What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a movie lodged right into our pop cultural DNA somewhere between Psycho and Stonewall, and I would wager that its reputation as a “camp classic” might precede it to the film’s detriment because its greatness is in spite of its cultural baggage as a Hollywood Babylon-style punch line. Throughout the years since its release the film has been referenced, paid homage to, and parodied more times than I probably know about. There’s just something about the premise of two notorious aging movie queens tearing into one another—no one seems able to resist that glamorously morbid premise. By the early 1960s Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were at the point in their careers where they had to spoof themselves in a Hollywood horror story to get the attention of an audience that had long since deserted them. It was a risk that paid off and ultimately redefined the kinds of roles being offered to aging movie stars. …Baby Jane? was more than just a sleeper hit that resuscitated a few careers; it became a phenomenon that helped spawn a whole cottage industry of films starring has-been actresses pouring on the fake blood and brandishing pick axes. People wanted to see these one-time "it girls" playing murderous grandmas. It was the age of the Hagsploitation horror flick and …Baby Jane? was the one that started it all.
But let me reiterate, I come to praise What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as a sharp Hollywood satire, not to bury it under more faint praise as a “camp classic,” though there’s no denying it’s the Shakespearian gold standard for that. The problem is that identifying something as camp tends to negate it as anything other than a joke—even a knowing joke— and what makes What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? memorable goes far beyond its kitsch value. It’s a darkly comic satire in the vein of Sunset Boulevard but with weirder and more compelling characters. And it’s not just Davis and Crawford who remind us of why they were great to begin with. The supporting cast is just as good as they are—Victor Buono as the portly would-be suitor and artistic collaborator of Jane is particularly excellent. And in Robert Aldrich the film has a curiously awesome choice for a director. Aldrich could be described as a man’s man kind of director who made war pictures and nasty offbeat noirs like Kiss Me Deadly. Hiring him to direct a movie about two old Hollywood legends at each other’s throats was an inspired choice. Aldrich liked perversity and clearly the innate perversity of the film’s premise must have appealed to him. But he also locates the pathos in the characters and makes us care about what happens to them. It’s hard to categorize What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as anything other than a classic. It’s a Hollywood satire, it’s a lurid tragedy, a gothic noir of sorts - kind of horrific, certainly camp, and very funny. It has much to say about the two legendary leads and their notorious dislike of each other as it does about an industry that treats women terribly.Continue Reading
Bad Day at Black Rock
I wish the screenplay for Bad Day at Black Rock was taught in screenwriting classes as a model example of how to craft a perfect thriller. Ideally it might inspire a confidence in economic storytelling that students today would have little familiarity with. An incredibly suspenseful movie that lasts just 81 minutes, Bad Day at Black Rock could be the perfect corrective to every lousy impulse by movie executives to lard up a story with overkill. I think that’s the real problem with modern studio fare. Lest their movies be ignored by an increasingly fractured and distracted audience, movies nowadays are oversold into oblivion. Even trailers are exhausting to watch. It’s a simple case of too much information at every turn. As far as Hollywood is concerned, a film that treats the audience like adults with the capacity to figure things out for themselves is a risky prospect for the 15-year-old fan boy market and, at this point, what’s not good for the fan boys is not good for Hollywood’s bottom line. And this all-pervasive tendency for movies to be too long and too obvious even extends to the contemporary thriller where it tends to spoil them from the outset.
