Sunday, April 22, 2018

None But the Lonely Heart

Stewart: Doggone it, C.K. Dexter Haven! . . . Either I'm gonna sock you or you're gonna sock me.
Grant: Shall we toss a coin?
Both men love Hepburn. One she has destroyed, to the point of collapse and alcohol sickness. The other has just met her, in full swoon. It is the midnight before her wedding to another man -- a third man -- and the new kid on the block, drunk from pre-nuptial champagne, has come to awaken the broken ex-husband. Does the ex- still love her? Can I get his nod to make an appeal before she ties the knot with the loathsome betrothed?

Cary Grant and James Stewart were both in their middle-30s during production of The Philadelphia Story (1940). Both were at the top of their different Hollywood worlds and the scene embodies their very different powers and greatness. And how much greater was Grant . . . Stewart here is what he often was in the 30s and 40s: brittle, emotionally thin, reedy, righteous, rather humorless, self-centered, a terrier. He yaps and tries to dominate the seven minutes. (In his other scenes with Grant as well.) Self-absorption, which Grant absorbs; Stewart performing throughout as the Talented, Unappreciated Writer Seething with Wisdom. While Grant listens and watches, the most humanizing and generous-hearted screen presence in movie history – still, (by being still) he cannot help but expose the callowness of the Stewart character; and of the actor. James Stewart on screen is always only about James Stewart. (Brought to a brutal and tortured zenith, or nadir, by Hitchcock in Vertigo.) While the other man. . . .

He listens to Stewart with a faint smile, and a deep hurt in his eyes, as if, somewhere, he knows so much better than Stewart, about all that. About Tracy and moonlight and women and being taken and blackmail and the power of words. At one point he says, regarding the blackmailer (this blackmailer), "The world's his oyster with an 'r' in every month." "Hey, that's not bad. When did I say that?" says Stewart. "You didn't. I did. Sorry. . ." And he never will. For Grant has the remoteness of a man who's crossed some lonely terrain of experience, of loss and gain, of nearness to death which leaves him isolated from the mass of others; a remoteness which can spot a dirty dealer, or a true heart, from distance, on sight. He is never not sorrowful in the picture, while bringing the only moments of joy into this thin, joyless romp -- a picture firmly in the minor key of Stewart in conception; elevated by Grant's broken ardor whenever he appears. His physical grace and attraction are immense, yet he uses his powers to put others at ease, to naturalize things, to relinquish control and power.

Within eighteen months, across 1939 and 1940, Cary Grant appeared as "husband" in six pictures: In Name Only (sorrowful and trapped), His Girl Friday (complete control), My Favorite Wife (goofy and manipulated), Philadelphia Story (deeply hurt), Penny Serenade (a heart-broken failure), Suspicion (very dashing and very weak)  -- six men as different from each other as are the seasons, all men in love, Grant's love coming at us slowly, like a slow dark wave. Yet always isolated, in perfect, isolated darkness, outside the world. . .

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Wizard


The Wizard of Oswald (2013) is Jack Robertson's very funny and very deep reading of almost everything Dallas 1963 -- all done at his computer, showing the complete uselessness of 21st Century police agencies. Robertson's conclusions are a bit jejune and accepting, but Jack the Wizard makes everything so much fun and detailed you won't care at all. . .

Monday, April 16, 2018

Steel


"My father always told me all businessmen were SOBs. But I never knew how right he was until now. . ." -- John F. Kennedy, April 1962

January 17, 1961: Dwight Eisenhower says goodbye by laying down a warning.



The Military Industrial Complex . . . the very Complex he allowed to be created by the Dulles brothers -- one Eisenhower never sought to control or to contain.

***

As 1962 began, American steelworkers threatened a nation-wide strike once their union contract expired in May, similar to the 1959 walk-out which crippled financial markets for weeks. New president John F. Kennedy was particularly concerned with the prices of raw materials, which he saw as key to the problems of inflation and to the balance of foreign payments, as the U.S. was still then in a home-grown, industrialized economy. Kennedy and Labor Secretary (and former Steelworkers general counsel) Arthur Goldberg jawboned the workers and their leader David McDonald into accepting the most minimal settlement agreed to by a 20th-Century industrial union: an agreement with no wage hikes and a mere 2% rise in fringe benefit costs -- in exchange for Big Steel not increasing prices for a period of two years. (In the ten years prior to Kennedy's inauguration, steel prices had more than doubled.) The contract was signed on April 6, 1962 and with the new bargain, growing competition from lower costs of competing metals, and skyrocketing industry sales and capacity numbers, most establishment economists pushed for substantial reductions in the cost of steel.

On April 10, 1962, United States Steel President Roger Blough announced -- in a face-to-face Oval Office meeting with Kennedy, while the same announcement was being mimeographed to the Press -- the double-cross: U.S. Steel, Bethlehem Steel, plus four other companies would increase steel prices by over 4% per annum, $6 per ton.



As President of the United States, John F. Kennedy refused to send troops to South Vietnam, Indonesia, Laos, the Berlin Wall and Cuba -- opportunities presented and backed with full force by most members of his own government. Kennedy (with his Attorney General brother) did send troops to deport Santos Trafficante, John Rosselli, Sam Giancana, and Carlos Marcello off the streets of the U.S. They sent troops to the University of Mississippi in September 1962 and to the University of Alabama in June 1963 to protect the entrance there by young black students. And in the Spring of 1962, troops were sent to kick Big Steel executives out of their beds in the middle of the night.

