Archive for Ben Hecht

The Don’ts

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , on October 14, 2017 by dcairns

So, I got an unusual and intriguing invitation to take part in a blogathon — that in itself is fairly unusual, but the NATURE of the blogathon in this case is out of the normal run of things. The Pure Entertainment Preservation Society is running a celebration of Production Code supremo Joe Breen, with the underlying belief that the code was a boon to American movie-making and would transform American culture for the better if it were reinstated today.

I think this is incorrect, but the people at PEPS said they’re happy for me to take a dissenting view, so why not? I did check their opinion of the Code’s infamous sixth commandment, prohibiting “racial miscegenation” — they’re against it. It wasn’t part of the original Code but was added by the studios themselves, as they wanted a provision to keep them from getting into trouble with local censors in the South.

(What the USA needed, post-Civil War, was surely a massive indoctrination campaign equivalent to that which de-Nazified Germany. I don’t know how that was accomplished — convincing people they’ve been on the wrong side isn’t exactly easy — but it seems to have been very successful. Large parts of the South still don’t seem to have learned the rather important lessons of that war. That “War Between The States” stuff needed stamping out.)

So, having established that my genial hosts were not horrible racists, I felt I could do business with them. Because, hopefully, dialogue between different viewpoints is a good thing. (I haven’t asked their opinions on Trump yet.)

One of the suggested gambits for this blogathon is “Breening,” whereby a modern film is reimagined as it would be if produced under the Code. The point of the exercise being to show how it would be improved. I was tempting to choose LOVING, a film which would presumably cease to exist under the Code, or else the whole thing would play on a torpedo boat. But I’ve decided not to Breen anything. Instead, I’m going to start off by considering the provisions of the Code to see what can be said for them.

I don’t think the Pure Entertainment people will be shocked by my views. But we’re coming at things from different perspectives. Charles Grodin recommends that when liberals argue with conservatives, it’s best not to start by assuming the other side is less compassionate. While conservatives worry about the erosion of abstract but deeply-held “values”, liberals worry about “harm.” So I’m looking at the Don’ts in the Code and asking “Who actually gets hurt if we ignore these rules?” and “Who gets hurt if we obey them?”

These Don’ts are actually from the 1927 Code proposed by the industry and accepted by Will Hays. The Breen Code later adapted these somewhat.

One) Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words “God”, “Lord”, “Jesus”, “Christ” (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), “hell”, “damn”, “Gawd”, and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;

I can be a little prudish about “pointed profanity.” I don’t like to hear little kids swearing; I don’t like any loud swearing in public. And swearing in the movies probably does have an influence on real-life use of swears. But it isn’t, in itself, hurting anyone. Even the Bible is only mildly against it. There’s not a Commandment about vulgar language, just about taking the Lord’s name in vain. And do we seriously want a cultural rule that prevents realistic representation of dialogue in order to spare the feelings of one religious group? My rule is, the religious can follow whatever precepts they like, within the law of the land, but they oughtn’t get to prohibit non-adherents from doing or saying what they like, within the law of the land.

Two) Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;

I like how they cover all the bases here. You can’t show a character lecherously noticing the nudity of a character who you also can’t show. In practice, of course, ALL nudity was deemed licentious/suggestive from 1934 until the Code disintegrated, with the exception of dogs, horses etc. Why do they get a pass? Rin Tin Tin spent his whole career gallumphing about starkers with his tongue hanging out, and when he noticed lady dogs I’m not so sure his intentions were pure. Personally, I sometimes enjoy looking at attractive naked humans, and it can be useful to occasionally see less attractive ones so I feel less inferior.

I realise that distinguishing between licentious nudity and the healthy, outdoors kind would have involved a lot of hairsplitting, which is not easy to do while staring at someone’s bottom. And it’s probably safe to assume that most movie nudity has suggestive intent, given the kind of people who make movies. But of all the kinds of god I don’t believe in, the kind I don’t believe in hardest may be the kind who created the human body and then doesn’t want it ever to be seen.

Three) The illegal traffic in drugs;

This one’s just mad, isn’t it? You have to warn kids about drugs, so they won’t think it’s a great idea to accept them when offered (but they’ll probably do it anyway). If you want kids to be aware of the dangers of drugs (including the danger of getting busted and having your life ruined), banning any reference to them from movies is a pretty counter-intuitive move.

Four) Any inference of sex perversion;

Since inference is something done by the audience, this seems to be asking for the moon. How are the studios going to stop the audience inferring whatever it likes? My favourite example of this is Ben Hecht’s suggestion that whenever the screen fades to black, the occupants of the scene we’ve just been watching immediately drop their trousers and begin fornicating in the dark. Such an interpretation of film grammar enlivens the most moribund BOSTON BLACKIE programmer.