The mantra of a good screenwriter is "show, don’t tell" but the inclination of most movie people nowadays is show, tell, and then add a commentary track to the DVD that spells out even more useless information. It can be said that independent film has created a forum for more offbeat storytelling, but there was a time when a good story was enough reason for a big studio such as MGM to produce it. Which brings us to the case of Bad Day at Black Rock. It represents the antithesis of the overkill approach.Continue Reading
“A mob doesn’t think. It doesn’t have time to think.” - Sylvia Sidney as Katherine Grant
Fritz Lang wasted no time in establishing his reputation in Hollywood as the master architect of the thriller. His first American film after having fled Hitler’s Germany is a searing indictment of the dark side of the American character that pulsates with an almost unbearable tension for its first half as a collision of combustible elements in a small town ignites into a shocking act of cold blooded mob violence. Lang wanted to do a film about the culture of public lynching in the U.S. and the curiously grotesque party atmosphere that has historically accompanied them. He felt that his protagonist would have to be guilty of the crime for which he was being lynched and that he should be African American in order for the story to truly resonate in this country and for the film to have the maximum impact. MGM would never agree to either of these stipulations, so he geared his story around a young Spencer Tracy as an American everyman in the wrong place at the wrong time, who faces the full unhinged brutality of a mob of townspeople calling for his blood.Continue Reading
I enjoyed Pillow Talk but I’m wracking my brain on how to justify why I liked it. It shouldn’t be that hard. It’s a colossally stupid movie to be sure, but then is profundity really the hallmark of a well made Hollywood film? A lot of the best movies produced under the studio system were always the end result of a delicate interplay between cynical studio ridiculousness and genuine artistry. No one would confuse Pillow Talk for a work of art even by Hollywood standards. Frankly I’m not even sure I’d call it a smart romantic comedy. Doris Day and Rock Hudson aren’t exactly Tracy and Hepburn. She is frighteningly perky and he has no comedic instincts whatsoever. What they embody isn’t really depth or wit or chemistry, but instead I think what sold the public on them is how happily “normal” they seemed during a tumultuous era in American history. They were movie stars for the age of television. They weren’t so much of the 1950s as of a perrenial 1950s mindset. If the fifties were the decade where conformity was next to godliness then conventional wisdom has it that Day and Hudson were its thoughtless, grinning poster children—Mr. & Mrs. McCarthy Era.
But their first onscreen pairing in Pillow Talk wasn’t until 1959 which leads me to conclude that instead of being a kind of cultural apex for a dull decade, Pillow Talk was really a last gasp of a reactionary hold over Hollywood. Bonnie & Clyde and the rise of a more sophisticated European art house influenced American cinema were only 7 years away. By 1959 Americans in-the-know were already getting their first taste of cinema in a radically different idiom from the likes of Fellini, Antonioni, Godard, and Bergman to name a few. Pillow Talk, then, is retrograde even by 1959 standards and, as such, was already shorthand for how out-of-touch Hollywood filmmaking had become, fair dismissal or not.Continue Reading
On the Waterfront
Elia Kazan is one of the most passionate and intelligent directors of classic cinema. Even surrounded by controversy in his time, he continued to make films in which he knew exactly what he wanted to say to the American audience, who emitted a mixed response towards the film.
On the Waterfront is no exception. The idea of the screenplay, written by Budd Schulberg, was formed after The New York Sun put out an expose series about a 1948 murder of a hiring boss on the New York waterfront. The stories, reported by Malcolm Johnson, explained the corruption, extortion, and killings of everyday life on the waterfront. The protagonist of the film, Terry Malloy, played by Marlon Brando, is an ex-prizefighter who becomes a longshoreman. His character is based on real-life longshoreman Anthony DiVincenzo, who recounted his story to writer Budd Schulberg. This is not a typical mob-story. It deals with the Waterfront Crime Commision, was filmed on location around the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey, and alludes to issues of loyalty and truth within post-war American society.Continue Reading
The Girl Can’t Help It
The Girl Can’t Help It is a pop art explosion of retina melting Deluxe Color insanity built around several incredible performances from some of rock 'n' roll’s earliest and best groups. It could have been just another teensploitation picture meant to capitalize on American teenage culture of the mid-1950s and the “fad” of rock 'n' roll music, but in the hands of director Frank Tashlin it becomes a delirious candy colored satire of the music industry and the commoditization of sex to sell records.
Frank Tashlin started his career as an animator for Looney Tunes, and it is said that his cartoons were more like films and his films were more like cartoons. There is a gleeful anarchic streak that runs through his movies, and the clever satire of American life that was his directorial hallmark can be as essential to understanding the America of the 1950s as the work of Douglas Sirk (Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows). Tashlin worked with a lot of musical comedy performers that we consider pretty hokey now (Bob Hope, Martin & Lewis, Doris Day) but it’s surprising how smart and genuinely funny the films in which he directed them are. He was a proto pop artist using the shiny gaudy images he created as a send up of celebrity, advertising, and pop culture and their detrimental effect on the American public. Although he had no great love for rock 'n’ roll, with The Girl Can’t Help It Tashlin inadvertently made one of the best rock 'n’ roll movies of all time.Continue Reading
When I read the play "Born Yesterday," a comedy written by Garson Kanin, I was dying to watch the adapted classic film. The tale itself is so simple yet brilliant: a Pygmalion story. A man shapes a woman into his likeness and then falls in love with her. Add on a backdrop set in post-World War II in a hotel with a view of the White House, and the story becomes politically analytical. Kanin weaves his characters and elements together so flawlessly, in a manner that asks the audience to think about morality, social class, relations between the sexes, and intelligence subconsciously, while watching the plot unfold.
