Sunday, November 30, 2008

Twentieth Century (1934)

This one came on TCM while I was drinking some coffee this morning and it seemed like a delightful way to start the morning.

The movie centers around an egotistical Broadway director named Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) who finds and cultivates a new theatrical star in the form of a lingerie model named Lily Garland (Carole Lombard). He takes on the role of mentor and in the process totally plays her like a violin. The young, naive Lily, of course, falls for him. Over time, the Svengali loses control of his puppet as she becomes more like a female version of himself. She develops her own ego issues and (gasp) independent thought which puts her at odds with Jaffe. It doesn't take long for her to believe she can do much better than him and the theatre life. They part, but of course, it is not the last time they see each other. They run into each other aboard the Twentieth Century Limited.

Carole Lombard and John Barrymore before she decides she can do better :-)

I have to admit, I knew nothing about this movie and when I started watching, I was really taken aback. First, at how dreadful Lombard is in her performance as an actress (with the play within a play). Then I realized she was supposed to be terrible so Jaffe could polish her up. Secondly, I was shocked at how much Barrymore completely overacted every second of his performance! I mean, he did the most expansive, over-the-top, hammed up (Jewish people wouldn't even watch due to Kosher laws) and I couldn't imagine why Hawks didn't tone him down a little. Then, maybe 15 minutes in, it dawned on me. Overacting was the whole point. Oscar Jaffe is SUPPOSED to be this incredibly hammy person. That IS the character of Oscar Jaffe. Barrymore is actually spoofing himself as Oscar Jaffe. Duh. Brilliant.

After I understood what the point of it was, I really enjoyed the interactions between Jaffe and Lily. I am not sure if there was truly a love-type chemistry there, but they were wonderful in their roles. It is almost like watching a tennis match as they throw barbs back and forth, trying to out do the other. At one point Jaffe says a line that, I think, sums up their relationship. He says, "She loves me. I could tell that through her screaming."

I especially liked the supporting characters of Jaffe's two cronies, Owen O'Malley (Roscoe Karns) and Oliver Webb (Walter Connolly). They have some of the best lines in the whole movie and are hilarious from beginning to end. At one point, Jaffe shouts an empty threat of suicide, as he often does, and one of them quips, "He won't kill himself. It would please too many people." In fact, the whole script is fantastic. The writing is stupendous with great lines throughout. To be fair to Jaffe, he has some good ones at his cronies expense too. For example, "It’s typical of my career that in the great crises of life, I should stand flanked by two incompetent alcoholics!"

I always have weird observations or thoughts after watching a movie for the first time. For this one, I am surprised by what held my focus for one entire scene. On the train, at one point, Lombard is wearing a lightweight white turtleneck. I don't want to sound prudish, but I was surprised that she wasn't wearing a bra under it. I was completely mesmerized watching her, uhmm, assets getting in on the acting. Has anyone else noticed this and was it common to wear a sheer top without a bra in those days? I know it was common in certain dresses, but in a sheer turtleneck? Gosh, maybe I am a prude for even noticing and questioning it.

Also, I had the strangest deja vu watching this. At one point, early on, I saw John Barrymore as Gene Wilder in his Young Frankenstein performance. I mean, seriously, don't those two performances seem very similar? It was disconcerting for me when I realized this and I couldn't stop hearing Wilder's voice and seeing his face in place of Barrymore at various points in the movie.

I also like that this is one of the first screwball comedies. I think "It Happened One Night" gets the honor of being the first, but this was released in the same year. Considering this is a part of the beginning of the genre, this is a wonderful film to take in. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys comedies, especially of the screwball variety.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Baby Face (1933)

Let me start with how much I thoroughly loved this movie. What a treat. I am going to take a different path on this and make use of a wonderful review by my friend Jenny where she describes the plot much more cleverly than I could. So click here and read that first, don't forget to read the comments below, then we will get started dissecting the details I want to talk about. :-)

Stanwyck getting ready to adjust a man's attitude with a beer bottle

I love the tagline that is listed for this movie: "She climbed the ladder of success - wrong by wrong!" ha ha.

I wanted to focus this blog about the two different movie versions. The version that had been known to the world prior to 2004 was the original theatrical release. Meaning it is the version that was cut up by the New York State Board of Censors after they demanded many changes and cuts. In 2004, someone in the Library of Congress happened to notice that of the two reels of "Baby Face" one of the reels had more footage. They investigated and realized it was a duped copy of the movie as it was meant to be, prior to the censors getting their fingers in the mix. So, more than 70 years later, the pre-release version was found and finally viewed.

