Thursday, 30 August 2012

Antonioni swings… Blow Up (1966), Zabriskie Point (1970)

I didn’t start out wanting to write about Blow Up. It’s a long time favourite and a film I’ve not wanted to over-analyse for fear of breaking the delicate strands of nostalgia that hold it up as one of my “favourites”.

That’s favourite as in really like… in an unquestioning and unconditional way. It’s not an overtly rational Sight and Sound poll sort of decision but one based on layers of imposed meaning at various stages of my life. I’d liked it for its hip credentials, its crystal clear view of the world I missed growing up in and its inherent cleverness… it was too smart to demolish even when I saw it as a jaundiced twenty-something.

But… I’d just watched Zabriskie Point and I wanted something to compare it with… to understand how Antonioni could go from the focus and intensity of Red Desert to the almost empty Zabriskie... 

This the very stuff of Antonioni. All film is a search for meaning and that meaning can only really be defined through sharing it with others. So… in the same way that David Hemming’s photographer wanted to show the dead body only he had seen, to someone else… I would like to share my discovery with you.
Alright, straight into pseuds’ corner with this but I’ll give it a go.

Zabriskie Point was Antonioni’s first American film and he spent almost four years on the project searching for the right story, locations, music and cast. It begins promisingly enough with what looks like a genuinely heated discussion amongst actual students about revolution and race. Over an impressively formless percussive music track from Pink Floyd, the youths argue whether white people can truly become revolutionary and whether they are willing to die for the cause (whatever it is…).

One participant, Mark (Mark Frechette) gets up and says that he’s prepared to die but not from boredom… he means it, man. We move through a series of fragmentary scenes culminating in student arrests after which Mark refers to himself as Karl Marx whilst being processed by the police. We’re not given any defined set of beliefs for Mark though, he might be a communist or he might just like the idea of revolt.

A policeman is shot during a student occupation. Mark was about to pull his trigger but someone struck first. He runs and ends up stealing a plane…

At the same time we’re introduced to a young student Daria (Daria Halprin) who is working part-time with a property company to help fund her studies. She takes to the road in a magnificent old Buick off to meet up with her bread-head boss (Rod Taylor).

Daria and Mark meet up after he spies her from above. They end up at Zabriskie Point, a quiet and exceptionally beautiful area of the Californian desert which, almost, provides the film’s visual highpoint. They make love amongst the prehistoric river beds seemingly accompanied by dozens of others… yet as the dust settles, they remain alone.

Mark explains his backstory and resolves to return the plane and, possibly, to prove his innocence in his diffident way. Yet on his return he is killed by the over-zealous police. Knowing his fate, Daria reaches her boss’s amazing desert retreat. Sickened by the opulence she leaves looking over her shoulder to imagine the house and all capitalist trappings blown to smithereens.

This is the most famous sequence in the film and rightly so. Against the menacing backdrop of a re-worked Careful with that Axe, Eugene (an immensely influential track and probably the main reason Antonioni wanted Floyd for the soundtrack), the house explodes over and over again along with its contents. It’s a powerful moment and one that gives sense to the film. But it’s also an unambiguous statement and this is problematic, anchoring the film in the anti-capitalist political rallying of the time.

Is this a warning, a revenger’s dream or is it just a really good looking pop video?

By comparison Blow Up is far more universal in its politics and philosophy – in spite of being as much bound to its time and its reputation as quintessential swinging cinema. In fact it has far more in common with Antonioni’s early 60s films in terms of its critique of social mores and the nature of identity.

Zabriskie Point is more obviously and directly political but has less impact than Blow Up, which in its own unresolved way, asks bigger questions and demands more than patience from its audience. Zabriskie may question the commitment of alternative America to a substantial agenda and it may even be a call to more direct action but it doesn’t intrigue or engage in the same way.

