Saturday, July 14, 2012

William Powell in Love Crazy (1941)

Sometimes I think Nick Charles gets too much credit. Oh, he’s my favorite character of the Golden Age, and can simply do no wrong, but I've been so "love crazy" lately, meaning that whenever I watch William Powell in this 1941 comedy, I think that it’s the role that captures his many strengths and the entirety of his comedic style. I also hold the view that it’s his best comic performance, based on what I’ve seen of his work.

Love Crazy is the story of architect Stephen Ireland, set to celebrate his wedding anniversary with his wife of four years, Susan (Myrna Loy…of course) in their posh MGM-designed penthouse. On the night of their anniversary, a series of mishaps and misunderstandings lead Susan to want to divorce Stephen. In order to prevent this, Stephen pretends to be insane. From this plot point springs forth hilarity from the rich comic silt bed that is divorce, appearing roaring drunk on your anniversary, getting scalded, cross dressing, and most glorious of all: being declared legally insane and the delightful institutionalizing that follows. I’m surprised that this movie isn’t better known. Blame it on the Thin Man, which is actually referenced in this movie:
 Just a quick word of praise for Love Crazy’s supporting cast, all of whom are excellent; with Florence Bates, infuriatingly annoying as the Mother-in-Law; Jack “Willoughby. Ward Willoughby” Carson, Donald MacBride—not quite believable as an artist--, and Gail Patrick--the “Deco Dame” of many posts here at HD—at her comic best. A host of Metro contract players also deliver the goods with fine comic timing. Only Myrna Loy gets a rather thankless role, with little of the Nora Charles-style wit on display. The movie also boasts a gorgeous Cedric Gibbons set. It’s obviously a soundstage, but so gorgeous that it’s easy to immerse yourself in that world. Have a look:

Despite the MGM gloss and high production values, it is William Powell that is the centerpiece of this film. Powell starts off as a happy and in-love husband, but everything unravels with a series of events, each more disastrous than the previous one, all of which showcase Powell’s wide ranging comedic gifts. 
No Golden Age actor, save for Cary Grant, allowed his veneer of elegance to be stripped away and sent so quickly down the drain in the name of comedy as much as William Powell did. I feel the need to compare the two in this regard, because Powell and Grant stand shoulder to shoulder as the best in the “elegant man dropped several notches through bizarre circumstance” department. The difference I see is that while Grant often delivered his lines in a broader comedic style (see The Awful Truth for this at its most definitive), whereas Powell’s line readings were always dry and more subtle. This film is the closest that Powell got to total abandon, but he never goes over the top, even though the situations do. There’s also the point that Powell’s screen persona isn’t as open to caricature like Grant’s can be. Old Bill would be just as good today in sophisticated comedies or silliness just as he was in his time. His mannerisms and speaking style are not so unique that he’s like Cagney or Bogart; it’s just timeless. 
If Cary Grant was perpetually victimized in Bringing Up Baby, then Powell is mauled for the duration of Love Crazy; by his mother-in-law, an area rug, an elevator, a scalding shower, not to mention being locked up in a mental institution accessible to anyone who can climb a short chain link fence. However there is one gag which I will not spoil; those who've seen the movie already know. But the "freeing of the hats" isn't one of them!

Love Crazy is William Powell’s comic masterpiece. The witty, highly quotable script combined with delightful and laugh-out-loud slapstick, the pacey direction of Jack Conway, the beautiful sets, a game cast of MGM professionals, and of course William Powell as a man whose wedding anniversary goes more than slightly awry.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Well of the Past

With the recent death of Nora Ephron, I got to thinking--yes, even I do that sometimes--about her filmography and how unabashedly romantic it was. Ephron's work is often seen as "Chick Flick" fodder and much of it had an emphasis on romance: When Harry Met Sally; Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail--I can't believe I'm actually typing these titles--but her films were all imbued with a strong sense of Hollywood's Golden Age. When Harry Met Sally is heavily lacquered with Harry Connick, Jr. crooning the standards, Sleepless in Seattle has the two female characters weeping copious tears over An Affair to Remember, and You've Got Mail had...spam in their Inbox? I don't know. 

