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Monthly Archives: November 2018

Movie Crash Course: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington

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I really wonder what it would have been like to see Mr. Smith Goes to Washington at a different time.

Jimmy Stewart is Jefferson Smith, a starry-eyed political naïf appointed to replace his state’s recently-deceased Senator.  Smith wasn’t the first choice – the people had their own preferred candidate, but Jim Taylor, a local business tycoon with deep political influence, also had his own choice. Caught in the middle, Governor Herbert Hooper (Guy Kibbee) agonizes over the choice until his young sons suggest Smith as an option; he’s the leader and organizer of their boys’ club.  Hooper, desperate to be done with the choice, nominates Smith – the public seems to like him, and Hooper assures Taylor that Smith’s inexperience will make him easy to manipulate.  Smith is summarily shipped to Washington, where an office and secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) await.  Senior senator Joe Paine (Claude Rains), a longtime family friend of the Smiths, offers to shepherd Smith through his stint in the Senate – but Paine is secretly in league with Taylor, and is really hoping to distract Smith from doing much.

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When the eager Smith begs Paine to let him do some real legislative work, Paine suggests he draw up a simple bill for something and try to pass it.  Something small, like getting funding for an infrastructure project back in their state.  Turns out Smith has had several ideas about starting a boys’ camp back home – one open to all boys throughout the country, with scholarships to help fund the less-wealthy campers, designed to teach them about civic duty and good citizenship along with the usual hiking and canoeing and outdoorsy fun.  He pulls an all-nighter with Saunders to draft the bill, but just before he presents it, Paine hears that the proposed camp is located right where he and Taylor have been getting ready to build a dam – after having secretly bought up all the surrounding land so the Eminent Domain payments make them both rich.  In a desperate bid to save the dam, Taylor orders Paine to frame Smith for corruption instead – interrupting Smith’s proposal for the camp to claim that Smith had secretly bought the land for the campsite.  The ethics committee investigates Smith’s case and rules against him – but Smith seizes the Senate floor in a filibuster in a desperate attempt to plead his case, and in the hope that decency will win the day.

Stories about a civic idealist learning about the corruption within government are almost a genre all their own by now, usually ending either with their simple common-sense winning out, or with their ambition leading them to betray their ideals (then getting punished for it).  I want to say that they’re almost a uniquely American story, but I’m sure that there are examples of this story in every country with a representative government; power does corrupt, after all.  And there have been stories riffing on this theme for a long time, almost as long as this nation has been alive.

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But one big thing that has changed in the years since Mr. Smith is how the public perceives such stories; which, I’d argue, is because of how the public perceives the government itself.  In the 1930s – and the years before and just after – the public shared a similar starry-eyed view of government.  Sure, there were bad apples and corrupt politicians here and there, but many believed those were the exceptions.  The government as a whole was still noble, most people still believed in ideals like decency and fair play and good citizenship, and people who betrayed those ideals would surely get their comeuppance in the end.  Stories about corruption also tended to stay local, as well – people in Topeka never knew about the party political machine in Chicago, for instance.

Then came Watergate – an incidence of corruption which also played out on the national stage.  Now everyone was forced to see that sometimes the bad apples aren’t just local, and sometimes the rot spreads all the way to the top, affecting everyone.  Since then, we’ve still had stories about idealists facing corrupt politicians, but now it’s the idealist who is the exception to the rule.  Instead of being horrified to hear about one senator framing another for graft in order to save his own bill, many of us today might just shrug and say “yeah, it figures.”  Instead of idealizing the government like Smith does (early in the film, he wanders through Washington DC in an enchanted daze visiting all the monuments while Paine waits impatiently to give him his initial briefing), we just wait for their inevitable loss of innocence, and then wait to see how they’re going to recover.

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I realize I’m not talking about the film itself all that much.  This is not due to a lack on the film’s part, however; Stewart is his usual charming self, and Jean Arthur is really engaging as the cynical Saunders who is eventually won over by Smith’s faith. (Although I did wish she ended up with more of a titled role in his administration than “secretary”; that could have been a wish before its time, though.)  Stewart was also pretty obsessive about doing this film right – he would wake up at 5 a.m. and drive himself to the set each day, not even wanting to risk a driver getting into a car crash with him and requiring he drop out.  And while filming the filibuster scene, Stewart apparently gargled with an awful-sounding concoction laced with mercury that temporarily inflamed his vocal cords, so that he would sound suitably hoarse.

