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I Gave Them My Heart, They Gave Me 30 Years

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Well hello! This is something movie-related, although not quite for the Crash Course as I’m not quite up to where this movie falls on the list just yet.  But this is the year that Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything is turning 30, and they had a big anniversary screening and a reunion panel as part of New York’s Tribeca Film Festival this week.  I snapped up a ticket more to see John Cusack in person than anything else (she said, blushing), but he had to drop out of a live appearance at the last minute; he’s just started filming for a series on Amazon, and had to Skype in from Chicago.  So the panel ended up being Cameron Crowe and Ione Skye sitting on the stage with John Cusack’s enormous head grinning over their shoulders, which was every bit as surreal as it sounds.

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I actually wasn’t all that blown away by the panel anyway.  Mostly memory-lane anecdotes and a couple inside-baseball tales that a lot of the entertainment media is picking up now – stories about how Dick Van Dyke was approached for a role (ultimately everyone mutually agreed he was a little too old), or how John Mahoney helped talk John Cusack into the part by talking up the movie while they were filming Eight Men Out, or how Lloyd Dobler was based on a wacky neighbor of Cameron Crowe’s, that kind of thing.

The biggest takeaways from the panel were things I’d already picked up from the movie itself.  It very well may have been 30 years since I saw this film all the way through, and I was mostly focused on Lloyd Dobler back then because John Cusack was my jam  – but watching it again, I was more struck by the relationship between Diane Court (Ione Skye) and her father (John Mahoney).  There are at least three or four major scenes that are just the pair of them talking, and I was struck by how rich that relationship was – how much Jim Court loves his daughter and how much she loves him.  And how that all turned on its head into “oh, no, wait, Jim only thinks he loves Diane, he’s convinced himself that he’s doing the right thing.”  The scene right before Diane breaks up with Lloyd is chilling – it’s another conversation between Diane and Jim, and I suddenly spotted Jim’s behavior for the manipulation that it was.

During the panel Cameron Crowe also talked about how they’d settled on an element of Lloyd’s character as “positivity as a revolutionary act”.  And as soon as he said that I realized, yes – that’s what the appeal is about Lloyd Dobler.  He’s optimistic and positive, but not in that kind of Pollyanna way of turning a blind eye to everything that’s problematic.  Lloyd doesn’t ignore problems – he sees them there, and says you know what, I’m going to be positive just to spite them.  There’s an early line he has in a conversation with his sister – “How hard is it just to decide to be in a good mood?”  That’s what works for him – life has dealt him some hard knocks, but he is not going to give in, dammit.

That’s also why the famous boombox scene works too, I think – everyone knows about this scene, where Lloyd is standing under Diane’s window and blasting their song on a boom box.  On paper, that sounds corny as all hell.   But it works – and the reason why it works, I think, is the look on Lloyd’s face.  He’s not standing there with lovelorn tears streaming down his cheeks – he’s standing there defiantly.   This love was theirs, and it was good, and Diane breaking up with him was not going to get him to stop celebrating it, dammit.

That’s something I’m finding myself thinking about a lot now in retrospect.

There were also a couple of crowd-reaction moments I thought were touching. The very first time Lloyd came up on screen, sitting in Corey’s room and talking about their upcoming graduation, a little whispery murmur ran through the crowd – the sound of several of us having a tempus-fugit moment of oh my gosh it’s the baby version of John Cusack will you look at that.

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During the boombox scene, I noticed several people were trying to take cameraphone pictures of the screen – something that’s perfectly ridiculous if you think about it – and rolled my eyes a little at that. But I noticed something else too – first a couple people just behind me quietly singing along with “In Your Eyes”.  Then a few people down the aisle to my right, and a few other voices dotted here and there in the theater – and soon me too.  None of us singing too loud, all of us still watching the film, but all of us singing one of the world’s most perfect songs in time with one of the most perfect uses of a song in a movie ever.

 

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Movie Crash Course: Now, Voyager

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So, watching Now, Voyager was seriously thought provoking for me. Although not for the reason you may think.

