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Movie Crash Course: Judge Priest

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So. I got through Limite just fine – I didn’t understand a lick of it, but watched it all the way through.  Five different Soviet expressionist films – same thing, I was confused and bored but kept watching. Even Un Chien Andalou – I covered my eyes at the icky bit, but still watched.  Judge Priest therefore has earned a dubious honor – it is the first film in this project I seriously considered turning off halfway through.

Not because of the quality, mind. It’s shot well enough, and even enjoys a couple of cute “special effects” touches.  The talent assembled is also impressive – an Oscar winning actress appears here in her first role, a renowned director is also on board, a famed comedian stars, and a star reporter is trying his hand at the script. They all ply their craft well enough.

The problem is that they are all working to support one of the most ridiculous, pandering, illogical, hokey, and all-around insulting scripts I’ve ever seen in my life (and I used to run a playwriting contest, so I’ve seen plenty of insulting scripts).   Characters’ motivations are inconsistent, the rule of law is subverted by a judge, an entire class of people is belittled, and there is a running gag involving a spittoon that somehow manages to subvert laws of physics.  And the whole thing ends with a yay-Confederacy Stars-and-Bars flag-wavy sequence at a parade (and pandering to Confederate sympathies is actually what drives the happy ending).

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The whole thing is set in a small Kentucky town in the 1890s.  Will Rogers plays Billy Priest – a beloved but irreverent judge, whom the film’s introduction states is renowned for his common sense and tolerance, and who in the first scene is presiding over the trial of a man accused of stealing a chicken. The prosecuting attorney is a former state senator; but during the trial, Priest is flat-out ignoring his opening arguments in favor of reading the funny papers. Our defendant “Jeff Poindexter” is played by the controversial comedian Stepin Fetchit.  Or, to be accurate – mumbled by Stephin Fetchit.  I swear I only understood five of the words that Poindexter babbles out in his own defense in this scene; and that’s only because Priest (who’s put down his paper long enough to pay attention) has engaged him in conversation – about the appropriate bait to use while catfishing. After hearing Poindexter’s secrets, Priest dismisses the case to fish with him.  We never hear anything about the trial again.

That is only the first five minutes.

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The film has two interrelated “subplots” – the first involving Priest’s nephew Jerome, newly returned from law school “up North”. He’s just been newly appointed to the bar and has returned home to begin a practice, and to win the hand of his longtime sweetheart Ellie Mae. But Jerome’s mother Caroline disapproves of the match because Ellie Mae has an unclear parentage; she is the daughter of an unmarried woman who died in childbirth, and Caroline is afraid Ellie Mae’s father might not be respectable enough.

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But Priest soon suspects that Ellie Mae’s father is the town blacksmith Bob Gillis – a loner he sees visiting the grave of Ellie Mae’s mother one evening.  Priest is also present when Gillis is at the barbershop and overhears some men leering over Ellie Mae, joking that since she’s fatherless, there’s no risk of a shotgun wedding.  So they can have their way with her scot-free! (The true horror of that notion, which I somehow missed during viewing, has just dawned on me now – yeccch.) Gillis punches them and leaves, they attack him later in revenge, someone is badly hurt and Gillis is accused of assault. Jerome is appointed his defense attorney, and Priest is asked to recuse himself from presiding over the trial – but not because of Jerome.  No – he’s forced off the trial because he sided with Gillis in the barbershop.  But no worries – he finds a way to sway the trial anyway, by sauntering in on the second day and announcing he’s associate defense lawyer, by persuading the town priest to betray a confidence, by sending anonymous letters to the prosecution, and by paying off Poindexter to play “Dixie” outside the window at a pre-arranged signal to sway the jurors’ emotions.  Gillis was a war hero, you see. (He’d also been on a chain gang, but let’s not dwell on that!)

