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Dark Victory (1939, Edmund Goulding)

Bette Davis and George Brent never kiss in Dark Victory. He’s a brilliant neurosurgeon, she’s a mysteriously ill young socialite. He saves her, they fall in love. But does he really save her….

Victory gives Davis an excellent part, right up until the end of the film. It’s a somewhat bumpy ride–in the first act, which is three acts of its own, Davis isn’t particularly likable. The film establishes her on her Long Island estate, twenty-three and free. And very rich. With some decent suitors (Ronald Reagan in an affable performance) and her best friend (and secretary) Geraldine Fitzgerald. Davis goes riding during the day, out on the town in the evening, then home to party all night.

The film opens with her dealings with Humphrey Bogart, who plays her stablehand. He’s Irish and sexist. Bogart’s accent is usually Irish, though very noticeable when not. The sexism just leads to banter; it’s not a great part, in the end, for Bogart. He’s a tool of the melodrama. But he’s still likable, especially at the beginning, when Davis comes off like a spoiled brat and Fitzgerald her enabler.

The film’s focus moves soon to Brent, who gets her case from a decidedly underused Henry Travers. Brent’s excellent as the conflicted doctor, enough so to humanize Davis in their first scene together. From then on, although the action sticks with Brent for quite a while, Davis’s part gets better. She’d had some good dialogue quips, but she was the film’s subject–more, the film’s characters’ subject–not the protagonist.

Whether or not she ever truly gets to be the protagonist is questionable (and one of the film’s eventual failings; it shouldn’t be in question).

So the first thirty-five minutes concern Davis’s recent headaches and how Brent treats them. There’s never a discussion of medical ethics in Dark Victory and it kind of needs it. A lot, as it turns out. Because the only way for the film to function without them–which leads to Brent and Fitzgerald alternately and jointly infantalizing Davis–is through melodrama. After forty-five minutes, Dark Victory never tries for more than melodrama; it promises more than melodrama, but it never attempts to fulfill those promises.

The melodrama does give Davis and Fitzgerald some good material. Not really Brent. Brent gets overshadowed by everyone in the second half of the film, including Reagan (not to mention Bogart, accent or not). The script avoids dealing with Brent, once he’s done just as a doctor. Brent still has some fine moments in the film, but nothing like he had in the first half, when his forced calm demeanor ached with tragedy. It’d be a lot to keep up the entire runtime, sure, but at least screenwriter Robinson could’ve had him in some longer scenes.

Robinson’s adapting from a play, which might explain some of the pacing after the first act. Davis goes through a minor character change, with some fabulous costuming, incidentally, but it requires a rather extreme narrative distance. For her next character change–she gets a lot of character development with the part, going through four distinct phases–the narrative distance closes in, which is great, but the script gets real choppy. It’s a stagy bit of narrative. Not stagily filmed, but stagily plotted. There’s a jump forward, then an exposition-heavy sequence taking place over a single night, with characters strolling through in order to explain what’s happened since the jump forward. All the acting’s fine–Davis is great–but it’s too jammed, too rushed.

And if it’s going to be so jammed, so rushed, at least have Travers do a walkthrough. He goes from leading the second tier supporting cast in the first act to complete, inexplicable onscreen absence.

Davis’s performance makes the film. Brent’s, for a while, seems like it could but their relationship is way too chaste (exceptionally so considering they were carrying on off-screen). Fitzgerald and Davis have a wonderful relationship, full of character development and so on… until the development stops. The film foreshadows a lot for its characters and delivers none of it. Ostensibly it delivers on one thing, but through cop out.

Technically, the film’s fine. Goulding’s composition is decent, if unimaginative in his overuse of interior long shots–the sets aren’t that great and even if they were, they’re immaterial to the melodrama–and Ernest Haller’s photography is good. Max Steiner’s score is excellent.

Davis gets to do so much in Dark Victory, it’s unfortunate the film doesn’t let her do all it promises for her. I almost started talking about the film as the difference between a part and a role. If there’s such a difference, Dark Victory gives Davis a great part but promises her a great role.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Edmund Goulding; screenplay by Casey Robinson, based on the play by George Emerson Brewer Jr. and Bertram Bloch; director of photography, Ernest Haller; edited by William Holmes; music by Max Steiner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Bette Davis (Judith Traherne), George Brent (Dr. Frederick Steele), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Ann King), Ronald Reagan (Alec), Humphrey Bogart (Michael O’Leary), Virginia Brissac (Martha), Cora Witherspoon (Carrie), Dorothy Peterson (Miss Wainwright), and Henry Travers (Dr. Parsons).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE BETTE DAVIS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve)

Whatever its faults, Blade Runner 2049 is breathtaking. Director Villeneuve’s composition, Roger Deakins’s photography, Dennis Gassner’s production design, all the CGI–the film is constantly gorgeous. It’s got nothing beautiful to show–the world of 2049 is a wasteland, all plant life is dead, the endless L.A. skyline is (while awesome) nasty, San Diego is a huge, inhabited dump. I mean, Jared Leto is a biochem industrialist who saves the world; like that world is going to be nice.

