Monthly Archives: November 2010

Best Pictures of 1937 (#3) – Grand Illusion

Apologies for the long gap in the 1937 countdown.  I spent the Thanksgiving weekend in Big Bear playing in the snow, gorging on turkey, and curling up in front of roaring fires with a book.  Despite all that fun, there was unexpectedly no internet connection.  I didn’t get back until last night, so my overview of 1937 can continue.  I hope everyone here in the U.S. had a great Thanksgiving and everyone else just had an all around great day.  Now for the third best movie of 1937:

Grand Illusion

(aka La Grande Illusion)

(France)

Director, Jean Renoir; Screenplay, Charles Spaak & Jean Renoir; Producers, Albert Pinkovitch and Frank Rollmer; Cinematography, Christian Matras; Original Music, Joseph Kosma; Editor, Marthe Huguet and Marguerite Renoir; Production Design Eugene Lourié; Costume Design, René Decrais

Cast: Jean Gabin (Lt. Maréchal), Pierre Fresnay (Capt. De Boeldieu), Marcel Dalio (Lt. Rosenthal), Erich von Stroheim (Capt. von Rauffenstein), Dita Parlo (Elsa)

I always cringe when I hear Jean Renoir’s classic Grand Illusion described as an anti-war film.  Yes, an anti-war message is part of it, but identifying it as such misses the larger point.  Renoir doesn’t necessarily see war as the problem; war is merely a symptom – albeit a horrendous symptom – of a more basic problem: the inability of people to identify with and embrace people who are different from them.  It sounds so basic and, frankly, trite when it’s put in such a basic and crude way, but Renoir was a master so he handles the message more artfully.  That’s why we go see the movies of directors like Renoir rather than read stuff like this.

Grand Illusion is an impassioned plea for empathy – brotherhood if you will excuse the corny, though appropriate phrase – across social, religious, national, and class boundaries as the world stumbled almost inevitably toward war in 1937.  Renoir observed that the lessons Europeans should have learned after the Great War went ignored and that failure would lead to disaster.  It would not be long until his apprehension would prove justified.

To make his point, Renoir set the events in and among French, English, and Russian prisoners of war in Germany sometime during the First World War.  Captured together are Lt. Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and Capt. de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay).  The two officers join other French prisoners of war and, in the grand tradition of military POWs, hatch one escape plot after another.  The seemingly obvious divisions among prisoners in the camps melt away.  Aristocratic Boeldieu is welcome along with the Jewish Lt. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) and the working class Maréchal.  There is nothing remarkable in suggesting that people will find commonality among themselves when in a life-threatening situation.  In this case, nationality is what bonds the men together.

But this is where Renoir elevates the material beyond a simple but effective message promoting cooperation and understanding.  A harmony of nationality isn’t what Renoir wants us to take away; national allegiances, after all, lead to the most horrific war to that date.  There are more social classifications with which people can identify.  Later, when many of the men are transferred to another camp, Boeldieu is immediately spotted by the commander of the camp Capt. von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim).  Rauffenstein sees a fellow aristocrat and, despite the fact that their respective nations are at war, tries to form a bond with the French prisoner.  Rauffenstein embraces Boeldieu not because he’s such a great guy but because he is part of the same dying European aristocracy.  He believes they should have a bond stronger than Boeldieu has with his fellow countrymen because he and the German officer are part of a long and noble tradition that transcends national lines, forced to fight one another not due to any real animosity but because politicians in their countries have bungled matters.  The French officer, however, humors his German counterpart, looking for his opportunity to use their relationship to escape.

Boeldieu and Rauffenstein ponder their class bond

 

The relationship between Boeldieu and Rauffenstein could have signified the illusory lines that nationalism draws between people, but Renoir is just as put off by class divisions.  Class, like nation, artificially and arbitrarily distinguishes some at the expense of others.  It’s just another destructive hierarchy.  Also, Renoir identifies many competing identities and wonders when one trumps another.  For Rauffenstein class overshadows all else, but Boeldieu chooses nationality.  What makes one choice more correct than the other?  And if they are equally valid choices, what does that say about our almost blind allegiance to any one group?  We choose our allegiances not based on any natural or inevitable system, but based on what we perceive works best for us.  We make these irrational choices because they are easy; building bridges between and among differing groups is difficult, too difficult for most of us.  It’s easier to stake our claim (and, the implication is, our worth) to a national, class, racial, religious, sexual, philosophical, and/or political group.

