The General (1926)

The Sauth Shall Rise Again!

Unpopular opinion time, The General is a good film but is not Buster Keaton’s best – I’ll start with the film’s merits. The General is one of several Keaton films set in a historical period and the film’s budget certainly pays off when it comes to recreating Marietta, Georgia circa 1861 at the outbreak of the American Civil War. There are great amounts of historical detail within every frame from the buildings to the costumes and the grand locomotive, The General itself. On a purely visual level, The General may be Keaton’s most visually stunning film, full of lush shots of Oregon landscape (although the film itself is set in Georgia) which would make even John Ford jealous. The destruction of the locomotive on the burning bridge is one the most ambitious shots of Keaton’s filmography. However, my favourite shot in all of The General occurs during the climax in which Johnnie Gray (Keaton) holds the Confederate flag amidst battle – the type of cinematic shot that is forever imprinted in your mind. The scores by Carl Davies are the most ideal accompaniment for Keaton’s films and The General is no exception from quirky moments to more epic and militaristic arrangements, as well as rousing standards such as I Wish I Was In Dixie.

I’ll always say that the train is the ultimate cinematic device and as skillfully (and dangerously) executed the stunt work is in The General with all its comic touches, the action doesn’t quite have the high stakes or heart-pounding intensity as action sequences in other Keaton pictures, leading to a film that does test my patience at times. Why is this?  Why am I more on the edge of my seat watching Keaton run away from falling boulders in Seven Chances or battling hurricane winds in Steamboat Bill Jr? If Johnnie had been an actual coward and avoided enlistment rather than his love interest being lied to that Johnnie didn’t even get in line to enlist (which in itself is quite contrived), I believe the stakes in the film would be so much higher, thus making the pursuit of The General from the hands of Yankee spies more intense and suspenseful with Johnnie overcoming of his cowardice being the character’s redemption. With The General presented as it is, Johnnie has to prove himself by overcoming lies told by others rather than his own character flaws, which I believe weakens the film’s narrative.

There is the pink elephant in the room that The General is a film in which the hero of the story is a loyal son of the Confederacy. According to the Thames documentary on Keaton A Hard Act To Follow, it is stated that Keaton choose to tell the story from the southern perspective as in 1926, veterans of the civil war as well people whose fathers and grandfathers had fought were still alive, thus Keaton didn’t want to rile up half of his potential audience by appearing to make fun the side that lost. This does raise the question as to how The General was received in the Northern states? The General was released 61 years following the end of the civil war, which to put in context, would be the equivalent of releasing a movie about World War II in 2006. The General only contains one moment which could be seen as a jab at the Confederacy in which Johnnie states in a moment of foreshadowing dialogue “If you lose this war, don’t blame me”. Aside from that, The General remains an apolitical film in which the civil war setting is almost immaterial to the story. The film makes no mention of slavery, secession nor is either side portrayed as right or wrong. Nor are there any of the usual negative stereotypes associated with the American south (although humorously the film does contain the Colonel Sanders lookalike general who always seems to permeate any fiction about the old south). I have heard it argued that such depoliticized treatments of the civil war in themselves aid the lost cause narrative, yet Keaton himself was not from the south, being a mid-western man born in Kansas. The viewer can draw their own conclusions on what Keaton’s authorial intent was.

To compare The General to Keaton’s earlier work Our Hospitality (1923), a film which holds a number of similarities to The General with its use of a locomotive, the southern setting and the grand scenery, I’d argue is a much more engaging and creative film. While there is much I admire in The General, of all Keaton’s silent features, it’s the one I’m least keen to revisit.

Go West (1925)

High Steaks

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Go West could be seen as Buster Keaton’s reaction to Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid but with the child in question being replaced by none other than a cow in this contemporary era western. The pathos laden film is Keaton’s most innocent picture and one that really tugs the heartstrings in which Friendless (Keaton), an aimless drifter who doesn’t fit in anywhere finds himself working at a ranch where he befriends Brown Eyes, a dairy cow who is tossed in with the beef herd because of her inability to give milk.

Brown Eyes (played by the cow of the same name) is cinema’s first and last bovine movie star (at least to my knowledge). Keaton shares a natural rapport with the animal and the chemistry between the two does come off on-screen. There is a human female in the story (Kathleen Myers) but Brown Eyes is the only woman who wins Friendless’ heart. I do have to ask though is Friendless an early example of a vegetarian since I do personally hold the standard that I can’t become attached to an animal if I eat others in its species. Then again Friendless takes no issue with the rest of the herd going to the slaughterhouse. The naivety and childlike mentality Friendless holds is best portrayed when he discovers Brown Eyes is to be sent to the slaughterhouse along with the other bovine – like a child who has only just discovered there is no Santa Clause. It’s hard not to get a little teary-eyed when man and his cow are separated.