But that was all overshadowed by my watching this film in a post-Watergate timeline, so Smith’s idealism (and director Frank Capra’s) look like naivete instead of patriotism. It still presents political corruption as a temporary blip that Smith’s good nature defeats, instead of an ever-present danger that all of us, consciously or unconsciously, were pretending didn’t exist.  Some people still believe it’s an anomaly, or worse, they believe that it’s only a recent phenomenon – and they point to films like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington as their “proof”.

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As I write this, the country is undergoing another lengthy inquiry into another potential instance of national political corruption.  At the same time, another group of first-time politicians is preparing to take office, to be confronted first-hand with the political machine on a national scale (and one of the better-known such idealists is a young woman, the youngest ever elected to Congress, from here in New York City).  My hope for them is that they are able to chart a different course than Jefferson Smith – that instead of being overawed by the thought that “wow, I’m in Washington now” that they are able to remember the dangers and pitfalls that await them, avoid the temptations of power, and actually change the narrative on this genre, maybe for the first time ever.

The Whirlwind Begins

So. I said I was going to start writing more about other parts of life on this blog more often, and keep it thus when I send the movie stuff out into its own blog (now anticipating a 2019 rollout).  And towards that end…

Alex is now departed for two weeks, and I took advantage of that to start the whole planning-of-Christmas-decor overhaul.  I mentioned that I was going to go for a kind of rustic homespun repurpose-junk-you-have-around-the-house vibe; so towards that end, I just started the day by pulling out everything I owned that could possibly be pressed into service as a decor element.

Y’all, it’s covering half the floor of the living room.

I have about ten jars of various sizes and shapes; three bags of pine cones; about 20 candle containers, about ten pounds of candle wax (some of it already even colored red), wicks, and a pint of “Mountain Lodge” candle scent to make my own candles; about five iron-look metal candle holders, one of which even is shaped like a spray of pine; a cheap ceramic cupcake tier stand; two lanterns; two sprays of fake greenery; a wood dough bowl; about six baskets; an antique souvenir drinking glass from the Christmas railroad my uncle used to manage when I was a kid; cookie tins in about five different sizes; two bark berry baskets; a bark-covered planter just big enough for two candles; an enamelware pot I found in the street (someone had drilled a couple holes in the bottom to use it as a planter, but then got rid of it); an Ikea planter in white metal that I could make look like it’s enamelware just by touching up the edge with a Sharpie pen; an antique Santa doll that is riiiiiight on the edge between “cute” and “creepy”; a teddy bear that’s squarely in the category of “cute” (it’s in a wee little green coat with matching beret); a metal TV tray that I’ve been meaning to fix up with a bit of paint; and about seven or eight other random collectible Christmas themed geegaws.

I even have craft projects – I stumbled upon a couple tutorials for making wee little skis and sleds out of popsicle sticks, and have the popsicle sticks to make them up.  I just need a pack of jewelry findings.  I’m also going to attempt to gussy up some of my umpteen mason jars with ribbon or burlap or something, and am even entertaining picking up some cheap plain white mugs from my local dollar store and stenciling something on them (a pine cone? a moose? something like that).

I also have only 75% of the top floor of a Brooklyn brownstone to decorate (even though Alex said that he has no objection to decoration, he would probably not look kindly upon my festooning his actual bedroom or office in his absence).  I’m seriously considering temporarily relocating some things to the hall closet to make room.

But that will come after the apartment gets a much-needed deep clean and polish. It’s not a mess or anything, but it could be gussied up some, with an emphasis on organizing and decluttering.  And fortunately it looks like the only things I may have to purchase are those dollar store mugs and a bit of burlap and ribbon.  And a couple of new covers for some throw pillows that I needed to get anyway.

….But you are all in luck (if you wanted to see any of this), because I have a new camera!  After that mishap with my old one, I’ve been in a sort of a round-robin conversation with Colin and my parents (Colin recommending new cameras, my parents hinting heavily that this could be my Christmas gift), and right before Thanksgiving my father discovered that one of the cameras Colin suggested was part of a local Black Friday sale.  My parents have never done the Black Friday thing before, so they got really into the idea of doing it just this once, waking up at midnight and driving two towns over to get it.  We met up this Saturday, and they presented it to me, telling me about the crowd like they were anthropologists presenting a set of findings.  ….I’ve yet to open the box, so I don’t have a picture for you now, but sometime after I’ve given the apartment an initial clean I’ll try to get you the “before” before I deck the halls for the “after.”

Movie Crash Course: The Lady Vanishes

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Fittingly – for a movie about a mystery on board a train – the journey for this film was just as fun as the destination.

