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Movie Crash Course: The Crowd

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Jumping back to 1928 for a silent film again!

After his 1925 film The Big Parade (discussed earlier) became a hit, director King Vidor was the darling of Goldwyn Studios.  After some careful thought about how to follow up his war film, he had an idea – isn’t the daily grind of everyday life kind of a war, too?

And thus, The Crowd. The “crowd” in the story is more of a metaphor for societal expectations, social customs, and the everyday pressures affecting all of us anonymous teeming millions, told via the story of one such anonymous ordinary guy.  We first meet “John Sims” (he could just as easily been “John Smith”) at the exact moment of his birth, in a small town on the 4th of July, in the Year Of our Lord 1900. His proud father declares that his son “will have every advantage” and that “he’s going to be someone the world hears from!”  The boy John takes this to heart, telling his schoolmates that “my Pop says I’m going to be someone big!” one day, right before his father dies suddenly, leaving John’s family bereft.

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But John’s self-confidence stays intact, and at 21 he heads for New York City, a headful of dreams and schemes and not so much in his pockets. He gets a desk job in short order (note: this is from the 1920s), and secretly steals moments to plot and plan his Get Rich Quick ideas, most of which involve writing slogans for advertisements.

John’s schemes work about as well as anyone’s, however – in the sense that usually, they fail. In the meantime, he meets the spunky Mary, marries her, has a couple kids, and all the while keeps promising that his ship is bound to come in any day now; but in reality, he’s stuck in a low-level desk job, they’re falling behind on bills, and they’re stuck in a cheap two-room apartment.  Even when John does get a modest success – finally selling a slogan to an ad company – the family suffers a personal tragedy, sending John into a tailspin.  Early on, John is the love of Mary’s life – but the film is surprisingly honest about how their trials often come close to splitting the pair up.

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The whole thing is amazingly and refreshingly ordinary – and at times, hit me uncomfortably close to home, like with the soul-stealing shots of John in his desk in a vast open-plan office (not naming names, but I’ve been stuck in many offices like that).  Vidor is honest and frank about how the mundanities of life – broken plumbing, squashed cakes, lids on milk jugs that refuse to open – can be just as frustrating and can sap just as much of your energy as the bigger tragedies like lost jobs and car crashes.  I was most impressed that the film doesn’t give us a happy, fairy-tale ending either; instead, after an uneasy argument, John and Mary decide to give themselves a bit of a break and see a vaudeville show. Their relationship is unclear, and so are John’s prospects; but they’re happy right now, at least….

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That last shot of them is actually one of a handful of scenes where Vidor plays up the “John as a single face in a teeming crowd” angle with some fantastic camerawork.  The first comes early on, as twelve-year-old John gets word of his father’s death; the camera is at the top of a long stairway in John’s family home, with a curious crowd huddled at the bottom.  John emerges from the pack and starts to slowly climb the stairs, gradually hiding the crowd behind him and taking focus.

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The office scenes all start with a shot of the whole sea of desks before singling out John’s; the first time we see it, we even get some introductory shots of the size and scope of the buildings around the office before panning all the way up the façade of a skyscraper and in through a window.

In one of the more famous and poignant sequences, John is hovering nervously at the sickbed of one of his children. While he waits for the doctor’s verdict, he starts insisting on quiet so that his child can rest – gently shushing other family members first, then running outside and trying to silence a team of fire trucks before finally facing down a huge crowd of people rushing after the trucks, futilely begging them for silence.

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The very last sequence stuck with me longest – John and Mary are at the vaudeville, their future uncertain, but they are together right now, and laughing. The camera gradually pulls out to take in more and more of the surrounding audience, with John and Mary fading in amid all the other people laughing at the show; we lose sight of them at the end, they’ve blended back in.  Initially this felt bleak – we realize we’re never going to know what happens to them – but then it reminded me that Vidor’s point was that ultimately, each one of the other people in that crowd had their own struggles they may be coping with, unbeknownst to anyone else around them.  It’s a visual expression of the saying, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

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Movie Crash Course: A Night At The Opera

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In my first year of college, I was part of a crowd that regularly hung out in my dorm hallways shooting the breeze. Another such hallway bum was Jeff, an enormous Marx Brothers fan; when he was in a mischevious mood, he’d do bang-on Harpo imitations. However, I hadn’t yet seen any of their films, and had to finally ask what he was doing. He explained, but was completely floored that I was Marx-Brothers Ignorant.