At the time of its release, it was heralded for handling psychotherapy and mental illness in a uniquely sensitive way; a trait that still wins this film applause today.  Bette Davis plays Charlotte Vale, the youngest daughter of a super-strict Boston Brahman matriarch (Gladys Cooper).  Charlotte has grown up the target of her mother’s verbal and emotional abuse and repressive control.  But Charlotte has a sympathetic sister-in-law who brings a psychotherapist along for a visit one day so he can have a look-see.  Mrs. Vale protests mightily, but after only five minutes with Charlotte and her mother, Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) sizes up the situation, tells Mrs. Vale off and drags Charlotte off to his sanitarium in Vermont.

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Charlotte is much better after a month (although the place looks more like a resort, so it’s no wonder), but is still uneasy about heading straight home right away, so with Dr. Jacquith’s encouragement she embarks on a six-month cruise.  She has a marvelous time, and turns out to be quite the social butterfly.  Most significantly, she meets Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid), who’s hitching a ride on the cruise to make a business meeting in Buenos Aires.  Jerry is married, but unhappily so, and is the father of two girls – the youngest of which, Tina, is suffering the same kind of maternal neglect that Charlotte did. Charlotte’s confidences about her own troubles help Jerry to understand and support Tina, and Jerry’s kindness and attention brings Charlotte out of her shell even further.  Of course this leads to the pair falling in love – but they part at the end of the cruise, since Jerry won’t divorce his wife.  Jerry still can’t resist sending a corsage to Charlotte’s house in Boston as a parting gift – it arrives just as she’s about to finally see her mother again, and the gesture gives her enough confidence to finally assert herself and her autonomy.  Mother and daughter live under a kind of chilly truce for a while, with Charlotte even getting engaged to a distinguished Boston blue-blood, but a chance meeting with Jerry again shakes her up to the point that she breaks her engagement and calls her mother out for her neglect – a double-whammy shock which causes Mrs. Vale to suffer a fatal heart attack.  Wracked with guilt, Charlotte heads for Dr. Jaquith’s sanitarium again.  And on her first day there, she sees a surprisingly familiar face – Jerry’s daughter Tina, whom she recognizes from a picture he showed her. Thinking the girl can use a friend, she reaches out…

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So here’s the thing.  I read a quick 25-words-or-less plot blurb before watching, and wrote it off as the kind of melodrama I usually don’t like.  And I still don’t.  I’ve always felt this kind of plot was formulaic; it presents a woman whose sole path to happiness seems to be via Finding Love, and even worse, it denies the lead her heart’s desire and holds up sacrifice as a noble thing (the famous last line, “let’s not ask for the moon when we have the stars” is presented as romantic, but to me it sounds defeatist).  There’s a lot of sturm und drang along the way, a lot of chance meetings and tragic misfortunes, cruel twists of fate and at least two scenes with dramatic confrontations between two female relatives where one of them is finally confronting the other over some long-lasting mistreatment.  Alex inadvertently hit on a modern word for the genre after I told him that it was a classic example of the three-hanky picture; he hadn’t heard that term before, and I told him it was an older term for this kind of melodramatic, sentimental film with a woman going through various trials and tribulations and affairs of the heart.  “Oh,” Alex said, “you mean it’s like a Lifetime or Hallmark Channel movie.”

And he’s right.  And I further realized that I’ve been sneering at the contemporary version of this kind of film for years – the overwrought melodrama, the heightened plot twists.  Now, Voyager even includes the old trope of the character who undergoes a “stunning transformation” in appearance, which really just boils down to her giving up wearing glasses and doing her hair different, which I rolled my eyes over at first.

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But interestingly enough that is also what gave me pause.  Bette Davis tried to do a bit more to alter Charlotte, to be fair, and it’s an example of the trope that works a little better than usual.  There’s not much that can be done to “ugly” up Bette Davis, but they really try – Davis insisted on padding inside her costume to make her look fatter, a really stodgy pair of glasses and a Mary Todd Lincoln hair style with some fake bushy eyebrows.  It’s a marked difference from the “after” – Davis’ usual slim figure, stylish gowns and swept-up hair showing off a slim neck.  Davis also carries the difference emotionally – the “before” Charlotte is nearly mute, while the “after” Charlotte is gracious and charming.  It may have been a cliché, but it was a cliché that I realized that I bought in this case.

