For Me and My Gal

August 22, 2012 § 1 Comment

for me and my gal

For modern viewers, identifying with the knee-jerk patriotism of the World War II-era movies can be a hurdle.  For those of us born in a post-Vietnam era, the war-bonds-and-victory-gardens trappings of those movies aren’t processed the same way as they were when they were released. Take, for instance, Gene Kelly’s character in the musical For Me and My Gal. In this film–set during the Great War but filmed during World War II–Kelly recognizes the talent of fellow vaudevillian Judy Garland, and convinces her to join his act. After a bit of waffling on Kelly’s part, the two fall in love, all the while dreaming for an invitation to play the Palace, the ultimate destination for top-notch vaudeville performers. But the same day they finally get news that their big break is imminent, Kelly receives a draft notice. In a fit of panic, he slams his hand in a trunk, permanently disabling himself–and ensuring that he’s not fit for duty in the process. Appalled at what he’s done, Garland breaks things off with him. He, of course, must find a way to win her back.

Upon viewing the first cut of this movie, viewers were upset by the ending–they felt that Kelly’s romantic rival, played by George Murphy, deserved to win Judy’s heart more than Kelly did, despite getting one-tenth of Kelly’s screen time. So what did MGM do? They went back to the back lot and filmed a handful more scenes–including one where Kelly manages to pull off some battlefield heroics despite not being a soldier. Voila!-wartime audiences were appeased and the movie was happily received.

The problem is that the additional scenes don’t really help to redeem Kelly’s character. During wartime, they probably carried an extra weight–he regretted his purposely disabling himself so much that it pushed him to save several lives; that has to cancel out the fact that he did it in the first place, right? But nowadays, those scenes read differently, because the intentional injury is hardly the worst thing he did in his partnership with Garland. Kelly’s character is still a jerk. His wartime rescues don’t make him a better boyfriend or a better business partner. He still is the cad who manipulated Garland’s character into working with him, who cozied up to an opera singer in hopes she could get them better gigs, and who throws temper tantrums when he doesn’t get the biggest dressing room. While he redeems himself for the injury, he never redeems himself for the rest of that. The preview audiences were right: the wrong guy did get the gal. They were just wrong about why.

Further reading:

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Christmas in Connecticut

December 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

The set-up for this movie is utterly ridiculous, but the pay-off is so adorable I can forgive it. The first time I watched Christmas in Connecticut, I texted my best friend, “I’m watching this bizarre movie where soldiers pretend to propose marriage to nurses, solely to get home-cooked meals out of them.” And that’s half the premise for this movie: sailor Jefferson Jones, rescued from a raft after his ship was sunk by a u-boat, flirts with his nurse so that she’ll hook him up with better food. He eludes her suggestions of marriage, though, which she ascribes to his “never having had a real home” growing up–so she arranges for him to spend the holidays at the home of Smart Housekeeping columnist Elizabeth Lane, a home front Martha Stewart type. And here’s the other half of the movie’s premise: while Mrs. Lane depicts herself in the magazine pages as a model housewife, complete with doting husband, bouncing baby, and Connecticut farmhouse . . . in reality she’s an unmarried New Yorker, dependent on take-out and putting off marriage offers from a long-term boyfriend. After her publisher forces her into the bring-a-soldier-home-for-the-holidays publicity scheme, she’s forced to cobble together something resembling domestic perfection on the fly. Screwball antics ensue, but Elizabeth doesn’t find it quite so funny when she starts falling for Mr. Jones . . .

Old comedies can be touchy–to modern eyes, the humor can be too hokey, too dated, too wacky. But the humor really worked for me here; it was enjoyable without going to too far over the top. And while I liked the two leads together, the film did, unfortunately, strike one of my old movie nerves in regards to its love triangle.  In 1930s and ’40s movies, and occasionally even into some later ones, a woman is generally considered “single” until she’s married, with the unattached partner in a love triangle free to guiltlessly pursue her until the moment she actually says her vows–and even then it’s no serious moral failing to keep pushing her to stray, as Jefferson Jones does here. (Of course, if they do actually stray, then by Hays Code injunction, they must be Severely Punished to Discourage Copycat Offenders. But here it’s okay because even though he thinks she’s married, she’s not! Nothing wrong with that!) To a modern viewer, this comes off as mighty cold–modern rom-coms generally require a little more compunction for chasing after a taken woman. I should be used to it by now, fan of golden-era musicals (in all their partner-swapping glory) that I am, but it still always throws me for a loop, as it did here. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to shake my preference for the men who stand politely on the sidelines until their number’s called, so to speak.