Among other actions:

1. Kennedy ordered the cancellation of all existing or soon-to-begin contracts between the U.S. Defense Department and the six treacherous Big Steel members, shifting the work to companies not in violation of the settlement -- cancelled contracts making up over 10% of the Big Six steel companies' budgets.

2. Ordered Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to shift future steel orders to foreign overseas companies if necessary to keep work away from Big Six.

3. Attorney General Robert Kennedy convened a Federal grand jury to investigate price fixing within the Big Steel network.

4. RFK convened a separate grand jury to investigate the violation of anti-trust laws by Big Steel.

5. Aftering ordering a cadre of reluctant FBI agents to wake up the top steel executives (including Roger Blough) in the middle of the night, RFK ordered these same agents to ransack the execs' business offices and nearby areas the next morning. Subpoenaed were expense accounts, travel records, compensation records, company accounts.

6. The Federal Trade Commission was ordered to open an investigation into monopolistic practices within the steel business.

7. IRS audits were launched against steel executives and their companies.

8. Legislation was submitted to Congress -- called the Steel Price Emergency Act of 1962 -- eliminating Big Steel's investment tax credits and depreciation allowances.

9. Anti-trust actions were entered into the courts seeking the break-up of Big Steel.

10. Senator Estes Kefauver began hearings of his Anti-Trust subcommittee citing top steel executives for refusal to reveal cost data.

***

In the words of poet Robert Frost: "Oh, didn't he do a good one! Didn't he show the Irish all right?" All members of the defiant Big 6 eventually backed down, reversing the increase. Kennedy also backed down, in public, regarding all businessmen being sons-of-bitches. In private he told aide Arthur Schlesinger: "They are a bunch of bastards -- and I'm saying this on my own, not because my father told it to me."

Schlesinger continues:
"It was true that he accepted an economic system founded on private ownership and that his policies were designed, in effect, to lure business into investment and growth. But this was not enough. The fact remained that he was outside the business ethos, that he did not regard the acquisitive impulse as man's noblest instinct nor the pursuit of profit as man's highest calling, that he was unimpressed by great accumulators of wealth, that he did not consider successful businessmen as the best brains or the most enjoyable company, that he saw then as a faction to be propitiated and not as a force to be followed, that he brought few of them around in the evening."
The reaction of the political and financial establishment was explosive. Kennedy was seen as an anti-capitalist dictator. The Wall Street Journal: "The Government set the price. And it did this by the pressure of fear -- by naked power, by threats, by agents of the state security police." U.S. News and World Report: "We reject all those who believe in a planned economy and reject the President acting like a Soviet commissar. " The Republican National Committee: "The Kennedy brothers are using Gestapo tactics." Richard Nixon: "I think we should be able to solve crises such as this one without using the third degree at 3 o'clock in the morning." Time Magazine: "He has never attacked Khruschev, Castro or any other enemy half as hard as he attacked our own businessmen." While those businessmen wore "S.O.B. Club" buttons on their lapels and "Help Kennedy Stamp Out Free Enterprise" bumperstickers on their cars. Yet the steel price hike was rescinded. The steel companies backed down.

Yet. The lead editorial in the May 1962 Fortune Magazine asked the question: "Why did the financial interests behind U.S. Steel announce the price increase in such a way and at such a time as to deliberately provoke the President of the United States into a vitriolic and demogogic assault?"

Fortune's editorial answered its own question:
"There is a theory -- unsupported by any direct evidence -- that Blough was acting as a business statesman rather than as a businessman judging his market. According to this theory, Kennedy's prior appeal to steel executives not to raise prices, leading to the contract settlement between company and union, had poised over the industry a threat of jawbone control of prices. For the sake of his company, the industry, and the nation, Blough sought a way to break through the bland harmony that has recently prevailed between government and business. That the threat of jawbone control was no mere bugaboo was borne out by the tone of President Kennedy's reaction and the threats of general business harassment by government that followed the so-called affront."
As Julius Caesar was warned of his coming assassination: "Beware the ides of March" -- Fortune gave the title of its editorial: "Steel: The Ides of April."

***

Two months after the crisis, in a funny and impassioned commencement address at Yale University, JFK spoke about the role of government in a civilized and humane society.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Syria = Libya = Iraq = Afghanistan = Yugoslavia

In a talk from May of '99, Dr. Michael Parenti explains all.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Golden Nichols

Herbie passed 55 years ago today, at 44 of leukemia, unmourned and unremembered. He died very much alone, foretold in his music.

Two of his greatest, of many.

"Double Exposure"



"Cro-Magnon Nights"

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Stations of the Cross

Robert F. Kennedy, the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered, 50 years ago.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Life

The greatest ending to a 20th-Century movie, the most moving, the most profound.

A beloved wife, mother, daughter and sister has died in childbirth. Her surviving younger daughter asks her uncle -- who believes he is Jesus Christ -- to bring her back from the dead. He does, and the mother returns with new, and terrible, understanding.



A brilliant essay by Chris Fujiwara on the Dreyer masterpiece.

Monday, March 26, 2018

March 2018


A very important month.

And a very important man.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Wound


What is there about this intense, brave, confused, very funny, and very tender-hearted campaign -- lasting a mere 82 days -- that haunts us 50 years later? Why is it impossible to see or hear even a glimpse of Robert Kennedy without feeling, in Norman Mailer's words, "sorrowful as rue in the throat"?

