Late Spring [Banshun] (1949)

Sometimes It Snows In April

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

For some directors, it can take time before they hit their full stride. Alfred Hitchcock had been directing movies for 25 years prior to directing his most iconic works in the 1950s and ’60s. Correspondingly, Japanese filmmaker, Yasujirō Ozu had been directing for 22 years before he made Late Spring, in my opinion, his magnum opus (although I know others will argue in favour of Tokyo Story) and the beginning of his golden age in which he created a profound series of films about Japanese middle-class domesticity (whereas his work pre-1949 tended to focus more towards poverty-stricken families).

Late Spring is also the first entry of The Noriko Trilogy (alongside Early Summer and Tokyo Story), with all three films starring Setsuko Hara, often named The Eternal Virgin in her country of origin, and it’s not hard to see why. I would defy anyone to watch Late Spring and not fall in love with this capital G Goddess of feminine virtue – with her angelic, shy demeanour emanating a slightly bent over posture alongside a smile that could kill. Late Spring showcases her as an actress of amazing depth and able to convey such deep emotional range in the role of Noriko Somiya. There is somewhat of a contradictory nature to the character of Noriko when it comes to her conservative views. Noriko finds her uncle’s remarrying to be “distasteful” and “impure” and not afraid to say it to his face (albeit in a kindly manner) and can’t bear the idea of her widowed father doing the same thing. Hara is able to portray a character of such saintly purity (it’s even mentioned she does not drink) without it ever becoming sickenly so. Yet contradicting this is the reluctance she holds to get married herself. 

The relationship Noriko shares with her widowed father, Shukichi (Chishū Ryū) is both odd and endearing. She is unemployed and takes joy in looking after her old father, acting as a housewife minus any incestuous implications. Details presented in Late Spring are scant about the character’s histories, allowing the viewer to fill in the blanks. I can assume the young woman would be inclined to share this kind of a relationship with her father due to their time during the war. It is mentioned during the course of the film that Noriko endured forced labour during this period and “had to run around to get food on her day off”, and is required to receive regular blood tests as a result. Chishū Ryū on-the-other-hand feels like he was born an old man, made to look older than he was in all three films of The Noriko Trilogy, and convincingly so.

At the age of 27 and still single, Noriko is approaching the “late spring” of her shelf life, reaching the age she would no longer be considered marriageable, but is unwilling to part from the status-quo arrangement she has with her father. Like a number of Ozu films, the story of Late Spring centers around arranged marriage, although anathema to viewers in the west, it does not detract from the universality of his work. A scene that really hits home for me is that in which Noriko’s aunt Masa (Haruko Sugimura) has a talk with Noriko about marrying. We’ve all been there, when an elder tells us to stop what we are doing and sit down to have a serious chat in which we feel uncomfortable but deep down we know they are correct even if one, like Noriko, signifies their objections but later comes to an eventual acceptance. Noriko’s arranged partner, Mr Kumataro Satake (aka Bear Boy), remains an off screen character, with the only detail passed onto the viewer about his physical appearance is that he looks like Gary Cooper, especially around the mouth but not the top half – allowing the viewer to once again fill in the blanks. 

On a further personal note, I first watched Late Spring at the age of 28, only 1 year older than the character of Noriko, and despite this being a film about a young Japanese women’s pressure to get married in the years following the war, it still spoke to me on the basis that life is passing you by, that change is an inevitable part of life with the pain and heartache which comes with that must be endured. When Noriko speaks to her father at the end of a trip to Kyoto just before the wedding, she speaks of how “I just want to be with you, like this. I don’t want to go anywhere I’m happy being with you like this.” – Just ensure you have a box of Kleenex handy.

When watching any film of Ozu’s later period, the viewer will immediately be put into a great sense of ease with his trademark use of pillow shots (two or three quiet compositions usually showing an architectural detail, a banner in the wind, a tree or the sky) alongside the ever tranquil music scores. Unique however to the opening pillow shots of a railway station in Late Spring is the quaint, English feel to it, aided by the images of a gentle breeze in the leaves and the sound of birds chirping. If I was shown this opening out of context, I could swear it was neo-realist footage of a quiet, remote part of the English countryside. Likewise, the geometric nature of the interior of Japanese homes along with Ozu’s unique style of composition with use of the so called tatami shot is very pleasing to the eyes. This look into another culture extends to the film’s documentary-like aspects as we are treated to slices of everyday post-war Japanese life from kids playing baseball to the inclusion of a Noh play. The westernization present in Japanese films from this period can come off as a shock for first-time viewers of Japanese cinema such as the sight of Tokyo’s classical European architecture as seen in Late Spring.