One of the most memorable gags in Go West is the 3-part running gag involving Friendless sitting down at the dinner table just as the other men get up – one of those gags that’s funny even when you know how it’s going to play out. The gag’s third act ends beautifully when Friendless rushes to the table and manages to finish his meal just as the other men sit down, but just look at the face on Keaton as he leaves the table – so elegant and satisfied. The other alpha males on the ranch barely even notice Friendless as they all tower above him, likewise throughout Go West, Friendless is only able to come into possession of a tiny gun, could there be phallic symbolism with this or am I looking into it too much?

Go West features some gorgeous western scenery and landscapes with that hazy shimmer of heat, along with the early adoption of deep focus cinematography and the use of painted backdrops which impressively blend into the real-world background. The climax of Go West involves Friendless trying to navigate herds of cattle through the streets of Los Angeles to be sold at market. The herded insanity itself is impressive considering the logistics that must have gone into filming such a sequence but also the simple sight involving huge herds of cows walking through an urban metropolis is a funny image in itself. Move over John Wayne in Red River, Buster Keaton shows us how to rustle up some cattle!

College (1927)

School Of Hard Knockers

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Buster Keaton goes to college, it’s almost like the jokes write themselves in the classic conflict of jocks vs. nerds to stand alongside Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman as the other great college comedy of the silent era. At the film’s opening Ronald (Keaton) delivers a speech at his high school graduation on how books are more important than sports in perhaps the only instance in which Keaton plays a rather smug character. However, what really makes the speech memorable is that he delivers it while performing what is now recognized as the Michael Jackson anti-gravity lean. Needless to say, the speech is not well received and is followed by one of the most striking images in the film as Ronald and his mother (played by one of cinema’s earliest stars Florence Turner) walk through the torrential rain as the camera pans backwards.

College feels like a time capsule with its use of vintage college insignia and tropes from men wearing sweaters, varsity jackets, soda jerks, dorm rooms and pennant flags. The Los Angles State Normal School fills in the fictional Clayton University and like any college movie, there is no sign of students actually studying or attending classes. As is the case in Keaton’s other features, his motivating factor is all down to the love of a girl, Mary Haynes (Anne Cornwall) is the most popular girl on campus, yet she still has a liking for the dweeb. Keaton – an inspiration and a beacon of light for unpopular kids everywhere.

Watching Ronald attempt and fail at a variety of sports with his two left feet is such a joy to watch (with the location filming in the LA Coliseum providing a great backdrop), however, it’s made especially impressive considering Keaton’s athleticism and acrobatic abilities, it must have been particularly challenging portraying a character who is so uncoordinated when it comes to sports. The print of College featured on the Masters Of Cinema Blu-ray features a great contemporary score by Rodney Saur with some terrific recurring motifs and fantastic comic use of fiddles during the film’s baseball scene, making it all the more funny.

One of College’s most memorable scenes involves Ronald disguising himself as a waiter in blackface in order to get a job in a restaurant only hiring “coloured” waiters. Keaton evens performs this doing minstrel show walk (and even manages to roll over 360 degrees while carrying soup and not spilling it). The fact that such a thing is taboo just makes it all the funnier (of course the Masters Of Cinema Blu-ray release has to include a content warning). Likewise, the use of slow motion with the gag featuring the umbrella is surreal and out of place, not to mention it doesn’t quite work since everything with the frame slows down and not just Keaton with the umbrella, none the less it in interesting to such an early use of slow motion. The film’s climax even features a Ferris Buller style running sequence as Keaton runs through various residential streets and gardens, followed by the most bizarre ending to any of Keaton’s features and even a somewhat dark yet endearing final shot of tombstones. What! No Beans?

Contraband [Blackout] (1940)

Hello Darkness My Old Friend

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Contraband holds a number of similarities to All Through The Night (released by Warner Bros the following year). Both films are Hitchcockian thrillers and (as the title of the latter suggests) take place all through a single night in which a romantic hero inadvertently infiltrates a Nazi spy ring (even though the word “Nazi” is never used in ether film). On top of that, Conrad Veidt appears in both films, although he is cast as a villain in All Through The Night. I love films that effectively play out within a condensed time frame and Contraband is simply enormous fun to watch – one of those films which I felt like I had to tell someone about it afterwards I was left that thrilled. Contraband would be renamed Blackout for the US release, but I think Contraband is the cooler title.

Contraband would offer Conrad Veidt the rare role of a hero as Danish seaman, Captain Anderson. Veidt doesn’t have the looks matinee idol but he is very suave and pulls of the romantic hero with ease (sadly this great actor would pass away only three years following the release of Contraband from a heart attack aged 50). The bane to Captain Anderson, Mrs Sorensen (Valerie Hobson) is introduced defying the captain’s orders and not wearing a life jacket despite what the chattering gossips around her say. This defiance and Hepburn-esque, free-spirit attitude establishes Mrs Sorensen as a real badass.

