Archive for Film Forum

Skull Island Follies of 1933

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on August 5, 2011 by dcairns

The fourth and final part of The Daily Notebook series on pre-code movies screening at New York’s Film Forum is now up, featuring a few more contributions by me, including some thoughts on the pre-code qualities of KING KONG.

I’d no sooner mentioned this to friend, regular Shadowplayer and Oscar-winning animator Randall William Cook, than he told me something really spicy and smutty and pre-code about the movie, which I’ll share with you immediately. Seems Mr Cook managed to get a look at Max Steiner’s original score, the actual sheet music for the film. Here, the various cues had titles, not intended for the public’s eyes. You know that scene where Kong is undressing Fay Wray, and he sort of prods/tickles her with his index finger, then smells the digit in question?

It’s called “Stinkfinger.”

Hey, don’t shoot the messenger.

Pre-code Unknown

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 30, 2011 by dcairns

In which I continue my slow spread across the internet. Picture one of those burning maps you’d get in the opening titles of Hollywood war or western pic: that’s me and the internet.

At The Daily Notebook, I contribute to the ongoing process of capsule-reviewing highlights of New York’s Film Forum pre-code series, along with Gina Telaroli, Ben Sachs, Craig Keller, Glenn Kenny, Zach Campbell and Jaime N. Christley. I’ve tackled THE PUBLIC ENEMY, THREE ON A MATCH (above), RED-HEADED WOMAN and CALL HER SAVAGE.

And at Electric Sheep, I chip in to the round-up of this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, with pieces on TROLLHUNTER and TO HELL AND BACK AGAIN.

Been viewing a lot of pre-codes lately, because Fiona’s been unwell and pre-codes are perfect when you’re doped up on painkillers. Here are capsules of a few more we ran —

TWO ALONE

This is a really beautiful pre-code pastoral (was that even a thing?) in which unloved foster-child Jean Parker falls from juvie home runaway Tom Brown. Memorable nastiness from the foster family, but the movie isn’t overall about making you want the bad guys to suffer horrendous fates, although some of the time you do. In the end, this tender film satisfies you by rewarding the good characters instead.

Notable for Parker’s nude scene and the sympathetic view of pre-marital sex and extra-marital pregnancy, and taking the side of the despised outlaws over the nominal pillars of the community. Elliot Nugent directs, and it’s interesting to see small-town values being repeatedly trashed in these movies.

THE MATCH KING

We had David Wingrove to dinner with the plan to watch the ne plus ultra of Bad Cinema, Baz Luhrman’s emetic epic AUSTRALIA, but even he, who owns a copy of BOXING HELENA and watched WILD ORCHID four times, couldn’t make it through the antipodean hellscape (it’s like being injected into the mind of a ten-year-old with ADHD), and so a nice 80-minute pre-code seemed the ideal antidote.

Warren William — the starving lion — magnificent scoundrel — king of the pre-codes — the other Great Profile — is a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi schemer who tries to dominate the world, starting with a humble match factory. He saves the family firm with money borrowed on holdings that don’t exist, which means he’ll always owe more money than he can pay back, “until I own everything in the world, and then I’ll only owe money to myself.” On the way to his inevitable fall, Glenda Farrell, Claire Dodd and Lily Damita become notches on his bedpost. Every now and then the screenwriters have WW do something truly rotten on a personal level, in case we find his massive-scale financial chicanery too endearing. “This is like a primer in capitalism,” our dinner guest remarked, awestruck.

HOT SATURDAY

Our new favourite Nancy Carroll is torn between rich playboy Cary Grant and homespun geologist Randolph Scott. Quite a choice. But meanwhile smalltown gossip threatens her future. Chief slanderer and hottie Lilian Bond makes malice seem almost sexy, and this is a useful rebuttal to Leo McCarey’s claim that he taught Cary Grant everything. Grant is stiff in his Mae West and Sternberg movies, but effective for Leisen and Walsh and, in this case, the less celebrated William A. Seiter.

