January 14, 2020

The Good Fairy

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William Wyler - 1935
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Call me a sap, but I love that Universal Pictures opening logo with the airplane flying around the world. Some eighty-four years later, that image will probably strike contemporary viewers as quaint. That buzzing propellor plane might also provide some preparation for the imagined past world of The Good Fairy.

The story takes place in what was suppose to be contemporary Budapest, Hungary, yet connections to the real city are arbitrary. Signs may be in Hungarian or English, and the name of our heroine, Luisa Ginglebusher is more East Los Angles than Eastern European. Of an unstated age, and totally naive to the ways of the world, Luisa is plucked from an orphanage to work as an usherette at Budapest's largest movie theater. A digression here - there was a time when movie theaters, the single screen palaces of the past, employed people to guide them to their seats, carrying a flashlight so that patrons wouldn't stumble on each other in the dark. At this particular theater, the usherettes dress like brass band majorettes with shiny uniforms including tall military caps, capes and an wand shaped like an arrow that illuminates the direction. This is a world where would-be Lotharios hang out near the theater's back exit hoping to score a date with one of the available girls after work.

Luisa's promise upon exiting the orphanage is to do one good deed a day on behalf of someone, to act as their "good fairy". What Luisa's not prepared for is men who may possibly have less than honorable intentions, and her fib of telling these men that she's married has unintended consequences.

The film is very loosely based on a play by the Hungarian Ferenc Molnar. Preston Sturges' hand in the screenplay is more easily evident with the premise of a naive person putting themselves in a situation over their head, the nonsensical sounding names, and bits of slapstick tossed in. William Wyler's stylistic touches, which would be developed for fully in later films can be spotted in the used of several traveling shots and some limited use of deep focus. Between Sturges writing and re-writing the script in part due to constant battles with the Hays Office, and Wyler's almost constant battles with star Margaret Sullavan, The Good Fairy went five weeks past its allotted seven week shooting schedule, as well as over budget. Wyler and Sturges got kicked out of Universal, falling upwards with Wyler primarily making the first of his canonized films for Samuel Goldwyn, while Sturges wound up at Paramount, fulfilling his wish to direct his own screenplays five years later.

I have no idea if Wyler mentioned the idea of filming Dodsworth to Sturges, but that film in the theater where Luisa works is almost a parody. A woman, begging to return to her husband, is constantly refused with the single word, "no". Comically melodramatic, the scene almost anticipates Walter Huston telling Ruth Chatterton that he has had enough with her infidelities. I could well be missing some kind of vernacular expression, but the Hungarian title translates as "The Moon - Fools and Prologues".

Not as well remembered as several of her peers, the film was primarily made as a showcase for Margaret Sullavan. In a film career that last for ten years, Sullavan was a major star who may be remembered best for the trio of films she made with director Frank Borzage. One of the extras on the blu-ray is a trailer for The Good Fairy which indicates Sullavan's star status in the mid 1930s.

Full disclosure - I have had intermittent correspondence with film critic Simon Abrams, who provided the commentary track here. This is an exceedingly well researched commentary that has a couple of slight rough patches, but otherwise is very informative. Sources quoted include biographies of Wyler, Sturges, Sullavan and co-star Herbert Marshall, Molnar's play, and reviews of the film from the time of release. Abrams also finds time to discuss the film and staged remakes, as well as the complex relationships of Sullavan and her various lovers and husbands, including her volatile marriage to Wyler while The Good Fairy was in production.

While not as good as watching a mint 35mm nitrate print on the big screen, the film is beautifully rendered here. There is some hint of how visually magical The Good Fairy was in the final shot, an extreme close-up of the face of the the bride, a crowned and radiant Margaret Sullavan.