The chemistry between Veidt and Hobson has shades of William Powell & Myrna Loy, with the two sharing moments reminiscent of screwball comedies. For example, the scene in which Sorensen calls for a taxi in a feminine voice after multiple taxis ignore Anderson is similar to the hitchhiking scene from It Happened One NightContraband makes reference to bondage on a number of occasions from Anderson’s early foreshadowing asking Sorensen “Have you ever been put in irons?” to the rather erotic, James Bond-style scene in which they attempt to break free after being tied up by their Nazi captors. All this sexual tension culminates by the film’s final scene in which Anderson directs Sorensen to drop her life jacket as it hits the floor and they go into a clinch, followed by phallic symbolism of a dripping wet anchor in the final shot – as steamy as a film from the 1940s can get.

Contraband is set in November 1939, the phoney stage of World War II. Like Powell & Pressburger would do in their subsequent film 49th Parallel, Contraband is clearly a rally call to other nations against neutrality in the war. Although a British film, Contrband is one which should ignite the patriotism in any Dane as Captain Anderson and his fellow Danish patriots from the Three Vikings restaurant in London work together to infiltrate the London based Nazis. Contraband offers an insight into life in London during the blackout as people try to go about their lives as normal, using torches to navigate their way in the street (they must be pointed down or else the blackout warden will call you out) and closing their eyes for ten seconds before going back outside. In one scene two wardens approach a man lighting up a cigarette in the street to which the man angrily responds “Why don’t you do something to earn your 3 quid a week and leave taxpayers alone”. With this portrayal of the restriction of liberties as well as the aforementioned refusal of Mrs Sorensen to be compelled to wear a life jacket, I can’t help for Contraband to directly remind me of recent world events as of writing this review. Due to the blackout setting, much of Contraband is visually dark and makes great use of chiaroscuro lighting and expressionist visuals – appropriate considering that the film stars the most notable cast member from the granddaddy of German Expressionist films, The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari. Unfortunately Contraband has yet to receive the special edition, 4K re-master treatment, with the film only being available in a scratchy print on an old Region 1, Kino DVD.

I do have to question if escapade off Captain Anderson’s ship and into London by Mrs Sorensen and her accomplice Mr Pidgeon (Esmond Knight) was part of a mission or a spur of the moment decision since we are lead to believe the British interception of the ship was unplanned.  It’s never made clear who or what Sorensen or Pidgeon are working for however it is reveled their aim is to find out under what neutral names, German vessels sail across the Atlantic, so in all likelihood, they’re probably British spies. Thus I do theorise that Sorensen and Pidgeon had a part to play on the British authorities stopping the ship and forcing it to dock overnight. This theory is backed up by the film’s ending in which one of the British authorities gives Anderson what he is told is a box containing painkillers to help him with his illness. Afterwards Mrs Sorensen tells him to look in the box only to find it contains the pocket watch which he lost in London, proving more or less she is working for the British authorities.

Adjoining the Nazi’s London layer is a warehouse full of busts of then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain by a company known as “Patriotic Plaster Products”. Why does a Nazi spy ring have a warehouse full of busts of Neville Chamberlain? Likewise, I can’t tell whether or not the film is trying to denigrate Chamberlain. After Anderson knocks out one of the Nazi ring leaders using one of the busts which simultaneously smashes it to pieces, Anderson responds “They always said he was tough”. Chamberlain left office on May 10th, 1940 and Winston Churchill became Prime Minister –Contraband was released in UK theatres the following day.

Sabrina (1954 + 1995)

Will They?/Won’t They?

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Never again will the screen see such grace as Audrey Hepburn. Marilyn is hot, but Audrey is beautiful. However its Audrey being the goddess that she is which brings about the major flaw in Sabrina – you cannot make Audrey Hepburn look like a scrawny chauffeurs’ daughter. It doesn’t matter what she wears, Audrey can make any piece of dowdy clothing look glamorous (later in the film she even makes a lumberjack shirt look feminine). After all, in the original stage play, Sabrina Fairchild was played by the down to Earth Margaret Sullivan. Despite this, the sheer enchanting screen presence of Audrey Hepburn, as well as her childlike innocence does help to some degree, overcome this suspension of disbelief. The opening of Sabrina couldn’t be more impossibly romantic – a clear sky with a full moon, Isn’t It Romantic playing the background and a forbidden love imposed by class differences. Well that is until things take a dark U-turn and Sabrina attempts to commit suicide by locking herself in a garage with multiple car exhaust pipes emitting carbon monoxide. Even in a moment as disturbing as this, a joke is still thrown in with that one popping exhaust pipe (likewise did Sabrina’s father ever discovering that suicide note?).

Humphrey Bogart in the role of business mogul Linus Larrabee gets an opportunity to show his flair for light comedy. Bogart is such a pleasure to watch in the many witty lines he delivers, in particular the inter-office memo he sends to his brother David via a car phone. Linus Larrabee is a benevolent capitalist and not the stereotypical archetype of the evil business owner, as he brilliantly sums up in an exchange he shares with David:

“A new product has been found, something of use to the world. A new industry moves into an undeveloped area. Factories go up, machines are brought in, a harbour is dug up and you’re in business. It’s purely coincidental of course that people who’ve never seen a dime before suddenly have a dollar and barefooted kids wear shoes and have their teeth fixed and their faces washed.”

