Red Dust (1932)

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My earliest recollection of knowing anything about Red Dust comes from the novel A Confederacy of Dunces where it’s recounted how the feckless oaf of a main character was born soon after his parents saw the picture being so caught up in the throes of Gable and Harlow’s cinematic passion. The fact we had this film in part to thank for such an annoying lout kept me away no fault of its own. But let’s forget Ignatius Jacques O’Reilly and cut to the picture.

The world we find ourselves in is a far-off land in Indo China on a rubber plantation. As such, Red Dust is a Pre-Code colonialist tale full of romantic heat, natives, tigers, and more heat. The only speaking part these natives are accorded belongs to the giggling cook who is not too bright as far as stereotypical Asian characters go. The tiger speaks a few times too. It’s noted more than once to be a dirty rotten country. It’s also true that to an untrained eye like my own the rubber industry looks a bit like a maple syrup colony but hardly as tasty.

The man running this particular one is named Dennis (Clark Gable). Why he could care for such a life is a worthy question and the one and only answer is that he was made for this country. It runs in his blood and he was born smelling the smells of rubber. But that doesn’t mean he wants other people in his life.

The film introduces two women in particular who test him in different ways. The first is (Jean Harlow) who gabs and gabs while pushing the boundaries of what is decent during the 1930s. She annoys the man mostly. There’s no question that Clark Gable and Jean Harlow light it up. In fact, they sizzle like hot coals. It’s often the case that true romantic chemistry that burns like this comes out of conflict and they have plenty of it.

He’s a strapping man’s man and he doesn’t want a worthless gal with a dubious reputation motoring her mouth off around him. He’s got work to do. She’s not about to be pushed around and she’s going to push all his buttons (You won’t grow up to be a big strong boy if you don’t eat your din-din ) and stay around as long as she pleases. The kerosene and gorgonzola is provided. Just stay around for the fireworks also free of charge.

This could be the picture right there. However, the new surveyor arrives, which is news enough, until it comes out that his wife is with him as well. It’s an added complication especially for Dennis because after her husband gets sick and they nurse him to a full recovery, he finds himself falling for a married woman. The difficulty is that the feelings are mutual.

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There’s a clear evocation of David and Bathsheba when Gable sends off his new surveyor into the swamps and his wife is left behind. It’s the perfect opportunity to get to know her a lot better. He knows what he is doing. She probably does too.

When the monsoon hits and Clark Gable plucks Mary Astor up and starts carrying her through the underbrush you can feel the forces of nature ripping through the country. It’s one of those precise moments when you remember why we go to the movies.

Then we also realize why Clark Gable was so popular with the ladies. He was a brash yet handsome cad. “Dreamboat” was written all over his rugged features. In the movies it spelled stardom but if this were real life it would mean disaster for true romance.

In some sense, you would think that Gable and Harlow own the picture but Astor has just as much right to it as anyone with her performance that while begging pathos is still slightly muddied by her own indiscretions. She’s not quite without fault as we find out.

But the film ends with imperfect people making certain decisions that look to preserve lives rather than utterly ruin them. Sometimes those are the most impressive feats. It’s not simply the white knights remaining untarnished but the already muddied ones willfully doing something decent. So Red Dust is a fairly landmark love story but to the credit of its cast and crew, there’s still some magic left in it even today. I won’t begrudge Red Dust anymore than I already have. It deserves that much.

Famously John Ford would remake the story as Mogambo (1953) which brought back Clark Gable 20 years later with two more ladies portrayed by Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. I feel like colonialism was more in vogue during the 1930s.

4/5 Stars

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)

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It’s the curse of a childhood watching too many reruns of Get Smart but I can’t seem to get Don Adam’s impersonation of Ronald Colman out of my head while watching The Prisoner of Zenda. There are worse curses to be stricken with though I suppose.

This classic adaptation of Anthony Hope’s eponymous novel also relies on a storytelling device that I have long abhorred, again, probably because I watched too many sitcoms with the incessant trope of one actor playing two unique individuals who always seem to have the gall of showing up in the same frame together so they can interact.

Yet here I generally don’t mind the convention so much because it feels less like a gimmick and more of a way to get at a far more interesting dilemma about identity. Because Ronald Colman is given the dual roles. One as the incumbent king, Rudolf V, who first finds himself incapacitated the night before his coronation thanks to some foul play and then ultimately kidnapped by one of his enemies.

But Colman is also, rather conveniently so, an Englishman named Rudolf Rassendyll who initially meets the King due to his striking likeness and ultimately resolves to play the role at the behest of the King’s faithful aides (C. Aubrey Smith and David Niven) so that the kingdom is not usurped by the vengeful Duke Michael (Raymond Massey).

