Freaks (1932)

Freaks

Freaks – 1932

Director – Tod Browning

Starring – Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, and Harry Earles

Traditionally in most movies, especially within Hollywood, the portrayal of a group of people with extreme differences (read: Freaks),  is usually done in one of two ways.  Either they are depicted as terrible abominations not capable of human compassion and understanding, or they are misunderstood and extricated by the so-called decent “normal” people of the story.  One paints a portrait of fear, desperation, and anger, and the other, one of an almost saintly devotion to decency, virtue, and humility.

Tod Browning’s appropriately titled film, Freaks, utilizes both the fear and the somewhat more humanistic approach to paint these rather misunderstood characters in a much more three-dimensional way.  Each of the so-called freaks operates on the same instincts and motivations that any of the other characters might, rather than being simple plot modifiers and footnotes.  Jealousy, anger, love, friendship, and loyalty not to mention a good old desire for revenge all come into play in this rather straight forward, yet effective story.

For a film that does seek to humanize it’s characters regardless of their disabilities or handicaps, it also tends to overly rely on the circus sideshow type shock factor of it’s stars.  Even the film’s poster asks “Can a full-grown woman truly love a midget?”, and while the plot of the film makes a bit more headway in making them relatable, it certainly doesn’t forego the sensational nature of the subject matter entirely.

The story is simple enough.  Hans a man of diminutive proportions (or a midget), has fallen in love with Cleopatra, the beautiful trapeze artist who is more than happy to lead him on, all the while plotting just how to get his forthcoming inheritance   Cleopatra’s thinly veiled disdain is clear to all the rest of the circus’ performers, freaks and normies alike, but despite their objections Hans refuses to see her for what she is and asks her to marry him.  In the spirit of giving her the benefit of the doubt, the “freaks” hold a dinner officially welcoming her into their private circle of friends.  When Cleopatra drunkenly laughs at and tells this close-knit group just exactly what she thinks of them (negative stuff!), they hatch a plan to take their revenge.

The acting, plotting, and cinematography on display here is all fairly standard for the time, with nothing extraordinary on display. The difference, and what sets this film apart, comes in the realization of the characters, and the juxtaposition of their visible flaws with the internal flaws of the vain shallow “beautiful” people.  Though that doesn’t remove their desire for fair and equitable treatment.

It’s not that the ending, or the actions taken by the “freaks” was too shocking, or unwarranted, quite the contrary actually.  It was just odd to see from a film that came out in the time frame that this film does.  Once again, like His Girl Friday, Detour, and She Done Him Wrong, I find my conceptions of what to expect content-wise from films of the 30’s and 40’s can be drastically different from what I get.  At this point I don’t think I can pre-judge any of the films from that rather tumultuous time frame in America’s history.

Often times I forget that these years aren’t as homogenized as  early television, and some popular films would have us believe.  For every Jimmy Stewart-esque character, or idyllic suburban homestead on display, there are hundreds of characters who lived through the great depression, watched the buildup to and the active fighting of World War II, and eventually had to deal with the financial and emotional effects of both.

The means and method by which our “freaks” take their revenge may be harsh and  more than a little cold-blooded, but you’ll have to admit, it is overwhelmingly fair at the same time, and it rather accurately paints them as, well, people.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

The most unsettling images in the film come out of the last reel of the movie, where Cleopatra is dragging herself backwards through the rain and mud while upwards of fifteen different attackers stalk closer, each with a knife, gun, or blunt instrument.  In the end, it’s really a toss-up whether or not the audience will consider it a happy ending.  Thanks to the care taken in the writing and the time spent getting to know each character, I did.

(***End Spoilers***)

Though it wasn’t my absolute favorite film on this list so far, it is solidly somewhere in the middle, and as such is pretty deserving of its ranking as one of the 1001 films you should see.  Though I think director Tod Browning’s film Dracula is my favorite between the two, Freaks is a really solid film and totally worth checking out!

“In the end, aren’t we all freaks?”  –  Ashley

Advertisements

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

She Done Him Wrong – 1933

Director – Lowell Sherman

Starring – Mae West, Cary Grant, and Owen Moore

Growing up, my window to the greater world was through cartoons.  Through this window, I was able to get a handle on how people interacted with one another, the attraction of the sexes, and I was given a clear visual definition of the difference between good and evil, hero and villain, right and wrong.  It wasn’t until my exposure through daycare, and school that I learned that people don’t really act like that.  There is no man in a top hat, twisting his mustache, plotting the destruction of someone else, no luscious club singer that men are willing to cheat, shoot, and destroy each other for just so they might possess her…at least not that I’ve ever seen.

