Archive for April, 2017

The Sunday Title: Snake Oil

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Science with tags , , , , , on April 30, 2017 by dcairns

Well, you can’t really have a Screwball Week AND and a Sunday Intertitle, can you? There aren’t really any intertitles in screwball proper, it being a genre mainly of the late thirties and early forties. We might allow some early thirties stuff in too, but that still lets out the intertitles, which appear very occasionally in talkies up to about 1931 but rarely thereafter.

So here are some titles. The above and below are from Preston Sturges’ THE PALM BEACH STORY, and they almost qualify in that they come at the close of the title sequence, which is a mini-adventure all its own, and therefore they’re a piece of bridging narrative, not just an intro. The camera pulls back THROUGH them, which is a very neat trick. Motorised track? Double exposure? This fanciness could be seen as necessary precisely to make the effect seem modern and not a throwback to “old-fashioned” intertitles.

The other title I have for you is the animated opening of Sturges’ other bona-fide, according-to-Hoyle screwball, THE LADY EVE. Both Ed Sikov’s Screwball and James Harvey’s Romantic Comedy (my two uber-texts) remark on the phallic imagery, with the serpent of Eden wriggling through the O of PRESTON and getting his waistline stuck. But I believe I can expand on the mythological and cultural connotations.

First, the tipsy-looking snake retrieves THREE apples from the bushes. Each is inscribed with one word of the main title. Why? You could just as easily get the whole title on one apple and ask the snake to hold it closer to the lens. I believe the reason we need three apples is to evoke the golden apples of Greek myth.

The myth with three apples is the one about Atalanta, defeated in a foot race by Melanion, who distracted her by dropping the apples, which were a gift from Aphrodite. None of this quite fits the plot of THE LADY EVE except for the appearance of a love goddess. The couple eventually got turned into lions, which might fit with the metamorphoses Barbara Stanwyck undergoes here, but not very convincingly. But I think the overall themes — the battle of the sexes, and not fighting fair — are kind of relevant.

There’s also Hercules stealing the apples of the Hesperides, and the apple of Discord, which is addressed “to the fairest” — which also makes me think of the poisoned apple in Snow White, which does go to the fairest one of all… Discord is certainly a Sturgesian trope.

The apple is from the Tree of Knowledge in the Bible, right? That phallic snake suggests that it’s sexual knowledge. In Sturges’ film, Fonda is bamboozled with a lot of false knowledge and he still isn’t wised up at the film’s end. But we’re promised that he is finally going to be enlightened — the film ends on a Lubitschian closed door, and the snake reappears on cue. Oh, the snake also gets beaned with an apple, recalling Newton — his “Eureka!” moment about gravity. Fonda has a lot of slapstick run-ins with gravity and I guess they are all going to lead to his own personal eureka.

Complicating things even more, Fonda is an ophiologist (“Snakes are my life, in a way,”) and his snake is female, unlike the biblical reptile or the cartoon version here. A rival for Stanwyck — bring in the Biblical serpent’s qualities of temptress, trickster, and apply them to her. Stanwyck is going to supplant snakes in Fonda’s affections — she hates and fears them. She’s brought together with Fonda by his pratfall (gravity) and the broken heel of her shoe (she tripped him) — the Bible tells us that, after the Fall, Woman will loathe the snake and seek to crush in beneath her heel.

You see what we can get out of that snake and apples once we get past the dick joke? I bet you can offer more, too.

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The truth, the whole truth, and nothing like the truth

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2017 by dcairns

Why did it take us so long to watch TRUE CONFESSION? Maybe, being a part-time auteurist, I let it sink down the viewing pile on account of director Wesley Ruggles not being a Big Name, but he’s talented, certainly in terms of creating a comic rhythm and marshalling marvelous performances. Screenwriter Claude Binyon was involved in numerous W.C. Fields films, which helps explain the shaggy dog feeling we get.

Carole Lombard is a pathological liar married to a painfully honest lawyer, Fred MacMurray. Who keeps believing her, despite her having the world’s greatest poker tell (her tongue thrusts compulsively into her cheek as her eyes open wide with sudden inspiration). And despite the fact that he pretty much always finds out she’s lied. How long have they been married? What attracted them? They’re a bit like Burgess Meredith and Mrs. Meredith in that Twilight Zone episode. The only thing they have in common is complete opposition.

Of course, we’re meant to recognise that MacMurray’s refusal to defend guilty clients (like Herbert Marshall’s in THE GOOD FAIRY) is madness, idiocy, worse than Lombard’s mythomania. It’s part of the subversive nature of screwball that the hero’s goal is usually misguided, like Joel McCrea’s terrible invention in THE PALM BEACH STORY or his terrible film in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS or, most awful of all, Dick Powell’s coffee slogan in CHRISTMAS IN JULY. So we’re kind of rooting for the hero to succeed at something that deserves to fail.

Lombard ends up a murder suspect due to circumstances beyond everyone’s control. The detective at the scene, by some cruel cinematic fate, is Edgar Kennedy, the very worst possible person to have to deal with Lombard. No man was more prone to exasperation. Within seconds of meeting her he’s resorting to trademark gestures, wiping the sweat of his bald head with his pudgy hand or slapping it into his face and holding it there as if trying to shut out the mad, bad world and the mad, bad woman. At the crime scene, he’s apoplectic, and even Carole’s friend, Una Merkel, the one sane person in the film, is driving him crazy, because she’s trying to make him recognize reality. And reality is the craziest thing of all.

