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Monthly Archives: December 2018

Movie Crash Course: The Wizard of Oz

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Watching Wizard of Oz made me think a lot about time and memory.

Rather, I should say re-watching it.  Because I’ve watched it countless times – when I was a child, it enjoyed an annual broadcast on television every spring, as one of the regular round of TV specials which marked the year for me (most of them various Peanuts holiday specials, with the occasional movie mixed in).  When we did Wizard of Oz as a school play in Junior High, Dorothy’s skipping step down the Yellow Brick Road was one thing that our director didn’t need to choreograph because every child in the cast had already learned it from Judy Garland.

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I’ve grown up now, of course, and it’s been years since there was an annual broadcast of the film anyway.  So this was a revisitation after a long absence.  I was curious to see what I’d think; I remembered everything, I thought, so what would I respond to?

….Well.  There are some bits I did not remember at all.

Actually, it’s safe to say that I remembered almost nothing from the scenes before Dorothy’s fated meeting with a cyclone.  Dorothy singing about flying over the rainbow, sure, and Toto escaping from a basket strapped to Miss Gulch’s bike – but that was it.  I remembered none of Miss Gulch taking Toto in the first place, or Dorothy tagging along with the Gale’s three farmhands and falling in a pig pen, or running away and meeting the sideshow barker “Professor Marvel” – I watched in fascination, because it was almost entirely new to me.  It wasn’t until Dorothy opened the door onto Oz In Technicolor that I recognized things I’d seen before.  Maybe the Kansas stuff simply didn’t register when I was a kid because it was the “boring part”.  Oz was the whole draw when I was younger – it was bright and colorful, there were witches and fairies and talking lions and scarecrows, all of which overshadowed drab brown Kansas easily.

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Even more interesting – overlooking those bits before meant that I missed some big hints the film had been giving about Dorothy’s trip to Oz and whether it was all a dream.  I knew that actors Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr were the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion respectively, and knew that they turned up at Dorothy’s bedside at the end for her to point to and say “and you were all there too!”.  But we see them before Oz too – and in one shot, Bert Lahr as farmhand “Zeke” even encourages Dorothy to “have courage” after she tumbles in with the pigs and he has to fish her out.

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Speaking of Bert Lahr – I was paying close attention to Dorothy’s three friends this time around, and have a renewed appreciation for his work as the Lion.  I remember especially liking the Lion as a child – and as an adult, I suspect it was because Lahr’s role lets him ham it up a bit more, showing off his comedic chops.  Even viewing this as an adult he’s something of a standout.  …Conversely, Jack Haley’s Tin Man seemed worryingly…flirtatious during his “If I Only Had A Heart”, which put me off a bit in today’s climate.

But most surprising at all was how fast the film moved. All of the famous sequences – Munchkinland, Dorothy meeting the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, the poppyfield – seemed to stretch on much longer in my memory than the were on the screen.  True, that could simply be due to having to sit through all the commercial breaks as a kid – or a change in the way I’ve come to perceive time over the ensuing 30-plus years.

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I should stress, though – the film feeling like it had been longer then, or shorter now, is definitely a function of my own memory.  Because at no time I’ve watched it – either then or now – did I feel like it was either too rushed or too slow. Even the most indulgent scenes – and let’s face it, some of the Munchkinland stuff got pretty indulgent – the pace is quick enough to hold your attention, and there’s such a feast of detail that you’re caught up in it all anyway.

Maybe that’s why it felt longer when I was a child. Watching it now I’m looking for things like the script and the plot and the pacing, but watching it then, I was journeying into Oz.

Whither WadsWords: The Year Of Challenges


You will recall that I’ve been trying to figure out what I can do with this here blog once I roll out the Movie Crash Course into its own home (that should happen within a couple weeks, and I’ll post reviews in both places for the first couple weeks or so to encourage people to follow me over there).  I’d decided to set up some self-challenges to get myself to just plain do more this year; I’ve felt like things are a little off-balance for me.

I have the beginnings of a plan in place.

