The Electric Horseman (1979)

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Now I’ll Choose Your Outfit. Robert Redford in Electric Horseman

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Electric Horseman is a very old fashioned movie for the 1970s; Its a return to the type of movie made during Hollywood’s more innocent days and could have easily been a vehicle for an actor like Gary Cooper. There’s something about the movie that’s just very wholesome to it from the absence of sex, bad language and the innocent nature from the “that would never happen in real life” plot which hits all the emotional beats. A movie in which you’re rooting for a horse is going to have something inherently innocent about it. Even the opening shot of a running horse is very similar to the opening shot of Sydney Pollack’s earlier film They Shoot Horses Don’t They but they are, tonally, completely different.

The opening montage catalogues the story of rodeo star Sonny Steele (Robert Redford); a rise and fall story which echoes Walter Matthau’s final words in A Face in the Crowd. Sonny, a once legitimate figure is now nothing more than a mascot for a product he doesn’t even use. He is trapped in a world of corporate superficiality; no surprise then that the movie is set in Las Vegas of all places. Even the villains of The Electric Horseman are two dimensional, slimy businessmen who don’t have an ounce of empathy. They are about as cliché as it gets but in an enjoyable love-to-hate way.

Sonny’s horse Rising Star is a metaphor for Sonny himself; the horse’s story is essentially Sonny’s. When he talks about what the horse has been through and its desire to be free, he is talking about himself – A former champion who is leading a pampered life and has become no more than a corporate icon. It’s clear that Sonny has no sex or family, as evident from his recent divorcee just like how Rising Star has been sedated by drugs. Sonny is left with no choice but to try and break free from this existence and set Rising Star (and metaphorically himself) free because anything’s better than the living hell he is currently experiencing.

Jane Fonda’s role as Hallie is a throwback to the fast-talking, Hildy Johnson like news reporter. I also have to question if Fonda’s hairstyle and glasses had any inspiration on the look of the titular character in Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie three years later. The scenes between Redford and Fonda alone in the wilderness are reminiscent of classic screwball comedy in the age-old classic “they hate each other but love in love” scenario. Likewise one of my favourite scenes in the film involves Sonny giving passionate monologue to Hallie about the horses’ mistreatment unaware he’s being recorded. Once he thinks the recording has started he has nothing interesting to say (“He’s one of the great animals…in the history…of animals”). A lesson to filmmakers of any stripe really.

I also imagine the inclusion of Dave Grusin’s Disco Magic probably didn’t help the move when it came out in December 1979; six months after the Disco Demolition Night. However, The Electric Horseman is part of Hollywood’s urban cowboy phase the late ’70s and early ’80s. This oxymoronic combination does give the film one of the most unique action sequences I’ve ever seen as Sonny rides his horse against an onslaught of police cars and motorcycles through a small town (I’d like to see this in Grand Theft Auto).

The ending in which Sonny releases Rising Star into the wild is ridiculous. How long would a champion racehorse survive in the wilderness? It would probably die of starvation and loneliness and certainly not be immediately accepted by a wild herd. But at the end of the day, it still strikes an emotional heartbeat.

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Two Weeks In Another Town (1962)

The Sweet Life

Two Weeks In Another Town is the spiritual successor to the previous filmmaking based melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), also starring Kirk Douglas and directed by Vincente Minnelli.  The Bad and the Beautiful even gets an appearance within Two Weeks In Another Town in which Jack Andrus (Kirk Douglas) gloats over the film during a screening not quite unlike Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard  (“Loved it, thought I was great!”). Ultimately, I have to rank Two Weeks In Another Town as a more interesting and far more re-watchable film than The Bad and the Beautiful.

It’s always interesting to watch such lavish Hollywood productions from this period in the early to mid-1960s knowing that the Hollywood and filmmaking landscape would be almost unrecognizable by the end of the decade. TWIAT, for example, makes widespread use of the classic rear car projection shot which so identified with Hollywood’s golden age but not for much longer. The film offers a behind the scenes look at the on-set filmmaking process and even the post-production side of things with a whole scene alone focusing on dubbing the fictional film within the film. TWIAT was filmed in Cinecitta Studios in Rome (Hollywood on the Tiber as it was referred to due to the large number of American productions shot there) which doubles as the movie’s setting.