At the station house, Lombard drives him crazier still, as they run through various scenarios which might explain why she killed this guy. He’s seriously proposing explanations, but really he’s just trying to find something they can agree to so that the wheels of justice can roll on. She’s just trying out scenarios — she’s an unpublished author (but Merkel says nobody can believe any of her stories because the characters are all crazy). Finally, they hit on a simultaneous confession/defence which can see her walk free if the trial goes well — she was defending her honour. Carole likes this one just as Roxie Hart does.

Now Fred re-enters and persuades Carole that a guilty plea is the only way out of this. He’s waiting to be convinced it’s the truth, so she obligingly confirms it. Now this innocent woman is on trial for a murder she didn’t commit, to which she’s confessed. And presumably the real killer is still at large.

When we see Edgar Kennedy again, at the trial, the poor man is in shreds. Having to go through his encounters with Carole again in the witness box is bringing it all back. It’s like he has post-traumatic stress just from conversing with her. Being in a screwball comedy is a never-ending nightmare to him.

We also get, for sheer gratuitous pleasure, the testimony of the coroner (Irving Bacon), who can’t seem to sort out his words. “I entered and saw the defendant… I mean the deceased, lying on the floor… I mean the rug. I examined the rug… I mean the deceased, and found two bullet wounds in the leg… I mean the head…” And Porter Hall (a Sturges favourite) as the prosecutor, who grips the bar of the jury box and bobs up and down in a frenzy when reaching one of his many climaxes.

There’s also John Barrymore. But at this point we don’t even know why. He keeps turning up, arguing with his bartender (Lynne Overman, one of a number of players with delightfully cracked voices, Merkel being another) or taunting Lombard in her cell, but his purpose in the film remains mysterious until the end. Barrymore was enjoying a new career in screwball (TWENTIETH CENTURY, MIDNIGHT) and his final decline comes in conjunction with that genre’s fade-out in the forties. We can also say that in the screwballs, Barrymore is in command of the joke, though it’s a tough struggle, and in PLAYMATES (1941) the joke is on him (picture it squatting on his chest as he expires, like the imp in Fuselli’s nightmare). He’s playing a disreputable drunk in this one, and there’s certainly an uncomfortable lack of distance between actor and role — stubble further softens the disintegrating Great Profile, a too-tight white jacket makes a gunnysack of his torso — but the eccentricities are so designed, we know there’s still a working mind organising all this. The high-pitched giggle, the rising inflection on the mantra “She’ll fry,” the echoes of Mr. Hyde in the glances to the side and the wafting claws…

This all got Fiona & I feeling like we’d missed out on some good screwballs. So welcome to Screwball Week on Shadowplay — I’ll be interrupting it on Monday to bring you the latest installment of THE PHANTOM EMPIRE, but otherwise, at least seven days in a world of drag, madness, irresponsibility, corruption and romance.

Sadie McKee’s Story

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2017 by dcairns

As opposed to Robert McKee’s Story.

This piece is ALL spoilers.

SADIE MCKEE is MGM and 1934 — right on the join between pre-code and post-code. So Joan Crawford can sleep with a man out of wedlock, marry another man for money, divorce him, and still end up alive at the end, ready to win the man she always wanted (Franchot Tone, art doing its best to imitate life, life not being quite up to the challenge).

Still, MGM’s class-consciousness is apparent. Like Joanie’s early soundies and talkies (OUR BLUSHING BRIDES, OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS), the movie is indecently obsessed with analysing the right and wrong way to marry money. Sadie is the daughter of a cook who ends up a rich lady, and in the end she has her mum come and live with her — as cook. And her best friend, the inestimable Jean Dixon, clearly coded as a prostitute, is now the maid. That’s kind of odd.

That aside, what a terrific film. Clarence Brown was one of MGM’s finest directors, and though somewhat known as a woman’s director (which at MGM meant Joanie and Garbo) works wonders with the leading men. Franchot is always pretty good, of course, though he always looks like some kind of reptile — a gecko or a turtle perhaps. Mellifluous voice. By playing a blue-blood blue-nose stiff-necked moralist who’s wrong on all counts he allows the film to shake loose at least some of its Metro dignity.

Gene Raymond as a louse helps some more — great musical moments, singing “All I Do Is Dream of You.” A love rat who’s convincingly romantic, until Esther Ralston, channelling Mae West, steals him off. He’s even better than Franchot.

I like the first version best, but the second one has the marvelous DRAWER FULL OF CHORINES that slides out from the stage, like something from the morgue at the Copacobana. You didn’t know they had one there, did you? But of course they do — gotta keep the customers on ice until they can figure out Who shot who?

And then Edward Arnold, as the drunken millionaire — one of his best turns, encapsulating in quick succession how nice it would be to be drunk all the time and then how horrible it would be to be drunk all the time. Really surprising how brutal they let him get, after considerable screen time spent on establishing him as a sweet-natured souse. The only part that’s unconvincing is his reformation, but I guess they were saddled with that. He also gets a musical bit, snoozing through a great rendition of “After You’ve Gone” performed by Gene Austin and novelty jazz act Coco & Candy.

This bar is one of my favourite places in the film. The sleek Cedric Gibbons automat is pretty amazing too, like a porcelain spaceship, but the bar has Akim Tamiroff as the very enthusiastic manager. When Arnold orders champagne for everyone, Tamiroff has a giggling fit like he’s been pumped full of helium and nitrous oxide. Elated to the point almost of BURSTING. He’s a happy fellow.

Huge swathes of Joanie’s career are unfamiliar to me — one thing I’ll allow the rather shabby Feud — it’s got us watching Joan. Good as her three menfolk are in this, they’re all there to bask in her light.