BIG BROWN EYES

Grant again, paired with blonde Joan Bennett, who’s notably abrasive and snappy under Raoul Walsh’s rambunctious purview. She’s a manicurist-turned-crime-reporter (!), he’s a police detective, and they’re hot on the trail of a ring of burglars, fences and baby-killers. Walter Pidgeon makes an assured snake-in-the-grass, and the accidental assassination of a sleeping tot shows how pre-codes could turn reckless tonal inconsistency into some kind of demented virtue. Isn’t this supposed to be a comedy?

ME AND MY GAL

The best and pre-codiest pre-codes overall may be the Warners films, but the Fox films are the rarest, thanks to that library’s largely unexploited status (apart from the legendary Murnau & Borzage at Fox box set). This is Walsh again, and Bennett again (with a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t beauty spot) and Spencer Tracy, during that part of his career where he played ostensibly lovable louts rather than patrician paterfamilias types. Here he rises through the police force and into Joan’s arms in a sweet, sassy romance that folds in a crime story and some alcoholic Irish shenanigans. Twice, Bennett’s father turns to the camera and invites us all to have a drink. Another character is paralyzed and communicates by blinking, allowing for some THERESE RAQUIN inspired plot twists, and the weirdest scene is cued by Tracy talking about a movie he just saw, “STRANGE INNERTUBE or something,” which leads to a series of internal monologues by himself and Bennett as they cuddle up on their date. Crazy stuff.

Walsh made a quasi-sequel, SAILOR’S LUCK, which has been getting a lot of attention in New York screenings and on the blogosphere, and which we’ll certainly be watching next.

New York Noir

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 17, 2010 by dcairns

Like THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, SIDE STREET, shown in Film Forum’s Anthony Mann retrospective, stars Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, and like that earlier and better film, it begins with an aerial shot, but there the resemblance mostly ends. The problem here seems to be MGM’s ideological antipathy to the true noir spirit, with its shades of gray, its sense of doubt and anxiety about society and human nature, and its commitment to sex and greed as persistent driving forces in human nature. All of which is anathema to Louis B Mayer, despite the fact that he was personally a more loathsome figure than many a noir bad guy.

So Granger and O’Donnell’s tendency to overexpressive sentimentality is fully indulged here, in contrast to the way Nick Ray kept them in check and made them earn the audience’s affection. Anthony Mann, no slouch in the noir stakes, compensates somewhat with shrewd casting and violent, percussive cutting and angles — I lost count of the number of faces thrust savagely into the lens. Although the cops, introduced via a NAKED CITY-lite opening VO, are angelic upholders of order, he casts Paul Kelly and Charles McGraw — the first, a doleful stringbean zombie, the second a granite torpedo with ground-glass-rasping vocal cords. Since Granger is meant to be an innocent man on the run, lovable MGM cops represent a minimal menace, but by this casting Mann reclaims some tension.

The set-up — in a moment of weakness, squeaky-clean mailman Farley steals what turns out to be a huge wad of dirty money, proceeds of a blackmail scheme with murder mixed in. The loot gets swiped before he can repentantly return it, and he hares around the city trying to recover it, pursued by cops and crooks as bodies pile up like pretzels (best body award goes to Jean Hagen, typically luckless in her choice of beau). It’s a very basic premise but it does allow for pleasing cameos and a pacy, crisscross narrative rhythm. Mann himself disliked the film save for the climactic pursuit through a weirdly deserted early morning Manhattan, the concrete canyons making a monolith maze for pursuers and pursued.

Honorable mention to James Craig, finding his level as a stupid brute of a bad guy, and to the two audience members who provided relief from a non-smouldering love scene by getting into a wrestling match over a mobile phone that hadn’t been switched off. I think violence does seem a suitable response to somebody taking a call during a movie… Crime Does NOT Pay!