Category Archives: 1937

Lost Horizon – The Most Overrated Movie of 1937

Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt try to breath life into "Lost Horizon"

Frank Capra made some of the best – and some of the most mediocre – movies of the 1930s.  Even his mediocre movie like It Happened One Night and You Can’t Take It with You had some redeeming qualities.  Lost Horizon is one of his few complete flops.  It’s a movie that is insulting on so many levels that it’s impossible to take its good intentions seriously.  It’s one of those Utopia movies that we always seem to get in troubled times and presents a vision of mankind living in blissful harmony, without conflict, without anger, without want, without any of the struggles that have essentially come to define humanity.  But, like most of the movies or books in this genre, it is frustratingly vague on how we get there so it is useless, both as a possible blueprint for the future and as a form of entertainment.

Capra specialized in stories that highlighted the power of one man, but this movie undercuts everything he did before and after.  Not only can one common man not make a difference in the world, but a powerful man – soon to be the British Foreign Secretary – can’t either.  The only answer, according to Capra, is to retreat to some mythical fairy land of magic and harmony:  Shangri-La.  Unfortunately he doesn’t leave us coordinates, so for those of us stuck in reality we’ll just have to suffer through whatever the world has up its sleeve for us.

The story, such as it is, follows several Westerners as they flee from an advancing Chinese warlord’s army.  The passengers include the above mentioned soon-to-be Foreign Secretary Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) and his brother George (John Howard), a prickly paleontologist (Edward Everett Horton), Gloria, a sassy American (Isabel Jewel), and con man Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell).  Their flight, however, is hijacked and they end up crashing hundreds, if not thousands, of miles off course in an isolated region of the Himalayas.  They are rescued from certain death by residents of a nearby city, unknown to the world, known as Shangri-La.  Conway and the others marvel at Shangri-La’s beauty, mild weather, happy residents, and simply philosophy that privileges courtesy over desire and moderation over excess.  They are also stunned by the valley’s inexplicable curative and rejuvenating properties: no one seems to grow old or get sick, even Gloria, recently given months to live begins to recover.  Not all are enchanted however.  Robert’s brother George, given to touches of hysteria, questions everything and believes nothing.  He is so much a product of modern Western culture that perfection is unbelievable to him.

Well, it’s unbelievable to me too.  As a movie it fails completely.  Everyone spends so much time being in awe, they never get around to doing much.  Capra manufactures some conflict with George’s unconvincing hysterics, but in the end it means little.  He leaves Shangri-La – big deal.  By the time his life is in danger he’s alienated the audience so much that we don’t care a fig for him.  There’s a tepid romance between Romald Colman and Jane Wyatt, but it feels tacked on, completely unrelated to anything else going on.  And that’s the entire movie.  There isn’t anything or anyone we genuinely care about.  It’s just a tour through a utopian community and anyone who has read Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Edward Bellamy, or Ayn Rand can tell you, that’s a snoozer.

Yes, it sounds impressive to undergrads who don’t know any better to embrace Bellamy’s classless society or, on the opposite extreme, Rand’s promotion of greed as the driver of innovation.  But they, and every other Utopian writer, actually say very little that’s useful.  In the end all of them, even Bellamy who I admire, are probably not much more credible than your crackpot uncle who can tell you how to fix all the world’s problems over a turkey dinner.

So I suppose we’re supposed to take Shangri-La as a model, but the governing principle of the place is so mushy-headed and vague that it feels more like reading the New Age-y goofiness of James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy.  Without conflict everyone is happy.  Wonderful, but how do we remove conflict from society without living deep in the woods like Ted Kaczynski (and look how well that turned out)?  They value moderation and courtesy.  If two men want a woman, to be courteous and preserve peace, the one who wants her less bows out and lets the other have her.  What kind of hokum is that?  Was there a writer anywhere – in any time or place – who actually believed this nonsense was practical?  How do we determine who wants her less?  Oh, and doesn’t the woman get a say in the matter?   Utopias always seem to be utopias for the guy writing about the place, not so much for everyone else.