Apparently in 1933, when She Done Him Wrong was released, cartoons actually were real, or so this film would have us believe.  In the thirties, everyone is larger than life, uses zero subtlety,  and schemes as easily as the people of today breathe, check their emails, or text.  Mae West is the most broadly painted caricature of them all, and functionally plays the same role as she does in every movie she has ever done.  That voice you get in your head when you think the line “Oooh, big boy, why don’t you come up and see me some time!” isn’t an exaggeration.  That’s how she actually sounds.

The story behind the movie is ludicrous enough that there is really no reason to explain it except to say that the local vampy nightclub singer (West), who inspires such jealousy in all the women, and equal amounts of lust in all the men, manages to find her way into and then out of a lot of mad-capped trouble with a rogues gallery of supporting characters.  One of those characters actually does have a top hat, twists his mustache, and plots the downfall of some of the other characters.  Needless to say the plot, if you could call it that, is just a dab of glue that holds a bunch of set-piece performances together.  Comedic bits, singing and dancing numbers, and an action packed finale come together just as if it were released as a Looney Tunes cartoon featuring the original Daffy Duck, the one who was crazy, not the one who was mostly angry.

Now you may have noticed that one of this film’s stars is the very famous, very popular star of numerous Hollywood classics, Cary Grant, and you’d probably think, “Great!  I love Cary Grant’s charm and charisma”.  In fact, he only makes a handful of appearances in this film, and when he does he is almost instantly blocked from the spotlight by the film’s real star, Mae West.  As Lady Lou, as with every other character she’s ever played, she spends the entire movie strutting around with her trademarked walk, spouting bawdy one-liners, singing, and luring men in by the boatload, and we love her for it.

She sneers out raunchy, suggestive, innuendo in between costume changes from one low-cut, spangly gowns, and an enormous, feather laden hat, to another.  Painted just shy of being a criminal herself, she effortlessly steals other women’s men, leads on and strings along still more men, and tries her damnedest to corrupt any other men who don’t know any better than to avoid her.

Behavior, that would in most other circumstances, annoy the hell out of me, instead has me rapt with attention.  The fact that none of the other characters get much screen time or leaves any impression at all, is actually more of a testament to Mae West’s magnetism, and screen presence, than it is to the quality of the other actor’s performances.  Each of the other actors plays the part they are required to, but it is all in service of the centerpiece that is Mae West.  So much so, after the movie is over you’ll probably say…”Oh, yeah.  I guess Cary Grant was in that.”

Since the film is so heavily based on the performance of its lead actress, the cinematography, directing, screenwriting, and other acting performances cannot be accurately judged or critiqued without diminishing the impact of the film such that it is.  None of these elements is particularly special, or worthy of critique or praise, if it’s even there in the first place.

Enjoy this movie for what it is, a great piece of funny, sexy, escapist comedy in the vaudeville tradition.  See where the cartoons got their inspiration and their flavor, however prepare yourself for the limited depth that’s in store for you with She Done Him Wrong.  A great watch and completely different from anything else you’re likely to see from this time period.

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Destry Rides Again – 1939

Director – George Marshall

Starring – Jimmy Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, and Brian Donlevy

From the early 30’s on through the late 80’s and early 90’s, when the United States needed someone to look up to, someone to stand strong against adversity, and live up to the wholesome ideals of a bygone era (often regardless of what age they were living in), the world looked to Jimmy Stewart.  Perennially playing roles of such strong moral character, and unwaivering goodness, Stewart seemed to me to be a ham-fisted actor.  Someone lacking the subtlety to play a real person, instead only able to embody a general sense of good and right.

While his career is one filled with good guy roles, and white hats, I may have misjudged Jimmy Stewart the actor.  In Destry Rides Again, Stewart arrives in a lawless town controlled by local muscle and kept in line through temptation and booze (temptation in the form of gambling and Frenchy, a saucy burlesque performer played by Marlene Dietrich).  It becomes obvious, even in my previous sentence, that he is going to at least attempt to clean things up, and save the cow-like townsfolk from their own vices.  He plays Thomas Jefferson Destry, Jr., son of the town’s last good sheriff Destry, Sr. 

