Category Archives: Classics

The Great Gatsby (1949, Elliot Nugent)

The Great Gatsby can get away with a lot thanks to lead Alan Ladd, much of it related to the adaptation. Gatsby, the film, does open with “narrator” Macdonald Carey—set in the present, with Carey reminiscing on the grand old Jazz Age. Of course, the Jazz Age looks a little different in Carey’s memories because the movie’s post-Code and it wasn’t allowed to actually recreate the Jazz Age styles. The lack of style accuracy doesn’t matter much; the parties aren’t important. Ladd’s Gatsby is a quiet, contemplative wallflower; see, the screenplay (by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum) gives Ladd a sympathetic backstory. He only became a bootlegger because some rich widow (an oddly uncredited Carole Mathews) screws him out of his inheritance; her much-older husband (Henry Hull in a really fun performance) saw potential in Ladd and wanted to give him a leg up. Then, of course, there was the War. Ladd’s Gatsby is a war hero.

It’s before the War and after the old man mentorship Ladd meets Kansas City socialite Betty Field. Ladd’s just an enlisted man, bound for Europe and the trenches, but it’s Kansas City and he can get into the parties in his uniform. The flashback to their meeting doesn’t come until the film’s introduced both Ladd and Field in the present. Well, 1928 flashback present anyway. It adds something to both of them. Even though Ladd’s had a bunch of personality in the film so far, this tender side of him—he’s not violent in the present, but he’s got to be capable of violence—but this version of him with Field doesn’t have that capacity yet. And Field has zero personality in the present, so any helps.

At its best, The Great Gatsby is a lousy novel adaptation but a good “gangster goes straight” vehicle for Ladd. He does a vague tough guy routine with everyone until Field comes along and then he’s a sap. What’s so impressive about Ladd’s performance is he’s able to moon over Field even though they haven’t got any chemistry together. You think Field’s just incapable of it, but then she plays really well with estranged husband Barry Sullivan; odd because Field and Ladd are running away that point, when she and Sullivan finally click, performance-wise. Because the film’s not really set up to be the story of the characters from the novel, it’s far more interested in Ladd’s bootlegging days, with Ed Begley as his crotchety older partner and Elisha Cook Jr. as his sidekick (a kid who Ladd saved in the War and went with him from medals of valor to killing rival gangs). It’s more interested in the flashbacks to Ladd with Hull and Mathews. The screenplay feels looser in those scenes, like it’s not trying to hit a particular beat.

The two big problems with the film are the main supporting actors—Field, Carey, Sullivan, Ruth Hussey—and the direction. Nugent’s never quite good enough to do anything with the film. He does an adequate job, but he’s always zigging when he should zag. He’s got these one-shot close-ups he uses in the middle of conversations and they always kill the scene. Maybe some of it’s on Ellsworth Hoagland’s, but most of it’s on Nugent. He’s not interested in what the characters have to say and given how talky things get in the final third… it hurts the film.

Now the cast. So Ladd’s great. He showed up to work and he does. He gives Gatsby two hundred percent, which makes up for a lot, but still isn’t enough. Because the supporting cast is a stinker. Sullivan’s the best, but only because he occasionally is able to roll the thin characterization into a hybrid caricature—angry jock blue-blood unfaithful jilted husband—and find some true connection. But he’s not any good, not really. He’s able to overcome. Meanwhile Hussey tries her damndest and never makes it work but points for trying. Carey and Field are miscast and poorly directed. Field’s got no charisma. It might be some of the Code issues, it might be the script, it’s definitely partially on Nugent. But Field’s demure in the wrong way, especially given she’s got such a big part.

Carey’s pseudo-earnest, but he’s not ambitious in his performance. It needs some ambition. Some energy.

Again, Ladd can carry it through—the film’s only ninety minutes—but it’s a shame, even with all the constraints, the movie doesn’t have better direction, better casting; Ladd deserves more than a compromised production.

Oh, speaking of compromise, nice photography from John F. Seitz. He’s got to work with a lot of composites, some awkward framing, but he establishes a rather solid palette for the film. Just wish Nugent where a little better.

