Monday, March 20, 2006

The Week in Movies: Home Theater Version

A quick run-through of movies I screened at home and in my classes for the first time last week, many of which involved Cary Grant, since I was preparing a review for Stop Smiling of the new Cary Grant 5-disc Box Set that bowed last month. Assigned to watch 10 hours of Cary: life's tough, huh?

Anna and the King of Siam (1946; dir. John Cromwell) - Hollywood's first version of the tale that would later be musicalized as Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. This Anna aims for a somewhat ambitious median between gentle farce and a typical Dream Factory version of liberalism abroad, but I can't say I really bought it. It helps to have Irene Dunne starring as Anna, but even aside from their impolitic casting as Southeast Asians, Rex Harrison is typically precious as the King and Linda Darnell vamps blandly as a star of the harem, whose reversal of fortune isn't much worth crying over. Gale Sondergaard, who plunged much more memorably into wild Orientalisms in William Wyler's The Letter, scored a supporting Oscar nomination as the King's "wise" and "dignified" wife, but—like photographer Arthur Miller, fourth-billed star Lee J. Cobb, and writers Sally Benson (Meet Me in St. Louis) and Talbot Jennings (Northwest Passage)—she's shown herself to much better advantage elsewhere. Yes, you make allowances for the political climates of earlier eras, but this particular drama of cross-cultural empathy just doesn't work when such crude, myopic forms of narrative and imagination are being evinced. C–

Butterflies on a Scaffold (Mariposas en el andamio) (1995; dirs. Luis Felipe Bernaza and Margaret Gilpin) - An interesting and culturally distinct companion piece to Jennie Livingston's better-known Paris Is Burning, this documentary about drag culture in modern-day Cuba is extremely likely to challenge outside perceptions of this island in particular, and of life as lived under hegemonic states more generally. We meet more than a dozen performers in a drag revue that is regularly produced as lunchtime entertainment in—get this—the cafeteria of a virtually all-female construction crew building new tenements in an especially depressed area of Havana. How does a queen assemble a fabulous outfit amidst utter poverty? Is there a way of recuperating drag as compatible with Castro's Revolutionary ethic? These questions are raised in lively ways, though the film's approach to drag itself is much less interesting (it appears to match one-to-one in everyone's mind, including the filmmakers', as synonymous with male homosexuality), and the technical modesty curtails some of the film's revelatory potential. Also unexplored is the mind-boggling uniformity of the drag personae, in marked contrast to Paris Is Burning's rampant diversity of fabricated/"real" façades. Still, a memorable trip, and a legitimate provocation. B

His Girl Friday (1940; dir. Howard Hawks) - Y'all already know I love this, but who could resist another visit? Variety reviewer Todd McCarthy's commentary on the new DVD is reasonably involving, but nowhere near as illuminating as simply diving back into the movie itself, which is so dense with humor, irony, and detail that it simply never exhausts itself. Watching Rosalind Russell march into the newspaper office in the first scene, dismiss the love-advice columnist with a hilarious and barely-heard murmur, and strut right into ex-husband Cary Grant's office is like watching the rebirth of love as an elevated form of wit. Grant himself is an absolute dream, giving his own work in Holiday and The Philadelphia Story an impossible run for his own money as the best male performance in a screwball comedy. The supporting cast outclasses even the gallery of rascals and wiseacres in Sullivan's Travels, and the mile-a-minute punchlines hit home every single time. The photography is exquisite, capturing the bustle of the profession without losing sight of the central and shifting bond between Russell and Grant—and then taking major tonal detours in scenes like the death-row interview, without ever seeming incongruous. Not a minor miracle, but a major one, and still the Big Dipper in one of American cinema's most celestial traditions. A+

Only Angels Have Wings (1939; dir. Howard Hawks) - By contrast, I found Hawks and Grant's previous collaboration to be a strangely gratuitous affair. All the earmarks of a Howard Hawks movie are there—the intimate, inbred society of male co-workers, the estimable women arriving in their midst, the blend of spectacular action with energetic dialogue—but it all registered with me as too overt, like a subpar director chasing Hawks' own tropes and technique. Based on a short story from Hawks' own pen, the movie also has an almost embarrassingly juvenile and quite repetitive awe for aviation as virile sport, not unlike Faulkner's attempts in novels like Pylon to associate himself with the august rituals of flight. Jean Arthur is typically engaging in an underwritten part, while Grant is her opposite on both counts: weirdly uningratiating, even taking into account that the character is supposed to be a tough nut to crack, and saddled with far too many motivations and backstories. A mature Bogart would have sailed through it, but Grant strains and cracks. For my money, the best way to save the film would be to hand it to Josef von Sternberg, who would loll with less embarrassment in the silly, exoticized locale, take a healthier ironic distance from the skyward exploits and male-male bathos, and show the audience a redolent good time. But, alas, this is the movie we got: passable, dotted with tiny glories (many of them care of antique star Richard Barthelmess and rising goddess Rita Hayworth), but still not worth anyone's time capsule. C+

