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Monthly Archives: May 2018

Faculty Note:

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The following conversation happened in my apartment a couple days ago, between me and my roommate:

“So, listen – I’ve quoted you in my blog a couple times, is that okay?”

“Oh, really?  Wow, yeah, that’s cool.”

“Great.  And since I’m probably going to do that again, I should come up with something else to call you aside from ‘my roommate’, so what name would you prefer? Your real name, or…?”

“Oh, yeah, my real name’s fine.”

“Very good.”

“…..Yay, I’m a character in the blog!”

Yes, he is.  You will hear me quote Alex now and then in future.

Movie Crash Course: King Kong

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We’ve had the ur-war film, the ur-gangster film….arguably, King Kong is the ur-special-effects-monster-blockbuster, the first link in a chain that leads all the way up to Jurassic World.  It’s got an easy plot to understand, and a crapton of visual pyrotechnics; that description fits plenty of other movies over the years.

That sounds like a sneering dismissal.  But strangely, it’s not. Because the secret is – the super-special-effects monster stuff is pure, dippy fun.

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I’m not going to delve into the plot because a) it’s simple, and b) it’s bloody King Kong, but in brief – movie director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) rounds up a team to go to a remote Pacific island and film a movie; at the last minute he discovers Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), a down-on-her-luck actress, and brings her along.  Denham’s heard a rumor there’s a giant ape on the island; he plans to simply hurl Darrow at it and film what happens. But the ship’s first mate falls for Darrow, heroically rescuing her when the ape captures her.  When Kong comes out into the open in an attempt to get her back, Denham gets the idea that film of a giant ape may be awesome – but a live Kong would be even better.  He captures the beast and puts him on display on Broadway – and things go a bit wrong…yeah, you know the story.

So, let’s get the discussion of the special effects out of the way first. I hadn’t seen this original before, but I have seen the 2005 Peter Jackson remake, with greenscreens and CGI and Andy Serkis in a motion capture suit, and…this film had stop-motion animation and miniatures and forced perspective camera tricks.  The close-ups on “Kong’s face” are simply footage of a guy in an ape mask.  It’s nowhere near the caliber of what WETA studios came up with.

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And….you know what?  I didn’t care.  The stop-motion is actually a considerable leap forward in special effects, but more importantly – the filmmakers (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack) put a lot of detail into what the stop-motion characters do. There’s an intention and purpose to their actions; Kong gets into a battle with a dinosaur in one scene, and defeats him not by simply hitting him, but by ripping his jaw open.

It’s a moment that Peter Jackson recreated in his own film.

And there are smaller moments meant just to make the stop-motion critters seem alive; the roommate watched this with me, and the sight of Kong pausing to scratch himself in the middle of a scene made him laugh in utter delight.

It’s too easy to lean on special effects as a panacea; instead of using them as a means to an end, it’s tempting to see them as an end in and of itself.  I’ve seen the original Star Wars trilogy, both with and without George Lucas’ after-the-fact editing, and it’s clear that some of the thrown-in special effects were just thrown in “because I can”.  King Kong is very heavy on special effects, but at no time did I feel like there was an effect “just because”; Cooper and Schoedsack have clearly put thought into “what do we want to see Kong actually do” and “what will make Kong actually seem alive”.  And because this is special effects with care and attention…it held my attention, even though the technology is dated.

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Speaking of dated – there is some gender and racial stereotyping that has aged much less well.  When Denham and company turn up on Skull Island, they come upon the “native islanders” engaged in a “magic ritual” that’s completely ridiculous; hell, the islanders themselves are ridiculous.  (The women actually wear coconut bras.)  And Fay Wray’s role is little more than just the damsel in distress who screams a lot; there’s even a slightly icky scene where Kong peels parts of Darrow’s dress off and then sniffs his fingers.  That’s a scene that censors cut from several screenings, and which Peter Jackson thankfully updated a little.

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But – you don’t see a film like King Kong for the high art and interpersonal connections.  Yes, they could have been better, but – you see this for the spectacle and the sparkle, and when there’s a strong hand at the helm, the spectacle and the sparkle is a good show.

Movie Crash Course: Land Without Bread

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Bunuel’s Land Without Bread was really interesting to watch in the era of “fake news” and edited “reality television.”

Instead of a surrealist piece like Un Chien Andalou or L’Age D’Or, Land Without Bread bills itself as a straightforward documentary – a look at life in “Las Hurdes,” an impoverished rural region of western Spain.  A dispassionate narrator describes each of the scenes we see – villagers living in huts and dressing in rags, men walking miles every day to find work, children fed on nothing but potatoes, people ridden with goiters and malaria. A mountain goat slipping off a cliff and falling to its death is a rare source of meat for the village. Orphans gather in a school, looking uneasily at the camera during their lessons. A villager’s donkey stumbles into a bees’ nest and gets attacked by the swarm and dies.  A baby lies ominously still in a crib and the community gathers to ferry the tiny bundle over cliffs and across rivers to get it to the nearest cemetery.  The film ends with a fervent wish that the citizens resisting the fascist forces lead by then-president Francisco Franco will win the day, and then come to the aid of Las Hurdanos and bring enlightenment and aid to the region.