Thurston Clarke's The Last Campaign moves us toward the answer, in a way that is more like a piece of music than a literary creation. He makes us understand that the campaign -- the wound that will never heal -- was not constructed as an ideological pursuit, and as Clarke takes us forward we understand it doesn't make much sense politically as well. Yet it's impossible to imagine a campaign which has ever embodied something as intensely specific as this one: what it means to be human. For Robert F. Kennedy that meant obsessive concern with all that is hurt, hungry, ignored, degraded, invisible; tenderness toward the broken; self-deprecation bordering on shame for all he was blessed with; political, moral and physical bravery that would make Hemingway flinch; self-criticism and self-learning.

He burned with everything that's been burned out of our land and out of our culture. The last campaign recalls us to those moments in our lives, so rare, that made us fully alive, better than we thought we could be, more romantic, more brave, more moral. He lived that way every day, at least toward the end. The heartbreak of the book is, of course, the knowledge we have of what followed the extinguishing of the flame. Nixon. Watergate. Carter. Reagan. Let's mention that one again: Reagan. Bush I. Clinton I. Bush II. Obama. Donald Trump.

As someone who worked for the Obama campaign beginning in 2007, the book makes me quite angry. Perhaps a leader, especially in the cool ironic virtual world of our own, cannot burn by such a light. Yet the comparison goes beyond. Compared to RFK's campaign, Obama's didn't do a thing to challenge the paradigm of spin, calculation, focus groups, or safety which has suffocated every national campaign since 1968. In the closing days of the '08 primaries, Barack Obama was giving the same stump speech in South Dakota he gave back in Iowa in January. Kennedy changed his message all day, every day -- challenging whomever he was speaking with, saying the things which would irk them the most. Whenever Obama came to a fork in the road, between going toward courage or going toward safety, he chose safety each time (denouncing his pastor, leaving his church, suddenly turning into an anti-Castro Cuban in Florida, changing his positions in several ways before AIPAC).

Thurston Clarke's book is as passionate and human as was the campaign he's covered. And as short. One takes it slow. One does not want it to end. It is a major achievement. Norman Mailer, once more: "Tragedy is amputation. The nerves of one's memory run back to the limb which is no longer there."

Robert F. Kennedy - R.I.P.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Spring is Here?

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Spring is Here. . . I Hear

Courtesy of Bill Evans and filmmaker Javier Mayoral.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Movie Love in '38


"What the camera does, and does uniquely, is photograph thought." -- Orson Welles

Both star Hepburn and Grant. Both are monuments to Screwball, one earthbound, the other very much in the air. And both, even while allowing us to wallow in wealth, are anti-rich. Yet Holiday and Bringing Up Baby are as different as ground and vapor, as apart as consequence and anarchy.

By 1938, Roosevelt's time had passed. His Supreme Court packing plan had been routed by a US Senate overwhelmingly of his own party. The so-called Second New Deal was given up on before the fight even began. Because of a largely universal isolationism toward Europe and the Far East, the country and culture felt quiescent, even stagnant. The proletarian intensity, speed, blistering wit, and radicalism of the early and middle parts of the decade were gone, never to be seen or heard from again; the swooning Deco elegance and romanticism were also at low tide. The wheel had turned. In movies, fashion was now splashy appliqués, witch hats, snoods, turbans, Chinese peasant clothes. Present was the muted, almost embarrassed luxury of many settings: outdoors often, white and light-colored woods and fieldstone, with only now and then a glimpse of the streamlined urban glitter from the decade's past. There's a new obsession with psychoanalysis. The lighting is lower-key, the photography softer. Almost all of Baby is shot out-of-doors; it breathes of freshly turned earth. But there was no new Deco planting. This really was the end.

Bringing Up Baby is, in many ways, echt '38; Holiday a throw-back. The verbalized obsession in Holiday with Vested Interests and how they get that way, and how to escape them, is rare in late-30s American movies. Holiday's Nick Potter (Edward Everett Horton) and wife Susan Potter (Jean Dixon), best friends of Johnny Case (Grant), are dowdy Leftist academics, running off to Europe (in 1938!), while pining for the sentimental dreams of Roosevelt; they are trying to escape the approaching nightmare of history's on-coming night, inspired by a terror of the future as much as a revulsion toward the present. Grant's Johnny Case remains one of the strongest figures in Thirties movies because he is the voice, the passion and good humor, of everything in America which was defeated, idealistic, innocent, alienated, outside. He is a cry from the Thirties when Time was simple. He is the enemy of the slick Technique, the oiled gears and the superior generals of the oncoming Corporate armies. He is the plea of the bewildered who hunger for innocence again. He is what we have lost.

The two movies share things beyond their stars, more because of the pictures' time and genre than in particulars: smart dialogue, elegance, bounce, glamour, recognizable humans (mostly), grace, and a faith in transcendence and in how all things of the heart somehow work out. More specifically as well. Both are about a man who is eagerly engaged -- to the wrong woman. Both Johnny Case and Baby's Dr. David Huxley (Grant) earnestly ride the pre-nuptial rapids 'til the end. At the end, the pictures split. David Huxley is manipulated throughout by Susan Vance (Hepburn) so he will dump fiancée Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker). (Another difference. Baby is full of sexual innuendo, while Holiday remains sexless, as always with Cukor.) Yet it is Alice, once exposed to the mess of jungle cats, criminals, arrests, jails, and the losing of a $1,000,000 museum grant, who dumps David, forlorn about his dumping in the final scene. Johnny Case in Holiday is thrilled at the end, making us feel it was he who manipulated fiancée Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) into dumping him. Both movies give us the taste of riches beyond our dreams; both give us the Manhattan of the late-1930s. And both are, despite an obsession with wealth, intensely apolitical.