Aside from his musicals Vincente Minelli could craft a fine, lush and riveting melodrama and had a unique touch and style he brought to his films despite being a studio-bound director. TWIAT has just the right mixture glamour, decadent escapism, camp and a hint of trash along with the beautiful scoring courtesy of David Raskin. What is a melodrama if it doesn’t begin in a mental hospital or contain obvious use of symbolism such as Jack driving into a waterfall to signify his rebirth? Camerawork, on the other hand, is something which tends to stick out in Minelli’s films and the camerawork here is no less fluid as it follows actors from one room to another. There is one particularly memorable shot in which Jack walks into the elevator and the camera somewhat metamorphosises into becoming his point of view.

Hollywood’s veteran directors would have been as old as Edward G. Robinson by 1962 in the role of Maurice Kruger. In 1962 Robinson had his two best roles in years, both in films about the industry itself. TWIAT was the third pairing of Robinson and Claire Trevor and their role as a married couple is tragic as it is evident there is still some resemblance of love between this frustrated filmmaker and his hysterical old hag of a wife. It’s almost comical in her introductory scene, as riveting as Trevor’s performance is as she screams and follows her husband around their hotel suite accusing him of adultery as he walks around paying zero attention to her – he’s just that used to it. Adding to the cast is also Cyd Charisse who gives an entertaining if albeit shallow performance as Jack’s gold-digging ex-wife. She isn’t given much to do in the film other than being a man-eater but it’s fun to watch none the less.

TWIAT also acts as a good travelogue for Rome at night and offers a look at the city’s nightlife with one of my favourite shots in the movie being Kirk Douglas and Daliah Lavi overlooking the city at twilight as the sky is blood red; absolutely gorgeous. Also, Italians seem to know what to wear as every bit player and extra on screen is dressed so dam well.

Noah’s Ark (1928)

Need An Ark? I Noah Guy!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Noah’s Ark was Warner Bros’ attempt to create a Cecil B. DeMille picture and one with very odd results, to say the least. It was a common convention for silent epics to tell two or more concurrent stories, one set in modern times and the others set in the ancient world with these being tied together with the same thematic elements (even Buster Keaton parodied this format in his feature Three Ages). Noah’s Ark from 1928 is not a very good film but it can at least go down in the history books as a bizarrely interesting one.

Noah’s Ark begins with some striking images of the Tower of Babel of which the movie compares to modern day skyscrapers. This is followed by an appearance of the Golden Calf with the title card (*in a booming Charlton Heston voice) “And throughout the ages, the worship of the Golden Calf remains man’s religion”. Cut to images of frantic modern day stock brokers followed shortly by a ridiculous montage of gambling and partying to the dissolve of a statute of Jesus which sheds a tear. Oh boohoo! This moralising couldn’t get more over the top if they tried.

Noah’s Ark is a movie trying way too hard to be profound. It’s already used the Old Testament to try and decry capitalism; the remainder of the film tries to state an anti-war message through the story of the Ark. I’m not a theologian but the connection the film tries to make between Noah’s Ark and World War I isn’t even strenuous at best. The movie’s justification for this is that the war and the story of the Ark both resulted in vast destruction and death. Paul McAllister plays a minister who serves as the biblical counterpart for Noah and proclaims before the movie transitions to the biblical tale itself (*in a booming Charlton Heston voice):

 “The Flood – it was a deluge of water drowning a world of lust!”

“This war – it is a deluge of blood drowning a world of hate!”

“The flood and the war, God Almighty’s parallel of the ages”

Yeah, you tell yourself that Buddy.

I do quite like the basic, melodramatic war story which is charming and mildly engaging. George O’Brien and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams are two American friends by the names of Travis and Al. The two are residing in Europe and may have a sexual thing going on between them as through much of their interactions they remain physically close, are very touchy and even have a romantic look in their eyes. On top of that during the actual Noah’s Ark portion of the film their biblical counterparts Japheth and Ham are even more homoerotic with their exposed chests. Travis, however, is going to marry his German love interest Marie (Dolores Costello), however, war breaks out and not only is married to a woman from an enemy nation but he’s also initially avoiding conscription. – This is one of those films in which the plot if maximised for upmost melodramatic effect.

