Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Man's Castle (1933) - Directed by Frank Borzage

Although most of Frank Borzage’s best films finally saw release with the 2008 box set, Man’s Castle somehow didn’t make the cut. It’s a shame, as it’s his best film outside of his multiple silent masterpieces made with Janet Gaynor and Charles Ferrell. Man’s Castle again rekindles a kind of street-wise and jaded yet sentimental quality to the love stories he pioneered in the 1920’s, like 7th Heaven, Street Angel and Lucky Star, and then continued into the 1930’s with his near masterpiece talkie, Liliom. Borzage is rarely written about these days, and if he is, it’s amongst the blogosphere almost exclusively, and even in that realm it’s hard to come by. Borzage, above any other director who’s ever lived, seemed to elevate romance into the spiritual realm, almost turning the transformative power of love into a religion, believing that if one is honest enough, kind enough, and loving enough, one can overcome just about any odds. No other director has ever conveyed with such unflinching, sincere regard, the belief that love can conquer all and inspire lovers to go beyond what they thought was imaginable.

In the case of Man’s Castle, we consider two souls, Bill (Spencer Tracy) and Trina (Loretta Young) as they sit on a park bench. He feeds the pigeons popcorn, while wearing a fancy suit. She eyes the popcorn with a hungry eye as she is obviously out of work, while he is seemingly rich and throwing food away. The content dabbles into typical pre-codisms, with Bill alluding to the fact that women shouldn’t be out of work (even in the depression) especially with the looks of a woman like Trina. Bill then takes her to dinner, where this film also sets up a sort of teacher/protege kind of relationship, a la, Pygmalion. Borzage brilliantly sets up the film positioning Bill as a rich man, until Bill reveals that his suit is a prop (an advertisement for a coffee house), and then brings Trina (Loretta Young) home to his shanty-town house, proving he's nearly as poor as she is and giving new definition to the term Man’s Castle. Touchingly, the film connects our two down-on-their-luck lovers ending their first evening together by skinny dipping in a river, equalizing their plight, stripping themselves bare and plunging into their relationship on equal terms. Amazingly, the film positions them as living together and joining into a sort of ragged union, rising above categorization because convenience doesn’t make time for such formalities. Their tender relationship is threatened when Trina becomes pregnant, forcing Bill to confront his sense of commitment to Trina and the life that he is aching to give her despite their hardships.

It’s hard to view this film with the right context under which it was meant to be seen. Most of us never experienced the Great Depression, and instead only understand it through the eyes of generations past, who’ve told tales to subsequent generations, or through books or movies. But honestly, it might be cinema that will most easily convey the Depression for future generations. Films like Man’s Castle, My Man Godfrey, The Grapes of Wrath…..these each convey a certain element of the times and a point of view that was, if not necessarily popular back then (it is reported that Man’s Castle did poorly at the box office), are great cultural examples of the time. For all the falsity that cinema often presents, these are the closest things to a living/breathing time capsule as we’ll ever have. Though Borzage can of course be accused of relying too much on sentiment regarding this topic (and indeed throughout his career), it is far too simplistic to label him as taking advantage of the situation. The fact is, many great directors honed their use of sentiment for great effect, including Chaplin, Ford, and Spielberg among others. What separates the good from the bad, is the sincerity of belief in the power of goodness and love at the heart of the sentiment. Borzage here utilizes the difficulties and trials of surviving during the Great Depression in order to reflect upon the resilience of romantic love and the courage to do the right thing under those circumstances. This scenario actually takes a genre that is sometimes stuck in the clouds and then blends in a kind of kitchen-sink realism that gives the film (and many of Borzage’s films) a superbly balanced romantic tone.

One thing I’ve always had an issue with regarding certain pre-code films (this one notwithstanding) is an unenlightened, seemingly sexist view towards women. I don’t particularly take well to the attitude that Tracy’s character delivers to Young, what with the “Come here” and “Hey stupid” kind of lines he throws at her, even if it is in jest. I’m not even sure this attitude matches well with Tracy’s acting style per se. However, there’s an alternate reading to this in that Bill’s ultra-macho attitude is partly a distancing technique, perhaps so that he and/or she will refuse to connect too deeply to the other. Borzage inserts a slightly overstated subplot that doesn't quite resonate as Tracy begins seeing a floozy on the side. It's almost like he’s trying a little too hard to keep the upper hand to avoid getting hurt but it comes across as a bit far fetched. However, most of the film is filled with beautifully wrought romantic longing and touching scenes. There’s this beautiful moment when Bill and Trina attempt to sit down for dinner and the blaring train whistle nearby seems to pierce right into Bill’s brain, almost causing his façade to crack, as he knows he's not providing the right environment for Trina's needs. The film is also remarkably progressive when it comes to the co-habitating relationship, complete with sex, but sans marriage in all its pre-codi-ness. Starting in 1934, this film would never have seen the light of day due to these elements. In fact, the film was re-released in 1938 with the studio being forced to cut out 9 full minutes, which have not been fully recovered since. It’s a shame we have lost some of this footage, as it’s hard to simply get enough of Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young and their chemistry together onscreen, as they are lovely and tender and sincere as anything else you will see from this era.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Camille (1936) - Directed by George Cukor