It’s an uneasy document to watch.   ….And it may also have been faked.

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At least two sequences were definitely faked, anyway.  Both scenes involving animal deaths were staged; the goat that fell off the cliff was shot by a marksman just off camera (although sharp-eyed viewers may spot a puff of smoke from the rifle at the extreme edge of the shot).  As for the donkey – it was tied to once place and smeared with honey to draw the attention of a swarm of bees, who stung the frightened beast to death.

Learning that made me question the whole rest of the piece.  Those children in the school – I was only taking the narrator’s word for it that they were orphans.  But were they?  And the child who was being taken to the cemetery – was it actually dead?  Was there even a baby in the bundle the villagers were so carefully carrying?  The woman I saw dozing on her porch – was she really suffering from a malarial fever, like the narrator said, or was she just taking a nap?

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There were some kernels of truth to the narration, though.  The Hurdanos often made extra money by letting beekeepers to the north overwinter their hives in Las Hurdes, ferrying the hives back to them in spring.  And yes, they often had to use donkeys to carry them.  And as for the orphans – many Hurdanos served as foster parents to Spanish orphans, in an effort to claim the government stipend granted to all such parents for the child’s care.  It was a source of income in a region where income was hard to come by.  That’s all true – but the claims that Hurdanos didn’t know how to read, dressed only in rags, lived in single-room huts and didn’t even know what bread was, may have been a little farfetched.  That’s what the Hurdanos claim, anyway – the region acquired the reputation of being poor and backward back in the 1600s, and the residents have been fighting that stereotype ever since.  Kind of like Appalachia in this country – while it’s possible to find some people living in particularly impoverished conditions there, it’s a stretch to claim that everyone is.

Which makes you question exactly what Bunuel was trying to do with this piece. Land Without Bread was filmed at a time when many filmmakers were heading to farther-flung regions of the world to make similar ethnographic documentaries of the people there – in places like the Sahara, the plains of Tibet, or the Arctic.  Bunuel actually turned down an invitation to join a team heading to the Sahara; it’s possible that he was commenting on the folly of such documentaries, saying that “look, if you spin things a certain way, anywhere in the world can look like an impoverished place.”  It’s also possible that he genuinely believed what he was saying; he claims that a 1927 book about the region sparked his interest.  It’s also possible that he had a political motive – one of his collaborators on the film was anarchist Ramon Acin, and the ending narration takes a definite political stance at a time when Spain was heading towards a civil war.

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I watched this film the same day that journalist Leslie Stahl said that she once asked President Trump why he repeatedly attacked the press; according to her, he said that he did so “to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.”  It’s a story I believe – but I’m uneasily realizing that the reason I believe is because I have a preconceived idea about Trump, and that claim fits.  Just like the people who saw Land Without Bread had a preconceived idea about Las Hurdes – and the film gave it to them.  Mind you, I think there’s enough supplementary evidence to support Leslie Stahl’s claim; but Land Without Bread served as a reminder how easy it is to spin the news the way you want.

Movie Crash Course: Gold Diggers of 1933

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Herewith do the escapist Busby Berkeley musicals finally acknowledge the Great Depression – albeit sometimes in ways that feel like tacked-on afterthoughts.  But when they pull out the stops, they pull out the stops. 

The cast includes some of Busby Berkeley’s regulars from 42nd Street and Footlight ParadeDick Powell as the young romantic lead, Ruby Keeler as his aspiring actress sweetheart, Ginger Rogers and Joan Blondell as other up-and-coming actresses and Guy Kibbee in a largely comedic role as an ineffective lawyer.  But we don’t really “meet” any of them at first – at least, not so far as we know, since we are plunged immediately into a Berkeley dance extravaganza of gold-coin-bedecked chorus dancers as Ginger Rogers sings “We’re In The Money”.  It looks like Gordon Gekko’s wet dream, frankly; but the lyrics hint that this isn’t a greedy fantasy, but is about simply being financially solvent again:

“We never see a headline ’bout a breadline today
And when we see the landlord, we can look that guy right in the eye!”

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But before the number is even finished we are brought down to earth.  For this is just a rehearsal – and the producer has been dodging his creditors, so the police have come to confiscate everything and close the show before it even opens.  Our heroines Carol (Blondell) and Polly (Keeler) head for home, an apartment they share with comedienne Trixie (Aline MacMahon).  All they have to eat is bread that they’ve pooled their money for, and the milk that Trixie steals off their neighbor’s windowsill.  But they’re optimistic – and Polly is cheered by her flirtation with neighbor Brad (Powell), a composer who will sometimes serenade her window-to-window with his songs.