  • I will visit one new neighborhood in this city every month.  This is getting back to the old “Neighborhoods New York” challenge that I set for myself at some point and have been woefully neglecting.
  • I will eat out (a lunch on a weekend) at one new-to-me restaurant in my neighborhood each month.  There are scores of gorgeous restaurants in my neighborhood which I’ve never tried out.
  • I will try to take at least five photos every weekend with my beautiful and glorious new camera.  Granted, I have to figure out how the blasted thing works first, but…yeah.
  • I will do the Penguin Books UK classics reading challenge (one classic book a month), and maybe one other.  This is on top of my existing book club, which should be interesting.
  • I will complete about half of all of the unfinished craft projects I have lingering in the house by the end of the year.  I have a lot of lingering knitting and decoupage ideas sitting in dusty corners, and a couple of tired old things that I have been meaning to spruce up…it’s time to finally do it.
  • I will hike once a month.  New York City is loaded with hiking trails in its furthest corners, and when I exhaust that, then the Hudson Valley is only a short jaunt.
  • I will attend the Brooklyn Museum’s First Saturday event every month.  Brooklyn Museum plans all kinds of wacky special events each Saturday, but for me the appeal is the free admission; if none of the events speak to me, I can just slip off to some of the other galleries and wander a little.
  • I am still deciding the speed and rate and frequency, but: I will try more recipes out of this gorgeous cookbook.  I got it a while back and have used it exactly once; it’s a gorgeous deep dive into the various regional cuisines of China, with an eye towards “what is actually achievable for a Western Cook”.  The author doesn’t “Westernize” the recipes, from what I’ve seen, she simply focuses on including mostly recipes with ingredients you can actually get in your average supermarket.  ….Alex has already expressed great interest in helping eat the results.

So there it is.  I have a review in the works for the latest movie, but this is also a point of focus.


Movie Crash Course: The Baker’s Wife

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I’m starting to think that I will sour on French comedies at some point; something about the quaint country characters and twee comedic conflicts could eventually start to bug me.  Fortunately I haven’t quite got there yet. 

The Baker’s Wife opens with just such a display of twee comedic conflicts between the quaint country residents of a small town in Provence.  It’s a small town, there’s not much happening, so people let themselves get annoyed by small grievances or long-standing squabbles, just for something to do. The only real problem they’ve had in town is a dearth of good bread; their old baker was inexperienced or drunk much of the time, and the bread supply suffered as a result.  But fortunately Amiable, a new baker, is in town – and huzzah, he seems to be good at his job.  So now the town has something else to talk about aside from their old grievances; they can talk about the fine bread! …And about the fact that Amiable’s wife, Aurelie, is about 20 years younger than him and is a hottie.

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Several of the men in town take note of Aurelie’s pulchritude – especially Esprit, a young shepherd and errand boy for the local mayor.  Esprit is himself a hottie, which turns Aurelie’s head.  So three nights later, when Esprit turns up with a pair of friends to serenade Aurelie under her window, she is eager to run down and meet up with him. Except Amiable wakes up and hears the serenade too.  But – he is so trusting of his wife and so blinkered over Esprit that he assumes that Esprit’s there to thank him for the bread!  He suggests to Aurelie that she head downstairs to meet them; give them something to eat from the storehouse, there’s a good girl!  And Aurelie eagerly goes down to them while Amiable goes back to sleep.  But – she doesn’t come back.

Amiable thinks nothing of it at first – he’s distracted by getting the first day’s loaves in the oven.  When he finds her gone, he still thinks nothing of it – she probably went to explore the town garden.  ….Oh, she’s not there?  Maybe she went to the church.  ….Or, if she’s not there, maybe she went to her mother’s.  She’s always going to her mothers’ a lot.  Everything’s okay.  …..Right?….The rest of the town is at first eager to gossip over the scandal – Aurelie makes for an attractively wicked villainess, and Amiable is entertainingly clueless.  But then Amiable starts to lose hope, and gives up on his baking – and the whole scandal suddenly becomes way less entertaining.

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The film is mostly occupied with following Amiable’s blundering search for Aurelie and the town’s reactions to the unfolding drama; moving from titillated gossip to an all-hands search for Aurelie, to return her to her grieving husband so he can start baking again. The renowned French character actor Raimu, as Amiable, excels here; he’s got a lot of lines that imply Aurelie has been playing him for the fool for years, fooling around with other men under his nose and making plenty of “trips to mother” to deceive him.  But he delivers them with such a trusting straight face that even though you realize how thin those excuses are, you also realize Amiable believes them, poor guy (or, maybe he’s willfully deluding himself), and it takes you from wanting to point and laugh at Amiable to wanting to give him a sympathetic hug.  Towards the end when some local yokels give him a “gift” of a pair of antlers, a jibe at his cuckold’s status, he is visibly hurt, but dismisses it with a patient shrug – and you want to punch people on his behalf.