Duke Michael on his own is hardly an interesting specimen as villains go but he does have a woman who is madly in love with him (Mary Astor) and another man in his stead who is even more unscrupulous than himself in Rupert of Hentzau (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.).

No doubt the King’s plotting brother and Rupert are flabbergasted to see the King make an appearance at the coronation without a hitch — their plans spoiled — and the King reunited with his Queen, Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll), a woman who finds herself rather unexpectedly falling in love with this man who seems so vastly different from the person she used to know.

It sets up one of the greatly humorous balls in recent memory with a stop-and-go waltz, followed by passionate romantic confessions, and harrowing interludes where Rudolf brazenly confronts his opposition with his usual gentlemanly charm. Though he doesn’t trust them too much in order to keep his life to live another day.

Thus, it’s drawn up as a film of factions led at one end with Ronald Colman and his cohorts the wizened Colonel Zapp (Smith) and young Captain Fritz (Niven). Then you have the stone-faced Massey with his counteroffensive joined by Fairbanks Jr. as a character of arrogance and playful impertinence who subsequently livens up many a scene. Madeleine Carroll makes a mesmerizingly beautiful entrance on coronation day to complete this vast accumulation of talent which included directors John Cromwell as well as George Cukor and W.S. Van Dyke filling in a handful of scenes for which Cromwell struggled to get the desired results.

First and foremost, I admire Colman deeply as a romantic lead and a most virtuous protagonist but he is secondarily an action hero, at least not in the way that Flynn and Fairbanks Sr. or even Tyrone Power will always be thought of in such terms.

So Prisoner of Zenda is a fine film and there’s a great bounty of entertainment that can be plucked from its pages but it’s not quite the swashbuckler you might be led to believe. Even the enduring finale punctuated by the climactic duel is a fine showing complete with shadowy castle interiors courtesy of James Wong Howe paired with snappy repartee and clashing steel but it’s not quite as thrilling as Flynn and Rathbone. There’s certainly no crime in that.

That long trod connection between love, duty, and honor is drummed up once more but it can be seen as a timely commentary on one residential royal who abdicated his throne in deference to love. I’ll give you a hint, he was British and he went off to marry a commoner named Wallis Simpson. You would think Hollywood would go for a love conquers all sentiment but apparently not if David O Selznick is working the strings.

As someone who is coming at films from so many directions in so many different orders and approaches, sometimes it’s fascinating to step back and see why I’ve finally arrived at a film at a particular juncture in time.

Madeleine Carroll began as a mere blip on my radar after I saw 39 Steps (1935) but after numerous years of never seeing another one of her pictures I found myself back to Hitchcock’s Secret Agent (1936) and still further I sought out My Favorite Blonde (1942) and The Prisoner of Zenda — two of her most lauded films after she made the move to Hollywood.

More remarkable than her gilded place as one of the first successful British actors in Hollywood, was the fact that she willingly dropped her entire career for something far more profound. Because she was a British subject and after her sister died during the Blitz, she resolved to return to her home and serve tirelessly in the Red Cross as her contribution to the war effort.

She didn’t have to do that but she was so compelled that she gave up the limelight, the recognition, and the undoubted wealth to sink into the background and do her part. Certainly, that has nothing to do with this wonderful film. Then again, maybe it does. Because this is a film about doing your duty and living by a certain code of honor that no one holds you to but yourself. Some might call it a human conscience. Rudolf had an inclination to do what was good as did Carroll.

In truth, her part to play is rather small though still memorable. But what are films if not artifacts that wield so much power outside of themselves? They point all of us to people and places, times and universal themes that we might never get to any other way. I watch movies for something that goes beyond mere entertainment and I did an abysmal job trying to explain it but maybe I don’t have to. Maybe you understand it. Because what we do outside of the movies to impact our fellow man is far more important than any performance on celluloid.

4/5 Stars

Midnight (1939)

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“You’re in a fine mess! You got to get a divorce from a man you’re not even married to!”

It was only a recent revelation that Claudette Colbert at times feels far too sophisticated to be playing beautiful hitchhikers or penniless taxi passengers as she does in It Happened One Night (1934) and this film, Midnight. Though it’s easy enough to explain away.

The screwball comedy has always thrived on incongruities as much as it did on the class divides between the rich and the poor. Where the extravagance is almost laughable in its boorish decadence and the little men still have lives seemingly worth living because they are free from societal pressures. After all, making just enough money to scrape by is nothing short of paradise.