Greta Garbo is one of my favorite film figures and one of my very favorite actresses. I once had this desire that if I could sit down to a meal with anyone living or dead, I thought I wanted to dine with Garbo. I think I actually still do. I imagine that  our conversation would probably strain a bit between us, as I don't tend to be the most talkative person, and we would probably have more than a few awkward pauses. But I would still give anything to be able to see her and talk to her in person. Garbo became one of the greatest screen actresses and one of the essential romantic leading ladies of all time. It's not hard to believe, considering she built her career upon films with such romantic sounding names like: The Temptress, Flesh and the Devil, Love, The Kiss, Romance. It's almost comical how often she was the leading romantic lady. A few of her greatest works, like Flesh and the Devil, paired her with John Gilbert, someone whom she had great chemistry with. However, Camille is a film that is not only better, but contains a surprising amount of electric chemistry between a slightly older Garbo and a young Robert Taylor. Camille also contains what is probably Garbo’s greatest acting.

Based on a novel and play by Alexandre Dumas (La Dame aux Camelias), George Cukor’s film stars Garbo as Marguerite Gautier, who is known as Dame Camille amongst her Parisian friends, as she attends parties and soirees. Camille is funded by Baron de Varville (Henry Danielle) who is a rather sexless and odd man, but is somehow obsessed with owning some stake in Camille’s life of excess and parties. Camille, much to her own startling chagrin, finds herself rather smitten by a handsome young fella named Armand (Taylor). He courts her and attempts to spend as much time with her as possible, as she and he slowly draw closer together, while Camille tries to keep their relationship hidden from the Baron. Camille has nearly decided to give herself fully to Armand, when his father (Lionel Barrymore) painfully suggests to Camille that she give up Armand in order to keep his name from being associated with her life of frivolity. In the meantime, she has also been suffering from tuberculosis, which progressively weakens her. She tries to spurn her lover Armand, but all to no avail…..he returns, with her on her deathbed, whereby she musters up one final exultation of joy and pleasure of being held in his arms right before her death in the tear-jerking finale.

Garbo notoriously was difficult to work with because she was terribly insecure and uncomfortable with performing in front of too many people. This film, though, allows for what is often essentially scenes just between her and Taylor, which garner an arresting and electric amount of chemistry. I always find Garbo most moving when she is in quiet moments by herself or with one other actor. As I was scanning the film for screen shots, it struck me just how often it’s just she and Taylor positioned onscreen facing each other in two shot. Cukor rarely cuts in this film when they’re facing each other, which continually gives us the feeling of intimacy and immediacy between them, whereby we can feel the romantic intensity. Garbo did wonders when the camera was in close-up on her. She was perhaps the greatest actress of all time regarding her work while the camera was in close. Pick any moment in the film when the screen is on her face and you will notice a subtle array of movement of her mouth, eyes and eyebrows, which gives you the impression that she is expressing a great deal of emotion even though she isn’t necessarily conveying it verbally. I think my favorite moment is when she’s lying on her bed, sick and frail, and her maid Nanine tells her that Armand has come to see her. Garbo presents this suddenly energized and tear-filled joy just through her eyes, while she simultaneously maintains the frail and sickly exterior of her body. It’s an impressive duality of emotion and physicality that Garbo pulls off in that moment.

One of the other interesting elements at play in this film is the fact that Garbo was about 6 years older than Robert Taylor in this film. Gone was the perfect face, unblemished and unwrinkled 10 years prior in Flesh and the Devil, where her face almost had a full and youthful projection. In Camille, she’s a bit thinner, more world weary, and there are lines here and there on her face. Yet, somehow, pairing her opposite the younger Taylor gives life to their relationship and the romance on display, with his vigor giving charge to her experience. It’s hard to say how Garbo would have fared had she stayed in film. Within 5 years of making this film, she would give up acting forever, and amazingly disappear out of the public eye. So....... getting back to that meal with Garbo, somehow I’m imagining that it’s not lunch or dinner, but breakfast we’re eating. She and I are meeting at a small café somewhere and we both sit down. She has sunglasses on and a warm hat and coat. She orders coffee and a scone. I sit there fumbling and trying to lighten the mood and then I mention my favorite parts of her movies. She says nothing behind the dark glasses and I'm pretty certain she's not hearing me. The waiter brings her the coffee and the scone and pretty soon after he leaves us, she takes off her sunglasses exposing her eyes, and seemingly her soul. She then leans over the table with a sort of uneasy expression on her face. I’m dumbfounded, trembling, somewhat fearful and awe struck and can’t believe I’m looking Garbo in the eyes. Then she opens her mouth and she says, “Please go...... I want to be alone.” I quietly walk out of the cafe. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Wizard of Oz (1939) - Directed by Victor Fleming

