Thursday, December 6, 2012

New Movie Star Sketches

Constance Bennett, "Merrily We Live," 1938.

Joan Fontaine, "Jane Eyre," 1944.

Jean Gabin, "Touchez Pas au Grisbi," 1954.

Gypsy Rose Lee, "Belle of the Yukon," 1944.

Richard Harris, "Camelot," 1967.

Madeleine LeBeau, "Casablanca," 1942.

Clause Rains, "Casablanca," 1942.

Robert Redford, "The Sting," 1973.

Omar Sharif, "Doctor Zhivago," 1965.
Laurence Olivier, "Wuthering Heights," 1939.

George Raft, "Red Light," 1949.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Eleven Movie Star Portraits

Jean-Paul Belmondo, "Breathless," 1960.

Marlene Dietrich, "Judgement at Nuremberg," 1961.

Clint Eastwood, "For a Few Dollars More," 1967.

Judy Holliday, "Adam's Rib," 1949.

Boris Karloff, "Frankenstein," 1931.

Alan Ladd, "The Glass Key," 1942.

Veronica Lake "The Glass Key" 1942.

Sue Lyon, "Lolita," 1962.

Virginia Mayo, "South Sea Woman," 1953.

Ginger Rogers, "Top Hat," 1935.

Simone Signoret "Diabolique" 1955.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Germans in "The Great Gatsby"

I'm watching the 1974 version of Gatsby, with Robert Redford, Maia Farrow, Bruce Dern, Karen Black, and Sam Waterston.  I forgot that one of the rumors about Gatsby is that he's German, and that's how he got all his money; he's related to the Kaiser. 
The woman who tells this to Nick Carraway, the narrator, whispers it, as if it's scandalous, which it would be in the 1920s, so soon after the Great War. 
We also know that Nick was in the war, so his reaction - or lack of one - is actually interesting.  He knows it's just a rumor, but if it isn't, he doesn't really seem to care.  Germans to him aren't really an enemy because, perhaps, he has dealt with real Germans, not just stereotyped versions as portrayed by the yellow press.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Six Stars

Woody Allen, "Annie Hall," 1977.

William Holden, "Born Yesterday," 1950

Judy Holliday, "Born Yesterday," 1950

Diane Keaton, "Annie Hall," 1977.

Eric von Stroheim, "Five Graves to Cairo," 1943.

Orson Welles, "The Third Man," 1949.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Stars Stars Stars

Jean Arthur, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," 1939.

Fred Astaire, "Silk Stockings," 1957.

Cyd Charrise, "Silk Stockings," 1957.

Harpo Marx, "A Night at the Opera," 1935.

Ray Milland, "The Uninvited," 1944.

Fay Wray, "Doctor X," 1932.

Friday, September 21, 2012

More Movie Star Sketches

Judy Garland, "The Pirate," 1948.
Gene Kelly, "An American in Paris," 1951.
Lauren Bacall, "Dark Passage," 1947.

Ingrid Bergman, "Casablanca," 1942.

Humphrey Bogart, "The Big Sleep," 1946.

Claudette Colbert, "The Palm Beach Story," 1942.

Bette Davis, "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex," 1939.

Greta Garbo, "Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise)" 1931.

Ava Gardner, "The Bribe," 1949.

Peter Lorre, "The Beast with Five Fingers," 1946.

Christopher Reeve, "Superman," 1978.

Lupe Velez "The Half-Naked Truth" 1932.
Irene Dunne, "Together Again," 1944.

Monday, July 9, 2012

"Good" Germans in 1955's "East of Eden"

Another Entry in my Continuing Series on Germans and German-Americans in Cinema

Director Elia Kazan's "East of Eden" is remembered primarily for James Dean's method acting.  This Cain and Abel story of two brothers, Cal (Dean) and Aron competing for the love of their father, Adam (Raymond Massey) and a girl (Julie Harris) is set in the early years of World War One.  Cal is perhaps the "bad" son, rebellious, while Aron is considered "good."   

A significant subplot involves the small framing town's reaction to German-Americans who live and work among them.

Gustav Albrecht (played by character actor Harold Gordon), a friend of Cal Trask and his family, is a shoemaker.  He speaks with a German accent that some in the town find amusing but not threatening.  Early in the film, amidst the patriotism that came when the Dough Boys first leave to fight, Gustav (or Gus, as some call him) is a trusted member of the community. 

But as the war drags on and more young boys are called up to fight, and replace the soldiers who have died, Gus's problems begin to mount.

Early in the film Gus and the Trasks begin worrying about rising tensions.  Gus expresses his disbelief at the war being Germany's fault, and when confronted with rumors of German atrocities he says "it's not true, especially for the good Germans."

