The Lady Eve (1941)

The Lady Eve – 1941

Director – Preston Sturges

Starring – Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, and Charles Coburn

Screwball comedies are a tricky mixture of absurdity and reason.  The absurdity gives these films their energy, their source of conflict, and it keeps the plot moving forward.  This is the defining element of the screwball comedy, and while absurdity can go a long way to tickling our funny bones, it ultimately can fall flat or fail outright if there isn’t some grounding element, some person, or people who play it straight.

Howard Hawks apparently once said that the flaw with his famous screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby, was that everyone was a screwball.  There was no gauge by which the audience could compare the antics of the crazy characters with those of a normal, functioning, human being.  Despite, or perhaps because of, it’s inclusion in the screwball genre, The Lady Eve works very hard to ground the film squarely on the shoulders of the straight man, Henry Fonda.  He is the lens through which the audience can clearly see, appreciate, and enjoy the madcap antics of the family of con artists and ne’er-do-wells that populate The Lady Eve.

The story is fairly simple, a young, rich, handsome, young man, Charles Pike (Fonda) who prides himself on his zeal for new experiences and adventure, begrudgingly learns first hand how naive he really is when he encounters a group of traveling hucksters (Stanwyck and Coburn primarily) on a steamship back from the jungles of South America.  Friendly, shy, and the object of desire of all the single women on the ship, he makes an ideal mark for Jean Harrington (Stanwyck), the devious, whip-smart, and capable con-woman who is determined to relieve him of his money.

She and her father, the delightfully underhanded (Coburn), go work almost immediately, isolating, charming, and seducing Pike in short order.  The surprise comes for Jean with the sudden realization that she has fallen for Pike’s subtle, earnest charms.  All that remains is to gently break the news of her background as a card-shark, and that is when the trouble starts.

While he is the foundation upon which the premise is based, the least engaging character is Fonda’s Pike.  He is by and large just another set-piece for the more interesting grifters to play against.  He is used as prop almost like someone might use a gun or a hat, to build upon and explore their character.

Stanwyck on the other hand, really has room to spread her wings.  Her role in Double Indemnity, as the murderous, money, hungry wife, may have been more iconic, but this one is far more developed and way more fun to watch her work.  During a con, Jean wears a mask, a different personality to blend in and follow the script that’s been written, never able to show her true self.  The irony is that the face she wears when she is being herself is also a mask to hide and protect herself from danger, like falling in love and getting hurt.  It’s when she finally realizes that she’s fallen in love with Pike that she starts to show her real personality.

When Pike learns of her past, and her deception, she has to develop yet another character, so she can win him back, and there you have the titular, Eve.  The gusto that she brings to the role of Jean/Eve is infectious, and quite frankly the best part of the film.  The longer we watch Jean work, the more we want to see, and the more we see, the more we like her.

The Lady Eve is packed with gags, all vying for the audience’s attention.  From Pike’s rough around the edges bodyguard mixing with high society, to the slap-stickish food based humor in the second half of the film, Preston Sturges really throws everything including the kitchen sink at us hoping to connect.  While that stuff is funny, it’s really an after thought as compared to the interaction between Stanwyck and Fonda, so much so that it can almost be distracting, and take you out of the movie.  Almost, but thankfully, not quite.

The Lady Eve gives me hope for screwball comedies.  It joins the ranks of “His Girl Friday” as being madcap, exciting, and genuinely funny, without seeming ridiculous and un-restrained.  The characters, while bigger than life, aren’t too big, too crazy, and they never become unbelievable, which is death for any movie character.  Definitely a good example of Screwball Comedy that is, itself, good.

“Men are dumb.” – Ashley

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter – 1955

Director – Charles Laughton

Starring – Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Peter Graves, Lillian Gish, and Billy Chapin

There are not many other films that carry the respect and weight of expectation to the extent that The Night of the Hunter does.  In most cases this works as a benefit for most other films.  This way the film doesn’t have the possibility of letting you down if it fails to live up to those lofty expectations.  Despite, or perhaps because of this, The Night of the Hunter succeeds where a slightly lesser film, with lesser actors, might fail.

First and foremost, the film is remembered for the iconic performance of Robert Mitchum as the Reverend Harry Powell, a performance that oozes with anger and menace.  Mitchum plays Powell to the woman-hating, selfish, and sadistic nines, enjoying every minute of his own performance (which usually doesn’t work, but here, I’m having just as much fun as he is).  Powell roams the country-side of a beleaguered depression era America killing widows and stealing their money.  Even though he claims to be instructed to do it by God, I’m of the opinion his religious bent is simply his sheep’s clothing and the killing is actually his wolf’s nature.

The plot kicks in when Powell learns of hidden bank-robbery loot stolen by a soon to be executed inmate.  Seeing this as a sign from God to continue his “work”, he devises a plan to pay a visit to the inmate’s family and claim it, no matter the cost.