Linus evens has connections to a military general who can get him a bazooka to test against his revolutionary plastic, showing he has some Elon Musk in him. Likewise unlike as seen in many screwball comedies of the 1930’s, the servants of the Fairchild family have a perfectly amicable and respectable relationship with their masters.

David Larabee (William Holden) is the polar opposite of his brother – a 1950’s Billy Madison who lives for hedonism. Holden looks rather ghastly with his bleached hair and the ugly dressing gowns which he wears throughout the film. Sabrina has been head over heels for David since childhood but her love of the man was always forbidden due to class, well until her transformation after spending two years in Paris. David does not appear to be much longer than Linus, which is odd as it’s mentioned at one point in the film that David had kissed Sabrina when she was nine during a time they were roller skating. I never quite get what Sabrina sees in the immature David – this goes for both the original and the remake (more on that later).

At its heart, Sabrina is a story about true love vs. romantic love. Sabrina may be romantically infatuated with David, but ultimately it’s Linus of whom she is destined to be with. The age difference between Audrey and her leading men in multiple films is often a topic of conversation with the casting of a 54-year-old Bogart as a romantic love interest to a 25-year-old Hepburn not being the most obvious choice. Changing social norms since the 1950s and the feminist movement have made it anathema for a woman to rely on a man for money or status, making older man/younger woman relationships age gaps more taboo in modern times. Personally, I’ve seen enough old films with relationship age gaps that I’m more used to it plus the argument can be made that many women simply prefer an older man. At the very least the movie does acknowledge this age difference (“Here I am going off on a sailboat to make an ass out of myself with a girl of 22”). Age aside, with Bogart’s arrogance and overly masculine voice, Audrey isn’t the most obvious choice to play off him – she’s not like Lauren Bacall or Katharine Hepburn. The argument can be made that the original casting choice of Cary Grant would have been more suitable for the part. Regardless these performers are two of my favourite movie stars of all time and they are a joy to watch together so I personally can’t complain at the end of the day.

That Billy Wilder wit is as strong as ever in Sabrina (“That good, that’s bad” – I can see where a certain Simpsons joke came from), with the film also including one of the most clever and witty methods in which a film got around the censorship of the day (“What rhymes with glass?”). On a technical level, it’s also notable that Sabrina was filmed in the 4:3 aspect ratio, despite being released in late 1954, making it one of the last Hollywood productions to do so as almost all movies at this point where being shot in various widescreen formats. Coming off the heels from Sunset Boulevard, Ace In The Hole and Stalag 17, I get the impression Billy Wilder wanted to do something more pleasant and straightforward with Sabrina. I don’t consider Sabrina to be one of Wilder’s best films but I do enjoy it despite its flaws and the relationship dynamics requiring much suspension of disbelief. When a rom-com sparks an interesting debate on whom the female lead should have ended up with, to an extent it has done its job. However, unpopular opinion time, I will argue that the 1995 remake of Sabrina directed by Sydney Pollack is a superior film. 

The remake of Sabrina carries the same themes and follows the same basic plot of the original but with some notable adjustments, the most prescient of these being Sabrina’s (Julia Ormond) transformation in Paris being far more significant. At the film’s beginning, Sabrina really is a scrawny, nerdy girl with a dreadful fashion sense and very long, unkempt hair. Her time in Paris takes up a significant portion of the film (this time working as a photographer for Vogue rather than going to a cooking school) in which she gets mentored by others and comes out of her shell. Symbolically her hair gradually gets shorter over the two year period and returns to the US unrecognizable (I’m just slightly disappointed the remake doesn’t include the attempted suicide scene). Unlike the original, the Paris scenes are filmed on location and are the most distinctly 90’s portion of the film with the fashions and music (nice cover of Love’s In Need Of Love Today). So who is the better Sabrina? I know its sacrilege to outrank Audrey Hepburn, but going from the standpoint on both superior writing and more appropriate casting, Ormond’s rendition of Sabrina does have greater depth, is more believable and is portrayed with a greater sense of vulnerability.

Who was the better Linus? You’re asking me to pit two of my favourite actors of all time against each other. Harrison Ford plays the part beautifully with his trademark comic grumpiness and a real sense of loneliness, and even with the 90’s setting, Ford’s Linus remains a conservatively dressed man with his glasses, dotted bowtie and Homburg hat. The remake also features a much more resentful relationship between David and Linus. In the original, Linus is not impressed with David but doesn’t harbour much resentment, whereas in the remake the relationship is far more antagonistic (“My life makes your life possible – I resent that – So do I!”). I do wish however they could have retained the benevolent capitalist aspect of his character as Bogart portrayed. I feel like going for a tie but I know that’s a cop-out so ultimately I will have to choose Ford once again due to the superior writing and more appropriate casting – Ormond and Ford are simply a more believable romantic pair.