Gatsby’s a missed opportunity.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Elliott Nugent; screenplay by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, based on Owen Davis’s play of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Ellsworth Hoagland; music by Robert Emmett Dolan; produced by Maibaum; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Alan Ladd (Gatsby), Betty Field (Daisy), Macdonald Carey (Nick), Ruth Hussey (Jordan Baker), Barry Sullivan (Tom), Elisha Cook Jr. (Klipspringer), Ed Begley (Lupus), Howard Da Silva (Wilson), Henry Hull (Dan Cody), Carole Mathews (Ella Cody), and Shelley Winters (Myrtle).



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The Lady from Shanghai (1947, Orson Welles)

It’s immaterial to the film overall but I want to talk about how Welles compensates for projection composites looking like projection composites. He changes up his focus, sometimes focusing on the person in the foreground, sometimes not. Is it intentional? Is he really trying to compensate?

Well, the technique does compensate a little for it. The Lady from Shanghai does have, technologically speaking, a more consistent visual look as the film goes between projection composites and location shooting.

Again, it’s immaterial. It’s just one heck of a what if.

The Lady from Shanghai moves very quickly. It runs just under ninety minutes, with a present action of five or six months. However long it takes to sail from New York City to San Francisco, through the Panama Canal, with some extended stops in Mexico, plus a murder trial. There’s a lot of summary, always ably narrated by writer, director, producer, and star Welles. Welles is a world-traveling Irish sailor who meets Rita Hayworth one night in Central Park, while he’s waiting to find a ship out. Welles, who tries the Irish charm on Hayworth at first sight, ends up saving her from some muggers. He takes her to safety, they talk, they flirt, and wouldn’t you know it, she’d love to hire him on to sail her yacht.

Oh, and she’s married.

So Welles, in the first and last smart thing he does in Shanghai, says no. But when he gets another chance in the form of Hayworth’s much older husband, played by Everett Sloane, shows up to beg him, Welles takes it. He’s feeling way too young, strong, and virile comparing himself to Sloane, who’s a disabled person. He’s also an extremely wealthy lawyer. And he calls Hayworth “lover” in a way it makes everyone’s skin crawl and almost seems like Sloane knows he’s having that effect. Even though Welles is narrating the film, he never reveals his character’s hopes and dreams when he signs on to the yacht. He’s infatuated with Hayworth, yes, but he’s also got a sidekick along, fellow able-bodied seaman and not yacht guy Gus Schilling, and he soon finds out everyone around Sloane’s very, very weird. Like Sloane’s business partner, Glenn Anders, who’s a sweaty drunk.

See, Anders figures out the Welles and Hayworth thing—even more than Sloane, who’s at least passingly aware of the attraction and uses it to humiliate both Hayworth and Welles—but Anders realizes there’s more emotion behind it than Sloane expects. Welles has the heart of a poet and the fists of a six foot three Irishman. He sees through Hayworth the pin-up to the woman; see, Sloane likes it when Hayworth wears skimpy bathing suits in front of all his pals.

Sloane’s a great villain. The film doesn’t really have villains or heroes, but Sloane’s great in the villain spot. He’s cruel, calculating, immodest. He’s a major creep in a film with a bunch of major creeps—like Anders is clearly more dangerous than Sloane, but are you just underestimating Sloane because he doesn’t have use of his legs. Because there’s something else going on besides Sloane wanting to humiliate his trophy wife for being gorgeous, someone’s planning on killing him. Actually, no one seems like they’re not planning on killing him, except Schilling, who just does his job.

So those two plots go on simultaneously, plus the class commentary. See, Welles doesn’t like being privy to the goings ons of these shitty rich people. But they all love being condescending to him, even Hayworth, who runs hot and cold as far as their flirtation goes.

Then there’s a murder and then there’s a trial. There’s an action-packed, hallucinatory finale. There’s a great de facto chase sequence through Chinatown, there’s a big fight scene. An Orson Welles fight scene. He’s really good at some of it, though Viola Lawrence’s editing is key. Her editing is key for everything in Shanghai because the film only exists in its shots and angles, intrusive ones. Welles pushes the camera into faces—with the exception of Hayworth, who gets cradled by the camera, Welles’s infatuation controlling the shots. Welles and Hayworth were married at the time, which doesn’t add a real layer, but is kind of fun to think about. Especially during Hayworth’s big scenes. She’s got a handful of them and they’re all awesome. Welles gives himself the showier part, with his Irish accent—which gets amplified thanks to Welles’s audio process. All the dialogue is looped. The actors performing their lines separately from speaking them in their performance. No actual diegetic sounds, just diegetic sound effects, which the characters don’t “hear.” It gives Shanghai this detached but incredibly intimate quality. Even though that intimacy with the characters’ conversations is more often than not intrusive. The film’s very intrusive. Yes, it’s a film noir about hot cheating wives, sexy Irish lugs, corrupt rich people, and boats, but it’s also this careful examination and evaluation of its characters and what they represent and what they don’t and how the disconnects affect them.