And that made me analyze my reaction a bit further.  I’ve protested in the past that I disliked this kind of film because the heroines ended up having to sacrifice happiness, and that was unrealistic – but on the other hand, I also take a dim view of the rom-com because the lead always gets happiness, and I also thought that was unrealistic.  Was the problem the films, I wondered, or was it me?  Have I been unfair to an entire genre of film?

What I finally realized is that it wasn’t the content of films like this that galls me – it’s the segregation.  This is something that discusses emotional abuse, neglect, psychotherapy, coming into one’s own and asserting one’s self, being a responsible parent – these are all things that affect men as well as women.  It isn’t even women who are the only ones with emotional stakes in this film – Jerry has some seriously high emotional stakes, and goes through some intense growth as well.  This could have been a film for everyone.  But it wasn’t billed that way – it was billed as being a film “for women”, for them to just have a cathartic cry over before going back to their own lives.  Lives which might have been similarly troubled; but instead of being encouraged to take more of the kind of control that Dr. Jaquith was encouraging for Charlotte, the women in the audience were being encouraged to get all the crying out of their system in the theater so they could suck it up and cope with the status quo at home.

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It may be unfair of me to expect third-wave feminism from a 1940s drama. But it may be women like me back then who were starting to get sick of this kind of thing who paved the way for third-wave feminism in the first place.

Movie Crash Course: The Palm Beach Story

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(Editors’ Note: this is THE LAST WEEK of reviews at this site.  After April 5th, the Movie Crash Course will appear exclusively at movecrashcourse.com .)

This one was weird, y’all.

Not unpleasantly so, mind.  At least not to the point I actively disliked it – and I do realize that that’s damning with faint praise.  But so many elements of this film are just so baffling that I can’t say it worked for me. Which is a shame, because there are other elements that were intriguing – a candid approach to how money can impact a marriage, some pointed commentary on how a woman’s attractiveness impacts her opportunities for her success, and even some physical affection that was surprisingly intimate for the Hays era.

Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert are Tom and Gerry, a couple who have been married for five years and are struggling a bit. Tom is an architect who’s been trying – unsuccessfully – to pitch a new design for an airport, and Gerry is starting to lose hope and is a bit over their frugal lifestyle. Even though she still loves Tom, she asks for a divorce – he’ll have only himself to take care of, and he’ll be better able to hang in there while waiting for his ship to come in.  She declares she’ll find a rich man to take care of her expensive tastes; but secretly, she’s hoping that if she marries a rich man, she can invest in Tom’s airport herself, ensuring he makes his big break at last.  They go out on one last night on the town, Tom getting Gerry drunk to make her forget her plan – but she’s sobered up by the next morning, and slips out leaving only a farewell note.  A plane ticket to Reno is too expensive, so Gerry instead opts to seek a divorce in Palm Springs, conning her way onto the next southbound train out of Penn Station.

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After figuring out her plan, Tom flies to meet her there – only to find that en route, she’s caught the eye of an eccentric billionaire named John D. Hackensacker (Rudy Vallee).  Hackensacker is taking Gerry to meet his wordly sister Centimilla (Mary Astor); Hackensacker plans to propose, but wants Centimilla to pass judgement first.  When Tom runs into them, Gerry passes him off as her brother – prompting Hackensacker and Centimilla to invite him along to their mansion as well, where Centimilla gets busy on wooing Tom just as ardently as Hackensacker is pursuing Gerry.  All of which threatens to throw a monkey wrench into Gerry’s scheme.

