Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Pre-Code Parade: DOUGHBOYS (1930)

Buster Keaton reportedly liked Doughboys, his second talking feature, the best of his pictures for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Keaton fans realize that this isn't saying much, but the film apparently appealed to Buster's nostalgia for his time entertaining the troops in Europe. It was one of a cycle of war comedies that included Harry Langdon's A Soldier's Plaything, Wheeler and Woolsey's Half Shot at Sunrise and Anybody's War, featuring the blackface team of Moran and Mack. These films were contemporaries of All Quiet on the Western Front, and their advertising could play, as the newspaper ad shown here did, on the already-famous title. Whatever personal meaning Doughboys had for Keaton, there's really little to distinguish it, apart from the military setting, from his soul-crushing output under Metro's creative control. It's the talkie debut of Keaton's millionaire persona -- like Harold Lloyd, he could play any social class, at least in silent film, as each film required. At the same time, however, Keaton is the pathetic "Elmer" character Metro had burdened him with since his last silent feature, Spite Marriage. In fact, there's little consistency in Keaton's performance. He tries to put on airs appropriate to Elmer Stuyvesant's class in some scenes, but whenever he tries to court Mary, the girl of the picture (Sally Eilers), he comes across as more pathetically awkward than a wealthy man probably should have been. In those courting scenes -- for starters, Elmer awaits Mary's departure from work every afternoon, attended by his butler and chauffeur, only to be rebuffed daily -- he resembles a drunk vaguely recalling some of Langdon's baby-man shtick. Even at his most aristocratic, Keaton is obliged to speak demoralizing joke-book dialogue. Mistakenly enlisting for the Great War, Elmer is asked where he was born, and of course says it was in a hospital. "Were you sick?" the recruiting officer asks sarcastically, and of course Elmer answers that he can't remember exactly because he was very young at the time. From there, it's standard service-comedy stuff. Keaton is supported by more vocally-interesting performers, including ukulele-strumming Cliff Edwards as his eventual buddy and Edward Brophy as a drill instructor and romantic rival for ambulance-driver Mary. With his gruff yet high-pitched voice, the bloodthirsty and often apoplectic Brophy nearly steals the picture from Keaton, whose physical comedy here is mostly uninspired, howevermuch he enjoyed the material.

Things do pick up a little when the awkward squad reaches Europe. One of the intended highlights is a show put on by the troops in which some of the performers, including Elmer, hit the stage in drag. The joke is that Elmer's out of sync with the other "ladies," and that's about it, as if Keaton's mere awkwardness was supposed to be hilarious. Somewhat better is his performance, still in drag, in the dreaded Apache dance, but it's merely violent without the grace a silent Keaton might have lent the scene. My favorite bit is when Elmer blunders into a German trench, only to find his former butler (Arnold Korff) leading a band of starving but friendly troops. Tasked with taking prisoners, Elmer takes their orders for dinner -- they want all the stereotypical Teutonic favorites -- but gets involved in a final adventure with Mary and an unexploded shell before the war ends and the enemy can be fed. There's something dimly Keatonesque about Elmer and Mary's pathetic attempts to deactivate the shell, but it'll only make you think of what a Keaton with full creative control might have made of the war. The ending at least has some redeeming nastiness. Elmer has inherited the family business in peacetime and has installed his war buddies as directors, while hiring Brophy the drill instructor to be a humble janitor, but this scene of triumph is disrupted by the riveting at a nearby construction project, which sends all the veterans scampering for cover. I guess we don't laugh at such moments anymore, but in an M-G-M Keaton picture you take your laughs wherever you can.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

On the Big Screen: ONCE UPON A TIME ... IN HOLLYWOOD (2019)

