Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Remembering the Movies, Oct. 8 - 14

Friday, October 8, 2010

Remembering the Movies, Oct. 8 - 14


Every Friday, we look back at films released 10-100 years ago this week.

(visit Remembering the Movies to further peruse the past)

Today we see an odd confluence of the soft and the tough. Among characters, a boxer isolated in his wounded pride, a couple cons with hearts of gold, and a brittle actress whose throwaway lines betray tenderness and vulnerability. Among films? Superficially sappy stories imbued with a sense of death or despair, wartime dramas with a streak of sentimentality, sharp movies subjected to even sharper criticism, and the odd picture that's all one thing - a fluffy feel-good 80s/90s American parable on the one hand, and a severe 50s/60s Japanese social critique on the other. And we haven't even mentioned an unsuspectingly jovial comedian, on the cusp of becoming of Hollywood's most tragic figures.

Share your thoughts below, and fasten your seatbelts...


10 years ago...
Pay It Forward; October 12, 2000
starring Kevin Spacey, Haley Joel Osment, Helen Hunt
written by Leslie Dixon (from Catherine Ryan Hyde's book)
directed by Mimi Leder

Story: A little boy comes up with a plan: do one good deed for someone, on the condition that they do a good deed for someone else. His social-studies teacher and alcoholic mother are transformed by his inspiration.

Reaction to this movie was...hostile. Seen as ladling on the sentimentality with a vengeance, the film nonetheless alienated its natural constituency with a bummer of an ending. When looking for pictures online, I stumbled across the above still decorated with the banner "Worst Movie Ever." In the pages of the Village Voice, Dennis Lim ripped apart "the inbred Gump relation Pay It Forward, an overflowing septic tank of chicken-soupy sanctimony that proceeds from casually offensive hypocrisy to wretchedly inapt religiosity." The picture was savaged by critics, bombed at the box office, and, coincidentally or not, predicted an ensuing downturn in its creators' careers; Mimi Leder returned to television and did not direct a feature again until 2009, while Spacey's persona gradually morphed from hot-shot Oscar winner to self-indulgent diva, Hunt basically disappeared, and Osment hit puberty (okay, perhaps that last bit was just a coincidence). Was the film as bad as all that? You tell me; the buck stopped here (I never saw it). However, in all seriousness and to be fair, the film has eloquent defenders, particularly among grieving parents: witness this heartfelt IMDb board.

Watch the trailer.

20 years ago...
Mr. Destiny; October 12, 1990
starring James Belushi, Linda Hamilton, Michael Caine, Jon Lovitz, Rene Russo
written by James Orr, Jim Cruickshank
directed by James Orr

Story: An ordinary man (house under repair, boring office job, working wife) has always regretted striking out in a teenage baseball game. After a particularly bad 35th birthday, he meets a magical British bartender who sends him into an alternate universe - one in which he did hit that ball, making him, somehow, filthy rich and married to the boss' sexy wife (since he's now the boss).

I saw this movie - or rather the last 10 minutes of this movie - on an airplane in 1990, when I was seven years old, and it's had a hold on me ever since. Impressed mostly by the fact that I'd seen an R-rated movie (actually it was PG-13) I included it on a list of favorite movies and my usually non-judgemental father had to correct me: "It isn't very good." Having recently rented it from Netflix, on a purely nostalgic kick, I have to agree. But as a low-rent, latter-day impersonation of It's a Wonderful Life (this Bailey's wish is narcissistic rather than pessimistic, and, knowing he's headed for Pottersville, he gleefully punches his ticket), it still yields some cultural interest. Mr. Destiny fixes the moment when the self-satisfied 80s shifted into the restless, expansive late 80s/early 90s; even slick, syrupy mainstream movies were questioning yuppie values. Sharply capturing that twilight zone between the two decades explains, perhaps, why the film has some kind of weird nostalgic yen on others beside me: one guy on You Tube even videotaped the coming attractions from the beginning of his VHS copy. Onscreen, a slimmed-down Jim Belushi mostly plays like a less funny (albeit less supercilious) cross between Bill Murray and Bill Mahrer, and Jon Lovitz proves grating; Linda Hamilton has a horrible hairdo, while Michael Caine phones it in, collect.

Siskel & Ebert were far more merciful than I (adult version, anyway) - Ebert gave it a thumbs' down but claimed, "Mr. Destiny is a sweet and gentle movie with a good performance by Jim Belushi; he's a master at seeming sincere even in corny situations, but for some reason this movie had a really low energy level, it was so muted, and low-key, and soft-spoken..." Siskel on the other hand, unashamedly gives it a thumbs' up. He got over his initial worries: "Oh boy, It's a Wonderful Life all over, they're ripping it off again, and then I thought to myself, 'You know what? Lean back and enjoy it, why should there only be one, or - Christmas Carol - two pictures with this theme, there are more in literature, and I bought it."