2049 spends a lot of time showcasing the achievements of that exterior setting. Interiors are sparer. Villeneuve’s direction is always good (or better), but the interior scenes lack something visually. Joe Walker’s editing can usually cover for it. Most of the interiors have lead Ryan Gosling wishing he was a real boy instead of a pretend one. He’s even got a pretend girlfriend (Ana de Armas as a holographic companion) who wishes she was a real one.

For a while, 2049 seems like it might be about Gosling and de Armas. But it’s not. Because even though Gosling is a Blade Runner, he’s not the blade runner 2049 cares about. Once Harrison Ford shows up, even when the movie’s from Gosling’s perspective, it’s not Gosling’s movie anymore. Maybe if the film had some great part for Ford, it would matter. But it doesn’t. It gives him a few minutes to get established, in a completely different context than his previous turn in the role, and then it keeps him around. Walker’s editing doesn’t cover for Ford like it does Gosling. Gosling sits around despondent in his affectless. Ford looks surprisingly genial and well-adjusted for a person who’s supposedly lived in complete isolation for the last thirty years.

Bringing me to talking about 2049 as a sequel to the original. Because there’s really nothing to it otherwise. There are a handful of sequel setups in 2049, but the way screenwriters Hampton Fancher (returning from the first film) and Michael Green find a story from the first movie? They just retcon obtusely, trusting Villeneuve to be able to pull it off. And he does. He’s able to keep 2049’s narrative detached from the screenplay’s minutiae (for most of the film); Gosling helps, until the movie stops wanting him to help. de Armas helps. Robin Wright (as Gosling’s boss, in an underwritten, underutilized role) helps. Ford’s likable, which really isn’t enough (and might be completely inappropriate, actually). Villain Sylvia Hoeks doesn’t help. She’s shockingly underdeveloped. And Villeneuve’s direction of the genetically enhanced replicant fight scenes is wanting. He can do it when it’s inconsequential, but he’s not able to make the fights dangerous for the characters.

Possibly because of Gosling’s complete detachment in the third act of the film, which is when there’s all the “first movie” revelations (but not, rather events soon following the first movie revelations) and sequel setup. Gosling starts on a hero’s quest, then finds himself just an observer of one. The prologue to one. Villeneuve and company cover as best they can–making the narrative events as unimportant an aspect to the film as possible–but they can’t. Villeneuve can’t share the movie between Ford and Gosling, neither can the script. Everyone just throws up their hands.

Probably because Ford doesn’t need to be there. But if Ford doesn’t need to be there, maybe the direct ties to the first movie don’t need to be there; take those two things away and there’s nothing to 2049 except the gorgeous dystopia. Gosling and de Armas’s subplot, which the film ends up using mostly pragmatically, is red herring.

The music, from Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, is lacking. But maybe because the film uses it so sparing. 2049 is bold where it can excel–the visuals–and cowardly where it needs to create. The villains are exceptionally thin. Gosling loses his movie. Ford gets to retread a part made different to allow for a way too careful sequel.

It’s too bad, but–deep down–no one should’ve thought a Blade Runner sequel would work. Especially not with Ford forced back into it. It’s like they got the money for a sequel but no one with a real idea for one. Villeneuve’s direction is visually stunning, his direction of actors is usually strong, but he’s got no handle on the story. 2049 is about avoidance.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to avoid a future where Jared Leto saved humanity.

CREDITS

Directed by Denis Villeneuve; screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, based on a story by Fancher, and characters created by Philip K. Dick, Fancher, and David Webb Peoples; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Joe Walker; music by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer; production designer, Dennis Gassner; produced by Bud Yorkin, Broderick Johnson, Cynthia Sikes, and Andrew A. Kosgrove; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ryan Gosling (K), Harrison Ford (Rick Deckard), Jared Leto (Niander Wallace), Ana de Armas (Joi), Sylvia Hoeks (Luv), Robin Wright (Madame), Dave Bautista (Sapper Morton), Mackenzie Davis (Mariette), and Carla Juri (Dr. Ana Stelline).