From there you can just about guess where the story is going to go, Destry arrives, proves himself in corruptible, and is challenged until the very end by the town’s strongman, Kent, played by Brian Donlevy.  Now comes the point where the predictable stuff ends…  Oh, sure, Stewart is still a good guy, and he has right on his side, and he never gives up, but he does it in a subtle believable way.  He doesn’t preach and condemn the actions of anyone.  He simply leads through example, shedding the light of day on the depravity to which the townsfolk had grown accustomed.  Rather than being smug and arrogant, he was likable and most importantly, a natural.

The other huge surprise comes in the form of the character Frenchy.  From the very start of the movie Marlene Dietrich plays her as conniving, opportunistic, and self-serving.  She clearly moves from town to town taking what she can and moving along when things dry up.  Stewart’s Destry presents a huge obstacle to her character’s continued success, and as such it is only natural that she would, at least initially, dislike him.  As the movie plays out, these two characters could easily go one of two ways.  There can either be a confrontation in which one of them loses everything, or one or both of the characters will change and there will be a romance.

I won’t mention here what actually does happen, but rest assured, the movie didn’t let me down.  Each of the characters was true to themselves and the only natural conclusion that could have happened did. 

So, despite being composed of some ingredients that I was less than excited about, Destry Rides Again, surprised me and became far more than the sum of it’s parts.  Not necessarily the best movie, nor one that deserves to definitely be on this list, but far better than I anticipated it to being when I started it.  I understand why it is that generations of American’s looked to Jimmy Stewart when they needed a hero, I don’t know that the film industry has anyone like him today, possibly Tom Hanks, and we may never have anyone like him again.

Vampyr (AKA: The Vampire, AKA: Not Against the Flesh) (1932)

Vampyr (AKA: The Vampire, AKA: Not Against the Flesh) – 1932

Director – Carl Theodor Dreyer

Starring – Julian West, Maurice Schutz, and Rena Mandel

When I think of a good vampire story, I think of the grotesque, deformed creature typified by Max Schreck in Nosferatu.  I think of Bela Lugosi’s suave and seductive Count Dracula from the aptly named Dracula.  Hell, I even think of Kiefer Sutherland and Alex Winter as the perpetual, rebellious, angst-ridden teenagers in Lost Boys.  One thing I do not think of, despite it’s clever title, is Vampyr the nearly silent horror story from cinema pioneer Carl Theodor Dreyer.

Firstly, Vampyr is a vampire story in the loosest of terms.  There is an evil, in the form of a person, or people, terrorizing a small, eastern european village.  About halfway through the movie, mention is made of a young woman with a wound on her neck who is acting as if possessed.  It is there that the similarities end.

Now despite it not really being true to the vampire angle, the film does have its moments of creepy, skin crawling ingenuity.  Dreyer’s use of subtle editing tricks to make the shadows come alive pack quite a punch both visually, and in the scare department.  Ghostly shadow figures go about their business against walls, reflected in water, and along the ground, while our main character stares in disbelief.  These effects are used so often in fact that it is more accurate to call the film Shadowpyr than Vampyr.  It is unfortunate for the film, however, that this aspect of the story wasn’t explored further than just as creepy visuals.

Earlier I mentioned that this film was nearly silent, this is because when the film was produced it was still the early days of sound and not much was done other than the occasional section of dialogue or stray sound effect.  In a way, this lack of sound really helps the sections of the film dealing with the shadows.  It seems strange and off somewhat that we are unable to hear the shadow with a peg leg ascend the ladder, or the shadowy gravedigger digging a grave.  All the sections not utilizing the lack of sound in this way are left wanting.  The dialogue is rather garbled and mumbly and doesn’t seem to match up with the actor who is supposedly speaking the line.  This is partially because it is in a language I don’t understand, but it also helped along by the fact that there are title cards with the dialogue even though the film has sound.

By and large this was an interesting film.  Some of the visuals were very disturbing and effective, but this seems more like a footnote in cinema history rather than a benchmark.  Good, but not nearly as good as the director’s earlier work, and if you’re interested in that, start with La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.  If you want a good movie about vampires, try Let The Right One In, or one of the films I mentioned earlier.

Le Million (AKA: The Million) (1931)

Le Million (AKA: The Million) – 1931

Director – Rene Clair

Starring – Jean-Louis Allibert, Annabella, Raymond Cordy and Rene Lefevre

Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in the musical genre.  Films like Chicago, Moulin Rouge, and most recently Nine have been reminding people that, at one point in filmic history, the musical was king.  Ever since the advent of the “talkie” the desire to see something more, a brilliant new spectacle has inspired audiences to come back to the theaters again and again.  Eventually, thanks to many different factors, the dissolution of the studio system, wars both hot and cold, and the drive for realism in film, the musical receded into the background eventually getting lost altogether.  But people forget how revolutionary this genre actually was, which is a perfect example of why films like Le Million should be seen…to remind us.