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Priest’s “tolerance” is manifested through hiring Poindexter for odd jobs like this, and by singing with his maid “Aunt Dilsey” – played by Hattie McDaniel, in an early role. Singing is pretty much all McDaniel is called upon to do, actually – she sings a spiritual at a church social, she sings Stephen Foster songs while cleaning Priest’s house, she even sings about doing Priest’s laundry while engaged in said act.  Her few non-musical scenes all involve cooking or food, like a moment where she defends a batch of donuts from Poindexter’s grasp (he retaliates by stealing some whiskey instead). But otherwise, she’s no more than a walking jukebox Priest harmonizes with occasionally.

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Not that Fetchit fares much better. Aside from the trial, and playing “Dixie”, he’s reduced to being Priest’s errand boy.  Whenever he’s not fetching and carrying he’s hovering close by Priest – in some scenes literally sitting at Priest’s feet, like a faithful dog.  At least they have occasional conversations – Rogers and Fetchit, both veterans of the vaudeville circuit, would sometimes ad-lib during their scenes, to the great frustration of director John Ford. But they were jokes (at least in theory) so they stayed in.

To paraphrase Roger Ebert:  I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated every simpering stupid biased illogical pandering moment of it. Hated the producer that thought there would be an audience for it. Hated the realization that there no doubt was an audience for it.

Most of all – I hated the realization that there most likely still would be an audience for this film today, that there would be those who overlook abuses of the law and write off character flaws on the basis of tribalism and sentiment, that there would be those who are blinkered to its caricaturizing, that there would be those who see this as a nostalgic look at “the good old days”.

I could not get this disc out of my DVD player fast enough.  If I had good enough aim I would be forgoing the postal system and hurling this back to Netflix like a frisbee, just for the sheer satisfaction of throwing this movie as far as possible.

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Movie Crash Course: The Black Cat

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1934 was a big heyday of classic horror films, with two big “names” representing the genre; Bela Lugosi, who’d earned his big break as Dracula, and Boris Karloff, who’d played both the Monster in Frankenstein and the title role in The Mummy.  Studios were discovering that there was a wealth of horror writers to draw inspiration from, as well – Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, H.G. Wells…Universal Studios therefore thought that putting both Karloff and Lugosi together would be a sure thing.  And as for the script? Say, no one’s done a big-budget adaptation of anything by Poe, have they?  Perfect.  They selected one of Poe’s short stories, The Black Cat, secured Karloff and Lugosi’s commitment, and turned everything over to fledgling director Edgar Ulmer.

…Things…didn’t exactly go as the studio planned.  Ulmer quickly vetoed most of the scripts, and the Poe story – it wouldn’t be filmable, he argued, as it was more of a psychological tale.  He had a point – Poe’s Black Cat is very similar to The Tell-Tale Heart, with an unreliable narrator who commits a crime and then is driven by his own guilt to confess. Instead, Ulmer went with a script that included more eye-catching elements – things like, oh, necrophilia, torture by flaying, ailurophobia, and Satanic ritual sacrifice.

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There’s a more serious story buried in there, however; one of revenge, betrayal, and lingering fallout from the First World War. Lugosi is Dr. Vitus Werdegast, a Hungarian psychologist who’s been at a P.O.W. camp in Siberia for the past 15 years and is finally free.  He’s traveling back home to confront his former Commanding Officer, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff); during the war, their unit was stationed at a fort in the Hungarian countryside, but Poelzig double-crossed his unit and betrayed the fort to the enemy, leading to an enormous massacre and Werdegast’s capture.  While Werdegast was in Siberia, Poelzig became a renowned architect, married Werdegast’s newly-abandoned wife, and built himself a lavish Art Deco mansion on the ruins of the fort.  So Werdegast has a bit of a bone to pick.