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The Narrow Corner (1933, Alfred E. Green)

The Narrow Corner runs seventy minutes; it speeds along. Robert Presnell Sr.’s script has somewhat lengthy, complicated scenes where he tries to fit in information. The movie doesn’t need all that information–the subplot about Reginald Owen translating a Portuguese epic poem–because director Green isn’t going to do anything with it.

The film has a somewhat peculiar structure–it starts with an affably odious South Seas captain, Arthur Hohl in a half great performance. He’s to set sail–for a year–with a single passenger Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Fairbanks is on the run, but it’s all hush hush.

Once they’re underway, things skip almost immediately to Hohl and Fairbanks bringing Dudley Digges onboard. Digges is a doctor who’s grown tired of his particular island and wants passage somewhere else. Hohl’s got a stomach ailment, leading to non sequitor burping throughout the film.

Narrow Corner never builds the relationship between Hohl and Fairbanks. It starts to build one between Hohl and Digges, but soon gives it up. Digges and Fairbanks’s relationship is going to be important (ostensibly) for the third act; it would’ve been nice if Presnell or Green cared. They don’t. Digges is underutilized in Narrow Corner. His acting style is a lot quieter than Hohl or even Fairbanks. He gives the film its weight.

Only it’s off and on because once Digges is onboard, the ship goes into a storm and Fairbanks has to captain her all himself. Nihilist Hohl sleeps below as the first-time seaman is on helm. And Digges is busy with his nightly opium (while pre-Code, Narrow Corner still doesn’t delve into that subject at all).

The storm sequence has phenomenal editing from Herbert I. Leeds and some great special effects. The film doesn’t have good projection shots, but all the other effects are excellent. Including the miniatures for the seafaring action–the storm or when the ship has to navigate a treacherous reef.

The success of the storm scene should let the film coast for a bit. And it does, but that bit is only a few minutes because Presnell and Green rush to introduce some new characters. The ship’s anchored off an island. Fairbanks thinks it’s uninhabited, so does a nude swimming scene. The great lengths the film goes through to hide Fairbanks from the torso down behind scenery is amusing but only because it’s so distracting. Presnell and Green severely overestimate the dramatic traction they’re getting out of implied nudity.

Turns out the island isn’t uninhabited, but it’s actual a Dutch settlement. There are (unseen) plantations around and a variety of new cast members. They’re all related. Owen the poem translator is father to Patricia Ellis, who meets naked swimming Fairbanks and immediately enchants him. William V. Mong is Owen’s father-in-law. Mong’s an old man (in a lot of old age makeup) who used to be a scumbag South Seas captain like Hohl. But now they’re rich.

Ralph Bellamy is Ellis’s secret fiancé. It doesn’t end up being clear she knows they’re engaged. Her character is exceptionally problematic. Ellis doesn’t do a great job with it, but there might not be a way to do a better one given how the part is written and how events unfold.

Once Fairbanks meets Ellis and Bellamy, Narrow Corner starts running toward the finish. Sure, it’s only the beginning of the second act, but Presnell can write long enough scenes to fill the runtime. Fairbanks and Bellamy become buddies, with Fairbanks even moving into Bellamy’s huge empty (and mostly) unseen estate. Narrow Corner occasionally will hint at wanting to examine the cultural situation–all the white people, regardless of their station, exploiting the native peoples–but then Presnell thinks better of it and moves along.

It’s too bad, but not unexpected. Narrow Corner is light on character development. Fairbanks doesn’t really get any. He just doesn’t talk much. When he does have a monologue, it’s therefore important. It’s the meat of the part. Fairbanks does okay with it. He’s got three big reveals; two of them are identical in content, which is its own problem. The first monologue is to Ellis; Fairbanks narrates a flashback. The flashback, shown in an awkward split screen, has some well-cut action and probably Green’s most engaged direction. A prologue might have given things away but it also would’ve given Fairbanks a better arc.

The other two monologues–including the third act one, which is nowhere near as dramatic as anyone pretends–are from Fairbanks to Digges. Digges is trying to tell Fairbanks something about the world. Fairbanks doesn’t care. See, Ellis is throwing herself at him and even if Fairbanks does think Bellamy’s swell, a man’s just a man.

If Ellis’s writing were better, if her performance were better, if she and Fairbanks had any chemistry, everything would be different. Instead, Narrow Corner is a nicely acted, adequately directed, half attempt at grand melodrama. All of the actors could excel if the script would just give them the opportunity. Even with the monologues, Fairbanks doesn’t have a better part than anyone else. Worse, in fact, than Digges. And almost Hohl; with the exception of banter with Mong about who’s the more odious white man South Seas captain, Hohl gets zip in the second half of the movie.

Inglorious given he started it.