The differences are enormous, as large as the space between the styles and talents of directors George Cukor and Howard Hawks. Cukor in Holiday contributes little beyond the level of stage director, letting playwright Philip Barry dominate. (Barry's play had been filmed once before in 1930, nailed to the floor with little to recommend it.) Yet Cukor's minor genius, a beautiful way with actors against a master's touch which heightens the emotional tone of whatever time and place he's working with, is perhaps born with Holiday. He captures the post-New Deal loss of idealism and faith, with no idea what would be around the corner. All the actors, particularly the special Lew Ayres as brother Ned, are beyond Barry's types. And Grant. . . Under Cukor's direction he is revealed in a way he is not in any other movie. While Grant in Baby is pure (perfect) performance, in Holiday he is often caught unawares, distracted and fretful, pondering what to do, always thinking, trying to keep it all together. (It is Johnny Case who is thinking, not Dr. David Huxley.) Johnny Case loves his freedom, it turns out, more than anything else. Grant gives us that in a magical, haunted, and healing way -- an embodiment of freedom itself, as Grant must have been in life (for he is the most intelligent of movie actors), second only in greatness to his C.K. Dexter-Haven of two years later, also under Cukor. The director's limitations are here as well. For all his massive body of work, who was he? What did he think and feel about life, the world, his art? In service to material and actors when they were good, he was good, even at times great (The Marrying Kind, Grant in Philadelphia Story, A Star is Born, It Should Happen to You). Beyond that service, there is nothing. His movies are normally about couples, yet strangely sexless. And Cukor's service comes with a major flaw. He was way too kind to his leading ladies, most especially Hepburn, and not just in Holiday: Sylvia Scarlett, Philadelphia Story, most of her pairings with Tracy. ('Though the dreadful Woman of the Year must be pinned on George Stevens.) All the false notes in Holiday come from Hepburn's Linda Seton. Cukor gives her her head (in a way not present in the play or the 1930 version) and what we get at times -- all the times when the naturalizing genius of Grant is absent -- is artifice, archness, self-regard and self-righteousness. Qualities not present under her directors in Stage Door, Alice Adams, or the lovely Quality Street.

Or under Howard Hawks. There isn't a single false note in Bringing Up Baby. How did this miracle movie happen? It feels to have exploded into existence one bright morning: here it is. While as Screwball (and screwy) as a picture could be, it is incomparable, unlike anything else in the genre. The craziness we experience is craziness erupting from its two lovers, David (Grant) and Susan (Hepburn). They aren't actually up against anything, not poverty or society, not family or community. (It is that rarest of Hawks masterpieces, a work without a bonding group.) No worries about health or position. The only force endangering David and Susan is time itself: the game ending, exhaustion, boredom, responsibility and consequence. Keeping them together, beyond their perfect romantic pitch, is a sweet leopard, a crazy dog, and a missing Brontosaurus bone. So why does Bringing Up Baby feel like the couple -- and the movie itself -- could jump the rails at any moment?

It is director Hawks's first great work. A dozen years into his career he was already a master, having made many unforgettable pictures, 'though mostly in parts: The Criminal Code, Today We Live, Louise Brooks in A Girl in Every Port, The Dawn Patrol, The Crowd Roars; all of them now feeling like sketches of greater works to come. Scarface is too butch and nasty, at times hysterically so. (How much can one take of Paul Muni?) Twentieth Century comes closest, as Barrymore and Lombard take flight. Yet the original Hecht/MacArthur play weighs it down. (Compared to His Girl Friday, what wouldn't feel heavy?) We can guess that Come and Get It, Hawks's work previous to Baby, would have been a full-blown masterpiece if the director had not walked off set, leaving it to William Wyler (and Sam Goldwyn) to blow it. It is the most tender of Hawks movies, Frances Farmer being perhaps the ultimate Hawks heroine.

Bringing Up Baby cannot be imagined outside the world of movies. It is Hawks's first full embrace of the art's magic, leading the way toward Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Red River, on and on. All magical atmospheres where life and death are equal, movement finding its way beyond good and evil, toward elation and transcendence. It is his most romantic movie, not perhaps in the content or thrust of its narrative (Big Sleep would be that), but in its total courtship of an artist with his art.

Money, and not the directors, is the great divide. Among other divisions, Holiday's look is flat with four-square framing, a refusal to glitter or glamourize a story which renounces money power. Baby hates money too, but not its front: the Ritz Plaza, country clubs, a Park Avenue penthouse, a Riverdale mansion, white-tie and tails, and Westlake, CT. How could it not glow and glisten? Until it doesn't. Once Susan Vance and David Huxley and leopard Baby and terrier George escape into the wilderness, the atmosphere becomes as dark and miasmic as Only Angels Have Wings. Sex, too. Holiday is Cukor-sexless. Bringing Up Baby begins with these lines:

ALICE SWALLOW
Shhhh. . . Dr. Huxley is thinking...

DAVID
(after a pause, holding up a dinosaur bone)
Alice, I think this one must belong in the tail.

ALICE
Nonsense. You tried it in the tail yesterday and it didn't fit.

DAVID
Oh yes, I did. Didn't I?

Holiday has the structure of what it was: a three-act play, occurring over three days. Christmas ('though strangely the only sign in the movie is the singing of "Come All Ye Faithful" in the Protestant cathedral. The Seton mausoleum is decorationless.) New Year's Eve. And a day in middle-January. Baby has all the structure of a windstorm. "The wind bloweth where it listeth. . ."