65 minutes into what is the longest existing version of Noah’s Ark and we finally get what we came for. The portion of the film about the creation of the ark and the proceeding flooding is the best part of the film. Right of the bat, it’s very dreamlike – I just notice that Dolores Costello’s hairstyle is a few millennia off. It also has the most bizarre representation of God trying to communicate with mere mortals, by carving a giant book into the side of a mountain via lightning. If the film was only comprised of this it would be a really good short film. The movie’s much-touted flooding sequence if a spectacular sight with its huge sets, extras galore and water; lots and lots of water. However what’s made Noah’s Ark most infamous in the history books are the sources which say that several extras drowned during the making of the flood and reportedly 35 ambulances were called out to treat the wounded. You only have to watch the sequence itself to see the extras on screen do appear to be in real danger.

Noah’s Ark was a part-talkie and as a result, you have some very stilted acting during the talking scenes but you can’t blame them. The direction of the film is fine but that distinctive Michael Curtiz style is not as apparent as his later talkies. The obvious model train seen early in the film is cute but in comparison to the flood sequence, if realism was their goal then they failed. Also, can a lightning strike destroy a bridge made out of stone?

Myrna Loy is billed at the bottom of the main players screen at the beginning but only appears in one scene, in which she gets to speak and her first time to do so on screen. Sources do state, however, she also appears in the flooding sequence as a golden-winged dancer before the sacrificial altar but this viewer failed to spot her among the carnage. It does seem odd that for a rather high billing that she appears only very briefly in the film. I can only speculate that perhaps she appeared in more scenes in which were removed for re-releases of Noah’s Ark and have since become lost.

Once the story of Noah comes to a close we are brought back to the present and lo and behold, the war has ended and the armistice is signed. The Minister then makes a proclamation to echo Woodrow Wilson’s  famous statement “The war to end all wars” (* once more in a booming Charlton Heston voice):

“I mean that war is now an outlaw, and will be hunted from the face of the earth. Those ten million men have not died in vain.”

Yeah, you tell yourself that Buddy.

Moby Dick (1930)

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Here’s To You Ahab!

I have never read the novel Moby Dick although I am informed this adaptation has very little to do with its source material. The film does open with a shot of the novel itself, however, the screen dissolves into the first paragraph of a Chapter 1 which does not exist in the book nor contains the famous line, “Call me Ishmael” (a character who also does not appear in this adaptation). Yet even to judge Moby Dick from 1930 on its own merits this is a flawed film but has enough good in it to make it enjoyable; although it is a shame as all the ingredients are there for the making of a classic. Oh whale, what can you do?

John Barrymore’s performance is unlike my perception of Captain Ahab and also differs from Gregory Peck’s Lincolnesque performance from 1956. This Ahab during the first half of the film is a womanizing, carefree rapscallion who even exudes sexuality at times. What’s striking about Ahab’s introduction are his acrobatics atop of a ship’s mast. While some shots are clearly performed by a stunt actor, those involving Barrymore really gave me the Gene Kelly vibes, specifically of his performance in The Pirate (1948). Even his voice is reminiscent of Kelly when he shouts “Look out below!”. In the latter half of the film, we see the Ahab more identified in pop culture as a bitter, vengeful man once Moby Dick robs him of a leg. Nothing beats Barrymore hamming things up and in one scene we even see him wearing a cape and strutting like he did in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Ahab’s relationship with his brother’s finance Faith (Joan Bennett) is an endearing bit of adultery as established in a cutesy scene taking place in a church in which they bond thanks a trusty Saint Bernard. The other real striking presence in the film is Noble Johnson as Queequeg, of whom Ahab humorously refers to as a heathen throughout the film.

The structure and pacing of Moby Dick is rather flimsy. The landlocked portions of the film, for example, leave me wanting to get some sea action. Likewise, the sequence of Ahab’s ship navigating through a storm is visually impressive but didn’t have to be as long as it did, plus it’s hard to make out much of the dialogue amongst the sound of the storm.

One of the film’s big positive’s are the production values from the rich details of the port, the seedy taverns and even full-scale ship recreations – all contributing to the film’s downtrodden atmosphere ( we are even given a sequence amongst an exotic Asian port in Singapore). The special effects, on the other hand, are mostly good for the time, all except for one extremely poor close up of Moby Dick during the first encounter in which the little mouth of the beast is seen moving. It only appears on screen for a mere second but looks poor enough that it sticks in your mind. Historical adventure pictures were not common during the pre-code era. After being abundant during the silent era they wouldn’t make a comeback in Hollywood until the mid 30’s so it is interesting to see a picture of this nature made in 1930.