Powell descends upon the Harper family figuratively, and (visually) literally like a nightmare, wooing the widow, and charming the young daughter.  The inmate’s young boy, John Harper, played adequately by Billy Chapin, is left to stand up to this impending threat by himself with no help from anyone.

Now, this is a basic enough set-up, and if it were to continue to play out this way, it would have turned out to be a basic enough movie.  Good, but not great.  What makes this film truly shine is the fantastic American Gothic visuals provided by the cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, who also worked on Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons”, which, if you’ve read my review of that film, also had stunning visuals.

Each frame in the film could be viewed on its own and considered a piece of art strong enough to contend with any other frame.  The use of silhouettes in this film provides a menacing atmosphere that acting just wouldn’t be able to portray.  Combined with the charismatic performance of Mitchum, the cinematography goes great lengths to illustrate the surreal horror the characters are living.  Set pieces change dramatically from day to night, from home to prison.  Sanctuary to purgatory.  One of the most impacting images in the film, a scene that takes place underwater, could have been accomplished completely through suggestion, and very well could have removed the suspense that the film had worked so hard to build up by that point, but instead served to heighten the impending danger and further tilt our perception about what Powell was capable of.

Another scene that stood out visually (there were MANY), was a scene where the children are hiding in the cellar.  We break through the actual limits of what we could have seen by pushing past the fourth wall.  Powell, standing at the top of the cellar stairs, blocks the escape of the children in the cellar.  The children are all the way down at the other end of the screen from Mitchum, further illustrating the conflict between the characters, and what obstacles there are yet to overcome.

Charles Laughton, the actor famous for his roles in films like Spartacus, Captain Kidd, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, takes the directing reins in this film.  So disappointed by the reaction to the film after it’s release, Laughton afterwards vowed to never direct again.  It’s unfortunate that this turned out to be the case, because despite a few mediocre performances from the children, The Night of the Hunter was a very well constructed piece of art, worthy of its place on this list of 1001 greatest films of all time, and certainly the product of someone with vision and voice.

“Okay we get it, he’s a bad guy. Put down the fucking horns!” (on the musical score). – Ashley

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Steamboat Bill, Jr. – 1928

Director – Charles Reisner

Starring – Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire, Ernest Torrence, and Marion Byron

A big debate amongst cinephiles is the merit of a film whose sole intent is entertainment, dispensing of deadweight such as message, stakes, and emotional heft.  Today these types of films are called “Popcorn Films” or “Blockbusters”, and they are designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, kids, elderly, men, women, people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and creeds.  No one demographic is really ever left out of the mix when talking about the audience for a film like this, with the exception of one…film snobs.  Does it have to be this way?  Are the visual hijinks, daring physical feats, and very basic storyline of something like Steamboat Bill, Jr. enough to make watching it worth while?  You bet!

This time around (just like most of the other times around) Buster Keaton finds himself the subject of scorn by an adult or an authority figure.  Despite this treatment, he remains almost blissfully unaware, and instead focuses his attention on the pretty young girl who has caught his eye.  Some sort of catastrophe occurs necessitating Keaton to spring into action, simultaneously proving the nay-sayers wrong and confirming the young girl’s belief in him.  Keaton invariably does this by demonstrating his physical prowess in an impressive and hilarious way.

Okay, so the story line is pretty much the same in each of his movies, only the setting and some of the plot points change.  One time it’s a train, the next it’s a steamboat.  He want’s to be a detective in one and the next he wants to play the violin.  This really isn’t all that different from other of Keaton’s peers, Chaplin, and the Marx Brothers for example, were basically the same characters in multiple different movies, but does that remove any of their value, or the value of the film?

I submit to you that this is the best of Keaton’s films that I’ve seen so far.  I say this solely on the strength of the last 30 minutes of the film knowing full well that by then the story has almost completely finished.  We watch Keaton twist and contort his body against the force of a hurricane.  He has to dodge and weave, avoiding entire houses as they collapse around him, and in this flurry of activity I lost track of time and stared in wonder watching him go.  Whereas, during the first 45 minutes I found myself feeling restless and a little board, by the end I was on the edge of my seat.  The only disappointing part, was that the film wasn’t a full hour and fifteen minutes of that.

While I know what to expect from the storyline of a Keaton film, I will keep coming back and watching them because I also know what to expect from the sense of action and adventure from a Keaton film too.  This is my favorite of his films so far, and I don’t say that lightly.

“Buster Keaton, the inventor of break dancing.” – Ashley

The Gold Rush (1925)

The Gold Rush – 1925

Director – Charles Chaplin

Starring – Charles Chaplin, Mack Swain, Tom Murray, and Georgia Hale

Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush is essentially the same film as Modern Times, the other of his films that I’ve seen.  That is not to say that it is bad, or that it is poorly done, on the contrary the gags are very well through out and expertly executed.  No, I only mean that The Gold Rush is a venue for Chaplin’s most enduring character, The Tramp, to play out many of the same, or at the very least similar, gags as seen in his other films.  The backdrops in each changes, but he essence of each is the same.

