Saturday, November 23, 2013

Four Villains, One Hero

Gail Patrick, "My Man Godfery," 1936.
 I love Gail Patrick.  I think she's great at playing believable "other women" who are really just misunderstood.  In "Godfrey" she's the older sister who thinks that Godfrey - a rich man willing to play a butler - has a secret.  Turns out she was right, but not in the way she thought.  She's smart but too cunning for her own good.  In Godfrey she learns a lesson about misjudging people, something a lot of people in the 1930s needed to also learn.
Sterling Hayden, ""Dr. Strangelove; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," 1964.
The perfect portrayal of the paranoid conspiracy theorist.   "Purity of Essence."  What frightens me about "Strangelove" is how slow the responsible people are to recognize the insanity around them, and how much power wackos like Hayden's Gen. Ripper have over the rest of us.
Burt Lancaster, "Sweet Smell of Success," 1957.
Burt Lancaster, a gossip columnist along the lines of Walter Winchell, wants to break up his younger sister's romance to a musician; he uses Tony Curtis, an amoral publicist, to pull the strings.  Lancaster spends much of this film lying through his teeth and then being appalled when people don't believe him.  He's a snake.

Ann Blyth, "Mildred Pierce," 1945.
In "Mildred Pierce," Ann Blyth portrays the meanest, most ungrateful child in the history of cinema.  Her mother rises from poverty to create something of a restaurant empire, all so her daughter can lead a better life.  But Ann, as Veda, is dismissive of her mother's struggles, as if wealth just appears, and is even disdainful of her mother's attempts to protect her.  When she gets slapped late in the film, we cheer, because she deserves it.

Humphrey Bogart, "The Maltese Falcon," 1941.
Bogart, as Sam Spade, is the hero of "The Maltese Falcon," but he's not a really great guy.  He never really grieves for his dead partner; he's sympathetic to Mary Astor, but quickly gives her up for the Archer's murder, telling her sarcastically that he'll "wait for her."  He's cynical and bitter and hard-boiled, the way our detective heroes ought to be.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Powell and Loy in "Love Crazy"

      Myrna Loy and William Powell starred in six "Thin Man" films as Nora and Nick Charles, but they also made a few other films together, including this funny screwball comedy.  In 1941's "Love Crazy" they are a married couple celebrating their fourth wedding anniversary when a series of miscommunications results in them splitting up; Powell then pretends to be crazy to keep Loy from being able to divorce him, and to give him time to win her back.  It's a silly movie that benefits from a great supporting cast. 

Myrna Loy, "Love Crazy," 1941.
      Gail Patrick plays an old flame of Powell who just happens to also live in the same apartment building; they have a funny slapstick scene where they get stuck in an elevator.  Patrick played a tough-as-nails "other woman" in a number of great films, including "My Man Godfrey" and "My Favorite Wife." 

      The other great character actor here is Jack Carson, as a muscle-bound neighbor Loy attempts to use for "revenge" against Powell.  Carson made a career playing the often more extroverted, funnier, and interesting sidekicks in many great films, sometimes playing a good-natured cad.  He's especially great in "Mildred Pierce" and Hitchcock's "Mr. and Mrs. Smith."

William Powell, "Love Crazy," 1941.
      A final note about "Love Crazy." At the end of the film William Powell has to pretend to be his own sister after escaping from an insane asylum (this is a screwball comedy, after all).  To do the scene he had to shave off his trademark mustache, and this is the only time I remember seeing hm on screen completely clean shaven.  He looks strange!

Monday, November 4, 2013

"The Goddess"

It's nice to be surprised by a film or performance that has somehow flown under my radar.  This past weekend I watched "The Goddess," a silent film from China from 1934.  I first heard of the film while watching "The Story of Film: An Odyssey," by critic Mark Cousins, on Turner Classic Movies.  That documentary series is one man's interpretation of the history of film.  Instead of looking at film as an American phenomenon, he's looking at how cinema spread across the world and sort of cross-pollinated different film cultures.   He spent some time talking about "The Goddess" and its star, Lingyu Ruan, in a recent episode.
Lingyu Ruan, "The Goddess," 1934.
In the film she plays a prostitute in modern day Shanghai, trying to support her son and give him a better life.  She ends up getting involved with a brutal pimp, but she tries to secretly save extra money for a possible escape.  She uses the rest of the money she earns to send her son to a good school; when the other parents discover her secret, they try to force her son out.  The Principal tries to intervene on her behalf, but is forced to resign.  When the mother decides to leave town with her son, and try to start a new life, she finds her secret money has been stolen by the pimp.  She confronts him, he ignores her pleas, and she strikes him over the head with a bottle, killing him. 

Sent to jail, the now ex-Principal finds her and tells her he will take care of her son and get him a proper education, leaving her with some comfort.

It's a brutal film.  The love she shows for her son, and the compassion of the school Principal, is almost crushed by her circumstances.  Today many prostitutes are seen for what they really are, victims and not criminals, and how she defends herself against the pimp would be seen as self-defense.  But in this film, in 1934, she's treated like a degenerate criminal. 

She even considers herself degenerate, which is one of the most moving parts of this film.  Lingyu Ruan portrays a woman who thinks so little of herself, but in reality she is the strongest and most compassionate person in the story.  And it's almost a relief when the Principal recognizes her strength.

Sadly this actress committed suicide a year after this film was made.  She was subjected to much of the same scorn from the people of China, because she was a film actress, as was her character of a prostitute.  I'll be looking for a deeper biography of her and I'd like to see more of her films.