 Even in the unreality of a London caught up in its own myth, Blow Up hits harder. This is partly down to the considerable strength of its actors. Both Frechette and Halprin were certainly committed (the former tithed his earnings to his then commune and ended up in prison for armed robbery after a failed attempt to redistribute wealth to another) but were largely untrained. Whilst this brings a certain neutrality it’s no substitute for skill and neither moves their story forward by very much. Frechette in particular leaves us a clueless at the end as at the start.

In contrast David Hemmings, Sarah Miles and Vanessa Redgrave were highly adept players and are able to obscure as well as reveal. Sarah Miles gets through more genuinely moving human expression in five minutes than Frechette manages in almost two hours…  In Zabriskie there were blank faces against the desert backdrop whilst in Blow Up there are complex emotions on display against the ever-changing London scenery.

Hemmings plays a photographer in the David Bailey mould who is self-servingly documenting the visual life of swinging London. He goes under cover to photograph a doss house and then switches into Svengali mode to bully various models in his fashion shoots. He is planning a book on “real” London including the shots of the down and outs in the doss house; he is not committed to social improvement just self aggrandisement.

He is constantly on the move driving through the London Streets onto his next meeting. Antonioni spent a fair amount of time in London and he deserves credit for his selection of locations. He doesn’t go for the obvious hot spots of Notting Hill, Camden and Carnaby Street and shows us Clapham, London Wall, London Bridge, Charlton and Camberwell in a fascinating tour of a city still in mid-regeneration… establishing the more self-directed society which carries on to this day.

Wandering into a park he is attracted by a young woman (Vanessa Redgrave) and an older man who appear to be lovers. He follows and photographs them until the woman chases over and demands the photographs back. He refuses throwing up the kinds of justification modern paparazzi make for their activity. The girl runs back up the hill and away from him.

Later she visits his studio and the two almost make love before being interrupted. He gives her another roll of film but keeps the ones she wants. He develops the film and here begins the mystery. Blowing up the pictures he gradually pieces together the story of what he shot but not what he saw. The images get larger and grainier but in the end he is convinced he’s photographed a murder.

I’m not sure how much Antonioni “liked” the Hemmings character, but he begins to behave in a slightly more humane way, possibly humbled by his inability to control or resolve this situation.

There’s still time to take advantage of two young girls hoping for a modelling break though… one of the two is Jane Birkin and she looks like she’s giving Hemmings as good as she got in this scene. Don’t mess with “Mrs” Gainsbourg!
Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills
He goes to the park and finds the body his shots revealed and then goes off to find his publisher: somebody needs to share in this for it to become “real”. On the way he sees, or thinks he sees, the girl from the park. He gives chase and ends up walking into a gig where the Yardbirds are playing. The crowd remains pointedly silent and still – a comment by Antonioni on the shallow nature of London pop culture?  Jeff Beck breaks up his guitar and throws the neck into the audience and they suddenly go wild: everyone wants the souvenir. Hemmings wins it and runs outside, discarding it once he is clear… it was only important when everyone else wanted it and has no value on its own.

This kind of point is made so effectively and in a far more coherent and less obvious way than Zabriskie Point’s political trajectory will allow.

Hemming’s character arrives at his publisher’s house and experiences a soulless orgy of drink and drug taking… in the morning he races to his destiny at the park. The body is gone and as the film reverses itself to a finish he encounters the mimes who play a game of silent tennis that amuses and finally draws him in to their shared reality… It’s non-specific enough to allow you to place your own meaning.

One of the characters is an abstract painter and the brief scenes the cameraman has with him reveal a lot of Antonioni’s intent. The painter says that when he has finished with a painting he loses touch with them and clings on to what detail he can to understand the work. The same is true for the director and for the watcher who, like Hemming’s character, tries to find understanding in looking as hard as possible at the detail.

But maybe the answer is in not looking too hard but accepting what you can. In Blow Up’s case, that means enjoying the richness of the images, the city and the acting without having to commit to definitive meaning.  You don’t have to pin it down to “get it” and that ensures longevity for both movie and message.