Lastly who was the better David? Greg Kinnear does a good job at portraying the hedonistic sleaze of David, while his turnaround towards actually doing work at the end is a very nice comic touch. Yet even the additional aspect of the antagonistic relationship, I would choose Holden on the account of simply being a more charismatic and likeable screen presence. Likewise, I do particularly enjoy John Wood as Sabrina’s father, a real charmer of an English gentleman, while Paul Giamatti gets one of his earliest screen roles but it’s just a shame he’s given nothing to do. I’d even go as far as saying that Sabrina ’95 provides a greater feast for the senses. The location filming of the North-Eastern United States (notably including Martha’s Vineyard) with the gorgeous architecture alongside the breezy John Williams score, makes the film a very relaxing watch (I also have to ask, was the film’s poster inspired by that of Billy Wilder’s Fedora?). While I hate having to outrank these classic Hollywood legends, Sabrina ‘95 is a rare remake which remains a classy affair and outperforms the original.

We’re No Angels (1955)

Angels With Dirty Faces

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

We’re No Angels was Michael Curtiz’ second Christmas film in a row (despite its release date of July 1955), although unlike White Christmas, We’re No Angels is a less secular affair with its use of biblical references in the tale of three, perhaps not so wise men who bestow gifts on a distressed family at Christmas. We’re No Angels is both sentimental and darkly comic as the Ducotel family in a French colonial town on Devil’s Island (despite none of the cast appearing remotely French) are not massively bothered by having three escaped convicts stay at their adjoining home/business. The three disreputable men go to the Ducotel household intending to rob them but end up getting caught up in the spirit of the season after having a voyeuristic insight to the troubles bestowing the family and their failing general store. We’re No Angels is a bright and colourful affair with the scenes in the bustling port town in particular showing off Curtiz’ directorial skills. The picture even calls to mind Larceny Inc (1942), another film in which a group of criminals inadvertently turn around a failing business.

A large portion of the film’s dark humour comes from Aldo Ray alone in the role of Albert, a sexual offender type convict of whom we don’t know the extent of his activities but the movie hints that it ain’t pretty. Much of the film involves him having an attraction and interacting with the family’s daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbott), including pinching her derrière and carrying her fainted form into her room with the door closed – once again, the family takes no objection to this. Likewise Isabelle appears to have a serious medical disorder in that she faints multiple times in a short period and even has an unrequited love for her second cousin. Contrasting the more lowly and thuggish Albert is Peter Ustinov as the eloquent and well-spoken Jules. His technique of cracking locks and opening safes involves him lightly touching the outside of a device and then bumping the side of his hand lightly against said device, resulting in the hatch opening – is it this simple in real life or is the movie playing loose with safe and lock-cracking techniques? 

We’re No Angels was Humphrey Bogart’s big career opportunity to show off his eccentric comedic side as the con artist Joseph. Bogart was able to display his comic chops in All Through The Night, however, We’re No Angels is more in the vein of The Marx Brothers – just look at the scene in which Joseph successfully cons a customer into buying a suit which is clearly several sizes too small for him. Bogart’s facial expressions and body movements accentuate the performance and even the sight of the tough guy cooking in a kitchen wearing a pink apron somehow doesn’t degrade his machismo. Likewise, Bogie also delivers one of the funniest lines among the pantheon of great Bogart quotes:

“We came here to rob them and that’s what we’re gonna do – beat their heads in, gouge their eyes out, slash their throats. Soon as we wash the dishes.”

Basil Rathbone on the other hand, the Hollywood embodiment of villainy portrays an Ebenezer Scrooge type role as Andre Trochard, the business owner who sees no objection to doing labour on Christmas Day nor having no concern for people’s humanity, just business. We’re No Angels bounces back and forth from zany jokes to more deadpan humour such as the trio’s very slow, drawn-out debate on who should tell Andre not to open the box with their pet snake named Adolf in it. The humorous ending in which the three decide to return to prison was likely brought about by the production code forbidding criminals to be portrayed as sympathetic characters thus their redemptive conclusion – an example of finding a clever solution within the confines of censorship.

Love Me Tonight (1932)

Tailor Made Man

Love Me Tonight was produced and directed by the forgotten movie magic maestro Rouben Mamoulian, a name who doesn’t make the history books compared to the likes of Orson Welles but who’s work during the pre-code era deserve that cliché expression, “ahead of its time” – films which had extensive visual freedom more technical wizardry than you can shake a stick at. No more so than in the musical, comedy Love Me Tonight, the first film in history to use a zoom lens as it does several times throughout the movie (yet it would be decades until this technique would catch on). Not to mention the film’s early use of slow-motion during a very dreamlike deer hunt sequence – quite unlike anything else you’ll see in a film from the time.

Sharp Dressed Man

Love Me Tonight opens with the city of Paris coming to life in a visual manner reminiscent of the silent documentary film Berlin: Symphony of a Great City; however this is accompanied by a symphony created by everyday sounds from a construction worker hitting the ground with a pike axe to a woman sweeping a pathway. Likewise, the Paris street sets look authentic (with shots reminiscent of Gene Kelly’s apartment and neighbourhood from An American In Paris), I would believe it was real-world location but it was a set in the Paramount back lot, which is equalled by the opulence and detail of the chateau seen later on in the film.