The point is that contemporary films often, if not always, draw from the past whenever they want to invoke a sense of romance, class, and sophistication. In an era where jeans and a "hoodie" are the de rigueur outfit for today's sophisticate, that's probably what they must to do, because there's simply no equivalent in film today.  

In Ephron's case, being of a generation that came of age when the era of romance was near its end influenced her sensibilities because she most likely was a young adult during the tail end of glamour and romance, even if it was second hand even by then, though I personally consider the first half of the 1960s as the last time a strong sense of glamour and romance thrived in film. All romance from the 1970s onward draws heavily and near-exclusively from a wistful nostalgia of the past. In fact, those Golden Age movies were still being aired on late-night TV when I was a kid, but other than war and westerns, I had little use (and even less maturity) to fully appreciate what those movies offered. I do remember thinking how "old fashioned" it seemed, but with an appeal I recognized even then.

We're now three(?) generations removed from the "Greatest Generation", whom I consider the only group to come of age completely in Hollywood's Golden Age, and that idea of romance, while not completely gone, an ironic thanks must go to advertisers who manufacture some well-marketed nostalgia like Hollywood used to--but outside of tried-and-true commercial bytes, the whole emphasis on TV show remakes, comic book adaptations, and teen pulp novels don't lend much to a grown-up sensibility of romance.  I wonder when things will change...

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Some Came Back: Notable Late-Career Performances of Golden Age Actors

I've long been fascinated with late-career performances of just about every Golden Age (or thereabouts) actor whose prime was during the Hayes Office days and seeing them let loose in a movie without that long-since-gone institution’s restrictions. Since 1967—my arbitrary pick for a year of major change in American cinema--the dominance enjoyed by television forced a lot of aging, once-popular performers into accepting some ghastly trash: think Joan Crawford in Trog or Ray Miland in The Thing with Two Heads. That’s the lowest rung of desperation for once-glorious movie stars and probably a future topic here. 

On the positive side of things, there were several stars that fared quite well and who re-launched their careers to become TV icons (that post is Here). For today I’d like to recognize a few performances by Golden Age actors who continued to impress in films long into their illustrious careers had passed their prime. Given Hollywood’s long-standing ageism, these are of course supporting roles, but with performances that have resonated with me for a variety of reasons. Of course there are probably dozens of fine performances from which to choose, but of movies I’ve seen recently, here are a few notable, but not obvious, examples:

Gig Young in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974).

Young enjoyed a brief career resurgence playing sociopaths after winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1969’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  Young plays what someone referred to as a “bored sadist” in the part of Quill the hitman in Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.  Young’s Golden Age origins are even referenced when he claims to be one “Fred C. Dobbs”, which was Bogart’s character in Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  Young has only a few lines of dialogue, but his performance is so good that he manages to be riveting and sickly amusing just through the use of body language and a hilarious array of deadpan facial expressions.  The performance would be downright hilarious if he didn’t exude such insouciant menace.  The mention of Golden Age films in 1970s movies is something I touched on in the Film Culture post Here.

José Ferrer in A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982) 

I consider Ferrer a great actor regardless of the era. He narrowly missed making my top-ten list, but that doesn’t make him any less regarded in my mind. I had never seen him do a comedic film before, but he was magnificent here. In the lightweight Woody Allen romp, Ferrer is Leopold, a university professor who is perhaps the most arrogant, pompous know-it-all of any Woody Allen film. Leopold’s personality can be distilled with just a couple lines dialogue. “I didn’t create the universe. I merely explain it.” He spends the rest of the movie belittling everyone, singing like he’s in love with the sound of his own voice, and pontificating on every topic imaginable.

Robert Preston and Ida Lupino in Junior Bonner (1972)

The decidedly unglamorous character study of a modern-day western family brought director Sam Peckinpah—it’s that man again— to a subject dear to his heart.  Steve McQueen’s tough luck title character returns home to find his family coming apart and while the film has flaws, the performances by the four main actors are pitch perfect, but it’s the fantastic contributions of Robert Preston and Ida Lupino that make this film worth watching.  Preston defined his career with Harold Hill in The Music Man, and while some of that slick charm is in evidence here as Ace Bonner, Preston dials down it down and becomes as   charming rogue as he’s ever been.  He plays McQueen’s father and the two are in such perfect balance with one another.  It’s one of the best father and son character interactions I’ve seen. 