None of this makes Zabriskie Point a bad film, it’s just not as good as the director’s best work. The cinematography is superb and the scenery is beautiful. But the film is remembered more for the closing scenes of destruction than for its analysis of contemporary politics.

Blow Up is available on DVD from Amazon and the version I watched had a well-informed commentary from film scholar and Antonioni specialist, Peter Brunette. Zabriskie Point is not so well served but was recently released on a basic DVD -  a decent quality print and very worth watching if you like Antonioni but it won't haunt you like his very best work...

Blow Up came through with flying colours. It’s still got more than enough to maintain my interest and grows in stature if anything. I should trust my “favourites” a little more.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Asta Nielsen, shoulder to shoulder… The Suffragette (1913)

Asta Nielsen
Oh this is a really interesting film… One of the first made by director Urban Gad and Asta Nielsen after their move to Germany; it dealt with the then highly topical and contentious issue of the woman’s suffrage movement in Britain.

To give some context, women in Britain did not get the vote until after the First World War and the reasons may have included their contribution to that conflict as much as what now seems like the common logic of intellectual and social equality.

But, as women continue to fight for equal pay – in this country and many others – equality should not be taken for granted and the influence of Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters is hard to understate.

Asta Nielsen and Mary Scheller
Beginning in the late 1890s the movement began its long struggle to attain “Votes for Women”… their methods became increasingly radical, post boxes were set alight, property was damaged (then as now a particularly serious crime in Britain…), women chained themselves to the gates of Buckingham Palace and Emily Davison died after throwing herself under the hooves of the king’s racing horse.

Suffragettes were imprisoned and force fed after going on hunger strike… it was amongst the most extreme civil struggles in this compliant country.

So, what are we to make of the contemporary view from northern European film-makers?

Asta Nielsen plays socialite Nelly Panburne, a thinly veiled Pankhurst, who has her pick of suitors from the upper echelons and yet who opts for the unobtainable Lord William Ascue (Max Landa) ...not a million miles from Lord Asquith, Britain’s PM at the time.

Nelly’s mother, Mrs Panburne (Mary Scheller), is an aristocratic wife who has decided to join the struggle… even though she could presumably find other entertainment. (By contrast her counterpart, Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), was middle class and from solid Lancastrian socialist stock.)

She and her “sisters” suck Nelly into their world and, overcome by their zealous fervour, she decides to become a suffragette.

Nelly’s first bit of civil disobedience is to smash a shop window for which she is imprisoned. In jail she goes on hunger strike and there is a fairly uncomfortable demonstration of the attempt to force feed her with a rubber tube. This evokes deep-lying memories of the ground-breaking 1970s TV series, Shoulder to Shoulder which dramatized the movement and is, sadly, an all too accurate reflection of the brutal way these women were treated.

Under Asquith’s odious “Cat and Mouse Act” from 1913, suffragettes were allowed to go on hunger strike and then released when they were too unwell to take part in any further protest… giving the women enough rope to starve themselves.

Here Nelly manages to avoid the feeding and is released in good health to a hero’s welcome from the suffragettes.

Meanwhile Lord Ascue is the driving force behind an attempt to outlaw the suffragette movement. He was having a relationship with one Lola Rodrigues who – scorned – gives her love letters over to the suffragettes so they may use them to blackmail her former lover and stop the legislation.

Nelly is given the task of delivering the ultimatum to Ascue but, before she leaves, her mother gives her a time bomb which she is to place in his study. There is no evidence that the suffragettes ever went as far as attempting assassination but they did use arson. In this age of uncertainty, such methods were far from uncommon and the Germans had as much reason to fear terrorism as any other empire…

Still ignorant of who her enemy is, Nelly plants the bomb and then realises to her horror that her intended victim is also the love of her life… She attempts to blackmail him with the letters but he faces her down like a true English gentleman. Then as she leaves she has second thoughts and tries to remove the bomb, but it is too late.