But fate throws a pair of wild cards into his plan – Peter and Joan Allison, a honeymooning American couple he meets on the train. Their onboard chat is amicable enough (even though Werdegast is a bit creepy), so the Allisons offer Werdegast a lift in the shuttle bus that’s taking them from the train station to their hotel.  Poelzig’s mansion is on the way, they can easily drop him off!…However, as they approach the mansion, the bus driver starts to play tour guide, relating the story of the doomed fort; he gets so caught up in the tale that he crashes the bus, right down the road from Poelzig’s mansion. Werdegast has no choice but to drag the Allisons with him when he arrives for his confrontation with Poelzig.

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The presence of the Allisons does some interesting things to the story. Poelzig immediately knows what Wergegast wants when he shows up – but since the Allisons are there, both he and Wergegast have to play it cool.  And they always seem to be underfoot – Joan has suffered some injuries in the crash, and Werdegast keeps having to tend to her, and every time the old rivals are about to finally confront each other, Peter wanders into the room all, “What’s up, guys?”  Our leads are thus prevented from making any big histrionic speeches, and end up communicating solely in Meaningful Looks for most of the film.  This works to the film’s advantage – Lugosi’s accent can be difficult to parse when he gets excited, and Karloff can loom really intimidatingly.

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Joan’s presence also gives Poelzig some ideas.  For we discover he’s not just a traitor – he’s got a couple of other eensy bitty issues, like a fetish for possessing beautiful women.  Literally – at one point Poelzig heads down to the basement where he has a collection of what look like mannequins in glass cases.  Except they maybe aren’t mannequins….and at another point, we see him thoughtfully reading a passage from a book about “Luciferian Worship”, lingering on the page concerning “sacrificing a maiden woman.”  Hmmm.

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The Black Cat comes across like an intriguing mix of B-movie cheese and psychodrama; the creepy mansion and evil Satanic sacrifice stuff is overwrought and lurid, but is played subtly for most of the film, as much a part of the subtext as is the World War backstory.  The Allison’s involvement could even be a comment on the trope of busybody Americans blundering around Europe as naïve tourists.  It’s a lot to take in – and can feel at first like it can’t make up its mind what kind of film it wants to be.  The Black Cat didn’t do all that well at the box office as a result; but the subtext can lead to some intriguing after-the-fact insights.

Happily, Lugosi and Karloff got on well together, and collaborated on another six films, including two Frankenstein sequels.

Movie Crash Course: The Thin Man

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After only 20 minutes into The Thin Man, Alex was eagerly researching it on RottenTomatoes.com. “This had five sequels,” he announced.  “And all of them were certified fresh!”  This movie definitely earned that eager urge for I want more of this, please.

 The Thin Man was the first film to feature William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, a witty, urbane mystery-solving couple.  They pretty much have a dream life; Nick is a detective who retired when he married heiress Nora, and now the pair spend their days traveling, throwing boisterous dinner parties, and looking after their fox terrier Asta.

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Nick is actually not the “thin man” referred to in the title – that reference actually applies to inventor Clyde Wynat (Edward Ellis), whose disappearance is the film’s central mystery. Nick is an old family friend of the Wynats, and Clyde’s adult daughter Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan) begs him to come out of retirement and help find her father. Nora joins in the persuasion, insisting that she’s never seen him at work and thinks it’d be fun.  Nick is initially reluctant, but as he hears about how the police are handling the case, something just doesn’t quite add up…

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The mystery plot unfolded nicely, but was pretty damn complicated.  There were four or five completely different people who had a stake in killing Clyde – from an ex-wife, to a current wife, to work colleagues and rivals and even a gangster – and Clyde had just as many reasons to kill any of them and go into hiding.  Nick persists, gradually uncovering all the clues (sometimes before we even realize they are clues!) and then hosting a lavish dinner party for all the suspects, with the police in attendance, where he unravels the whole plot to the astonished guests before naming his suspect.  “….I have no idea which one did it,” Alex confessed as the scene started.  Neither did I – but I announced a guess two minutes into the scene.  ….And then changed my guess two minutes later as Nick unwound more of the plot.  But for the life of me I couldn’t tell you why – maybe, as Nick covertly whispers to Nora midway through his speech, “it’s the only way this makes sense!”