So, it’s a tad misanthropic. But deservedly.

The best performance is Sloane. No one else gets to be such an exceptional creep. Not even Anders, who’s a big creep. Or Ted de Corsia, who’s a little creep. But Sloane also gets more complex emotions and they get laid bare. It’s an outstanding, spectacular performance.

Then Welles, then Hayworth. Welles, director and screenwriter, showcases Hayworth for narrative impact and effectiveness. It means she doesn’t get as good of a part as Welles, actor. But even if her part isn’t as good overall—meaning she can’t give a better performance because he’s written and directed it so she can’t—he does give her far better shot composition than anyone else in the film. He’s not just cradling her for that infatuation angle, he’s also amplifying her deliveries. So Hayworth still manages to have a “movie star” performance in this movie without the possibility of movie star performances. Welles doesn’t compose shots for them.

Anders is great; Schilling is good, Erskine Sanford is fun as the judge. Evelyn Ellis is excellent as Sloane’s maid. She’s a Black woman with a very hard life and Sloane exploits her and brags to everyone about it. In front of her.

Because he’s an incredible creep.

Great photography from Charles Lawton Jr. There’s a lot of stuff in Lady from Shanghai. Almost everything except Shanghai. Lawton shoots it all beautifully. The end action sequence is singular, thanks to Welles, Lawton, and Lawrence. The cuts and the lights are integral to its success. And it is a success. So good.

Welles, Sloane, Hayworth, the supporting cast, the crew, they make something special. The Lady from Shanghai is fantastic.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Orson Welles; screenplay by Welles, based on a novel by Sherwood King; director of photography, Charles Lawton Jr.; edited by Viola Lawrence; music by Heinz Roemheld; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Orson Welles (Michael O’Hara), Rita Hayworth (Elsa Bannister), Everett Sloane (Arthur Bannister), Glenn Anders (George Grisby), Ted de Corsia (Sidney Broome), Evelyn Ellis (Bessie), Gus Schilling (Goldie), and Erskine Sanford (judge).



A Guy Named Joe (1943, Victor Fleming)

I’m not sure how to talk about A Guy Named Joe without some spoilers. But I’m going to try. Like a test.

A Guy Named Joe is a propaganda picture, but one less about jingoism and more about the American trademarked Freedom. Only it’s a specific kind of Freedom, it’s the kind of Freedom you can only understand if you’re an Army flier. Now, it’s possible—the film attests—the guys in the other branches of the service are just as thrilled about dying in the ways specific to their branches, but Guy Named Joe is about the glory of dying a combat flier. And how dying as a combat flier isn’t just good for the dead flier, who’ll get some real perspective on life, but for the future as well. The little children need dead fliers so the future might live. In Freedom.

It’s a lot.

But also not really, because Dalton Trumbo’s script doesn’t get too far into the weeds with it. Oh, a few people get big monologues about the film’s themes—Lionel Barrymore gets the Freedom one, so even if you’re cocking your head and trying to unravel the philosophy of it, Barrymore’s great delivering it. Because Joe is very well-cast. Spencer Tracy’s perfect in the lead, a daredevil bomber pilot who eventually gets in too much trouble and ends up taking a backseat to the future generation, personified in Van Johnson. Tracy gets some decent scenes with Johnson; best considering the circumstances, but some really good ones with leading lady Irene Dunne. Dunne’s Tracy’s girl—and some kind of military cargo flier (the ladies can fly cargo through war zones solo but they can’t be combat pilots because they’re girls); she, Tracy, and Ward Bond all hang out together. Turns out some of it is because Bond can’t handle misanthropic narcissist Tracy without Dunne to temper him. It’s a great character relationship, something the film doesn’t do enough with, even though it arguably leverages Bond more than anything else in the picture.

The film’s got three sections. The first is in England, where Tracy and Bond are stationed. It runs forty-five minutes; now, Joe is two hours. The first thirty-eight percent of the movie is the England stuff with Tracy, Dunne, Bond, and James Gleason as the guys’ stuck-up CO. You would think, given epical story arcs and Freytag triangles, there’d be a lot of important plot establishing somewhere in that thirty-eight percent. So it’d be important later.