But money in '38 stays put, says the two pictures. Both tell us what Americans knew in their bones up until Reagan: that the American very rich are stupid, humorless, in-bred pigs capable of holding onto money and power only because of their single-minded opportunity and obsession to do so -- a brood that knows itself to be above others by right, and beneath them in fact. (My Man Godfrey, from two years before -- another Screwball masterpiece -- must've been more comforting to the slumming wealthy part of its audience.)

In Holiday, concerns are very real and very daily. For all of Grant's charm, grace, and joy, it remains low to the ground. It touches on the consequences of a money-rejected life, yet playwright Barry and director Cukor pull the gimp-string by having Johnny Case depart on his holiday only after a Wall Street gold strike. (Something to do with Seaboard National.) Johnny's wish to depart is heartfelt, but he runs off to Europe with his Red friends -- and with a huge wad in the bank. Holiday's solution is not confrontation and battle, but a greased escape.

A couple years later, Preston Sturges would create a more honest comedy about the horrors of unmoneyed life, with Christmas in July.



Like Holiday, Sturges's folks are obsessed with money. Unlike Holiday, no one in Christmas in July is defined by it. And there seems no way out. All definition in Holiday is shaped by one's attitude toward money. On one side we have father Edward Seton (Henry Kolker), fiancée Julia, and the noxious Seton Crams (Henry Daniell and Binnie Barnes), who are very much for it. Johnny, Linda, Nick and Susan Potter, and baby brother Ned -- agin' it. It leaves us nowhere, on a moral or political level. But for Grant, who gives us everything.

Johnny Case is one of the key characters of classical Hollywood; and largely forgotten. His eyes in Holiday are far-seeing, haunted, engaged, melancholy. Case holds the secret of life, embodies the democratic nature of movies itself: joy, magic, movement, thought, energy, intelligence, luck, charm, grace, quality, hopes, dreams, and freedom. His spirit is the polar opposite of all that is seen in Holiday as anti-life and anti-spirit: money, and those who have it. If Case hates the suffocations of riches and The Rich -- that's good enough, without consequence or solution. Holiday's most famous lines are: "Whenever I have a problem, whenever I feel a worry coming on, I ask myself: 'What would General Motors do?' Then I do the opposite." To view Holiday in an era in which the conspirators and Vested Interests Johnny seeks to rid himself of have completely won out, is a revolutionizing experience.


The anti-money world created by Howard Hawks in Baby is a strange one, with the local community normally the ballast of that world absent. How does one triumph over the money world? How does one immunize oneself against it? Escaping to a moneyless community as in Rio Bravo, Only Angels Have Wings, El Dorado, Red River, The Big Sky. Escaping through honor and professionalism: The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not, Hatari. Finding the perfect partner: Twentieth Century, Angels, His Girl Friday, To Have and Have Not, Sleep, many others. Bringing Up Baby has no group. And Dr. David Huxley's lack of professionalism is the chief running gag of the movie, as he at last drops all pretense in order to escape the suffocations of his profession. In its place: joy, speed, silliness, having fun from dawn 'til dawn. Leading to what must become cheerful violence and cut-throat anarchy. There is madness in David and Susan's method, one that keeps the simmering dark side of what we see under control while we see it. Here there is lawlessness, talk of gas chambers, kidnappings, maulings, guns and jails and theft and murder. In the most astonishing moment in this whirlwind of astonishment, David barely restrains himself from strangling Susan, when she's at last gone too far. It is real. Beyond their beautiful bubble is little but danger and death.

Another scene surrounding a jungle cat hits it.



Hawks goes all the way. It is his greatness. When one goes all the way, in his world, the only survival is communal love, honor, professionalism, and the right partner.

Both movies begin with Cary Grant engaged to the wrong woman. In Holiday, with glee. Rather grimly, in Baby.



Cukor filmed a Lake Placid scene he did not use, so we don't see Johnny Case meet the wrong girl in Holiday. We see David meet the right one in Bringing Up Baby.



Johnny's long-remembered reunion with Julia Seton, fiancée. Not a good start.



David Huxley's reunion, at the Ritz Plaza, with Susan Vance.



Johnny talks of hopes and dreams to Linda Seton, Julia's older sister. His real match.



Dr. David Huxley tells Susan Vance his hopes and dreams.



Johnny Case meets the enemy.



David meets his enemy, Susan's Aunt Elizabeth (the wonderful May Robson).



Holiday's dark side.



A glimpse into Baby's darkness.



To Linda Seton, Johnny shows his heart. And to his "fiancée" and future father-in-law. . .



David wins over Aunt Elizabeth -- and Major Applegate (Charles Ruggles), in his way.



Johnny and Linda come together, against conspiracies and Vested Interests.



In the midst of madness, Susan tells David she loves him.



Johnny Case says a final goodbye to a relieved Julia Seton.



Alice Swallow says goodbye to David.



Baby embodies the one force most dangerous to money: anarchy. Holiday, not at all. David and Susan's adventure is the very holiday Johnny Case yearns for. At the end of Baby, David decides to try to make the holiday permanent. Not a chance. Even though Baby is the energy suppressed by all money, it is the consequence-free energy made possible by money. Hawks springs the trap. Dr. David Huxley is a determined Professional; Susan Vance's life is a workless one. How would it be possible for them to stay together for as long as a year, or even a month? Just as it's impossible to imagine Johnny Case and Linda Seton remaining together after a return from their European escape. But Johnny Case and Susan Vance keeping alive a madball world? You bet. And Dr. David Huxley would survive, not needing the Seton riches, a life with Linda Seton, as both take themselves and all around them very seriously.