This time around The Tramp is trying his luck in the Alaskan frontier as a gold prospector.  A number of other characters struggle alongside him, most notably is Georgia, the love interest.  He spends the entirety of the movie pining after Georgia, dreaming up clever ways to get her attention, and most of the time failing miserably.  There is some tension between the Tramp and some of his fellow prospectors, but it mostly amounts to a bunch of innocent, slapstick, sight gags.  At no point was I ever convinced that Chaplin was going to fail, or die, or succumb to any of the dangers to which he is subjected throughout the film.  Once all the danger and opportunity for our hero’s failure is stripped away, all that is left are a series of nice, but rather shallow skits that are barely tied together by setting and characters.

The individual gags themselves (a delusional prospector sees the Tramp as a plump chicken, constant walking through doorways into empty space, and playing round-about games of hide and go seek from ones’ pursuers, to name a few) have inspired more than a few Warner Brothers cartoons as well as defining the language of comedy.  The real accomplishment in what Chaplin managed with his films was in the imitation that he inspired.  His gags (and those of his contemporaries) have been used, re-used, and re-imagined so much that they have become a part of our collective knowledge.  The value of his work is measured in how many people know about it, whether or not they know it’s Chaplin’s work doesn’t lessen the impact of its saturation.

Despite the fact that, in my opinion, The Gold Rush isn’t the best of the movies on this list, I recognize it’s importance.  If for no other reason than it’s contribution to the language and history of film, The Gold Rush deserves to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

“Sorry I’m more of a Keaton and Lloyd kind of gal.”  –  Ashley

Modern Times (1936)

Modern Times – 1936

Director – Charles Chaplin

Starring – Charles Chaplin and Paulette Goddard

Not having seen much from the cannon of Mr. Chaplin, I only had the few clips I’d seen in film school, and the similarities of his peers (Keaton, Three Stooges, Fatty Arbuckle, The Marx Brothers, etc.) on which to form my initial impression of him.  Modern Times marks my first opportunity to form an opinion based on work that I had actually seen from start to finish, and while the man clearly has vision, talent, and comedic range, it seems to me that the hype about Chaplin being the greatest performer of his generation may have given me some over-the-top expectations for him.

Please don’t get me wrong…I don’t mean to say that he is overrated, nor do I think his films are lacking any crucial element.  I guess I just wouldn’t consider the tagline that I found in IMDb to accurately describe him…(“He stands alone as the greatest entertainer of modern times! No one on earth can make you laugh as heartily or touch your heart as deeply…the whole world laughs, cries and thrills to his priceless genius!”)  This is high praise for a man who came out of the same time frame as the Marx Bros., and Buster Keaton, and to a new viewer it sets the bar very high.

The story is simple enough, Chaplin’s Little Tramp is trying to make his way through the world of burgeoning technology, and industry.  He tries in vain to keep up at his assembly line job tightening bolts, managing to consistently cause problems for his co-workers, and bosses alike.  After his disastrous run in with a new automated feeding machine, his bosses have reason to believe that he has gone a little mad, and they send him away to a mental hospital.  Once he gets out, he runs into a series of problems with the police who alternately believe that he is a communist, a thief, and a troublemaker.  When in custody, he meets a young woman who is also struggling to survive in the modern world.  Together they attempt to create a little place for themselves in the world.

I thought that the film’s set-pieces were it’s greatest strength, allowing Chaplin to really explore the ridiculous nature of the crazy mechanized world, the nature of and need for infrastructure, and the simplicity inherent in it all.  It is very clear that Chaplin’s films (along with those of Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and the Marx Brothers) with their wide variety of visual appeal combined with storytelling and heart went a long way in inspiring a whole crop of successful visual filmmakers such as Jacques Tati, Terry Gilliam, and I’d even guess Peter Jackson.  The intimate nature of the Tramp’s interaction with his physical surroundings speaks volumes about his curiosity, resilience, and compassion.  Chaplin must have firmly believed that it wasn’t the fancy machinery that made modern living great, but it was instead it was the strong connections possible because of these innovations.

Modern Times was Chaplin’s last silent feature, and it was only sort-of silent.  It is filled with sound-effects, some voice acting, and lots of music.  It a time when most of the industry had already converted over to the “new” talkie format, I wonder if Modern Times was itself a commentary on the nature of change in his own industry? 

Despite the fact that it may have been a bit over hyped for me, I still really enjoyed what Chaplin had to offer in Modern Times, and I look forward to seeing more of his work (this time with a bit more moderate expectations).