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Movie Crash Course: The Lady Eve

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Alex will sometimes join me in watching a film and we usually have a lively discussion after.  This time, his commentary was more pithy.  About 45 minutes into The Lady Eve, Alex blurted out, “….this movie is so dumb.”

 

The thing is, he didn’t mean it as an insult.  And I agreed.

 

The Lady Eve is a screwball comedy starring two people better known for dramatic roles (Barbara Stanwyck, who we last saw from Stella Dallas, and Henry Fonda, late of Grapes of Wrath).  Fonda is Charles Pike, the heir to a millionaire brewer who is instead pursuing a career in ophidiology (the study of snakes); he’s just wrapped up a year in the Amazon assisting one of his professors, and is bringing a live specimen home via steamship.  Stanwyck is Jean Harrington, part of a father-daughter team of con artists who’ve been hopping from steamer to steamer roping people into card games and fleecing them before they hit the next dock.  They first see Pike in the ship’s dining cabin – ignoring all the other women making eyes at him as he reads a book about snakes – and peg him as an easy mark; Harrington can try turning on the charm and romancing him a little, persuading him to a friendly card game with her and her dear old dad.  So what if he is oblivious to the point that Jean literally has to trip him to get his attention.  She then accuses him of breaking the heel on her shoe, and hhe’s such a decent chap that he offers to escort her back to her cabin to change shoes, and is soon falling sway to her feminine wiles. Harrington has him right where she wants him.  Except – he’s such a decent guy that now she’s not sure she wants to go through with the con, and actually tries to double-cross her own father to spare Pike.

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But then right before they dock back in the USA – right when Jean is about to confess her feelings – Pike discovers evidence of her criminal past, and angry breaks up with her.  Stung, Jean persuades her father to join her in a second, different con against Pike – and this time, it’s for revenge.

Fonda manages to play Pike as somehow both intelligent and stupid; he’s a student of biology who can’t even pick up that the woman turning up at his house and calling herself “The Lady Eve Sidwich” is actually Jean Harrington, even though she’s made no effort to disguise herself aside from affecting an accent.  He’s a fuddy-duddy who gets the vapors when “Eve” relates a long list of past lovers she’s had, but is easily swept off his feet simply by Jean showing a bit of leg.  Surprisingly, Fonda’s salt-of-the-earth earnestness serves him here, as it did in Grapes of Wrath – he oozes “decent upright citizen” all throughout, the kind of trusting soul who takes everyone at their word and believes in decency and fair play.  Exactly the kind of person who’d be taken in by such a pair of cons.

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As for Stanwyck, she’s having a blast – she gets to play two characters, both of them the smartest people in the room by far, and one of them a juicy femme fatale.  There’s an extended sequence when Jean is in her cabin with Pike, having a conversation, and she begins playing with his hair while she speaks.  An enraptured Pike sits enchantedfor a full three minutes while Jean strokes and caresses and runs her fingers through his hair, talking away about something perfectly inconsequential – because she knows that Pike isn’t listening to her anyway, and that’s the point. (Incidentally, an earlier draft of the script implied the two went on to hook up in Jean’s cabin; but the Hays Board put a stop to that.)

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This movie is ridiculous. But not unpleasantly so – even as you’re rolling your eyes at Pike’s naïveté or over some of the sight gags (Fonda has five pratfalls in a single scene), you’re also chuckling at Jean’s wit.  Actor William Demarest has a small role as Pike’s valet and self-appointed protector, and a recurring gag sees him going to greater and greater lengths to convince Pike that “the Lady Eve” is not who she seems.  There’s a completely pointless gag involving a horse that nevertheless had me giggling.  This film is dumb, but in the way that some big cuddly dogs are a little endearingly dumb and you end up fond of them in spite of yourself.

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Focus And Perspective

I spent this weekend learning about perspective.

This weekend I was up in the Catskills, at a photography workshop organized by my friend Colin.  It was focusing on capturing the fall color of the Catskills – a subject Colin excels at – but he also taught us ten students a sheer wealth of material, like the challenges of catching leaves when the wind makes them dance, and how to compensate for the fading light of Autumn and why misty days are actually perfect for a fall photo day.  How to capture the endless sweep of a Hudson Valley field sloping down into a dappled lake, and then the trees dotting the far-distant peaks beyond that.

However, I didn’t have quite the chance to try his techniques that I thought I would.  Because on our very first day – only twenty minutes into our first photo session capturing the scene around a Catskill pond, and only five minutes after Colin had wandered over to me and showed me a setting on my little camera that I never knew I had – I lost hold of my camera and it tumbled into the pond.  Everyone else in the class froze when they heard me start chanting ogodogodogodogodogod and splash in after it; then they all started hollering over their remedies and advice –

“Take the battery out right now!”