Socialite Iris (Margaret Lockwood) is wrapping up a bachelorette-party trip across Europe with her friends, before heading back to London to marry a dude who sounds incredibly boring. An avalanche further down the track traps her in a little Eastern-European inn for the night, where she makes nodding acquaintanceship with some of her upcoming fellow passengers – smugly handsome musicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a “vacationing couple” who actually aren’t married, a pair of cricket-mad businessmen desperate to get home in time for a match, and kind Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who tells Iris she’s a governess on her way home.  When Iris gets a nasty bump on the head at the train station the next day, it is Miss Froy who helps her, making sure Iris is safely on board the train and tending to her with bandages.

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The grateful Iris shares a pot of tea with her in the train’s café car before taking a short nap – but when Iris wakes up, Miss Froy is not there, and everyone swears to her that there never was a Miss Froy.  Iris got on the train alone, they tell her, and she had tea alone and Miss Froy never existed.  Instead of accepting their word, Iris fears that something happened to Miss Froy and sets out to discover the truth.

Now, Hitchcock could very easily have gone with a straightforward plot of “Miss Froy: real or imagined?” and made Iris’ efforts to find the truth the whole movie.  But so much evidence stacks up so quickly to prove that Something Fishy’s Going On that by the middle of the film, we’re totally on board with the belief that not only is Miss Froy real, but that there’s somehow a train-wide conspiracy to convince Iris she’s not.  But right when we’re patting ourselves on the back for figuring that out, Hitchcock introduces a new question “Okay, if there is a conspiracy, who is actually in on it?”

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That proves to be a much more complex question; we learn later on that some of the people who’d sworn to Iris that they never saw Miss Froy actually did see her, but just lied to Iris because they wanted to calm her down or they didn’t want to get involved.  Or they were just confused.  Or they weren’t sure and thought their indecision wouldn’t help so they said no.  Or they had been part of the conspiracy but changed their minds later.

And while Iris – with the help of Gilbert, who was an early Believer In Froy – are getting to the bottom of Who Knew What, Hitchcock raises a third question – “Wait, who is Miss Froy, and what did she do that’s leading to a conspiracy about her anyway?”

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Remarkably, despite all these twists, all these loose ends are tied up by the end (I did think the very end was a little far-fetched, but not unbelievably so).  The characters also all stay consistent and believable throughout – Iris and Gilbert’s sparking a romance during the film is a little eye-rolly, but they’ve got a nearly screwball-comedy chemistry throughout, and upon reflection, it makes more sense for thrill-seeker Iris to be interested in Gilbert – someone she’s straight-up solved a mystery with – than it does for her to enter a marriage of convenience.

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In fact, two of the supporting characters were so strongly drawn that they broke out of the film and made a whole career for themselves.  The pair of cricket fans, called “Charters and Caldicott” in the script, were so beloved by fans that other filmmakers threw them into their own projects, writing in cameo scenes for the pair.  They turn up in the thriller Night Train to Munich, a British film about scientists escaping from Nazis; they’re in wartime propaganda films like Millions Like Us and The Next Of Kin; and they even starred in the film adaptation of the British radio comedy Crook’s Tour, where they play a pair of foppish travelers who are mistaken for spies.   It’s kind of like how Bronson Pinchot spun his quirky cameo in Beverly Hills Cop into a role on the sitcom Perfect Strangers.  Happily, too, the same pair of actors – Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford – played the pair throughout most of their ten-year wave.

Movie Crash Course: Olympia

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So, here’s the thing.  I’m not really a sports person.  Never have been, never will be.  I respect athletes, mind, it’s just that watching them do their job is not something I would ever really do.  So that was a big strike I had in mind against Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia – on top of the already-existing and inescapable fact that Olympia was about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and so I was bound to see lots of shots of swastikas and people Heiling Hitler, something I’ve really had quite enough of as of late, thanks very much.  So I was surprised to discover that I….kind of liked this.

Part of what seduced me may have been through a simple quirk of fate.  The full four-hour Olympia is split into two parts at most screenings and on most streaming services – and for reasons I cannot ascertain, the print of the first part I watched did not have subtitles. I even tried turning on the closed-captioning, but all they had for the frequent sportscaster commentary was the phrase “man speaking German” in parentheses.  So I switched it right back off and just studied the visuals; maybe that was all I needed.  And it was – Riefenstahl was an amazingly innovative visual artist, including such a broad range of detail that I was getting a narrative simply out of what I was seeing.