Once home Nelly tries to draw Ascue away to an assignation but he already has a meeting planned in his house at precisely the time when the bomb is due to go off. Nelly finally breaks free of the hold the suffragettes have on her and goes to try rescue the Lord.

The film is genuinely thrilling for this last section as Nelly’s struggle with the suffragettes takes place as the clock ticks down on Ascue 's meeting…

It’s hard to judge this film out of time and a century removed from the political and social mores not only of Britain but, in this case Germany. To the film-makers the suffrage movement must have seemed especially alien and frightening: an enemy from within undermining the social balance from the most unexpected source. Women behaving like men, aristocrats behaving like anarchists… this was the very stuff of nightmares.

The suffragettes acted clearly outside of the law, but no one can deny that their cause was just – feel free to comment below if you don’t agree.  As it was, many in the suffrage movement were opposed to Emmeline Pankhurst’s more extreme measures and two of her daughters broke away to continue more moderate agitation. Was the WSPU a terrorist organisation and did its ends ever justify all of its means?

Urban Gad
Urban Gad directs the film with skill, especially the closing sequence, there is also a fair amount of camera movement and some wonderfully framed external shots. I especially liked the boating scene in which Nelly deliberately bumps into Lord Ascue.

Sadly, there are a number of sections missing but the German Film Institute have reconstructed the narrative well, with the odd use of a film still showing Nelly’s attack on the shop window. The censors obviously found much to tamper with in this daring film. Was it merely sensational or was it an attempt to detail the “problem” in a serious way? Maybe a bit of both.

The closing lines are now cringe-worthy but true to the film’s moral: “she who rocks the cradle rules the World”. So much change had to come… but society’s valuation of women must be seen in the context of the time. Yes Nelly may revert to the family norm in the end, she is not without courage and intelligence and she never loses our sympathy.

Asta Nielsen and Max Landa
 Whatever the merits of the story, Der Asta acts up her usual storm. With a well-crafted blonde hairstyle and some outrageous hats, she is completely convincing as the love-stricken suffragette, carried away by the passion of her sisters’ politics. She is really quite different in every film I’ve seen from the leather-skirted paramour of Afgrunden to the emerging actress in The Ballet Dancer and the down-trodden anti-heroin of The Joyless Street (Hamlet, goes without saying).

It’s hard to think of a more versatile actress from this time.

Asta Nielsen
This film is one of four on the new double DVD Vier Film mit Asta Nielsen from edition filmmuseum. The other films showcase her comedic talents as an eskimo and as a man...

The set is highly recommended if you want to see how European cinema was developing during the pre- and early Great War period, and especially, if you want further proof of Asta Nielsen’s acting skill: Europe’s first movie star and still a tough act to follow.

And, in the real world…  women over the age of 30 were given the vote in 1918 provided they also met certain property qualifications. It wasn’t until 1928 that suffrage was extended to all women over the age of 21, equal with men… That was the year Emmeline Pankurst passed away, having changed British society for ever.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Yasujiro Ozu's timeless… Tokyo Story (1953)

This blog has been described as something like a road trip as I bumble along the dusty roads of film history encountering enlightening cinematic experiences as I go. To a large extent, this has been true as most of the films covered have been ones that I’ve only just watched and, luckily, there’s a lot to see.

I’d first stumbled upon Yasujiro Ozu at the BFI retrospective in early 2010 and been knocked out with Late Autumn, a rich depiction of generational flux made near the end of the director’s time and reflecting his core concerns of family and obligation.

So, I came to view Tokyo Story after already being familiar with Ozu’s style and subject yet, whilst this made it easier to understand the story it did not undermine the impact of this deceptively simple and powerful film. One of the best ever made? Without doubt (from my perspective) and, after watching for a second time, the complexity of Ozu’s vision only becomes more apparent. It’s a film I want to watch again…

Two elderly parents are planning to visit their children in Tokyo. They live a long way from the capitol and Ozu shows the slow and orderly existence of their provincial town. Their youngest daughter leaves for the school she teaches at, being greeted by her pupils as they tread the familiar paths to class. With deftness and economy Ozu shows us the culture and pace of life through sparse use of music and external shots bookending quietly, polite conversations.