“Shake all the water out!”

Colin ran over with his car keys.  “Go sit in the truck with the camera right next to the heater for 20 minutes,” he said.  “Then we’ll see what happens.”  I trotted off, and another student, Chuck, tagged along.  “I have a spare camera,” he offered, “you want to use it?”  I told him I’d see how my own familiar camera did first, if I could get it back up and going.  I spent the next 20 minutes carefully swabbing things out with a stack of napkins Colin had in the car and cranking the fan and the heater, with other students periodically wandering by to check on me.

My camera turned on after 20 minutes, but made some strange noises and the viewfinder screen didn’t work.  “I’m thinking you may need to try the bag of rice trick when we get back to the house,” Colin said.  Chuck, hovering nearby, offered his spare camera again so I wouldn’t be sitting around doing nothing at the next photo stop.  This time I said yes – but was still intimidated when he handed over a camera that was twice as big and ten times as complicated as my little friendly drowned camera.  It also came with a big telephoto lens on it that I had to adjust to.  I had to keep trotting over to Chuck to ask how to adjust the shutter speed and ask why it was blinking and ask how to turn off different settings and make it stop making that weird vvvvhh noise.  But I got through that day, and immediately buried my camera in a bag of rice when we broke for the day.  It was still not quite right the next morning, so Chuck once again handed me his big camera with a grin.  But it was a frustrating day of wrestling with the unfamiliar controls and juggling the heavy lens.  I drained a battery because there was an obscure setting switched on that I hadn’t even known how to check, and spent about twenty minutes that second afternoon in a sulk in the car because the battery was dead and it wasn’t even my camera in the first place and I had to keep interrupting Chuck to fix everything and I had also almost dropped a borrowed tripod earlier that day too and I felt like a huge unprepared klutzy doof.

But I got through the weekend, and Colin and Niki (Colin’s better half) brought me to the bus back home – but after a half hour past the time it was supposed to come, we were still there, and both Colin and Niki were just as exhausted as I was waiting with me.  We called the bus company, learned that the bus had broken down and the replacement bus was still two hours away.  We went back to Colin and Niki’s place, sat around a while, then went back to the bus stop – and waited a half hour past the time the second bus was due.  I called the bus company again – and learned that the second driver had actually spaced out, totally bypassed the tiny town where I was, and was halfway to Kingston by then, much too late to turn back around and fetch me.  The most they could do was offer to switch my ticket to one this morning, so Colin and Niki were forced to put me up for one more night.

But.  I spent this weekend learning about perspective.

The morning of our second day, we were lingering for a long time by a lake with a lot of things going on around it – mist wreathing the distant hills, flocks of geese, a water wheel by a small falls, a small boat dock. A man came by with a canoe and we all secretly tried working him into all of our shots, with varying degrees of success (he was paddling fast). I was getting the hang of some of the basic settings on Chuck’s camera by then, and on the last day, when Colin asked us all to show off our six best shots from that weekend to the class for discussion and critique, all of mine came from that lake.

And, so, apparently all those complicated settings on Chuck’s camera do stuff, and it really makes a difference.

 

There were gasps and “ooh!”s when Colin put my work up – from me as well as the others.  – I took THAT photo? I kept thinking with surprise.  Niki was in the kitchen making us lunch the whole time we were discussing our work, and told me later that she’d been listening to the happy buzz of conversation throughout – and then was confused when suddenly the room went silent.  “And I came out to find out what was going on, and it was because they were looking at one of your photos!”  Chuck took me aside to say that he was glad he’d had a camera to loan me “because look what you did with it.”

Photography is something I’d let slide – I was much more interested in it about 15 years ago, and then a lot of life busyness got in the way.  This all encouraged me to seriously pursue getting a better camera, even if I can revive my old one – apparently there’s a skill there I can develop.  Colin and I spoke a lot about that sometime during all the bus mess; he gave me some advice about what might be the next step.

We also talked about how it was good that this had all been a step out of my comfort zone.  Colin and Niki have known me for nearly 20 years now, and Colin’s always had a talent for spotting what makes me tick, and what advice I may need most at a given moment.  They moved to Colorado a few months ago, but I hadn’t really much chance to catch up with them during the photo class – but even though we were all exhausted, my staying an extra night let us catch up a bit, reminisce and talk about our current lives and even zone out watching the first Doctor Who episode with Jodie Whittaker.