Renoir isn’t cynical about the chances for trans-national understanding and cooperation.  In the heartfelt third act, Maréchal and Rosenthal escape into the cold German winter.  Rosenthal is injured during the escape, making the odds of reaching Switzerland marginal.  The French fugitives are taken in by a German widow Elsa (Dita Parlo) who lost her husband and brothers in the war, now working her isolated farm by herself.  Movie conventions tell us that a woman whose husband and brothers were killed in the war must initially, at least, hate or mistrust two enemy soldiers she finds on her property.  But Elsa is tired.  She’s tired of grieving and hating and she knows that these French officers didn’t make the war, any more than the men in her family did.  Maréchal and Rosenthal are victims as much as they were.  With quiet determination, Elsa nurses them back to health and, despite the language barrier, falls in love with Maréchal.  Renoir suggests that if we spend a little time with people we don’t understand, we will realize they aren’t quite so scary.

It’s a lesson Germany was ignoring in 1937 as the Nazi Party continued to consolidate power based on the exploitation of national, racial, and religious distinctions.  And it’s a lesson the world continues to ignore, whether it is the increasing intolerance of Muslims and illegal immigrants in the United States, the fanaticism of some Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu groups in Africa and Asia, the anti-gay witch hunts in places like Uganda and Jamaica, or the progressively tense standoff between the two Koreas.  Relations between peoples and nations are too often dictated by the ignorant and hysterical.  Renoir saw the future could only be saved by encouraging personal relationships across social boundaries.  These relationships would (and will) undercut the hysteria of sheltered nincompoops who visit their angst on the rest of us.  Unfortunately these people still drive the political and diplomatic narrative in this country (Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Rep. Michelle Bachmann, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Senator-elect Rand Paul – it’s depressing how long this list could be).

Grand Illusion, then, is sadly still relevant.  As someone who has studied history for most of my adult life, I have to admit that it will always be relevant.  People never learn the lessons of the past and make the same goofy mistakes time after time.  Maybe we can get more people to watch this movie and others like it and get them to embrace its message.  We need more people on the side of sanity.

 

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Best Pictures of 1937 (#4) – – – Stage Door

(United States)

Director, Gregory LaCava; Screenplay, Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller; Producer Pandro S. Berman (RKO); Cinematography, Robert De Grasse; Original Music, Roy Webb; Editor, William Hamilton; Art Direction, Van Nest Polglase; Costume Design, Muriel King

Cast: Katherine Hepburn (Terry Randall), Ginger Rogers (Jean Maitland), Adolphe Menjou (Anthony Powell), Gail Patrick (Linda Shaw), Andrea Leeds (Kay Hamilton), Constance Collier (Miss Luther), Lucille Ball (Judith), Eve Arden (Eve), Phyllis Kennedy (Hattie), Ann Miller (Annie), Margaret Early (Mary Lou)

Something we largely lost in the movies after World War II was the presence of strong, independent female roles.  They didn’t disappear completely, but they became rarer than in the days when any given week you could see Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, Katherine Hepburn, Carole Lombard, Joan Crawford, Miriam Hopkins, Joan Blondell, Jean Harlow, Irene Dunne, Marlene Dietrich, and Ginger Rogers dominate a film.  Some of these women continued playing strong roles after World War II, but most of them faded away into obscurity or irrelevance.  Joan Crawford and Bette Davis successfully rebranded themselves as middle aged firebrands, ignoring Hollywood’s strictures against older leading women, but that came after burps in both of their careers.  Barbara Stanwyck continued as well, but usually in lower budget pictures like San Fuller’s Forty Guns (a wonderfully campy 1957 Western in which she plays a ruthless ranching baron who directs forty gunmen – all suggestively male – to carry out her dirty work).  Only Katherine Hepburn (and maybe Rosalind Russell) transitioned their pre-war, pre-feminist independent personas seamlessly.

One of the best – if not the best – of the pre-war empowered women movies is Stage Door, an alternately funny and moving picture about the trials of a group of young women trying to make it onto the New York stage.  Set in a theatrical boarding house, the mostly unemployed women spend a lot of time making cynical cracks about the world, how the odds are stacked against them, and lamenting the difficulty in getting to see a producer, let alone getting a job.  Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers) is one of the hardest and most cynical of the bunch, regularly butting heads with snooty Linda (Gail Patrick).  Jean isn’t bitter because Linda has money, but because Linda is “dating” theatrical producer Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou) for her favors.  Linda doesn’t fit Jean’s definition of a working girl.  She’s taking a shortcut to success.

