Bigger Than Life
The ‘50s weren’t all Bob Hope and Doris Day comedies. Quite a few American films from that decade were honest assessments of the psychic toll taken during an era where postwar consumer culture and an insidious conformism were coming to define the mainstream of American cultural life. This was the era of the Red Scare and the Hollywood blacklist. It was an era of rigid gender roles, Father Knows Best, and suburban sprawl. The angst of this era was beautifully captured in the films of director Nicholas Ray. He gave us Rebel without a Cause, In a Lonely Place, and Bigger Than Life—all iconic treatises on men at war with themselves and the people who love them.
Nicolas Ray knew something about men in crisis. He had a gift for getting inside the heads of men who were alienated from themselves as well as from those around them. Bigger Than Life ranks as probably his darkest examination into the mind of a man falling apart. To add subversion to the proceeding pathos the main character’s drug-fueled anger and paranoia are best understood as violent psychological manifestations of the quintisentially American obsessions with success, strength, and a patriarchal family structure in which both mother and child are rendered subservient to the whims of an angry, domineering, and vengeful father. In other words, Ray is taking on the 1950s themselves and painting a portrait of a deranged society confined by roles that leave no room for humanity.
Baby Face is the ultimate “Pre-Code” film. The Code was short for “Production Code”—a list of rules written up by pedantic little men working in collusion with the Catholic Church and the reactionary forces of right wing America to strangle out the “vice” in American films. Hollywood all too willingly acquiesced to the Code’s enforcement because the alternative would have been a chaotic mangle of bureaucratic red tape in which state run censorship boards could have conceivably tied up Hollywood product in a mess of legal chaos for any length of time.
The studio moguls would never allow outside organizations to dictate the final cut of their films if they could help it so the alternative was to agree to one official organization that worked with the studios to streamline acts of censorship based on one stupid list of rules that could be referenced for any issue that might strike a nerve with people who had too much time on their hands. Crime could never pay, women could never discuss sex or even pregnancy and never, ever could there be even a hint of homosexuality on screen. This might not be surprising if your exposure to Hollywood films before 1968 is limited to the big celebrated fare—your Wizard of Oz’s and Gone with the Wind’s and such—but there was a brief period before the Code’s enforcement in Hollywood where the age old marketing maxim that “sex sells” was regularly put to the test and was proven to pay in spades.
Stage Door is the rarest kind of film—a film about young women that doesn’t revolve around men. Instead, and perhaps not surprising given what has historically been green lit under the auspices of the term “women’s picture,” the great object of their collective affection is the euphoria of stardom. What these gals really belong to is the third sex—they’re actors. In some cases they are wannabe actors or dreamers and there is an entire New York boarding house full of them. Girls from the sticks and girls with rich fathers, all having come to the big city in pursuit of Broadway glory.
The cast is something of a miracle in that so many of them became showbiz legends later though here their brilliance is already on full display. The cast includes Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, the almighty Eve Arden, and even Lucille Ball. All are uniformly excellent to the point that one could get whiplash from the wisecracks. And boy do the zingers come fast and furious. The bitchiness is leveled with charm, though, because they’re just kids trying to get along in a city that tends to crush more dreams than it fulfills. The film presents the life of a young actress trying to succeed in New York as one of almost constant rejection with the added complication of having to contend with the advances of lecherous producers. But somehow they soldier on because of that blend of hope and chutzpah essential to the profession. They go on dates, they go out for auditions, and they learn to rely on one another when they’re not busy trading insults.
If you know anyone afflicted with a phobia towards classic film this might be a good place to start them. White Heat is one of the darkest, funniest American films ever made with tension as thick as a hangman’s noose. Did you enjoy the film The Dark Knight? Do you remember the opening bank heist scene where the Joker kills off each accomplice as soon as they have served their purpose? Did you like that scene? Of course you did. It’s the best scene of the whole film. Well, White Heat is kind of like the bank heist scene from The Dark Knight. It runs on that kind of gleeful nihilistic energy. It’s more film noir than gangster film, though it is so well performed and well directed that it doesn’t really matter what you call it because it’s in a class by itself.
James Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a psychotic gang leader who plans and executes heists and seems to kill as much for his own kicks as for necessity. Of all the swaggering maniacs Cagney played, Cody Jarrett is his masterpiece. He’s older and slightly heavier than the lithe gangster characters Cagney played in his youth but Cody Jarrett is much more honestly twisted than anything Cagney had done before. He is the terrifying monster lurking beneath Cagney’s portrayals of charming psychopaths. Cody is a mama’s boy. He has headaches that make him run for his mother’s lap. She knows how to comfort him and how to manipulate him.Continue Reading
One of the most beautifully directed and most gorgeously shot films of the 1930s is this stirring account of an Irishman in Dublin in 1922 who betrays his friend and country by turning informer for the British. Gypo Nolan is a big dumb giant of a man with few options in life. Acting as an agent for the Irish Rebellion he refuses to execute one of the members of the British Occupation and is cut off from the network that sustains the Rebels during hopeless economic times. With a girlfriend named Mary whom he finds reduced to walking the street hoping to keep from starving to death, he takes the only opportunity he is offered—that of informing on his friend Frankie who is wanted by the British. Though Gypo originally plans to use the money he makes from double crossing his friend to take Mary to America he instead throws it around on booze and buying fish and chips for a huge crowd of his fellow Irishmen who cheer him on as a hero. When he is exposed as the one who double crossed Frankie he fingers an innocent man as the true culprit before getting shot by members of the Rebellion for his betrayal.
One of the unusual things about The Informer is the way in which Ford turns the tragic story of Gypo Nolan informing on his friend into an allegory for the betrayal of Christ by Judas, but also making Gypo a kind of Christ figure at the same time. The symbolism is anything but subtle. First the film starts with a Biblical passage about Judas betraying Christ, while the scene of Gypo buying fish and chips for a crowd of revelers is clearly inspired by the story of Jesus and the fishes and loaves. By the time Gypo stumbles into the town church bleeding from a gunshot wound, he raises his arms aloft in a Christ pose in front of a statue of Christ on the cross (in case we weren’t getting the picture—we have multiple examples of a very heavy handed kind of symbolism at work). And yet the film works because of the arresting performances, exquisite cinematography, and, while the symbolism is overbearing at times, Ford’s conflation of Judas and Christ into one character, albeit uneven, is undeniably affecting.Continue Reading
A Night At The Opera
The Marx Brothers - Groucho, Chico, and Harpo - were actual brothers (their early stage act included another brother, Gummo, and in a couple early films he was replaced by Zeppo). Going from Vaudeville to Broadway then to the big screen, the Marx Brothers were a completely original act. Their formula, which is still in use today, was the classic snobs vs. the slobs, but what really made them memorable was the mix of smartass one-liners (from Groucho and Chico) and fantastic physical comedy (usually associated with the mute Harpo). After a half dozen films that progressively got better they really hit their stride with Duck Soup in 1933 and then made their true masterpiece with their next film, A Night At The Opera, a perfectly subversive film and still one of the funniest screen comedies of all time.
Groucho plays Otis B. Driftwood, a con man working the Opera scene in Italy. He is hired by the clueless widow, Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), to help her break into proper society. Meanwhile the egomaniacal star of the opera, Lassparri (Walter Woolf King), abuses his dresser (Harpo) and sexually harasses the company’s young ingÃ©nue, Rosa (Kitty Carlisle), who is in love with the less successful, but equally talented tenor, Riccardo (Allan Jones, playing the Zeppo, straight man role). Riccardo is managed by Fiorello (Chico) who hustles Otis into signing him to a contract. As the opera company sets sail to New York the three Marx Brothers follow it in order to help the young lovers reunite, make some cash, and bring down the arrogant Lassparri.Continue Reading
Based on Sinclair Lewis’s controversial, apparently dangerous 1927 novel of the same name, Elmer Gantry opens with a note from the producers warning that children should not see this film. Why all the hubbub? It’s a film about religion. More specifically it’s about a drunken, womanizing, two-bit salesman (Burt Lancaster) who hooks up with a true believer, a lady minister (Jean Simmons), and they become a big-time preaching duo. But things get ugly when his lusty old ways come back to haunt him, the con gets ugly. Yes, keep the children away.