There’s an interesting subplot, too, involving the local vicar.  He’s a straightlaced pious boob at the top of the movie, picking a fight with the local schoolteacher over a tiny point in the history of Joan of Arc (“you said that she ‘believed’ she heard voices instead of saying she did!”), and is horrified by the scandal over Aurelie, implying in a sermon that Amiable needed to be a stricter husband.  But a lengthy talk with the mayor concerning the heights and pitfalls of romantic love, coupled with a closer study of Amiable’s emotional roller-coaster, moves the young priest to a more compassionate perspective.  There’s a lovely scene at the end of the film when he encounters the straying Aurelie – and instead of lecturing her, he reads her the story of Jesus and the woman accused of adultery, ending with Jesus’ charge to “go and sin no more”.  It’s more a character study than a fleshed-out subplot, but it’s a lovey element.

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Surprisingly, I’d had contact with this film before – or at least something inspired by it. In 1976, Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz tried adapting the film as a musical; it enjoyed some successful runs in Los Angeles and Washington D.C., but never came to Broadway itself.  Usually falling short of Broadway is a kiss of death in the musical theater world, but the Baker’s Wife musical gained a cult following, thanks to a Grammy-winning cast album and one hell of a solo number for Aurelie (renamed “Genevieve” in the play), “Meadowlark”, in which she agonizes over whether to run away with Esprit.  “Meadowlark” became a go-to audition piece for a lot of actresses; I actually heard it first in one of my voice classes in college, when a classmate chose it for one of her study pieces.

The song, and the musical, treat Aurelie a lot better than the film does – the musical implies that she’s happily married to Amiable, and that their May/December relationship suits her because of Amiable’s kindness and care; her affair is an anomaly born of a deeper connection with a previously-unknown sense of passion.  The film is very different; there’s no “Meadowlark” moment at all, and instead Aurelie and Esprit have instant chemistry and jump straight to acting on it, without a thought spared for poor Amiable.  Moreover, the film implies that this isn’t the first time Aurelie has strayed.  But towards the end, film Aurelie seems to have come around to the same kind of affection for Amiable as well at long last.

Movie Crash Course: Gunga Din

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You’re a weirder movie than I thought, Gunga Din.

Cary Grant has star billing as Sgt. Cutter, one of a trio of British officers in the Indian subcontinent in the 1800s. Cutter and his colleagues, Sgts. MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) and Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) are a little unorthodox and prone to hijinks, but very effective at what they do, so they are sent to a remote outpost to rebuild and protect its telegraph station after an act of sabotage.

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Sgt. Cutter has a get-rich-quick streak, though, and throughout his tour of duty he’s been talking to the locals about where there might be “hidden treasure” and setting off on wild goose chases after rumors of riches.  During his tour at the outpost, Cutter befriends Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), an older Indian gentleman who desperately wants to be a British soldier but is too old and feeble so instead he is serving as the platoon’s water carrier.  Desperate to get in good with the soldiers, Din tells Cutter that there is a secret golden temple hidden somewhere nearby, and the pair steal out one night to find it.  Turns out that Din was right – except that what Din did not know is that the temple is the home base for a growing army of Thugees, devotes to the goddess Kali who’ve adopted murder as their form of worship and who have targeted the nearby British outpost as their hunting ground.  Cutter is captured by the Thugees as they try to sneak out and back to base, leaving Din alone to try to escape the Thugees and sound the alarm.

Now – I knew going into things that this film was loosely based on a Rudyard Kipling poem – one that I was only vaguely aware of but never read all the way through.  What little I knew suggested that it was about an Indian soldier, working with the British forces, who did…something noble.  I looked up the poem after, and it was very different – in Kipling’s work, Gunga Din is still a water carrier, but his heroic act from the poem is simply dragging a soldier to safety during a battle and then getting shot.  There’s no Thugee temple, no treasure-hunting – none of it.  The film actually throws in Rudyard Kipling as a character towards the end, implying that he learned of Din’s adventures while touring India and was inspired that way, but reportedly the Kipling estate really didn’t like that because the film was so different from Kipling’s work.

And about half the film’s plot is taken up with Cutter and his colleague’s hijinks anyway, and Din doesn’t even show up.  About a third of the film deals with Ballantine and his impending marriage – his tour of duty is soon to end, and his fiancée Emaline (Joan Fontaine) is waiting for him, prepared to marry as soon as he’s discharged and whisk him away to a well-placed position in her father’s tea company.  Cutter and MacChesney think that sounds dull as all hell and spend a good portion of the film trying to sabotage his plans – in whimsical madcap ways, though.