You’d be wrong.

Because in the second part of the film, where Tracy gets stuck back stateside playing guardian angel to rookie ace Johnson, well… nothing from that first part is important. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s just the story of Johnson getting to be a better flier and a more confident guy. He’s just inherited four million bucks, but he’s a solid guy. He’s not even a skirt chaser until Tracy’s influence and even when he’s a skirt chaser, you feel like he’s still a pretty good guy. Johnson’s got the second hardest part in the film. He’s got no one to talk with about his feelings and feelings get talked about a lot in Joe. Similarly, Dunne doesn’t have anyone to talk with about her feelings when it’s important in part three, which is set in New Guinea and the war.

Heavily leveraged Bond is the way the film brings parts one and two together, with Johnson getting assigned to Bond (and Gleason) and Dunne dropping by for a visit. Johnson falls for Dunne immediately; though we don’t get to see him fall for her, because the movie’s busy concentrating on Dunne and Bond and 800-pound gorilla Tracy. Fleming skips the shot of Johnson seeing Dunne, skips his agency in approaching her. Johnson never gets that agency back. Something else lost in part three.

Dunne eventually gets some agency, but kind of too late to matter.

See, she and Johnson get together—rather chastely for a while, which almost seems like the film not wanting to give forty-something Dunne too much chemistry with late twenties Johnson (he can get away with early twenties, her with late); the chaste thing feels forced though. Because for a while the film builds the chemistry between the two—as Dunne is reminded more and more of Tracy, because (unbeknownst to her) Tracy’s been Johnson’s most influential mentor. And then it stops. Eventually there’s a little more of a spark, but it’s in the last fifteen or twenty minutes and it’s a little late.

The film does have a last minute (temporary) rally as Tracy gets a “well, this was worth it” monologue but then the it stays too close with him after just saying the whole point of the damn movie is he’s the 800-pound gorilla. Trumbo pretends he’s been working out the moral of the whole thing for the last two hours and thinks Tracy’s monologue is going to be able to sell it. Tracy’s able to perform the monologue beautifully, he’s just not able to magic it into a good ending or a successful arc for literally anyone in the entire movie.

The performances are key. Tracy and Dunne don’t get great parts, but they get some good scenes. Bond does really well having to carry the energy of the film, even though he’s an glorified sidekick. And the movie is mercenary in how it uses him. Johnson’s potentially got the best part and gets less than anyone else but he’s able to turn it into something. He’s earnest in just the right way, a nice contrast to Tracy and something the film never plays up enough, which is silly. Gleason’s okay. He’s better at the end. At the beginning he’s just a plot foil and exposition dumper.

Technically… well, at least Fleming is consistent in failings. Joe’s got some great special effects with the flying and some really bad composite shots with the background projection. George J. Folsey and Karl Freund do a real bad job matching lighting and it’s distracting at times. It’s worse in the second part, stateside, when the rear screen projection might work as a visual representation of narrative detail.

But of course Fleming’s not going to think of it.

Otherwise, the direction’s fine. Just not good enough to lift the picture out its problems. Good editing from Frank Sullivan. Great sets; not the sets fault no one lights them or shoots them right.

A Guy Named Joe doesn’t try as hard as it should and it shows, getting good (and better) performances out of its cast without really tasking them. Tracy, Dunne, Johnson, Bond, and Barrymore all could have done much more.

And, last thing—nice support from Barry Nelson as Tracy’s stateside sidekick.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Victor Fleming; screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, based on a story by Chandler Sprague and David Boehm, adapted by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan; directors of photography, George J. Folsey and Karl Freund; edited by Frank Sullivan; music by Herbert Stothart; produced by Everett Riskin; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Pete Sandidge), Irene Dunne (Dorinda Durston), Van Johnson (Ted Randall), Ward Bond (Al Yackey), James Gleason (‘Nails’ Kilpatrick), Barry Nelson (Dick Rumney), and Lionel Barrymore (The General).