But even if we assume the Code meant to say “implication,” I’m against it. This to me is as bad as the miscegenation rule, even though it’s easier to understand in its historical context. However we define “perversion” (the Church has often gone with “anything which adds pleasure to the sexual act/s”), I’m in favour of implying it, inferring it, flat-out portraying it, and doing it, as long as you’re not hurting anyone. Public sex should generally be closely contained, but sex or its impersonation on a movie screen certified Adults Only seems harmless to me, in itself.

And since sex is wrapped up in a lot of anxiety, it can do audience members good to see people in movies who are into the same twisted but harmless peculiarities they themselves enjoy.

Five) White slavery;

But Black slavery is fine, apparently. See GONE WITH THE WIND. Both hues of slavery seem like unpleasant facts of life which can and should be dealt with in movies — I would move them to the Be Careful list. Rape is on the Be Careful list. Why this distinction?

Six) Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);

See above. Censorship often draws a sort of diaphanous veil over things we know are there. what are we being protected from? Practically every African-American owes some of their DNA to rape under slavery. “Miscegenation” was driven by the white slave-owning class. It’s proof is in every coffee-coloured face we see. And the proof of sexual intercourse is present in every human being we see. And the proof of sexual perversion is present inside our own minds.

Seven) Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;

Don’t talk about it. It’ll go away.

Eight) Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;

Ditto. And putting these two items in the same column is weird.

Nine) Children’s sex organs;

I don’t have the energy to mount a campaign for More Children’s Sex Organs Now, but isn’t this a strange one to get absolutist about? I think sexualised images of children are worrisome, and they don’t have to involve specific organs. And we want to be careful of providing images that feed pedophile fantasies, even while they might seem innocent enough to normal people. This just seems like an area where more nuance would be useful.

Ten) Ridicule of the clergy;

Nobody should be safe from ridicule. The deeply religious indulge in a strange form of projection which means we all have to follow their rules. Joseph Breen shouldn’t ridicule the clergy because he’s a Catholic. I’m an atheist. Ridiculing the clergy is central to my existence. And when an unbeliever mocks Allah, they’re mocking something they don’t believe is there. That can’t be as bad a sin, surely, as a devout Muslim disrespecting his own deity.

I recall hearing that Prince Charles, over dinner, once argued that the Salman Rushdie fatwa was understandable as he’d offended people’s most deeply held beliefs. I like to think I would reply that MY most deeply held beliefs include the importance of freedom of expression. Do I get to write a counter-fatwa?

Eleven) Willful offense to any nation, race or creed;

The eleventh commandment. Breen would have had ten but the studios had to go one better than God. This one’s a nice sentiment, but in theory it includes Satanists, and in practice it included Nazis pre-war, and didn’t really include other races. Except that it’s so hard to tell when offence is willful, sometimes. But this seems like the 1930s version of an injunction against hate speech, and thus not far removed from the kind of thing most of us would endorse today. Banning the incitement of hatred towards a race or creed seems like a better way of getting the desired result. I’m not sure if “nation” means a populace or a leadership, here. Hatred of Germany, as constituted under Hitler, was evidently fine during WWII. Hatred of the Japanese people as a race was also encouraged. So the Breen Office didn’t always follow its own injunctions.

A separate post on the Code’s twenty-five Be Carefuls? And then something on the effect of the Code. Because the funny thing is, I agree with the Purity people that the thirties and forties were a really great time for American cinema. We just disagree a bit about WHY…

 

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Isn’t it Pharaonic? Don’t you think?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on August 18, 2017 by dcairns

I mention the prospect of LAND OF THE PHARAOHS for our Hawks binge, and Fiona declares at once, “That’s one of my favourite movies!”

Afterwards, she admitted it wasn’t.

But it made a great impression on her as a kid, because of the ending. “Buried alive with a lot of people with their tongues cut out!”

SPOILER ALERTIt’s like a great ending in search of a movie. And perhaps evidence that no movie about a giant construction project is ever any good (Civil Engineering: See Boring). we have SUEZ, WESTERN UNION, and this. There must be exceptions but I can’t think of any. Don’t say THE FOUNTAINHEAD.

Hawks had engineering training and I guess he got carried away by it. Later, he complained that the film didn’t have sympathetic characters — the slaves are theoretically “sympathetic” because they’re not mean, but they can’t engage our interest because they’re not active protagonists. Which is ironic, since they’re the only ones who do any work. But they’re not actively engaged in a personal struggle of their own, or minimally. They’re not DRAMATIC.Joan Collins plays a weird character — introduced as sympathetic, sent into sexual slavery to spare her father’s people from starvation, and swiftly sentenced to a lashing by Jack Hawkins — but then she becomes a monster of lust, ambition and avarice. If she were simply vengeful, destroying the dynasty (hah!) from within, it would be more consistent.