So if I hadn’t dropped my camera – I would never have known what I could do with a better camera, and never would have taken pictures I’m as pleased with as I am those.  And if I hadn’t been abandoned at the bus stop I would never have had an extra precious few hours with two of my closest friends, swapping jokes about pot pies and hurricanes and talking about TARDISes.

I spent this weekend learning about perspective.

Blogathon 3!

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Yay it’s another blogathon!  This one celebrates British film.

I’ve contributed Blackmail, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s first sound films.  (Protip – one of the screenshots I use features Hitchcock’s cameo in that film.)

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.

Cliff Notes For The Movie Crash Course

Real quick – I have just discovered a film enthusiast’s Youtube Channel, and signed up almost immediately.  He’s doing a series of supercuts that capture the “look” of films during a particular year.

He doesn’t catch everything – and I’m not as convinced that each period he’s chosen has a distinct “look” – but each is a fun retrospective, and I was chuffed to see that I recognized more than I thought.

Here’s the 1920 one, for a taste.

Movie Crash Course: Little Caesar

Welp, I’ve seen the ur-war film, now it’s the ur-gangster film.  At least the feature interviews on the DVD I got said so, with a handful of talking-head interviews with lots of film scholars. Even Martin Scorcese turns up to make that case. A friend who’d heard I was about to watch this pointed out that even Bugs Bunny cartoons patterned their “gangster characters” after Edward G. Robinson’s performance in this.

So it feels a bit unsporting to say that Edward G. Robinson didn’t seem to be quite so threatening a gangster.

The film is about the rise and fall of Caesar Enrico Bandello – who goes by “Rico” – in Chicago’s underworld. At the start of the film, he and his buddy Joe are small-town crooks robbing gas stations and drug stores, but after one of their heists they decide to go for broke in the big city. Rico is set on his life of crime, but Joe wants to go a different route – he wants to be a dancer. They head to Chicago to pursue their separate paths.

Rico stays in touch with Joe, though, and when Rico’s mob boss “Big Boy” proposes a hit on the night club where Joe works as a dancer, Rico bullies Joe into collaborating on the plot. During the furor, Rico ignores Big Boy’s order that they conduct a clean heist, and siezes the chance to shoot the police commissioner.  Big Boy dresses him down after the heist – but Rico argues back that his boss is just “getting soft” and declares that maybe he should take charge.

….I have to stop a moment – because this, here, is exactly where the film lost me.  Rico’s boss is one of Chicago’s main mob bosses, and here comes Rico, an upstart who’s disobeyed orders and declared that not only was he not wrong, but that he should take over.  Tony Soprano or Vito Corleone would have thrown the guy out of his office and then sent one of their other men to assassinate Rico a few days later, right?  Right.  But instead – Big Boy totally caves and puts Rico in charge, with only the faintest of protests. Which I didn’t buy in the slightest.  Unfortunately, Rico’s “meteoric rise to power” is told in exactly this flimsy a fashion, with a series of increasingly more powerful mob bosses simply rolling over in submission after Rico blusters a bit – making what was a major plot thread feel completely unbelieveable.

Ah well.

This isn’t to say that the film was a loss.  Instead, I was more fascinated by some things it was seeming to say about wealth and fame. In the first scene, the catalyst for Rico’s wanting to go to Chicago is a fluffy news piece about a big-name Chicago gangster enjoying a splashy party, and wearing a piece of diamond jewelry for the occasion.  In a later scene, when Rico is still one of Big Boy’s underlings, he’s tagged along in the entourage when Big Boy goes to a meeting with another mob boss; and the film makes a point of showing us when Rico covetously examines the other boss’s pocket watch, tie pin and other bling.  For Rico, the bling is the important thing; the bling is how he can be sure he is successful himself.  He wants his own name in the paper, for any price.  And – he does get that, for a time.

But every so often we get a glimpse of Joe’s path, which makes for a fascinating contrast. After the hit on the night club, Joe ghosts on Rico, devoting himself to his dancing job – and to his dancing partner Olga, who before long is shacking up with Joe. Rico stops by after a while – he’s afraid that Joe knows too much about him, and has come to convince Joe to work for him again. When Joe refuses, Rico considers killing him – but can’t.  This moment of Rico “going soft” is where his own luck takes a downturn, sending him into hiding at a flophouse while Joe and Olga continue on their own story.

At the very end of the film, we get one last glance at how these two friends’ paths diverged. As Rico gasps out his last breath after a shootout (“Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”), the camera pans up – to reveal that he is lying under a billboard advertising Joe and Olga’s new show at a local theater.