Love Me Tonight is an Ernst Lubitsch style romantic comedy focusing on European aristocracy. Our protagonist and his Supreme Frenchness is Maurice Chevalier in the role of well…Maurice – the stereotypical Frenchman who’s life revolves around the concept of romance (is there any truth to Hollywood’s fantasy of France and Paris in particular?). He is one fine dressed man in his dashing turtle neck and a distinct walk (he is a tailor after all) along with a shade of Groucho Marx aspect to his personality with his witty comebacks to all the bourgeois snobs he encounters. 

It was a novelty in 1932 for musical numbers to be so interwoven into the text and pushing the plot along, in particular, the Isn’t It Romantic number which cleverly connects future lovers by song as Maurice begins singing it in his Paris tailor shop and it ends up being carried out of the city and across the countryside to a chateau in which Jeanette MacDonald (who feels like she was tailor-made to play nobility) and her magnificent pair of pipes finish it off. Love Me Tonight has no shortage of character actors galore such as the inclusion of the three spinster sisters (a more benevolent version of the three witched from Macbeth) being a very humorous touch, especially when they sound like chickens as they frantically pace. Also take note of MacDonald’s reaction to Charles Butterworth falling off ladder and landing on his flute – priceless. 

The other great addition to Love Me Tonight is an always show-stealing Myrna Loy in a part which helped turn her career around from being typecast as the exotic temptress to performing high comedy as the sex-hungry Countess Valentine. The bored sex fiend spends her time around the chateau sleeping on chairs and furniture, becoming excited when the prospect of a male encounter arises. She gets many of the film’s best and not to subtle innuendo-laden lines and even sings for the only time in her career during her few lines in The Son Of A Gun Is Nothing But A Tailor. Currently, the only version of Love Me Tonight known to exist is the censored 1949 re-issue which includes among other potentially suggestive cuts, an omission of Myrna Loy’s reprise of “Mimi” due to her wearing of a suggestive nightgown. Why yes I’m outraged that a piece of film history has been erased and in no way does being deprived of seeing a scantily clad Myrna Loy factor into it. 

Regardless of what we are left with, it surprises me the Love Me Tonight would even receive a post-code rerelease with every other line of dialogue being a sexual innuendo (not to mention one particularly luring pan of MacDonald in lingerie as the Doctor inspects her). We can always hope one day an uncensored print we surface.

Mulan (1998)

Yin & Yang

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Mulan is one of my favourite films in the Disney animated canon.  A movie which is rich in layers and characterisation topped with brilliant songs and great action, there’s barely a single minute that doesn’t leave me enthralled. The titular heroine herself is a unique specimen in the canon of female Disney protagonists. For one she actually has living parents and contrary to the likes of Belle or Ariel, Mulan is not a free spirit. She is a clumsy, unpunctual, clutz, and a bit of a tomboy who doesn’t fit the gender norms society would have expected of her at the time as she tries to find her place in the world. She is also an adult who still possesses some childlike tendencies, perhaps most memorably and heart-warmingly when she unexpectedly hugs the Emperor of China. Mulan is also under the Disney princess brand even though she has no royal lineage? – Money talks.

Mulan is one of many examples throughout history of women disguised as men in combat roles, albeit in the case of Hua Mulan being one of disputed historicity. For many western children, a film like this would be their first introduction to Chinese culture and history beyond what they would see in a Chinese takeaway. I’m not Chinese so I can’t atone for well the film represents the culture. From a historical accuracy perspective, however, the film presents the Huns being a threat during the film’s setting of 600AD (Tang Dynasty) when they were actually active several centuries prior to that. Likewise, fireworks and gun powder wouldn’t come along until the 9th century (also Mulan’s family owns a pet dog?). – Embrace it in a charmingly inaccurate Cecil B. DeMille way.

Mulan is a classic heroes’ journey as she begins the film within the familiarity of her village but soon has a call to adventure into the unknown, only to eventually return to her village, a transformed individual. Disney films often being at the ire of snooty left-wing academics due to their highly archetypal nature rooted in the conventions of storytelling which are often dismissed as passé and cliché formulas of storytelling in favour of the deconstruction of myths. Thus I have no desire to see a live-action remake of Mulan in the age of woke Hollywood. In relation to the dreaded “F” word of feminism, I’ll reference an unlikely source in the form of Knuckles the Echidna:

“You know Amy, any time someone brings attention to the breaking of gender roles, it ultimately undermines the concept of gender equality by implying that this is an exception and not the status quo.”

Ok, Mulan is a film which is guilty of this itself with irony-laden songs such as Honour To Us All and A Girl Worth Fighting For which would normally lead one to groan with their intentionally un-pc lyrics and little visual accompaniments such as Mulan unintentionally wielding the umbrella like a sword during Honour To us All, but I’m never left with the impression the film is propagating an agenda. Mulan’s journey was never some feminist quest to prove a woman can do anything a man can do and stick it to the patriarchy – rather it was to preserve her father’s and by extension her family’s honour. Mulan doesn’t want to change how her society works, but rather just cheat its conformist rules.