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If you’re not a mystery fan, never fear – you still get to watch Nick and Nora, a delight all on its own.  They’re smart, they’re lively, they’re constantly flirting with each other – and they are incredibly witty. Some of the scenes even include a little ad-libbing from Powell and Loy, including a bit in the bar where Powell is expounding upon the proper method for shaking cocktails.  On set, director W. S. Van Dyke was running some light tests at one point and asked Powell to quickly run through the scene; Powell got caught up in the fun and ad-libbed a whole riff about different cocktails requiring different rhythms.  When he was just about done, he was startled to hear Van Dyke shouting “Cut!  Print that!”  Van Dyke had been so taken with his new dialogue that he’d asked the camera crew to start filming.

Most of the written script was adapted from Dasheill Hammett’s novel, and most of the dialogue is simply Nick and Nora riffing off each other:

(after Nick has a narrow escape) 

Nick: I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.
Nora: I read that you were shot five times in the tabloids.
Nick: It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.

(After Nick diverts Nora from trying to “help him” on the case by sending her to Grants’ Tomb): 

Nick: How’d you like Grant’s tomb?
Nora: It’s lovely. I’m having a copy made for you.

(After hearing about the case): 

Nora: You know, that sounds like an interesting case. Why don’t you take it?
Nick: I haven’t the time. I’m much too busy seeing that you don’t lose any of the money I married you for.

(Their very first exchange in the film, at a bar): 

Nora: How many drinks have you had?
Nick: This will make six Martinis.
Nora: All right. (to the waiter) Will you bring me five more Martinis, Leo? Line them right up here.

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….That last bit illustrates the one and only part of the film that made me uneasy; Nick and Nora drink a lot throughout.  No, really, a lot.  From the bar where Nora orders five martinis to catch up with Nick, to a cocktail party where both carry trays of drinks to press on their guests, to each nearly instinctively offering each other a drink upon waking (and then secretly stealing each other’s drinks a couple minutes later) – there is enough evidence to accuse the Charles’ of being functional alcoholics. But save for one jokey moment after the first bar scene where Nora is depicted with a hangover (“What hit me?” she groans; “That last martini,” Nick answers), their drinking doesn’t seem to affect them at all. Other characters, sure; but Nick and Nora?  Never. They’re such a delight that they just seem like fun party people, able to “maintain” even when everyone else around them is getting sloppy.  Still, by the end I found myself wishing they’d slow down a little.

(I just discovered someone has actually come up with a Thin Man drinking gamewhich seems like the height of masochism.)

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On the other hand, Nora proves herself an even match for Nick – in wit and style and bravery – which made for a really nice foil after It Happened One Night.  Both Nora and that last film’s Ellie were heiresses; but where Ellie was sheltered and naive, Nora is smart, tough, and independent.  It helps that Nick seems to appreciate Nora; he pokes fun, but you can tell it’s teasing born of genuine affection and admiration.  These two feel like equals.

Nick and Nora survive it all well – the events of the film and the partying – and go on to those five other films, all starting Powell and Loy. And dangit, I wanna watch.

Movie Crash Course: It Happened One Night

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Actually, the plot covers about four or five nights, but whatever.

It Happened One Night was a surprise hit for all concerned – stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert were actually the third or fourth choice for their respective parts, and neither was very enthusiastic about it (after filming Colbert apparently told a friend “I’ve just finished the worst picture in the world”) and director Frank Capra had to jump through hoops to keep the cast happy, including shaving a week off his production schedule at Colbert’s behest.  The studio also rolled the film out to theaters slowly.  But then audiences went completely bananas for the film, turning it into a box office smash.  Critics followed suit, and the Academy heaped nominations on the film.  It Happened One Night ended up sweeping the top five Oscar categories that year (Best Actor and Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Picture), an achievement matched only by One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975 and Silence Of The Lambs in 1991.