I finally had a chance to watch the film, and Judy Holliday and William Holden arrested my attention full-heartedly.Continue Reading
Morgan!: A Suitable Case for Treatment
I volunteer, in an unofficial capacity, that David Warner could play with intelligence and wit any part offered to him. Misogynistic art film buffs will fondly remember his uncredited role in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, 80s comedy fans know him best as vampire hunting Professor McCarthy in My Best Friend is a Vampire, and a certain blog writer can’t choose between his best performances, as Evil Genius in Time Bandits and Jack the Ripper in Time after Time. Warner’s rugged, sculpted features and his Royal Shakespeare Company training have made him one of the most versatile and charismatic film actors, on par with other distinctive, powerful talents like Stephen Rea and Harvey Keitel. Warner gives his leading man performance in Morgan! with such ease and virtuosity, it’s incredible that he’s so often been relegated to smaller roles. His is a rather unlikeable character: a juvenile underproductive artist with a complex involving gorillas and Communism, financially supported by his soon to be ex-wife. Vanessa Redgrave does a lot with a thin role as his rich, unappreciated spouse who has transferred her affections to Morgan’s oleaginous art dealer. Already suffering from (or in Morgan’s case thoroughly enjoying) delusions and fantasies, his wife’s ambivalent reaction to his attempts to win her back makes him lose his grasp of reality.
Morgan! is a seminal film in the Mod movement that flourished in England during a short period from the early to mid-1960s. Mod filmmakers like John Schlesinger, Richard Lester, and Karel Reisz transitioned from “kitchen sink” documentaries funded by the British government to Mod’s more vibrant, stylized aesthetic, some of them then continuing on to more commercial careers. While there has been controversy amongst sociologists as to whether the Mod movement was a working- class rebellion against mass-produced culture or an embracement of consumerism across class barriers, Mod filmmakers firmly posited Mod style as a youth-oriented rebellion against the previous generations mores, characterized in film by a stylized aesthetic and structure, portrayals of sexual liberty, and a quirky, if hit-or-miss sense of humor.Continue Reading
The Red Shoes
The first time I heard a reference to Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes was Wes Anderson discussing it as cinematographic inspiration for the Royal Tenenbaums--one of my favorite films. I knew then that I HAD to see The Red Shoes and wasn't surprised when the film begins with a book being opened, just as Wes Anderson begins his own film. The similarities don't end there, and as I watched I began to see why he was so inspired by The Red Shoes: the film is beautifully shot in technicolor, superbly acted, sumptuously danced, and touchingly tragic.
Though roughly based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name, the story revolves around the struggle between a ballerina, a composer, and the man attempting to make his own dreams come true by bringing fame to them all. Anton Walbrook is dark and impressive as the antagonist, ballet impresario Boris Lermontov, whose standards are so high that he abhors the idea of his proteges disturbing their creative lives by finding love. When the two protagonists, Ballerina Vicky Page, played by Moira Shearer, and Composer Julien Craster, played by Marius Goring, fall desperately in love with each other the Company that Lermontov has assembled begins to fall apart as he loses his own grip on reality. All with the most tragic of results.Continue Reading
Written on the Wind
My description of Written on the Wind that I stuck onto a copy of the DVD in the “Employee Picks” section at Amoeba is that it is a candy colored fever dream of violence and ecstasy. Dave Kehr, writing for the Chicago Reader, wrote that Written on the Wind was a “screaming Brechtian essay on the shared impotence of the American family and business life.” I like both descriptions and I especially like the word “screaming” as it applies to what these desperate characters are really doing.
The first thing you might notice about the film is the colors. They overwhelm. Even if the action of the film centers on the downfall of one of those big oil family dynasties from Texas and the renegade pair of lovers caught in the middle, you might ignore the untamed passions exploding before you and instead fall into a hallucinatory stupor from all the cherry reds and periwinkle blues that flood the action of each meticulously constructed scene. The film is supremely pleasurable to look at. That quality of a luxurious surface of beauty is central to all of director Douglas Sirk’s best known works. The surface appearances—which are always gorgeous—are reflected back on themselves via mirrors used throughout his films and create a grotesquely ironic commentary on the desperate entrapment that materialism and expectations of conformity conspire to create in the lives of his characters. If we want to understand the 1950s in America and what they mean to us now we would do well to watch his films. They reveal a lot.Continue Reading