Lewis’s massive book was apparently banned in some parts of the country (can you guess which?) for questioning the true faith of those who are worshipped for their religious zealism. Based somewhat on the famous Pentecostal evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, apparently the film version is only a small fraction of the book. I would guess that, though controversial in its own right, the film's “controversial” aspects may have been watered down - 1960’s Hollywood was still in the last days of control by the Hayes Office which had the power to censor material it found offensive, luckily for art’s sake that power was ebbing.Continue Reading
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
I've seen other movies with Elizabeth Taylor in them. She is particularly wonderful as a sickly child serenely accepting her impending death in the Orson Welles version of Jayne Eyre. Still, her performance as Maggie in Tennessee Williams's steamy Southern melodrama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is what I'll always remember most vividly.
It was the fifth Tennessee Williams play to be adapted for the movies and is perhaps the most famous example of his hot-and-bothered Southern style being given the celluloid treatment. Paul Newman plays Brick, the alcoholic son of a Mississippi plantation owner (Burl Ives) with the excellent name of Big Daddy. Brick's wife, Maggie, struggles to understand why their marriage has deteriorated to the point where he barely looks at her. This is understandably unconscionable because his wife is Elizabeth Taylor in her prime as one of the most gorgeous women of her day.Continue Reading
Back in 1958 Vertigo was considered a misfire from the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, but now over 50 years later, with a strong restoration and a number of clever reissues, many deem it one of Hitch’s best films and maybe his most personal. Like Notorious before it, underneath the suspense it’s a love story, but a twisted kind of love, obsession. Jimmy Stewart finishes off his Hitchcock trifecta after The Man Who Knew Too Much and Rear Window (not counting the much earlier Rope), putting a twist on his everyman and giving one of the most complicated psychological performances of his career. Vertigo also proves to be career peaks for the stunning Kim Novak and for film composer Bernard Herrman. If you can get past some of the plottyness of the film's first act Vertigo proves to be a film worth obsessing over.
The film is based on the novel The Living And The Dead by the French writing team of Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud, who also wrote the deliberately Hitchcockian thriller Les Diaboliques (whose film version by Henri-Georges Clouzot had a big impact on Hitch and helped to push him in the more shocking direction that lead to Psycho and later Frenzy).Continue Reading
The Loved One
Besides being one of the funniest, yet strangest comedies ever made, The Loved One may be the greatest satire of life in Los Angeles during the 1960s and has one of the most eclectic, but well used casts of all time (including Jonathan Winters in dual roles, Robert Morse, Milton Berle, Rod Steiger, John Gielgud, Paul Williams, Tab Hunter, Roddy McDowall…oh, and Liberace). Morse plays Dennis Barlow, a young British poet who shows up in Los Angeles to visit his uncle, Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud), a film studio worker. After the uncle dies Dennis gets involved with Aimee (Anjanette Comer), an employee at the sinister funeral home, Whispering Glades.
Based on the book by the big-time British novelist Evelyn Waugh (Brideshead Revisited), The Loved One was adapted for the screen by the American satirist Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove) and the haughty author and critic Christopher Isherwood (A Single Man). To make this motley crew even more improbable it was directed British filmmaker Tony Richardson who arose to much acclaim during the “angry young man” movement of British filmmaking in the late '50s and early '60s and won an Oscar for Tom Jones. But after The Loved One, he was never able to find his filmmaking footing. The film was shot beautifully in black and white, giving a crisp, yet gothic look to the Los Angeles locations, by legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, Bound For Glory) and it was edited by the soon-to-be-major director of the '70s, Hal Ashby (Harold And Maude, Coming Home). All of these very improbable voices came together to create one of the more unique films of the decade.Continue Reading