To make up for it, though, we have all that glorious food. I love to cook, butone of my niche obsessions is cooking history–the trends and dishes associated with a particular era–and for that, Christmas in Connecticut is a goldmine. A few years back, Raquelle put together a menu based on the movie: Chicken Maryland! Plum pudding! Strawberries Chantilly! They don’t make food like that anymore . . . which, in some cases, is probably for the best.

The Man Who Came to Dinner

December 8, 2011 § 1 Comment

The Man Who Came to Dinner is, hands down, my favorite Christmas movie. In it, radio personality Sheridan Whiteside is invited to dine at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley of Mesalia, Ohio, just before Christmastime. On his way up their icy front steps, he slips and falls, breaking his hip. Confined to their house for the entire holiday season, he entertains himself by making himself at home: receiving dinner guests of his own, terrorizing his nurse and monopolizing the domestics, meddling in the family’s affairs . . . and don’t forget receiving elaborate Christmas presents, like the crate of penguins from Antarctic explorer Admiral Byrd, which he allows free reign of the Stanleys’ library.

Monty Woolley is hilarious as unwanted house guest Sheridan Whiteside, and Bette Davis is just Bette Davis enough to play off his barbs in her role as his assistant. With the two of them spending the entire movie sparring and scheming, the entire film has enough bite to cut through the usual holiday comedy treacle. I prefer my holiday films with a little bit of acid mixed in with the sugar–of which The Man Who Came to Dinner doesn’t neglect, with a love-at-first-sight affair between Bette Davis and the local newspaperman.

Not everybody prefers that acidity, though. Popular opinion on this film is highly divided between those who find Whiteside’s reign of terror hilarious and those who find it sadistic and uncomfortable to watch. And while I usually fall into the latter camp while watching movies and TV–I get mad at Leslie on Parks & Rec when she’s mean to Jerry!–Sheridan Whiteside is so over the top, so downright absurd, that I can’t help laughing. And it definitely helps if you’re able to get the jokes. The first time I saw this, my freshman year of college, I found it amusing, but there were so many then-current pop culture references that I didn’t understand, so a lot of the film flew over my head. Now, with three solid years of classic movie-watching (and a little history-reading) under my belt, I actually know who Deanna Durbin and ZaSu Pitts are, who the characters of Beverly Carlton and Banjo are supposed to reference. That makes the whole thing a hell of a lot funnier. While Bette Davis gets much more praise for her dramatic acting than for her skills in comedy, I genuinely do enjoy her funnier films. Her intelligence has a way of elevating any film she’s in, regardless of the script, and I always appreciate her comedic turns just as much as I do the dramatic ones. And when she’s blessed with a clever script like this one . . .

As a final bonus, there’s Monty Woolley’s amazing mustache. I mean . . . come on.

Holiday Affair

December 4, 2011 § 2 Comments

This is a cute little confection of a holiday movie, although–in my admittedly biased opinion–it suffers from the same problem as a lot of holiday movies, which is that it’s overly reliant on a Cute Kid to tug at our heartstrings and move the plot forward. I’m biased against Cute Kids. I want them out of my movies. As children go, I suppose this one isn’t that bad, though, and the lightweight little love triangle works for me. Janet Leigh tries to decide between just-fired toy salesman Robert Mitchum and steady boyfriend/lawyer Wendell Corey–although, as Mitchum points out late in the film, it’s really not just a triangle since Janet’s dead husband is still just as alive to her as any of the men courting her. Throw in a little bit of Christmas shopping, some roasted chestnuts, and a picturesque snowfall or two, and you’ve got a solid movie to watch while you curl up with a mug of hot cocoa and a blanket or two.

And this is how you do a love triangle, folks. No making the original partner an obviously weaker option than the secondary partner. No making the original partner a jerk, leaving the audience to wonder what the protagonist saw in them in the first place. No last-second personality whiplash on the original partner’s part, justifying the protagonist leaving them. No killing off one party or forcing him to cheat or moving him halfway across the country. You just have two equally “worthy” candidates and you let the protagonist choose the one she likes best. The one who loses bows out gracefully–or, in this case, bows out gracefully in anticipation of a loss. This is a love triangle for grown-ups.