About three weeks after that conversation, I was puttering in my dorm room one Saturday when Jeff came by.  “Are you busy right now?”

“…No, why?”

He ignored my question. “Do you have anything going on today?  A test to study for or a date or anything?”

“No?”

“Good,” said Jeff eagerly. “You haven’t seen the Marx Brothers, and I need to fix that.  The moviehouse up the street is showing A Day At The Races and A Night At The Opera back-to-back. It starts in 20 minutes. Get your coat.”

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It was a perfect introduction to the Marx Brothers; A Night At The Opera, along with Duck Soupis one of their best-known works, and contains one of their best-known sequences – the “Stateroom Scene,” which sees fifteen people try to cram into a shipboard room the size of a closet.

But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.  This time around, Groucho is Otis B. Driftwood, business advisor to the wealthy widow Mrs. Claypool (the unflappable Margaret Dumont).  Mrs. Claypool is looking for an inroad into high society, and Driftwood has advised her to make a donation to New York’s Opera, then helmed by a Mr. Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman).  Gottlieb is eager to use the money to hire famed Italian tenor Rodolfo Lasspari.

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Lassparri is something of a jerk, however; he regularly beats up his dresser (Harpo), and is trying to hook up with the opera’s soprano, Rosa (Kitty Carlisle Hart).  Rosa’s heart belongs to a lesser-known, but equally talented, tenor in the chorus named Ricardo Baroni.  When Driftwood comes sniffing around the opera house, hoping to sign Lassparri for New York’s opera, Baroni quickly hires a family friend, Fiorello (Chico), as his manager and tries to get in on the action as well.  Harpo also ditches Lassparri in favor of Baroni.

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But Gottlieb only has eyes for Lassparri, and hires him and Rosa to appear in New York’s opera houses. After Baroni gives Rosa a tearful good-bye at the dock of their ship,  Fiorello manages to get Team Baroni on board after all – by stowing away inside Driftwood’s steamer trunk.  Driftwood is by now sympathetic to Rosa’s preference for Baroni, and agrees to champion him to Gottlieb as well.  Maybe they could interrupt Lassparri’s debut performance somehow….

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The script was a little more cohesive than Duck Soup, largely at the behest of producer Irving Thalberg, who was working with the Marx Brothers for the first time.  He’d pointed out that the previous constant-stream-of-jokes with a plot sort of mixed in was funny and all, but the jokes targeting the film’s “good guys” could be seen as off-putting.  He proposed an overall formula for the Brothers’ scripts on his watch:

  • There’s a romantic couple that Chico is friendly with and wants to help them.
  • Harpo is a put-upon underling who teams up with Chico.
  • There is extensive verbal wordplay between Chico and Groucho.
  • Jokes that come at the expense of another character should target the “villains” of the film.
  • There are musical numbers.
  • There’s a happy ending.
  • The whole thing is set in an eye-popping venue, like the opera, the circus, an exotic city, etc.

Fans of the total-anarchy version of the Marx Brothers objected, but I actually think it’s an improvement; the story leads the jokes, rather than the other way around.  The brothers are more consistent characters, rather than swinging from sympathetic to mean-spirited.  And there’s still plenty of chances for gags, such as the stateroom scene above (it was so good, Alex actually applauded), or with Chico and Harpo crashing the orchestra to mess with Lassparri.

The film uses a good deal of opera, understandably, but also adds two original songs – a love duet between Rosa and Baroni, and “Cosi Cosa”, a fanciful romp that takes place when Baroni, Chico and Harpo crash a spaghetti dinner down in the steerage part of the ship.  The “Cosi Cosa” sequence felt pretty superfluous, to be honest; but it gave Chico and Harpo a chance to show off their respective musical talents, with Chico doing a quick piano solo and Harpo….well, you know.

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By the way, Harpo comes by his name honestly; his solo was lovely.  And it felt utterly bizarre to see Harpo switch from the anarchic manic physical comedian to a sensitive ethereal musician.  And then right back to zany comedy guy.

On the whole, Thalberg’s new formula worked, especially for A Night At The Opera, which received some of the best reviews of the team’s career thus far.

The Movie Crash Course Blogathons!

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So hey!  Did you know that there are a lot of movie blogathons?  I just learned that.