January 07, 2020

The Specialists

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Le Specialiste / Gli specialisti / Drop Them or I'll Shoot
Sergio Corbucci - 1969
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Unlike some of the better known Italian westerns by Sergio Corbucci that featured marquee names that would still be meaningful for American viewers, The Specialists was topped by Johnny Hallyday. A major star in Europe known as the "French Elvis", Hallyday was virtually unknown in the U.S. except for a few Francophiles. As best as i can tell, The Specialists was never released theatrically in the U.S., and may well have never been intended for a wider international release. The two language tracks available are Italian and French. Perhaps this is a result of the use of the Italian track, but the acting seems much broader, more exaggerated, especially in the comic moments. Even more conspicuous is the use of nudity, a very infrequent element in any westerns even after the establishment of a more sexually liberated cinema in the late 1960s. Even in comparison to his other serious westerns, The Specialists may well be Corbucci's most nihilistic film.

The blond hair, unshaven face, and occasional cigar may remind some of Clint Eastwood's character in Sergio Leone's films. Hallyday's anti-social, anti-hero, gunslinger is named Hud, the same name as that of Martin Ritt's contemporary western with Paul Newman. Corbucci's Hud goes to the small town of Blackstone, Nevada seeking revenge for his brother, lynched after being accused of stealing money he was transporting on behalf of the town's bank. Hud is introduced saving a group of stagecoach passengers from being killed by El Diablo's bandit gang, recognizable by their comically oversized sombreros. The sheriff of Blackstone, the beefy Gastone Morschin in a more sympathetic role, tries to maintain law and order by disarming anyone who comes to town. If the basic premise seems familiar, Corbucci adds various unexpected twists.

In the same year that she played the title role in Eric Rohmer's My Night at Maud's, Francoise Fabian portrayed Blackstone's banker, Virginia Pollicut. In one of the few comic digressions, Fabian invites Moschin into her bedroom for some conversation, casually asking him to stay while she takes a bath. What follows includes playful banter, strategic dropping of a bar of soap, and a completely uninhibited actress.

Without giving too much away, consider this quote from Sergio Corbucci about The Specialists: "The idea was to show that I was against the hippies. Listen, at this time the Manson business hadn't happened. . . . I am against drugs and hippies. I wanted to denounce them in The Specialists. I'm really violently against their attitude, and I hate Easy Rider."

Did Quentin Tarantino read Alex Cox's book on Italian westerns, 10,000 Ways to Die, the source of this quote? Perhaps Tarantino had seen the subtitle free Italian DVD. Remember that when Tarantino's Rick Dalton goes to Italy in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he stars in a fictional western, Nebraska Jim by the very real Corbucci.

How this connects is that there is a small group of hippie type characters that appear in the opening of The Specialists, tossed in a pool of mud and shit by El Diablo's gang. They later show up in Blackstone, primarily as a source of annoyance for Hud. Where Corbucci's film roughly parallels Tarantino's is when these seemingly playful clowns show their own taste for power and desire to humiliate, and possibly execute, the town's citizens near the end of the story. If Corbucci is to be believed that his film was made before the Manson family made headlines, with the film released in November 1969, he apparently had an uncanny premonition that is jarring to say the least.

The Specialists is also unusual with the location filming in the French Alps. These are green fields surrounded by mountains. There is also a sequence with Hallyday and Moschin riding together in a narrow gulch between the sides of two mountains, emphasizing the shared spaces that bring them together, that are seemingly inescapable. The production design makes use of the wide screen and horizontal planes. Use of framing within the frame can be seen in a shot introducing the quartet of photo-hippies, huddled together between the front and back legs of a horse, and later, in a shot of townspeople observing a gunfight from behind the horizontal window of a saloon.

Alex Cox provides a conversational style to his commentary track. His feelings towards the The Specialists seems to have mellowed since the time he wrote about the film in his book, 10,000 Ways to Die. One interesting bit of information is how The Specialists originated as what was to be a collaboration between Corbucci and Lee Van Cleef. While there is no explanation as why there was an apparent falling out, Corbucci was later approached by a French producer looking for a vehicle for Johnny Hallyday. Cox points out what he considers some of the films weaknesses, but also makes clear that the blu-ray is the complete version with a moment of reckoning of the townspeople that has been cut from released versions.