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Reportedly Cary Grant was originally cast as Ballantine, but saw the comedic potential in the role of Cutter and asked for that part instead.  There is some debate about whether Fairbanks was originally cast as Cutter and they just switched, or whether Grant himself suggested Fairbanks after his casting change; there’s even a tall tale that both actors actually flipped a coin to determine who would play Cutter.  However Grant got the part of Cutter, he exploited the comedy potential to the hilt, injecting a screwball comedy note into many of his scenes (there’s a scene between Cutter and an elephant that would fit perfectly into Bringing up Baby).  Then the tone shifts towards the end to play up Din’s bravery and the danger of the Thugees, a change so sharp as to cause whiplash (although there was some unintentional comedy involving a “pit of poisonous snakes”, in which the snakes were clearly fakes being jiggled along on wires).

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But most of it was comedy – something I found baffling, since I was expecting a more red-blooded story of military heroism.  Instead this was feeling more like all the goofy parts from Indiana Jones And the Temple Of Doom.  Interestingly, there’s a reason for that – screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz drew directly from Gunga Din when writing their Temple of Doom treatment, and even introduced the idea of a Thugee temple (all Lucas knew was that he wanted there to be an evil cult of some kind).  In retrospect, though, I feel like there’s also some comparisons to M*A*S*H – Cutter and MacChesney come across like Hawkeye and Trapper John at their most irreverent.

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Critics at the time were generally positive, although Time Magazine noted it was an example of a recent trend Hollywood was taking to inject screwball comedy notes into different genres.  Dissenting critics took a dim view of how Indian culture was depicted in the film – while the Thugees were a real group, they were not devotees of Kali after all, and were instead simply mercenary highway robbers. Dissenting critics weren’t that impressed that the only Indian characters we met were the evil Thugees and the self-sacrificing Gunga Din – and ultimately, I wasn’t impressed by that either (nor by casting a Caucasian actor as Din, and then slapping a lot of makeup on him).  Grant is at the top of his form, though, which at least made this watchable, if a bit baffling.

Whither “WadsWords”, Part 2

So about a month ago I mentioned that even though I was going to roll out the movie blog onto its own thing, I was going to keep this blog here and keep doing other things with it.  I just hadn’t yet figured out….what.


This morning I made a bit of an early New Year’s resolution; to stretch a little and do a few new things.  I’ve been doing a little bit too much of lazy-lump sitting as of late (a blog where you watch movies on a DVD player does lead to those kinds of habits), and wanted to shake things up.

Fortunately the blogging world is all but carpeted with lots of challenges: cooking, reading, music, knitting, sports, photography, you name it.  Basically, for every interest out there, someone’s found a way to turn it into a challenge – pick a thing, pledge that you’ll commit to doing it at some frequency for some length of time, chronicle your progress.

So that’s what I’m going to do – except I’m not going to stop at just one.  I have already resolved that 2019 is going to be, for me, the Year Of Challenges.  Alongside watching all of the 1001+ movies with the Crash Course, I’m going to be trying to do a few other things: some kind of reading challenge, a photo challenge or two, and a couple other things I have yet to discover – cooking, local travel, the field is currently wide open.

But I think I’m going to commit to one right now – for some reason, last year I got myself a copy of All Under Heaven, a gorgeous and very detailed cookbook covering several of China’s different regional cuisines.  And today I can’t even remember what prompted me to buy it – I think maybe I was on a hunt for some Central Asian recipes, saw that this book had a section on that region and it sounded interesting.  I think I’ve made exactly one thing from the book since, and I think something needs to be done about that.

Right now it looks like I’ll be rolling out the new Movie Crash Course blog in early January – and by then I’ll also come up with the full list of the Year Of Challenges….challenges, and then it’s off to the races.

Movie Crash Course: Gone With The Wind

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This is a film whose reputation definitely preceded it, and that mere fact gave me pause.  It’s one of the most famous-for-being-famous films in the canon; for a reviewer, it probably carries the same weight that Hamlet’s “To be or not to be….” soliloquy carries for an actor.  Right before I began, I wondered aloud on Facebook: “why does it feel like I’m about to undergo hand-to-hand combat?”