As new recruits march through the town, a rock is thrown through Gus's shop window as someone yells for him to "go home."

At a carnival, a soldier gives a recruitment speech, mentioning "atrocities of the Hun."  Listening, Gus says they are "lies, all lies," and another person in the audience says "there's that German again, I'ld like to give him a piece of my mind."

A group follows Gus and try to get him alone by offering to buy him a drink - Gus calls one of them a "schweinhund" and pushes him.  The crowd, now a mob, follow Gus home and trample his prize rose bushes. 

Cal's brother Aron tries to placate the mob by reminding them they like Gus and his funny accent, but then someone presents Gus with a telegram reporting the death of a townswoman's son.  She accuses Gus of not being sorry, then of not being sorry enough.   A towns person says he is tired of Aron "sticking up for" the German, and questions Aron's patriotism because he hasn't enlisted yet.

The mob begins destroying the property, ripping up fences, as someone yells to Gus "this'll make you sorry."

Cal shows up and immediately pushes his way to Gus, and begins punching.  The sheriff shows up before things get too violent.  He calls everyone by name, calming the situation by subtly reminding everyone they were once all friends.  He tells Gus someone owes him an apology.

This film presents many contemporary issues for Germansn and German-Americans, in 1955.  Gus the comedic German, with a comical accent; Gus reaffirming his patriotism as a recent immigrant; and Gus having to defend his home country, and in effect his own recent past.  It's interesting that Gus never stops defending Germany.  His opinions that Germany wasn't the cause of the war, or guilty of atrocities to the extent claimed, put him in a minority in 1917, and in stark contrast to the more recent events of World War Two. 

I don't know how audiences would have reacted to Gus in 1955.  Would they be sympathetic to him, as many people thought Germany was responsible for World War One, just as it was for World War Two?  Or would they see the complexity of his situation, an immigrant who once fit in, now turned against because not of who he is, but simply because of where he was born?

It's an interesting subplot.  Germans and Germna-Americans on film in the 1950s often had to deal with the recent past, addressing the idea that they are or were "good" Germans, as opposed to the "bad" ones responsible for the war.  The prejudice Gus faces because of his birth reflects on Cal's identity of being the "bad" son, as opposed to the "good" Aron.  Is someone good or bad because of their birth?  Gus thinks not, and the film proves Cal maybe isn't bad either.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Why Mrs. Goethe?

An Examination of Mrs. Goethe, a German Housekeeper, in 1963's "The Thrill of it All"

Another Entry in my Continuing Series on Germans and German-Americans in Cinema

I'm accustomed to seeing Germans portrayed as mad scientists, cold-hearted businessmen, and of course Nazis.  But I was surprised by a different kind of role for a German in 1963's "The Thrill of it All," starring James Garner as Dr. Gerald Boyer and Doris Day as his wife Beverly.  The film was directed by Norman Jewison and written by Carl Reiner, with a story by Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart.

Doris Day plays a housewife married to a successful doctor, James Garner.  Doris gets discovered by a soap manufacturer and she becomes the company's spokesperson, doing live commercials for a television show.  (The TV show features Carl Reiner in a variety of interesting roles, including a cowboy and a Nazi.)  Garner becomes jealous of his wife's success and is upset that she's away from home working so much.  In his opinion her work isn't as valuable as his work delivering children as an obstetrician.  He spends the last part of the film trying to make Doris jealous by pretending to have an affair.  She ultimately gives in to his demands and quits the very lucrative spokesperson job, preferring instead to be the wife of a doctor.

They are a well-to-do couple, with two children and a large house.  At the beginning of the film they have a maid, an older American woman, who seems perfectly good at taking care of the kids.  But there's a scene, after Day has begun her new job, where Garner accidentally enters the maid's room at night.  She reads this as an advance and is so appalled she quits.  It's all a stretch and not very funny.

Day hires a new maid, Mrs. Goethe, played by Lucy Landau, and for some reason she is German immigrant who speaks poor English and is befuddled by Day's and Garner's family life.  She's portly and bit homely, and she's unable to answer the phone correctly.  Garner calls to talk to Day, but when he introduces himself on the phone, the maid answers with "Dr. Boyer nicht home, he hospital."    She speaks to everyone with this mix of rudimentary German and pidgin English.    Later in the film she's unable to explain to the doctor that his wife is upstairs filming a commercial, and he walks in on the shoot, becoming angry that they are working in their bedroom (and disrupting his attempts at being amorous).  A few other times in the film she is the first to discover the chaos affecting the family, but her poor English leaves her unable to explain the situation to anyone correctly.  Instead she's left to mutter "ach du lieber" exasperatedly. 