This is a rare excursion for them and the father, Shukishi Hirayama (played by Ozu stalwart, Chishû Ryû, who appeared in nearly all of his films) and mother Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) make their preparations, excitedly discussing the reception they will receive.

Eldest son Koichi (Sô Yamamura) is an over-worked general practitioner in one of Tokyo’s more hard pressed suburbs. He is married to Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake) who struggles with their two wilful sons one of whom complains after his desk is moved to accommodate his grandparents’ stay… it’s a foretaste of what is to come.

Shukishi and Tomi duly arrive and after their day out with Koichi is cancelled after a medical emergency for one of his clients, it’s clear that he will struggle to find time for them.

They are greeted cordially by their daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura) who runs a beauty parlour and lives with husband Kurazo (Nobuo Nakamura), an easy-going chap who she criticises for spending too much money on her parents. Shige’s apartment and her life are too crowded to easily accommodate her kin and you wonder how such polite old people have produced such a misery of a daughter.    

The warmest welcome comes from Noriko (the serene Setsuko Hara), the wife of their eldest son who died in the Second World War. Noriko still cherishes her dead husband and thinks nothing of putting herself before his parents. She takes a day off to look after them and willingly gives them her time.

Yet, all is not so selfish or so simple. Shukishi and Tomi worry that Noriko has spent too long mourning and urge her to move on and re-marry even though she is seemingly content. Who does Ozu expect us to side with here? And, is the man who spent almost his entire lifetime with his own mother, saying that there are different levels of obligation or that we each must come to our own arrangements? All will be clearer, later.

Shige and Koichi send their parents off to a resort for a few days respite. It’s ostensibly a nice gesture but, whilst the beach is lovely and the food is good, the walls are thin and the couple can’t sleep for the sounds of young people enjoying themselves late into the night.

They return to the city to find Shige and Koichi unprepared. Tomi stays in Noriko’s tiny apartment, whilst Shukishi goes off to catch up with some old friends and get very drunk. This sequence was another Ozu trademark and allows the older generation to let down their guard and say what they feel. Here they bemoan the shortcomings of their off-spring. They are all disappointed with their children’s modest achievements but they are still proud… their offspring could be worse.

It is revealed later that Shukishi’s job had been as head of education, he was a high-flyer and this could explain his drink problem and the distance of some of his children… as well as his view of their positions.

Eventually the parents return home leaving relief behind. But here the story takes a gear shift as Tomi is taken seriously ill. After a series of steadily worsening telegrams Shige, Koichi and Noriko head north. There they find Tomi near to death with Koichi quickly realising she is in her last hours. They are saddened, especially at the suddenness and after a trip that Shige at least, remembers as being far more convivial than it was. But maybe that’s the way of things: being taken for granted is a privilege of parenthood. Ozu doesn’t judge and he leaves it for the viewer to reach their own verdict.

Tomi dies and we see the funeral and the family’s coming to terms with its grief. Shige and Koichi head back to Tokyo soon after leaving Noriko to help comfort Shukishi. His youngest daughter, the teacher Kyôko (Kyôko Kagawa) is angry with her siblings and accuses them of being selfish. But Noriko, perhaps surprisingly, defends them by saying it is the way of things and that they have their own affairs to manage.

She is not so sure she is much different – does her status as a widow free her up to devote more time to her in-laws or is she really a better person? We can only look at actions and opt for the latter. She admits to being disappointed with life but she has not let this make her bitter.

The final scenes of Noriko with Shukishi are very moving as the former finally breaks down to reveal her own feelings of unworthiness. Here father-in-law reassures her that she is a good woman and wants only for her to move on. He gives her Tomi’s watch as a keepsake – a more meaningful memento than Shige asked for or was given.