Watch the trailer.

30 years ago...
Dostana; October 8, 1980
starring Zeenat Aman, Amitabh Bachchan, Shatrughan Sinha
written by Javed Akhtar, Anand Bakshi, Salim Khan
directed by Raj Khosla

Story: Two buddies work for the law but at cross-purposes, one a cop, the other a defense lawyer. They nonetheless get along swimmingly - until, that is, they meet and fall in love with a babe in a green swimsuit...

A big Bollywood hit, it was sadly the last for director Khosla. Khosla had trained as an assistant to master filmmaker Guru Dutt before going on to establish himself in multiple genres, even while carving a niche as a "woman's director." Yet Dostana was followed by an endless drought; after a string of flops, he apparently hit the bottle, complaining of the film industry, "It's a losing game. There are no winners here." He died in his sixties but Dostana lived on; it was remade in 2008 with Bachchan's son stepping in as one of the leads. This time it was done with a gay twist, the tough-guy cop and lawyer replaced by two guys posing as homosexuals to get an apartment, only to have their ruse challenged by a hot young rommate. On the colorful and informative blog Memsaab's Story, the author relays her disappointment in the original film; praising the talents involved, she continues, "How could that possibly go wrong? And it didn’t, really, at least not terribly…but it is dull and predictable." The post proceeds with lots of screen-caps which are worth checking out.

Watch a clip.

40 years ago...
The Great White Hope; October 11, 1970
starring James Earl Jones, Jane Alexander, Hal Holbrook,
written by Howard Sackler (from his own play)
directed by Martin Ritt

Story: Heavyweight champion Jack Jefferson marries a white woman and endures the hatred of white sports fans, the distrust of the black community, and the persecution of the federal government.

A groundbreaking film at the time - concurrently to the sedate dinner party thrown by Stanley Kramer, Sidney Poitier, and Tracy-Hepburn, the Howard Sackler play was bringing a far more contentious interracial romance to the theater, and eventually to the cinema. As a fictionalized Jack Johnson (1912 champ whose career and its travails were recently documented in Ken Burns' "Unforgivable Blackness"), James Earl Jones received his first starring role. Michael Sragrow, now a prominent critic and author (he recently published a biography of Victor Fleming), was in 1970 a Harvard grad student. In a Crimson review titled "Ersatz Ethos," he offered the film some backhand compliments: "If Martin Ritt hasn't transformed the dross of The Great White Hope into a good film, at least his jumbling of theatrical convention and film cliche makes it fairly easy to watch. Despite playwright Howard Sackler's screenplay, and his play's prime standing as a Kultcha classic, Ritt hasn't stooped to the traditional homage Hollywood usually pays to Broadway hit-dom." Sragrow's biting review concludes, "The Jewish playwright is no longer in a position to voice radical ethos convincingly." The film receives mixed notices today, with some finding it dated, others still immensely powerful; but most viewers reserve praise for Jones' and Alexander's performances.

Watch the trailer.

50 years ago...
A False Student; October 8, 1960
starring Ayako Wakao, Jerry Fujio, Jun Fujimaki
written by Yoshio Shirasaka (based on Kenzaburô Oe's novel)
directed by Yasujo Masumura

Story: A peasant desperately tries to gain admittance to an elite university, pretending to be a student after failing his entrance exams. He becomes politically active, but is soon regarded as a communist subversive by the police, and a police spy by his Maoist cell - violence ensues.

A very intriguing film which anticipates the wider campus turmoil of the late 60s by nearly a decade (as did Japan itself). Jonathan Rosenbaum has compared the film to Godard's La Chinoise, while Ted Shen, also writing for the Chicago Reader, recalls that "Japan was awash in procommunist student protests when the film was released in 1960, and Masumura's forceful, articulate skepticism hardly endeared him to the left. His comparison of Japan to a loony bin is a bit overwrought, and some of his ideological points are heavily italicized, yet he infuses this harsh, macabre satire with a genuine feeling for human frailty." I'm particularly fascinated, as just yesterday I viewed the twisted erotic horror film Blind Beast, in which a blind sculptor kidnaps a beautiful model in order to use her as a subject - by the end, they're dismembered and loving it. Masumura has also directed the great-looking consumerist satire Giants and Toys and the bleak war film Red Angel, both of which have been highly praised (along with Blind Beast) by erudite cinephile and fellow blogger Allan Fish.

Unfortunately, no video is available.