The rivalry between Jean and Linda doesn’t disrupt the raucous harmony of the house.  The verbal jousting between the two fits right into the chaotic, but good natured spirit of the house.   The arrival of acting newcomer Terry Randall (Katherine Hepburn), however, does.  Randall clearly has money; most assume she also has an older sponsor, though they don’t know she comes from a rich family, intent on making a name for herself on the stage without the help of her family name.  Jean is immediately hostile to the new roommate foisted upon her, but Terry takes all the jabs in stride.  She is amused by Jean’s hostility and sees someone who just can’t bring herself to care about another roommate who probably won’t be around in six months.

There are many other characters populating the house, from the wise (Eve Arden and Lucille Ball) to the hopelessly naïve (Margaret Early), all tirelessly looking for that break that will catapult them to stardom on Broadway – or at least bounce them into a job of some kind, stardom or not.  One young girl is something of a rarity in the group:  Kaye (Andrea Leeds) has already starred in a show and received rave reviews, but now, more than a year later, struggles to overcome her freshman blues and prove she wasn’t a one-hit wonder.  Kaye is desperate to get a part in a play being produced by Linda’s sponsor Anthony Powell.  She knows the character backwards and forwards.  The role would put her back on the stage with positive reviews almost guaranteed and, perhaps more importantly, regular meals in her stomach.

It is the struggle over this play and the lead female role in particular that drives the rest of the picture.  While Kaye pines away, Terry Randall bulldozes her way to success despite her obvious lack of acting ability.  (She claims acting is about intelligence, which anyone who knows about acting will tell you, kills performances.)  Her brash outlook and outspoken nature lands her on the bad side of many of the girls, but when she inexplicably gets the part, Kaye is devastated and the women line up to take sides, leading to a shocking climax that forces Terry to question her entire outlook on life, Jean to question her views of Terry, and the rest of the women to question their professional goals.  Some change, some don’t, but all are a little wiser.

The men in the movie are almost afterthoughts.  They arrive to pick up one of the women for dates, but they float away, as though they are aware of their irrelevance to these women’s lives.  Their life is the stage, even though few of them are working.  The most important male character, producer Anthony Powell, is a leech.  He uses his position to woo and seduce young women with promises of success which he more often than not leaves unfulfilled.  (We never hear of Linda, his most consistent female companion, getting any work through him, though this doesn’t seem to bother her.)  This is a movie about women, but for us all – in some ways a more universal version of George Cukor’s The Women.  Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers show us that women were never tightly contained in domesticated boxes; they worked and played like any man, though the dangers and difficulties were different.

Stage Door is a fast paced, fun, and, at times, tear-jerking film.  Director Gregory LaCava expertly balances the comedy with the drama without ever tipping over into melodrama.  The dialogue is refreshingly naturalistic, allegedly modeled after the real life banter of the actresses behind the scenes.  And, in a style that would be perfected by Preston Sturges in the next few years, several conversations are conducted at the same time, keeping our ears alert for the gags as the lines overlap.  This strategy informs us that we aren’t watching just another cookie-cutter movie, but an ambitious treat that sets out to make us laugh, think, groan, and, eventually, cry.  That it succeeds on all counts is a triumph, making this an instant classic.  That three films beat this one out for the top spots should tell us what a strong year 1937 was.

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Best Pictures of 1937 (#5) – – – Humanity and Paper Balloons

(Japan)

Director, Sadao Yamanaka; Screenplay, Shintaro Mimura; Cinematography, Akira Mimura; Original Music, Tadashi Ota; Art Direction, Kazuo Kubo

Cast: Chojuro Kawarasaki (Matajuro Unno); Kanemon Nakamura (Shinza), Tsuruzo Nakamura, Choemon Bando, Sukezo Sukedakaya, Emitaro Ichikawa, Noboru Kiritachi, Shizue Yamagishi

Director Sadao Yamanaka was poised to continue a promising career after his service in the military, but the invasion of China ended that promise.  He died of dysentery in Manchuria, not long after this movie, his last, premiered.  There is a cruel irony in that the same war that claimed the young director’s life also destroyed most of his films.  Only three of about 22 films directed by Yamanaka exist today.  No one can predict what he would have done had he survived the war, but Humanity and Paper Balloons shows us that Yamanaka was a supreme talent who could well have gone on to rival his contemporaries Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Naruse.