Despite the colossal sets, the spectacle isn’t very engrossing: Hawks ignores the lessons of CABIRIA and INTOLERANCE, which used the moving camera to involve us in the scenery and bring out the size of the construction work, combining them with a human scale. A bit of dollying in the pyramid interior could really have added to the feeling of being surrounded by great thicknesses of stone. Again, this only comes to life at the climax, where it’s fast cutting rather than camera motion that invigorates the action.My assumption is that after Joan gets entombed alive with the mutes, they all have sex. Am I wrong to think that?

I mean, what else are they gonna do?

(It was major Hawks collaborator Ben Hecht who suggested you could entertainingly read every single fade-out in Hollywood history as an ellipsed sex scene. This is a thought experiment which will liven up any dull B-movie.)

“I don’t know how a pharaoh talks,” is a classic line, and a decent objection to this kind of malarkey. Language gets deracinated. And you could see how the problem would be particularly devastating to Hawks. In the end, apart from the stunning climax, the film’s value is as a course correction that led to RIO BRAVO, a film in which practically everybody is an admirable Hawksian professional, even the baddies, and the talk is casual and plentiful and easily peppered with idiomatic spice.

Corking Screwballs

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2017 by dcairns

We’re deep in screwball country. Has it been a week already?

Not everything rates a post of its own though. Here’s some I don’t quite have enough to say about.

You can’t launch into BRINGING UP BABY unless you’re bringing something new to the party, and I don’t think I am. I thought I might be able to until I saw it again — some insight into why it flopped in 1939.

You see, as a youngster I had an abortive viewing experience with this one, tuning out after the golf course and restaurant scenes, finding the whole thing annoying. But I’d since viewed most of the later stuff and, correctly, found it very funny. So my theory was that Hepburn’s character is too irritating in the first scenes, which seemed interminable as a result. Audiences, naturally starting at the beginning, may have become irate before the fun really started.

But this time, I felt no annoyance at all. So the opening scenes, less that twenty minutes in reality, sailed by, and also made me laugh a lot. It’s true that we haven’t met the amazing supporting cast yet, who enhance it so much (I’m coming to a new appreciation of Charles Ruggles — along with his brother, Wesley), and MAYBE the ripping of Hepburn’s skirt isn’t quite the right gag for her particular character? But really, quibbles.

Two things are really hard to frame-grab, and for the same reason — Grant-Hepburn by-play, and George playing with Baby. Too fast!

(This thing of getting annoyed by comedy — a friend had it with Laurel & Hardy, where he would get frustrated that they couldn’t solve their simple problems, the solutions were so easy and the accidents so inevitable. As a kid I also got it with the Mr. Muckle scene in IT’S A GIFT, too. The thing that has in common with Grant & Hepburn, I guess, is a character too timid to really forcefully point out what’s wrong with the situation he’s stuck in. Though Grant really tries, bless him.)

So I had a great time with BRINGING UP BABY, but not much to say about it. Apart from the above.

FORSAKING ALL OTHERS is a good W.S. Van Dyke minor screwball with Joan Crawford (who made a surprising number of these) and a trio of wacky male friends, Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable and the excellent Charles Butterworth (like Ruggles, a stand-out in LOVE ME TONIGHT). No prizes for guessing who gets the girl.

A risky plot — Montgomery has to behave like a cad without quite becoming the heavy — Gable spends the whole film not confessing his love — Butterworth is just light relief, droning helpless irrelevancies. Someone mentions a fan dance: “Oh, I saw a girl do that once with electric fans — it was horrible.” It begins with a wedding so there’s a reason for everyone to be drinking and in tuxedos and gowns and ELATED — James Harvey’s favourite word. Montgomery stands Joan up at the altar and runs off with another girl, but realizes it’s a mistake. He’s stuck with Frances Drake, who is a Gail Patrick type Other Girl — worse, she’s the one character in the film who doesn’t know she’s in a screwball comedy. She can’t understand why everyone is so bloody silly — it’s most annoying.

Her sullen effect is magical — she does kind of make you want Montgomery to have a chance with Joan again, even though you want, really, for him to wind up with egg on his face and for Joan to get Clark. Guess what?

A great screwball encapsulation — Gable, back from Spain, embraces Billie Burke and they cry each others’ names in joy. Then he crosses the room without her, throws open his arms — and they do it again. Why not, if it was good the first time?

