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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.


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.)

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.


Movie Crash Course: La Chienne

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It may be a French film, but Jean Renoir’s La Chienne has a plot straight out of a telenovela.

Set in an unnamed French city, La Chienne is the story of a love triangle featuring Michel Legrand, a milquetoast accountant.  He has no kids, his work colleagues think he’s a fuddy-duddy, and his miserly wife Adele constantly compares him to her first husband – a soldier killed in the First World War – and finds him wanting.  His only pleasure is painting, which Adele says is a waste of money.

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Then one night, while trudging home, Legrand runs into Lulu, a prostitute, getting smacked around by her pimp Dédé.  The naive Legrand comes to Lulu’s rescue, rescuing the “innocent damsel” from the “thug” attacking her, and offering to walk her home so she gets in safely.  Lulu pegs him as an easy mark, and turns on the charm – and soon Legrand is having an affair with her, putting her up in a fancy love nest and pilfering money from his wife to pay for it.  He even brings over some of his paintings to decorate it for her.

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But Lulu only has eyes for Dédé, who is himself more interested in whatever money Lulu can bring in than he is in her affections.  Legrand’s paintings aren’t half bad, he thinks one day – so he concocts a scheme to pass them off as the work of a woman, enlisting Lulu to roleplay as “the artist” if he needs someone to stand in for her, and starts selling Legrand’s work off to a local gallery – at a hefty profit.

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Legrand finds out – but he doesn’t mind one bit; he even steps up production.  He’d do anything for the beautiful Lulu, and even starts embezzling from his own office to satisfy her repeated demands for more and more money.  But then comes the day when he stops by Lulu’s place and catches her there with Dédé…

It’s the performances that put this above melodrama. Michel Simon plays Legrand as a meek pushover, acquiesing to the abuse of his wife and the ribbing from his co-workers – coming alive only when he paints, or when he is with Lulu.  He is absolutely smitten by the girl.  And Lulu puts on the charm around him, but with Dédé she is all desperation.

It should be said, though, that the relationships in the film played out in real life. Michel Simon really did fall for his co-star Janie Marèse during filming, who in turn fell for the actor playing Dédé, Georges Flamant. And like Dédé, Flamant just rolled with it.  Director Jean Renoir saw it all happening – but egged things on, since Marèse and Flamant were screen newbies, and he thought it would only help the film.  The on-set romance came to a tragic end, however; shortly after they wrapped filming, Flamant and Marèse went on a joyride for one of their dates.  Flamant was just as new to driving as he was to film, however, and crashed their car – killing Marèse.  The shaken Simon blamed Renoir for the whole thing, threatening him with a gun and saying that Marèse’s death was all his fault.  “Kill me if you like,” Renoir supposedly said – “but I’ve made the film.”

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Marèse and Lulu’s fates have a lot in common; women who were exploited by men and ended up the worse for it.  The title “La Chienne” translates to “The Bitch” – hardly a fair name for the hapless Lulu, at the end of the day.  La Chienne was only Marèse’s second film, and unquestionably – if she hadn’t been killed – she would have gone on to a fine career.


Movie Crash Course: Sons Of The Desert

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The title Sons of the Desert gave me a very incorrect idea about what this Laurel And Hardy film was going to be.  I thought it was going to be a sort of French-foreign-legion spoof; instead, Stan and Oliver play a pair of henpecked husbands intent on heading to Chicago for the national convention for their fraternal organization.  Stan is unsure his wife will allow him to attend; but Ollie is appalled he’s even asking. “Why don’t you pattern your life after mine?” he lectures Stan. “I go places and do things and then tell my wife. Every man should be the king in his own castle!”

However, Ollie’s wife Lottie finds out about the convention – and reminds Ollie that she had already booked them a weeks’ stay in an exclusive mountain resort that same week. So no convention for him.  When he tries to put his foot down, she insists on the mountain trip – by throwing a dish at his head.

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So the pair concoct a plan – Ollie pretends to be sick, and Stan enlists a doctor to “prescribe” a cruise to Honolulu as a rest cure.  And hey, since Lottie hates cruises – how about she go ahead to the mountains with Stan’s wife Betty, and Stan can go with Ollie instead?  The wives agree, and as soon as they’re gone, the men hightail it to Chicago.

While the men are whooping it up at the convention, however, Betty and Lottie come back to learn that the cruise ship has foundered during a storm at sea, and their husbands’ lives may be in danger. Some of the survivors made it onto a rescue ship, but until the ship returns, they won’t know who made it and who drowned.  The wives go to a movie to keep themselves distracted while they wait – and just so happen to see a newsreel about the Sons of The Desert convention…

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I’m not that crazy about the whole “henpecked husband” trope as a rule, but there were enough wacky hijinks and little surprises in this that I was caught off guard.  There was a whole sequence founded on Stan and Ollie’s houses being next door to each other and sharing a back yard, and Stan thus getting confused which house he lives in, which is nearly impossible for me to explain – but which they found more and more unpredictable ways to play with, making for a whole delicious five minutes of schtick.  Another lengthy sequence has Stan trying to “steal” bites from a bowl of wax fruit Lottie has on display – it’s really just a single gag stretched out for a few minutes, but the looks on Stan Laurel’s face as he tries to chew a bite from a wax apple were funny enough that I didn’t care (and Lottie has a great punch line at the end).

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And then there is Betty.  Stan’s wife is ultimately a minor character, and we’re just meant to see her as a threat to Stan.  But the way they’ve decided to make her seem threatening is to make her a hunter and markswoman – which makes her all the more interesting.  When Stan and Ollie first come in to break the news of the convention, Betty isn’t home – she’s left a note that she’ll be home late, since she has gone duck hunting.  She shows up about ten minutes later with a whole brace of ducks, one of which she cheerfully gives to Lottie as a present before she leaves with Stan.  And later, when she and Lottie think they hear burglars in their attic, Betty just grabs her gun and storms up the ladder to flush out the invaders.  It was obvious that we were supposed to be afraid of her because of the gun, but I wanted to know way more about her.

This is the only Laurel and Hardy film on the 1001 Movies list, and I had the great fortune of seeing it in a theater, along with one of Laurel and Hardy’s newly-restored shorts.  New York’s Film Forum theater included it as part of its Sunday matinee series for kids; so there were a lot of little film fans in the audience, laughing at all of the slapstick throughout.  The short got the most laughs of all – a once-lost short called The Fight of the Century, which ends with a whole city block getting caught up in a pie fight.

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