Tokyo Story is a film full of real characters who are all flawed and weighed down by life and responsibility. Ozu called it his most melodramatic film and this possibly appeals more to western audiences. It still operates around a relatively narrow emotional band and the depth of feeling is all the stronger for that. It is an ordinary story but those are, ultimately, the most resonant.

The performances are superb with Chishû Ryû being especially impressive – a 50-year old playing a man 20 years older. Needless to say Setsuko Hara is a wonder… she manages to convey so much with such economy and subtle changes of expression. She also has what must be the kindest face in cinema.

 As is typical for Ozu, there is very little visual mobility and he fixes his camera low down to let the scenes unfold in the cramped spaces of the rooms on view. He switches the viewpoint from front to back as conversations unfold and traces a path through each dwelling to anchor us in the place and time.

We are drawn into the story and there’s no casual observation to be made - focus is required. The reward is enriching and haunting... I’m still on Ozu time days later. Mind you, it is a very hot day and the house feels like one of Ozu’s… the windows are all open and we sit in quiet contemplation, casually fanning ourselves as the children watch TV and play computer games…

I watched the Criterion Collection edition which comes with a superb commentary from Ozu scholar David Desser along with sundry extras including a two hour documentary from 1983 in which Chishû Ryû and others talk about the director.

Amazingly, Setsuko Hara is still around. Now in her 90’s she hasn’t acted since 1963, the year of Ozu’s death.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Blu-ray Pickford... The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

Mary Pickford animation courtesy of Aggiephile
Empty hearts. Empty lives. Empty homes. Poor little rich girl.

Now then, this could be awkward… an infantile Pickford vehicle in which the 25 year old Mary plays an 11 year old girl… This is one of those films that could put you off Pickford and which has coloured her reputation for modern audiences isn’t it?

The Poor Little Rich Girl was the first film in which Pickford played a child and it was so successful that she carried on in this vein even into her mid-30s. It is a big part of the film and you do have to overcome the obvious age gap between Mary and her character… difficult in a few scenes in which she’s clearly more woman than girl.

But that’s a modern take and it’s also an adult one. The Poor Little Rich Girl is a family film and it’s a film that has to work for children first and foremost. Besides, Jenny Agutter was well into her teens in The Railway Children and, more pointedly, Judy Garland was pushing 17 when she was Dorothy in Oz… One review on IMDB asked why no one had pointed out the obvious influence of this film on The Wizard of Oz. Yet L. Frank Baum’s book was published in 1900 whilst the first of many films about the land of Oz pre-dates The Poor Little Rich Girl by several years.

All this said, The Poor Little Rich Girl works extremely well and is the more pleasurable being reproduced in spritely high definition on Milestone's new Blu-ray triple Rags to Riches Collection. There’s an excellent new score from Philip Carli (played by the Flower City Society Orchestra) along with commentary from film historian, Scott Eyman. With the intention to provide an introduction to silent film for children there’s also an opening and closing sequence in which modern day kids are shown the movie by a wise and endlessly patient grandpa… Difficult for the jaded metropolitan silent “fan” to take lying down but… if it helps then good! (My teen daughter has already been exposed to Greed… show no mercy, just lock ‘em in!).

If a cynical movie buff needed an excuse to like this film then the direction of Maurice Tourneur provides it. If this was a Russian film it’d be raved about for the lushness of the images, the superb set design (care of Ben Carré) and the seamless cutting, especially towards the end when Gwendolyn hovers between dreamland and death. It is one of the best-looking films I’ve seen from the Great War years and fully justifies the Blu-ray packaging and price.

But even the cynics have to bow down before the intelligence, verve and raw ability of Mary Pickford. She is full of naturalistic controlled emotion and convinces totally as the young lead even alongside actual children (yeah, I know...). And this could have gone so horribly wrong! Her acting, aided by clever camera work and larger than life stage props, carries the day.