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….So, yeah, it’s a screwball comedy with a remarriage plot (even though technically Tom and Gerry don’t complete their divorce by film’s end).  That’s not the part that baffled me – what baffled me is some of the “funny” things the script throws in, which really puts the “screwball” in “screwball comedy” in this instance:

  • There’s a lengthy sequence with the group of men Gerry befriends on the train, a hunting and drinking club called “The Ale and Quail Society” who’ve commissioned a private car on the train.  At first they gallantly let her alone in a spare cabin in their private car, but then they get utterly plastered, and soon half of them are serenading Gerry, accompanied by their hounds, while the other half start taking pot-shots at the windows in their dining cabin before the whole crew decides to go snipe hunting throughout the rest of the train.
  • The catalyst for Gerry’s divorce request is an unexpected windfall from a hard-of-hearing sausage manufacturer calling himself “The Wienie King” (Robert Dudley), a new neighbor who spontaneously decides to give Gerry some money for no reason whatsoever other than the fact that she’s pretty.  (But it’s okay – the Wienie King also gives Tom the money to fly to Palm Springs to win her back.)
  • Centimilla may be chasing Tom, but there’s someone already chasing her – Toto (Sig Arno), a fellow from a generically European country who speaks an unrecognizable language that bears no resemblance to English.
  • There is a twist in the last two minutes of the film that fans of Shakespeare’s comedies may find very familiar (and that’s all I’m saying about that).

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The wacky stuff felt a little thrown-in, kind of like Sturges was trying to up the stakes on the crazy to fit audience demand.  I suspected – rightly so – that this was towards the end of the screwball era, when directors were probably trying to out-do each other for laughs and decided to just pile on the crazy.  And while the crazy did get chuckles out of me, it was equally as likely to get a furrowed brow and a “….huh?”

Which is a shame because the non-crazy bits were pretty intriguing.  Tom is initially scandalized by Gerry’s having gotten money out of nowhere from the Wienie King, and understandably thinks that she’d done a little sumpin-sumpin in return, and outright asks her if sex had anything to do with it.  “Oh, but of course it did,” Gerry replies.  It’s a shocking admission at first – but then she goes on to explain what she means by that.  “I don’t think he’d have given it to me if I had hair like excelsior and little short legs like an alligator.  Sex always has something to do with it, from the time you’re about so big and wondering why your girlfriend’s fathers are getting so arch all of a sudden.”  It’s a surprisingly frank statement for the 1940s – Gerry knows that the only reason that people are giving her things is because she’s an attractive woman, and men like to give attractive women money and gifts because they hope she’ll return the favor with….favors.  The fact that she doesn’t plan on doing so is their problem, not hers.

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There’s also a surprisingly intimate moment the night before Gerry’s departure for Palm Springs – she’s having trouble unzipping her dress, and asks Tom for help, and while he’s back there she quips that the situation seems “unusually intimate.”  “…You want intimate?” Tom retorts, and then kisses the middle of her back.  It leaves Gerry flustered – and I have to admit, it did me, too.  For the Hays era, this was pretty hot.

However, it felt like every moment of witty repartee or seductive physicality was followed up with a wocka-wocka sight gag or a baffling plot twist, and I just ended up confused.

Movie Crash Course: Dumbo

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By a staggering coincidence, Tim Burton’s live-action remake of Dumbo is set to hit theaters at exactly the time that I find myself watching the original.  Burton’s take was something I was lukewarm about at best; and as is the case with most of my Disney rewatches, I’m lukewarm about the original too.

I mean, it was fine.  It was just really, really short, and a little simple.  To be fair, the short-and-sweet approach was intentional, because Dumbo was something Disney wanted to get out quick to try to recoup losses after Fantasia and Pinocchio faltered at the box office.  Walt Disney apparently got the story from a child’s toy called a “Roll-a-Book”, a sort of slide-show toy – a roll of paper with a series of printed pictures was tucked inside a box with a viewing window cut into it, and as you turned a wheel on the side, each of the pictures would appear in the window in turn.  The story of Dumbo was written expressly for the toy, and Disney was so taken with it (for its charm and simplicity) that he bought the rights to adapt it for film.