In this way, Claudette Colbert was the perfect person to tiptoe this line because she could be cosmopolitan and was glamorous with all those other snooty folks. But she’s also a comedienne like the normal folks, seeing the humor and working it for the laughs just as much as she’s willing to do things that seem normal. A walking enigma she might be but she also makes Midnight a sublime comic fairy tale as our uproarious modern-day Cinderella.

One of her cohorts and romantic partners is Don Ameche, the Parisian cab driver Tibor Czerny who begrudgingly opens up his livelihood on wheels for her as a random act of kindness. As we mentioned before the smartly dressed Eve Peabody has no penny to her name or a franc for that matter.

But what she does have is audacity and it buys her a ticket into a lavish gathering as one Madame Czerny put on by some rich somebody or other. It doesn’t much matter since it’s all only a pretense anyway. Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s script unwittingly created the original party crasher plot.

Eve finds herself at a snobby patronage of the arts where the impassioned man at the piano plays either Chopin’s 12th Prelude or his 11th Etude. Again, it doesn’t much matter but it’s hilarious all the same.

What happens subsequently subverts expectations nicely. Instead of getting tossed out of the proceedings she winds up the fourth in a bridge game of rebels warring against tepid entertainment.

There’s the debonair Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer), Marcel (Rex O’Malley) the man who nearly gave Eve a fright by fetching her, and Helene Flammarion (Marry Astor) a married socialite who is more than a little buddy-buddy with the dashing Monsieur Picot.

The charade becomes increasingly awkward the longer it keeps going and going and going. Every Cinderella has her midnight. The real joke comes when the fanciful game finally ends only to be replaced with a new reality as a true to life Baroness. She has no idea how it happened and that’s where our last important party comes in — her fairy godmother so to speak.

Mr. Georges Flammard (John Barrymore) witnessed Eve putting on a nervous floorshow and was intrigued. Now he watches her masquerade continue and he sees how they can help each other out. It has nothing to do with a desire to fool around. On the contrary, in an attempt to undermine his wife’s philandering he wants to bankroll Eve’s little white lie a while longer until she can win Jacques over and pull him away from Mrs. Flammard. It works quite well too.

Meanwhile, the entire cabbie population of France looks for the mysterious girl at Tibor’s behest. It proves to be equivalent to any missing persons agency in town and it comes with made to order traffic jams to boot.

Midnight turns into a magnificent floorshow as all parties collide in an immaculate perfectly timed collision. Eve and Mr. Flammard’s joint ruse looks like it might soon be ousted by Marcel and Mrs. Flammard who are intent on finding the truth about this curious baroness. But the whole fantasy is saved by a dazzling entrance by one well-tailored gentleman, Baron Czerny.

Now a new round of sparring back and forth begins. It’s full of glorious escapades, riotous telephone conversations with fictitious daughters, and Eve and Tibor trying to one-up each other with tall tale after tall tale. One thing Eve has going for her is Mr. Flammard still in her corner working his magic and John Barrymore puts on a fine showing in the film’s latter moments — his devilish eyes still gleaming as bright as ever.

Monty Wooley is introduced into the plotline in the ultimate piece of pitch-perfect casting as an opinionated but easily swayed judge. Thanks be to Classic Hollywood where pompous Americans can preside over a Parisian divorce court. But what matters is the right people get together. So screwball and fairy tales can still coexist. Wilder would prove it once more with Balls of Fire.

John Barrymore has always struck me as the tortured talent of the silver screen. One could contend that he was the most prominent member of the Barrymore dynasty except whereas his siblings Lionel and Ethel aged gracefully he burned out. Midnight came a little too soon for him.

It’s been a longheld fact that Billy Wilder and his writing partner Charles Bracket gifted two quality scripts that were ultimately directed by Mitchell Leisen. The integrity of the work was compromised to the point that Billy Wilder vowed to become a director himself so no one could mess with his material and when the material being messed with was Midnight and Hold Back the Dawn (1941) it begs the question how would the same magnificent films have ended up in Wilder’s hands?

Nevertheless, the actors are a fine gathering of talent while the script does wonders with the typical Wilder-Brackett combination that squeezes innumerable wit out of its wonky plotline. Billy Wilder must always get the last word in and his scripts always do. This one is no exception.

4/5 Stars

Little Women (1949)

Littlewomen1949movieposter.jpgIn the recent days, I gained a new appreciation of June Allyson as a screen talent and in her own way she pulls off Jo March quite well though it’s needlessly difficult to begin comparing her with Katharine Hepburn or Winona Ryder.