If some of the digressions and use of nudity make this unusual for westerns in general, there are still enough elements to signify The Specialists as very much a Corbucci film. While the politics are played down in comparison to a film like The Mercenary, the bandit "El Diablo" believes he is speaking on behalf of the Mexican population that has been displaced by American westward migration. Hud is another one of Corbucci's anti-heroes who experiences a form of resurrection prior to a final judgment. The use of the graveyard is a favored location in several film. This blu-ray release is very welcomed - and if not quite as good as acknowledged genre masterpieces such as Django, still a reminder that serious consideration should be given to more than one maker of Italian westerns named Sergio.

January 03, 2020

Cobra Woman

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Robert Siodmak - 1944
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Cobra Woman has packed in its seventy-one minute running time an exotic beauty and her evil twin sister, an open shirted hero with his short "native" sidekick who brings along his chimpanzee sidekick, dancing maidens, shenanigans in a forbidden queendom, a live volcano, and Lon Chaney, Jr. as a blind and mute wandering musician. No time is spent attempting to make any of this meaningful, other than creating a Technicolor fantasy beautifully rendered in this new blu-ray release.

The only way to enjoy Cobra Woman is on its own terms. The film was produced at a time when Hollywood studios would regularly churn out stories that took place in a highly fictionalized and exotic location, somewhere in the Middle East or an island in the South Pacific. Cobra Woman follows the established template of the hero, a wandering sailor and adventurer, and white savior, who falls in love with a young woman who is of the island but is played by an attractive caucasian or Latina actress. In this instance, the native clothing and religious practice, which involves the worship of an actual cobra, are a grab bag from the imagination of the screenwriters. From a contemporary perspective, much of Cobra Woman might be dismissed as insensitive or ignorant. To some extent, one of the credited screenwriters, Richard Brooks, might be said to have made amends with his own socially conscious films when he ascended to the director's chair.

The short running time might also be attributed to the casting, as the three leading actors were all taking roles familiar to audiences of the time. Maria Montez' reputation primarily rests on her appearances for Universal as a royal ruler or a servant, in any case a forbidden love interest. After several false starts and name changes, Jon Hall's career took off with The Hurricane in 1937, with several South Seas adventure films to follow. The Indian born Sabu was also similarly well established with audiences, a star in his own right.

Maria Montez might not have been much of an actress when expressing herself verbally, but her legs and hips do most of the work. As the evil queen Naja, she first appears wearing a gray and silver lame bathing suit with matching cape, leading a parade of attendants, the whitest brunette chorus girls available on the Universal lot. Montez is the only one with her legs exposed, so there is no way one can not pay attention to anyone else. This queen of the conveniently named Cobra Island later sways her hips in some kind of of ritualistic dance in front of the ceremonial cobra, a combination of a close-up of a real snake and an obvious fake. Don't assume that anyone making Cobra Woman was unaware of any sexual innuendos here. While Montez is wearing a form fitting dress in this scene, it still anticipates the scantily clad snake dance performed by Debra Paget in Fritz Lang's The Indian Tomb filmed fifteen years later. (Coincidentally, Siodmak directed Paget's film debut, Cry of the City.)

While released after Phantom Lady, Cobra Woman was Siodmak's second film as a contract director at Universal. The two other films starring Montez, Hall and Sabu were directed by the more established Arthur Lubin. That Siodmak got the assignment may well be due to Lubin's commitment to the Claude Rains remake of Phantom of the Opera, and, I am guessing here, that while making films in France, Siodmak had previously directed Montez' husband, Jean-Pierre Aumont in Le Chemin de Rio. In any case, Siodmak was in no position to argue, and in interviews would discuss how he would try to improve upon the scripts he was given.

Phillipa Berry's commentary track points out several of the locations where Cobra Woman was filmed, plus provide brief summaries of the careers of the stars. It should be noted that every reliable source states that Siodmak was probably not born in Memphis, Tennessee. Berry does make some connections with Siodmak's later noir films, particularly The Dark Mirror with Olivia De Havilland as rival twin sisters. There is also discussion of Cobra Woman as a camp classic, especially as the inspiration for Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures starring drag artist Mario Montez.