The movie follows the interrelated stories of several residents of a poor neighborhood in an eighteenth century town.  At first the movie seems to drift around, unsure what it wants to be about, but it soon settles on a couple of characters and their struggles to survive in a world glaringly devoid of humanity.  The first character we settle on is Shinza, a barber who runs illegal gambling parties, much to the chagrin of the local strongman Yatagoro.  Increasingly Shinza gets fed up with his essentially subhuman status and embarks on a self-destructive path, hungry to thumb his nose at Yatagoro and his goons no matter what the cost.

Shinza confronted by Yatagoro's men

 

The other characters Yamanaka focuses on are Unno Matajuro and his wife, Otaki.  Unno is a masterless samurai, without a position and poor, desperate for an opportunity to prove himself.  He spends his days trying to meet with a local official, Mori, in order to deliver a letter from Unno’s late father.  Unno’s father was once a powerful man who gave Mori the opportunities he needed to be successful.  Unno is confident Mori will feel a sense of obligation and help his late mentor’s unfortunate son as well.  But Mori dodges Unno every chance he gets and refuses to accept the letter.  Like Shinza, Unno gradually becomes disillusioned with the pretensions of society that insulate those in power from the poor and their problems and the two concoct a scheme to kidnap Mori’s foster daughter.

Unno rebuffed again

The trials of Shinza and Unno highlight the flimsy commitment society has made to humanity, compassion, and empathy.  Mori shoos Unno away, then complains to a successful businessman that there is always someone looking for something for nothing, ignoring the fact that he depended on the help of others to get where he is.  Mori is consumed by the privilege of his status and views anyone with a request for help, however reasonable, poses a threat to it.  He feels he must shut them out to protect himself and his family.  This is something we see time and again: people’s commitment to their own privilege and fortune rather than a more generous commitment to everyone’s well-being.

We can’t appreciate how clever the script is without some knowledge of traditional kabuki theater.  Writer Sintaro Mimura and Yamanaka took a famous kabuki play and subverted it, turning the villains into heroes and heroes into villains.  In the play Shinza is a conniving rat who pretends to aid a pair of lovers elope, but, secretly in love with the girl himself, tries to kill the boy and kidnaps the girl.  She is later rescued by a man named Yatagoro, the fearsome strongman in the movie.  Even a traditional character like Chobei, a man of honor in many kabuki plays, is characterized as a lecherous landlord to the poor inhabitants of the movie’s neighborhood.  (I want to extend my thanks to the essay by Tony Rayns for the insight into the kabuki connection.)

By appropriating characters and the plot from a traditional kabuki play and undermining their meaning, Mimura and Yamanaka explicitly questioned the rigid social roles that permeated Japanese society.  It would be like a U.S. or European movie commenting on the lack of respect for our elders by turning Hansel and Gretel into juvenile delinquents and the witch into a kindly old woman terrorized by the pair.  And though the movie took place a couple of hundred years before, Japan’s increasing militarization in the 1930s made the story all the more relevant.  Yamanaka’s transgressive film explicitly equated humanity with the paper balloons Unno’s wife carefully constructs to support them.  They are both fragile, hollow, and in need of tender care for their perpetuation.  It’s a subtle and beautiful message and movie.

 

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Best Pictures of 1937 (#6) – Pépé le Moko

(France)

Director, Julien Duvivier; Screenplay, Jacques Constant and Henri Jeanson; Producers, Raymond Hakim and Robert Hakim; Original Music, Vincent Scotto and Mohamed Ygerbuchen; Editor, Marguerite Beaugé; Production Design, Jacques Krauss

Cast: Jean Gabin (Pépé le Moko), Mireille Balin (Gaby Gould), Gabriel Gabrio (Carlos), Saturnin Fabre (Le Grand Pere), Fernand Carpin (Regis), Lucas Gridoux (Inspector Slimane)

This is a great movie that turns the gangster genre on its head as we fall for the charm of its criminal lead while we shoo away our ethical concerns about his crimes.  Director Julien Duvivier understands that a criminal like Pépé must be charming and likable or no one would be willing to help him.  It is the secret to his success and a striking counterpoint to the more vicious criminals of U.S. (mostly Warner Bros. films) like Little Caesar and Public Enemy.  We don’t much like Rico or Tom Powers; we recognize that they are volatile thugs who can snap at any moment.  Pépé le Moko is suave and reserved, only lashing out in violence when he needs to, more of an intellectual move rather than emotional explosion.  This doesn’t excuse his crimes, but it complicates our relationship to them as we almost become complicit in them.