But what luck!  Barney comes to them with the news that he has the idea for another show and offers all the women roles.  This time, he says, he wants to make a show about the Depression itself!  As he discusses his idea, he hears the plaintive music from Brad’s apartment and hires him as well.  And only when Brad agrees, and everyone is on board does Barney admit that there’s just one tiny, eensy little problem – the budget realistically would be $40K, and he doesn’t have it.  He doesn’t even have the $15,000 he would need to put down for a deposit.

And then Brad blows everyone away by casually saying “Oh, I can advance you that.”  He offers to bring the money, in cash, to Barney’s office the following day – but refuses to explain how on earth he has the money to put up, and also refuses to appear in the show.  He will be behind the scenes only.  The others are dubious, but too desperate to question their good fortune.

Brad does end up being forced onstage when the show’s lead throws his back out.  And his secret is revealed – he is the son of a wealthy Bostonian financier, who was slumming in New York to dodge the family business. And now that his family knows where he is, his older brother Lawrence and the family lawyer Peabody (Kibbee) have come to bring him home.  Brad refuses, of course – insisting that not only will he keep his theater career, he’s also going to propose to Polly.  So there!

Lawrence and Peabody try an alternate approach – they turn up at the girls’ apartment, hoping to warn Polly away from Brad. But it is Carol, not Polly, who meets them; they assume she’s Polly, and deliver their warning.  She slips off to consult with Trixie – who’s also heard the whole thing – and they resolve to help Polly and Brad by playing along with the mistaken identity and snooker the guys out of their own money.  Lawrence quickly has the counterplot to seduce “Polly” himself to break up Brad’s engagement, and Carol plays along to save the real Polly and keep Lawrence distracted so he lets the show continue.  But in time, the pair start questioning their motivations….

This wouldn’t be a Busby Berkeley movie without the elaborate musical numbers.  There’s no water ballet here – instead, we have “The Shadow Waltz”, in which dozens of dancers in hoop skirts play glow-in-the-dark violins, and “Pettin’ In the Park,” a winking ode to public displays of affection; the staging of which includes roller-skating cops, Billy Barty with a pea shooter, women disrobing in silhouette, and a pair of chimpanzees, and ends with Ruby Keeler in a costume made of tin and Dick Powell leeringly undressing her with a can opener.

Remember – these are meant to be numbers from Barney’s show about the Great Depression.

I was getting ready to write that off, though; it’s a Berkeley musical, after all.  It’s about the production numbers and pretty dancers and lavish stage sets and escapism.  No one really cares why everyone bursts into song, they just want them to, and want everyone to have a happy ending.  So by the movie’s end I was just nodding along – yep, happy ending for that couple, check, and they’re happy now, check, and them too, bases covered…just enough time for one last production number, and here we are backstage and the chorus is getting into place for something called “The Forgotten Man,” here we go.


There’s no chorus girls in this one, no elaborate set gimmicks.  Instead, we get Joan Lunden, in a tattered skirt, with a guy in a panhandler costume beside her; she watches him wander off and starts singing:

Remember my forgotten man.
You put a rifle in his hand.

You sent him far away,
You shouted: “Hip-hooray!”
But look at him today…”

Soon another woman sitting in a window takes up the song, as the camera pans across other actresses in other windows – but none of them chorus girls, all of them poor and haggard-looking.  Similar run-down men shuffle along the street, getting chased by cops; when a cop corners one, Lunden runs over and opens the man’s jacket to show the cop the man’s Purple Heart pinned to the inside lining, shaming the cop into letting him go.

This dissolves into a “stage set” of World War I doughboys marching off to war, flags waving and girlfriends rushing to kiss them farewell; after only a moment, this same “stage set” then adds a parade of wounded soldiers staggering past them in the other direction, where they later take their place in a growing Depression-era breadline.  Berkeley can’t resist a whiz-bang set piece at the very end, with Lunden serenading a crowd of hungry men while a squad of solders in silhouette marches along an archway over them.

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There was historic precedence for this; Gold Diggers of 1933 came out less than a year after the Bonus Army protest, a major World War 1 veterans’ protest action.  Prior to World War I, any US Serviceman who saw combat was awarded a financial relief package meant to compensate for any lost wages he would have received.  During the late 19th Century, this became more and more controversial as the definition for “combat” expanded even to include soldiers who’d served in the Frontier “Indian Wars”, and the relief packages often included land grants – which ate up most of the fertile land in some states.  In the 1920s, Calvin Coolidge tried doing away with the practice, but was overruled by Congress, who announced that they would award all World War I vets the amount of one dollar per day they were on active duty, with a maximum of $500.  However, they issued most of the rewards in the form of certificates that wouldn’t mature for another 20 years.

Still, in the go-go 1920s this seemed like a good deal – but when the Depression hit, the vets started thinking they’d rather have the money now, thanks.  The 10,000-strong “Bonus Army,” as they called themselves, assembled just north of Virginia and marched on Washington to demand their bonus payouts, setting up a “Hooverville” near the Capital Building in protest.  Some congressmen did introduce a bill authorizing an early payout, but the bill was voted down in committee, and ultimately the army was called in to break up the Bonus Army and throw out the protestors.  Two vets were killed in the furor.