Twentieth Century (1934, Howard Hawks)

Even with its way too abrupt finish, Twentieth Century is rare delight. Would it be more successful if the ending hadn’t wasted Carole Lombard? Yes, but also because it would’ve given lead John Barrymore more Lombard to act opposite and Barrymore’s best opposite Lombard. He’s amazing the whole time, but he’s best working with her. He aggravates him in just the right way. And, after time, she aggravates him in just the right way, which certainly hints at an amazing finish.

Sadly, no. Screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur kind of choke on it, though no doubt some of the fault lies with director (and producer) Hawks.

Anyway. Done with the negative verbiage. On to the reverse.

The film opens with a stage production doing a rehearsal; it’s model Lombard’s first attempt at acting. The director, Charles Lane, and the theatre accountant, Walter Connolly, don’t think much of her. They think boss and Broadway wunderkind Barrymore just hired her because of her looks. Just before Barrymore arrives on stage to take over the film introduces Roscoe Karns as Barrymore’s drunkard newspaper stooge, who’s there to profile Lombard. For about ten minutes, it’s just Barrymore going nuts directing Lombard through the rehearsal. He’s mean (though not cruel), manipulative, rude, and utterly hilarious. Barrymore gnaws at the scene, practically snapping at the air over Lombard’s shoulders. The scene starts with them apart, ends with them intwined, Hawks and editor Gene Havlick really focusing on how the two actors pace off the other. The air is thick with chemistry.

Even if Lombard doesn’t quite realize it yet.

Because Barrymore’s not just interested in creating a successful contract player in Lombard, he’s looking for love. The “seduction” scene is where Barrymore goes from being a hilarious tyrant to a personable, hilarious tyrant. The film has three time frames. The first opens the film; Lombard and Barrymore getting together, realizing greater success because of their collaborations. Then three years later when things have hit the skids. Then another three years later, post-skids, with one far more successful than the other. That last part is the majority of the film. It’s also where the title comes in—they’re on the 20th Century Limited, on the way from Chicago to New York. The first two phases have a lot of Lombard and Barrymore together. There’s some more character establishing with the supporting cast, Connolly and Karns in particular, as they’re going to be very important in the third phase, but it’s all about Lombard and Barrymore. Second phase is mostly more about Lombard. It’s where she’s got to show all the changes in her character over the last three years; what being around Barrymore will do to an intimate partner as well as creative partner. It’s where Lombard gets to let loose almost as much as Barrymore.

Whenever the film’s Lombard or Barrymore, it’s that rare delight. Barrymore manages to get more eccentric by the third phase, set almost entirely on train, while Lombard finally gets to match him. Much of the film is spent either laughing or grinning while preparing to laugh again. Hecht and MacArthur’s script does a fantastic job building up jokes, particularly in the third section, particularly with troublesome train passenger Etienne Girardot. Girardot is a great C plot, which ties into the A plot, but also provides some real texture to the train. He gives the supporting cast something to focus on, giving them their own story arcs. The film is always bustling, as sometimes Lombard and Barrymore need to take a break. They’re both very busy; in character and performance.

Connolly and Karns get a bunch more to do in the third phase, as they’re trying to save Barrymore from himself, which means intruding on Lombard, who’s got her own things going on with fresh beau and stuffed shirt Ralph Forbes. At some point in the second half, it almost feels like Connolly and Karns’s movie. It doesn’t last for long, as they have to involve Barrymore in their activities, but then it becomes the Barrymore, Connolly, and Karns show. Lombard gets downgraded.

Just as the film finally starts remedying Lombard’s reduced station and bringing her back up, giving her some great scenes with Barrymore, the movie stops. Maybe Hecht and MacArthur ran out of ideas to give Barrymore and Lombard something to riff on, but the film needs just a little more. Five minutes maximum. It’s not like Lombard or Barrymore give any signs of slowing, even as Connolly and Karns are literally passing out by this time.

But it’s a magnificent ride to that abrupt finish. And it works, it just doesn’t transcend.

Good editing from Havlick, good photography from Joseph H. August, excellent direction from Hawks. Barrymore and Lombard are wondrous. Twentieth Century is awesome.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Howard Hawks; screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, based on a play by Charles Bruce Millholland; director of photography, Joseph H. August; edited by Gene Havlick; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring John Barrymore (Oscar Jaffe), Carole Lombard (Mildred Plotka), Walter Connolly (Oliver Webb), Roscoe Karns (Owen O’Malley), Ralph Forbes (George Smith), Charles Lane (Max Jacobs), and Etienne Girardot (Matthew J. Clark).