Fortuitously, three films I’ve already reviewed would fit very neatly with three upcoming blogathons; I’m throwing my hat into the ring for each, and will definitely participate in future.  My first is this weekend’s Winter In July blogathon, featuring films with wintry settings (at least in part).  Technically Great White Silence took place in Antarctica’s summer, but I think it counts.

Watch for the next one (non-English films) in a couple weeks, and one on World War I in November.  …That last will be on the rolled-out new blog….when I roll it out sometime in August.

Movie Crash Course: The 39 Steps

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This project of mine may be like dating in a weird way. The 39 Steps is one of those movies where I can empirically recognize the quality, and intellectually I can appreciate the skill, but yet somehow…there’s no “x” factor that makes me swoon. Possibly because this is a thriller; I’m not a huge fan of that genre as a general rule.

I can appreciate the cleverer parts of the script, however – particularly that the woman who’s being put forth as the lead’s love interest actually doesn’t fall head over heels for him as quickly as she would have done in other films.

….But I’m getting ahead of myself a little.

The hero of our tale is Richard Hannay, a bloke in London on business who’s taking in the show at a music hall. During the performance, someone in the audience fires a gun, and in the ensuing panic, Hannay ends up thrown together with “Annabella Smith”, a beautiful and mysterious woman who takes one look at him when they’re safely outside and then informs him she’d like to come home with him.  A bemused Hannay agrees – but when they get up to his room, Smith quickly tells him she wasn’t looking for a pickup. Instead, she explains, she is a secret agent, trying to stop a network of spies from smuggling RAF secrets out of the country. The gunshots in the theater were meant for her, and she had to escape.

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Hannay is of course dubious – but then notices that there are a pair of men loitering on the sidewalk outside, staring up at his flat and trying to act a little too casual.  Smith decides the safest thing is to try to get a few hours’ sleep and hope the lurkers eventually leave; but just in case, she tells Hannay a few basics in case anything happens to her: she needs to meet with a man in Scotland for further instructions, she doesn’t know exactly what the spies are trying to smuggle out of the country, and the head of the spy ring she’s trying to bring down is missing the tip of one of his little fingers.  Okay, good to know.

…Especially when in the middle of the night, someone sneaks into Hannay’s flat and stabs Smith in the back.  She manages to stagger into the living room – Hannay has gallantly taken the couch to let her have privacy in the bedroom – and she gasps out the name of the town in Scotland where her contact lives, begging him to make contact for her. Then she collapses, leaving Hannay with a dead spy in his living room and two more outside his door.

Well then.

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After slipping past the spies, Hannay hits the road and has nearly reached Scotland when he learns that he is under suspicion for killing Smith. Sharp-eyed policemen spot him on the train, and he is barely able to evade them, fleeing desperately across moors and bribing farmers for help – and then realizes that the spy ring that killed Smith is now after him as well.

Despite her spending the night in Hannay’s flat, Smith actually isn’t the love interest the film is trying to throw at Hannay. Instead, the film tries to hook him up with “Pamela” – a stranger Hannay briefly meets on the train while trying to escape police. He sees her sitting alone in a compartment, barges in, and apologetically says he’s desperate – then locks lips with her, in an attempt to hide his face from oncoming police.  She understandably doesn’t take that well, pushes him away and tries to turn him over to the police.

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Pamela then disappears for most of the rest of the film; then, much later, when Hannay is trying to bluff his way through making a political speech (it makes sense in context, trust me), Pamela just so happens to walk in, see him there, and fetch the police again.  Except the men she fetches, unbeknownst to her, aren’t police, and insist that she should also come to the station too…

I’m afraid that Pamela’s chance presence at that political rally is one of the two plot wrinkles I had trouble with.  The other came earlier, with Smith’s initial stabbing; any spy would have assumed she’d told Hannay something, but they’d only killed her and not him.  Wasn’t there a chance that someone was still in the apartment? Why weren’t they?  I even pointed that out to Alex, who was watching this with me; he only said, enigmatically, that “those are very good questions to be asking.”  They weren’t answered, though, which bothered me – I was expecting some kind of a double-cross Mission-Impossible thing that never came.

Another thing I was expecting, however, was for Hannay to engage in some kind of sex scene – and was pleased to see that he didn’t.  He and Pamela are forced into being fugitives together and ended up sharing a room in a wee Scottish inn, and all they do is sleep. Most likely the reason was because of the Hays Code – but it was downright refreshing to see that the most physically intimate Pamela and Hannay get is for his hand to rest on her knee, and even then it’s only an inadvertent thing because they are handcuffed together and she’s trying to take off her stockings.  (Again – it makes sense in context.)