The scene in which Noriko and Hattori (Jun Usami) go for a recreational cycle by the seaside is the cinematic encapsulation for the joy of living. A scene bustling with freedom and a lust for life with the sight of a smiling Setsuko Hara with her hair blowing in the wind alongside the quirky, upbeat music which accompanies the scene should be in the pantheon of cinema’s most iconic moments. It also contains the unexpected but memorable inclusion of a Coca-Cola sign featured prominently in the foreground – one of the most memorable pieces of product placement I’ve seen in a film. This sign along with another road sign in English warning that the weight capacity of the bridge the duo are riding over is 30 tons (irrelevant information for the two cyclists but necessary for any military vehicles to pass over) could be interpreted as signs to the otherwise unseen US occupation. Concurrently, I believe it’s not unreasonable to assume that Aya’s (Yumeji Tsukioka) ex-husband of whom she speaks of throughout the course of the film is a US serviceman. Aya refers to him by the name “Ken”, which Shukichi assumes is short for “Kenkichi” however Aya never corrects him. The other significant clue is Aya’s difficulty in sitting in a traditional Japanese manner without her legs getting numb, suggesting she has become more used to the western manner of sitting.

The Wikipedia page for Late Spring is bizarrely long and extremely detailed, more famous films have less in-depth articles – the work of an eager fan perhaps? In my research, I have found Late Spring only received its first home video release in the United States in 1994 and the mass availability of the films from this master of cinema has only become reality within the last decade. Perhaps the discovery of Yasujirō Ozu‘s work in the west outside of film circles has only begun?

Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)

box-office-jocks

It Happens Every Spring

Take Me Out to the Ball Game is one of the most enjoyable and aesthetically pleasing of MGM musicals, a film which isn’t as intense or faced paced as others but as a result is very relaxing and pleasurable to watch. A love letter to America’s favourite (or “favorite” for you yanks) pastime and a nostalgic look at the early turn of the century in which the worlds of Vaudeville and baseball come together.

Sources state Take Me Out to the Ball Game was entirely filmed on the MGM backlot at Culver City although there is a real sense of authenticity to the baseball grounds featured in the film. We even get the Once Upon a Time In the West shot overlooking the baseball grounds of the fictional Wolves team early in the film. Take Me Out to the Ball Game was directed by Busby Berkley oddly enough even though the movie is a product of the MGM musical making machine and is not reminiscent of his iconic works with Warner Bros back in the 1930s.

Like the other two films in the Gene Kelly/Frank Sinatra trilogy, Sinatra trying to act like a tough guy to contrast Kelly’s ladies man attitude is always a good laugh. I once again have to ask myself why this duo isn’t more celebrated not to mention Gene Kelly surprisingly gets a shocking third billing this time around. Betty Garret meanwhile plays a similar role she would go on to play in On The Town, making stalking funny rather than creepy or psychologically scarring in her pursuit of a gawky Frank Sinatra, just less of a nymphomaniac this time around. The cast also includes Edward Arnold playing once again, an unscrupulous rich guy as the film’s antagonist.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game fails to utilise Esther Williams iconic talents as a swimmer by not giving he an underwater number (regardless she is still seen swimming at one point in the film as she sings the movie’s title tune and shows what an elegant swimmer she is). Despite this, I feel Williams steals the show from Kelly and Sinatra and gives by far the best performance in the film as K.C. Higgins, the new owner the Wolves baseball club.

When the team members first learn the club is under new ownership they aren’t aware that K.C. Higgins ain’t a man (“He’s a girl!”). A lot of funny moments are drawn out of this misunderstanding as well as a humorous clash of the sexes as the boys try to adjust accordingly to the presence of a dame instead of the movie having some annoying, preachy feminist agenda. K.C. Higgins is a character who could have come off as bitchy and tyrannical is instead tough but fair, feisty, hard to get and one of the guys while still retaining her femininity.

The soundtrack selections of Take Me Out to the Ball are yet more great additions to MGM’s incredible repertoire. Yes Indeedy is one catching ditty but those spicy lyrics?! References to suicide and going out with an 11-year-old – I do enjoy when these innocent movies have their unexpected edgy side. Strictly U.S.A., on the other hand, is the 1940’s equivalent of “American, F**k Yeah!” as an ensemble lists of various aspects of Americana. O’ Brien, Ryan and Goldberg and The Hat My Dear Old Father Wore Upon St. Patrick’s Day are both a drag for me, although the genuine look of joy on the faces of the extras watching Gene Kelly dance on the St Patrick’s Day number makes it worth it.