I LOVE YOU AGAIN is the dream team of William Powell and Myrna Loy. (We also rewatched THE THIN MAN — nothing fresh to report but see here.) This one is an amnesia caper — boring skinflint Powell gets a knock on the head and realizes he’s actually a daring con artist. During his previous fugue state (result of a previous occiputal clonk) he’s married Loy, and she’s had time to become thoroughly bored with the man he previously was. Powell falls in love with her at (sort of) first sight, and has to convince her he’s changed — in the right way. A weird kind of plot — hardboiled comedy hand Maurine Dallas Watkins (author of the original play Chicago, a key work in the tough comedy genre) was involved. Frank McHugh and Edmund Lowe are along for the ride.

DOUBLE WEDDING, from grumpy old Richard Thorpe, is equally good, if less emotional. Businesswoman Loy is attracted to Bohemian Powell but can’t admit it. VERY funny supporting perf from reluctant Boho John Beal, clearly the squarest thing on two legs. “Aw, why do Bohemians have to stay up all night?” he grouches, a petulant child. A shame his talent for ridiculousness wasn’t exploited elsewhere.

THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD pairs William Powell with Jean Arthur, which would work great if what they were given to do suited them. He’s fine, giving a great line reading — “INT-olerable!” — but in this THIN MAN knock-off mystery, she’s required to be manipulative, klutzy, dizzy — all things we don’t really want from the sensible Miss Arthur, whether she can do them or not.

You notice, with the MANY imitations of THE THIN MAN, any variation from the standard pairing tends to be a let-down. Inexplicable, Nick & Nora never fight, never misunderstand each other, and while she’s an heiress not a professional sleuth and so isn’t some improbably detecting genius, there aren’t really any jokes about her being out of her depth, either. Though fights, misunderstandings and struggles with unfamiliar problems are all perfectly sound dramatic fodder, they’re simply surplus to requirements when you have Powell & Loy or this kind of teaming. That, ultimately, is why TEMB disappoints, and why it’s hard to even remember who Powell’s partner is — and she’s only one of the greatest screwball stars of all time.

(All three of the above rely a bit too much on clonking Powell on the head multiple times, but at least in ILYA it’s central to the plot.)

Bingeing on Bill Powell, we rewatched MY MAN GODFREY, which of course we love but which bothered Fiona for the same reason as last time — the screwy family all get redemptive arcs, ESPECIALLY Gail Patrick who you go from despising to kind of loving in one scene. But Lombard is the same spoilt child she was at the beginning. I decided not to let it bother me, because she’s still Lombard. And La Cava films always have some irritation or discomfort at the end — it’s not a flaw, it’s a TRAIT. Rough with the smooth.

If you know La Cava you probably know this and BED OF ROSES, STAGE DOOR, THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH. I recommend FIFTH AVENUE GIRL, SHE MARRIED HER BOSS, UNFINISHED BUSINESS. I still have lots to see, but they’re outside the screwball domain.

THE AMAZING MR WILLIAMS has crime-solver Melvyn Douglas forever standing up Joan Blondell (so he’s a sap). It’s a little annoying but has plenty of invention — not one case to solve but a succession. Near the end, Blondell goes on the case herself and it gives the film just the boost it’s needed, a little like when Theodora actually goes wild in THEODORA GOES WILD. Old movies get virtue points for their moments of feminism — but screwball seems to DEMAND to have a woman throw off the shackles of society and blow a few male minds.

The ultimate glamour shot — Joan’s Deputy Sheriff badge, which she can’t keep from admiring, distracting her from Melvyn on their wedding night.

MURDER IN THE PRIVATE CAR stars Charles Ruggles, that central screwball supporting player, as a “deflector” — rather than detecting crimes after they happen, he deflects them before they happen. It’s nice to see a second banana promoted to a kind of superhero role, schtick intact.

This utter B-picture has charm galore, with the patented Ruggles dither partnered by the more abrasive but still cute Una Merkel, and Mary Carlisle, who is the last surviving Wampas Baby Star (Hello, Mary, you centenarian auto-Googler, you! Who else has spoken Preston Sturges’ words — in HOTEL HAYWIRE — and still walks the earth? Good work!).

Good flakey lines — when a cab driver wants to bail on Ruggles, our hero protests, “No, stick around. I like you. You’re refreshing.”