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The story wasn’t changed much at all; baby elephant born in a circus, has big ears, people mock him for it, then he discovers his ears help him fly.  Disney’s contribution seem to mostly be in the telling, adding fanciful sequences with Dumbo’s “birth” (arrival by stork), a disastrous circus stunt, some sequences with Dumbo’s mother, and the like.  Some bits were pretty shticky and forgettable; the steam train that carries Dumbo’s circus family around is anthropomorphic, “talking” through its steam whistle a couple times in sequences that felt vaguely Bugs-Bunny cartoonish.  The stork who brings Dumbo specifically has a whole fluffy bit of business where he has to consult a map to find Dumbo’s mom that I didn’t need to see.  On the other hand, there’s a sequence where we see a whole troupe of clowns in silhouette through a tent wall, changing out of costumes as they discuss their act – and I admit that we probably didn’t need to see them pulling padding out of their bellies or taking off wigs and fake heads and what-not either, but I got a kick out of it.  I was also charmed by a short early sequence where baby Dumbo is playing hide-and-seek with his mother, and the famous “Baby Mine” sequence, featuring our hero being sung to sleep, is darling.

Two other famous sequences kind of sour the pot a little, though.  At least one definitely does; the flock of crows Dumbo meets who teach him to fly are depicted as African-American caricatures, and one of the crows was even apparently named “Jim” (although, blessedly, that name is never spoken in the film).  I know it was a simpler and less “woke” time, but that’s a bit that made me feel vaguely itchy.

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Less offensive – but more baffling – is the “Pink Elephants On Parade” sequence, meant to represent a hallucination Dumbo has after accidentally getting drunk (during which he possibly flies while blacked out).  It’s a seriously trippy standalone – the art style is markedly different, with oddly-shaped black-eyed elephants morphing into sportscars and using their trunks as trumpets and cavorting through choreographed swing dance numbers.  At one point a two-legged elephant marches towards us – his body made out of a grinning collection of multicolor elephant heads – and I started to suspect that this was a sequence that had been saved for the Fantasia animators who hadn’t quite snapped out of their “experimental” stage.  Or that they’d been licking some especially weird stamps.

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It was weird, it was fluffy, and it was short and simple – and ultimately was a smash hit for Disney, which lead to its rerelease four more times over the next few decades.  I probably saw one as a child.

Some Movie Crash Course Administrative Announcements

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So, heads up:

A few weeks ago I rolled out the new official home for the Movie Crash Course.  Since then I have been double-posting reviews in both sites, as a transition phase.  But after next Friday, April 4th, I will no longer post the movie reviews for the Movie Crash Course on this site; from then on, the reviews for the Movie Crash Course, will be posted exclusively over there.  If you’re following me for the Crash Course, this is your first warning to switch sites.

However!

There are contemporary movies I’ll see now and then too, and I’m most likely going to want to talk about them.  So that movie talk, I’ll keep here.

Got it?

Good, because I saw Us this weekend and I’m going to have to prepare a post for it because holy God I have many many thoughts.  (One of which is how surreal it was to be explaining to Alex the in-depth history of Hands Across America, complete with finding the theme song – something I had not listened to in over thirty years.)

Movie Crash Course: The Maltese Falcon

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Watching The Maltese Falcon was…interesting.

I’m not referring to the movie as such, although it was interesting itself.  I’m talking about the totality of my experience of watching it – I’d been carrying around an impression of “Humphrey Bogart” in my head for years, despite only seeing him in one thing as a kid (African Queen, which will be coming up later on the list and was a bit out of character for him).  I was pretty sure part of it came from clips of Casablanca I’d seen but wasn’t sure about the rest.  Watching this made me realize “oh, that’s where it came from.”

It’s also where my mental impression of film noir came from – but that’s not surprising, since it apparently is the proto-film-noir and so everyone’s mental impression of the genre came from this film.  Bogart is Sam Spade, a private detective in San Francisco who is visited by an elegant damsel in distress at the top of the film.  The woman (Mary Astor) initially introduces herself as Ruth Wonderly, and claims she’s trying to locate a missing sister who’s run off with a ne’er-do-well by the name of “Thursby”.   Curiously, she seems to know an awful lot about Thursby’s habits and whereabouts, but Spade and his partner Archer don’t think anything of it.

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But wait, you’re thinking – “partner”?  Since when does the film-noir private eye stereotype include a partner?  Which is exactly what I was thinking; I’d always thought the trope included a solo private eye, a grumpy, mistrustful, callous sort who liked to work alone.  But I didn’t have to wonder for very long about how a partner fit into the picture – because Archer is killed off quickly, after offering to check “Thursby” out.  That same evening, Spade gets a phone call – Archer has been found dead, shot at point-blank range in an alley. Thursby is an obvious suspect – but then police find him dead as well.  And police consider Spade a suspect for each murder – either he killed Thursby for revenge after Archer was killed, or he killed Archer out of professional jealousy.

