Archive for the literature Category

Whatever Happened to Mary Jane?

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2017 by dcairns

In SUDDEN FEAR, Joan Crawford stars as Mary Jane Hudson, a name with odd resonances (she’d later play Blanche Hudson opposite Bette Davis as Baby Jane). This was made right before TORCH SONG but it’s in b&w and Joan looks much, much better, and mostly acts better.

The film suffers from an unnecessary first act — we really don’t NEED to see the lady playwright meet the dashing-yet-alarming actor (Jack Palance) and marry him. It’s like the redundant opening stuff grafted onto Cukor’s GASLIGHT, but that was rendered reasonably compelling because our heroine has to overcome some obstacles to her romance. This is just women’s weekly stuff, though it’s kind of fascinating to see two such mismatched scary intense people pitching woo. Only when we discover Palance’s dish on the side, Gloria Grahame, do we get real lusty fireworks.

The plotting from here on is intricate and suspenseful — Joan’s dictation machine inadvertently records Jack and Gloria plotting her murder — since they believe she’s about to change her will, they have a narrow window of homicidal opportunity. Much angst from Joan — it’s basically a huge long scene of her wandering around the room in torment as the recording replays mercilessly from the speakers. And then she wanders some more and tosses on the couch etc. as the recording re-replays in her head. At this point, for the only time in the film, Joan goes full self-parodic drag queen, but she soon recovers.

Now Joan, having frustratingly fumbled and smashed the record which was her only evidence, resorts to her playwright’s imagination to slay one enemy and stitch up the other with an elaborately planned scenario. It becomes clear that UNFAITHFULLY YOURS must have been an influence on Edna Sherry’s source novel — the home recording device, the elaborate killing and frame-up. And, of course, the plan goes awry, mainly because Joan isn’t evil enough to pull it off — but this makes her wholly innocent and so fate is permitted, by the Production Code, to take a hand and make sure things turn out okay after all, in an admittedly ironic and rather messy way.

The endearing nonsense is very capably directed by David Miller, otherwise best known for atrocities — the mostly-dire Marx Bros “romp” LOVE HAPPY and MGM’s pointless remake of THE WOMEN, THE OPPOSITE SEX (Now with the new miracle wonder-ingredient, Men! Esther Williams turned that one down flat, correctly declaring that the rewrite robbed the original of its all-female USP). I’ve been meaning to watch Miller and Dalton Trumbo’s LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, and this encourages me. The guy had talent, seen here mainly in artfully-framed studies of Joan’s martyred features, and dynamic use of the Palance physicality.

And as timeless as infinity…

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , on April 11, 2017 by dcairns

I knew this episode of The Twilight Zone mainly from its spoiler-heavy synopsis in the intro to TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE. I’m going to be equally spoilerific here, since the episode is practically a twist ending in search of a story. Nothing, for the most part, happens, until the end. Well, that’s unfair. But so is the show.

Burgess Meredith, struggling to act through coke-bottle-bottom glasses, plays a humble bank clerk who loves to read. But he can’t read at work because he’s at work, and the customers unreasonably expect service, the bank manager expects satisfied customers, etc. And he can’t read at home because of a particularly shrill version of a Rod Serling wife, who HATES BOOKS (her role is greatly enlarged and monstered from Lyn Venable’s source story). This character is completely unbelievable, but slightly fascinating in her awfulness. How did this couple come to get together? A woman whose only personality trait is her hatred of all literature, all printed matter (she’s not even embodying a real cultural phenomenon, she’s way beyond anti-intellectualism or inverted snobbery or philistinism, she’s psychopathic) and a man whose only personality trait is his benign, blinking, myopic love of good books. It would serve them right if they met via a misprint. No other explanation seems possible.

Then, while Blinking Burgess is hiding out in the bank vault to steal a moment with a treasured volume, the bomb drops. The bomb, Dmitri. The atomic bomb.

Burgess is legitimately upset about this. He stumbles around in the wasteland, and though he never worries about his wife (after all, he was at work when she was vaporised, why should he think of her?) he’s certainly unhappy that the world has been destroyed.