To reduce Cobra Woman to the status of camp classic is a mistake. Siodmak described the film as "silly". The melodramatic intrigue, the pidgin English, and the elaborate costumes are all easy targets of parody. But there is also the sheer craftsmanship and dramatic use of color and shadows, a very effective scene of Hall and Sabu climbing the steep side of a mountain cliff, and the kind of straight-faced performances that would allow less sophisticated audiences to enjoy the film at face value. Sometimes, just being a physical presence is all that is really needed. Prior to making the kind of films that his reputation is based on, Robert Siodmak understood what was required when he was assigned to film "the Queen of Technicolor".

December 17, 2019

A Sunday in the Country

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Un dimanche a la campagne
Bertrand Tavernier - 1984
Kino Classics BD Region A

The best reason for getting the new blu-ray of Bertrand Tavernier's award winning film is that in addition to the film, there is Tavernier's feature length commentary track. Not only does Tavernier explain how he made the film, but also clears up some previous critical misunderstandings. Tavernier also gives credit to his collaborators, especially former wife and co-writer Colo Tavernier, cinematographer Bruno de Keyzer and source author Pierre Bost.

The film covers one Sunday from morning to evening at the country home of aging artist identified only formally as Monsieur Ladmiral. Taking place in 1912, the home is far enough away from Paris that the visit by Ladmiral's son and family are a special occasion. Disrupting the events is the unexpected visit by Ladmiral's daughter, as free spirited as her brother is formal. The daughter, Irene, appears as a manic force of nature privately masking a more melancholy existence. There is no high drama, but a series of small incidences, of a family that is more often than not disconnected from each other even when sharing the same space.

Taking place shortly before World War I, the story is indirectly about the end of an era. As an artist, Ladmiral has achieved a certain amount of commercial success with his still life paintings. He is also aware that his work will never be as creative or as significant as that of Cezanne or Van Gogh. It is also a matter of time before photography makes his work virtually irrelevant.

Tavernier discusses how the color scheme of the film was influenced by the photography of Louis Lumiere's autochrome process which was introduced in 1907. Amazingly, this was Bruno de Keyzer's first work as cinematographer on a feature film following two shorts. In addition to the continual use of depth-of-field, most of the shots are extended takes with the camera almost constantly in motion, sometimes in a complicated dance with the actors. There are times where in viewing the film one takes notice of small actions in the background in addition to what is seen in the foreground. The camera darts around, presenting a sense of space that is both unified by the lack of cutting, yet also selective in what is seen within the shot at any moment. Also adding to the sense of period is the use of music by Gabriel Faure, some of which was played during the course of the production to allow the camera to move to the rhythm of the music.

Ladmiral is portrayed by the then 73 year old Louis Ducreux, primarily known for his theater work. As Irene, Sabine Azema won several awards. Thirty-five years later, Tavernier's film is virtually the antithesis of much of contemporary cinema with its subtlety and deliberate ellipsis. And hopefully, Kino might be able to bring a blu-ray version of my own favorite of Tavernier's film, the medieval set Beatrice.

December 10, 2019

Long Day's Journey into Night

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Diqiu zuihou de yewan
Bi Gan - 2018
Kino Lorber BD Region A two-disc set

I might have more questions than answers on this film. Like the title, taken from the play by Eugene O'Neill
but having nothing to do with that work. Bi's film could well have been titled Journey to the End of the Night or In Search of Lost Time, not relating directly to the literary sources, but titles that would have worked just as well.

More problematic is the now legendary second half of the film which was made to be seen in 3D. If the viewer is unable to see Chinese filmmaker Bi Gan's film as he intended, is that still a valid viewing experience? And is it the responsibility of the distributor to have the film screened in 3D unless there is no other available option? I skipped seeing Journey theatrically in Denver because the theatrical run was in 2D, and in a theater that is uncomfortable in its seating. I was a bit baffled as the Godard film, Goodbye to Language was shown at a Denver area art and indie theater equipped for 3D. I can only take the word of one critic who stated that even in 2D, seeing Journey theatrically was "immersive". The blu-ray release has both a 2D version and a 3D version, although the 3D version requires a 3D capable blu-ray player. I tried to rent such a player only to come to a dead end. Further making things a little less clear is learning that the 3D sequence was filmed in 2D. The only way Bi was able to make the film he visualized was in post-production. I may be pedantic here, but the effect is somewhat analogous to being expected to accept watching a widescreen movie in the pan-and-scan version.