I think this is very similar to the treatment other ethnic groups have received on film and in other media.  Japanese gardeners and houseboys in the 1930s, black maids from the 1930s to the 1950s, Chinese laundry men, Hispanic maids, black train porters - they all have been subtly and overtly degraded over time.  Germans have had a different experience, presented primarily as hard working immigrants, at first, but then almost uniformly as fascist enemies of America.  This portrait of Mrs. Goethe as a befuddled maid stands out as a strange anomaly. 

The choice of the maid's name, Mrs. Goethe, is also odd.  Goethe is one of Germany's great poets.  Why name a woman who can't speak any more than pidgin English and rudimentary German after such a great, well respected poet? 

"The Thrill of it All" came just 18 years after the end of World War Two, and I wonder how many Americans saw Mrs. Goethe as some kind of comeuppance for Germans.  It's a strange portrayal that provides some insight of what other ethnic groups on film have to deal with, even to this day.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"Casablanca" and the Last "Good" Germans?

There is an older German couple in "Casablanca" who are given a brief scene.  Karl, the German (or Austrian - it's never made clear, but he speaks German), brings the couple a bottle of good brandy to share a drink.  The couple is heading to America, but in the film they never say why they are leaving or how they got out of Germany.  

This older couple, who appear to be in their early sixties, are stereotypically cute.  They attempt to speak English and say "what watch" when they mean to ask the time.  (In German, "Uhr" means "clock," but it also means "time" and "o'clock.")  They call each other by very sweet nicknames in a mish-mosh of German and English.

What's interesting is that they have no interaction, at all, with the German soldiers in the film, particularly Major Strasser.  I think what the filmmakers are doing is reminding the audience that America wasn't at war with Germans like this older couple, who certainly had counterparts in America.  They could be any German-American's Oma und Opa.   We were at war with Nazis like Strasser.

Finally, much of the theme of "Casablanca," which came out in 1942, is about the need of the free people of the good Western nations to show unity against the Nazis and fascism.  "Good" Germans might still be included in that group, especially in 1942 America.  By 1943 I don't think there are any examples of any "good" Germans in any American film, and none would appear until well after the war. 

Monday, January 30, 2012

"The Devil Makes Three"

The first entry in my series on Germany and Austria in Pre- and Post-World War II Films.  I'm interested in how Germany and Germans were portrayed in these Hollywood films before and after the war.  Of particular interest is how "good" Germans are often presented in opposition to "bad" Germans.

 "The Devil Makes Three" (1952) starred Gene Kelly and Pier Angeli, and was directed by Andrew Marton (originally from Budapest).  This is the same year Kelly made "Singin' in the Rain," so he was at the height of his popularity with MGM.  Angeli was an Italian actress with a limited career.  In this she plays a German girl whose family Kelly's character, a soldier, helped during the war.  Kelly has returned to Germany to see what's become of the family.  They all died in a bombing run, except for Angeli, whom Kelly is surprised to see is now a beautiful young woman.

Much of the film takes place on location in Munich, Berchtesgaden, and Salzburg.   The girl is mixed up in a smuggling ring, moving lenses and needles for the black market between Germany and Austria, and she's using her American friend as cover.  He knows she's smuggling, but thinks she's just doing it to support herself.  Kelly's superiors try to enlist him to inform on the girl and finger her superiors.  But he's falling for her, of course, so he refuses.  Instead he tries himself to discover who's really behind the smuggling ring.

It turns out the car they are using to smuggle the little things is actually partially made from gold, stolen and melted down from Jewish prisoners.  It's a little macabre.  The smuggling ring is being led by a singer in a cafe Kelly and the girl frequent (which Kelly calls a clip-joint).  The singer is tall, lanky, silver haired.  He looks like an ex SS guard.   Ultimately Kelly and the girl are captured as they try to bring the car back to Germany, and the singer/ringleader tries to have them die "accidentally" at a motorcycle rally.  They survive, the girl is shot, and the ringleader escapes, pursued by Kelly and other American soldiers.

The film has lots of nice touches.  Besides the on-location footage of post-war Germany and Austria, the motorcycle race that concludes the film occurs on ice and snow, and there's a good little bit of accordion music late in the film.  There are shots of "normal" Germans enjoying music in the cafe, too.

It ends up being a little optimistic about a romance between a German girl and an American.   There's much discussion about how her parents fought against the Nazis (always a dubious claim in these films).  More likely is that the girl, who was probably just a young teenager during the war in the film's narrative, was too naive and young to be a true Nazi.   That makes the romance between her and Kelly okay.