Lost Horizon falls into the same traps that More, Rand, Bellamy, and Redfield have: it promotes a simplistic fix for the world’s problems.  But the movie doesn’t even really believe its own sappy philosophy because, according to the movie, Shangri-La’s way of life is not exportable to the rest of the world.  This flies in the face of what Capra championed in so many of his other movies that one has to wonder what attracted him to the book.  The idea that man can live in perfect harmony is warm and cozy, but spouting unimaginative and – frankly – condescending platitudes does little more than highlight the arrogance, however well-meaning, of authors of utopian fantasies, like Lost Horizon.  Instead of getting wrapped up in characters or plot, we’re supposed to be swept away by the ideas, but Lost Horizon doesn’t have any ideas to do any substantial sweeping.  I have never understood why this movie enjoys such high esteem.  I know some readers of this blog are fans of it.  I would appreciate an explanation.

 

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Best Picture of 1937 (#1) – Make Way for Tomorrow

Greetings from beautiful Las Vegas, Nevada where I am staying at the MGM Grand readying myself for another marathon tomorrow morning.  This one is especially exciting for me as we will run up and down the Vegas Strip for the first half of the race.  That should be an exhilarating run.  I have not, however, come to Las Vegas to neglect my 1937 countdown, like I did when I went to Big Bear for Thanksgiving last weekend.  So, high above the clamor of the slot machines, the staggering drunks, and lavishly expansive buffets, here is the best picture of 1937…

Make Way for Tomorrow

(United States)

Producer and Director, Leo McCarey (Paramount); Screenplay, Viña Delmar; Cinematography, William C. Mellor; Original Music, George Antheil and Victor Young; Editor, LeRoy Stone; Art Direction, Hans Dreier and Bernard Herzbrun

Cast: Victor Moore (Barkley Cooper), Beulah Bondi (Lucy Cooper), Fay Bainter (Anita Cooper), Thomas Mitchell (George Cooper), Porter Hall (Harvey Chase), Barbara Read (Rhoda Cooper), Maurice Moscovitch (Max Rubens), Louise Beavers (Mamie)

In the opening scenes of Leo McCarey’s classic Make Way for Tomorrow Barkley and Lucy Cooper awkwardly tell their middle aged children that they will be evicted from their house in a matter of days.  Their children are stunned.  What will they do?  Clearly the Coopers have no plan.  They simply relied on a vague, but confident faith in the goodwill of their children.  Surely they would come through and offer them a place to live in their time of need.

The Coopers' horrified children

 

Their children George, Cora, Robert, and Nellie (and another daughter who lives in California – too far to take part in this discussion) understand the assumption and they immediately envision their comfortable lifestyles being cramped with their aged parents living in their homes.  But what else can they do?  They can’t leave their parents out in the cold no matter how inconvenient they would make life.  (What would people say?)  No one, however, jumps at the opportunity to take them in.  They know their siblings and once their parents are comfortably settled in their household, they wouldn’t ever be able to pawn them off on another.  Finally, like a cornered animal, Nellie agrees to take them in, but she needs to talk to her husband and arrange matters.  She “practically promises” that they will be able to move in within a few months.  In the meantime the Coopers will have to be separated.  Ma Cooper will go live with her son George (Thomas Mitchell), sharing a room with her teenage daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read).  Pa Cooper will go stay on Cora’s living room couch.  It isn’t an ideal situation, but it will do until Nellie comes through.

George and Anita ponder their problem ... and their rottenness (Thomas Mitchell and Fay Bainter)

 

The couple of more than 50 years, never having been separated before, sadly but without complaint moves into their children’s homes.  And in both households the presence of the elderly grandparents crimps their children’s lives, but they keep telling themselves that it’s only for three months.  But when Nellie’s husband refuses to allow them to come live in his home, the situation gets more complicated.  The once slight annoyance of their presence threatens to be a taste of the future.  Independently George and his wife Anita (Fay Bainter) in the city and Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) and her husband in the country plots the best way to rid of their house of its unwelcome guest.

The genius of this movie is that writer Viña Delmar and director Leo McCarey don’t characterize the children as villains.  They aren’t bad people.  They love their parents and want to see them live happily and in comfort – but it’s easier when they only have to see them for holidays and birthdays.  Once they are in their homes their love and commitment are severely tested.  George’s wife Anita wants to do right by her mother-in-law, but how is she supposed to respond when Ma Cooper joins – uninvited – a bridge party, distracting everyone with her squeaky rocking chair and answering simple, just-to-be-polite questions with long detailed accounts of her day?  Anita is mortified, though her guests seem to take it all in stride.  They probably have their own elderly parents to contend with.