The story, as such, is about Luo returning home to Kaili, following the death of his father. Inheriting an old van, Luo goes on a road trip, an attempt to piece together various memories from the past. The first seventy minutes are in fractured chronological order, darting between past and present. Luo is an unreliable narrator, so what is seen may be as much of a dream as the the dream sequence. There are several shots through dirty or broken windows, space obscured by plastic sheets, people divided by various partitions. One shot is of the back window of of a car going through a car wash. One can discern some kind of movement within the back seat, but not clearly enough to say what is going on with the briefly seen arms in motion - is it a couple making love, or a murder in progress? There is an emphasis on dark passageways and blocked and confined spaces.

As for the last hour, even in 2D, it is spectacular to think that this was actually filmed in real time with no breaks, no editing tricks. The camera follows Luo traveling down on a gondola to a hidden room, out again, wandering into the wreck of a neighborhood where local performers are singing for promised prizes, into and out of a makeshift pool hall and dressing room. The camera moves in close for an intimate view and later flies above the stage and the audience. The only thing random in the take that was chosen was a horse that was temporarily out of control. The blu-ray comes with both written interviews with Bi Gan and a video interview, plus a "Making of" short that is really a two minute montage, none of which completely explains how the sequence was done.

The best reason to have the blu-ray may be that the narrative makes more sense with multiple viewings. Bi's debut feature, Kaili Blues, about a visitor who seems to be wandering around town, in pursuit and in hiding, could be seen in retrospect as a warm-up for his second film. Lines that might seem simply conversational forecast connections to scenes that appear later. While the references to several Asian celebrities may be obscure for some, there is one moment that is clearly Bi's nod at A Clockwork Orange. Bi Gan is hardly the first to observe the idea of movies as dreams, and early on, Luo makes a comparison between films and memories. Broken clocks make appearances. For Bi, time never really stops, but can be malleable.

November 26, 2019

Olivia

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Jacqueline Audry - 1951
Icarus Home Video BD Region A

I have not read the source novel written by Dorothy Bussy, published in 1949. But what I have read of Bussy is of interest. Bussy's only novel was inspired by her own time as an English girl at a French boarding school founded by Marie Souvestre and her partner, Caroline Dussaut, in Fontainebleau, France. Among the daughters of the socially prominent, Eleanor Roosevelt was also a student. Bussy's novel was initially published anonymously by Leonard and Virginia Woolf. The novel takes place around 1882-1883, when Bussy was seventeen, and the school closed.

Jacqueline Audry reportedly toned down the lesbian elements in the novel. Not that they are entirely absent, the most explicit moment is of a virtually vampiric kiss on the shoulder by the headmistress with one of her students. To view the film based on what was not shown or strictly through contemporary eyes would be a mistake. The original French trailer, with accompanying song, puts Audry's film in the context of the time it was made, as the story of an adolescent young woman whose feelings of romance are directed towards the teacher that she admires, whom she actively seeks for approval.

Olivia comes from England to the countryside outside of Paris and the boarding school run by Miss Julie and Miss Cara. It's immediately noted by one of the students that the two women have their devotees. While nothing is spelled out, there is the suggested relationship between Julie and Cara, as well as Cara and another teacher. Meanwhile, Olivia's infatuation with Miss Julie becomes increasingly overt. Unlike films with a similar setting, notably Madchen in Uniform or The Children's Hour, there is no punishment meted out for any suggestion of lesbian attraction.

Jacqueline Audry would need to have more films restored and available for better assessment. I would recommend the brief interview with actor and gay activist Jean Danet, from 1957, included in the blu-ray. Audry would appear to have been in a double bind - restricted to making film adaptations of novels by women, several of which were commercially successful at the time of release, yet somewhat arbitrarily lumped with the directors of the "tradition of quality" by the Cahiers du Cinema critics who later became the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague. Audry's last directorial credit was in 1967. Olivia was released in the U.S. in 1954 under the title, The Pit of Loneliness.