THE MOON’S OUR HOME is full of eccentricity and invention and disrespectfulness, but maybe because of Dorothy Parker’s input, lacking in charm — Parker was not sufficiently a romantic to really get us to invest in the central couple, who are pretty horrible — bratty writer Henry Fonda and bratty actress Margaret Sullavan (her regular tantrums in the movie don’t suit her style, though they seem to have been a major part of her real-life temperament and her real-life marriage to Hank). But there’s clever stuff including a faux-split-screen where we can see into the couple’s adjoining railway compartments before they’ve met, their dialogue with respective traveling companions bouncing off each other to form a revealing fold-in conversation. Also, as in THE LADY EVE, Fonda is tormented by perfume…

Fiona, a dedicated fumehead, was impressed by the tracking shot following the scent’s progress towards the Fonda nostrils, like something from OUTBREAK.

CAFÉ METROPOLE has skilled farceurs Adolphe Menjou and Gregory Ratoff (who also wrote) but it stars Tyrone Power and Loretta Young — consequently it never quite takes flight. The two, lovely to look at, don’t have the speed, bite or lightness to let the comedy take flight, and together they’re in nearly every scene. Veteran director Edward H. Griffith seems to be encouraging even Menjou to play it slack. There’s one scene, near the end, where suddenly Loretta is in a hysterical rage, and the very funny Helen Westley is involved, and it’s too much, but it’s much closer to the pitch the whole film should have been at. There’s no sensible reason for the sudden frenzy, so it just seems like a lack of control. James Harvey seems to be right about Twentieth Century Fox — they didn’t have the right stars, and so the good films Gregory Ratoff might have made in the screwball style never came together. A shame, because this one has a very nice plot, and Power’s entrance, drunk at his table in the posh restaurant, demanding to be brought a roast eagle, is the right kind of business.

 

IT’S A WONDERFUL WORLD is entertaining if unoriginal — I liked it better than Fiona did. It’s a Hitchcockian chase thriller done in screwball mode, with detective Jimmy Stewart reluctantly paired with poetess Claudette Colbert (and at one point handcuffed together, as in THE 39 STEPS). There’s some quite inventive situations, but somehow they don’t reach critical mass and convince you that you’re watching something you haven’t seen before, and the central relationship doesn’t quite warm up enough, though Ben Hecht restrains his sexism, channeling it into Stewart’s character and then forcing him to overcome it. Which is nice.

 

THE GILDED LILY from the TRUE CONFESSION team of director Wesley Ruggles and writer Claude “Buttercake” Binyon. Curiously likable and engaging despite an almost total absence of funny lines or situations. A good part of this is down to Claudette Colbert being supported by Fred MacMurray and Ray Milland, who give you a nice variety of lightweight, breezy charm. A funny drink-ordering scene, and Colbert’s night-club act, where she simply walks around narrating her inability to remember her song, and her inability to really sing the bits she does remember. As often with Hollywood comedies, this is marred by the fact that the night club audience is supposed to find it implausibly hilarious, and their laughter is so far ahead of ours that it becomes grating and unbelievable. But Colbert — whose appeal Harvey equates to her straightforwardness and honesty — is the right person to do this, for sure.

The same writer-director team brought us TOO MANY HUSBANDS, from a play by that, er, master of screwball, Somerset Maugham. Jean Arthur marries Melvyn Douglas while Fred MacMurray is lost at sea, and the return of husband no. 1 provokes comic chaos. Or at least discomfort. The trio all prove wonderful at evoking different levels of embarrassment, confusion, anger… and then Arthur starts looking like the cat who’s got the cream.

LOTS of gay stuff, along with the expected troilism gags, when the husbands are forced to spend the night together in the frilly spare room (the only decent solution, until this can be straightened out), most of it MacMurray taunting Douglas, but it all gets surprisingly near the knuckle — and what a knuckle! Too bad they can’t sort it out in a satisfactory way — having enjoyed the upsetting of societal norms, we don’t WANT a conventional resolution, but as a comic “problem play” we still require a resolution of some kind. The ending feels like it goes on a scene too long, even though it deserves points for spectacularly doing what the Hays Code specifically prohibits — rendering marriage ridiculous.

Buttercake Binyon, quoted in The Screwball Comedy Films  by Duane Byrge & Robert Milton Miller ~

“Writing for motion pictures is so simple, and the reward is so great, that one wonders why no more than several hundred persons have chosen it over cab-driving as a career. Of course, it is admitted that a cab driver meets more interesting people, but a motion picture writer may work for good pay during the day and pretend to meet interesting people at night.

Everyone knows that in the average picture a boy will meet a girl, and they will fall in love, have a dilly of a spat, then become reconciled. Why doesn’t everybody write it? Is it simply laziness on their part? The weekly pay ranges from over $100 a week to thousands. Just for that: just for putting on paper about the boy and the girl.”