The selfishness of the children is understated, but also painfully uncomfortable for the audience.  We love Barkley and Lucy Cooper.  They are a pair of sweet old people and we want to see nothing but the best for them, but at the same time we can’t help but identify with their children.  We can’t help but wonder what we would do in a similar situation and shudder at the possibilities.  (Or, even worse, we have already been faced with it and we don’t like ourselves much.)  So as much as we would love to admonish their children, we can’t help but sympathize, making us feel even guiltier.  As much as George understands that it’s their duty to take them in, he also understands the strain that it’s having on his family – not an unreasonable concern.  Should his daughter – a teenager hungry for privacy – really have to share her room with her grandmother?  At the same time he understands that most of his brothers and sisters are unable or unwilling to do their part.  Why should he and his sister Cora shoulder so much of the burden?

The question McCarey wants us to face though is: why does care for the elderly, especially those who have cared for and loved us all our lives, have to be a burden?  Why can’t the five Cooper children come together and reach an agreement?  They could agree to rotating visits for a few months at each child’s home or propose a pool of money that they contribute to each month allowing Barkley and Lucy to live in a small apartment together.  Their selfishness, lack of commitment and imagination brings about one of the more heartbreaking endings of any movie I’ve seen.  Reunited for what they know will be the last time, Lucy and Barkley ponder their lives together and put on brave faces for the loneliness that lies ahead.  They never rebuke their children, no matter how much they might deserve it, but their disappointment is clear.  They depended on them only to be let down.  That they receive more kindliness and consideration from strangers – a car salesman who takes them for a drive around Manhattan, a hotel manager who helps them relive their honeymoon – must sting.

But isn’t it easier to go out of our ways for an elderly couple we don’t know, to smile and listen to their stories, than one we’ve known our entire lives?  We won’t be burdened with their presence at home, having to listen to the same stories again and again.  I can’t tell you how many times I heard my own Grandma’s repetitive stories about spilling tea on Eleanor Roosevelt, being an extra in Buster Keaton’s 1927 classic College, or being confronted by demanding Bette Davis when she was on duty as a nurse in her hospital.  All great stories for people who’ve never heard them, but try listening to them 20 or 30 times … a year.  I loved that old lady, but how hard would it have been to live with her?  I would like to say I would have done it willingly, but who am I kidding?  Hopefully my mother and Everett’s mother will benefit from some maturity and insight that I hope I have attained over the years.  If they end up living with us they may have Make Way for Tomorrow to thank.

It’s a great movie – emerging as one of my all time favorites – about the precariousness of growing old, the fraying of family bonds in the face of modern life which places little value on them, and what we are willing to sacrifice for those we love.  It is anchored by two lovely performances from Beulah Bondi as Lucy and Victor Moore as Barkley.  They create credible individual characters and, more importantly, a couple awash in rich history.  We sense this history in the scenes they share; it’s all in their eyes.  And after they have been separated there is an implicit emptiness.  They both look a little lost without the other.  Without the charm – and frank irritability – of Bondi and Moore we wouldn’t believe them or their children’s dilemma.  That makes McCarey’s accomplishment – a sad, realistic ending from Paramount, one of Hollywood’s most consistent dream factories – all the more astonishing.  We want the happy ending to swoop down and save them, but it won’t.  McCarey isn’t preventing it for some high minded artistic reason, but because this is what would have happened, what happens all the time, in these situations.  There’s nothing fake or Hollywood about this picture, the best of 1937.

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Best Pictures of 1937 (#2) The Awful Truth

(United States)

Director, Leo McCarey; Screenplay, Viña Delmar; Producers, Leo McCarey and Everett Riskin (Paramount); Original Music, Ben Oakland; Cinematography, Joseph Walker; Editor, Al Clark; Art Direction, Lionel Banks and Stephen Goosson; Costume Design, Robert Kalloch

Cast: Irene Dunne (Lucy Warriner), Cary Grant (Jerry Warriner), Ralph Bellamy (Dan Leeson), Alexander D’Arcy (Armand Duvalle), Cecil Cunningham (Aunt Patsy), Molly Lamont (Barbara Vance), Esther Dale (Mrs. Leeson), Joyce Compton (Dixie Belle Lee)

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne toast their upcoming divorce

 

I love The Awful Truth and, to be honest, it breaks my heart a little not to place it in the number one slot.  I love all the movies in the top three of 1937 and each had for a time ended up in the top spot, but eventually I grudgingly put Leo McCarey’s comic masterpiece in second place.  I had to come to terms with the fact that there is a better movie – more on that in the next post.