This recent history would have been as much on the mind of the 1933 audience as the 2017 Womens’ March would be today.  Making impoverished veterans the focus of this number, instead of impoverished people in general, was a major political statement on Berkeley’s part – and clearly one he cared about, because he cast himself as the stagehand who rallies the cast onto the set for the “Forgotten Man number”.  The rest of the show felt like it was making light of the Depression, or allowing people to get out of it too easily; it looks like Berkeley was just saving everything for the end.  And what an end.

Movie Crash Course: L’Atalante

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I was baffled by Zero for Conduct, but when I got to director Jean Vigo’s follow-up L’Atalante, I was thoroughly charmed.

It’s a simple love story that (atypically) begins just after the wedding of our heroes, Jean and Juliette. Jean is the captain of the Atalante, a commercial barge making regular runs on the Seine between Paris and the French coast.  He’s just married Juliette, a young woman who’s never left the small village where she grew up.  And the opening scene makes clear that Juliette is absolutely desperate to get out of town – so desperate, in fact, that the couple have foresworn the usual reception and march straight out of church to the pier, where they board the Atalante and set off immediately.

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Adjusting to life aboard the Atalante is a little tricky for Juliette.  She and Jean share the close quarters of the barge with Pere Jules (our old friend Michel Simon), the grizzled First Mate; a teenage cabin boy; and about a dozen cats, one of whom gives birth on top of Juliette and Jean’s bed the day after their wedding.  When Juliette goes to change the sheets, she discovers that the men have been using the closet as their laundry hamper, and there are no clean sheets. Jean is busy all day at work and has little time for honeymooning.  But Jean loves her, she loves him, and the moments they do find to canoodle keep Juliette happy and seeing the whole thing like a grand adventure.

Jean has also promised that when they get to Paris, he will take small-town girl Juliette out on the town.  But Pere Jules claims shore leave first, slipping off as soon as they dock – leaving Jean stuck watching the boat, and Juliette stuck with him.  He tries to make it up to her by taking her to a dance hall the next town where they dock, but Juliette is still grumpy and dances with another man at the dance hall, prompting a jealous Jean to drag her back to the boat, a move which sparks their first married quarrel.  So when Jean goes to tend to something on the boat, Juliette decides to sneak back off the boat for an adventure; if Jean won’t take her exploring, she’ll just go alone, that’s all, and sneak back on before they depart.  That’ll show him!

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Except when Jean discovers Juliette is missing, he assumes she’s run off with the man from the dance hall – and jealously announces to his crew that they’re leaving right then, two hours early, abandoning Juliette.  He almost instantly regrets his decision, but when he returns he can’t find her – and the desperate Juliette is all alone in a strange city unable to find him.  What now?

The chemistry between Jean (Jean Dasté) and Juliette (Dita Parlo) is touchingly sweet.  Dita Parlo is especially charming – Juliette has her moments of shock and frustration dealing with her new life, but they always give way to a wide-eyed eagerness to explore. There’s a sequence where Pere Jules has caught her in his cabin, borrowing his sewing machine so she can work on a dress; at first he growls and tries to throw her out, but she simply ignores him, asking him to hold the dress still so she can pin up the hem, and then asking him about all the curios in his cabin.  Before long Pere Jules is giggling along with her and showing her his souvenir walrus tusk and pictures from Singapore.

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But the film doesn’t just treat Jean and Juliette like a cute couple.  It’s also refreshingly open about their physical attraction for each other – without being overt about it.  We see them kiss and cuddle a few times, but on board the boat, the only thing we see them do in bed is sleep.  Then comes a sequence while they’re separated – a subtly erotic, wordless sequence showing them each alone, in separate beds, tossing and turning; and, it’s clear, fantasizing about each other.  Not that we ever see either one strip down naked or start stroking themselves; but the way Jean Vigo cuts from one to the other, showing first Jean stroking the empty spot on the bed beside him followed by Juliette rolling over with a longing sigh, makes it more than clear.  And we are all the more invested in wanting these two crazy kids to get back together.

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The public reception to L’Atalante was…tepid. Vigo was a little ahead of his time stylistically, and many critics and audiences found the film meandering and slow.  The distributor tried to cut its losses by releasing a quicker-cut, pared-down version of the film; Vigo was sadly too ill to protest, as his ongoing struggles with tuberculosis had been aggravated by L’Atalante’s waterfront shooting locations.  The whole time L’Atalante was in theaters, Vigo was bedridden in his Paris home, and died just a few days after it closed.  Touchingly, his wife Lydou was lying beside him as he died; when she realized he was gone, she jumped out of bed and ran wailing down a long hall towards a window, where friends just managed to catch her before she jumped out.

Movie Crash Course: Zero de Conduit (Zero For Conduct)

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Zero de Conduite is…puzzling.  But I can’t decide whether or not it’s supposed to be.