Mind you, Riefenstahl’s techniques aren’t anything you haven’t seen in your average Sunday night football or 21st-Century Olympics broadcast – closeups of the athletes preparing for action, shots of the screaming crowd, lots of different angles on the action from all perspectives, slow-motion plays for the really killer stuff.  But that’s exactly it – Riefenstahl was the one who came up with all that.  A year ago I was in Berlin, and visited their Deutsche Kinemathek museum for film and television; there’s a whole room devoted just to this one movie, with a scale model of the Berlin Olympic Stadium showing you with pinpoint lights precisely where Riefenstahl had the camera set up for specific shots; from what I can recall, there were cameras all over the dang place, from the ones in the house right next to the Yutz In Charge to the ones down on the oval, up in the rafters, down in a dugout-y thing….they were everywhere.

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But having a lot of cameras isn’t all there is to it.  Riefenstahl was also capturing interesting things with those cameras – there were lots of shots of different nations’ cheering sections, cheering on athletes from all over the world.  And she matched the athlete to their nation’s fans – when a Japanese pole vaulter had a particularly good run, we got a shot of a big cluster of Japanese fans all cheering and waving.  A tight race between an Italian and a French runner saw both of their fans as well.   There was a whole drama involving an American shotput guy and some dudes in straw hats in the audience; the shotput guy kept falling short before finally making a good throw, and the dudes in the straw hats kept getting more and more despondent with each of his misses before Riefenstahl showed them losing their minds at his success.

Other bits seemed strangely intimate.  For one late-night pole-vaulting sequence, it was too dark to show the surrounding crowds; in response, it feels like Riefenstahl embraced that, turning down the sound on the crowd completely so that all you hear is each athlete’s running footsteps in the dirt and their pants of breath.  And instead of the crowds watching them, she would cut to closeups of the other athletes watching them instead, peering at their rivals with rapt attention.  In those moments, the politics of the Berlin Olympiad are stripped away – it feels more like a late-night casual pick-up match between a couple of neighboring colleges or something.

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This was the Olympics where American runner Jesse Owens showed up Hitler’s race prejudice but good, so I was curious to see how his races were treated.  And – I’m happy to say that Riefenstahl shows him in a favorable light.  I’m even happier to report, however, that he was not the only non-German athlete that Riefenstahl made look good.  Every athlete who had a notable achievement – regardless what country they were from – gets celebrated by this film, with lots of beauty shots of their performance, closeups of their fans, and a shot of their medal ceremony.  There are even two instances when an American gold medalist’s face is superimposed over a shot of the fluttering Stars and Stripes, as “The Star Spangled Banner” echoes through the Olympic Stadium.  But the same happens with the Japanese athletes listening to the “Kimiyago” or the French athletes with the tricoleur and “La Marsellaise”.

There’s even some possibly-unintentional comedy, in a sequence covering an equestrian event; about eight riders are following a complicated cross-country track, with lots of hurdles and obstacles; one such hurdle was set up right before a stream, such that horse and rider got a splashdown on landing.  Easily half the riders got thrown off into the stream, or their horses would want to stop and shake off a bit.  Even funnier was a sequence at another obstacle with two hurdles on either side of a ditch; horses had to jump the first hurdle, land on a steep slope on the other side, climb down to the bottom and then back up and over the second hurdle.  One rider’s horse took one look at that setup and stopped dead, refusing to jump.  Three times the rider tried to circle it back for another attempt, but each time the horse said “nope” and stopped short.  The commentator drily noted that the rider was eliminated from the match as a result, but honestly, I’m with the horse.

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For the second half of the film, Riefenstahl isn’t even showcasing the competitive angle all that much.  The second half is set up as more of a celebration of the universality and commonality of sport, and the beauty of the athletes.   For the competitive sailing races, there’s not much commentary on the races themselves; instead, there are beautiful shots of a fleet of boats, sails all unfurled, darting through the sea on a gorgeous day.  A sequence on diving towards the end doesn’t just abandon the commentary towards the end, it also abandons any effort to distinguish one diver from another – all we see is a series of beautiful men soaring gracefully through the air in perfectly precise arcs, or curling themselves up gracefully into flips and spins, then splashing effortlessly into water.  Once or twice, Riefenstahl even reverses the film, tracing the diver’s flight backwards just to show you how it looks that way.  Other times she even shows you the divers’ path from underwater.

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Riefenstahl’s association with the Third Reich unquestionably makes her a controversial figure, and during the 1930s she reported having a favorable opinion of Adolf Hitler.  And yet I can’t shake the notion that someone who really bought into the Nazi party line wouldn’t have treated other country’s athletes as sensitively and favorably as she did with this film.