Penny Serenade (1941; dir. George Stevens) - Lots of Grant fans who champion Only Angels Have Wings would probably shrug off Penny Serenade, which looks suspiciously like the kind of sentimental drama to which Oscar's inexplicable black sheep finally sell out in order to secure a long-postponed nomination. Penny Serenade accomplished just this for Grant, but it's no I Am Sam, and in the hands of director George Stevens (Alice Adams, The More the Merrier), it emerges as a credible melodrama. Grant co-stars with his Awful Truth flame Irene Dunne, and while the film is on shaky legs throughout their acquaintance and early marriage, climaxing in a rather risible earthquake in Japan—a rather stentorian metaphor for miscarriage, even by Hollywood standards—the adoption drama which follows is rather nicely played and paced. Dunne and Grant aren't doing career-best work, but they're still quite good, and they act with an ease and synchronicity unique to actors well-known to each other, able to save several scenes from their weepiest possible pitfalls. The arrival of costars Edgar Buchanan and Beulah Bondi also accomplishes a lot for the movie, and the screenplay doesn't take all the turns you expect. Even the obligatory climaxes, like Grant's impromptu oratory in a lawyer's office, are credibly written and staged. Maybe I'll return to Penny Serenade someday and reconsider my current admiration for it; it's certainly not lacking in hoary devices. But for now, I'm squarely on its side. B

The Talk of the Town (1942; dir. George Stevens) - Swiping a structure from His Girl Friday (civic crisis juxtaposed to romantic roundelay), a female lead from Only Angels Have Wings (Jean Arthur), and a director from Penny Serenade (George Stevens), this Best Picture-nominated comedy from 1942 plays like more of a greatest-hits pastiche from Grant's peak years than a perfectly integrated object unto itself. Grant stretches a little to play convicted arsonist and murderer Leopold Dilg, who is actually a small-town political dissident standing on the wrong side of powerful industrialists. It's a difficult character to know what to do with, and both the actor and the movie hold him somewhat in abeyance while generously ceding the movie to Jean Arthur, perkily hiding Grant from the law, and to Ronald Colman, an esteemed legal theorist who doesn't know he's befriending a fugitive. The trouble is, neither of these characters fully congeals, either, and the film's thematic arc about the nature of jurisprudence feels a little outsized to the momentary pleasures of deft actors keeping a light, fragile birdie in the air. Fun, but best taken as a pleasant sorbet after richer, more flavorful movies. B–

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to disagree about The Talk of the Town, which was just about the most fun I had watching a movie chez goatdog last year. I will concede that it's not exactly the most integrated of films, but oh, the sparks that flew between the leads--Colman and Grant, I mean. Maybe it was intended, maybe it wasn't, but it was one of the richest gay-subtext films of the 1940s. Without that aspect, I might have agreed with something near your rating.

8:11 PM, March 20, 2006  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

I wish i could be a true believer in His Girl Friday but it's not even close to my favorite screwball... it exhausts (rather than energizes) me but, that said, it does have A+ moments.

7:37 AM, March 21, 2006  
Blogger John T said...

Cary Grant-I think he, like ice cream and fifty percent off sales, is something impossible not to love. My personal favorite is The Philadelphia Story...or Bringing Up Baby...or Notorious...or Arsenic and Old Lace-oh, there's so many to pick from. I've been holding off on His Girl Friday for years, in that its my last undiscovered Grant gem. I guess its time to break the seal on that one as well.

I think that Cary Grant, moreso than any other actor, has the right to be fuming at the Academy. That resume, and he only received two nominations?

8:10 AM, March 21, 2006  
Blogger tim r said...

I'm anxious now. If you don't like Only Angels Have Wings, which I'll admit is middling Hawks, and Hawks really still sketching out that whole community idea, I'm worried you won't like Rio Bravo. Which would be a shame.

But perhaps it's the maturity of the approach there that's key. Maybe he should have made Only Angels Have Wings later in his career? Your scepticism's interesting though.

2:41 AM, March 22, 2006  

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