Both pictures are tonic, both run riot over what is anti-life, over the forces now seen not only as the Paragons of the Earth but as the only Paragons possible. There Is No Alternative. Murderers of the Spirit, indeed. Forget confrontation. At last, Holiday and Bringing Up Baby are one:

Escape. 1939 is coming. . . .

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Kennedy for Senate

Friday, March 2, 2018

Ren


One of the great movie actors of our time has died, at the age of 66. Osugi Ren is best known for his work with director Takeshi Kitano, yet his work stretches back decades and includes performances under the best Japanese directors of the past 40 years (Miike, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Higashi, Kore-eda, Yukisada). He was the ultimate professional: elegant, subtle, romantic, tender, reserved, and very moving.

From Hana-bi (1997), the greatness of Osugi Ren. (And Kitano.)

Monday, February 26, 2018

Starlight


An hour into They Drive by Night (1940), we begin to wonder what could be distracting director Raoul Walsh, from his material and from his players. This classic prole story of two trucker brothers trying to survive has much more power and guts in Archie Mayo's 1935 Bordertown. (Then again, prole-wise, 1940 wasn't 1935.) Humphrey Bogart as the younger brother and the great Ann Sheridan are both handled as filler. George Raft is allowed to be George Raft. The background characters go through the motions, with the only standout being the lovely and dark Gale Page.

Then Lupino arrives, playing the dissatisfied wife of a trucking tycoon (Alan Hale) who as the hots for George Raft (!). For the last third of the movie, Walsh just stays out of her way.



Ida Lupino was born in London in 1918 to a comedian father and stage actress mother. After a handful of ingénue roles in British films, she was brought to Hollywood at the age of 16. Mostly decor for a couple dozen pictures throughout the 1930s, she began to breakthrough as the decade turned.

High Sierra (1941) was Humphrey Bogart's breakthrough, yet the film isn't much, with director Raoul Walsh again undershooting the target. While uniquely fierce and frightening throughout, we never get a sense of what Bogart's greatness would be born of: his overwhelming intelligence. The Maltese Falcon is also from '41, Casablanca from '42, To Have and Have Not two years later, The Big Sleep two years after that. High Sierra has none of the playfulness, relaxation, control or wit of that Bogart. His obsession here with the lame (in all ways) Joan Leslie seems ridiculous, a mere device, as if our Bogart could possibly be crushed by such a girl. And just as Bogart and Ann Sheridan are tossed aside in They Drive By Night, so here are the very young Arthur Kennedy and Cornel Wilde. (Far more attention is given to "Pard," an obnoxious mutt.) Even with top billing, Lupino herself is underused. Still, she's the best thing in the movie, trying to open up new doors and directions along the way, doors Walsh this time keeps shut.



The Man I Love (1947) is Walsh again. And great. And Ida Lupino, fully born.

Musicians and singers musically quote and pay tribute to other musicians we never see on screen, a regular daily occurrence but one rarely glimpsed in movies. The cadre we meet at the working-class Long Beach apartment house is so connected, the relationships so well done and dazzling, it takes us awhile to understand who is related to whom, who is dating or married to whom: three sisters and two brothers, a brother-in-law and sister-in-law, twin infants and a little boy with a perpetual black-eye. There's a heavy: a nightclub owner played by the cartoonish Robert Alda who trips over himself throughout in pursuit of Lupino, the eldest sister.

This is noir? Indeed, in a world of its own. Cinematographer Sid Hickox puts the Renoir material inside a diamond while Walsh uses the loveliest torch music of the time. All the women, those whose names we get and those we don't, are 10s -- some of them drifting over from the Hawks set: The Big Sleep's little poison Martha Vickers here playing a different kind of baby sister; the bemused yet loyal (and eventually fainting) wife of the Resistance hero from To Have and Have Not Dolores Moran, as the wayward sister-in-law. At one moment, we swear one of the nightclub chorus beauties will let her lovely small breasts fall from her top (49:00). In The Man I Love, no one is shot, beaten up, or imprisoned; no money or jewels are taken. When the movie dips into straight noir, Walsh immediately (and beautifully) restores the tone with the return of a sister's shell-shocked husband. And Lupino is the ballast: the future director holds the movie in the palms of her hands, causing it to flow from her complex ardency. We believe in the three sisters, in John Lund as the tortured ex-pianist, in his playing, in Lupino's adoration of him.

In the years since High Sierra, Lupino's power and confidence have exploded. She is the magnet pulling Walsh fully into the material, leading him -- as did Cagney -- toward the seething (yet less unique) White Heat of two years later. There is no distraction or lack of attention here by Walsh, no undershooting of the target.

(Overshooting, of course, can be worse. Much worse. The Man I Love is the "source material" for New York, New York (1977). Familiarity with both can lead to amazement at just how much Martin "Reichsmarschall of Our Collective Movie Past" Scorsese flat-out stole from the immensely superior earlier work: Alda's character "fleshed-out" for De Niro, the jam sessions, Lupino interrupting a set to sing a number, the way the title song itself is handled, even the damn titles and end-credits. And the thievery is less in homage than an excuse for Scorsese to stick his ever-present directorial finger into everyone's eyeball -- perfectly matched in NY, NY with star Liza Minnelli, another coked-out attention-eater.)