But I had other misgivings too, particularly about the nature of that reputation.  It’s long as hell, first of all; a whopping four hours.  The original print built in an overture, an intermission, and exit music, all faithfully included on the pair of DVDs I received.  Alex heard me briefly consider whether I should split the film over two nights, or watch the whole thing in one go; he simply suggested “….I think that’s between you and your God,” and then fled to the safety of his room.

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And even if the film were only half its length, there’s the subject matter; a rose-hued, sepia-toned depiction of the old Confederate South and the indignities it suffered during Reconstruction, told via the impact of those events on the life of a spoiled Southern Belle.  Less than 24 hours previously I’d been listening to a longform radio news piece on the origins of the Ku Klux Klan and how the Daughters of the Confederacy promoted the various Confederate Monuments across the country, at general taxpayer expense.  So what with that, my reticence about the length, and the long shadow it cast, I girded my loins a bit before watching (and I watched the whole thing in one go).

And that’s why I’m so surprised that I found parts of the film engaging; even more surprising, it was the Civil War And Reconstruction parts I got into most.

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It is probably unnecessary for me to give a brief plot overview, but: Vivien Leigh is Scarlett O’Hara, the daughter of plantation owner Frank O’Hara.  At the start the film, she is a pretty, spoiled flirt, stringing along every guy in town while secretly pining for her neighbor Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). But during a grand ball at the very start of the film, Ashley announces he is now engaged to his cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Haviland); and a mere moments later, news reaches the revelers that the Confederacy has just seceded and is now at war with the North, causing all the men present to instantly rush to their horses and head off to enlist.  Scarlett marries Melanie’s brother in an effort to stay close to Ashley and is almost instantly widowed when her husband dies of pneumonia in an army camp. Over the course of the next several years, Scarlett goes through one war, two more husbands, a couple of Yankee soldier attacks, and the loss of several family members, accompanied by Melanie, her two sisters, her longtime nurse Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), and a ditsy servant named Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), with a rogueish fellow named Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) occasionally offering his advice and assistance – and frequently his love.

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Now, as fine as Leigh and Gable were in their parts, I did not like their characters in the slightest.  Rhett is intended to be seductive, but today he would come across as really creepy – basically forcing himself on Scarlett several times, with increasing bluntness, until she relents.   And as for Scarlett – no matter what hardships the film throws at her, she never really grows out of her selfish and manipulative ways.  Again and again she is compared to the kind and sweet Melanie and found wanting; but the film follows her story and treats her as a noble, scrappy survivor rather than as a spoiled brat who desperately needs to get over herself.

The film even seems to suggest that it’s going to go that way in the middle. Some of the film’s best-known sequences deal with the wartime chaos and its aftermath – Scarlett and Rhett desperately trying to steer a carriage through flames as Atlanta burns around them, Scarlett heading to the hospital in search of a doctor and being confronted with a street that is all but carpeted with wounded soldiers, Scarlett and her sisters trying to pick cotton in the fields in an attempt to save their home after all their other slaves have either disappeared or been killed.  Ironically, I liked the Scarlett you see here – she’s still a little mean, but she’s practical, tough, and no-nonsense, taking over the management of her house and the care of her father and even singlehandedly fending off a Yankee intruder.  For a brief while it seems like the hardship of the war has even taught her something but then a desperate need for cash sends her back to her old coquettish ways, driving her to make a new dress out of some drapes in an effort to charm her way into a marriage of convenience, and she lost me again.

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I compared notes with a few people before and after watching.  Alex said he saw it in film school, and when I asked what he’d thought, he hesitated, then said “well….it looked pretty.”  I agree – it is beautifully shot, with some eye-popping sequences; the Confederate wounded in the streets for one, and a contrast between the earlier genteel fantasy world at Ashley’s plantation “Twelve Oaks” at the start of the film contrasting with a sequence showing the burned-out mansion later.  There’s a scene where Scarlett is silently staring up at the ash-blackened steps in Twelve Oaks, and I couldn’t help but think – as Scarlett was no doubt thinking – that the last time we saw those steps, Scarlett was tripping down them in a glamorous gown, the day the war started.  The pre-war world is vividly lush and green and verdant, while the post-war world is all dry yellows and browns and ash.  And regardless of your current political assignations, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for the post-war South, even as you’re aware you’re being manipulated into it.

