Classic film

Bluebeard the Great Dictator

Monsieur Verdoux - Charlie Chaplin - 1947

Of the three great silent film comedians, Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton, I always ranked Charles a very, very distant third.  His melodrama and tortuously drawn out scenes of awkwardness never quite caused me to laugh in anything but a nervous way.  You know the type: he, he, when is this scene going to end, he, he.

So his postwar decision to abandon the style that made him famous for a slightly more dramatic form of film, while unpopular at the time, is a bit of a relief to me as I watch the 1001 films.  The Little Tramp is not a character I miss in the least.

Today’s subject, Monsier Verdoux (1947) is about a man who, after getting laid off from his long-held job at a bank, snaps and begins to make money by seducing and killing wealthy widows.  A bluebeard, as those men were called in the day.  Its based on an actual serial killer.

The film was badly received in the US when launched, and one can easily see why.  It’s a bit weird, in the same vein that European films were weird in 1947.  The story is compelling, but the execution and is strange and strays from hollywood norms in jarring ways.

It’s nothing too striking, but enough to make one wonder what just happened which, in a way, fits the tone and theme of the movie well enough.  There is one truly memorable scene in the film, one in which Chaplin’s character, pursued by the family of one of the women he’s killed buys himself just enough time to escape and say goodbye to a girl who was kind to him before, with every avenue open to escape, turning himself in.  It is both poignant and funny – what Chaplin always strove for.

BTW, the above isn’t a spoiler.  Anyone familiar with the lamentable Hays Code era will be aware that criminals need to be brought to justice in the end.

It’s not the strongest film on the list, and probably keeps its place only because it was Chaplin’s favorite of his movies.  Strangely, The Great Dictator is not included in the list I’m following.  Perhaps that’s for the best, as it is likely a very predictable offering.  We all know how to spoof a dictator, but the Marx Brothers were better at it.

My own pleasure came when researching this article.  The name Fritz Leiber jumped out at me from among the cast members.  Turns out that he is the father of the Fritz Leiber who wrote so much amazing Sword and Sorcery from the pulp era to the eighties.  A talented family, then.

Anyway, this one has some sordid interest, a strongly pacifist message at the end and pacing that makes it slightly off kilter.  If that sounds like fun, give it a go.  If not, look  for some Buster Keaton.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His most off-kilter story is probably Branch, a novella, available for Kindle.

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Millennials Will Probably Disagree with the Message Here

It's A Womnderful Life Movie Poster

We’ve been catching up on the 1001 Films to Watch Before you Get Run Over by a Number 3 Bus, and have reached the classic It’s a Wonderful Life.  Like many of Frank Capra’s creations, it’s a seriously sentimental flick, but it doesn’t seem that way while watching it for the first time (I was never a big fan of watching the endless run of Christmas movies the networks liked to show when I was a kid).  The reason is that, though the film itself is incredibly sentimental (guy can’t follow his dreams but makes everything better because of it), the individual scenes are lightened up with humor and thereby don’t drag on unnecessarily.  Capra’s screwball comedy past (including great stuff like It Happened one Night) serves him well and turn what could have been a spectacularly earnest and serious film into something generations of audiences have enjoyed.

I won’t bore you by telling too much about the film.  Literally hundreds of professional critics have discussed it already and most people have seen it.  Suffice to say that it is a typical early James Stewart vehicle: aw-shucks good guy takes up most of the attention and teaches us all the right way to act.  James Stewart was Mr. Rogers before there was a Mr. Rogers.

But I will take the time to say that this one is likely reaching the end of its rope.  Millennials, their children and the helicopter parenting generation will kill it off.  Why?  Because it’s the story of a guy who sacrifices and does the right thing, leaving aside his hopes and dreams for a life that, though frustrating to him, turns out to be, as the title tells us, a wonderful life.  Audiences until the eighties or so probably understood that.

But younger generations are taught that they are all unique (I’ve heard the term special snowflake a lot, and though derogatory, it does seem an apt description of newer generations) and that success will come if they only follow their dreams hard enough.  Don’t compromise, be passionate.

