Friday, September 23, 2016

Trane at 90

Friday, September 16, 2016

Good and Blonde

The flip side of Holiday (1938). Here the rich are wacky, good-natured types, who only need to be taught how to act, by a butler who's secretly a fallen member of the ruling class. And who saves the day by a stock-deal too similar to Johnny Case's Seaboard coup. There, it blows everything up. Here, it makes everyone whole.

Ahh, so what? Lombard sweeps all before her.

Thursday, September 15, 2016


Johnny Case ~ one of the key characters from classical Hollywood, mostly forgotten. His eyes: far-seeing, haunted, engaged, melancholy. Case (and the man who played him) 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.

In Holiday (1938), Case and his spirit are permanent polar opposites to all that is seen in the movie as anti-life and anti-spirit: money; and those who have it. Holiday reminds us what all Americans knew in their bones, until about 30 years ago: 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 [1936] -- another great Depression comedy -- must've been more comforting to its slumming wealthy audience members.)

The story begins with Case -- proletarian and very temporary investment banker -- returning to New York City from a Lake Placid ski trip, where he has met the girl of his dreams. Visiting her home for the first time, he discovers she's the daughter of enormous wealth, living in a preposterously large Fifth Avenue mansion.

(The hole in the movie is the wholly unbelievable notion that Case could fall in love with either Doris Nolan the actress or Julia Seton the character. Another hole is Katharine Hepburn. In a work of beautiful, understated performances, hers is often as artificial as it is righteous.)

The movie revolves around Grant's magic, coming closer and closer, then drifting away. It begins on Christmas morning. (And we wonder: where are the decorations in this enormous house? 'Though we do see the family, sans Hepburn, attend Christmas morning mass.) Johnny's friends Nick and Susan (two classical 30s leftists, played by Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon) return him to himself -- when he is apart from them he is fretful and distracted. The negative attitudes shown toward Case on occasion by members of the Seton family or Seton family friends strike us as insane. Ned -- quietly played by the special Lew Ayres -- is someone we long to see brought in by Case, as comrade and brother-in-law: we know this will give him heart. Julia -- the intended -- will never take that heart, and so has no real use for Case. For the rich are naturally stunted, says the movie. Hepburn is already where she needs to be -- archly -- and how long could Johnny take her close-up, day-after-day? She already seems complete. The warmth and ardency of a young Lupino might've been a lovelier match. Or Ann Sheridan. . .

Seton Cram, played by Henry Daniell, seems to be playwright Philip Barry pouring it on. Yet aren't we now in a place of Seton Crams-on-steroids, runaway Crams draped in baggy Versace suits with washboard stomachs, carefully unkempt hair, tattoos and bee-stung lips? At one point Cram offers to help Johnny make his first million within a year: "It wouldn't take that long if we had the right sort of government." Ted Cruz couldn't have said it better.

And Grant to Hepburn: "There's a conspiracy against you and me, child. Vested interests. . ." Interests and conspirators who have completely won out.

Still, what a grand movie.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

State of Grace

She returns us to an age when Americans could look up to screen visions and ghosts with awe, wonder and appreciation. Unlike our current dreary marketeer non-cinema where almost all releases seem calculated to squash anything that might stir envy in the iron hearts of the narcissistic and the mediocre. After all, anyone can be Jennifers Aniston or Garner.

Who can be Kay Francis?

As a comedienne she was almost as great as Lombard. And sexy as hell. Her liquid voice is as languorous, warm, and dark -- dark as dark blood -- as are her movements. Eyes which are clear pools of light, reflecting how much love is coming toward her. Yet she was boxed in, mostly playing two types: a woman dying young; or an uptight Professional -- doctor, reporter, fashion editor, pilot(!) -- before her time. Or both. So her wit is mostly wasted. Within these types she is often the normal partner left for someone more exciting. Who would ever leave Kay Francis? (All nods to Lubitsch, but certainly not for Miriam Hopkins.) Besides Trouble in Paradise (1932), her only great film, she was rarely lucky with directors.  A (bad) Vidor, two with Borzage, several with Michael Curtiz. Otherwise, hacks.