On The Town (1949)

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A Grand Day Out

On The Town is a unique beast of movie musical as MGM never followed up on it in one of the most noteworthy uses of location filming in a Hollywood movie up until that point. On the Town captures New York City circa 1949 in beautiful Technicolor as three sailors on leave spend 24 hours tearing up the town. When three men on board a ship without female interaction have leave, then dames become the ultimate aim. On the Town is also another example of Old Hollywood’s idealisation of the navy, particularly in musicals. Did movies like this affect recruitment? They sure make the navy look fun and even explicitly state it during the On the Town number, “Travel! Adventure! See the world!”. Likewise, MGM musicals really aren’t given the credit of just how funny they are, especially those penned by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. “It’s 9:30 already. The day’s gone and we haven’t seen a thing yet.” – Just right after that montage of you exploring the entire city?

Many shots in On the Town, particularly in the opening montage have an un-staged feel to them which give an insight into the world at the time, full of regular people getting on with their lives. The sets here are more on the realistic side and less artificial compared to other MGM musicals, allowing for the transitions between locations and sets to go by largely unnoticed.

Vera Ellen couldn’t be more girl next door, very pure and innocent (as reflected in the number Main Street). Ann Miller and Betty Garret on the other are the opposite to this, which gives the movie characters of both the innocent and then the sex-crazed variety. Betty Garret’s nymphomaniac tendencies are on full display as soon as we meet her character of Hidly Esterhazy; she really wants to get Sinatra back up to her place, really badly.

Ann Miller, however, plays by far my favourite character is the film as the most unlikely of scientists, Claire Huddesen; a sex goddess with the personality of a weird girl – ah the best kinds of contradictions. In her own words, she states she was running around with too much of all kinds of young men and just couldn’t settle down. Her guardian suggested that she take up anthropology and make a scientific study of man thus becoming more objective and getting them out of her system and being able to control herself; I love this character! Yet this has caused her to have a thing for prehistoric males over modern men. I can relate to being attracted to those alive decades ago but Ann Miller takes this further to hundreds of thousands of years.

Prehistoric Man is one of the odder musical numbers in the film history both in terms of lyrical content/themes as well as the number itself. As the caveman dancing, bongo bashing, Ann Miller being pulled along the floor by the hair madness proceeds, you have to ask yourself “what the hell am I watching?”. The soundtrack of On the Town is one of the finest in the MGM library; you know a musical soundtrack succeeds when you’re humming multiple tunes from it for a week after watching. The only track which falls flat for me is You’re Awful; with the absence any hook it’s not awful but mediocre.

The first ballet sequence in On the Town which introduces Vera Ellen’s Miss Turnstiles has a similar concept to Leslie Caron’s introductory sequence in An American In Paris; full of contradictory statements to describe her character. The two ballet’s in On the Town are much more humble than what would come in the MGM musicals over the next few years, nor do they have the eye-popping colour and appear more washed out. The A Day In New York ballet, for example, is bound to only two modest sets but these still serve as a nice warm-up for the magnificence of what was to come.

White Heat (1949)

Get Up Stand Tall, Put Your Back Up Against the Wall

To date, White Heat remains the only instance in which my first encounter with an actor instantly turned me into a fan. Typically for me, I become a fan of a performer over a period of time and after seeing a number of their films. Not James Cagney though. The scene early during White Heat in which Cody Jarrett gets a headache and needs to be comforted by his mother, my instant reaction was, “I need to watch any movie with this guy I can get my hands on”. I have no hesitation putting Cagney’s performance as Cody Jarrett in my ten favourite movie performance of all time. At this point in my movie watching life I had never seen an actor so on fire, so electrifying. His twitchy mannerisms, machine gun way of speaking his violence against women and possibly above all, his mother complex, exposing an unsettling, adorable side. Like wow, you do not want to be stuck in an elevator with this guy. I would later discover White Heat came after the classic Warner Bros cycle of gangster movies, making White Heat a nostalgic revival of the genre, making Cody and his mother products of a different age. Margaret Wycherly as Ma Jarrett is the next great stand out performance for me, a character who appears as the stereotypical “aw shucks” mother common in classic Hollywood, but her attitude could not be more different.

Boy is this movie fast paced. White Heat is one of the few times my heart my beating so much out of how exciting the movie was. When the film was over I had the closest I could fell to that sense you get after coming off a rollercoaster, expect to get it from watching a movie. I feel that’s the best way, to sum up White Heat, a rollercoaster of violence and emotions. Even the scenes of police officers discussing Cody’s psychological tendencies and the examination of their late 1940’s tracking techniques are riveting, but they do save the best for last. The Warner gangster movies ended with incredible final scenes with brilliant closing lines, White Heat’s may be the best of them all. I question if I’ll ever experience such a high level of movie watching euphoria on a first time viewing again.