Even more confusingly, when Spade calls on “Ruth Wonderly” again to get more details, she confesses that her real name is “Brigid O’Shaughnessy” and that there was no sister; Thursby was her partner in a murky sort of business deal.  She suggests that Thursby killed Archer, but doesn’t know who killed Thursby.  ….She’s also kind of vague about why she had to pull on con on Spade and Archer to begin with – but Spade doesn’t have time to wonder about that, because he notices he and O’Shaughnessy are being tailed by a mysterious guy in a gray suit.  And right when he’s escaped the man in the suit, he’s surprised at home by an effete Greek man named Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) who insists on searching his room for a statuette he suspects Spade may have – a valuable sculpture of a falcon.  Then Spade learns that Cairo and O’Shaughnessy know each other – and both are seeking the same falcon sculpture, and both are equally afraid of someone who goes only by “The Fat Man”.  Then Spade finds out the man in gray who’s been tailing him was sent by the “Fat Man” and is also looking for the falcon statue – and at this point, we are right in there with Spade about wanting to get to the bottom of just what in the bleeding hell is going on. 

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You do find out, by the way. I promise. It’s a complicated plot, with fake-outs and double-crosses and betrayals throughout, but you do find out what the falcon is, why everyone’s trying to get it, how the Fat Man and Cairo and O’Shaughnessy all fit into the picture – and also who killed Thursby and Archer in the process, as well as why. But the actual plot wasn’t as interesting to me as was the sheer number of tropes that seem to have been born in this one picture: wise-ass cynical private eye, check.  Cute secretary who secretly has a crush on the boss, check. Double-crossing and untrustworthy femme fatale, check. The private eye being a heavy drinker, check. The initial mystery turning out to be part of a much more complicated plot, check. Incompetent cops, check. The private eye being a suspect briefly, check. And: private eye falling into lust with the femme fatale who is his client, check.

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That last element was the only bit that I really had a problem with – because I did not get any chemistry from Bogart and Astor at all.  O’Shaughnessy was tearfully professing her affection for Spade again and again, but I had been writing it all off as a manipulative move on her part, since she’d pulled a good deal of other histrionics earlier in the film in a bid to play on Spade’s sympathy.  He even calls her on it, in fact, in a line that made me chuckle: “You’re good. It’s chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get in your voice when you say things like ‘Be generous, Mr. Spade’.”  He seems to be holding her at this dubious and skeptical arms-length throughout – but at the end, he has a speech which implies that not only has he fallen for her but is also promising to stay faithful to her during a potentially long absence.  I had no idea where that was coming from, since nothing in Bogart’s performance seemed to indicate that Spade was softening towards her in the slightest.

The world-weary snarky cynic, however, he had down flat, and was fun to watch – outsmarting the man in gray, standing up to Cairo, thinking rings around the cops.  He’s a jerk, but a fun jerk to watch.

Movie Crash Course: Sullivan’s Travels

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I link to my blog posts on Facebook, and I’ve had friends and family ask me about my progress through the list, asking when I’ll be getting to one or another movie.  My uncle Peter was especially keen on when I’d be getting to Sullivan’s Travels.  “I think that’s my favorite movie,” he told me over Thanksgiving.  And again on Christmas.  Peter: this one’s for you.

I’d actually heard about this film before, without having seen it.  John Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a director of wildly popular screwball comedies, has decided he wants to Get Serious and adapt a “socially conscious” novel about the deprived underclasses called O Brother, Where Art Thou for his next outing (yes, that sounds like a familiar title, we’ll get to that at the end).  He wants to make something that will educate and inspire the Little Guy.  But towards that end, he wants to understand the Little Guy, and concocts a scheme to dress up as a hobo and live out on the open road for a while first; then when he feels he really gets them, he’ll come back and make his Serious Masterpiece.