Jean Gabin plays Pépé le Moko, the famed criminal.  At the open of the film he has escaped Paris after a brazen crime for the French colony of Algeria.  He settled in the Casbah, the famed district of Algiers, which is essentially a labyrinth of streets, terraces, and winding staircases that may or may not lead anywhere.  In the Casbah he is protected by its citizens – all either taken in by his charm, money and/or distaste for the police.  They warn him of approaching police and provide him with intricate escape routes through secret passages, out back doors, and over the interconnecting rooftop terraces.

Pépé can stay free so long as he remains in the safe confines of the Casbah.  And here we come to the irony of his situation.  His freedom is illusionary.  Though he seems to have everything he could want – respect, money, a gang, a woman – he is effectively imprisoned.  As the film progresses his confinement becomes more repressive after he meets Gaby (Mireille Balin), a beautiful, rich tourist seeking adventure and thrills in the infamous Casbah.  During her slumming adventure she meets Pépé and the two begin a fateful love affair.  For her, Pépé is everything her life isn’t: unpredictable, exciting, dangerous, and sexy.  For him, Gaby represents everything he misses about life in Paris: freedom, glamour, romance, and whimsy.

Though Pépé works tirelessly to elude capture, he also sows the seeds of his own downfall.  He allows a police inspector, Slimane, free access to the Casbah.  Slimane knows he doesn’t have a hope of arresting Pépé in the Casbah so he watches and waits.  Pépé mistakes Slimane’s patience with resignation and allows the man closer to his inner-circle than any criminal should.  Slimane, brilliantly played Lucas Gridoux, uses their casual and convivial relationship to gather intelligence, learning Pépé’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities so he can set the perfect trap for the thief.  We know Pépé’s smart enough to at least subconsciously know that no matter how friendly he is, it is dangerous to have a police officer so close.  Perhaps Slimane represents the only possible escape from the increasingly oppressive Casbah for Pépé. He would never give himself up or allow himself to be caught, but having Slimane close at hand gives him an easier way out when he decides he can’t take his conditional freedom any longer without obviously giving up.  In effect, Pépé has set the stage for his own capture down the line because he knows the Casbah will become worse than any prison.

Pépé le Moko is an ambivalent character.  He’s neither good nor bad, but, like all of us, somewhere in between.  Though a Hollywood remake was released the next year, the U.S. version Algiers, bogged down by Hayes Code regulations, couldn’t make a movie for grownups that considered morality in anything other than simplistic, good vs. evil terms.  Charles Boyer’s Pépé in Algiers lacked the likeability of Gabin’s characterization.  And the slight change at the end reconfirmed Hollywood’s (or at least the Hayes Office’s) commitment to retribution and punishment rather than understanding and empathy.  Duvivier’s picture dares us to identify with Pépé before we had other likeable criminals in film and literature, including sociopaths like Tom Ripley from Patricia Highsmith’s series of darkly funny books to serial killers like Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector.  Pépé is a pussycat compared to Ripley and Lector.  (We never see him bash in anyone’s head or snack on anyone’s flesh.)  Pépé le Moko is an intelligent and sympathetic portrait of a man trapped by his own decisions in a prison he made for himself.

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127 Hours

A little break from my appraisal of 1937 for another new review…

James Franco is a talented actor but after seeing Howl a couple of months ago, the intended biography of Allen Ginsberg’s groundbreaking 1956 poem, I worried for him.  He gave a stunted, uninspired performance that felt more like an amateur theater monologue rather than a fully formed performance.  In fairness he didn’t have a lot to do.  The script called for him to drone on about his life and work to an unseen interviewer.  It might have been acceptable on stage where we expect long poetic monologues, but not in film.  In effect he played Ginsberg playing a version of himself for an interviewer, hardly compelling filmmaking or acting.  While he may have gotten the pace of his speech and the specific physical ticks right, he couldn’t involve us beyond that.  I respected his decision to try something challenging, but didn’t he see the inherent limitations of the role?  He was chained to Ginsberg’s own depiction of himself without the ability to put his own spin on the material.  There was little life or emotion in what he did.  I was also afraid that my earlier estimation of Franco’s talents may have been inflated by good directors and editors.