So, I admit that this contrasting-paths perspective is very likely what the filmmakers intended – that we were to consider how the pursuit of a fast life and flashy status signifiers lead Rico to a bad end, while dedication to a craft and a passion led to real success for Joe.  But it seems that most people were more titillated by Rico’s story instead.  Whereas I didn’t buy it because it wasn’t mean enough.  I’m not entirely sure what to make of that.

Movie Crash Course: Pandora’s Box

Where I went to college, the movie poster for Pandora’s Box was pretty common among the drama and film students I knew.  One of my roommates even had a copy – Louise Brooks, in the act of unveiling her heavy bangs and huge brown eyes, watched over me from a dorm wall through my senior year.  A second copy of the poster was on permanent display at the Angelika movie house on Houston Street, one of my regular movie spots; similar copies probably grace other movie houses to this day.

That poster, I’ve realized, doesn’t actually say anything about the plot of the film itself – it showcases Brooks, and Brooks alone.  Anything else about the film – the plot, the other cast, the director – is incidental.  We get it, the studio seemed to say – we know why you’re going to see this, and it’s for Louise.  Period.  They kind of have a point, too – Brooks is far and away the most striking thing about this film.

The plot is a pretty run-of-the-mill cautionary tale of a Girl Gone Wrong – Brooks plays Lulu, a flirty showgirl, who starts out living in a luxury apartment as the kept mistress of Herr Schon, a wealthy older publisher.  However, Lulu is prone to flirting with other guys as they catch her eye.  She also maintains slightly-warmer-than-normal friendships with other men, like Schigolch – who may be her pimp, or may be her father, or may be both – and Schon’s son, Alwa, a theatrical producer. There’s a countess who also seems to be pining for Lulu’s affection as well, and a chance to start a vaudeville act with a guy named Rodrigo.

The vaudeville act gives Schon the perfect out – he’s been getting uneasy with Lulu, and is preparing to marry a much more respectable society woman in an attempt to go straight.  When he arrives to cut things off with Lulu, he softens the blow by offering to ask Alwa to feature her act in his next stage show.  She accepts, Alwa also loves the idea, the Countess gets all caught up in designing the costumes, and everyone’s happy – until opening night, when Schon brings his fiancée backstage with him when he goes to wish Lulu luck, and she throws the mother of all temper tantrums and locks herself in a broom closet, vowing that she “will not dance for that woman!”  Schon goes into the closet to talk her down – and somehow ends up getting manipulated into ditching his current fiancée and marrying Lulu instead.

Lulu is her usual outre self at the wedding reception – dancing intimately with the Countess, then getting up to some titillating hijinks in the master bedroom with Schigolch and Rodrigo – and Schon has his own tantrum, kicking everyone out and then ordering Lulu to kill herself to spare him his honor. But somehow Schon himself is the one who gets killed.  Lulu’s tried for manslaughter, but her entourage – Alwa, the Countess, Rodrigo and Schigolch – stage a diversion and smuggle her away.  The last third of the film sees our band of fugitives poorly treated indeed – hiding out in boats, losing money at gambling tables, getting sold into Egyptian bordellos (with a last-minute rescue), and various members getting arrested or killed, until finally it’s just Alwa, Schigolch, and Lulu living near the London docks; Schigolch is drinking himself to death, Alwa considers running off to join the Salvation Army, and Lulu is turning tricks in their apartment to make ends meet, until the night when one of her johns has a more violent fantasy in mind.

Director G. W. Pabst wanted Brooks as Lulu from the first. She initially wasn’t available, though, and Pabst reluctantly looked elsewhere for his Lulu, to the point that he had drawn up a contract to give Marlene Dietrich the role.  But legend has it that as Dietrich was about to sign, Pabst got word that Brooks was available for the part after all; so Pabst tore up Dietrich’s contract, raced to meet Brooks with an armful of roses and begged her to be his Lulu after all.  It’s a wise choice – Dietrich’s Lulu would have been all “bad girl”, seductive heavy-lidded stares and manipulative looks.

Brooks, meanwhile, plays Lulu as a seductress with some innocence to her; she likes sex, and she’s going after what she wants, but she simply is driven by her own id, and doesn’t know any better.   Where Dietrich would have played the part with a sly smile, Brooks instead excels in wide-eyed trusting looks and childlike radiant smiles – this is how love is, in her experience, and that’s all she’s trying to do, is find love.  Brooks’ performance is what makes what could have been a cliché about a bad girl getting her comeuppance into a sympathetic tale of a young woman whose luck simply ran out.