Movie Crash Course: Wuthering Heights

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It’s strange – when it comes to film adaptations of books, I usually turn up my nose at the idea of using the film as a “cheat” to help you follow the book.  However, this Wuthering Heights adaptation is now the second time I’ve done precisely that (the first was 2012’s Cloud Atlas, which has sadly not made it onto the list).

Like most, I had the book as assigned reading in high school, so I had vague recollections of the plot; dude named Heathcliff, northern English setting, doomed love story, something like that. However, I had great gaps in my memory (whether Emily Bronte’s opaque writing style is at fault, or whether it’s due to my being three decades out of high school, is a judgement call I leave to the reader), and watching this film helped reinforce the story for me: as a boy, the orphan Healthcliff is swept up off the Liverpool streets and adopted by widower Yorkshireman Mr. Earnshaw, who brings him home to his farm on the moors to live with him and his son Hindley and daughter Catherine.

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Heathcliff and Catherine bond deeply, but Hindley looks down on the orphan, and when Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley demotes Heathcliff from the status of “adopted brother” to “farmhand”, sending him off to sleep in the stable.  Catherine also starts to look down on Heathcliff a little as well, despite herself – she has girlish dreams of marrying wealthy and becoming a genteel lady-of-the-manor, something Heathcliff can’t provide for her. A misunderstanding drives Heathcliff away to seek his fortune and come back to her, but by the time he returns, Catherine has already married the wealthy Edgar Linton and is living the high life.  So Heathcliff instead marries Edgar’s sister and buys the Earnshaw family home instead, thus forcing himself into Catherine’s orbit, to punish her for shunning him.

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Now, I’ve spoken before about what a tricky tightrope adapting books to film can be.  It’s nearly impossible to make a 100% faithful adaptation of book-to-film, simply because books and films are two completely different art forms.  One of the big things filmmakers have to wrestle with is time – some bits of books get left out of adaptations simply because the filmmakers don’t want to make a five-hour epic saga.  So this film, like most adaptations, completely omits the half of the book which deals with Heathcliff and Catherine’s children and their relationships, keeping strictly to the story of Heathcliff and Catherine and their doomed affair.  It also greatly simplifies the framing narrative – the whole story in the novel is an “as-told-to” kind of thing, with our narrator hearing the story from Heathcliff’s housemaid over the course of several visits to Wuthering Heights.  But the novel also gets bogged down with the narrator getting sick and going on trips and having his own issues to deal with, all of which ultimately distracted 16-year-old me from following the novel that well.  Here, the narrator’s bit is simply to get snowed in at Wuthering Heights and hear the whole story in one fell swoop, which made the actual story much clearer.

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However – some literary critics have pointed out that the tone of the film greatly changes one element of that story. Here, the implication seems to be that fate and bad luck is the biggest wedge between Heathcliff and Catherine; they love each other, but Catherine is too seduced by riches and doesn’t want to live in poverty with Heathcliff, while Heathcliff is a heel for wanting to punish her instead of keeping his distance and letting her be.  Whereas the book implies that it’s much more of a mutual antagonism – Catherine doesn’t marry Edgar Linton because she thinks “oh, Heathcliff ran off, he’s not an option any  more,” it’s more like “he ran off, but he’ll come back one day and I’ll be married already, that’ll teach him”.  The film reforms both characters’ image a lot, turning a story about mutual cruelty into a story about thwarted passion; making it a bit more palatable for modern audiences, perhaps.

It also tacks on a movie-romantic final sequence, wholly invented for the film, depicting a reunion between the ghosts of Catherine and Heathcliff.  This sequence was actually tacked on by producer Samuel Goldwyn; Goldwyn had suggested it to director William Wyler, who hated the idea.  But Goldwyn insisted on adding it in, and even had to call in doubles for stars Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, both of whom had since moved on to other projects.

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Still, the changes and tweaks seem to have paid off; Wuthering Heights was soundly praised by critics, and scoring eight Oscar nominations that year.  The 1939 Oscars offered some unusually stiff competition, however, with juggernaut films Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz also scoring nominations. Ultimately, its one win was for Cinematography, and even then that may have only been because there were two cinematography categories that year, one for color films and one for black and white films.  I have to say, though, that frequently I was struck by the shots cinematographer Gregg Toland was setting up on the screen; if someone like me is noticing how well things are composed, that’s saying something.

Movie Crash Course: Angels With Dirty Faces

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I think I’m starting to get won over by Jimmy Cagney.