Details on this film’s background are not abundant. It wouldn’t surprise me if Michael Curtiz directed any scenes (he did direct the lost, German language version) due to two scenes featuring the unmistakable use of Curtizian shadows. – But for now, I can only speculate. This brings me to my next point; the changes in image quality in the Warner Archive print of the film. Much of the clarity of the image quality is above what you would expect for a film from 1930, yet other scenes are of a much-degraded nature. Even more bizarrely in some scenes, the brightness levels between shots are very inconsistent. Is this the fault of the filmmakers, the print or where portions of this film lost at one point? Whale we ever know?

Ball of Fire (1941)

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The Kind of Woman Who Makes Entire Civilisations Topple

Ball of Fire is the more grown up, risqué version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; even during the opening scene the film’s cast of professors are seen walking in tandem through Central Park like the seven dwarfs as they adhere to a strict daily seclude in an attempt to compile an encyclopaedia of all human knowledge. The film plays off the public perception of bureaucrats, bankers, librarians and people in other such mundane professions. Are they such sheltered, socially awkward individuals who are in bed at 9 every night and have likely never been in a relationship? The recurring Howard Hawks’ theme of male bonding is ever present in Ball of Fire, although here it is all the more goofy with a cast of characters playing nerds. Regardless there still remains one very poignant scene in which Professor Oddly (the only bachelor of the group) recounts about his past wife and the men start singing.

There are few other character entrances in film more entertaining than that of Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O’Shea (a not so innocent name by today’s standard) as she enters the picture singing and dancing with Gene Krupa and his orchestra – could the character’s fast-living personality be summed up in a more entertaining manner? Likewise, that dress! No wonder Edith Head had decades working in the industry. Notice it’s nonstop sparkling every moment it’s on screen, making Stanwyck look all the more tantalising. Almost all the outfits worn by Stanwyck in Ball of Fire are clearly designed to make her look as sexually appealing as possible. When Professor “Potsy” Potts (Gary Cooper) and Sugarpuss are alone, the sexual sparks fly and when she holds up a leg she gives a group of socially awkward, sheltered middle-aged to old men a sexual awakening. It’s all the more poignant that the man she seduces is played a Gary Cooper; a contrast to his boy scouty screen image. Here Cooper is a nerd, and while he did play tough guys on screen, he will always be that boy next door. Ball of Fire is full of lines and moments which wouldn’t feel out of place in a film made before the production code. At the beginning of the film, we even see Professor Potts arousing the funder of the encyclopaedia project by merely talking to her in an attempt to convince her to keep the project running.

Ball of Fire is worth watching multiple times for all the lines you can easily miss out on. For example, when a garbage man (Allen Jenkins) comes into the house to ask the men for assistance on radio quiz, one of the questions regards the correct way to state a mathematical problem: “2 and 2 is 5, 2 and 2 are 5, 2 or 2 makes 5”. Cooper states the correct answer is “2 and 2 are 5” however the mathematician of the group then states “2 and 2 are 4” followed by the garbage man responding, “that’s a good one, nobody’s gonna get that”. Am I detecting a sneaky Orwellian statement pre-1984?

Female (1933)

Man, I Feel Like a Woman!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Majority of reviews I have read for Female express disappoint for the film’s apparent cop-out conservative ending. A female CEO of an automobile company hands the business over to her soon to be husband and proclaims she wants to have nine children. I won’t lie though; I would have had the same reaction if I had seen Female at a younger age. I’m actually very happy that I first watched this movie when I did during a time when I became familiar with the works from the likes of Jordan Peterson and was around the time of James Damore’s Google Memo. News Flash; there are biological and psychological differences between men and women and as a result, the two make different life choices and exceed in different fields while finder others more difficult. Women are less career orientated than men and don’t push as hard for positions of power and therefore are less likely to become CEOs. The automobile industry itself had its first female CEO in 2014 but you can only attribute this to discrimination for so many years after women’s liberation. Regardless of the writer’s intention in Female, it was refreshing to see a film which portrays such an honest depiction of the differences between men and women, not to mention one made before the science on the subject became definitive. Like in Queen Christina from the same year, Female shows how positions of power require a sacrifice of feminine virtues.