Hollywood has a modern tendency to portray female characters whom are just women acting like aggressive men who can beat up hordes of bad guys and lack any sense of femininity. Mulan is not like that and film demonstrates her lack of physical strength and demonstrates how she has to rely on her mental capabilities to survive. Mulan figures out how to climb the pole and retrieve the arrow with the stone slabs of strength and discipline not with physical strength but with ingenuity, by wrapping the ropes attached to the slabs around the pole as an aid to climb it. Some suspension of disbelief is required that no one in the boot camp isn’t more suspicious that Mulan’s alias Ping is not a man, even as an effeminate one at that (one way the animators got around this is by having Mulan’s face shape change when she is dressed as Ping). To use a symbol of ancient Chinese philosophy, Mulan’s balancing of masculine and feminine is akin to the balancing of the yin and yang.

“The quickest way to the emperor is through that pass. Besides, the little girl will be missing her doll. We should return it to her.”

From the opening shot of The Great Wall, Mulan captures an epic scope on par with some of the best live-action epics. The colour scheme throughout the film is a thing of beauty complete with many a fantastic shot or creative transition. Mulan was the first time a Disney movie dealt with warfare with the sequence involving the soldiers discovering the village following a genocide (after such a joyous upbeat song) being one of the darkest Disney moments. Likewise, the beginning of the battle sequence on the mountain as Shan-Yu and his men appear over the hill is reminiscent to the film Zulu (that avalanche sequence breaks many laws of physics but no less exciting). The film’s scope reaches a peak with the film’s climactic money shot of Mulan jumping of the palace roof in the Forbidden City with fireworks behind her. The only criticism I have for the animation is the repetition of very similar character models in the Chinese and Hun armies as well as in the Forbidden City. Although the appearance of these models on screen is very limited it’s a bit odd whenever I took notice of it.

Jerry Goldsmith’s East Asian influenced score is among the strongest of his career. The track titled Haircut is a piece of synth to die for! How does a piece of music from 1998 sound like it was recorded for a movie made in 1985? None of the musical numbers in Mulan fail in their grand, sweeping nature. The film’s classic Disney “I desire more” ballad in the form of Reflection (how did she wipe away all that makeup with on rub of her sleeve?) helps to signify Mulan’s vulnerability. Yet Mulan’s greatest musical accomplishment is the hair raising I’ll Make a Man Out of You, the militaristic training montage ballad with its larger than life lyrics and memorable one-liners from the supporting characters – it can proudly stand among the likes of the Rocky IV soundtrack as motivational music to get you out of any rut.

The other area where Mulan surprisingly exceeds is the comedy as one of the funnier Disney animated films, managing to balance the laughs with the high stakes drama. Eddie Murphy as Mushu doesn’t surpass Robin Williams in Aladdin but his antics and many memorable quotes give him one of his best career roles. However I find the film’s funniest moments come from Mulan’s attempts to act manly – it’s not a body swap comedy without a scene in which the character’s cover is almost blown when they are out of costume (underwear with hearts on it, anachronism much?). The only tonal criticism I would levy at the film is the end credits song True To Your Heart, an upbeat pop song which comes out of left field after Mulan’s heartfelt reunion with her father and family. A good Stevie Wonder jam but it feels out of place.

The film’s villain Shan-Yu is a two-dimensional bad guy but is still quite entertaining from how overtly evil he and his falcon companion are, with Shan-Yu himself being complete with fangs and muted colours. I also love how his scenes end with him delivering a spine chilling message (“How many men does it take to deliver a message?” – oh, badass!). He’s not the main source of conflict in the film so his two-dimensional personality doesn’t interfere with the film. However, he does display one revealing character moment during the film’s climax in which upon discovering Mulan was the solider from the battlefield who took out his army, in an ironic twist he is the only character in the film who does not belittle Mulan for being a woman.

Thug Life

Mulan’s world is populated with many great characters from the badass, no-nonsense general and love interest to Mulan, Li Shang (those abs are body goals) of whom it turns out is a bit socially awkward when it comes to women. Mulan’s dignified father Fa Zhou on the other hand is best summed up in the powerful shot of his attempt to walk without his aid and disguise his limp to accept his conscription assignment. Although absent for most of the film, he is at the film’s heart as the instigator of Mulan’s journey (“I know my place! It is time you learned yours!”). The question does have to be raised if the military would actually have this old, physically weak man on the battlefield but rather to act as a general due to the fact that he appears to be a well-known figure at the boot camp and thus likely respected and held in high esteem. I do also adore the trio of soldiers – the fiery voiced Yao (thank you Harvey Feinstein), the childlike Ling and the pacifist Chein with their camaraderie and failure to act like tough guys and lady killers. Then there is the slimy pencil pusher Chi-Fu, the film’s love to hate character. I like how he is given some humanising moments like his picture with the Emperor on his desk and his claim that he apparently has “a girl back home who’s not like any other”. Even The Emperor of China himself is full of wisdom and memorable quotations worthy of Confucius himself.