Of course, the risk you run with a grown-up love triangle is that it doesn’t successfully convince your audience that your protagonist made the right choice. I like to call this Sleepless in Seattle Syndrome. “But Bill Pullman was such a nice guy!” they say. “Why would she leave somebody she’s stable and comfortable with? He didn’t cheat on her, he treated her well, he supported her. She’s going to regret that.” The answer, being, of course, that sometimes people fall in love with people for no logical reason whatsoever. That’s love. It’s what it does.

Mildred Pierce

December 2, 2011 § 1 Comment

Mildred Pierce is a women’s weepie baked in a film noir crust. Knowing that the source material was from crime writer James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity), I assumed that the noir aspect of this film was his, too. After watching, I was surprised to find out that Cain’s novel pretty closely follows the “weepie” portion of the film, with nary a bullet fired. The noir framing device was added by screenwriters due to pressure from the Breen Office, for reasons I shall not spoil. (The Kate Winslet Mildred Pierce miniseries follows the book much more closely, if that’s what you’re into.)

The movie opens with bullets fired in a beach house, taking down mustachioed Monty Beragon. We don’t see the killer, although we do hear Monty gasp, “Mildred!” before he dies. Shortly after, we see a fur-clad Mildred on a foggy pier, appearing to contemplate jumping off. A policeman persuades her not to, and in the extended intro that follows, she has a drink with old friend Wally Fay, who expresses surprise that she’s learned to drink good liquor, and invites him back to the beach house where Monty’s body still lies on the floor. They head downstairs without noticing him, though, and here Mildred slips out the back, leaving Wally to be apprehended by the police when he finally discovers the corpse in the living room. Soon afterward, the cops take Mildred down to the station to get her side of the story, where we get into the flashbacks that form the bulk of the film.

The film deliberately plays with us here, with the fur coat, taste for expensive booze, and the disappearing act all implying that Mildred will be the femme fatale in what is already a very shadowy noir . . . then immediately flashing back to a sunny California bungalow where the very same Mildred wears an apron and bakes pies. She’s the mother to two children, spoiled Veda and tomboyish Kay, and wife to Bert, although their marriage is on the rocks. As the flashback unfolds, Bert and Mildred divorce, and Mildred must learn to support herself and the girls–at first as a waitress, much to Veda’s dismay, and then as the owner of an ever-increasing chain of restaurants. Meanwhile, Mildred is falling for her business partner, the wealthy playboy Monty Beragon.

Still playing with us, the film’s actual femme fatale is the innocent-looking Veda. And Mildred’s fatal flaw is that she can’t see her daughter for what she really is, toiling at the restaurants so that V. can have the best of everything–dresses, singing lessons, new cars–while Veda schemes and social-climbs behind her mother’s back and humiliates her to her face. Equally spoiled is Mildred’s boyfriend Monty, who grew up rich but no longer has as much money as everyone thinks, and who’s taken to accepting handouts from Mildred as her business empire grows. Slightly better at recognizing his sins than Veda’s, Mildred breaks up with him, but their separation doesn’t last long . . . which leads us to the disastrous conclusion of our story: a retelling of the murder in the opening scene, this time with the blanks filled in. Throughout Mildred’s tale, evidence has mounted up as to exactly who committed the murder in the opening scene. The question that remains is why?

Mildred Pierce is a one-of-a-kind film. Most noirs are centered entirely around the worlds of men, detective offices and dark alleys–but this one takes place in sun-soaked kitchens. Women in traditional noir play victims or femmes fatales, but never does the story center around them. In Mildred Pierce, the entire film is about Mildred and Veda’s relationship with each other; the men in their world are merely satellites. (In fact, the gender flip is completed by Monty functioning as something of a femme fatale–homme fatale?–himself.) Despite this, one can also make an argument for the story’s inherent sexism. While Mildred is a business tycoon–far more successful in that realm than any of the film’s men–by the end of the story, she’s lost it all. As in all good Greek tragedies, Mildred’s inability to see Veda clearly causes her own downfall, the decimation of both her career and personal life. Are we supposed to see this as a punishment for her stepping beyond the traditional confines of the “woman’s sphere”? Or is it simply collateral damage, with Mildred casting off all her tethers into the proverbial fire, in order to start anew?