60 years ago...
All About Eve; October 13, 1950
starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Thelma Ritter, Marilyn Monroe
written & directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Story: On a rainsoaked night, young, guileless Eve shows up in Margot Channing's dressing room, and the fan regales the great Broadway star with her life's story - "everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end," as Margot's worldly costumer cuttingly observes. Margot warms to Eve, Eve moves in for the kill, cue bumpy night.

I defer, momentarily, to Michael Gebert, whose 1996 Encyclopedia of Movie Awards is a surprising treasure trove of awards group gossip and opinionated quips and observations: "There's an exchange in All About Eve in a party scene that runs, 'I can't see why she hasn't given Addison heartburn.' 'No heart to burn.' To which Bette Davis tipsily replies, 'Everybody has a heart. Except some people.' On the page it seems like nonsense, even ineffectual writing - in a movie full of bon mots, it's the one time someone simply babbles. But somehow Joe Mankiewicz understood acting well enough, and he understood Bette Davis (whom he'd never directed before) well enough, that he could write a line like that knowing that she could deliver it so it would not only make sense, it would reveal something tender and vulnerable about her character that wasn't even in the words themselves. I don't even know how you learn to write like that - except that just watching movies isn't it."

The first movie in this series to have won a Best Picture Oscar - and one of the few in the Academy's 85-year history to retain a status as elevated as upon its release, although not everyone views the classic so rosily. Jacques Rivette, a Mankiewicz acolyte in his youth, recalls re-visiting the film with Juliet Berto in the 70s; she hated it and he discovered he did too - "every intention was underlined in red, and it struck me as a film without a director!" He then snarks devastatingly, "Here's a good definition of mise en scène - it's what's lacking in the films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz." Bosley Crowther praised the witty dialogue in 1950's New York Times, but scolded the film for taking "two hours and eighteen minutes ... to achieve the ripping apart of an illusion which might have been comfortably done in an hour and a half," sighing "that's the one trouble with this picture. It beats the horse after it is dead." But what an exquisite corpse!

Watch the trailer.

70 years ago...
The Long Voyage Home; premiered October 8, 1940
starring John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, Barry Fitzgerald, Ward Bond
written by Dudley Nichols (from Eugene O'Neil's plays)
directed by John Ford

Story: The good ship Glencairn, loaded with munitions, makes its way through hostile, indifferent, and friendly waters, skirting U-boats and dropping in on islands, while its men drunkenly bear their souls to one another.

Compiled from four Eugene O'Neil one-acts, the film caught the mood of a nation ambivalently contemplating a world at war. The film's structure reflects Howard Hawks' Air Force of two years later. But that film's martial spirit was doggedly determined in the wake of Pearl Harbor: it winged in the reverse direction, across the Pacific, into enemy territory - a long journey away from home, rather than towards it (or rather, towards the safety of an ambiguous ally; these men are mostly from neutral nations - Ireland, Sweden - as the U.S. was at the time). Ford was on an astonishing roll with Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk and The Grapes of Wrath his last four pictures; this film was eagerly anticipated in the fall of 1940. A few weeks after its premiere, Time Magazine wrote, "Preceded by enthusiastic rumors heralding it as the best picture since The Informer, it opened in the situation of a celebrated home-run hitter going to bat with the bases loaded and two out in the ninth inning. That it failed to clear the bases is as much the fault of its advance rooters as it is of the film." The reviewer went on to praise "slight, sensitive Photographer Gregg Toland's camera," briskly highlighting "Best shot: the Glencairn's crew plastered prone on the ship's deck, with only the roar of Stukas, the splash of bombs on the water, the splatter of machine-gun bullets on the white canvas to indicate a Nazi bombing raid." Toland, like Ford, was on fire: not only had he shot the director's much-heralded Grapes of Wrath but a few weeks ago we covered his work in The Westerner. Within a year of course, he'd lens his masterpiece, on which Orson Welles (who declared his three favorite directors "John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford") would credit Toland on the same title card as himself.

Watch the film (cleverly abbreviated to avoid irritating You Tube deletion - never seen that before...). Also on instant Netflix, if you have that service.

80 years ago...
Up the River; October 12, 1930
starring Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Claire Luce, Ward Bond
written by Maurine Dallas Watkins, William Collier Sr., John Ford
directed by John Ford

Story: A couple cons must break out of prison to help their friends, Judy and Steve, whose marital bliss is threatened by a blackmailing salesman.

Here's what Ford was up to ten years earlier. Up the River featured Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy together for the first and only time. Both actors were thirty, both were naval veterans of World War I (Tracy had signed up with his schoolmate, Pat O'Brien - small world), and both were making their screen debuts after achieving success on Broadway. Apparently, Ford wanted to shoot a prison drama but settled for a comedy at the studio's behest. Most latter-day viewers seem to agree that the film is rather lame, but worth seeing for the novelty of seeing the boyish stars take their first strides together in Hollywood. Variety was mildly impressed at the time, noting "This is Tracy's first talker, and he easily makes the grade" while ignoring Bogie.