The Lupino/Walsh film is one of the most beautiful works of the post-war period, endlessly re-seeable. There are flaws. The ending is rather conventional. Lupino turning on Lund in the wake of his sorrowful confession is a false note. Worse is Walsh's direction of her lip-synching and the bad choice of original singer (Peg La Centra).

A problem Lupino would not have in Road House. . .



In Road House, she gives us the best voice (and look?) of the American late-40s. Her sound is described in the movie, by Celeste Holm, as great "If you like the sound of gravel" and "She does more without a voice than anybody I've ever heard." Here, Ida Lupino uses her own voice -- not to sing exactly, more a heightened form of her daily conversation set to music. Yet her versions of "Again" and "One for My Baby" are among the best ever recorded.

Lily Stevens (Lupino) is The Man I Love's Petey Brown sans family and friends. When she arrives at the nightclub / bowling alley called Jefty's -- named after the owner -- she enters a world made from the most likable group of people one can find, so detailed and grounded by director Jean Negulesco (for Road House's first-half) it is impossible not to long to be part of it. In particular the relationship between friends and partners Cornel Wilde (coming a long way from High Sierra's poop-a-doop stooly) and the young Richard Widmark as Jefty. We enter their world without explanation or background and believe in it immediately. Both men love Lily, who becomes a complete distraction from what had mattered most at Jefty's: bowling leagues with team names like the Pin Crushers and the 7-10 Splitters. In spite of the extreme style of Lupino's look and performance, from The Man I Love to Road House we move from major to minor key. The movie is very relaxed, and after years of struggle and loneliness, one could not find a better place to land than Jefty's.

For the first-half. Then the atmosphere is lost, and the story takes over, a story small and thin: two friends -- one rich, one working-class -- love the same girl. She doesn't choose the rich man so he uses his powers to frame his ex-friend for theft. Pushed aside is Lupino's singing (and her way of sounding half-exasperated/half-humored at the end of her sentences). Wilde becomes a mere hunk. The four main characters -- including the wonderful Celeste Holme as the spunky gal who gets no attention from men (!) -- begin to move through their paces in wholly expected ways. The biggest loss is the awesome Widmark: the subtle and extremely likable man of the first-half devolves into a cackling maniac. And we never see Jefty's again.

Still -- that first half. One could use it and all of The Man I Love (and so much else from late-40s Hollywood) to argue that here is where movies peaked, as popular art. And that once it fully flowered, should have been put to rest. The movies' post-Romantic period was not the end-of-the-20th Century. It was the 1950s. Ever since, we have been picking the bones.



On Dangerous Ground (1952) is Nicholas Ray at his most tender. L.A. police detective Robert Ryan is punished for excessive brutality by being sent to the snows of mountainous California. His assignment is to help capture a disturbed young man accused of murder. The detective meets the fugitive's sister, a blind girl played by Lupino. She knows she must give up her brother. Can she trust the detective? The fearsome (and fearful) Ryan warms and comforts himself in the beautiful light of her nature.



Ida Lupino's first chance to direct came as a result of tragedy. In 1949 she and her then husband Collier Young formed a production company called "The Filmmakers." Not Wanted -- a movie about a working-class girl forced to give up her out-of-wedlock baby -- was the company's opening project and when director Elmer Clifton suffered a major heart attack on set (he would die soon thereafter), co-producer/writer Lupino took over. It would be the first of what wags of the time (and since) would dismiss as her string of "issue pictures for women": Not Wanted (1949) (out-of-wedlock pregnancies); Never Fear (1949) (polio victims); Outrage (1950) (rape); Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951) (stage mothers); The Bigamist (1953) (adoption). Not so, for each film is highly individual and goes beyond any theme or category. (They would never be considered for Lifetime or Hallmark.) Each can be uniquely felt as a Lupino experience: take the measure of everything and still give your cheer because you're there; be fiercely independent, but only if it leads toward communion. The Bigamist would be the penultimate feature she would be allowed to direct. (The Trouble with Angels, 13 years later, would be the last.) 1953's The Hitch-Hiker is her lone non-"woman's picture" and her masterpiece.

There is no story, no arc. Just 70 minutes of William Tallman holding a gun on Edmond O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy. Lupino's atmosphere is a moonscape, by day and by night. For a good part of the film we are inside O'Brien's beat-up '51 Plymouth, and when it ends the three main characters return to where they were before it began: the hitch-hiker to jail, the two kidnapped husbands to their jobs and families. Everything is stripped to essentials. One could mistake the film for some meta-noir con job by the likes of Jim Jarmusch or the Coen Boys©.

It is the opposite. Lupino as director and co-writer believes so strongly and sincerely in the material and genre she goes straight to the heart of the matter. No layers of interpretation or camp, no audience winks. She directs as if there is no audience -- completely in service to the story and the actors before her. The director as bride.



Two years later, Lupino again directed William Tallman for a segment of Screen Directors Playhouse: a lovely noir in which Tallman, and the story, beat to the rhythm of Teresa Wright's heart. (And a very funny Peter Lorre.)



The Big Knife is the minor half of Robert Aldrich's 1955 film blanc set. (Kiss Me Deadly being the decidedly major half.) It is one of the most important American movies of the middle-50s -- and a corrupt failure. (Because it is a corrupt failure.) Both director Aldrich and Ida Lupino (playing the separated stay-at-home wife of a major Hollywood star) wind up buried beneath the concrete of Clifford Odets's gutless psychobabbling avoidance of the Blacklist, the takeover of Hollywood by Eisenhower's national security state, and the gigantism caused by television culture.