Don’t tell me the lights are shining anyplace but there: the World’s Fair on Film

June 24, 2011 § 2 Comments

Chicago’s White City of 1893 was a quintessential American city, forced up out of marshland by sheer willpower and molded into Venetian-style waterways framed by magnificent Beaux Arts buildings just in time for the World’s Columbian Exposition to open, then abandoned to fire and decay as it drew to a close. It was a beautiful spectacle. One visitor described it:  “. . . there are some people who are letting the chance of seeing this White City, that rose like a Venus from the waters of Lake Michigan, slip from them forever. They are missing the greatest event in the history of the country since the Civil War.” It inspired two of America’s greatest wonderlands: L. Frank Baum’s Emerald City of Oz and Walt’s Disneyworld. And yet despite this, it’s never been the setting for a film. That drought will allegedly end in 2013, when Leonardo DiCaprio adapts Erik Larson’s spectacular book The Devil in the White City to the screen. In the meantime, I set out to find a few other fair-set films to enjoy . . .

Centennial Summer (set during the Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia, 1876)
The film: Fox’s response to the popularity of Meet Me in St. Louis (see below) was to put out their own world’s fair-set period musical. Jeanne Crain and Linda Darnell are sisters who compete for the love of a Frenchman who’s come to town to prepare the French pavilion for the Centennial Exposition. The fair: Despite fears of an international boycott, the United States’ first official world fair went off without a hitch. This exposition was the first to feature a women’s pavilion, and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Heinz ketchup both made their debuts. The arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty were on display during the latter half of the fair, and for fifty cents, you could climb up to the torch’s balcony; these fees helped to fund the creation of the rest of the statue.

So Long at the Fair (set during the Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1889)
The film: This 1950 British suspense film features Jean Simmons and David Tomlinson as siblings who venture to Paris for its world fair. After a night of Paris revelry, though, Jean awakens to find that every trace that her brother ever set foot in Paris–from his signature in the hotel’s guest book to his hotel room itself–has disappeared, and the hotel’s owners claim he was never there. Jean teams up with Dirk Bogarde–the only other person in Paris who remembers interacting with her brother– to solve the case of his disappearance. The fair: Held to celebrate the centennial of the storming of the Bastille, the Paris Exposition of 1889 is most famous for introducing the Eiffel Tower to the Parisian skyline. At the time, the statue was much hated and considered an eyesore. Writer Guy de Maupassant, when asked why he ate lunch at the Eiffel Tower’s restaurant most days despite hating the structure, responded that the reason he ate there was that it was the only place in Paris where you couldn’t see the Tower! Overseas, things were a little different–four years later in Chicago, the desire to outdo the Eiffel Tower led to the creation of the first Ferris wheel.

Meet Me in St. Louis (set during the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, 1904)
The film: This is, of course, the mother of all fair films, but the fair itself is mostly a framing device that only truly appears in the charming last scene of the film. The plot is a loosely connected series of vignettes about the Smith family and their five children (including Margaret O’Brien and Judy Garland at her most wonderful), culminating in Mr. Smith’s anguish-inducing announcement that he’ll move the family to New York for a job, taking them away from all their friends and new beaux–not to mention causing them to miss the upcoming world’s fair!. The musical, which used a mix of period songs (“Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis,” “Under the Bamboo Tree”) and ones written specifically for the film (“The Trolley Song,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) to great effect, inspired a number of other period musicals over the next few years, including On Moonlight Bay, The Belle of New York, and the world fair-set Centennial Summer. The fair: The 1904 Olympics, which had originally been awarded to Chicago, were relocated to St. Louis in order to be held concurrently with the exposition. Things were run so poorly–with the events being spread out over months and many non-American athletes not attending–that it nearly killed the Olympics off entirely. The fair was well known for popularizing ice cream served in waffle cones, and many other food products–from peanut butter to Dr. Pepper–were introduced or popularized there as well.

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (set during the Golden Gate Exposition, San Francisco, 1939)
The film: Sidney Toler stars as the controversial Chinese-American detective, who investigates the death of his friend after he supposedly commits suicide on a flight home to San Francisco. This film, like the Elvis one below, was not a period piece, being filmed and released at the same time it supposedly took place. The world’s fair setting is mostly a gimmick, since it barely appears. The fair: This exposition celebrated the completion of the city’s two new bridges, the Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge. Treasure Island is an artificial island created specifically for the fair; afterwards, it was used as a naval base.