I find it really surprising the number of cuts and changes that were made. Yes, some of them seem rather obvious, but the number of cuts of seemingly rather innocuous lines surprised me. For anyone interested, click here for a document from Warner Brothers, detailing all the changes that were made due to censor demands. Don't worry, I will go over some of the more obvious ones if you don't want to click and read the whole document.

One of the most obvious cuts they would make is to what I affectionately call the "exploitation" scene where Cragg the cobbler tells Lily to use what she has. The un-cut version goes something like him saying: "Exploit yourself. Go to some big city where you will find opportunities. Use men. Be strong! Defiant. Use men to get the things you want." In the theatrical version it is: "There is a right and a wrong way. Remember the price of the wrong way is too great. Go to some big city where you will find opportunities. Don't let people mislead you. Be clean, be strong, be defiant and you will be a success." Pfft.

In the theatrical version, they also took out her "paying" her and Chico's way to ride in the rail car. It is a shame too because I really loved how Chico just smiled when she realized what Lily had in mind, and walked to the other end of the car singing a nice song.

Also, in the un-cut version, Cragg the cobbler sends her another Nietzsche book for Christmas. He calls her attention to this passage: "Face life as you find it, defiantly and unafraid. Waste no energy yearning for the moon. Crush out all sentiment." In the theatrical release, they instead show a written letter from Cragg chastising her for choosing "the wrong way". He tells her she needs to regain her self respect and use the book to guide her right. Of course, they never show any descriptor of the book that is supposed to guide her right as Nietzsche would not be the book they would have in mind.

The biggest difference is the ending. So yet again, if I haven't already completely spoiled it for you, the ending will be discussed so skip if you don't want it to be known.


In the un-cut version, the last scene is of Lily and Courtland in the ambulance where she says the money in the case doesn't matter and the EMT tells her he has a good chance.

In the theatrical version, they toss in the most absurd and depressing scene in the whole movie! The cut from the ambulance to the board of directors office at the bank. They make it clear that Courtland survived and that he and Lily are happy together. They say that Courtland and Lily gave up all their money and possessions to help get the bank running again. Then they moved to Pittsburgh so Courtland could be a steel mill worker.

Now, is it just me, but didn't she hate being across from the steel mills when she was in the speakeasy? Why on earth, now that she knows better, would she ever go back there? Even penniless they could have found opportunities elsewhere. It is the worst possible ending for Lily. I think she would have rather used Courtland's gun to put a bullet through her own brain instead of being dragged back to that horrible life.

******************************END SPOILERS********************************

I really loved everything about this movie except the part of Lily dumping Chico at the end. That seemed really unforgivable and unnecessary. I loved Stanwyck's gritty acting and bravery at playing such a bad girl. I love the emotion when she told her father what she thought of him. "Yeah, I'm a tramp, and who's to blame? My father. A swell start you gave me. Ever since I was 14, what's it been? Nothing but men! Dirty rotten men! And you're lower than any of them! I'll hate you as long as I live!"

It is interesting to see both versions back to back, but of course, I highly recommend the un-cut version. I can't believe such a great movie was cut up and ruined for so long. Shame on them.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Lady in the Lake (1947)

Well, I have said it before and I will say it again. The key to happiness is lowered expectations. After having watched "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (1941) and being completely taken with Robert Montgomery in the movie, I dutifully looked for a movie I might have of his that I hadn't yet watched. Sure enough, I had a film noir, Philip Marlowe movie just waiting on me to get around to watching. You might guess that I was very excited about this and so ... unfortunately, expectations were high.

Robert Montgomery and Audrey Totter in "The Lady in the Lake"

"The Lady in the Lake" stars Robert Montgomery as Philip Marlowe and Audrey Totter as Adrienne Fromsett. Robert Montgomery actually did double duty in this, not only was he the star but also the director. Somehow, someone came up with a brilliant idea (sarcasm dripping here) to do this film totally in first person point of view. That means the audience sees everything from Philip Marlowe's eyes, i.e. the camera is Philip Marlowe. Aside from a few glimpses in mirrors and windows, we only see Philip Marlowe for a few minutes during prologues for scenes. (The fact that the movie needed prologues thrown in because of the complicated plot was an instant warning in and of itself.) So keep in mind, I watched this movie solely because Robert Montgomery was in it. Yet, even though he is the star - the protagonist of the film - he is only seen for maybe 5 minutes of the entire movie. Yay, me.