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Speaking of handcuffed – I’m feeling a bit shackled about the final twist I appreciated: the climactic scene where Hannay finally figures out what it is the spies are trying to smuggle out of the country, and more importantly, how. It’s a clever twist, but it would thoroughly be spoiled if I said anything. So I’ll say that if you see it…yeah, that’s a neat touch at the end, there, huh?

There are similar “neat touches” throughout the film – moments of gorgeous cinematography, clever bits of dialogue – all of which I can appreciate for their skill, even though they’re applied to a genre that I’m only lukewarm about.  As dates go, it was okay.

Administrative Announcement:

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My dear friends:

So. I have been working on the Movie Crash Course for a little over a year now; it was slow at first, but has been gaining a lot of momentum (and I’ve really been getting into it).  However, it is at present just an annex on this blog.

A few months back I promised myself “when I get to 100 reviews, maybe I’ll move the Movie Crash Course to a new blog dedicated just to that.”  I can have more than one blog on this platform, and I can keep WadsWords for my other musings.  But the Movie Crash Course would have its own identity.

….I am currently only six reviews away from reaching that 100-movie landmark.

I’m kind of scrambling to figure out how to do this, whether I will mirror the reviews here for those of you who started following me here, or whether to move everything over there.  (In fact, please weigh in if you have opinions on the matter!)  This probably won’t happen for another couple weeks, but…I wanted to let people know.

Thanks.

Movie Crash Course: Mutiny On The Bounty

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I’m afraid I approached Mutiny On The Bounty with a bit of a bias.  I did try to ignore it, though – to no avail.

Thirty (!) years ago, I was a drama student at New York University. One of my drama coaches was discussing being true to how your character would have “really felt” in a given situation, and as an example he pointed to Mel Gibson in The Bounty, which was the 1984 movie about this historic mutiny.  “If you watch the mutiny scene,” our coach said, “you can see that Mel Gibson looks terrified.  And that makes sense, because Fletcher Christian would also have been terrified at leading a mutiny.”  Then he scoffed – “Clark Gable, now, he just looked like he was trying to be heroic when he was Christian.  That wouldn’t be the case at all.”

There are other discrepancies between the 1984 Bounty and this one, as well; but this is no surprise, as the times were different as well.  The 1984 version was based on the historic account itself, while the 1935 version was based on a fictionalized version of events. No doubt the 1930s taste for escapism called for a story with much more thrilling heroics and an obvious hero and a clear-cut villain.

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And we certainly get a villain with Charles Leighton as Captain Bligh.  The very first time we see Bligh, he is on board the Bounty, warning his crew that he deals sternly with miscreants; as an example, they are all to witness the flogging of another sailor who struck an admiral.  But right as the sergeant is about to carry out punishment, he notices – the sailor is dead.  “…..Proceed with the flogging”, Bligh says drily.

Okaaaaaaay.

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By contrast, the first time we see Gable as Fletcher Christian, he is sauntering into a pub with a smirk, leading a press gang to draft a few unwilling sailors into the crew.  “We’ve got all the fish we need in one net!” he gloats, looking at the crowd in the pub. But just one scene later, he’s downright avuncular with one young draftee, offering him protection and urging him that “if anyone mistreats you, you come to me.”  And then just one scene after that he’s teasing the snooty know-it-all midshipmen on their first voyage by giving them a tricky pop quiz on navigational techniques.  And one scene later….

You get the idea.  The whole rest of the film is like that – Clark Gable bouncing from smirking rogue to frustrated leader to besotted lover to swashbuckling hero, while Charles Laughton is just uniformly mean throughout – barking orders, starving the crew, skimming off rations for his personal use, doling out floggings and keelhaulings and other punishments for the skimpiest of offenses.

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And as if that all didn’t make it very, very obvious where our sentiments are supposed to lie, we get a completely imagined scene towards the end with Roger Byam (himself a completely imagined character); Byam was swept up in the mutiny and later caught; at his court-martial, he explodes, giving the court a lengthy and vitriolic accounting of All Of The Reasons Captain Bligh Sucked.  (Most of which we’ve already seen.)