Ida Lupino as Ellie Bonner, on the other hand, is the contemporary equivalent of the frontier woman; she’s tired, run down, and has heard every line of BS ever spoken (and you will have read a few more by the time this post ends).  She’s tough but never brash and never so weary that you can’t see her eyes and not know her heart is melting.  Lupino makes Ellie a genuine person.  I was on the fence about her during her earlier acting parts, but seeing her here made me a fan for good.  She and McQueen also get a fine scene together in what would be in most films dull exposition.

…and anyone who can emote convincingly and non-distractedly under an early ‘70s bouffant and make you forget it’s there must be doing something right.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Movie Characters You Fear You'll Become

Ever see a film and identify with one of the characters for all the "wrong" reasons?  As the late Gerald aka Gordon Pasha often said "My frame of reference is film", so I have no difficulty in identifying with a fictional character, even if it's one that's less-than-ideal. One of the first times this happened was the jarring realization that if I continue on my present "track", I'll end up like Frederick (Max Von Sydow), ranting about society in Hannah and Her Sisters:

 "You missed a very dull TV show on Auschwitz. More gruesome film clips, and more puzzled intellectuals declaring their mystification over the systematic murder of millions. The reason they can never answer the question "How could it possibly happen?" is that it's the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is "Why doesn't it happen more often?"  You see the whole culture. Nazis, deodorant salesmen, wrestlers, beauty contests, a talk show. Can you imagine the level of a mind that watches wrestling? But the worst are the fundamentalist preachers. Third rate con men telling the poor suckers that watch them that they speak with Jesus, and to please send in money. Money, money, money! If Jesus came back and saw what's going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up."

Terrifying stuff to contemplate.

I never have to worry about becoming a Golden Age character whose traits are less than perfect.  Maybe a dozen or so of Robert Ryan's portrayals, but on the whole, my association with that earlier era of cinema is mostly positive.  Perhaps those characters are too broadly drawn for me to connect with, except in an idealized way (take another look at my blogger profile name for that bit of wishful thinking).

Another character that lifted me out of my usual stupor was Sean Penn in The Thin Red Line. His Sgt. Welsh, was like that even before he got to Guadalcanal.  Nearly every line of dialogue Sgt. Welsh spoke resonated with me in a most disturbing way.    Especially the opening line of the film's (Criterion) trailer:

In this world, a man, himself, is nothing.  And there ain't no world but this one."

  On the positive side of this, someone who I do not fear becoming--and another character in The Thin Red Line-- is Ben Chaplin's Pvt. Bell, the letter-writing romantic who was well out of his element in the military, and I'd like to think there's at least some semblance of me there.

"Who lit this flame in us?  Because I have you, nothing can touch me; no hurt, no grief. Not even death..."
So how about you?  Is there a character that you identify with for all the wrong reasons?  It can be from any time in film history.  Be as specific or as vague for your reasons as you like.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Katharine Hepburn: Undercurrent (1946)

The United States was understandably joyous over the end of World War II, and optimistic thoughts of peace and prosperity quickly turned to domestic concerns.  However, the country’s position at the top of the heap was threatened by another big, bad S.O.B., America's wartime ally, the Soviet Union, which was still rattling its bloody saber.

Oh wait, these aren’t my history class lecture notes, we’re discussing another Katharine Hepburn performance! This time it’s Undercurrent (MGM 1946; Dir. Vincente Minnelli) On the surface, this aptly-named film appears to be another--to borrow a phrase from a previous decade--“return to normalcy”-type effort which serves as a snapshot of post-World War II America and a reflection of the paranoia that was already creeping into what was supposed to be a victorious and glorious time in U.S. history…but to the victors, the spoils were already…spoiled.  That’s the psychological mind set of many a post-war Noir, but Undercurrent is more of a warmed-over Alfred Hitchcock movie, especially evident because the similar and superior Suspicion had been released in 1941.  Undercurrent is an uncomfortable blend of pre-war talent and post-war concerns and Katharine Hepburn is mostly to blame.  The problems I had with the film have more to do with Hepburn’s obvious behind-the-scenes clout.  The snapshot of post-World War II America is much more interesting than the movie’s story or any of the performances.  I’m particularly disappointed with Katharine Hepburn’s role and her casting here.