Audry began her career as an assistant to several notable filmmakers, primarily G. W. Pabst and Max Ophuls. Her visual style seems most influenced by Ophuls in the use of traveling shots. Several times the camera takes in a full view of the characters and their surroundings. A shot introducing the school and the students follows a trio of girls, holding hands while running down a staircase. A shot of a Christmas Eve party shows the girls pairing up, with the girls in male costumes waltzing with girls in female costumes, while Miss Julie and Miss Cara briefly dance together. The film ends as it began, with Olivia in a carriage with the school cook, Victoire. There is the suggestion of the school being isolated psychologically as well as geographically from the rest of the world.

The earlier U.S. release had a running time of 88 minutes. The restored Olivia is 96 minutes long. Based on the New Times review, Audry's film adaptations from novels by Colette, Gigi and Minne, had U.S. releases. The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther's wrote a generally favorable review, although some of his choice of words may cause eye rolling among contemporary readers: "Although it skirts along the edges of an area of unnatural love confined within the delicate environment of a fashionable French finishing school, there is nothing indecorous or offensive in the picture as it is played."

Let me also direct you to the review by the Self-Styled Siren, written when the restored Olivia had its theatrical release.

November 19, 2019

Christmas in July

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Preston Sturges - 1940
KL Studio Classics

I will attest to the truth of that prize winning slogan, "If you can't sleep at night, it's not the coffee. It's the bunk". There has been more than one occasion when I've gotten up in the morning, sipped two mugs full of Italian Roast, only to nap for as much as an hour afterwards.

Sometimes I feel like we need Preston Sturges more than ever. What makes Christmas in July continually endearing and enduring is the sense of optimism. The film takes place in a world of second chances and well-intended foolishness. That Paramount studio version of New York City's Lower East Side is relatively multi-culti for a film of its time. This is still Depression era America, where Hitler and Mussolini are punchlines, one could do one-stop shopping in a department store for diamond rings and children's toys, and businessmen may not be generous financially, but may be so in spirit. Above all else, it's so nice to revisit a comedy that is actually funny.

At age 35, Dick Powell was a bit mature to be playing the "young man with ideas". He brings with him some of the earnestness, ready to please attitude from his Warner Brothers films. Powell's unruly hair in his first scenes provides a compliment to his boyish spirit and certainty that his pun based advertising slogans are his key to a brighter future. As the dedicated girlfriend, contract player Ellen Drew takes the first couple of pratfalls and gives an excuse to display one of her legs. Now as then, most of the laughs involve the supporting players, especially Raymond Walburn as the clueless tycoon, constantly exasperated by William Demarest, the belligerent company employee who holds a coffee company in limbo in the deciding vote in a contest determining the winning slogan.

I don't think I can offer any insights into Christmas in July that haven't already been explored by others. But what is nice about the blu-ray is watching it with the English SDH subtitles. Sturges' films have been lauded for their wit, for Sturges' way with English as a spoken language. Sometimes remarks go by so fast that it's nice to verify what characters are saying. In addition to the puns, there is the use of homonyms, and some dated and not so dated vernacular expressions. I don't recall anyone still using the expression, "bread and butter", at the time I first saw Christmas in July on television one night in early Seventies. I am a bit more confident about a scene where a condescending salesman, alerted to Powell's newly acquired wealth, suddenly slides into slang, telling a coworker to "get a groove on". The other advantage to multiple viewing is to catch little gags, such as the window of a Jewish delicatessen named after the Sturges stock company actor who plays the character, Mr. Zimmerman.

Same Deighan's commentary consists in part of quoting other film historians on Sturges and this film. Aside from mentioning that the story is a reworking of an unproduced play by Sturges, "A Cup of Coffee", and the proposed casting of a different actor in Powell's role, there is very little about the production. The short running time of 67 minutes means the film never wears out its welcome, but it is quite short for an "A" movie. Christmas in July opened at the Rivoli in New York City, one of the city's great picture palaces. (Cleopatra played there in 1963.) While it's more fashionable now to feel snarky about New York Times film critic Bosley Crowthers, his take on Christmas in July - "the perfect restorative, in fact, for battered humors and jangled nerves" remains true.