Saturday, June 29, 2013

Ruth Chatterton and Harold Lloyd

Ruth Chatterton, "Female," 1933.

Ruth Chatterton was a star of the late 1920s and early 1930s, often appearing in risque roles as strong, independent women.  In "Dodsworth" (1936) she stars opposite Walter Huston as a vain wife unwilling to accept her age; she takes advantage of a European trip with her retired, wealthy husband (Huston) to have affairs with other men, looking for an upgrade in social status by maybe marrying a count.  I think her character is a little shallow and intentionally unsympathetic.  We could have felt more for a middle aged woman who finally gets to break free from mid-western mores; instead she's drawn simply as a cheating wife.  But she's still great in the role.

In "Female" (1933) she plays a more complicated character; this time as head of an auto firm (in "Dodsworth" it was her husband's company!).  She's unmarried and can't seem to find the right man.  They are all either too simpleminded or too fawning.  When she finally meets her match, it's a man who is unwilling to play second fiddle to such a strong woman.  Unfortunately the Hollywood pattern required her character to ultimately succumb to his demands, willing to get married and let HIM run the company while she has the kids.  Later on I think she might have instead forged some kind of compromise, maybe running the company and getting married at the same time, but in this film, so close to the institution of the Production Code, perhaps the studio played it too safe. 
Harold Lloyd, "The Freshman," 1925.
I almost did a sketch of Harold in his trademark straw hat, cocked at an angle.  But I liked the way he looked in the leather helmet.  This is the part of the film where he tries out for the football team, repeatedly kicking the ball over his own head.  With "Safety Last!" (1923), "The Freshman" (1925) is Lloyd's other masterpiece of silent slapstick.  I think I got his glasses just right . . .

Monday, June 17, 2013

Films Noir by author David Goodis

Friday nights this month (June 2013) Turner Classic Movies is showing films noir grouped by a certain author and/or screenwriter.  This past week featured films adapted from works or written by David Goodis.  I had seen his most famous film adaptation, "Dark Passage" (1947) starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, many times, and I have also seen "Shoot the Piano Player" (1960) a number of times.  But I never tied the two films together, and I had never seen other, more rare, Goodis works.  This night included "Nightfall" and "The Burglar," both from 1957. 

It was interesting to consider the different approaches the Hollywood studio system and the French New Wave approached Goodis' work.  "Dark Passage" has some realism with its location shooting, but the star power still required high studio production values.  "Shoot the Piano Player," however, has the low budget, immediate feeling of a film entirely shot on location, on the go, as if trying to keep up with the story. 
Marie Dubois (Lena), " Shoot the Piano Player," 1960.

I was really impressed with the acting of Marie Dubois as Lena, the barmaid who tries to help Charlie, the piano player, out of a jam in "Shoot the Piano Player."  Charlie falls in love with her and, at first, she keeps him at a distance.  It was fun watching him romance her and watch her reel him in.  Ultimately she is the one who pays the price for Charlie's poor choices, dying in a shoot-out between gangsters and Charlie's hoodlum brothers.
Dan Duryea, "The Burglar," 1957.
Actually, many of Goodis' main characters are unlucky, often made worse by making poor choices in desperate circumstances.  Dan Duryea as Nat in "The Burglar" successfully robs an expensive piece of jewelry, but he lets himself get seduced by a woman who's just after the loot. And it turns out her partner is a dirty cop who is also seducing Jayne Mansfield, Nat's ward.  Things do not end well for poor Nat.  Duryea was great as a crook alternately in charge and smart enough to pull of a complicated heist, then quiet and searching for something more lasting than his life on the run.  
Jayne Mansfield "The Burglar" 1957.
Mansfield almost steals the film in a short montage enjoying a day at Atlantic City, on the beach and on the amusement park rides.   She almost seems a love interest in the film, and her "dating" of the dirty cop a betrayal.  It's a complicated performance.

"The Burglar" was also interesting as bridge between "Dark Passage" and "Shoot the Piano Player."  It's a little less polished, and more desperate felling, than the big studio film, and a little more like the gritty "Shoot the Piano Player."  Praise goes to TCM for such interesting programming.

(all sketches by J. Betke)

Monday, June 10, 2013

"Bride of Frankenstein" and "The Petrified Forest"

Bride of Frankenstein

Elsa Lanchester, "Bride of Frankenstein," 1935.
Colin Clive "Bride of Frankenstein," 1935.

In "Bride of Frankenstein" (dir. James Whale, 1935) one can't help but feel for the Monster (Karloff.  He's thwarted at every attempt of a peaceful existence.  His creator, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), reluctantly helps devise a bride for his earlier creation, helping the devious Septimus Pretorious, the guy who really put the "mad" in mad doctor.  And of course the female creature they piece together (Elsa Lanchester) wants nothing to do with the Monster, and why should see?  She sees him as a beast, as everyone else does, and not the gentle giant who was kind to the old blind man. 

The Petrified Forest

Bette Davis, "The Petrified Forest," 1936.

Humphrey Bogart, "The Petrified Forest," 1936.
"Petrified Forest" is just as famous for Humphrey Bogart's breakout role as the gangster Duke Mantee as it is for the tepid love story between philosopher/writer/drifter Leslie Howard and waitress Bette Davis.  Of course we are drawn to Duke, a "man of action," as opposed to Howard's Alan Squier, who is a bit of a loser.  (His desire to be a writer was stymied by a well heeled wife? C'mon.)  He spins a good yarn to Davis' Gabrielle, whose love of French poetry and desire to see her mother's France (and be a painter) makes her a sucker for someone like him.  Squier then "helps" Gabrielle by asking Duke to shoot him, leaving his life insurance policy for the girl, so she can go to France.  He "takes action" by committing virtual suicide.  Uggh.  I get it, self-sacrifice and everything, but it's such a passive attempt at nobility.  He could have also capture Duke and written a book about it!  At least Duke, who gets killed in a shoot out, dies trying to live!