The story itself is fairly simple and still carries a whack: miserable banker addicted to his failing career on Wall Street almost sacrifices all to maintain his status. His wife is equally distracted by the “social bee in her bonnet” and both ignore their daughter who is a stranger in her own home, looked after by heartless retainers who could care less.

Gwendolyn is bored and she is lonely, she needs the chance to make a mess and to be free of rules. She fights with an obnoxious brat brought over to be a playmate and delights in bringing the organ grinder in from the street and dancing withy the plumber. She even picks a mud fight with the local kids - a scene that Monsieur Tourneur had to be persuaded to leave in: it may have been his movie but Mary was already in her careerist driving seat aided and abetted by her friend the writer, Frances Marion. Tourneur himself later described La Pickford as the finest screen actress in the World.

Life grinds on for the parents but the household staff are intent on a night off. They accidentally overdose Gwendolyn with sleeping draught and she hovers on the edge of oblivion. Here the story takes its Oz-like twist as the story runs parallel between the doctor trying to save her and her dreams in which those she knows are transformed in her reverie… the snake in the grass servant becomes a snake, the two-faced woman has two faces and big ears …well, I’m sure you can guess the rest.

Tourneur directs well here with shifts in mood and lighting moving the dream along until Gwen is saved by a dancing nymph playing in idyllic sunlit fields away from the shrouded appearance of death.

And, of course, there’s no place like home, but it’s the child’s near death that convinces the parents of this truth. Her father turns his back on the deal that could save his investment career saying that “...there is enough left for the life we will lead.” Gwen gets her parents back.

The Poor Little Rich Girl is available direct from Milestone and comes in a three disc pack with The Hoodlum (an excellent film from 1919 and now in far better quality than the DVD I watched recently) a precious short from 1910, Ramona, and then Sparrows (1926) which Ernst Lubitsch described as one of the eight wonders of the world. It’s another child role for Pickford but I won’t discount the possibility that Herr Lubitsch was possibly onto something…

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Louise Brooks + WC Fields - It's the Old Army Game (1926)

Louise Brooks
It's the Old Army Game (1926) was Louise Brook's fourth film and only the second (after the lost A Social Celebrity), in which she took the female lead role

Three films in and Louise Brooks was already demonstrating the attitude and intransigence that would eventually make her unemployable in Hollywood. She initially turned down Army Game, possibly because Clara Bow – who was committed to making Mantrap – turned it down first: she didn’t want anyone’s left-overs, even the great Bow's. But, possibly because of her friendship with WC Fields, with whom she had worked at the Follies, or maybe some friendly career advice to take a longer-term view... Brooks changed her mind.

WC Fields makes Louise laugh
Directed by the relatively inexperienced Edward Sutherland (his fourth feature), Army Game was primarily a vehicle for WC Fields playing Elmer Prettywillie (that's probably worse in English than American!), a misanthropic drugstore owner who is at war with family and customers alike... with the exception of his knockout shop girl,  Marilyn Sheridan (Brooks).

Fields was 47 at the time (Brooks just 19) and the film was his chance to cross-over from the theatre to cinema following in the footsteps of other, younger, men such as Chaplin and Keaton. He regarded it as a risk which is hard to credit given his latter success. An inventive and skilled performer he throws in what must have been a fair chunk of his regular act throughout a largely formless narrative.

Elise Cavanna
The film starts with a daring real-time stunt as a woman (excellently played by an uncredited Elise Cavanna) drives like a maniac, narrowly missing  a train, just to buy a stamp. She wakes up Elmer in order to make her purchase and the proceeds to set off the fire alarm in trying to post her letter. The fire brigade arrive at the store to find no fire but plenty of soda and the startlingly pretty sight of Marilyn. Naturally a fire is started after they have left and Elmer spends a delirious few minutes attempting to wade through his dislocated response to the danger.
Brooksie distracts the firemen
Elmer tries in vain to get some sleep but is constantly disturbed by his nephew, the knife grinder and the ice man. Fields nephew is meant to look younger but is played by 11-year-old Mickey Bennett who had to work hard on some brutal stunts with Fields – he’s kicked, pulled and generally thrown around. A smaller child wouldn’t have gone the distance, but Fields’ antipathy towards children required extreme visual expression and Bennett goes with the blows like a real trouper!