Allison Drake (played by the radiant and sadly forgotten Ruth Chatterton) is an iron lady who lost her girlish illusions when forced to take on her father’s business. She is a playgirl who seduces employees from her factory when bringing them to her house for so-called “business”. It’s odd hearing about how films of the pre-code era outraged groups such as Christians when films such as in the example of Female don’t paint a sexually promiscuous lifestyle as one that leads to much happiness. Allison’s gigolos (on top of not being very interesting) are mere yes-men who bow to her every whim; cucks as modern internet slang would refer to them as. Alison desires to be liked for bring herself and not as the president of a motor company. As she says early in the film, “Oh I see lots of men, but I’ve never found a real one”. In Queen Christina fashion she goes downtown under the guise of a commoner and meets the no-nonsense Jim Throne (George Brent).

Following their time together Allison comes across Jim again when he just so happens to coincidently start working for her company. After learning of Allison’s true identity he is invited back to her place for “business” but doesn’t fall for any of her seduction techniques; Throne is a man who is above that and has no desire to become a gigolo. With Allison’s new found desire for a domineering man she asks her father figure of sorts Pettigrew what kind of women men like Jim Throne desire; why women who are “gentle and feminine”. He’s not wrong, is he? What follows is a picnic scene in which Allison humorously tries too hard to be gentle and feminine. At the end of the day, Allison Drake is a woman making her own choice of what she wants to do in pursuit of her own happiness, what could be more liberating? In what would be a fantasy for 1933, no systemic force is keeping her down nor is she browbeaten by anyone to leave her position as CEO. It’s entirely her own choice, one of the virtues afforded to anyone living in a free society. This makes Female a fascinating watch, not only through the context of when it was made but even more so through a modern context.

Female is yet another example of those 60 minute long pre-code films which go by very fast and pack a lot into them. It is a movie of three directors but doesn’t feel like an odd stitch-up of a film; what shots evoke William Wellman and which evoke Michael Curtiz?  The film is full of unforgettable art deco sets and eye-watering cinematography not to mention the Ennis House which is used for Allison’s mansion. As Joe Gillis puts it: “I was a great, big white elephant of a place. The kind crazy movie people built in the crazy 20’s”.

Possessed (1931)

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Living In Sin

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The poor, poverty-stricken girl goes to the city to meet a rich man. Once you’ve seen enough 1930’s films which follow this formula you get sick of it but Possessed is one of the better films of this kind, partially from a degree of its self awareness, such as when businessman Wally Stuart (Richard “Skeets Gallagher”) reacts to Marian Martin (Joan Crawford) showing up at his New York apartment (“Poor but beautiful factory maiden leaves squallier of small town for glitter of big city”). At the beginning of Possessed Marian works in the most comically mundane place imaginable, a box factory (thank you Principal Skinner). Marian holds the fear of getting older and passing her sell-by date; use your looks now while you still got them. When Marian goes to the city she must navigate her way through a man’s world full of greed, ambition, politics, and sex. It’s there that she meets a certain Mark Whitney (Clark Gable).

Crawford and Gable – the heat, the passion, the electricity. Could you ask for a stunning and sensational on-screen couple? Crawford has talked openly about her feelings for Gable and watching them on screen you can tell the two of them are really in love with each other. Possessed shows a couple living together (and presumably having sex) out of wedlock; means nothing today but was scandalous for the time. Mark refuses to marry Marian out of pain from his previous marriage (“Losing a sweetheart is a private misfortune, losing a wife is a public scandal”) and we see the effect this has on their relationship. In one pivotal scene during a party at Mark’s apartment, an accomplice of his brings a floozy to the party and justifies this over the presence of Marian. Not married and living with a man? Then others will see you no better than some tramp off the street.

Later in the film, Mark makes the decision to run for governor and decides to marry Marian as she would otherwise be a liability to his campaign. The scene in which Marian can overhear Mark talking about his intention to marry her as heard from Marian’s point of view is one of the many deeply emotional and naturalistic scenes with Possessed. Also at exactly 7 minutes and 7 seconds into Possessed, there is an edit which does not match at all when Crawford opens a kitchen door and enters the room; I found myself watching it several times just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.