Meanwhile, Mervyn LeRoy was a capable director of many quality films and it’s difficult to say anything damaging about this one because no matter the amount of mawkishness, it’s all heart to the very last frame.

If possible to imagine, this cast is even more star-studded than the 1933 adaptation and yet still somehow the casting just doesn’t seem quite right. In the Katharine Hepburn anchored cast every character was almost perfectly wrought and they felt like an impeccable ensemble.

Somehow here you have the varying personalities rubbing up against each other and it doesn’t feel like this is the March Family as much as this is June Allyson, this is Elizabeth Taylor, this is Janet Leigh, and Margaret O’Brien. Their beloved Marmee being played by none other than Mary Astor. They’re all fine actresses with esteemed Hollywood careers in their own rights but as a family, the dynamic is slightly off.

Of all the names attached, Elizabeth Taylor feels the most at odds with the material, not that she couldn’t play these types of sincere characters — she did it in Jane Eyre (1943) and National Velvet (1944) — but she’s nearly past that stage of being cute and now simply comes off as a bit of a snob. If I know anything about the character Amy (which I may not) she’s hardly that.

This is also far from Janet Leigh’s best role as she all but disappears into the background because there’s this underlining sense that Jo is the oldest sister here (due to Allyson’s obvious age advantage over Leigh) and so with that subtext Meg loses a great deal of her quiet strength as the perceived eldest sister. Because that means she’s hardly the one that the others look up to due to her age. She’s just the noble one while Jo is the free spirit hurtling over fences and throwing snowballs. Thus, the order of sisters really does matter for the full integrity of the narrative.

Come to think of it, the other obvious departure in the film is the development of Beth as the youngest March girl which gave Margaret O’Brien the opportunity to play her and she does a fine job at stirring the heartstrings with her timid solemnity but another dynamic gets altered in the process. I also wasn’t sure what I would have to say about Peter Lawford as Laurie and yet he does a commendable job as does the stately mustachioed C. Aubrey Smith.

It’s fascinating how the same story with at times almost verbatim dialogue can give you a completely different sense of the characters. Because it’s true that this version borrowed much as far as dialogue from the 1933 version. Thus, the scenes are all but the same with slight alterations to the opening and such, but the results are starkly different.

The same goes for the setting or rather the tones of the sets. Though the colored pictorials are glorious and lend a real jovial nature to everything also helping to make this Little Women adaptation a shoe-in for annual yuletide viewing, some stories just are not made for that treatment. It’s no detriment to this film whatsoever but there’s something about the original black and white that evokes the nostalgic aura of tintypes and antebellum photography in a way that this one simply cannot. Little Women seems like such a story.

Of course, that’s only my opinion and it could very easily be the case that someone else’s conception of the March family is very different than my own. That’s part of the fascination with novels and their adaptations. Despite our best efforts, or maybe because of them, they all turn out vastly different. It’s probably for the best.

3.5/5 Stars

Act of Violence (1948)

ActofViolenceAct of Violence is an interesting post-war moral tale from director Fred Zinnemann. Frank (Van Heflin) returned home from war a hero. He now has a small child with his pretty young wife Edith (Janet Leigh) in the vibrant California town of Santa Lisa.

Little is known about his P.O.W. past and all his comrades were killed. Except one. His friend Joe (Robert Ryan) is still alive but he is plagued by a crippled leg now. He finds out about Frank’s whereabouts and it become his personal vendetta to straighten him out. The innocent Edith is in the dark about the whole ordeal and with the shadow of Joe constantly haunting him, Frank must family face the specter of his past.

He goes off on a business trip to escape and there out of desperation he winds up hiring a hit man to get Joe off his back. The two former buddies set up a meeting (which is really a trap), But as would be expected it does not work out as planned. Justice is dealt but there is still a strange sense of moral ambiguity. This is  certainly not Zinnemann’s best work, but it brings up some interesting questions about moral scruples and personal conflict.

3.5/5 Stars

The Maltese Falcon (1941) – Film-Noir

4ef67-falconmThis archetypal film-noir directed by John Huston, stars Humphrey Bogart as the detective Sam Spade. After an initial conversation with a mysterious woman, that same night two men end up dead. As Spade tries to understand what is going on, it puts him in contact with a paranoid little man and another man who is trailing him. All of them have something to do with a black bird and the situation gets more complicated when Spade meets the fat man. Rather surprisingly Spade ends up with the falcon but of course there has to be a twist. Soon enough the truth comes out of Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Spade coldly does his work. This film has great characters played by Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Ward Bond, and Elisha Cook Jr. The directing is good as well as the cinematography. This is the film that finally made Bogart a star and he would never look back.

5/5 Stars