Not because it has a complex plot – on the contrary.  It’s about a group of boys at a French boarding school who plot a takeover of the school, barricading themselves in an attic and throwing garbage on the teachers’ heads during a school assembly and hoisting a Jolly Roger flag on the roof. This was apparently shocking back in the day – the film faced censorship in France when it was released – but it seems more like a Home Alone-style romp today, with the naughty-boy heroes staging a food fight to protest a meal, using a pillow fight to suppress their dorm monitor and setting booby traps to bait other teachers.  Along with more mundane pranks like playing trumpets with their noses or sneaking smokes.

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But the style and the brevity of the film made things a little hard to follow.  The brevity in particular – it’s only about 45 minutes long, which left vanishingly little time to develop any of the boys’ characters at all.  We’re theoretically following four ringleaders in the rebellion, and for the life of me I couldn’t tell you their names.  Or, rather, I know their names but I couldn’t tell you which boy was which – they seem to work as a unit, frequently getting slapped with the sentence of “zero points for conduct” and sentenced to detention, usually over minor pranks.  I did grasp that one boy is the son of the school’s cook, and another is a little bit of a dandy who seemed to have a bit of a crush on one of his older classmates.


The dandy actually commits the only really defiant act before the rebellion. During a science class, the teacher seems to fawn over him, going so far as to creepily pet him because he seems upset.  The boy is understandably unnerved and shouts out that he’s “full of shit”.  He’s offered the chance to be let off with just a warning if he publicly apologizes, but the dandy joins the rebellion instead, offering some tactical planning expertise.

But I’m making this sound like there is much more coherency to the film. The film’s style is quite different – things just sort of…happen, and you’re expected to follow along, like when one of the school’s new teachers is strolling around the playground during recess and suddenly busts out with a Charlie Chaplin imitation.  Or another teacher stumbles upon a grafitti’d caricature one of the kids has made of him – and a brief bit of animation shows the doodle reacting with alarm at having been caught.  And there are less sensible bits – like during the climactic school assembly, which sees two gendarmes in attendance, both of them casually exercising on gym equipment.  Why?  Beats me.  Before I could figure it out I was being shown that half the attendees of the assembly were mannequins.

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It’s possible that director Jean Vigo was depicting a child’s understanding of things, actually. You don’t really see the connections between events when you’re that age; stuff just sort of happens, and it’s either good or bad.  The cool teacher may suddenly do a handstand in class, and that’s cool.  The mean headmaster may shout at you in his office, and it’s scary. There’s that one creepy science teacher where you can’t quite put your finger on why he creeps you out, because you haven’t really seen him do anything, like, bad, but you just get a bad vibe so everything he does is creepy, even just taking off his tie or opening a book.  You may notice that the cook’s son is sad during the food fight and you suddenly feel sort of sorry for him and you get everyone to stop.  You may get into a full-scale pillow fight in your dorm, and it’s totally epic and it’s like you can see the whole thing happening in slow motion in your head, especially when that one kid does a backflip and his nightshirt falls down and you can see his weenus and it’s funny.  And then when the moment ends, it ends, disappearing into your subconscious but otherwise just sort of letting you go your way, and hopefully you’ll make the connections later when you’re older; but right now, everything seems arbitrary and baffling, so you just go with it and trust it’ll make sense eventually.

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And that matches my reaction here. I’ve made those connections now, but in the moment, when watching the film…I was pretty confused.

Movie Crash Course: Duck Soup

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Duck Soup has been the first time in the Movie Crash Course that I’ve re-watched something. And I cannot begin to tell you how long I tried to think of an apt Groucho-esque pun to follow that statement; alas, the pun escapes me. But it’d be stupid to even try; Groucho is the master, forever and ever amen.

Something surprised me with this viewing – on paper, I shouldn’t have liked this film. Duck Soup has some of the faults I’ve frowned on in other films – a paper-thin plot that’s just an excuse for gags, some dialogue that hasn’t aged well, a character whose motivations and affections turn on a dime. But what I noticed wasn’t the faults themselves – what I noticed was that I wasn’t caring about them, because the gags offered by that paper-thin plot were so good and the dialogue was still so rapid-fire witty, and even if a couple of the jokes landed badly, the cast was already on to the next quip by the time you were blinking and thinking “….hang on.”

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Briefly, for the three people who haven’t heard of this film: Groucho is Rufus T. Firefly, who’s been dubiously appointed to the presidency of the nation Freedonia.  He almost instantly begins wooing the wealthy widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), who’s been loaning the nation money; but a Mr. Trentino, ambassador from the neighboring Sylvania, is doing the same in a bid to take over Freedonia.  Trentino sends in his two top spies (Chico and Harpo) to undermine Firefly.