It Happened at the World’s Fair (set during the Century 21 Exposition, Seattle, 1962)
The film: Of all the world’s fair films, this Elvis Presley vehicle actually gives us our biggest glimpse at the fair itself–from the Space Needle to the monorail–as Elvis and his friend spend most of the movie hustling for money to buy back their cropduster. (Yeah, I think they were running out of plots at this point in Elvis’s career.) Taking the “cute kid” conceit of earlier Elvis films to its logical extreme, Elvis plays baby-sitter to a girl named Sue-Lin, who herself plays matchmaker between Elvis and Joan O’Brien, a nurse working at the fair. The fair: The Cold War colored all aspects of the 1950s, including the plans for this fair. Its intention was to prove that the United States wasn’t behind the Soviet Union, science and technology-wise, which led to this exposition’s focus on the future. The Cold War would play an additional role in the closing ceremony of the fair, when John F. Kennedy’s scheduled appearance was canceled due to what was later discovered to be the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Seattle fair also included an “adults only” portion, including naked “Girls of the Galaxy” and an R-rated puppet show. Don’t wait for any of that to show up in the Elvis film, though!

The Letter (1940)

August 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Letter begins with a literal bang–or rather, six of them. The opening shot, panning over the dreamy, moonlit grounds of a Malayan rubber plantation, is interrupted by Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) emptying a revolver into Geoffrey Hammond. The plantation workers rush over. Someone runs off to find Davis’s husband and the police. Once they arrive, she reluctantly recounts the whole sordid story for them: Hammond attempted to rape her; she shot only in self-defense. Though her account is pitch-perfect, punctuated by the appropriate stagy sobs and adoring glances at her husband, we know right off the bat that something’s just a little bit . . . off. Her lawyer, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) isn’t fully convinced, either. When the officer notes that the corpse was “just riddled with bullets,” you can see the gears beginning to shift in Joyce’s brain. All of this occurs in the film’s first fifteen minutes–and then we’re off and running alongside Joyce as he starts to unravel the web Leslie weaves.

The British colonies, be they Asian, American or African, are some of my favorite film settings. Any story with a colonial setting will work, but especially the Brits–I love the palpable danger you sense as they pull this paper-thin veneer of white linen and garden parties across a culture that’s about to bubble over with heat and oppression. Even the otherwise most run-of-the-mill pictures, the ones that were ignored when they were released, offer plenty for the modern viewer to dissect if they’re placed within a colonial frame. The racial tension and stereotyping of “the natives” are a given. But with a richly drawn movie like The Letter, the white characters give us plenty to analyze, too. Far from home, they’re allowed to act in ways that would never have been allowed in the panopticon of British society. This is especially true for the ladies, any one of whom may be the only white woman for miles, surrounded by plenty of intelligent, ambitious white men making their fortunes on the plantations . . .

And so it plays out in The Letter. Interestingly enough, the two characters who hold the most power are the women: Leslie Crosbie, and Mr. Hammond’s Anglo-Asian widow (played by the very white Gale Sondergaard, naturally). The movie’s men are all pawns, go-betweens, and dupes. The only time men hold even a parody of power is when the all-male jury is allowed to vote on Leslie’s innocence or guilt–but even then, it’s she who manipulated their decision. Not only are women the ones with the power, but in a further twist, it’s Mrs. Hammond–the “Eurasian,” the outsider, the supposed inferior–who holds the upper hand over Leslie. Throughout the movie, all the things that Leslie wants belong to her, and both of them know it. But the audience doesn’t . . . until Leslie goes to see her in the Chinese section of Singapore to acquire the titular letter. The camera lingers on the “exotic” decor, emphasizing that we’ve passed beyond the borders of Leslie’s territory.  It’s Mrs. Hammond and her associates who give the orders here–and in a scene that provides both Joyce and the audience with a visceral aha! moment, Mrs. Hammond drops the letter to the floor and forces Leslie to kneel before her in order to pick it up. Leslie slowly stoops to retrieve it, without comment. Now we see–like the women–who’s been pulling the strings all along.

Of course, none of this is real power: the white men still run the companies, the police headquarters, the law offices. But for a movie that’s so blatantly racist on the surface–Gale Sondergaard in yellowface, Wily Oriental and Dragon Lady stereotypes galore–it’s a fascinating turn.

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