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Things do not quite go according to plan.  Initially the studio insists on a support team following him in what is basically a fully fitted-out tour bus, complete with lawyer, doctor, publicist and cook on standby just in case; but Sullivan shakes them and manages to thumb a ride pretty quickly.  But he realizes too late that the driver is heading back to Hollywood instead of further out into the wilderness, and the studio finds him again (but agrees to be more hands-off). He meets a young woman (Veronica Lake, known only as “The Girl” in the credits) who’s giving up on Hollywood and trying to save up for a bus ticket home; she learns about his plan and begs to come along, disguised as a boy.  After a couple weeks of slumming it in flophouses and sleeping rough, Sullivan and The Girl call “time” on their experiment and rejoin Sullivan’s support team.

The publicist has been working on a puff piece about Sullivan’s trip and has a great idea for an ending: they give Sullivan a couple hundred dollars in five-dollar bills and send him back out as himself to distribute them to the panhandlers he’d met previously.  But his big stack of cash proves too enticing for one of the homeless men, who knocks him out and seizes all the cash before shoving Sullivan into a boxcar bound for Georgia. When he comes to, he is imprisoned for trespassing and assaulting a guard in his confusion.  And there Sullivan’s troubles really begin – and with them, Sullivan’s education about the value of his past films.

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I knew dimly about the plot before, but hadn’t known about Sullivan’s false starts; I was expecting a pretty straightforward on-the-road tale throughout, with Sullivan going through a long slow slide down. The meandering path and the meddling of the studio actually make for a more complex narrative; initially, no longer how long Sullivan was on the road, he always knew that he could hit an eject button that would send him back to his comfortable mansion in Beverly Hills whenever he wanted.  McCrea also plays Sullivan as one of those painfully earnest Hollywood celebrities that wants so hard for their art to be a Force For Good but hasn’t realized that the common folk they hope to speak to all have minds of their own and little patience.  An early scene sees Sullivan turning to another man in a boxcar and asking him his views on Marxism; his only answer is a long stare, followed by his new friend rolling his eyes and walking away.  It isn’t until Sullivan faces real hardship that he really can empathize with the common man he’s trying to reach out to.

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Actually, the scene that gives Sullivan his epiphany is interesting in and of itself. The work crew Sullivan is on is given a rare treat; a nearby church invites them to join in with their church movie night.  It’s a poor African-American Baptist congregation; but still, the scene is refreshingly free of any egregiously stereotypical “black” characters.  There’s a preacher talkin’ gospel, but he’s only doing so to urge his flock to be welcoming to the chain gang. No one does any minstrel mugging at any point.  Admittedly just seeing extras behaving like regular people feels like a low bar today, but at the time it was such a novelty that the head of the NAACP wrote director Preston Sturgess a gushing letter thanking him for the “dignified and decent treatment of Negroes in this scene.” Frankly, after seeing the single depiction of a black character in High Sierra, I’m inclined to agree with that praise.

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The first few scenes with Veronica Lake also grabbed my attention.  Ultimately her character turns into more of an ingénue, but in the first few scenes, she’s a world-weary, seen-it-all snarker who initially takes pity on Sullivan when he’s posed as a bum; he wanders into a diner, and she overhears him turning down food when he says he doesn’t have enough – so she orders him a plate of eggs, on her.  As they chat, she hints at some of her bad luck with a tellingly current comment:

You know, the nice thing about buying food for a man is that you don’t have to listen to his jokes. Just think, if you were some big shot like a casting director or something, I’d be staring into your bridgework saying ‘Yes, Mr. Smearcase. No, Mr. Smearcase. Not really, Mr. Smearcase! Oh, Mr. Smearcase, that’s my knee!’

In reality, apparently Veronica Lake got on McCrea’s nerves and he turned down the chance to co-star with her on a later movie.  She definitely gives the impression of being someone who does not suffer fools, either on screen or off.

…Okay, if you’re a Coen Brothers fan the title of the movie Sullivan wants to make probably caught your eye.  And yes, the Coen brothers have acknowledged that they named their own film O Brother, Where Art Thou as an homage to this one, and have even said that their own film was one that the fictional John Sullivan might have made in his own day.