It almost doesn’t matter what the plot is anyway; any Marx Brothers movie is really just an excuse to watch the Marx Brothers do stuff. The team is known for their wordplay, but on this viewing, it was the physical comedy that stuck out most for me. Duck Soup is home to the oft-copied “mirror sequence”, where a disguised Harpo is snooping in Firefly’s house late at night, and Groucho spots him in a doorway – so Harpo desperately tries to pretend that the doorway is actually a mirror, and he is Groucho’s reflection.  I’m almost positive you’ve seen it.  I don’t care, here it is again.

I was even more taken with the “triple-hat” scene, where Chico and Harpo are working undercover as peanut vendors outside the Freedonia parliament and collaborate to drive a nearby lemonade salesman foamingly nuts.  The timing and choreography of this scene is flawless.

There are scholars and historians who’ve argued that Duck Soup is a satire of fascism and totalitarianism; and it can come across that way, especially when you consider its 1930s release date.  But this was probably accidental; Groucho once quipped that all that Duck Soup is “about” is “four Jews trying to get a laugh”.  Still, when the brothers heard that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini took offense to the film and banned it in Italy, they were delighted.

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My roommate insisted on watching this with me, and told me about the time he showed this film to a college friend.  The friend watched silently through most of it, finally speaking up while watching a physical gag of Harpo’s:  “I’ve just realized….he isn’t human.  He’s a manifestation of chaos.”  Frankly, “a manifestation of chaos” is one of the best reviews of this film I know of.

Movie Crash Course: She Done Him Wrong

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Thinking about She Done Him Wrong reminded me strangely of the challenges many Saturday Night Live films have faced.

Go with me a second.

 Mae West got her start in vaudeville – where you didn’t have to worry about building a full plot for your act as such, you just had to grab attention.  Some vaudevillians were acrobats, some had signature songs – and some people developed signature characters or personas.  It didn’t really matter what it was their character did, people would just show up to watch them; and if whatever act they did somehow incorporated one of their characters’ catch phrases, all the better.  Sort of like Saturday Night Live characters.  But film is different from sketch comedy or standup; you need to fill a full hour or so with a complete story, with a satisfying plot, and yet still offer opportunities for those characters to be those characters without feeling forced; where it works, you get films like The Blues Brothers or Wayne’s World.  And when it doesn’t….you get things like A Night At the Roxbury.  She Done Him Wrong feels like it falls somewhere in the middle.

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I may not be entirely fair.  Mae West, who was one of the screenwriters, didn’t base the film on her vaudeville persona – she wrote it as an adaptation of one of her plays.  For West went into theater at first, writing and starting in a series of plays after her vaudeville years.  She incorporated her vaudeville persona, sure – that of a smart, bawdy comedienne who excelled at the double entendre.  But when she wrote plays for herself, she went a step further – the fun and bawdiness was there, but so were some sophisticated statements on sexual ethics and the double standard.  This was strong stuff for audiences and producers, and many of her earlier plays got only limited exposure as a result.

 With film, she had to clip her wings even further; She Done Him Wrong is based on her original play Diamond Lil.  The play was her first Broadway success, which understandably attracted the eye of producers. But the Hays board was wildly uneasy at the sexual elements of the play and all but killed the adaptation – requiring West to change the characters’ names (West plays a singer named “Lady Lou” instead of “Diamond Lil”, for instance) eliminate any allusions to the original play – and tone the sex way down.

West had to fall back on a lot of double-entendre and innuendo as a result; she felt it made the movie funnier, but I’m not so sure I agree.  Sometimes it feels more like many of Lady Lou’s scenes aren’t proper scenes, so much as they’re scenarios set up for West riff off.  There’s a scene where Lady Lou visits an old boyfriend, “Chick” Clark, in jail – but as she passes by five other cells on her walk to Clark’s, she recognizes those inmates as well, stopping each time to favor them all with a bit of saucy banter.  Sure, it’s funny – but after a couple minutes, it starts to read like Mae West going out of her way to make sure she had laughs.  West even invented a new character for the film – a maid for Lady Lou, so she had someone else to talk to and thus had more opportunities to say outrageously witty things about sex.

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Then again, there is second and more noble reason for the maid character “Pearl”. During her film career, West made a point of including African-American actors in speaking parts in all her films, and insisting that they appear in scenes with her, in an effort to chip away at Hollywood’s color barrier. West personally selected actress Louise Beavers for the part.  Still, the only part that West could think of for Beavers was a maid – a part which I can only assume Beavers was sick of, as she’d played such a role in nearly fifty other films prior to this one.

So this film was frustrating – especially since the plot itself is not bad. West’s “Lady Lou” is the star act at a Bowery night club owned by Gus Jordan, who takes a romantic – or at least lustful – interest in Lou offstage as well.  But so do plenty of other guys, including the aforementioned jailbird Chick Clark, and con man Dan Flynn, who warns Lou that Gus has been conducting some other illegal business on the side and that she should ditch him.  Lou has a grand time flirting with them all – but is strangely fascinated by Captain Cummings, the Salvation Army officer who’s been hovering around the saloon, claiming he’s after converting the lost souls. Lou tries to seduce him one night – the famous West quip “Why don’t you come up some time and see me?” is from this scene.  Incidentally, Captain Cummings is played by Cary Grant; Cummings refuses Lou’s advances, which makes her all the more interested.