And it is kinda fun, at that. Colbert plays Ellie Andrews, a pampered but overprotected heiress who managed to get out from under her father’s thumb long enough to score a city hall marriage to another millionaire before her father dragged her back home.  At the top of the film, her father has her on board the family yacht in Miami, trying to talk her into an annulment (and keeping her a near-hostage so he can have his say). Ellie jumps ship – literally – and makes her way to the local bus station, boarding the next bus for New York City, where her beloved awaits.

She meets Peter Warne (Clark Gable), a down-on-his-luck reporter, on board.  Peter instantly recognizes her – news of Ellie’s flight has already started to hit the press – and he hitches himself to her, figuring an exclusive story about “Ellie Andrews’ Bus Ride To Love” will give his career a much-needed boost.  Ellie is also somewhat new at the Ways Of The Common Man, and Peter appoints himself her Protector, teaching her how to camp out in a hayfield and score rooms in motels.  He even has opinions on the correct way to dunk a donut into coffee.

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The pair are forced to share a number of motel rooms, Peter checking them in as a married couple for decorum’s sake.  To placate Ellie further, he rigs up a blanket wall dividing their beds each time, nicknaming the barrier “The Wall of Jericho”.  Of course, a blanket isn’t all that strong a barrier, especially as the pair continue to get acquainted on the road…

I was strangely reminded of the Kathleen Turner/Michael Douglas film Romancing The Stone, a favorite of mine when I was fourteen.  It had a similar fish-out-of-water heroine on a quest, and a rough-around-the-edges rogue who somehow gets drafted as her protector. And over the course of the travel and the bickering, they fall for each other.  But It Happened One Night covers way more of the class difference between Ellie and Peter.  She doesn’t know how to budget her money, she doesn’t think to watch her bag while the bus is on a break; and soon she finds her bag has been stolen and her money is running out.  But a couple nights later and she is comforting another passenger traveling north looking for work, and is joining a bus-wide singalong to “The Man On The Flying Trapeze.”

Ellie also has more wit and sass than Turner’s character had; in one of the film’s classic scenes, Peter boasts about his hitchhiking prowess, then utterly fails to stop any one of a parade of passing cars.  Ellie then asks to try her technique.

In an earlier scene, some private detectives sent by Ellie’s father are searching the motel where they’re staying – and manage to escape thanks to play-acting as a feuding couple, a performance Ellie seems to really get into.

Peter also seems to get into that role, though….a little too much.  And that proves disconcerting.  Alex was eager to watch this with me – he’d seen it in college and had good memories of it – but when the film ended, he had a troubled look.  “….there’s some gender-relations stuff in there that has not aged well,” he said.   We discussed that a bit, guessing that the “Me Too” movement today was casting everything in a different light. Peter is cast as Ellie’s rescuer, helping her get used to budgeting money and trying to ensure she’s safe and sound as they travel.  But he does so by barging into her company and barking orders – at one time even taking her money away from her, lecturing that she’s too irresponsible with it.  We both liked the hitchhiking scene – and I realized that one reason why I liked it was because it was one of the few scenes that Ellie is depicted as Peter’s equal.

I mean, there are some fun and charming enough moments in the film, and our reaction was very much colored by the present climate.  It’s too soon to tell how long that color will last.

Movie Crash Course: The Goddess (Shénnǚ)

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After a couple years of putting up with Hollywood giving its take on China, finally China answers back.

China’s film scene was born at a tough time.  The nation was embroiled in a Civil War in the late 1920s, then went to war with Japan in 1937.   In between, money was tight, and people wanted an escape; but the films sent over from Hollywood were either culturally baffling or insensitive. But that lack of cash made it all the more challenging for the few local studios which kicked off during the period.  Still, they made a go of it, striving to produce films with stories more germane to the average Chinese citizen than 42nd Street or the like.