The story is a rather simple one, Michel a poor, yet overly amorous artist, is swamped by his debts and hounded by his creditors.  Good news comes when he learns that he’s won the lottery, but the bad news is that his girlfriend, jealous of his flirting, has given away the coat containing the winning ticket to a passing stranger running from the cops.  From this point the mad dash to recover the coat, and claim the money starts at a fevered pitch.

The story itself does little to imbue the feeling of joy one gets while watching this movie, instead it is in the performances, the sight gags, and the musical numbers.  At times, the routines come from out of nowhere, springing to life at the tail end of a sentence, while others are a little more elaborate and choreographed.  Either way, each song, and accompanying dance, spread the fun further and further along to such a degree, that I wish it had been longer (and it is a real rarity for me to say that about a musical)!

Set up and executed in much the same way as a stage play, each of the main sets (the artist’s studio, the opera house, the resale shop, etc.) consisted of painted backdrops and was decorated with props.  The actors played out their scenes, transforming the open space to fit the needs of the story, rather than finding specific locations for each set.  The most memorable scene may very well have been the opening shot, panning across the rooftops of Paris, combining matte painting and live action rather seamlessly given the timeframe in which it was filmed.   Despite the fact that one of the most striking shots in the film was also the first one, the excitement builds continuously throughout, culminating in the beautifully conceived and realized Opera scene, where the two main characters are stranded with each other, hiding onstage during the performance.  Everyone sits on the edge of their seat, waiting for the curtain to drop so the chase can resume.

Released just 4 years after the debut of sound in motion pictures with The Jazz Singer, Le Million utilizes music, sound effects, orchestration, and silence better than a lot of films released today.  A lot of the films prat-falls and sight gags are garnished with cymbal crashes, and blasts from the brass section.  Missing dialogue is filled in with music cues, and chase sequences and crowd scenes are juxtaposed through the addition of traffic sounds and other sound effects.

The bottom line is that this film is great fun, even if, like me, you are not a big fan of musicals or gratuitous singing.  Don’t get me wrong, I like music, but singing and dancing for singing and dancing’s sake doesn’t take the place of plot and naturalistic acting in my book.  That being said, Le Million pulls it off anyway.  Definitely worth my, and your, time!

A Night at the Opera (1935)

A Night at the Opera – 1935

Director – Sam Wood

Starring – Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Kitty Carlisle, and Allan Jones

The Marx Brothers films are quickly becoming some of my favorite of the ones that I’ve watched for this blog so far.  While I have seen only two now, this one and Duck Soup, I am hoping there are a few more on the list.  If not, I suppose I’ll have to rent and watch them in addition to whatever is next to see on the list.

As with most comedies of this era, the plotline is a simple one.  Groucho’s character is the manager of a small opera house in small Italian town, Harpo plays the unhelpful assistant to the conceited lead singer, and Chico plays the manager for the up and coming young talent who’s currently working as a backup singer in the show.  The plot really takes off when blah blah blah blah blah…blah, blah blah…..  Basically, the story doesn’t matter.  The film is a series of set ups for one-liners, sight-gags, singing, and clever instrumentation.  It doesn’t have a message, and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than entertaining.

As far as comedians go, Harpo is still my favorite with his innocent yet devilish destructiveness.  Groucho comes in at a close second, often times providing the group a kick in the pants by way of witty dialogue.  This keeps the plot and the action moving forward.  Chico acts as a good in-between man, balancing the loose energy of Harpo and the cynicism of Groucho.  Each is talented in their own rights, but alone they wouldn’t remain as consistently interesting.  Operating as a team they feed off of and support one another.

I’ve read that this film was the first to not feature Zeppo Marx, instead featuring Allan Jones as the straight man come love interest for the lead actress.  Jones’ character is virtually unnecessary to the film, except as a plot device to get the brothers on to the steam ship bound for New York.  The same can be said for virtually every other actor and actress save for one, Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Claypool.  Dumont, a favorite of the Marx Brothers, has co-starred in quite a few of their films, including At The Circus, Cocoanuts, A Day At The Races, and Duck Soup just to name a few.  She always manages to play the put-upon, yet the eternally forgiving upper-crust subject (victim?) of Groucho’s advances, one-liners, and lewd remarks, and she always does it with a straight face.  When describing his and Dumont’s chemistry on-screen, Groucho credits it’s success to the fact that she “never understood what he was saying”.