Mark Whitney is a man of moral character compared to other Gable characters. This isn’t the brutish Gable who throws women around. Just like the film itself, there is a great sense of tenderness, warmth, and maturity to his performance. When the two do break up we finally hear the brutish Gable and it’s heartbreaking. The greatest emotional high, however, is saved for the film’s climax as we are treated to Mark giving a campaign speech to a huge crowd in an auditorium; expertly shot and very rousing stuff (he gets my vote!) Likewise that Whitney for Governor poster is an obscure film prop that I want.

Ninotchka (1939)

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Communism: A Load of Bolshevik

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Does communism have a moral equivalency to Nazism? Conservatives have long complained of a double stand for Nazi and communist crimes. Nazism is based on heinous sounding ideas; communism is based on nice sounding ideas. However, that makes communism and left-wing radicalism more appealing to people of good intentions and perhaps that makes communism more dangerous and an evil in disguise. I’m undecided on this question myself but regardless of which ideology is worse, there is one thing I’m certain about: communism sucks and the fact that it has nowhere near the reputation of Nazism is disturbing. This is an ideology which was responsible for the deaths of 100 million in the 20th century yet I am able to buy t-shirts featuring its dictators in pop culture stores.

The 1939 Ernst Lubitish directed and Billy Wilder penned comedy Ninotchka is reflective of this lack of moral equivalency between Nazism and communism despite the film clearly being anti-communist (apparently the film was responsible for communists losing an Italian election in 1947). The scenes in Ninotchka which take place in Russia are grim. The complete censorship of information, the regimented support of the regime, the asphyxiating and claustrophobic living conditions, rationed food, fear of spying neighbours and the overall lack of personal freedoms. Yet despite critique such as this which the film levels against communism, Ninotchka does not present communism as the utterly monstrous belief system that Hollywood suggested Nazism was. When I first watched Ninothcka as a politically lay viewer that’s the impression I got – “communism isn’t great but Nazism is worse”. That’s not to say Ninotchka would be so much better a film if it went the full throttle and showed us the gulags and mass starvation but would a film like Ninotchka transposed to Nazi Germany ever get made with the same comic and tonal approach, one which doesn’t go the full throttle by mentioning concentration camps and persecution of Jews and other minorities. Would it even be morally appropriate to do so? – Food for thought.

One of the ways in which Ninotchka jabs at the Soviets is through the Russian characters skewered thinking. In the opening scene the three comrades on a mission in Paris attempt to justify choosing an expensive hotel over a cheap one because apparently, it’s what Lenin would have wanted and refusing to simply admit they really just want the royal suite (“but who said we had to have an idea”). In another scene in the film, Ninotchka explains why Soviet Russia is “peddling our precious possessions to the world at this time”. She goes onto say, “Our next year’s crop is in danger, and you know it. Unless we can get foreign currency to buy tractors, there’ll not be enough bread for our people and you comrades.” As if tractors could overcome a drought and famine. Likewise, there is Leon’s (Melvyn Douglas) statement in regards to Russia, “I’ve been interested in your five-year plan for the last 15 years”.

I do find much of the Ninotchka’s first 18 minutes prior to the introduction of Garbo to be a bit flat even with some humorous scenes in which the three comrades are being seduced by capitalistic decadence and start fawning over Leon. The setting up of the background behind the jewels as a plot device and the scenes between Melvyn Douglas and Ina Claire are not terribly interesting. Once Garbo appears, however, the film is on fire.

Greta Garbo is not one of my favourite actresses but I totally understand the appeal. Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova Envoy Extraordinaire is one badass. She claims to have been a sergeant in Third Cavalry Brigade and she is certainly one with the ability to convince the uninitiated to communist ideals. Lines such as “I have heard of the arrogant male in capitalistic society” and “That’s no business, that’s social injustice” don’t sound too different from talking points by modern lefties. Ninotchka is driven by facts and statistics in comparison to Leon who is more driven by emotion (although I guess the fact of communism’s failure is one for her to ignore). The Soviet State as represented by the figure of Ninotchka is genuinely concerned with the great mass of its people but it is so interested in their statistical well being that is has forgotten their emotional needs and has become cold, oppressive and inhuman. Garbo’s cold emotionless voice and her stone face are fully utilised in a faultless deadpan, comic performance. However, when she finally laughs for the first time and unleashes her endearing side, it feels so genuine and uplifting. At the heart of romance in Ninotchka is that of love triumphing over opposing ideologies.