One of the big three studios fortunately had two bright talents under its banner – filmmaker Wu Yonggang, and actress Ruan Lingyu.  Ruan was one of China’s biggest stars in 1934, with a long string of hits to her name; several of them dramas featuring Ruan as a poor but hopeful heroine.  She was increasingly drawn to films showcasing social issues and produced by left-leaning directors.  As for Wu Yonggang, The Goddess was his film debut, and proved an auspicious beginning to a 40+ year career.

The Goddess isn’t necessarily a film that’s going to grab everyone.  It’s a silent film about a down-on-her-luck prostitute, and the bad guy is almost a caricature with no clear motivation except to be a jerk.  On the other hand, it has Ruan LIngyu, it has an adorable kid, and it actually manages to deliver a social message without being preachy.

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The Chinese title of the film is actually a play on words: Shénnǚ does translate to “The Goddess”, but it can also refer to a prostitute. And Ruan does indeed play a nameless prostitute; a single mother driven into The Life to support her son.  At the top of the film, she’s got a solid routine in place: leaving her baby with a neighbor and heading out to the streets all night, then coming home to dote on him.  It’s tiring, but she is utterly in love with her little boy.  One night the police decide to sweep the streets, and a local low-life named Zhang offers her a place to hide in his flat.  …In exchange for a taste of her services, of course.  Our unnamed heroine has to agree, leaving in the morning; but Zhang sees an opportunity and secretly follows her home, bullying her into making him her pimp.  When he threatens to take away her son, she gives in.

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Five years later, “The Goddess” is living in a flat owned by Zhang, and her son is a sweet, curious little boy.  The neighbors gossip about her and keep their kids away from her son, but “The Goddess” perseveres.  Zhang is in the habit of coming by unannounced and helping himself to the money in her desk drawer, so she’s started hiding some in a hole in the wall hidden by a loose brick; she discovers one day that she’s saved up enough to get her son into a nearby private school, carefully obscuring her profession from the principal.  The boy takes to school like a fish to water, eagerly reading all of his lessons out loud to his mother at night and even playing “school” with her in the evenings. He even is asked to appear in the school talent recital, singing a ballad about a poor child and making his mother nearly burst with pride.

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Unfortunately one of the busybody neighbors is also in the audience, and spreads the word about “The Goddess”’s profession.  The principal starts receiving floods of angry letters complaining about the immoral situation.  Meanwhile, Zhang has come by the flat for a hit of cash, and starts idly playing with a loose brick in the wall…

That all sounds like serious melodrama, and the ending is even more so.  But except for a couple of High Passion moments, the acting is remarkably subtle.  The chemistry between “The Goddess” and her son is especially endearing; during the scene where the boy is “playing school” with his mother (“Okay, mum, I’ll be the teacher and you be the student – now, class, do what I do!”), I actually said “awwwwwww!” out loud, for real.

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The film also takes a sympathetic look at the whole issue of prostitution, casting it as a last-resort measure for women who truly have been shut out of any other choice. Society is to blame, the film argues – not the women, and certainly not any of their children.  But there’s no big dramatic turning-point where everyone is convinced that the Prostitute Has A Heart Of Gold – instead, the principal follows up on the letters with a home visit, where he sees that even though the woman has a shady job the little boy seems safe and happy, and actually goes back to the school board to try advocating on her behalf.  And even here – he doesn’t sway everyone with any kind of ‘Have Mercy On Her!” speech.  He does speak on her defense, however.

The Goddess was a small-scale, simple film that I found strangely affecting.

 

Movie Crash Course: It’s A Gift

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Ah, a comedy.  A comedy should be a good follow-up to Triumph Of The Will, yeah?

Well, yes, a comedy would have been a good follow-up to Triumph Of The Will. However, one of the key elements of a comedy – in fact, the very distinguishing characteristic of the genre – is that it is supposed to be funny.  And – It’s a Gift was not very funny.