My problem is that the film then moves on from the immediate post-war South to get bogged down with some interpersonal drama with Scarlett and Rhett and Ashley and Melanie, dealing with problems of their own making prompted by Scarlett being her old selfish self, and I quickly lost what interest I’d had in the post-war world they’d been building.   Scarlett growing up in a hurry and barking out orders was getting interesting – Scarlett turning back into a simpering belle bored me again, no matter how hard the film was trying to tell me that what I was watching was a Tragic Doomed Romance instead of some Rich People having Rich People Drama.  Another person I know online summed up the film as “ten minutes of Civil War and five minutes of hatesex” amid “four hours of blah”, and I could definitely have done without the hatesex bits.

But still – as God is my witness, I never have to watch this film again.

Movie Crash Course: Stagecoach

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I discussed the Crash Course with someone where I work the other day – he’s a movie buff, so he was very excited about it – but then he asked me what my next film was coming up.  I said that it was Stagecoach.   “….Hang in there,” he said, grimly.  And even though I hadn’t yet seen it, I knew enough about it by reputation that I just nodded back, resigned. Happily, though – while it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t that bad.

All the tropes you’d recognize from either Westerns or “people thrown together in some kind of transit that runs into trouble” pictures probably came from this.  The bulk of the story is a stagecoach journey from Arizona to New Mexico, conveying seven strangers from one town to another for various reasons – “soiled dove” Dallas (Claire Trevor) and alcoholic Doc (Thomas Mitchell) are being thrown out of town for being public nuisances, Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) is a pregnant soldier’s wife hoping to meet up with him at his new post, Mr. Gatewood (Berton Churchill) is the bank manager who’s been embezzling funds and has decided to skip town, Mr. Hatfield (John Carradine) is a drifting gambler who thinks he recognizes Mrs. Mallory, and Mr. Peacock (Donald Meek) is a traveling whiskey salesman.  As they set out, the coach driver learns that there is a troupe of Apaches prowling the coaches’ route and raiding travelers, so when he sees outlaw Ringo (John Wayne) en route and heading his way, he picks him up too – Ringo can help fend off Apaches, and once they get to New Mexico, he can turn him in for the reward money.

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The trip takes a little longer than anticipated, and the promised cavalry escort doesn’t arrive.  And the stagecoach is awfully close quarters for everyone, especially after Doc gets his hands on Mr. Peacock’s whiskey sample case.  And the big hulking Ringo has to sit on the floor at everyone’s feet which takes up room, and Mr. Gatewood will simply not shut up about how uncomfortable he is, and Mrs. Mallory is feeling a little urpy, and…yeah, you’ve been on that bus or that plane at some point in your life, and it made you grumpy about everyone else with you.  Ringo notices that the rest of the passengers seem to have a different sort of grudge against Dallas, though, and comes to her defense when the others try shutting her out.  And then when Mrs. Mallory’s water breaks at one of the waystations, Dallas steps in as midwife and assistant to Doc and earns everyone else’s respect as well.  But the passengers still have about one more days’ travel before New Mexico. Alone. And the Apache are near…

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So, I admit that the grudge I had against this film was because I thought that it would be All John Wayne All The Time.  It is the film that made John Wayne John Wayne, pretty much, but his character is not emphasized as much as I thought it was going to be; he’s got a big part, but is still very much part of an ensemble.  Unfortunately, even though this is an ensemble piece, there are some characters whose individual stories aren’t all that well fleshed out; we know Ringo’s deal (broke out of prison to find the man who shot his pa), and Mrs. Mallory’s story is obvious (wants to be with her husband), but some characters’ stories are a little vague (I still don’t really get Mr. Hatfield was doing there, or understand his whole backstory with Mrs. Mallory).  And in Dallas’ case, the vagueness of the backstory was deliberate – it is never stated outright that she is a prostitute, all we see is that all the other characters avoid talking to her or sitting next to her.  I mean, I eventually got it, but only after several minutes of being unsure.

I also thought that the film could have ended a little quicker, surprisingly. Once the coach gets to New Mexico, instead of ending with the passengers each scattering to their respective fates, the story follows a couple characters for a surprisingly long while longer to tie up their stories, and I kind of wished everything had ended with everyone getting off the coach and going their own ways.  Maybe it would have felt a little too neat, but as it was I found myself checking how much longer the post-coach scenes were going to go.