Ninotchka’s communist ideology does rub off on Leon as he becomes somewhat of a campaign socialist and humorously turns to violence in order to track down Ninotchka later in the film. As good as Melvyn Douglas is in the role of Leon, I can’t help but wish William Powell could have performed the role as no one does suave cynicism like Powell. Regardless Douglas does deliver one of my all-time favourite set of movie lines in which he tells Ninotchka to just smile “At the whole ridiculous spectacle of life, at people being so serious”; I like to remind myself of this whenever I feel frustrated at the state of the world we live in.

One of the most interesting scenes in the film involves Leon’s butler Gaston (Richard Carle) telling his master about his concern regarding Ninotchka’s (or simply the Bolshevik Lady) influence over him;  Gaston as much as refuses to dust Leon’s copy of Karl Marx’s Capital as it is a socialistic volume. Gaston also mentions how Leon has not paid him two months in the movie suggesting that capitalism isn’t perfect; however, Gaston finds the prospect of sharing belongings with Leon and being on an equal footing as him to be terrifying. By the end of the film, neither Ninotchka nor Leon directly renounces communism but I doubt they will be returning to Russia any time soon.

San Francisco (1936)

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It’s Going to Be a Bumpy Night

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The disaster film is a genre thought of as being low brow but San Francisco is one of the few with class and sophistication. Like in James Cameron’s Titanic, the viewer is left waiting in suspense for the impending disaster as the emotional stakes rise. When the night of the earthquake arrives the movie draws out the final moments before the disaster; I’m left thinking to myself “It’s coming, it’s coming”. Also was it common back then to hold a ball at 5 in the morning?

The earthquake itself ranks among one of cinema’s greatest disaster sequences with the special effects and studio pyrotechnics making up for the less than stellar projection effects at the beginning of the film. The sequence shows the close up reactions of individuals just before they are killed by incoming debris as it lasts for the same amount of time which the actual earthquake itself did on Five-Thirteen A.M, April 18th, 1906 (or at least according to the movie, other sources state it occurred at 5:12 AM).  This is followed by the harrowing sight of death and destruction as Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) walks through the ruins of San Francisco as he observes the horrifying, brutal aftermath in a remarkable section of the film. Even famous silent directors D.W. Griffith and Erich Von Stroheim worked on the film without credit which shouldn’t come as a surprise as the plot of San Francisco would have been ripe for a grand silent melodrama.

On my first viewing, the ending of San Francisco felt far-fetched. I can see many people having an “Oh come on!” reaction but for me at least even on that first viewing, it still worked on an emotional level. However, after contemplating about the ending I have come around to accept the idea that a person, even a non-believer may turn to religion after experiencing something as horrendous as a natural disaster which leaves a trail of death and destruction. Although considering how religious the entire movie is I should have seen it coming not to mention the ending can be justified when looking at the deeper religious parallels within the film.

During the movie Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) performs the opera Faust on stage as we are shown recreations of various portions of the opera; throughout San Francisco there are parallels to the story of Faust. The clash between the moral and immoral, Mary’s tendency to refuse Blackie’s advances, the fire seen at the beginning of the film to lines such as “You can’t take a woman and then sell her immortal soul”. Even during the earthquake’s aftershock, the underworld itself opens up (and one poor sucker falls into it); and at the very end of all this Blackie repents his sinful ways. If you can accept Blackie’s conversion then you still have to deal with the extremely corny, patriotic finale but I can still get a kick out of such cheese.

Jeanette MacDonald, what a voice! The reaction of the churchgoers listening on in awe when she sings in the choir is the same reaction as the viewer; San Francisco is, after all, a vehicle designed for the full range of her talents. Plus that title song is one catchy tune and I’m happy to hear it multiple times throughout the film. Likewise, Spencer Tracy appears in the film for 15 minutes and 58 seconds but he is the actor who leaves the biggest impression acting wise. Father Tim Mullin is the predecessor to Tracy’s Father Flanagan in Boy’s Town. Tracy was an actor who had the ability to play such a saintly character without it being sickly even as he inhabits the office of his church amongst the most heavenly lighting.