I can't believe I was suckered into two of these in a row. I went from "The Thomas Crowne Affair" (1968) movie gimmick of multi-image screen to the "Lady in the Lake" camera point of view movie gimmick. Both with disastrous results. I think the main problem in the "Lady in the Lake" is pacing. Since the filmmakers wanted to make it feel realistic for the audience, the camera slowly lumbered from marker to marker in what could only be described as an excruciating old lady's pace. They wanted to show Philip Marlowe getting out of a car and checking out a guy on the ground and hiding behind a fence. In what would take today's cameras 30 seconds to do, with the camera setups in the 1940s, it takes minutes which to, at least today's audience, feel like days.

The other disappointing thing is that ... and I really hate to say this ... but I really disliked Robert Montgomery as Philip Marlowe. That is hard to say given you only see him for 5 minutes. I think if we had actually seen him, I would have warmed up to him. As is, you only hear his dialogue and it doesn't sound like Robert Montgomery at all. It sounds more like Robert Montgomery imitating Humphrey Bogart because he thinks that is the way Philip Marlowe should sound. His delivery is terrible. Whereas Bogart comes across as a wise-cracker, Montgomery's dialogue comes off as obnoxious. I think, again, maybe if we had nonverbal clues via actually seeing Montgomery on film, it wouldn't have been as obnoxious, but as is, not so good.

The last point I want to make contains a spoiler. If you don't want to hear about the end of the movie, turn away now.


Even if the pacing were fixed, and even if Montgomery didn't try to imitate Bogart in a most obnoxious way, the other thing I truly hated about this movie was the Adrienne Fromsett character. So what if she wasn't the actual murderer? She still was a tramp trying to sleep her way to a million dollars while making sure the wife of the guy she was sleeping with stayed out of the picture. On top of that, when she told Philip Marlowe how much she cared for him and how she loved him, it was the most disingenuous speech I have ever heard. The entire time I was hoping he was just playing her to get info and then he would cut her loose. But at the end, he stays WITH the disingenuous, gold-digging tramp? Are you KIDDING ME? I actually threw a pillow at the TV screen at the end of the movie. Just ... I couldn't believe it.

******************************END SPOILERS***********************************

Before I close, I do want to say that I have seen the gimmicky, first person point of view thing work well in other movies. I will use the beginning of "Dark Passage" (1947) with Bogie and Bacall as an example, which happened to be released the same year. The camera portraying Bogart in first person point of view works brilliantly in the beginning. Not only that, but they have the good sense to ditch the gimmick so they can get the movie going faster than a turtle with a camera strapped to it's back.

My point being, it isn't just one thing in the movie - it is the whole movie. If you haven't guessed already, I really disliked this one. Take my advice and don't waste your time.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Remakes - Better The Second Time?

I am not a classic movie expert, but a lot of my friends think I am, so I guess I play one in real life. It isn't my fault I pretend to be an expert. I am in my early 30s and it seems that most of my peer set have only watched b&w films under duress. By comparison, I am an expert even though I feel guilty for even using that term when compared to true experts like my dear friend Jenny.

So many times in day-to-day conversations with the classic movie clueless, I end up in the role of expert trying to get someone interested in watching one of those icky old movies. The easiest way, I think, is when someone raves about having seen some recent movie and I interject "Well, if you loved that, you really should see the original." Of course, they almost always have no idea the movie they had been raving about was a remake and we all know, the original is always better than the remake. Or is it?

With such wonderful actors - how could it all go so horribly wrong?

I bring this up because I watched the original, 1968, "Thomas Crowne Affair" on TCM today. Oy!! I had to force myself to stay with it. There were a few good scenes with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, but overall, the movie was hard to watch. It rambles on with the gimmicky multi-image screen that didn't work and was very distracting. The 1999 version is clever, focused and sexy as hell. Did I mention sexy as hell? I mean it. Yowser, and in a good way. Much better than the original.

So after the movie ended I started pondering, what movies were actually better the second time around? I decided to make a short list, in no particular order, and see if anyone wanted to add to it or disagree with me.

1) His Girl Friday (Oh yeah, I had to start with a Cary Grant one. Yippee!)

2) Ben-Hur

3) The Maltese Falcon

4) Scarface

5) The Thomas Crowne Affair

I can list a few more - mostly sci-fi or horror genre, but want to see what others anyone might want to toss out there. Anyone disagree about anything I listed? Chime in.