“The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all”

The Mad Miss Manton (1938)

Manhattan Murder Mystery

Melsa Manton (Barbara Stanwyck) and her ilk of rich, bored socialites use Manhattan as their playground similarly to the wealthy socialites in My Man Godfrey, using the city for bizarre escapades such as sleuthing in the middle of the night and all while still dressing to impress at the same time in The Mad Miss Manton. Stanwyck’s enthusiasm alone is infectious and the quick-fire interactions of the girls are one of the film’s highlights (“I was never much of an individualist, if the upstairs has to be searched we search it together – why that’s communism!”). They even partake in a number of Scooby-Doo like moments, in particular actions reminiscent of the character Shaggy, i.e. making a sandwich in the kitchen when sleuthing in a trespassed apartment. The other memorable addition to the cast is the sarcastic, wisecracking Hattie McDaniel who takes no nonsense from anyone and has a comeback to everything despite her socio-economic status (“Comes a revolution and we’ll start being exploited by our help”).

Francis Mercer is real dead ringer for Gail Patrick

Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda – one true pair if there ever was one. Their chemistry makes it more believable that Peter Ames (Fonda) with his dorky bow tie would fall head over heels for this spoiled Park Avenue princess who is trying to sue him for a million dollars over an editorial. He is even driven to the point in which he casually imposes marriage on her. Henry Fonda isn’t given enough credit for his comic abilities, in particular, the scene in which he fakes his own deathbed in order to extract information from Miss Manton. In one scene Fonda is even seen holding a knife, in the same manner he would years later in 12 Angry Men.

The Mad Miss Manton was one of many films throughout the 1930’s which attempted to get a piece of that Thin Man pie. The formula of the 1934 comedy-mystery romp was an effective one and could easily be recreated with low budgets. It doesn’t matter that the mystery in The Mad Miss Manton is incomprehensible. The comedy and the atmosphere are what makes the movie, of which the picture succeeds in creating with the high contrast, film noir-like lighting during the sleuthing sequences (especially with the sequence in the subway) even though the film is visibly a low budget production. 

The Navigator (1924)

Anchors Aweigh!

In my estimation, The Navigator is Buster Keaton’s funniest film and the finest example of his use of physical space as he treats the film frame as his theatrical stage. Gags such as his “long walk” home or the intimidating painting of director Donald Crisp waving back and forth at the ship window are immaculately timed and staged. Or take my favourite gag in the picture in which Keaton is attacked by a swordfish while deep-sea diving and then proceeds to use it as a sword against another oncoming swordfish. It’s such innocent humour and the obviously fake swordfish props plus the fact that he even goes to the effort of bringing down a “Men At Work” sign with him just makes it funnier – It’s images like these which tickle my funny bone even thinking about it.

The Navigator 2

Errol Flynn eat your heart out!

The Navigator was filmed onboard the USAT Buford, a former warship which Keaton and his crew had free reign to use during the production of The Navigator, and take advantage of it they did, making the boat a character in itself. With rear projection yet to be a thing in 1924, all the nautical antics are filmed onboard the vessel

The Navigator was one of the several films in which Keaton plays a spoiled, entitled brat who can’t do anything for himself in the role of Rollo Treadway. After Rollo observes a happy, newlywed couple (in an early example of black casting in which race is irrelevant), he proposes to Betsy O’Brien (Kathryn McGuire) out of the blue only to be unsurprisingly turned down. A series of mishaps later finds the two alone at sea onboard The Navigator. Betsy is on an equal footing with Rollo, with her character also coming from the same, privileged, sheltered upbringing as Rollo, contributing to the survival of the helpless duo.

The Navigator

The cinematography in The Navigator is some of the finest in the Keaton filmography with its evocative lighting and some gorgeous shots. One such shot and one of the film’s blink and you’ll miss it gags, in the first scene which features Rollo and Betsy in their sailor costumes, notice how their shadows on the wall emanating from the candles they’re holding creates a silhouette of Betsy giving Rollo a kiss on the cheek with his arms around her, even though they’re not engaged in any such action. Likewise  during the sequence in which Keaton and McGuire are running through the ship in parallel tandem, notice the smile on McGuire’s face as she comes close to the camera. One the film’s of odder gags however involves a gramophone playing Wilfred Green’s Asleep In the Deep. With this being a silent movie, the lyrics appear on screen rather than being audible to the viewer in a gag which would have been better suited to a talkie.

When the seafaring duo approach the island of cannibals, it’s the closest a Keaton film actually comes to being scary in a horror sense, with Noble Johnson playing the chief cannibal – always a striking screen presence. This encounter leads to one of the greatest and most suspenseful endings in film history – well in this viewer’s most humble of opinions anyway. I don’t know if it would work for me if I saw the film the first time now, as when I initially watched The Navigator I was naïve enough in my film-watching experience for it to take me by surprise – and I will never forget it.