Is Blackie an atheist or just non-religious? The first dialogue between him and Father Mullin suggests he may not believe in God; “So you still believe in Santa Claus?” followed by Mullin’s response, “Trouble with you is that you don’t believe in anything”. The character relationship between Blackie and Father Mullin is the same which was seen in Manhattan Melodrama (in which Gable plays a similar character also called Blackie) and later in Angels With Dirty Faces. The two childhood friends who end up taking very different paths in life (one of moral servitude and the other of crime and corruption) yet their friendship prevails despite such contrasting lifestyles and views. Blackie Norton couldn’t be more of a Clark Gable character; a man under great pressure, business owner, runs for political office, has a way with women, cocky, street smart and a loveable jerk. It’s not clear to what extent his criminality runs to other than that he (along with numerous business owners in San Francisco) run his establishment without a license; there was still a bit of the Wild West in 1906 San Francisco.

What’s Up Doc? (1972)

You’re the Top 70’s Comedy!

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Director Peter Bogdanovich knows his classic Hollywood with his films being a mixture of new Hollywood meets old Hollywood. What’s Up Doc shows it was still possible to make a screwball comedy even in a contemporary 70’s setting with actors nowhere near as glamorous or good looking as the stars of the golden age. Regardless, the energy, the chemistry and the feeling of classic screwball comedy is present in this Bringing Up Baby inspired farce. Like in Bringing Up Baby a stuffy gentleman is harassed by a woman who has a defiance against the natural order of things and simply won’t get out of his life despite his best efforts. Plus I would love to see someone create a diagram explaining the journeys of the four plaid suitcases featured in the movie.

What’s Up Doc was the first film I saw Barbra Streisand in and this is possibly the shallowest thing I’ll ever say in a review but for the longest time, I avoided watching any film of hers because of how unattractive she looks. Yet when watching her I was pleased to discover she has enough on-screen charisma and likeability that when watching her in action I’m not bothered by that, how do I put it nicely, not so attractive facial features of hers.

Streisand and Ryan O’Neal manage to cross the fine line that they remind you of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby but they aren’t imitating them as they bring their own something to the roles. Streisand as Judy Maxwell is the one member of the cast who can talk at the machine gun rate of classic screwball actors plus something about her personality really projects a Carole Lombard dynamic. Ryan O’Neal as the musicologist Howard Bannister, on the other hand, is far nerdier and emasculated than Cary Grant ever was in Bringing Up Baby. The terms he throws around such as Pre-Palaeozoic Tambulu rocks are all legit terms unlike the fictional “intercostal clavicle” from Bringing Up Baby. Likewise, the time period allows for more racy content, I don’t think 1930’s censors would have allowed for a shirtless Cary Grant wearing a bow tie.

Close to stealing the show however among the cast of live-action cartoon characters is Madeline Kahn as the comedic greatness that is Eunice Burns. As Bogdanovich himself states, Kahn was someone who was funny without being aware of it. Her comic voice can make even the most mundane of lines amusing not to mention does there exist a more comically drab name than Eunice? Above all has there ever existed any romantic attraction between Eunice and her fiancée Howard? What if anything do these two see in each other? The scene however which makes me laugh the most is the sequence in which Howard must hide Judy in his hotel room from an always angry Eunice which leads to the eventual destruction of the hotel room. It’s the most classic, straightforward, slapstick 101 set up and I don’t think I’ve seen it executed as perfectly as it is here.

Few other films take more advantage of their location than San Francisco in What’s Up Doc? It’s not hard to see why it’s a filmmaking favourite as seen in films such as Vertigo or Bullet. The filmmakers definitely enunciate those San Francisco hills with characters struggling to get up them as well as taking full advantage of the city to deliver one of the greatest car chases in film history. The most important requisite for a great car chase or action sequence in general which most modern films don’t understand is that it’s largely about feeling the weight and physicality on screen along with every beautiful sound effect of car tyres screeching and engines revving (here you can actually see the damage caused to public steps in San Francisco). Everything you see on screen is real, making it all the more thrilling knowing that stuntmen are in actual danger. On top of being an edge of your seat spectacle, I rank it the second funniest action sequence ever committed to film (the final car chase in The Blues Brothers still ranks supreme for me). It has the cartoon clichés you would expect brought into live action including men carrying a glass plane across a road as well as the chases going through a Chinatown parade. The chase even goes through Lombard Street, the so-called most crooked street in the world, and seeing multiple cars drive through it in pursuit of each other is a very humorous sight.