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John Wayne notwithstanding, the real star of the show is the location.  Several years ago I remarked to a friend that it is impossible to take a bad photo of the American Southwest, simply because the landscape is so stunningly beautiful.  Director John Ford apparently had the same opinion – he favored Westerns not because he was into cowboys, but because it was an excuse to shoot in places like Monument Valley.  Shot after shot captures the tiny stagecoach moving through the vast sweep of the desert, the huge mesas and rock towers and cliffs towering over them or shimmering in the distance.  It’s absolutely beautiful to look at – and when we’re reminded of the threat against our passengers, it also turns disquieting at the same time, because it’s a biiiig open desert they’re moving through all alone.  For me, though, awe at the landscape was more so the reaction, to the point that it overshadowed John Wayne at his John Wayne-iest.

Movie Crash Course: Destry Rides Again

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It took me a while to figure this film out.  The very opening was so over-the-top that I was watching with a literal dropped jaw; it was a slow pan down a stereotypical “Wild West” town street, panning over scores of cowboys fighting along the way, and coming to rest on the porch of an establishment literally called “The Last Chance Saloon”, where about twenty cowboys were whooping and hollering and merrily firing guns in the air. As I gaped at this, one man even rode his horse through the doors of the saloon and then back out again.….What on earth was I getting into?  This was reminding me of some of the excesses from Blazing Saddles – only Mel Brooks was kidding with his work.  But this film….they weren’t serious, were they?

Not only did I end up less certain that they were serious, I ended up less convinced that it even mattered.

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Said saloon is the home base for Kent (Brian Donlevy), a gambler and shady dealer and all around oogy dude; he and his sweetheart, saloon singer Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich), are the unofficial power in the little podunk town of Bottleneck.  Mayor Hiram Slade (Samuel Hinds) is in cahoots with their schemes, so he’s no threat; and as for Sherrif Keogh, when he asks a couple of nosy questions at the start of the film, someone shoots him to shut him up, and Slade appoints “Wash” Dimsdale (Charles Winniger), the town drunk, as the new sherrif.

But to everyone’s surprise, Wash takes the honor seriously.  He was once the deputy to a highly-esteemed lawman by the name of Destry, and Wash swears off alcohol, wanting to bring honor to the profession.  He even sends for Destry’s son Tom (Jimmy Stewart) to serve as his own deputy.  Tom’s just as much of a respecter of law as his father and accepts the job – but to Wash’s great disappointment one thing Tom doesn’t believe in, is guns.  The rest of the town collectively scoffs and goes back to their usual hijinks – until Tom Destry starts asking some probing questions about both Sherrif Keogh, and about the running poker game Kent has going on in the saloon…

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Marlene Dietrich was attempting a career revival with this film after a few bad-luck years, returning to her Blue Angel form a bit as a cabaret singer with questionable virtue.  Also – in a move that may have been catering to a very specific audience – Frenchy gets into a lengthy catfight with Tom Destry’s landlady on his first day in town, one which destroys most of the saloon before Destry finally breaks things up by dousing them with water.  But otherwise she’s the same sly singer she was in Blue Angel, only a bit older; and, surprisingly, unsuccessful at winning over the man she’s got her eyes on.  The first time she tries seducing Destry, it’s clear that it’s to keep him in check – but the second time, it seems like Frenchy sort of…means it.  And the upright Destry, devoted to his job, fends her off both times.

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It wasn’t until halfway through the film, with a small moment with a minor character, that I finally understood this film for what it was.  Destry’s landlady goes by the name Callahan – but her current husband is not the original Callahan.  He’s her second husband, a Russian guy who just looks a lot like him.  And for reasons which the film fails to explain, Mrs. Callahan is trying to hide that fact, constantly upbraiding him for not living up to her memory of the original.  The pressure drives “Callahan” to compulsively gamble, playing Frenchy in frequent poker games – which always end with her encouraging him to bet his pants.  He loses, she claims her prize and he has to steal pants from the other tenants in their inn.  But all of that is just a little bit of a background throwaway gag until the moment when Destry is in his room, searching for something, and hears a noise in his closet – and throws open the door to see “Callahan” there. After a beat of shocked silence, “Callahan” simply says: “Would you believe me if I said I was waiting for a stagecoach?”

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And that is when I got that this film was in on the joke.  Mel Brooks borrowed a lot from this film for Blazing Saddles – Madeline Kahn’s character “Lily von Schtupp” is an obvious echo, but I realized that Harvey Korman’s corrupt businessman, the fast-shooting Waco Kid, and even the befriending of a local to serve as deputy all have their ancestry right here.  Mel Brooks may not have consciously intended thus, but Brooks was poking affectionate fun at Western film tropes – so it makes sense that he was influenced by a film that was having fun with those very tropes.  Destry Rides Again’s filmmaker must have known, and intended, for his film to be a little bit ridiculous and cartoonish; it’s just that instead of pushing it all the way into farce, Destry Rides Again mixes the comedy in with a bit of seriousness to create an ultimately engaging story.