The ninth film by Quentin Tarantino has become slightly controversial for a bit of historic revisionism. It appears to assert that Bruce Lee was not the greatest fighting machine ever to live, but rather more of a pretentious braggart than most who knew him recall him being. In the film, stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) fights Lee (Mike Moh) to at least a standstill after throwing the martial-arts master into the side of a car, having caught him in mid-flying kick. This brawl, provoked by Lee claiming that he could beat "Cassius Clay" in a fight, gets Booth blacklisted as a stuntman, forcing him to work full-time as a chauffeur, handyman and overall stooge for Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), the actor for whom Cliff doubled on the western series Bounty Law. But before we get too deep into the main story of the picture, let's linger on the Bruce Lee scene. It's interesting that, while Booth is a co-protagonist of the movie, Tarantino doesn't make him the obvious good guy of the scene by having him, unlike Lee, call Muhammad Ali by what was then his proper name. The writer-director shows impressive discipline here, since by showing Hollywood 1969 from the point of view of two white male has-beens, he adopts a reactionary perspective that's not necessarily his own. There's no objective corrective to Booth's implicit disdain for Lee's kung fu prowess, for instance, nor for Dalton's disdain for spaghetti westerns or both character's contempt for hippies. Tellingly, Hollywood is the first Tarantino film in almost forever with no participation whatsoever by Samuel L. Jackson, whose footnote-narrator function in Inglourious Basterds is taken over by Kurt Russell, who also has an onscreen role as the stunt coordinator who blacklists Booth. It actually surprises me that people don't think of Hollywood as a Trumpian film, though I have no idea whether Tarantino sympathizes to any extent for the current President or his agenda. This is a film which, like Basterds, rewrites history on the assumption that history is already changed by the existence of the auteur's creations, though the extent to which history is rewritten is left unclear at the end.

Why Tarantino stops where and when he does no doubt means something, but let's stick with Bruce Lee a bit more. In his pretentious speech to the Green Hornet stuntmen, Lee complains that martial-arts exhibitions are mere stylized fakery compared to the genuine mortal combat in the boxing ring. While Tarantino's Lee is wrong to say that boxers like Ali and Sonny Liston literally are trying to kill each other, his distinction between fakery and reality sounds like a thematic statement for the film as a whole. This seems most apparent in the central section of the film, which intercuts between Dalton's struggles on the set of the Lancer show, where he plays a villain, and Booth's visit to the Spahn Movie Ranch, where old-timer George Spahn (Bruce Dern) is held a virtual prisoner by the Manson Family. A hungover Dalton suffers some existential lunchtime agony after blowing his lines a couple of times, but nails his last scene of the day. Oddly, while Tarantino has shown us clips of Bounty Law and other Dalton TV appearances in a realistic pastiche of Sixties techniques, he films the Lancer shoot with no regard for realism, framing the action to fill the widescreen and magnify the moment to suit its presumed significance for Dalton's career. Meanwhile, Booth rides into a scene of real menace, a lone hero against a potential mob (albeit without its leader; Manson himself only appears once in the picture). The sense of danger is real and strong, and yet it's fair to say that this scene above all establishes Hollywood as Tarantino's third consecutive western, even if it also serves as a bookend companion to Basterds bracketing the two more obvious westerns, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. In any event, Booth seems to embody a reality principle -- he's a real-life killer as both a war hero and the reputed murderer of his wife -- while Dalton represents a fantasy TV world. By establishing Dalton as the next-door neighbor of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), Tarantino seems to be setting up the ultimate intrusion of lethal reality into the TV star's fantasy world by giving Dalton a front-row seat to Tate's murder. It should be clear by now, however, that Tarantino plays by his own rules, but we still need to find the point of his doing so this time.

So, to spoil the ending a month after the film's release, Dalton's mere existence as a drunken TV cowboy diverts the Manson killers from their original mission. After he berates them for stalling their noisy car outside his house, the Mansonites decide that Dalton is a more fitting target since he and his generation of TV stars taught the hippie generation to kill. Their attack on chez Dalton ends in happy disaster thanks to the presence of an acid-addled Booth and his pitbull buddy, though Dalton himself gets to carry out the coup de grace with a flamethrower left over from one of his movie projects. His reward is to be admitted into the presence of Sharon Tate and her un-doomed friends, while the wounded Booth is taken to a hospital. During the first half of the film, Tate has been a rising star while Dalton has struggled to arrest his decline. While they are next-door neighbors, Dalton actually sees Tate and Roman Polanski for the first time on the February 1969 day that takes up the film's first act. It's like having a version of A Star is Born where the falling and rising stars actually don't know each other. Unlike the hippies who so bother Dalton and Booth, Tate is a benign embodiment of the youth movement that's driving the likes of Dalton out of the spotlight. Tarantino finally finds an artistic use for his foot fetish by having Tate kick off her shoes while watching her performance in The Wrecking Crew on the big screen, linking her with the barefoot girls who both tempt and repel the middle-aged protagonists. I'm not much younger than Tarantino so I can testify to the scandalous symbolic power of bare feet in this period, even if it isn't something the protagonists themselves comment on. In her idealized form here, Tate represents a reconciliation of youth with old Hollywood. By changing history to rescue Tate, Dalton reconciles old Hollywood with now-grateful youth on a fantasy level, after gratifying a darker fantasy by helping exterminate less-grateful youth. Tarantino presumably depends on us knowing that all of this was not to be, and assumes that he can indulge in this fakery precisely because it's only a movie. It's the sort of fantasy men like Dalton and Booth might have more than it is Quentin Tarantino's own fantasy, and while Kurt Russell occasionally speaks up to correct Dalton's misstatements, this final fantasy is allowed to stand, presumably out of sympathy for the Daltons of real life who continued to decline -- unless they lived long enough to be embraced by Tarantino himself. The director has given us not an unreliable narrator but an unreliable narrative or an unreliable experience of how things might have been had some people had their way, or if the world worked the way they presumed it would.