There are a few other bit parts, all of them a little one-note – the young draftee Christian takes under his wing, who just wants to get back to see his wife and baby boy again.  The ship’s doctor, who’s blitheringly drunk most of the time and dispenses booze as medicine, but who looks out for the men and tries to keep them in good spirits.  The sailors who signed on to dodge prison sentences and now suspect they made the wrong choice. It’s obvious from the first what we’re supposed to think of each character when we meet them, and everyone falls neatly into one trope or another throughout.

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Yikes – I sound like I’m thoroughly trashing the film.  It wasn’t that bad; not my absolute favorite, no, but not terrible.  However, even though I was trying to ignore what my old drama coach told me, Clark Gable was just plain getting on my nerves throughout the whole thing – he felt more like he was trying to Look Heroic than play a part.  Even at the very end, when he’s in a weird sort of Pirates Of The Caribbean costume looking hunky while the rest of the mutineers all are thin and scruffy – Clark Gable is clearly trying to just be Hunky Clark Gable, and I don’t buy it.

Kicking At The Darkness

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Not about movies today.

Politics has been very much on everyone’s mind; here at Chez Wadswords as well.  Even though I have been mostly writing about movies.  In fact, movies have become a sort of go-to respite for me – I never know what else to say about zero-tolerance policies against families seeking asylum or trade-war tariffs that may affect my family (we have a small niche farm that may be affected) or an ongoing investigation of foreign election collusion or….or, or, or any one of a host of things that haven’t already been said by other people in other places with more knowledge.  Forget knowing what to say – I don’t even know what to think, or what to do, without curling into a howling ball of despair.

Still – I’m not exactly a stranger to trying to go about your life when it feels like the world is about to topple over a precipice.  I had the luxury of being a teenager before; you don’t expect a 15-year-old to be dwelling on geopolitics anyway.  The fact that I was aware of the comparative arsenals for the US and one of its rivals at that age was arguably really weird.  But even then, that’s not all I thought about – I also thought about more typical teenage woes like acne and crushes and chemistry tests and losing the lead in the school play (I’d accidentally done something weird in the audition, but still felt like I was robbed, dangit).  But being a teenager also gave me the freedom to check out and seek solace in more frivolous things, like movies – and books and music and silly gossip and in-jokes with friends.  I wept a lot as a teenager, I woke up nights from nightmares where I thought the world would end – but I also made up alternate lyrics to Phil Collins songs and giggled over Star Trek episodes and talked about boys and sex in made-up code words and…

….And turned my face towards life.

The musician Bruce Cockburn is someone I’ve really only become aware of recently, but two of his songs would have easily made it onto my mix tapes as a teenager; he sounds like he was equally as aware of the dangers of nuclear war as I, and was equally as terrified.  One of his songs in particular was about exactly this kind of life-despite-terrorCockburn had a couple of daughters about my age in the 1980s, and was struck by how they were still going through the same kind of early crushes and pursuing the same kind of young-love romances that teenagers always have, even though they also knew that the world was in a dangerous state.  They were no dummies – they knew, like I knew, that we could have blown up a thousand times over, overnight.  And they were still nevertheless chasing after life and love in the face of it.  He thought that urge was incredibly poignant, but also incredibly hopeful; and for them, he wrote the song “Lovers In a Dangerous Time.”   (Linking you here to the Barenaked Ladies cover from the 1990s, which I slightly prefer.)

Of course, time went on, the Cold War ended and his daughters grew up.  But the song is still just as relevant – in later interviews, Cockburn has noted that people struggling with the AIDS crisis or economic uncertainty or terrorism or any one of a thousand challenges have turned to it for comfort.  And in 1990, when asked to comment on it for a collected songbook, he admitted “Lovers In a Dangerous Time” is pretty timeless – “Aren’t we all,” he wrote, “and isn’t it always?”

It’s not all simply a pretty love song, though. For most of the song the lyrics are about finding love in another, chasing it despite the threat of annihilation and terror – “Spirits open to thrusts of grace, Never a breath you can afford to waste…” but at the very end, the words are a call to action:

“Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight,
You’ve got to kick at the darkness ‘till it bleeds daylight.”

And that is what seeking solace in life does.  Spending time with the things and the people you love to rest and regroup, and remind yourself of the reason you’re fighting.  And then – when you’re ready, get up and move forward again.

Because love always wins.

Remember that. 

Love. Always. Wins.