My only exposure to Jimmy Cagney prior to this was through seeing some random cilps from Yankee Doodle Dandy somewhere, where he sang in a sort of Rex Harrison singspiel spoken-word thing that I always associated with “guy who can’t sing but they cast him in a musical anyway” and I turned up my nose.  But then after seeing him first as an actor in Public Enemy, then as a dancer in Footlight Parade, and now in this, I’m starting to think I judged the fellow a little prematurely.

This role is a return to Jimmy Cagney as tough guy, Rocky Sullivan by name, whose fate is permanently set as a boy when he and his buddy Jerry try to rob a box car in a train yard. The cops chase them both, but Jerry outruns Rocky and makes his getaway. Rocky falls into the hands of the cops, and then a reform school, and from there into a fifteen-year stretch of crimes both big and small, interspersed with hops in and out of jail.

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After one three-year stint in the slammer he comes back to the old neighborhood, in search of the corrupt lawyer who bribed him to plead guilty (Humphrey Bogart).  Rocky is seeking his revenge, but while he’s back in town he looks up his old buddy Jerry (Pat O’Brien), finding that their youthful crime scared Jerry straight, and he’s now a priest at the church in their old street.  Jerry has been making the kids in his parish his special crusade, hoping to steer them away from the petty crime and gang rivalries that steered his old buddy wrong; when he realizes that some of his young charges idolize Rocky, he enlists Rocky’s help in steering them straight.  Rocky is all too happy to help, out of affection for his old friend. But the criminal world catches up to Rocky again, interfering with Rocky’s plans; and even worse, the kids in Rocky’s fan club seem impressed instead of scared straight.  Jerry is forced to ask Rocky for one final sacrifice for their sake.

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The kids in Rocky’s “fan club” were an interesting group; six teenage boys who often appeared together as “The Dead End Kids”.  From what I’ve read, it sounds like they were “The Brat Pack” of the 1930s – a group of young actors who were all independently cast in the same play which granted them collective fame, leading to further work for the group entire.  This film was actually first proposed as a vehicle for the Dead End Kids, in fact, instead of being a Jimmy Cagney feature; at this time, Cagney was trying to avoid “tough guy” roles.  But the role of Rocky Sullivan was nuanced enough that Cagney was intrigued and took the part.  It’s definitely a performance with more variety than he had in Public Enemy – there’s the bluster and cockiness of the street tough, but also quieter moments that flesh out the character.  One moment that especially caught my eye came early on, when Rocky has first returned to find Jerry in the church, directing a rehearsal of the boys’ choir; as he waits quietly out of sight, listening to the boys singing a Latin hymn, Rocky gets a wistful look and starts singing along, quietly, despite himself.

Cagney’s last scene is also beautifully done – I can’t discuss it in detail without spoiling the film, so suffice it to say that the specific motivation for Rocky’s last actions in the film is a matter of some debate, and Cagney intended it to be that way.  Even today – a few days after seeing the film – I still have questions, and it’s thanks to Cagney’s exemplary performance.  He was of course nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars, and while he didn’t win, critics regarded it as one of his finest works.

State Of The Blog Update….

“Uh….say, Kim, didn’t you say that you were going to break out the movie stuff onto another blog soon?”

Yes.  Yes I did.  However – I’m still in the clinging-stubbornly-to-a-single-design-element stage that’s taking a while to accomplish, and…it’s not quite ready yet.  However, it may be ready to roll out right around the time that the holiday season kicks into gear.

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Fortunately, I’m not going to be going too over-the-top for the holidays this year.  Firstly because I’ve gotta be cheap – I’m in a super-focused drive to pay down some debt, and that doesn’t leave much left over in the way of frills.  Fortunately, I wasn’t really ever a huge fan of the whole inflatable-lawn-ornament, tinsel-and-flocking-on-everything decor aesthetic where it looks like the warehouse of a Michaels’ craft shop blew up on you.  My instincts are more in the rustic-and-homey area, heavy on the DIY and stuff from junk shops.  My friend Niki gifted me with a big box of leftover candlemaking supplies she didn’t want to tote with her when she moved to Colorado, so that’s the candles sorted; and tucked into that box was a sizeable bag of pinecones.  That plus some of the squillion Mason jars I have from canning, a cheap buffalo-plaid throw and some burlap and scrap wood and I’m set.

the betting is now open on whether I will have a future blog post where I get into a borderline obscene accident involving a hot glue gun-

I also don’t want to get too overly-Christmas up in here because we have an interfaith household.  I asked Alex if he wanted me to tone things down at all (being Jewish and coming home to “YAY CHRISTMAS” for a solid month might get annoying), but he was largely indifferent; “honestly, it’s a time of year when the attitude is ‘how about we all be nice to each other for a change’, and that’s good.”  His Thanksgiving visit is also going to be on the lengthy side, and he joked that “I fully expect to walk back in and find it’s a winter wonderland in here anyway.”