One of the great joys over the last few years has been introducing my children to some of the great, classic films that I have known and loved over the years. Some of them are films that I didn’t see until I was an adult, but figured they would really like them anyway, like Bringing Up Baby and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Others are films that I have watched since I was young, like Shane, Star Wars, Duck Soup, and now today, we watched The Wizard of Oz together. It was their first time seeing the film in its entirety. I had given thought to showing them the film a few years prior, but in discussions with my spouse we had determined to wait. I actually remember being extremely scared of the witch when I was a kid, and every year when the film came on, I seemingly only remember watching until that part of the film when the Wicked Witch of the West appears in Munchkinland for the first time, before I ran off to bed deathly afraid of finishing the film. I was probably only 5 or 6 years old. My daughters are now ages 6 and 4, so about a week ago, they started to beg to watch it. We felt like it was the right time.

My girls have of course known of this film for more than a few years, and even at one point wanted to be Dorothy for Halloween without even having seen the film. I would show them little Youtube clips from time to time, as I’m a huge fan of the film, and of Judy Garland and my girls loved seeing her in Summer Stock and in Meet Me in St. Louis. Garland’s appeal in the film, has not waned a bit. Every time I watch The Wizard of Oz, I’m amazed at the range and emotional depth of her performance, guiding the audience through this strange land with the clarity and honesty of a seasoned actress despite her being 16 years of age at the time of casting. Garland was always sort of an old soul though, and gives one of that all time great performances by any actress, and it’s partly because of the innocence and transparity of her emotions. There’s this little gesture she gives to Toto at the very end of the “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” sequence where she leans over in a sort of weary moment of melancholy. I don’t think I’d ever quite noticed the brief expression before this latest viewing. There’s that pure and open graciousness as she says, “Very well thank you,” to the Scarecrow. Or how about that moment when confronting the Wizard when she brazenly says, “You outta be ashamed of yourself!” It’s such a well-rounded performance and Garland’s approach was so true to the actress that she would in fact become throughout the years. It’s amazing how singular and effective is her style already at this young age.

There were some funny things about the film that I picked up this time seeing it. I maybe have seen the film 20 times or so in my lifetime, but it’s amazing what slips past your eyes so often. Garland has a moment right after she’s slapped the Cowardly Lion and he’s beginning to whimper where she nearly breaks a smile and almost begins to laugh but is able to hold it in. Check it out for yourself at about the 51 minute mark. Then there’s the part where the Munchkins are running after Glinda in the bubble and one of them is that “kid” with the horn hair from the lollipop guild. Well, the next shot shows him behind Dorothy in a moment of poor continuity. Then amazingly, in the scene when they are putting the cape and the crown on the Cowardly Lion and they’re walking up the little green carpet up the stairs, Garland almost stumbles over the edge of the carpet that curls over a bit after the others walk up before her. These imperfections are quite endearing in that it reminds me that the films’ power does not lie in its technical prowess nor in its filmmaking per se. One can count multiple moments of script incontinuity for instance. But it’s a reminder that sincerity, human nature, and talented actors can entertain as much as or even more-so than any special effects laden blockbuster can.

Sitting down to watch the film with small children who have never seen it before became an interesting experience in and of itself. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the film for myself, but more so, enjoying watching their reactions and answering their questions. Such as, “Is this movie in black and white or color?” (“actually it’s both)…….“Which road of the yellow brick road is the right way?” (“you know what, I’m not sure”)…..  “Is the witch going to come back later?” (“Yes she will definitely be back.) …… “Why is that horse turning colors” (“because it’s the horse of a different color”). I also realized that they seemingly needed a bit of assistance to understand what was happening, and why she could get to this place called Oz and why Miss Gulch had turned into the witch. We discussed that even though it felt real, it was a dream and that she was imagining that Miss Gulch was a witch. Part of the intensity of the film though, is that it feels so hyper-real. Once the film enters the dream state, one is quickly absorbed into the world, and so thorough is this effect once the film bursts into color. One almost forgets entirely that it IS a dream as it feels so emotionally real and linear. Although we talked about the film being a dream early on, my girls were so believing that Dorothy was going to die that they began to get worried once the hour glass began to empty. Thus, much of the film’s power is brought about because of its dual power to both reassure us of what we know and to challenge us toward overcoming our fears. One of my favorite elements is in fact the way that Dorothy, the heroine, leads the group. She’s not quite so meek as she calls herself, as she is a leader of a rag-tag assemblage of “misfits”. I’m occasionally surprised at how often my children become conscious of the fact that they don’t “fit in” for whatever reason. This film reassures us that it’s okay to be imperfect and to make mistakes…..and also to keep trying and to take on the challenges that come our way. These are lessons that we all sometimes need to be reminded of.