The magnificent Jack Palance isn't buried at all. In one of the most passionate performances of the post-classical period, he plays Charlie Castle (née Cass) -- ex-prizefighter, ex-New York theater bum, ex-1930s radical (typically reduced by Odets to support for the New Deal/Fair Deal. Yeah, right) -- a movie star under the boot of studio head Stanley Hoff. As performed by Rod Steiger, Hoff is the third Dulles brother, or perhaps a sort of Ariel Sharon in dark glasses (or is it the other way 'round?): a fascist gargoyle part of nothing but his own power and conspiracies. (Carried out by Wendell Corey as the ultimate fixer.)

The movie is at war with itself, with Aldrich and Lupino, and Corey and Everett Sloane against the Method-Trumpeting of everyone else. The trumpets win out. At one point, Lupino hectors Palance -- whose performance is above the war -- about Stanley Hoff not being one of those filmmakers with guts and integrity like "Stevens, Mankiewicz, Huston, Kramer, Wyler, Wilder, and Kazan." Kazan! This in a movie about standing up to power and being true to your friends. Aldrich and Lupino must have thrown up afterwards.

The director tries his best. The story is almost entirely placed in Charlie Castle's livingroom -- and there we can see Aldrich as the anti-Dreyer. Where Carl Dreyer stripped all sets to their spiritual essentials, Aldrich drapes them with as much contemporary decoration and sound as he can, pinning the work to its time. Echt 1955.

In the Odets straight-jacket, all the women are wasted. Lupino is dulled-out. The magical Jean Hagen is thrown away. And Shelley Winters seems to be playing Rod Steiger's twin sister. Yet there is Aldrich's design. And the heroic Palance. In material better left to finks like Odets and Kazan.



The best western series of all time: eight HGWT episodes directed by Lupino. This one was the first, and was the first American western story -- movies or TV -- directed by a woman. Much like Hitch-Hiker's Baja hills and deserts, here atmosphere is everything -- as our Knight (Richard Boone) tries to separate the innocent from the guilty. "The Man Who Lost" from April of '59.



Also that year, she appeared as an aging star in episode 4 of the new Twilight Zone. Trivially tarnished, per usual, by Rod Serling's narration ("struck down by hit-and-run years and lying on the pavement, trying desperately to get the license number of fleeting fame" -- no joke!), Lupino brings devotion and commitment to the overall silliness, Martin Balsam is very good as her agent -- and the story is directed by Mitchell Leisen! In 1959, American film was already mourning its own death.



Here, Lupino's camera is very close. The Fugitive was born during Assassination Autumn, and no other American television series has ever been as drenched in sorrow and loss. This episode, called "Fatso," would premiere three days before Dallas. A broken family, on a Kentucky horse farm. Two brothers who hate. The story's healing is Lupino's, and Janssen's. The star's warmth and honor (and melancholy) is fully embraced by the director. (And by Glenda Farrell as the mother.)



Even with all of Pauline Kael's orgasms, Sam Peckinpah remains the greatest American filmmaker of his generation. (And has any major U.S. critic dated more than Miss Cruet?) Much like Nick Ray and Takeshi Kitano, Peckinpah is a deep mixture of tenderness and extreme violence -- and like Ray and Kitano, both extremes are in service to honor, dignity, and comradeship. Junior Bonner (1972) -- one of the great movies of the Kael era -- occupies a middle ground. All of Peckinpah's form here (and does anyone have greater range?) is an attempt to embrace and express a single consciousness: Steve McQueen's as Junior. The trance rhythms caused by exhaustion and confusion; the stillness and longueurs caused by separation; the terror of what may lie just ahead, and the occasional hatred felt by a busted older brother for a younger, more "successful" one (the editing, sound, speed and size changes of the brother's [Joe Don Baker's] demolition of Ace Bonner's [Robert Preston's] home, seen in a movie theater, is one of the most frightening sequences in all movies); what Junior loves and notices; what he turns away from; and most beautifully, his overall acceptance of the way things are: Peckinpah's form gives us all of this. The middle ground is Bonner and his people, the rodeo horses and clowns, the spectators, the bar fighters and musicians, Barbara Leigh as the hottest girl who ever lived, the trailers and gusto with which folks enjoy their food. (Has biscuits and gravy ever seemed so delicious?)

Lupino, as Junior's mom, is heartbreaking. The director uses our memories of her past beauty, slenderness and style to deepen her son's acceptance. For she is very beautiful here: the beauty of fresh coloring, smooth complexion, well-ordered features is commonplace. Here Lupino is lit up, by turns, with love, and grief, and a ravage of sorrow -- a woman for whom life is real only through feeling.

From the heart of McQueen's consciousness, everyone is lit up this way. Preston as the father, Ben Johnson as a rodeo tycoon, Bill McKinney as "Red," Junior's main rival, even Baker as Curly. And the good people of Prescott, Arizona -- who went about their lives as Peckinpah created this great humanist work.



Ida Lupino infused all she did with her life. Performing or directing, she seems to always have her fingers on the strings of her heart, and of ours. Her glow is that of a woman who has suppressed her soul in a kind of mechanical despair, doing her duty and enduring all the rest. The look of her eyes and the sound of her voice feels as if she has torn free some promise of her soul and has paid for it ten times over in ransom. Yet there is always that music around her, enticing her soul from its bondage, a promise that it may break free altogether, to have at last a brief time purely for its own joy. And ours.