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I mean, funny things happen in it.  There’s an extended scene where W.C. Fields’ character is trying to take a nap on a porch, and gets interrupted by a milkman, noisy neighbors, a travelling salesman, a rickety porch swing, and – improbably – a coconut.  In another sequence, he tries to share a bathroom mirror with his oblivious teenage daughter, who is primping for a date while he shaves.  When her toilette gets too elaborate for him to have room, he hangs a hand mirror from a hook in the ceiling and tries to use that, circling it futilely as it spins.

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But these are just bits of schtick in a paper-thin plot which casts Fields as the henpecked husband to a thoroughly unpleasant matron.  He has an obnoxious son alongside his daughter, his clerk in the grocery store he owns is thoroughly stupid, his customers are all unpleasant.  Fields gets the notion to sell his grocery store and buy an orange grove in California, but absolutely no one likes the idea, and they all let him know it.

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Most damning of all – Fields doesn’t really seem to say or do anything in this.     We’re probably supposed to see him as a sort of downtrodden everyman, but that’s not how it comes across – he just muddles through the film reacting to things.  His wife is depicted as his worst tormentor, which also didn’t make for a happy viewing – at least twice, she begins a lengthy speech complaining about how dissatisfied she is about something, and his reaction is to quietly sneak away as she yammers on.  Even if you set aside the icky gender politics, it’s also a lost opportunity for Fields to have said or done something that would give a sense of what the hell this guy is like.

Feh.  I’ll hold out for the next Marx Brothers picture.

Movie Crash Course: Triumph Of The Will

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I was not looking forward to this film.  Produced in 1935, Triumph Of the Will is a chronicle of the previous year’s Nazi Party’s national convention in Nuremberg, Germany.  It is beautifully shot, lovingly detailed, and absolute in its admiration; while this film is often categorized as a “documentary”, it’s more accurate to say it’s a fan letter.

I was not expecting for it to be stultifying boring.

I tried to keep an academic mind about this (even though I was literally wincing when I put the DVD in my player).  Critics have pointed to director Leni Riefenstahl’s innovative and gorgeous cinematography – apparently she went to great lengths to get the shots she had in mind. Her crew consisted of 172 people, including 36 cameramen, nine aerial photographers, 17 newsreel men, and 17 lighting men, as well as scores of production assistants. Many of her cameramen dressed in SA uniforms so they could blend into the crowds. Riefenstahl also worked closely with the rally organizers to design the set and stage so as to allow her team the best access and the most striking shots; the stage included everything from a special sunken camera-crew pit set just before the podiums so the cameramen could capture the exact angle she wanted, to a motorized platform just behind a banner at one rally so she could capture the precision of a parade of military men.

Riefenstahl’s attention to detail also captures smaller details – cats lingering in windows watching marching S.S. troops, the dancing reflection of a Nuremberg riverside building festooned with a swastika banner, the excited gleams on the faces of little kids in the crowd clamoring for a space to watch the parade.

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These are all technically skilled shots. But quite frankly, they’re lipstick on a pig; and I’m not only saying that because of the subject matter. No matter how attractive are the shots of the parading S.S. troops, the fact remains that easily 75% of this film is nothing but an monotonous series of parades, drills, and marches. There’s a ten-minute sequence that consists solely of the various S.S. units goose-stepping down the same Nuremberg street past Hitler’s reviewing platform; they march, he salutes, they march on, the next group comes in, does the same thing, they move on, the next comes in, lather, rinse, repeat, for ten full minutes.  I literally kept falling asleep during the last two minutes and had to keep rewinding to rewatch and make sure I hadn’t missed seeing anything else happen.  Ultimately I didn’t need to, because nothing else did happen.

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The speeches are also fairly dull. I expected a frothing rant that I could be properly horrified and chilled by, but none of the speeches – not even the final address from Hitler himself – contained anything that was much different from your average State Of The Union Address; a little bit of “our party is strong”, a little bit of “we are stronger together”, a little bit of “we’re building our way to a bright future”, a little bit of “here is our vision”.  I did shudder at a couple comments from Hitler about ridding the party of “those who are not like us”, but – he was careful not to specify what he meant by that.