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The final act of the play is where everything comes to a head – Chick breaks out of prison in search of Lou, Dan makes a bid to protect her, and Capt. Cummings closes in on Gus’ criminal actions, seeming to know more about police procedure than your average Salvation Army captain…

See, that’s a plot with a lot going on. The film could have simply presented all of that without stopping every few minutes so West could crack wise yet again. So I ultimately was left a little frustrated that the film kept dallying trying to make Lady Lou look good.

Eh, at least it was no It’s Pat!.

Movie Crash Course: Freaks

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I’ve known about Freaks for years, mostly by reputation. It’s had a strange sort of hip-arty cult-film cachet in recent years, with one of the film’s most-quoted lines even finding its way into a Ramones song.  I nevertheless wasn’t all that prepared for my reaction – or for what I realized was in a way my own connection to the film.

Let’s discuss the film first.  Basically it’s a soap opera set in a circus’ side show; one of the little people, Hans, is smitten by the beautiful, but cruel, trapeze artist Cleopatra.  She herself has eyes on the strongman Hercules – but when she learns Hans is actually living off a sizeable inheritance, she plays along with Hans’ ardor, secretly conspiring with Hercules to get herself married to Hans and then bilk him for all the money and run off.  If necessary…they may try to kill Hans.  While some of the other sideshow folk have their suspicions of Cleopatra, most take her at her word – leading to a moment at Hans and Cleo’s wedding banquet when the others all induce her to drink from a shared wine cup to seal their acceptance.  But as they hand her the cup, all chanting “one of us! One of us!”, she recoils and lashes out, calling them all freaks before running off.

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This understandably makes everyone suspicious.  And so when Cleopatra and Hercules start plotting their murder of Hans, the others in the sideshow start hatching a plan of their own…

The film claims to be inspired by this “one-of-us” code of the “freaks”, and how their rejection from larger society has forced them into creating their own inclusive brotherhood.  And the film does treat many of the sideshow folk sympathetically.  There’s a brief cameo from the circus’ bearded lady – but instead of simply showing her and letting us ogle, it features her as a happy brand-new mother, seeing the whole circus assemble at her bedside after she’s just delivered a new baby (while the baby’s father, the “Human Skeleton”, passes cigars around to the roustabouts).  The subplot with the circus’ Siamese Twins (played by famed conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton) is about their separate romances and eventual engagements, one to one of the clowns, the other to one of the circus’ producers.  Other sideshow cast are presented as people, going about their own lives.

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And yet…there are a couple cases where it seems like the film is just a little bit exploitative, lingering a little too long on one or anothers’ particular quirks.  A scene with “Angeleno,” one of the little people, implies he is married, to one of the circus’ two armless women; however, while the movie has taken pains to set up “he’s married just like regular people”, her character is never named, and the film spends just a little too much time watching her eat a meal and drink a glass of wine using her feet.  Another scene sees a lengthy conversation between Johnny Eck, the legless man, and “Prince Randian”, who had no limbs at all.  Ostensibly they are discussing Hans’ upcoming marriage, but Johnny is the only one talking, while the camera is tightly focused on Prince Randian as he rolls a cigarette and lights it all using only his lips. It’s an impressive feat, to be sure – but surely Prince Randian can also talk with his lips, can’t he?  So why didn’t he in this scene?

Most likely it’s because Prince Randian, like several of the others involved, were actual sideshow performers and were not actors. He’s basically playing himself, as are the Hilton sisters, and the armless women.  There’s also an appearance by “Koo Koo the Bird Girl”, a sideshow performer with distinctive facial features and a bizarre feathered costume, as well as three microcephalics billed as the circus’ “pinheads”.  Filmmaker Tod Browning seemed driven to include as many different kinds of “freak” as he could find – which does lead me to wonder whether his motivation is 100% about defending their dignity, or whether he started to slip into the same kind of motivation that lead to their very exploitation in the first place.

….But I come to this perspective from a fairly unique place.

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Through a great-grandparent’s marriage, I am related to one of the country’s better-known circus sideshow performers, Lavinia Warren – otherwise known as “Mrs. Tom Thumb.”  One of my twice-great grandfathers was widowed when my great-grandmother was a child, and he was remarried to Lavinia’s niece; the family lived near the Massachusetts town where Lavinia retired with her second husband (she remarried another little person after “Tom Thumb” died).  My great-grandmother’s family thus did some looking after them in their later years, and we inherited a number of their things.  I’ve done my own research of Lavinia’s story over the years, and even wrote about her for Atlas Obscura a couple years back.  About 20 years ago now, I even discovered a copy of her autobiography at the Lincoln Center library, and devoured it in one sitting.  Lavinia wasn’t the most expert of writers, but she had a practical and funny perspective on her life, and a couple times she seemed to out-snooker P.T. Barnum himself.