James Stewart and Donna Reed in It's a Wonderful Life

All of the above is good advice if you happen to be one of the über-talented or (in case you want to have a starring role in a Hollywood film) spectacularly pretty / handsome ones.  If you aren’t, you may soon find that the dream is just out of reach and that real life doesn’t care about your dreams.  What do you do then?

If you’re in Spain, you become an “indignado“, which was a young people’s movement that essentially said: we’re young, we have no marketable skills, and we don’t want to study while working a crap job, so the government has to give us money.  It later morphed into an attempt at socialist anti-austerity rhetoric, but most responsible socialists didn’t want too much to do with it.  It was a direct inspiration for the Occupy Movement in the US.

Whether one if for or against the western world’s capitalist system (whether it be a more American style free market or a more regulated European version), you’ll likely agree that having a plan to be a useful member of society is never a bad idea.  The current generation of young people have gone on record by radicalizing their unwillingness to do so.  Is it the entire generation?  Probably not, but a vocal few can ruin things for everyone, and then you get bloggers saying that you’ll probably hate It’s a Wonderful Life.

Of course, I might be wrong, and Millennials, as they mature, might be able to appreciate the message in this one.  I’m a Gen-Xer and was brought up with the motto “greed is good” and I enjoyed it, so perhaps there is hope.

In a film with such a huge cast, there were always going to be some members still up and around today, so I’d like to give a shout out to three I’ve been able to identify:  Karolyn Grimes, Jimmy Hawkins and Virginia Patton.

Also interesting was the presence of an Argentine Actress named Argentina Brunetti (it wasn’t unusual for people to name their children Argentina in that era).  Her career spanned all the way to an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, and yet I don’t think she’s at all famous in these parts.  I’d certainly never heard of her.

My verdict is that if you have to watch a sentimental film, this is a good one, but don’t expose your teenager, whom you’ve told countless times how special he is to this one.  The mixed messages will be confusing.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose most recent novel, Incursion, was published in late 2017.

Great Adaptations

Dickens, as has been proven by countless failures of his work on screen and stage, is tremendously difficult to adapt faithfully.  Either critical events get cut from the final version, or the rapid succession of scenes removes any depth from the characters.  Dickens’ magic dies in either of these two scenarios.

In 1946, when the movie we are going to discuss today was released, the consensus was that there had been no good Dickens for the screen.

Great Expectations

Sir David Lean‘s version of Great Expectations changed all that, which is quite surprising, as the original book is a multi-scened doorstop that explicitly exposes much of the introspection of the main character.

In that sense, perhaps the adaptation was doomed from the start.  It most certainly doesn’t manage to transmit the inner thoughts of Pip, and that robs the twist ending of much of its emotional strength.

But that is the film’s only weakness.  It manages to capture the characters emotions beautifully.  Pip’s openness, Joe’s faithful, unconditional generosity and (perfectly, brilliantly), Estella’s cruel aloofness.  It succeeds on both the strength of those portrayals and in the stunning rightness of the sets they used.  The forge, the marsh and especially the decaying mansion, all work brilliantly.

I was interested to learn that the book has been filmed again, as recently as 2012.  Looking over the rankings of the more modern versions on IMDB, I’m not really surprised that most of the newer versions rate much lower than the Lean.  Despite being hampered by postwar shortages and black and white photography (although, to be honest, that seemed just right for this one), the 1946 version is still the definitive Great Expectations.

It’s not surprising, as it’s difficult to improve upon near perfection.

I’d like to take a few more moments to talk about my own experience with the film.  You see, this isn’t my favorite Dickens novel.  Yes, it was better than the maudlin Oliver Twist, but can’t hold a candle to the masterpiece that is David Copperfield (in fact, it seems at times a little like a light, punched-held version of Copperfield).  I wasn’t particularly looking forward to watching a long period piece in black and white adapted from a book which I didn’t enjoy and whose twist I already knew.

It’s kind of like watching a film version of Murder on the Orient Express.  Knowing how it ends kills most of the magic.

But in the end, I liked it.  It was that good.

Weird stuff, or at least stuff that interested me, abounded in this one.

Kilroy Was Here Marker

First off, there’s a scene in which a “Kilroy was Here” appears drawn in the dust.  It’s in the final scene of the film, but I haven’t been able to get a good screenshot (if anyone has one and can send me the link in comments, it will immediately be placed here!).