Also interesting is an allusion to fascism late in the film.  At the motorcycle racetrack where the film concludes, the racers wear armbands with an insignia clearly inspired by the swastika, and there are banners with the insignia as well.  The black market ringleader rides in a convertible Mercedes, standing, as he looks through a crowd.  It looks as if he's inspecting the troops.  And he seems to use the motorcycle riders as his own personal Hitler Youth.   And finally, the film ends at Hitler's Eagles Nest in Berchtesgaden, where Kelly refuses to shoot the bad guy, denying him a "heroic" death.

Ultimately the film is consistent with how Germans were portrayed in post-war Hollywood films.   There is a leader who can't let go of the past, but he might really be using fascism just for his own wealth.  There are "good" Germans who fought the Nazis, including both the girl and a young police officer who is helping uncover the smuggling ring.  And American soldiers are generally honest and there to help.   When Kelly and others are pursuing the singer, the driver of his jeep gets shot and killed.  It's a good reminder that the evil of the recent past was still there, lurking beneath the surface.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Script Doktor is IN: "Cars 2"

  Part of a new, hopefully continuing series in which I break down the plot of a film and try to figure out what went wrong, and how to fix it.

My four year old son has been watching (and watching, and watching) "Cars 2" recently.  Here's the plot:

  Lightning McQueen enters an international racing competition promoted by Sir Miles Axelrod, the inventor of an alternative fuel called Allinol.  All of the cars in the races are using the alternative fuel.  But the race is being sabotaged by a mysterious figure who "ignites" the fuel from afar.  McQueen is accompanied by his Radiator Springs pit crew, including Tow Mater.  Mater gets mistaken for a spy by a pair of British foreign agents (Finn McMissile and Holly Shiftwell) who are trying to figure out who is behind the sabotage.

  The secret agents don't know that Mater is really a bumbling, if good-natured, tow truck.  They think he's really a secret agent.  And McQueen thinks Mater's bumbling is a distraction, and they have a falling out.   

  Mater eventually figures out that the inventor of Allinol is actually the one sabotaging his own race.  He's a "lemon" car, and he's discovered a vast oil reserve, and he plans to disgrace alternative fuels so that he and other "lemon" cars can be rich and lord it over the rest of the world.  The secret agents figure out that Mater isn't a real spy, but Mater, through bravery and his good wits, overcomes his own self doubt, exposes Sir Axelrod, and saves the day.  He and McQueen salvage their friendship and everything ends well.

  Remember, despite the convoluted plot, that this is a film aimed at children.  (The spy angle, by the way, makes for quite a few violent scenes with guns, torture, and "killing" of cars through massive destruction.  That's another column.)

  Mater is the main character.  He has to overcome self-doubt and grow into the hero the real spies think he is.  He also has to prove his value and friendship to McQueen.   All of this is done fairly well, if a little contrived.  McQueen loses respect for Mater when they first go oversees and Mater acts like a bumbling tourist, and is exacerbated when Mater gets distracted by the spies during a race, making McQueen lose.  So McQueen has some real and exaggerated reasons for hurting his friendship.  By the end of the film McQueen figures out he's been an ass, and actively seeks Mater's friendship, and Mater figures out that other people sometimes see him as a fool, but he accepts his own inner strengths and overcomes his self doubt. 

  It's the rest of the plot that gets in the way.  Sir Axelrod, who professes to be an electric car, invented Allinol, and it seems to work.  The cars in the film like it.  Many international race cars volunteer to use just Allinol for the duration of the competition, so they're committed to alternative fuel.  So why make the inventor of the fuel also the villain?  It's confusing, especially to children.  When I ask my son who the bad guy is in this film, he mentions Axelrod's evil scientist henchman, Professor Z (who is portrayed as a German, of course.  Another column.)  But the bad guy behind the scheme is a mystery figure until the end.  It would have been much easier to have a Big Oil bad guy sabotaging the race.  Are the filmmakers intentionally trying to be ambiguous about supporting alternative fuel?  I can't think of any other reason to be so confusing.  A bad guy masquerading as a good guy is a common "spy film" device.  (I remember it being used effectively in the first "Mission Impossible" remake.)  The problem here is using it in a children's film, and it results in a mixed-up, convoluted environmental message.

  This is the danger of adding serious political and environmental undertones to a children's film.  It can get in the way of the plot.  I think the filmmakers tried to correct for this big problem near the end of the film, in an off-hand way.  The franchise's resident "hippy" character, Fillmore the VW bus, has his own alternative, organic bio-fuel that he (and the film's "conservative" Jeep character, Sarge) secretly substituted to help save McQueen from an earlier attack.  Fillmore dismissed Allinol as a bad fuel, but it doesn't explain why it worked earlier for all the other race cars, and it doesn't establish alternative fuel in any kind of good light.  It's just more confusion.

  If they had stuck with a simpler plot, and focused more on Mater and McQueen's conflict, the film would have been more successful.