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Getting to know Lavinia, and her own opinion on actually being a sideshow person, makes me wonder about how Prince Randian and Johnny Eck and the rest saw their own fates.  At least the members of the cast who had acting training went on to other things – Harry Earles, who played Hans, had already enjoyed previous roles in silent film, and was even credited with giving Browning the idea for Freaks in the first place.  Angelo Rossitto, who plays Angeleno, went on to a lengthy movie career spanning several decades; his last role was as the “Master” half of the “Master Blaster” team from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. But most of the rest of the cast went back into the sideshows from which they’d been plucked, many of them dying in poverty and obscurity.  So ultimately, for all of Browning’s protestations, all we were able to do – and I fear all we were meant to do – was gawk at them yet again.

Movie Crash Course: The Bitter Tea of General Yen

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I’m still trying to make up my mind whether The Bitter Tea of General Yen condemns prejudice against Asians or perpetuates it.

This early Frank Capra film featured Barbra Stanwyck as the naïve Megan Davis, childhood sweetheart of missionary Robert Strike.  She’s just come to Shanghai to marry him, landing right smack in the middle of the Chinese Civil War and coming straight off the boat to the bishop’s home to marry Strike; but Strike asks to postpone the wedding just a couple hours so he can rescue a group of orphans trapped near the battlefront.  Megan not only agrees, she asks to come along and help.  During the orphans’ rescue, however, Megan and Rob are separated, with Megan getting knocked out to boot.

She wakes up to find herself on board the troop train owned by General Yen (Nils Asther), a Shanghai warlord who insists travel back to Shanghai isn’t safe – and he is taking her to his summer palace, for her own protection, until things settle down.  But it soon becomes clear that Yen has some ulterior motives – he keeps delaying her return to Shanghai, persistently invites her to intimate dinners (sending elaborate dresses for her to wear) and secretly hides all the letters she has been writing Rob and asking Yen to send him.

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Megan gradually realizes Yen isn’t about to let her go.  But she is even more uneasy to realize she has a growing attraction towards Yen herself.  She’s still plenty mad at him – on top of her own captivity, she is horrified by Yen’s carrying out executions under her window, and outraged at his malice towards his concubine Mah-Li – but Yen calls her on her hypocrisy a time or two, adding to her stew of conflicting feelings…

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The conversation where Yen calls her out was most gripping.  Megan has come to his room to plead mercy for Mah-Li – but her arguments all come straight from a missionary playbook: “I want you to see the beauty of giving love where it isn’t merited. Any man can give love where he’s sure of its return. That isn’t love at all. But, to give love with no merit, no thought of return, no thought of gratitude even; that’s ordinarily the privilege of God. And now its your privilege.” Yen listens, bemused; but then takes Megan’s hand as a challenge.  She recoils – her Christian love of others clearly has some limits.  “You didn’t come to speak to me,” he sneers, “you came to preach to me.”  Megan is clearly troubled by the accusation – and the dawning suspicion that he may be right about her hypocrisy.

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Of course, Yen’s no innocent, even though the film is trying to make him out to be one. But for every point the film makes in his favor, it tosses in a cruel quip or a mean look that pushes Megan – and us – away.  It’s possible that Capra intended us to be as conflicted as Megan; but it’s possible Capra was just as conflicted himself, as the film’s depiction of China is not always as sympathetic as you’d expect from an apologetic.  An early scene sees the bishop telling a hair-raising story about some Mongol tribesman who’ve learned the story of the Crucifixion and then proceeded to crucify some neighboring tribesmen themselves.  As his listeners tut-tut in horror, the Bishop shrugs. “That, my friends, is China,” he concludes – and the camera then cuts to a stern-looking Chinese butler, who does nothing but stare into the camera for a few seconds.  Capra may have been trying to play up the fussiness of the clergy and then show us an “innocent Chinese man,” but it comes across more like punctuation for the bishop’s story.

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Also, for a film set in China, there are vanishingly few Asian actors in main roles.  Mah-Li is played by Japanese actress Toshia Mori, but the only other Asian actor that even has a credit is Richard Loo, in a wordless role as General Yen’s first officer.  General Yen himself is played by a Swedish actor in heavy makeup. All other Asian actors are nameless extras, all uncredited.

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To be fair (although not by much), casting a Caucasian man as Yen may have been Capra’s attempt to dodge backlash from a moment he predicted would raise eyebrows.  There are some romantic and seductive scenes between Megan and Yen, at a time when interracial canoodling was Just Not Done, both in real life and onscreen. Critics still predicted that the scenes would raise a ruckus – and they did, causing some countries’ censors to demand cuts before they would screen the film.  In the US, The Bitter Tea of General Yen has the distinction of being the first film screened at New York’s Radio City Music Hall; but even here, the distributors cut short the film’s scheduled two-week run, pulling it off screens after only eight days. Both Capra and Stanwyck remained proud of the film, with Capra calling it “Art with a capital ‘A’.”