Also, there was an Argentine born actress in this one: Martita Hunt.  She is long gone, but we salute her from Way Down South!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.

Taking a Mix of Terrible Ingredients and Turning Them Into Something Brilliant

stairway scen in A Matter of Life and death

When looking at the major elements that went into the creation of classic British film, A Matter of Life and Death(1946), one would never have expected it to be anything but a confusing and incoherent hodgepodge.  Let’s have a look…  Take one part Christian-based afterlife, a drop of true love and its vital importance on earth, one part straight fantasy, a good dollop of melodrama, a court scene, the possibility of brain damage to the main character, and a request from the government to create a propaganda film to foster good relations between the US and England, stir well and stand back.

But I guess one should never underestimate the brilliance of Powell and Pressburger.  The team responsible for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was certain to defy every expectation we had and mix this together in a completely unexpected way.  Accustomed as we are to Hollywood today creating only blockbusters with completely nonsensical (albeit entertaining) plots and predictable, formulaic tear jerkers for those of other sensibilities, watching the films that these guys made is a bit of a jolt.

Essentially, this film deals with the plight of a British aviator who, while he is supposed to be dead, falls in love with an American girl.  Since he’s supposed to be dead but isn’t because of a cock-up by a particular angel, a whole boatload of bureaucracy gets put in motion to get him properly killed off.

In the meantime, a group of people on Earth are moving to save him.

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH

It all sounds pretty maudlin, but in practice, the filmmakers manage to pull it off, and then some.  The mixture of black and white and color footage is the best use of this technique since The Wizard of Oz, and the special effects are extremely ambitious for postwar Britain.

Also, David Niven is always worth watching, no matter if he is the romantic lead as in this case, or if he’s playing a hardened commando.

This one is a keeper – even if American audiences will have to look for it under the title Stairway to Heaven (which makes it sound even dumber.  Does anyone else remember the moronic TV show of the same name).  If you haven’t seen it go out and watch it.

The curious incident from this one is that one of the character actors, Bonar Colleano, a man who was well on his way to becoming a superstar when he died, was killed in a sportscar crash returning from a gig in 1958 at the age of 34.  As you all probably know by now, Classically Educated loves all forms of high speed motorsport, the purer the better, so we salute, more than a half-century later, the passing of a fellow enthusiast.

Who needs Rosebud? We’ve Got Nazis!

Orson Welles in The Stranger

When Orson Welles set out to direct The Stranger (1946), he did so under unfavorable conditions.  Saddled with a well-deserved reputation for being constitutionally unable to complete films on time or anywhere near the budget, he simply agreed to everything and got down to it.

How much of the result was actually his fault is open to discussion, but the bottom line is that, though this film has a certain Wellesian nightmare quality, it is far removed from his more atmospheric work.  It’s definitely not terrible, but there’s a reason Citizen Kane is a household name and this one isn’t.

Let’s start with the good.  The tension in this film is constant and constantly ratchets.  It is mainly driven by concern for the wellbeing of the young bride and her family as opposed to any sense of mystery as to what is really going on.

And therein lies my major complaint about this movie: there’s no mystery, about whether the protagonist is the bad guy or not.  That’s pretty much cleared up in the first five minutes of the movie (contrast that with the Rosebud mystery), so we’re pretty much left with a melodrama of a thriller.  That’s fine for some audiences, I suppose, but one expects better of Welles.

The Stranger DVD cover

Perhaps what got this film its place on the 1001 movies list (apart from the name of its director) is that it was the first hollywood film to use images of the Holocaust at a time when many Americans were either unaware of what had transpired, or simply didn’t believe it.  They are strong scenes which, perhaps, have lost a little bit of the effect on modern audiences that they would certainly have had on period viewers–making the job of reviewing it just a tad more difficult.

So, even though it’s certainly not a bad movie, it certainly wasn’t the best thing Welles produced, but as a document of its time… definitely worth watching.

Our unusual note returns today with the fact that one of the actors went on to play Mayor Linseed in the 1960s Batman series.  Not sure what that might mean, but it has to mean something, right?

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