Whether the exercise was worth the effort, posterity will judge. That being said, Hollywood boasts what may be Leonardo DiCaprio's greatest performance to date, a total immersion into a character to a point, once Dalton adopts a new hairstyle, where the star almost ceases to be recognizable. Playing a more conventional hero type, Pitt isn't as impressive but is still convincing as a man's man of the time. Overall, the film's a dense audio-visual collage combining a wide range of soundbites with detailed recreations of the 1969 cityscape with inevitable echoes of Zabriskie Point, while the violent climax owes something, at least, to the conclusion of Last House on the Left, another attempted exorcism of violent youth. While it's a long film, in some ways it feels less Tarantinian than previous films, with fewer digressive conversations, though Rick Dalton's attempt to describe the novel Ride a Wild Bronco (is it real???) to a precocious child actor is a poignant moment. A day after watching it, I'm not sure how I'd rank Hollywood in the Tarantino canon, or among films in general. Whether it's a point in its favor or not, this one, more than the others, feels like one that needs to be seen more than once to be fully understood or appreciated -- yet I could understand people not wanting to give it that extra time. It's definitely a more ambiguous film than its apparent popularity indicates, and I expect that discussions of it will get more interesting as the momentary controversies subside.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Pre-Code Parade: PEACH O'RENO (1931)

 Indignant Matron: How can you look me in the face?
Robert Woolsey: Well, I guess I've gotten used to it.

Once upon a time, Reno NV was the divorce capital of the United States. It was a resort town where people stayed for the minimal period that made them eligible for a divorce under Nevada law as of the early 1930s. Gambling had been made legal in the state around the same time, and the combination of easy divorce and the promise of easy money made Reno "the biggest little city in America." It was an almost inevitable destination for Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, as directed this time by William A. Seiter. I was growing used to a Wheeler and Woolsey formula that starts them off as desperate transients living by their wits, i.e. not particularly well until an improbable opportunity enables Woolsey to flex his con-man -- er, I mean entrepreneurial muscles. Peach O'Reno skips the origin stage to present our heroes, here calling themselves Wattles and Swift, as established, aggressively entrepreneurial divorce lawyers. In the fantasy land of Reno, their bustling office, staffed by girls in bellhop livery, transforms into a casino, the girls stripping down (and almost going overboard until ordered to halt) into skimpy waitress costumes. The transformation sight gags make Peach of a piece with RKO's contemporary cartoonishly absurd musical comedies like Melody Cruise and Down to Their Last Yacht and it all makes me wonder how Wheeler and Woolsey never crossed paths with Astaire and Rogers at their shared studio. We can ponder that another time. For now, know that Wattles and Swift's aggressive business practices have made bitter enemies of the more established firm of Jackson, Jackson, Jackson and Jackson, one of whom arranges for his election as a judge in order to thwart their rivals, regardless of the self-evident conflict of interests. Worse, their success as divorce lawyers has made Wattles, at least, a mortal enemy in the rancher and gambler Ace Crosby (Mitchell Harris). He appears in Reno as Wattles and Swift take on the case, one on each side, of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Bruno, who are determined to separate after a bitter fight at their silver anniversary party. Their daughters hope to prevent the breakup; one of them, inevitably, is Wheeler's regular song-and-dance partner Dorothy Lee.