Perhaps because she is echt Deco, she cannot be placed outside the 1930s. She is too still and melancholy for screwball. And even her late 30s works -- Confession (1937), King of the Underworld (1939) and In Name Only (1939) (how in the world can a movie with Grant, Lombard, and Francis be so dull?) -- stiffen her up. Yet even there (most everywhere), when betrayed or spurned, she lapses into a sort of somber exclusion, away from the world, away from the movie, a curious communion with forces only she feels, a sort of mystic, dark state of grace. She is a miracle. There is no one else like her.

* * *

We all know Trouble in Paradise, so let's look elsewhere. Tay Garnett's One Way Passage (1932) is a sort of pre-code, early talkie version of Tristan and Isolde, almost ruined by the non-comic antics of Frank McHugh. Almost. William Powell is a death row inmate recently escaped from San Quentin, at last caught up with in a Hong Kong bar, and incarcerated aboard a ship heading back to San Francisco. Kay Francis is on the ship, with her doctor; she is dying. Via some nice story turns -- and a moving subplot causing Powell's SF detective jailer (Warren Hymer) to also fall in love -- we are given Francis at her most ardent and beautiful. Strange and amorphous, she yearns through the trouble like a warm, glowing cloud blown in the middle of a storm. And Powell is worthy of her.

Monday, September 12, 2016


Sunday, September 11, 2016

What Were Their Names?

Their hopes? Their dreams? Their loves? Their mysteries?


Thursday, September 8, 2016

Bred in the Bean

'Though the plot turns on a $25,000 contest prize -- big moola in 1940 Astoria, Queens -- no one in Preston Sturges's Christmas in July is defined in the least by money. They aren't defined at all. Milkmen, barbers, bakers, cops on the beat, working-class barmen and pool players, nurses, laundrymen, bootblacks, the kitchen help, taxi drivers (of the most non-Scorsesian sort). Salarymen and their secretary girlfriends. Radio announcers and company Presidents. If judged, judged by how good they are at keeping the craziness going. At times almost achingly tender toward the "poor," the movie's classes don't exist. Hardboiled and sweet-natured, here no one takes anything from anybody and no one means anyone any harm. (In this way would Sturges cover the class waterfront -- working here and in The Great McGinty, upper in The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story, middle in Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero, all three in Sullivan's.)

Dick Powell and Ellen Drew are the middling center of the Sturges whirlwind ~ dervishes captured and spun by Victor Milner's brilliant black-and-white (at times figures seem set in relief like reverse etchings on a silver pot) and Ellsworth Hoagland's blistering editing, in what seems like a race to steal the picture: Demarest as Bildocker, Pangborn the announcer (in such a warm and elegant radio studio), Alexander Carr as store owner Schindel, Harry Hayden as Mr. Waterbury, Ernest Truex as Baxter, and (the winnah!) Raymond Walburn as Dr. Maxford. ("Maxford House -- Grand to the Last Gulp") And Sturges lets the supporting players in on the game: Maxford's pretty secretary (Kay Stewart), Dick (Rod Cameron) the Baxter office wag who starts the plot (and who looks lots like John Candy's kid brother), the neighborhood cop (Frank Moran), Mr. Schmidt and Mrs. Schwartz, Sam the colored floor-sweep (Fred Toomes).

A 65-minute world of slogan contests in which everything happens. From 1940 -- an astonishing year for American movie comedy, on the cusp of world war: Christmas, His Girl Friday, The Great Dictator, My Favorite Wife, The Bank Dick, Philadelphia Story, Remember the Night, The Great McGinty, Shop Around the Corner.

And how 'bout that Davenola!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Spirit in the Sky

The Soul of Labor (and cigarettes), 1958.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Great Vibrations

Bobby Hutcherson passed on August 15th at the age of 75. Ken Laster with a beautiful 90-minute farewell (beginning at the 11:30 mark) to the supreme vibraphonist in all of jazz.