I told him we could also do what I did with another old roommate, Eric, who is also Jewish – we both went overboard, at Eric’s suggestion. “You get the biggest tree you can,” Eric said, “and I’ll get the biggest menorah I can, and we’ll put them both up right next to each other and confuse everyone.”  That actually was a delightful holiday – we both decked and gelt-ed the halls to the hilt, and got so carried away we looked up every other holiday that happened in December and celebrated that as well.  We even invented a separate holiday expressly for the cat.

I may not go quite that far this year, but there will still be some fuss and fancy going on.  I confess that when Alex told me he would be out of town for two weeks, one of my thoughts was “ooh, that gives me a chance to spread out pine cone crafts in the living room….”


World War One Blogathon

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Huzzah, another blogathon!

This one is devoted to movies about the First World War, hosted by the blog Maddy Loves Her Classic Films.  I’m contributing The Big Paradebut there are some other recently-familiar outings as well.

Movie Crash Course: The Adventures Of Robin Hood

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By now there is no need for me to acquaint the reader with the plot of this film – this is one of a long, long line of adaptations of the Robin Hood tales, which have seen adaptations both gritty and fanciful, period and contemporary; it has been given serious treatment by Kevin Reynolds and Ridley Scott, spoof treatment by Mel Brooks and Terry Gilliam, an animated treatment by Mel Blanc and Disney, and even a burlesque treatment on the British pantomime circuit.  And that’s not even getting into the times that TV shows like Star Trek: Next Generation or Doctor Who have done a “Robin Hood episode”.  It’s Robin Hood.  We all know the drill, and I would bet that a number of you are still giggling over the memory of Worf growling “Sir, I am not a Merry Man!” after I mentioned that Star Trek episode.

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….Which brings me to my biggest complaint about this film, actually.  I know that Robin Hood’s band goes by the name “Merry Men”, but ultimately everyone was so merry in this film it got on my damn nerves.  Errol Flynn – who will be our Sir Robin of Locksley for this evening – seems to have a perpetual smirk on his face no matter how dire the circumstances. Even in an early scene when he’s in Prince John’s castle, he notices the guards are locking him in and preparing to jump him, but doesn’t look scared or troubled at all; instead, it looks more like he’s started working on an unusually tricky crossword puzzle.  He recruits Little John (Alan Hale, Sr.) and Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette) through lively sparring matches, which both end with everyone throwing back their heads for a hearty laugh before a chummy handshake and a trip to a tavern for some ale.  Ambushing a tax collectors’ haul is cause enough for a huge banquet scene complete with Morris dancers, lute players, roast pigs on spits and crowds of people clanking tankards – basically anything you’ve seen at a suburban Renaissance Faire.

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And that hearty jollity killed a lot of the dramatic tension for me.  Not that I need things to be historically accurate or grim all the time – the story of Robin Hood is essentially a fairy tale, and sometimes things get fanciful in fairy tales.  But at least you should feel like there are some things at stake, and that your hero is up against an evenly-matched enemy.  In this version, however, the Sheriff of Nottingham is a milquetoast who chickens out of any potential matchup with Robin, and the real baddy, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), is confined to simply looking menacing as he sits beside Prince John for most of the film.  Anytime we see anyone getting into any real danger, they get out of it within about five minutes, so when things get a wee bit dicey for Maid Marian (Olivia de Haviland) towards the end, we just shrug, thinking that we already know that Robin’s going to save her, so eh.  This isn’t a story, so much as it’s an excuse to watch Robin Hood be awesome.

But that brings me to the thing I thought this film did do well.

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The last time we saw Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn do a stage fight, they were done in less than five minutes and it was a little dull.  But this was more like it.  I got a bit of a crash course in stage combat in college, thanks to a friend who was a genius at combat choreography and performance (I’ll be referencing him in a couple later reviews, since he had some seriously intense opinions about the combat in both Gladiator and Princess Bride).  My friend’s biggest criteria for a fight scene was always whether it felt like the moves in the fight flowed organically from what was happening.  People who just bashed swords at each other didn’t impress him; there has to be a reason why you’re bashing swords at each other, he pointed out, be it “I’m seeking revenge against my father’s murderer” to “I’m sizing this guy’s fight skills up” to “I’m trying to get the hell out of this castle”.  Every fight had to have a story to it, he said.  And in this film, the story of each fight was absolutely clear.  It may have been telegraphed who was going to win each time, but the story of the fight itself was clear.