Movie Crash Course: Only Angels Have Wings

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Okay. One of the principles upon which I have founded this blog is that “so long as I keep in mind that my opinion is simply that, an opinion, I need not be ashamed of it”.  I was briefly discussing this with another Movies-Before-You-Die blogger, discussing this reputation that we seem to grant to Classic Films – these films have made it into a collective Canon, and its membership in the Canon can sometimes mess with people’s heads and make them think that they should therefore like a film.  But not everyone is going to like everything, after all, and there are some pieces of art that are just not to everyone’s taste.  We don’t fret if we dislike a contemporary movie, after all – we also don’t fret if we see a movie with a friend and one of us likes it and the other hates it.   People are different.  People like different things.  And that’s just fine.

So it does not concern me that even though the A.V. Club declared that Only Angels Have Wings is possibly “the greatest Hollywood movie of all time”, and The Guardian praised its “drama, intrigue, laughter, and chills”, Slant magazine calls it “a bizarre and gorgeous masterwork,” and it has a 100% Fresh rating on, my reaction can be summed up by a single word: “Bleah”.

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I was so bored by this, you guys.  We see no less than four planes crash over the course of this film, and I was still bored out of my mind.  Cary Grant in a serious role bored me, the machinations of the soap-opera plot bored me, Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth in piss-poor roles bored me, I just could not get into this.

I was bugged right out of the gate with a plot bait-and-switch; things started out with Jean Arthur as the seeming lead; she plays Bonnie Lee, an adventurous but cash-poor tourist, traveling on a steamship up the South American coast, and disembarks in the town of Barraca to stretch her legs while the crew takes on a freight of bananas.  As she’s exploring, a pair of American expats try to pick her up, taking her to their local hangout for a drink; but only when they’re already there does Lee learn that they’re pilots for a local air courier service, and that they’ve taken her to the canteen on their base.  But then Cary Grant – their square-jawed boss Geoff Carter – tags one of the two to make a late-night run over the Andes, and a last-minute change in the weather causes our unlucky pilot to crash – and Lee is horrified to see Carter and the others brush off his death as no big deal.  She prepares to storm out – but Carter is just so cute that she comes back, and she ends up missing her boat and has to stay there for a week.  And with that, Lee’s character arc gets pretty much sidelined for the rest of the movie.

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Not that it’s much of an arc, though. For the rest of the film Arthur is reduced to a dithering sap, swinging between twue wuv for the taciturn Carter and repulsion at his callousness and cruelty.

As for Carter – it’s blindingly obvious his callousness is a defense shielding him from the pain of continuously losing pilots he cares about – in a manly brotherly way, of course – coupled with an old pain from having an earlier Love Of His Life slip away from him.  Lo and behold, his ex-Judy (Rita Hayworth) shows up, now married to a new pilot who’s come looking for work.  Except this new pilot MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess) is trying to overcome a bad reputation he got for bailing out of a plane a couple years back, leaving his co-pilot to die in the crash – and whaddya know, his co-pilot’s brother is Carter’s best buddy, another pilot there on the base.

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It’s a total flippin’ soap opera, with predictable plot twists and super-thin character arcs (especially for the women), and the rave reviews I’m seeing now are doing nothing to convince me otherwise.  One of the reviews I’ve just read even admits that the plot is “paper thin”, but excuses this on the grounds that the film is “a scalpel-sharp analysis of men under pressure: bitching, blaming and refusing to back down.”  Quite frankly, I’ve had quite enough exposure to “men under pressure” in the real world, and found this stereotypical, melodramatic, and trite.

There was maybe one moment I found a little tense – where the disgraced pilot is attempting to fly cases of nitroglycerine over the Andes but has had to turn back, and has to jettison them out a trap door in main cabin by hand while still piloting the plane.  But all the elements in that were so over-the-top – the fact that he was trying to be in two places at once, the fact that he was dodging mountain peaks in the Andes, the fact that he was working with boxes of nitroglycerine – that I felt I was being manipulated, and half expected him to also have an almost-fell moment where he slips out the trap door and dangles by a rope or something.  I mean, why not, since we’ve already got the guy juggling nitro singlehandedly in the mountains while flying one-handed and dodging condors?