Mary Foy
Mickey’s mother, played by Mary Foy, is similarly disliked by her brother… as is the Station Agent, Tessie Gilch (Blanch Ring – Sutherland’s aunt), who has a soft spot for him... there’s so much bile in Fields’ world-view and you can understand why he had taken so long to find a story in film. He’s not much of a hero and, Marilyn aside, seems to react to circumstances with short term respite his only goal… now I get it!

The story, such as it is, doesn’t really get going until about half way through when a salesman/conman, George Parker (William Gaxton) persuades Prettywillie to join him in selling New York land to the local Floridians.

"That's two cents...two cents...
Parker has already appeared stopping off to post a letter to one of his girlfriends only to fall in love at first sight of Marilyn. He follows her from the station and there’s a wonderful sequence of Brooks walking away dropping her hankie or pausing to browse the magazines, all the time waiting for Parker to catch up.

When the two do eventually connect, it is genuine but even this doesn’t stop George from involving the drugstore in his scam – does he know it’s a scam? Is he himself the victim of the New York con artists? This part of the plot is difficult to fathom – maybe I’m missing some key expositionary detail in the version I have?

William Gaxton
Elmer goes with the flow and starts to sell thousands of dollars worth of lots to the townsfolk. Things are going well and the party goes on a picnic, George and Marilyn for a swim and Elmer, Mickey and the “Girls” to lay waste to the garden of a wealthy family.

This sequence is just anarchic… windows are smashed and property damaged… they drive through a wall. It’s done with humour but of the most purely malicious kind. Fields’ was possibly more hard hitting than others of this time – he genuinely didn’t seem to care and there's a distinct edge to all the mayhem.

WC Fields
The young lovers’ swim is disturbed as a George is arrested, he asks the cop to do the decent thing (does he think he deserves that?) and not humiliate him in front of Marilyn.

Back at the store, Elmer is confronted with the news that the land they’ve been selling isn’t for sale… he travels off to New York to straighten things out. Fun ensues as he drives his car the wrong way and enlists the help of a horse to pull it… only to blow it up using one of his old army tricks to start the horse. He gets knocked back by the conmen and returns home expecting the worse…

WC Fields has a sore head
This is where things get confusing (for me at least) and the story ends how you’d expect but not with the explanation you’d expect. It doesn’t really matter… not everything needs to add up!

It’s an enjoyable film in spite of my gripes. Great to see WC Fields at this stage of his career and you can really appreciate his invention and pin-point timing. But the reason I watched is Louise Brooks and she is just dazzling from start to finish.

Variety declared that she “photographed like a million dollars” and predicted that she would “…land right at the top in the picture racket”. Well she could have done if she purely wanted to but we all know what she did and didn’t do. What we have left is precious and this film has a place in her remarkable story. Some of her naturalistic reactions here are astonishing – it’s as if she knows we’re watching …which of course we are… Even at 19 she was in control and a single point of wonder even in a routine movie.

There is genuine warmth between Fields and Brooks, evidence of their lasting friendship after the Follies, and the former seems to be getting genuine laughs as he serves her a soda pop alongside the firemen. It's a lovely sequence and shows that Fields wasn't the misery his persona suggested. In fact, the whole crew ended up getting on rather well with Fields going on to make a number of films with Sutherland who soon proposed to the young Louise.

It's the Old Army Game is available on a Hollywood's Attic DVD through Amazon. It's in pretty good quality from a 16mm reduction print running at 105 minutes and with a live score from Keith Taylor. It would benefit from a restoration... but right now this'll do.