Archive for March 18, 2012

Cheese and Coconuts

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on March 18, 2012 by dcairns

Without planning to, we watched MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY with friends Stuart and Marvelous Mary. At first the film came on kind of dumb, and it’s not above being ridiculous at regular intervals, but it also has a degree of sophistication and cunning in the way it navigates the historical facts — departing from them fairly freely at times, to be sure. It’s nowhere near as nuanced as the remake, which Fiona and I enjoyed, but then neither film is as ambiguous and cloudy as the historical facts.

The scenario, in which that old hand at tales of sadism and the psychological bizarre, Jules Furthman (check his many credits for Sternberg) took part, in some ways wants us to see Bligh (a wonderfully constipated Charles Laughton) as a thief and lout, promoted beyond his station and outclassed in every sense by the gentlemen around him. That is indeed one of the easiest narratives to carve from the complicated true story. But early, Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable, grinning a lot), says that Bligh’s status as a self-made man is the one thing he admires about him. So the filmmakers actually want to stifle that unamerican idea.

As Mary pointed out, the casting of Gable, an American, against Laughton, an Englishman, actually makes the story a parable about the founding of America. Everything about Gable’s unwavering screen persona erases the character he’s playing (whereas Brando embraced the character and the public didn’t embrace him), so that this becomes a parable of throwing off snooty British domination. All the arguments about food, culminating in Laughton’s hilarious “It’s your watch, so I must count the coconuts,” echo the Boston tea party and the disputes on taxation.

But if we follow this line of reasoning, Pitcairn Island, eventual home of the mutineers, must equal America, and that would mean that America was founded on abduction, rape, murder and brutality. Which I’m sure MGM did not intend us to infer.

The scenario cunningly supplies Franchot Tone to provide Gable with bromance and suggest a Third Way between outright rebellion and lip-smacking tyranny. Tone does not rebel, denounces Bligh back in England, and is ultimately spared the gallows and restored to active duty — but the movie doesn’t bother to say what happened to his fellow condemned men. Presumably they wound up decorating that particularly high yardarm Bligh so wanted to see them dangle from. (Surely a yardarm of merely average height would have done the job just as well, and been more convenient?)

Movita. Sounds like a high-fibre bran breakfast, but is actually far more pleasant. As noted previously, Brando married the leading lady of the 30s MUTINY and the leading lady of the 60s MUTINY. Probably a method thing.

The other obvious reading here is the gay one, and not just because of Laughton’s casting. The bromance stuff is strikingly suggestive — topless Gable and Tone are sunning themselves, and Gable places a banana on Tone’s chest, before pealing and eating one himself. Then they’re hastily joined by girlfriends in case we get the right wrong idea. Bligh alone shows no interest in native totty, never even sharing the screen with a woman. So perhaps Bligh is driven by thwarted passion. It’s a reading that certainly couldn’t work in the remake, but seems fairly apropos here.

Buy British: Mutiny On The Bounty [1935] [DVD]

Buy American: Mutiny on the Bounty (Gable-Laughton)

Mutiny on the Bounty [Blu-ray Book] (Gable-Laughton)

Mutiny on the Bounty (Two-Disc Special Edition) (Brando-Howard)

Mutiny on the Bounty [Blu-ray] (Brando-Howard)

The Mother’s Day Intertitle: Cradlesong

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on March 18, 2012 by dcairns

I do a lot of Griffith-bashing here and elsewhere — last semester, a student volunteered that he was glad to be able to avoid BIRTH OF A NATION after hearing me describe it in class. I felt slightly bad, because I rather feel the film should be seen, as an object lesson in the importance of questioning the beliefs you’re raised in. There’s its importance in film history too, but students can’t see everything, ours is essentially a practical course, and there are other movies from which film technique can be gleaned more enjoyably.

But here’s the famous intertitle from INTOLERANCE, and I’m moved to say that it’s (in the words of General Oliver North) a really neat idea — tying together Griffith’s sprawling storylines with the observation that all human history emerges from the cradle. It’s where all the trouble starts. Of course, the words come not from Griffith, nor from Anita Loos, nor from any of the gang of people employed to write titles on this unruly epic, but from Walt Whitman.

I bet Griffith liked this line from the same poem: “Up from the mystic play of shadows, twining and twisting as if they were alive”…

Kevin Brownlow & David Gill, whose documentaries introduced me to Griffith, occasionally risked coming off as apologists for Griffith’s sins, unavoidably I suppose, since their documentaries give a voice to people like Gish who WERE unadulterated Griffith-boosters. But they scored a devastating and irrefutable hit when they observed, of INTOLERANCE, that the one aspect of man’s inhumanity to man not treated in the film was racial intolerance. Which means the film cannot serve as an apologia for, or moderation of, the horrific crimes of BIRTH OF A NATION.

My maternal grandmother, Dora, reminded me slightly of Lillian Gish. But she was not a fan — I remember when the subject came up, she mimicked the famous “forced-smile” gesture from BROKEN BLOSSOMS and described how everybody had laughed at it. This confused me: I knew from my reading that the film had been a success. Surely audiences hadn’t mocked such a key scene at the time?

A bit of digging cleared things up. My grandmother seemed very old to me, but she still didn’t seem old enough to have seen and remembered BROKEN BLOSSOMS in 1919. But the film was re-released in the early thirties with a synchronized score (just as, more famously, BIRTH OF A NATION came out with a new prologue featuring Griffith and Walter Huston). And it probably didn’t do Griffith’s reputation any good. Audiences, drunk on the heady wine of talkies, were suddenly exposed to this antique, more than ten years old, before all the developments of silent cinema in the twenties, and partaking of a cod-Dickensian aesthetic and world-view which must have seemed positively primordial. I get the impression that the 1936 remake (by John Brahm) didn’t set the world on fire either.

So for Griffith, struggling to appear current and cutting edge in an industry increasingly thrilled by the New, reminding folks of his past triumphs might actually not have been the smartest move. But that would have left him with no moves at all.

A Griffith innovation which didn’t catch on: note that this print is not subtitled “Love’s Struggle Through the Ages” but “A Sun-Play of the Ages.” Did DW have it in mind of this to become the standard term, replacing “movie”? What a feather in the cap that would have been, to not only (falsely) claim to have invented everything in the cinematic lexicon, but to name the medium itself. I say we bring the term back.

Is HOT TUB TIME MACHINE a sun-play of the ages too?