127 Hours definitively clears away any concerns.  Franco is so good that we hardly notice he’s acting (something we definitely saw in Howl).  Based on a true story, he plays Aron Ralston, a cavalier (a nicer word for reckless) mountaineer who makes his way alone into Bluejohn Canyon, a narrow ravine snaking through the Robber’s Roost area of eastern Utah.  A loose boulder slips out from under his feet causing him to plummet down the canyon and his arm gets wedged between it and the canyon wall.  There he stayed, unable to dislodge the rock, for several days.  Low on food and water, unable to sit or lie down, and exposed to the cold with little clothing, Ralston managed to stay alive until he reached the point where drastic action had to be taken.  No one knew where he was so rescue was a dim hope in the remote place and death was sure to come.  In an explicitly graphic scene, Ralston is forced to cut off his own arm with a dull knife.

Franco handles the transformation of his character effortlessly.  In the early scenes he is confident, obviously over-confident to those of us who know where the story is going.  He rides his bike over rough terrain when we know he should go slower.  Eventually he eats it, ending up sprawled across the dusty ground.  Is this a sign that he should slow down?  Of course not.  It’s a moment to giggle and snap a picture.  It’s just another story he can tell later to awe those of us who prefer to keep our bones in one piece.  He revels in his superior knowledge and heightened appreciation of nature, thinking this makes him invulnerable to some of its dangers.  Once he’s trapped, Franco alternately showcases Ralston’s intelligence, frustration, and fear.  We watch a man slowly devolve emotionally, but he resists the temptation to lose it completely.  To do so would be to give up and that is unthinkable to him.  Franco delivers his most accomplished performances ably handling the emotional ups and downs of Ralston without mindless histrionics.  He’s always conscious of Ralston’s keen intelligence which is the only thing that got him out of there alive.  Franco does a great job in one of the best performances of the year.

Most of the picture is set in the claustrophobic confines of the canyon, but the movie transcends these limitations with Franco’s stellar performance and Danny Boyle’s confident directing.  We’re able to get into Ralston’s mind both through Franco’s convincing messages to his family that he records with his video and through Boyle’s frenetic visits to Ralston’s memories, dreams, hallucinations, and fantasies.  Ralston may have been trapped in that canyon, but his mind wasn’t.  That is easier to explore in a book, but Boyle and Franco succeed in elevating the tale beyond a step by step recount of the events to an inspiring tale of strength, courage, and redemption while watching a man go through an inner-transformation.

Yes, the movie is at times hard to watch.  The scene in which he cuts off his arm is especially gruesome, but not gratuitously so.  Often our imaginations are sufficient, but in this case most of us can’t truly appreciate what it would take to do something like that.  There is no other way to understand what this man went through and appreciate his strength and resolve than to see what he had to do to survive, exposed tendons and all.  Boyle handles this tough sequence expertly, never lingering too long on that which we really don’t want to see, but keeping our attention focused long enough to comprehend what Ralston had to do.  This pivotal sequence is well directed, acted, and edited.  Boyle’s skill raises the material beyond exploitation to something more thoughtful and poignant.

This could have been another TV movie ripped from the headlines (like the movie about the Chilean miners that is set to be release in December!), but Boyle turns it into a reflection on how people are increasingly disconnected from one another even as the internet, satellites, and mobile phones appear to bring us closer together.  None of these things would have helped Ralston.  Indeed what would have helped him more than anything was a true feeling of connection with another person, someone he would have told where he was hiking for the weekend.  But as it is he told no one where he was going and left no notes.  He felt invincible because he is a product of a world that privileges independence to an almost selfish degree.  Other dufuses get trapped like that, not Aron Ralston.  He knows because, as he explains to his parents in a video message, he volunteers to search for missing hikers all the time.  The irony is so obvious that he can’t help but laugh.  He also knows no one will come looking for him all because he thought he was a superman, above the need to leave a note.