Hepburn plays Ann Hamilton, a woman hovering close to becoming an “old maid”, a term given to single women who were “in danger” of never getting married and already past a “prime” marrying age.  My, how times have changed, as many parents are fortunate to get today’s children out of the house by the time they hit 40…Anyway, Ann is supposed to be a free spirit who routinely avoids marriage and who makes a habit of spurning her erstwhile milquetoast/suitor-professor Joseph Bangs (Dan Tobin), a colleague of Ann’s father, Professor “Dink” Hamilton (Edmund Gwenn), who comes over every day just to be rejected by the disinterested Ann, who just happens to dress like the real Kate Hepburn, including those hideous sandals with thick white socks and ever-present slacks; so much for “disappearing” into a character.

The first fifteen minutes of Undercurrent has the kind of saccharine-laced material that often plagued MGM during the Louis B. Mayer reign, and is too cutesy-poo for words. Ann runs around after her little dog—yes, another one, just like in Without Love (1945) and spars with the family housekeeper, Lucy (Marjorie Main) over poached eggs and “old maid” issues.  

After that deli-ham-thin slice of Americana, things take on a different tone when Alan Garroway (Robert Taylor) shows up.  He’s a colleague of Ann’s father and a celebrity of sorts, as Ann describes him.  He’s the inventor of a “Distance Controller”, which “practically won the war—single handed.” Garroway is a Great American who’s in all the magazines.  Alan is in town to see Professor Hamilton, who’s passing on the burden of tetradite, a name anyone watching this film will grow to hate.  

As was common during this period of films, our two lead characters quickly court in the most wooden manner imaginable, though at least Kate gets twinkly on occasion to sustain some level of interest.  In a hilarious scene, Ann’s father demonstrates “chemistry” between two people—using tetradite, naturally—and the cut is made to Alan and Ann’s nupitals!  Her small-town girl gets whisked away to big, bad Washington D.C. with new hubby Alan.  Ann now functions as a society wife, attending dull parties and wearing beautiful clothes as well as some truly bizarre ones.  Knowing the excesses of Forties styles, it’s unlikely that it was done as a commentary on the Washington, D.C. political social scene, though there is scathing dialogue that portrays such people in a most-deserving light. 

Alan seems like the ideal husband, lavishing Ann with gifts and promises of their life together...until the first mention of his never-before-discussed brother, Michael (Robert Mitchum), who Alan makes out to be a criminal and family black sheep.

Without spoiling the rest of the film, Hepburn’s character is supposed to be a homey, small-town girl whisked away into a dark, sophisticated world.  She’s much better than I initially gave her credit for, but certain things just don’t work.  The laziness of just having her wear her real-life “rags” is a huge distraction for an avowed Katephile like me.  It reeks of a star throwing their clout around and not submitting to the character.  She’s also too old for the part.  I had a hard time buying her as Edmund Gwenn’s daughter despite their actual age difference (Gwenn b. 1877; Hepburn b. 1907) Perhaps the filmmakers knew that too, as she never refers to her father as “Dad”, instead addressing him as “Dink”!  (I can’t imagine giving my father a nickname:  “Hey Dink, how about an increase in my allowance?”)

I also never truly accept Hepburn as a frightened shrinking violet.  There’s a particularly unintentionally comic scene that’s supposed to instill fear and suspense, but dies on screen thanks to production issues…you have to see it yourself.

The Hitchcockian elements of Undercurrent also fall short of expectations.  I admire director Vincente Minnelli as much as anyone, and he does some creative things in terms of artsy shots, using reflective surfaces and clever edits, but the material and the performances just aren’t there.  Robert Taylor, whom I liked so much in Johnny Eager (1941), looks less than eager to play this role.  He’s a subtle actor, but he could have been more forceful.

Robert Mitchum can do no wrong, and his career is Hollywood Dreamland proof.  I mean, just look at this guy smoke unfiltered cigarettes!  How could anyone find fault with this guy’s “Smirnoff Method”?

I realize I'm being tough on Undercurrent, but being an unapologetic sycophant is something I only do at work or at church*.  I can only be completely honest when it comes to Hepburn and other matters of the heart.