There are few movies I consider perfect, but The Awful Truth comes mighty close.  Screenwriters of romantic screwball comedies too regularly try my patience – they often unnaturally twist and contort their characters like pretzels, mindless of their motivations or personalities, to meet the demands of a convoluted plot of mistaken identity or some such nonsense.  (Mistaken identity plots have to be done very well to not be absolutely annoying – see my displeasure with Top Hat.)  Here, there is no attempt to force these characters into unbelievably zany situations.  The writing and acting is so good that we believe they are natural nuts who would, as a matter of course, get themselves into one mess after another.

When sophisticated, but fun-loving Jerry and Lucy Warriner (Cary Grant and Irene Dunne) catch each other in bald-faced lies, they wrongly suspect each other of infidelity.  Neither is sure of the charge against the other partner but they quickly agree that without trust, marriage does not work.  Hotheadedly they consent to divorce.  Both Jerry and Lucy probably regret their quick decision, but they are creatures of impulse and to admit they may have rushed such an important decision would invalidate all the other impulsive decisions they have made – or every decision they’ve ever made.  So because they are too proud to admit that legal action is hasty, they have to get revenge on the other – prove that they never really needed the other – by initiating new romances.  Of course neither picks anyone suitable.  Lucy saddles herself with Dan, an Oklahoma oil man looking for a demur housewife, but he’s played by Ralph Bellamy so we know that isn’t going anywhere.  And Jerry ends up with a snotty heiress with plenty of money and breeding but none of Lucy’s lighthearted good humor.

Jerry does his best to disrupt Dan and Lucy's evening

 

The only thing keeping them in contact in the weeks leading up to the finalization of their divorce is their court-ordered joint custody of their dog Mr. Smith.  At each visit they take the opportunity to flaunt their newfound freedom or romance, hoping to get a rise out of the other.  These encounters not only annoy both parties, but they also finally reveal the awful truth: they are still in love with each other.  But will they be able to get over their pride and admit they were wrong before it’s too late?

Determining custody of Mr. Smith

The outcome of the movie may be preordained, but it still charms and enthralls.  The comedy is sharp and doesn’t assume that the characters or the audience are idiots.  Some of the funniest scenes involve Lucy’s and Jerry’s schemes to disrupt the romance of the other.  Jerry hiding behind a door and poking Lucy in the ribs as Dan (Bellamy) reads her a corny love poem.  Every poke elicits inappropriate giggles to Dan’s mawkishly heartfelt poetry.  Lucy gets back at him though.  Lucy crashes the party at the family mansion of Jerry’s heiress, pretending to be his vulgar, alcoholic, showgirl sister Lola.  Every crude joke and annoying laugh is carefully designed to embarrass Jerry and break up his ridiculous engagement.

The bubbly chemistry between Cary Grant and Irene Dunne makes the movie.  Yes, the script is fantastic too (Where else could you get a line like: “Well, it’s nice to have a chance to meet you.  I’ve seen your picture in the paper and I’ve wondered what you look like.”  That’s classic.), but Grant and Dunne make all the absurdity plausible as only they and a handful of other actors could have.  From their first on-screen interaction we sense a complete history.  It isn’t an incredibly deep history, but these aren’t deep people.  Their relationship has – their entire lives have – been based on fun, laughs, and impulse, not introspective examinations and reflective decisions.  They probably jumped into marriage as quickly as they want to jump out of it.  It isn’t surprising then that they catch each other in lies; they are the kinds of people who actually believe that what the other doesn’t know won’t hurt him or her.  Despite their dishonesty (however innocent) we see real feeling they have for each other and we know nothing should keep them apart.  After all, there probably isn’t anyone else screwy enough to put up with them.

No, The Awful Truth doesn’t have the gravitas of Grand Illusion, but I think it is a slightly better movie.  Also comedy hasn’t received the respect it deserves over the years from critics and award committees and this was one of the main reasons I wanted to put this in the top spot.  It’s one of my personal favorite movies, but even I had to admit there is another movie that belongs in the top spot.  Like the entire genre of comedy, my choice for the best picture of 1937 also has been neglected over the years, though that may be changing.  Stay tuned…

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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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