If this list of films has done anything for me, it has opened my eyes to the fact that my movie education has had some gaping holes in it for sometime.  The Marx Brothers have long been one of those holes, but thankfully they are a gap that is getting filled in.  If you are a fan of the Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or W.C. Fields, it is more than a safe bet that you’ll love the Marx Brothers too.  I can certainly attest to that.

P.S.  This review marks the 1 year anniversary of this blog being around (well… one year and a handful of days anyway).  In that time, I’ve seen and reviewed 70 different movies from 1900 through the 2000’s.  I’m very glad to see that I am still keeping up with it, sometimes not as quickly as others, but for the most part fairly regularly.  Thanks to those who comment, and thanks to those bloggers whom I comment on!

My Man Godfrey (1936)

My Man Godfrey – 1936

Director – Gregory La Cava

Starring – William Powell, Carole Lombard, and Gail Patrick

When talking about films of the Hollywood studio system from the 30’s and 40’s, one of the first genres that comes to a lot of people’s mind is the screwball comedy.  These zany, farcical, films are usually the farthest thing from realism, with characters so far-fetched and ridiculous that they couldn’t possibly be real.  One prime example of the screwball comedy, and not-coincidentally the only example I had seen up until recently, was the much-loved Bringing Up Baby, starring Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant.  I didn’t like Bringing Up Baby, point in fact, I hated it.  And it, being the most prominent example of the screwball comedy, led me to the mistaken impression that I just didn’t like the genre.  Recently, I learned something.  Upon my viewing of the fantastically fun My Man Godfrey, I learned that I was wrong. 

Godfrey follows the rise, and the adventures, or rather the mis-adventures, of the titular Godfrey and the spoiled, nearly detestable members of the Bullock family.  Starting out in the city dump, where Godfrey is living, the flakey and fickle Irene Bullock hires him on as the family’s butler after he is claimed in a scavenger hunt as a “forgotten man”.  The real conflict comes into play when Gail Patrick playing the fantastically poisonous Cornelia Bullock, sister to Irene, sets her mind on ruining Godfrey, and having him fired based on a small slight she received from him during the aforementioned scavenger hunt.

Godfrey, played with ease and charm by the wonderful William Powell, handles both Irene’s romantic advances, as well as Cornelia’s maliciousness with a calm, cool head.  As time passes, Godfrey becomes a trusted and valued member of the Bullock household, but he has no intention of remaining indentured to them for the rest of his life.  Godfrey has other plans, and as these start to become clear, everyone in the Bullock family starts to wonder what they will do without him, even Cornelia.

The writing, by Morrie Ryskind, and Eric Hatch, is lightning quick and very sharp.  The film is essentially a dense, solid wall of humor and heart, pushing forward regardless of what (or who gets in the way).  ***SPOILERS*** The one disappointment I had with the film, was the fact that Godfrey ends up with Irene, and not Cornelia.  The conflict, and therefore the magnetism and attraction between Godfrey and Cornelia was the strongest.  Irene, though likable, and interested in Godfrey in a romantic way, is not smart or deep enough of a character to make a proper match.  Cornelia is just as capable, just as smart, and just as big a personality as Godfrey, not to mention, they each could have taught the other a thing or two.  The story ended up with the wrong pair getting together, but the path getting there was super fun to take, and isn’t any less successful for going off track. ***END SPOILERS***

The real strength of this film lies in its actors performances.  The story is a fine outline, but doesn’t go much beyond the blueprint stage, and the cinematography is fine, but nothing groundbreaking or outstanding.  Powell, Patrick and Carole Lombard as Irene Bullock have a kinetic chemistry with one another that could carry any story pretty far, no matter how good or bad it was.  Powell had already made a name for himself as one of the caustic, lovable, alcoholic main characters of the beloved Thin Man series, and My Man Godfrey only helped to catapult him into further great roles (a lot of them in the Thin Man series).  Lombard and Patrick on the other hand are both new to me, but I’m definitely interested in seeing other examples of each (especially Patrick).

So…what have we learned here today?  Well, I’ve learned not to base my opinion of an entire genre on one crappy movie (sorry to those of you who like Bringing Up Baby).  I’ve also learned that all I have to do to make it in this world, is to move down to my city’s dump, wait to get caught up in some socialite scavenger hunt, go to work for them as a butler, and ride the gravy train on to success and good fortune.  My Man Godfrey was a lot of fun, and is definitely worth checking out.  I recommend it highly!