To secure a divorce, Wattles and Swift must provide evidence of unfaithful correspondence; their clients must catch their spouses with companions of the opposite sex. Somehow Mrs. Bruno (Cora Witherspoon) is hooked up with Crosby the gambler, while Mr. Bruno (Joseph Cawthorn) is attached to a cross-dressing Wattles, whose coquettish ways attract the worrisome attention of Crosby. This is a great film if you want to see Bert Wheeler in drag, and it'll also make you reflect on how poor a shot a westerner can be. Once Crosby figures out Wattles' disguise, a bullet-proof vest saves the lawyer from an early demise, but he then makes the mistake of taking off his vest and walking out of the death-chamber before Crosby is safely out of the casino. Crosby resumes fire at near point-blank range, always aiming for the ass as you do in comedies, but always manages to miss the crawling, scurrying Wattles until the police collect him. That leaves the big divorce trial, at which point the filmmakers lose track of the narrative. Judge Jackson (Sam Hardy) presides, but rather than sabotage the lawyers he seems perfectly content, if not outright amused, to play his part in a vaudeville sketch, alongside the jurors and an intrusive radio announcer. No matter: this is the sort of film where a divorcing couple thinks better of their plans at the last minute and fall sobbing into each other's arms. Not only are they reunited, but they now have sons-in-law in Wattles and Swift. It lacks the anarchic edge of Wheeler and Woolsey's most outrageous films but Peach O'Reno is amiable enough and if you like the RKO team as a matter of habit you'll definitely like them here.

Sunday, August 4, 2019


Also known as "Doom Magnet" and "An Honorable Young Man," Jean-Pierre Melville's first color film is widely regarded as the weakest film of his great 1960s run, and that looks like a fair assessment. Something's off right from the start. Star Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a mediocre boxer entering the ring for a make-or-break fight. The crowd is entirely unresponsive as the fighters are introduced and while they fight during the opening credits. After Michel, Belmondo's character, loses on points, part of the crowd comes to life to heckle him as he leaves the arena. Perhaps we've learned something about Michel; to lose the way he did in an uneventful bout suggests that he lacks heart. He definitely lacks something. After two weeks he's reduced to abandoning his apartment to avoid paying rent and selling his and his girlfriend Lina's spare clothes, and the only reason he doesn't sell her heirloom necklace, regardless of what he tells her later, is that the thing is actually worthless. To be fair, Michel is looking for work and manages to land a promising gig as a "secretary" to Dieudonne Ferchaux (Charles Vanel), a banker who's fleeing France to avoid prosecution for murdering some Africans back in colonial days. The only catch is that Michel has to leave with Ferchaux immediately. That means sneaking out on Lina (Malvina Silberberg) as she sits at an outdoor cafe table without a sou to her name. Our protagonist has been established as just about as unlikable as possible.

Ferchaux is bound for the U.S., where he has funds stashed in a safe-deposit box. He can't get the bulk of his money out of his American bank accounts because of the extradition threat, however, and to keep one step ahead he heads south with Michel, toward the ultimate goal of Venezuela and another safe-deposit box. The second half of the film takes place around New Orleans and includes a nice little travelogue of the city's red-light district. Michel grows increasingly weary of Ferchaux as the older man, less lordly on the run, grows more emotionally needy -- almost like a girlfriend. He thinks of taking the money and running, but a group of unsavory locals led by Jeff (American character actor Todd Martin), a French-speaking veteran who runs a diner, is getting the same idea.  By now Michel has an American girlfriend (Michele Mercier), which gives him extra motivation to grab the money. But once he does so, he has second thoughts that reach back a great distance. He reminds himself of what he did to Lina back home, and that seems to inspire him to return the money. When he goes back to Ferchaux's lair, he finds the old man fighting with Todd and his crew. Michel comes to the rescue, but Ferchaux is already mortally wounded. As a final act of generosity, the dying man offers Michel the key to the safe-deposit box in Caracas. "You and your money can go to hell," Michel answers as the film fades out. You get the impression that he did the right thing at the end not so much out of loyalty to Ferchaux but to make virtual amends to Lina, if not simply to do the right thing for once. While Melville based this film on a novel by Georges Simenon, France's 20th-century master of mystery and crime fiction, it comes across as an inflated anecdote, padded with second-unit American footage. Melville's protagonists are rarely good guys, but they often have some quality that earns some sympathy from the audience, but Michel is too much of a selfish mediocrity for most of the film to be worth caring about, while Vanel's Ferchaux is a monster who turns into a wretch. I get the impression that we were supposed to appreciate the color and the atmosphere more than anything else while waiting for Michel's moral awakening, but that wasn't enough. This wasn't a terrible film, only unengaging beyond its value as a travelogue for parts of 1960s America. Fortunately, Melville's best work was still ahead of him.