socialite self. We’ve entered the role reversal.

Screenshot 2020-03-27 at 90331 PM

At first, it’s all fun and games as we witness the utter lunacy of their escapades, maintaining the charade for a couple of detectives nosing around for dear old dad. Peter teaches his travel companion about a real piggyback ride — a pastime for the humble and the poor. Low on money, they hitchhike and gnaw on raw carrots by the roadside (like a certain looney tune).

It turns into the Indianapolis speedway as he attempts unsuccessfully to hail a ride. His thumb proves ineffective. Claudette Colbert has a far more viable solution. It’s yet another turn in the story — from helpless waif to resourceful daytripper.

The joy of the movie is how there is a pace to it because we all know intuitively we need to get to New York with Claudette. Capra mimics the continual movement of the film from town to town with his camera set on a crane to follow his couple on their road together. And yet as she begins to soften and warm to her co-companion, some of the urgency is lost but not the delight of the film.

Because we’ve already had time to grow with the characters, appreciate what they’ve drummed up together, and desire to spend the rest of our time with them. Anything else would feel like an early and highly disagreeable end to our time together. What’s marvelous is how Claudette doesn’t want it to end either. The three hours to New York never felt more infinitesimal.

Peter’s exclusive story feels immaterial; he’s certainly not taking any notes to develop copy, and the nightly rituals, The Walls of Jericho et al. feel rote at this point. Where might they go from here? It calls for some kind of emotional response.

Colbert obliges. The love is there. He just needs to respond — to understand there really is something fundamentally different about who she is as a person. Still, fate gets in the way as it always has a habit of doing in rom-coms. There would be no final act otherwise.

The most glorious discovery is not solely our leads but Walter Connolly who is granted a change of heart, one that the final act requires, I might add. Suddenly, we have a new screwball wrinkle: a father who is benevolent and understanding nudging his daughter on to ditch convention and the foregone wedding march for someone she really loves.

Why does this change happen you ask? Much like Colbert’s evolution, I’m not sure we can pinpoint it specifically, nor do we care. The only thing that matters is the inevitable: The Walls of Jericho come tumbling down. Ellie and Peter are finally allowed to know one another in the Biblical sense.

5/5 Stars