There are a couple of sequences that are different enough to stand out (or, that stand out because they’re a little different).  Early on is a scene at the Hitler Youth Campsite, showing crowds of apple-cheeked kids and teens – all boys – carefully washing their faces and hair in the spartan latrines and chipping in to help with toting firewood for the camp stove before gathering for pickup games of wrestling, acrobatics, and other random stunts; every so often Riefenstahl shows us a closeup of a boy laughing in delight.  It comes across as an earnest, somewhat corny sort of thing, like a scout jamboree.  Never mind what these kids are being taught, they’re having fun!

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….There is no similar coverage of any such rally for the girls’ organization.  I cannot speak as to why.

The rally for the Reichsarbeitsdienst, or Reich Labour Service, is a little more serious, and very clearly and carefully scripted. The Labour Service was a quasi-military organization, compulsory for all Germans, which sent adults out to various work camps and work details for six-month stints to do things like build bridges or create roads or work on farms (or, in the case of women, serve in hospitals or do clerical work for the government). Every Labour Service member was issued a shovel, which they treated with pride; the rally opens with a precision drill shovel display before Hitler. But then a smaller team of the service steps forward to give a group vow, reciting that they are laboring in the swamps, in the fields, in the mountains; building roads between towns, repairing damaged bridges, shovels proudly in hand.  A leader in the group steps forward, looks at another man, and asks – “Where are you from?”

“Bavaria!” comes the reply.

The leader looks at another man.  “Where are you from?”

“Hamburg!”

“And you, where are you from?”

“Saxony!”

The leader takes a roll call of a couple more cities or districts before announcing that the labor force has come from all over Germany, to serve as a united force serving the whole of Germany.  It’s pure political theater – yet it is expertly done political theater.  Hitler’s address to the force is brief – at least the piece we see is brief – and consists of Hitler heaping praise upon the unit, declaring that thanks to their efforts, manual labor will no longer be seen as a lower-status profession.  They are to be exalted, for they are rebuilding Germany.

In retrospect, I’ve been thinking that sequence is not dissimilar from more recent political speeches about putting “America First” and pledges to bring back manufacturing jobs.  In 1935, as in 2018, people want to work, and they want the work they do to be treated with dignity. But there are many ways to put people to work, just as there are many ways to ensure a worker has that dignity; compulsory labor service under the aegis of a political party indoctrination gets that job done, but at too high a cost.  Today, we’re going the route of enacting trade tariffs and inflating statistics – a bit better, but still a misguided solution that misses the root of the problem.

But then again, maybe “addressing the jobs crisis” was never the goal anyway.  That sounding-off of German towns didn’t just showcase that “we’re working together to rebuild Germany”, it was also showcasing that “we are the exalted group”.  And any time you single out some people as an exalted group….you diminish those outside the group.  At the time Triumph of The Will was filmed, the “Final Solution” policy was still eight years in the future; but the seeds of it were no doubt laid right here.

This is not to say that the laborers shouldn’t have been given a showcase. The work they were doing was mammoth work, and the people being celebrated had been feeling dangerously downtrodden for a long time.  They were suffering under an economy in shambles following World War I, most of them hearing about elite fashionable artistes living it up in the cities while they struggled.  They were fed up and wanted their share.  The trouble then – as now – was that no one had the vision to state that dignity, equality, and prosperity isn’t like pie – the laborers don’t have to steal their dignity from the musicians, they can both be appreciated for their actions.  The immigrant ditch-digger isn’t stealing a job from the Saxon one – if you hold the people in charge accountable, there will be enough jobs for both.

There was an opportunity for someone to point that out.  No one took that opportunity.  We know what happened next.  And, if we’re not careful, we know what could happen next for us today.

….After watching this film, I permitted myself a palate cleanser.  Watching the “Springtime For Hitler” sequence from the 2005 musical version of The Producers about three times in a row did the trick.