Watch the clips.

90 years ago...
The Round-Up; October 10, 1920
starring Fatty Arbuckle
written by Tom Forman (based on Edmund Day's play)
directed by George Melford

Story: Sherrif Slim Hoover (real name William Henry Harrison Hoover) is so fat he can barely mount his horse; but he holds his own against the local renegades, led by a half-breed who wants to stay on his land.

Fatty's first feature - and it's a straight Western, with only a few gags here and there (including a famous one where Arbuckle tries to roll a cigarette). F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, in an IMDb comment, claims "Arbuckle, to his credit, gives a strong dramatic performance in the lead role" and "brings a great deal of pathos to his character." But he adds, "The real problem here is the script. There are something like eight different subplots, most of which are deeply uninteresting." Wallace Beery appears as the "half-breed" villain (shades of Birth of a Nation) and apparently, in contrast to the star and also to his own later appearance, he's "surprisingly slim and virile" (MacIntyre again). Buster Keaton also has a cameo as a clumsy Indian. This film was a drama, oddly enough for the rotund comedian, but he was on the cusp of a breakthrough into comic features. Then, of course, the infamous scandal: within one year, Virginia Rappe would die after one of his parties. Three trials later, Arbuckle was cleared of all wrongdoing but it was too late - a hypocritical Hollywood hounded him out of the industry, and he only snuck back in under humiliating pseudonyms ("William Goodrich") and tiny paychecks.

No clip is available; but there are other Arbuckle shorts on You Tube.

100 years ago...
That Chink at Golden Gulch; October 10, 1910
starring Anthony O'Sullivan, Gertrude Robinson, Charles West, Dell Henderson
written by Emmett C. Hall
directed by D.W. Griffith

Story: A Chinese laundryman must cut off his ponytail in order to tie up a bandit, this despite his promise to his family (upon leaving China for the U.S.) that he would never sever the queue.

A decade before Broken Blossoms, Griffith focused a short on a Chinese character whose sense of honor clashes with the compromises and disappointments of Western civilization (albeit in more bizarre fashion this time around). In D.W. Griffith and the American Theatre, David Mayer writes that Griffith "shortened and reshaped a stage piece, this time with the effect of partially humanizing and making intelligible and sympathetic what was previously - and merely - an overworked comedy stereotype." Indeed, the title figure was only a minor character in the play The Golden Gulch, but Griffith elevated the part. No video or image for the film is available online - indeed, this was a tough week for 1910 as I was almost unable to find information for any movie. Thank God for Google Books - the above link is worth following, as three full pages are devoted to Golden Gulch, with details about the short's creation, and a discussion of orientalism circa-1910 (of which Griffith's portrayals apparently represented a more progressive strain).

7 comments:

Jaime Grijalba said...

"Pay it Forward" may sound as a sentimental movie, but when I saw it I found it watchable. While it's not one of the best movies around, and the sense of sentimentalism paves its way forward as years pass, is one of my mom's favorite films.
I can't argue with that really.

Helen said...

I saw Pay It Forward in the theater and remember it all too well. It is indeed as bad as all that.

MovieMan0283 said...

Is that you, Ms. Hunt? (just kidding)

Yeah, I fear it's reputation is deserved one of these days I'll watch it and find out for myself but there are a few others here I'll prioritize.

Jaime, you generally can't argue with moms, I find.

Judy said...

The only one I've seen is 'All About Eve', which I love - I'm very keen to see 'Up the River', as Bogie and Tracy are two of my favourite actors, and the other Ford you've chosen sounds good too.

MovieMan0283 said...

Mr. Destiny and All About Eve are it for me, but I've seen passages of The Great White Hope on television (and maybe bits and pieces of Pay It Forward too).

I almost watched The Long Voyage Home while composing this piece but, unfortunately, I ran out of time.

Out of curiosity, have you (or other readers) been checking out the trailers. I've been linking them up and then not having the time to watch them myself, but at some point, if I get ahead of the game in writing these I'd like to take the time to go through each one, I think it would be fun and kind of show the transformation of cultural aesthetics over time. The basis of this series was a radio show that plays each song in its progression through the years; since I couldn't actually play whole movies, trailer/clip links are the closest I can come!

Judy said...

Must admit I haven't had time to watch the trailers, but it is great that you have linked them in and I would like to go back and see some of them.

MovieMan0283 said...

Yeah, same here! I thought about embedding for easy viewing, but that would clutter up the post and speaking from experience, half of these will be prob. be deleted in a few months!