My friend also liked it when fight scenes worked in other features of the room – if you’re trying to get away from an attacker, anything that will help you do that, you’re gonna use.  So during that early scene when Robin is ambushed by Prince John’s men, and he flips backward in his chair, does a sommersault under it and then picks up the chair to use as a shield, I was there for it.  In a later fight, someone throws an entire candelabra at Robin Hood to trap him under it – but Robin grabs one of the candles and throws it back at his attacker, distracting him long enough to get back on his own feet.  And it’s not just Robin – other characters’ fight moves are choregraphed well, like a little guy who spends an entire fight huddled up in the rafters with a club so he can yank off people’s helmets and bonk them on the noggin.  People in the film are fighting like they’d really be fighting, and in and of itself that was gripping.

Movie Crash Course: Bringing Up Baby

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It’s possible that my perspective on Bringing Up Baby was colored by previous encounters with Katherine Hepburn.  Not in-person encounters – instead, I’ve seen a number of Katherine Hepburns’ later films, like The African Queen or On Golden Pond, in which she played more serious roles; no-nonsense, forthright, kind of like a New England small town matron.  Her early career, however, was very different – she was cast mostly as flighty free spirits in zany screwball comedies like this one.  And that took a wee bit of adjustment for me. About twenty minutes into this film I turned to Alex with a gasp – “I just realized,” I marveled, “She’s playing a manic pixie dream girl.”

In fact, her role in this film is considered one of the earliest examples of the trope.  And that’s fine – if you like manic pixie dream girls.

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This particular MPDG is Susan Vance, a flighty heiress who first crosses paths with David Huxley (Cary Grant) on a golf course. Huxley is a paleontologist in search of funding for his museum, and is out on the links with Alexander Peabody (George Irving), lawyer for a potential donor.  But his pitch is interrupted by Vance, who inadvertently and carelessly steals first Huxley’s ball – and then his car. Huxley flees in pursuit – and when he finally manages to convince Vance that she’s got the wrong car, she’s so remorseful that she offers to help him get in good with Peabody again by dragging him to a night club Vance knows he frequents.  Except that outing also goes awry.  And so does the next one she thinks up, and the next; and before long, Huxley has gone from puttering amongst his fossil collection to dressing in a marabou-trimmed bathrobe and scurrying through Connecticut forests in pursuit of an escaped leopard named “Baby”.

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Okay: the situations they get into are amusing. And both Hepburn and Grant – flexing his newly-earned “screwball comedy” chops after The Awful Truthare good at embodying these two characters. My biggest hurdle, however, is that I’m personally annoyed by the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character trope in general.  Not in the fact that it exists, mind you – in the very character itself.  In this film, about half the scrapes Vance and Huxley get into happen because each time Vance talks so much about herself or the situation or Huxley or the weather or her aunt or her car or whattheheckever that she simply ignores Huxley’s attempts to explain exactly what the problem is with her latest scheme – and only after things have gone horribly wrong does Huxley finally get a word in edgewise and point out that “no, this is my car, not yours” or “no, I am not a zoologist” or “no, that was my golf ball, not yours” – to which Vance always responds, “well, why didn’t you say so sooner?”  Huxley snaps at one point and stomps on her foot in an effort to distract her long enough to stop talking and let him speak already, and honestly, I can sympathize.

I freely admit, though, that this is a personal prejudice, much like my aversion to “idiot plots”.  Interestingly, I also have a personal fondness for moments where a mild-mannered, buttoned-up fuddy-duddy gets increasingly flustered and pestered to the point that they finally completely lose it – and Grant repeatedly delivers that very thing.  He even ad-libbed one such moment, in an exchange that became one of the film’s most famous.

And when Susan Vance isn’t being so….Susan Vance-y, Hepburn is a treat as well.  Her fast-talking and blarney actually help at one point when she’s trying to talk herself and half the cast out of a jail sentence (looooong story), and it’s utterly believable when she singlehandedly wrestles a leopard into submission (another long story).  She’s good at what she does.  It’s just that what she has to do happens to be something that bugs me.  I can’t fault her for that, however.

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Critics and audiences of the time seem to have had similar mixed opinions.  Some praised the freewheeling film and thought both actors a delight; others were annoyed.  Hepburn bore the brunt of the negative impact, being labeled “box office poison” for a couple years when the film flopped. Which hardly seems fair, since Grant also was in the film, and she was just doing what was in the script. But any critical affect seems to have been short-lived – only two years later, Grant and Hepburn teamed back up again for The Philadelphia Story, another screwball comedy outing that fared much better all around.