There is a great flashback in which Aron remembers a breakup he had with a young girl (one he has been thinking about a lot at the bottom of the canyon).  She storms out on him during a basketball game.  Boyle has been throwing images of crowded places at us from the beginning of the film, but this one packs a punch as the girl stops and looks back at the unresponsive Aron Ralston.  She simply tells him he will end up alone.  An overhead shot pulls back showing Aron sitting next to an empty seat, but surrounded by hundreds of people, people who don’t know him, can’t help him, and won’t comfort him.  They are near, but they may as well be hundreds of miles away.  This is a realization Aron comes to only during his ordeal as he realizes his failure to cultivate relationships with women, friends, or his family put him where he is, not the boulder.

This isn’t a lesson reserved for the over-confident outdoorsman.  I suspect most of us take many of our relationships for granted.  Some prefer to spend time with television, movies (self-aware gulp here), chat rooms, texting, Facebooking, or any number of activities that give us the illusion of increased connection but mostly isolate us even further.  I once sat in a restaurant here in Los Angeles and watched a table of four people for close to an hour.  There wasn’t a moment when at least two of them were either talking on the phone or texting, ignoring those sitting directly next to them.  At times all four of them would be furiously punching texts into their phones or giggling mindlessly on a call.  For Aron Ralston, he derived a sense of superiority from the fact that he wasn’t one of those goofballs anchored to their phones.  His love was (and continues to be) nature, but it served the same purpose.  His treks out into the wilderness may be fun for the moment, but the way he conducts them completely alone also alienates him from the people in his life and society as a whole.

It doesn’t have to be this way and, luckily, Aron gets the chance to reform his ways and reconnect with the people around him, including a new wife and child.  I hope audiences for this movie, attracted by the sensational subject material and/or James Franco’s super sexiness, will be inspired to think about how they have ignored those who should be closest to them.  The rousing final scenes of the movie certainly remind us that no matter how smart, how strong, or how determined we are, we all need someone’s help sometime.

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Best Pictures of 1937 (#7) – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

(United States)

Producer, Walt Disney; Supervising Director David Hand; Original Music, Frank Churchill, Leigh Harline and Paul J. Smith

 

Walt Disney announced plans to produce an animated feature in 1934.  He was met with almost universal derision.  Who would pay to see a feature length cartoon?  Even his wife and brother believed Disney was embarking on a folly that would sink the studio.  But Walt Disney hit on the perfect formula for animated features: retell a classic fairy tale and populate it with cute and/or furry sidekicks and lots of catchy songs.  And people loved it.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first of the artistic and commercial successes that came to define Disney Studios.  Disney would continue with this formula and produce some of the greatest animated features through the 1950s including Cinderella, Dumbo, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, and Alice in Wonderland.

Snow White works on multiple levels, both for children and adults (the true test of any so-called children’s movie).  It’s a heart-pulsing adventure, tender romance, toe-tapping musical, all held together with gorgeous Technicolor animation.  Using a well-known fairy tale ensured that audiences would relate to it; they’d been relating to it for their entire lives.  A cruel and petty villain (the evil Queen) relentlessly pursues the virtuous Snow White for no other reason than Snow White is the only person between the Queen and the official title of the “fairest of them all.”  Disney ensured the Queen sufficiently sociopathic and not at all comical (the way some later villains were like Captain Hook or the Queen of Hearts) to make her a true threat.  He didn’t attempt to tone her down because she might scare children.  He was smart enough to see that she should scare children.  Without that the inevitable happy ending would mean less.

 

he Queen’s villainy is off-set by Snow White’s pals, the cute and cuddly critters of the forest in which she’s hiding and, of course, her dedicated protectors and companions, the Seven Dwarfs.  The alliance of these characters sets evil apart as a lonely, unfulfilling endeavor.  The Queen has no one to keep her company except a magic mirror, bored in its omniscience.  Not exactly rousing company.  And the Queen’s monomania is so complete, that she is willing to sacrifice that which she loves the most to kill Snow White: her looks.  It’s a bit like Ahab surrendering everything to pursue his vendetta against Moby Dick.  The Queen without her beauty is a bit like Ahab without a ship.

I wouldn't eat that apple...