In this version of Armageddon, there’s no fall-out to worry about, and plenty of canned food, but Burgess is still inconsolable, alone. It’s only when he finds the city library, its books scattered but somehow unharmed by the blast that seems to have reduced everyone to dust (great writing LASTS) that he cheers up. He finally has time to read, Time Enough At Last, to quote the episode title.

And then he breaks his glasses.

“This isn’t fair!” He protests, in almost inarticulate horror. And it isn’t — the usual EC Comics “poetic justice” which makes nastiness feel good, is wholly lacking. The only “poetic justification” the gag has is that it affects the audience horribly, and maybe that’s The Twilight Zone‘s purpose, its place in the culture of its time — to let us feel unpleasant emotions otherwise somewhat forbidden, unacknowledged anxieties. And if we can’t conceive of atomic holocaust and megadeaths, maybe we can conceive of one blind man surrounded by nothing but books, with all the time in the world.

(Note that the effect is much, much worse than in the story, where the character’s love of reading isn’t drummed so incessantly into our heads, and we aren’t even convinced he does like books — he merely think he might, if given a chance to read one.)

Even Rod seems to have very little to say — how to sum this up? It’s a perfectly constructed trap, an infernal machine of awesome nastiness. Get out quick, move on, nothing to see here.

“The best-laid plans of mice and men – and Henry Bemis, the small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time. Henry Bemis, now just a part of a smashed landscape, just a piece of the rubble, just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself. Mr. Henry Bemis – in the Twilight Zone.”

This one is directed by John Brahm, who usually brought some kind of magnificent simplicity to the design side — here, the wasteland is very acceptable, but the library steps strewn with literature create a strikingly epic effect, on a budget. The combination of Burgess M’s extraordinary appearance and this extraordinary place makes every shot of the ending iconic.

Hanging Tree

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , on March 29, 2017 by dcairns

There was a bit of a gold rush theme at Hippfest this year, with Nell Shipman’s THE GRUB STAKE and Lev Kuleshov’s BY THE LAW, both set in Alaska / Yukon respectively.

Kuleshov’s vaunted “effect” is in play, but he also has physiognomical miracles to work with in his actors, particularly Aleksandra Khokhlova (no sniggering), a kind of horsey skeleton, and vein-popping Vladimir Fogel (bit of a bulging blood-vessel theme too, since HANDS OF ORLAC was also screened). The screen is at all times full of either blasting weather conditions or straining thespians projecting their conniptions at us with every muscle. Marvelous.

The live music was by guitarist R.M. Hubbert, and was one of Hippfest’s few incomplete successes — it was very lovely and dreamy, but not very responsive to the film. While Kuleshov and his team wrestled with the elements to produce cabin fever, “Hubby” strummed lovingly as if set on soothing our nerves, making the experience considerably more restful than you would expect, given the film’s subject matter. it was a bold experiment, and it’s testimony to the music’s beauty that it didn’t induce a kind of cabin fever of its own, consisting as it did of the same bit played over and over for ninety minutes — I could have listened to it for ninety more, but it didn’t do much for the story.

That story derives from Jack London, a surprise choice for Soviet adaptation on the face of it (though he was an ardent socialist). Kuleshov’s visualisation of it is beyond reproach, but his few changes to the narrative are either propagandistic or just bizarre — so odd that I suspect a propaganda intent even if I can’t figure out what it was. We were all quite struck by the film’s ending, in which (spoiler!) a character returns from the dead. Is he a ghost, the manifestation of guilty consciences, or did he just not die properly in the first place? I turned to London’s source story, The Unexpected, for answers — and no such incident occurs.

Well, I can’t see the Soviets adding a ghost where none existed, the psychological approach seems at odds with the film’s very externalized approach (apoplectic actors, rainstorms and floods, stunningly rendered, which suggest real, life-threatening natural events rather than Lear-like symbols), and so we’re left with the executed man simply not being dead. I guess London’s downbeat, dying fall of an ending wouldn’t have played in the Urals. Ironically, though, the one thing that could have explained the bizarre surprise twist would have been retaining London’s original title. It certainly was unexpected.

Images via Brandon and thunderb.