 

Snow White elevated the Disney studio from a small producer of solid animated shorts to a respected force in Hollywood. Few believed Disney had a shot at making back his money with an animated feature, but its premiere silenced the naysayers.  It went on to become the highest grossing movie to that date, receiving praise from usually reserved movie critics.  The New York Times went so far as to personally thank Walt Disney for the treat playing in theaters.  That the movie has endured is telling.  It is one of my two-year-old niece’s favorite movies; she spent last Halloween dressed as Snow White.  I think in a few years time she will be surprised to learn how old the movie is because there is nothing to date it.  It is as timeless as the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale on which it is based.

The inevitable, but welcome, happy ending.

 

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Filed under 1937, Yearly Best Pictures

Best Pictures of 1937 (#8) – They Won’t Forget

(United States)

Director and Producer, Mervyn LeRoy (Warner Bros.); Screenplay, Robert Rossen and Aben Kandel; Cinematography, Arthur Edeson; Original Music, Adolf Deutsch; Editing, Thomas Richards; Art Direction Robert Haas; Costumes, N’was McKenzie

Cast: Claude Rains (Andrew J. Griffin), Gloria Dickson (Sybil Hale), Edward Norris (Robert Hale), Otto Kruger (Michael Gleason), Allyn Joslyn (William A. Brock), Lana Turner (Mary Clay), Linda Perry (Imogene Mayfield), Elisha Cook Jr. (Joe Turner)

They Won’t Forget is something of an oddity for the 1930s.  Filmmakers from this period tended to be timid when it came to the subject of Southern justice and lynch law.  Most studios were unwilling to take on the issue, potentially alienating an entire region of the nation that remained sensitive to outside probing of their justice system.  Even in the most explicit anti-lynching movie up to that date, Fritz Lang’s Fury, Warner Bros. carefully avoided placing the town in the South.  There wasn’t a hint of a Southern accent which clearly indicated the movie’s target was lynch law in general, not the South despite the fact that most of the world associated lynching with the South.

 

But They Won’t Forget chucks out any pretence of caution and boldly sets their story in the South.  On Confederate Memorial Day, young secretarial student Mary Clay (Lana Turner in her debut role) is brutally murdered.  Suspicion immediately falls on the African American elevator operator of the building who found her, but ambitious District Attorney Andrew Griffin (Claude Rains) recognizes this high profile case as his opportunity to establish a state-wide, even national, name for himself.  Though he never articulates it as crassly as this, what mileage would he get out of another conviction of a black man who attacked a white woman?  Slowly he turns his attention to Mary’s teacher, Robert Hale (Edward Norris).

Lana Turner's screen debut as the ill-fated Mary Clay

 

Circumstantial evidence points to the teacher.  More importantly the man moved to their Southern town from the North.  Appealing to sectional xenophobia, Griffin begins a campaign with the complicity of a local reporter against the teacher who, along with his stunned wife (played by Sybil Hale), loudly proclaims his innocence.  His trial turns into a sad playing out of sectional hatreds that go back generations.  We see early on that the outcome will have little to do with the evidence.  As people often do, they decided the case long before they heard all the evidence.  They intimidate anyone who may have exculpatory evidence and even compel the original suspect to lie and implicate Hale.  When things don’t go the way the citizen’s of Mary’s town expected, they take the law into their own hands.

Director Mervyn LeRoy (who went uncredited on this picture) put together an effective drama.  Cases of injustice usually boil my blood pretty easily, so it wasn’t a surprise that this movie caught my attention.  What was surprising is the way LeRoy is (from my non-Southern eyes) even-handed with the material.  Griffin is clearly the villain, but there are moments when we wonder if he really believes he has the right man, and there are other moments when we suspect he doesn’t care.  Despite a spotty Southern accent, Claude Rains turns in a tight and effective performance, giving his character the moral ambiguity that may have been missing from the script.

 

They Won’t Forget is a movie that demands to be seen and remembered today, both as a document of a shameful trend in U.S. history during which thousands of Americans met their end at the hands of violent mobs.  It also should be seen as a strong example of the way the Hollywood studio system could highlight social problems, a practice at which Warner Bros. was especially proficient.  Fortunately this movie was recently released on DVD through the Warner’s Archive Collection.  It also airs occasionally on TCM.  If I had gotten this post up earlier, I could have given everyone a heads up that it was going to be on this morning (at 6am, but that’s what the Good Lord invented DVRs for).  You can see the trailer at TCM’s website here.

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Filed under 1937, Yearly Best Pictures