But still. Not bad at all.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred E. Green; screenplay by Robert Presnell Sr., based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, Tony Gaudio; edited by Herbert I. Leeds; music by Bernhard Kaun; produced by Hal B. Wallis; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Fred Blake), Dudley Digges (Doctor Saunders), Arthur Hohl (Captain Nichols), Patricia Ellis (Louise Frith), Ralph Bellamy (Eric Whittenson), Reginald Owen (Mr. Frith), Willie Fung (Ah Kay), and William V. Mong (Jack Swan).


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Giant (1956, George Stevens)

Giant has a fairly good pace for running three hours and twenty minutes. Even more so considering almost the entire second act is told in summary, with stars Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean gradually getting more and more old age makeup. At his “oldest,” Hudson has a bulk harness, which is simultaneously obvious and effective. Hudson’s performance always needed a little heft. The literal visual presence of it helps.

The first half of Giant is Taylor’s. The film starts in early twentieth century Maryland. Texas cattle rancher Hudson arrives to buy Taylor’s stallion. Again, literally. It’s not clear why Hudson wants the horse because once he gets it home, there’s clearly no need for it. But Taylor decides she wants to marry Hudson right after meeting him; she’s engaged to Rod(ney) Taylor, who gets like four lines.

Taylor is Taylor so Hudson marries her, even though she’s already challenged him. Well, not him, but Texas. She pointed out they stole it from Mexico. That conversation ends up being this lengthy subplot through the entire film. And really Hudson’s only complete one. Giant starts as his movie but it’s Taylor’s after her second scene.

When they get back to big empty, pre-oil Texas, Taylor immediately runs into trouble with Mercedes McCambridge. McCambridge is Hudson’s (presumably older) sister who actually runs the ranch. Though Hudson doesn’t seem to understand it. At that point in the film, Giant becomes this glamorous yet discomforting look into the situation of intelligent women. They have to marry dim bulbs.

Besides realizing being a racist prick isn’t good, Hudson’s only arc for the three hours is worrying about who’s going to take over the family ranch. And it’s never dramatic because almost everyone in the second half–once the kids, who arrive about an hour in, grow up into teens then twentysomethings. Giant doesn’t dwell much on the years in between toddler and late teen because Pearl Harbor happens and young men need to be old enough to go off to war.

Taylor’s got a lot going on in the first half, before the aging makeup. She’s got to deal with McCambridge thinking she’s trying to take over the de facto matriarchy, Hudson being a chauvinist and a racist, her husband and his sister starving the Mexican-American workers on the ranch while intentionally depriving them of safe living conditions, problem ranch hand James Dean giving her the eye, and, soon, Hudson’s only parenting instinct to be to instill toxic masculinity.

And she’s great. The script’s always a little too scared to throw down about Hudson’s racism, almost like director Stevens knows it’s going to get too awkward afterwards so why not save it until the end. So Taylor’s got to navigate around that softness while still developing her character. It culminates in Taylor heading back for a “visit” in Maryland, taking the kids. Rodney Taylor gets another line. Real character development on the kids happens, which is cool. And the last time some of the three kids ever get any.

The second half, about when it’s the forties and oil has struck, eventually deals with youngest daughter Carroll Baker deciding to rebel by pursuing James Dean. Dean, in his old age makeup with an awesome pencil mustache, is, of course, old enough to be her father.

That the three kids, both as babies and then adults, look more like not just Taylor and Dean’s kids, but also Taylor and Taylor’s is sadly never a thing. Hudson whines at one point about a grandkid not looking like him but, come on, none of his kids ever have.

Giant’s not a soap. While Dean clearly has the hots for Taylor, her arc with him (in the first half, when she still gets arcs), is more about her coming to terms with her disappointment in Texas. Young Dean is a dreamer who wants to get far away. Old Dean is not a dreamer. The movie doesn’t really do the dreaming thing. Everyone’s too rich. It just happens.

Dean’s fantastic. He’s a villain, of sorts, but a supporting one. He’s not Hudson’s antagonist, at least not after the film’s done establishing the Texas ground situation on Taylor and Hudson’s arrival. But the thoughtfulness of the performance, which carries over (and gets even better, actually) into the aging makeup, is something to behold. There are some flashy scenes, but it’s also impressive in the quiet moments when the film’s still giving Dean an active subplot.

He loses it just before the film starts jumping ahead. He figures into the second half a lot, but he’s not an active presence. Third act, yes. Third act is when he gets to show-off what screen acting can actually be in old age makeup. But in the second he’s all background. He’s no longer in current contention for ranch heir.

Dennis Hopper plays the disappointing son–first he became a doctor and then he married a Hispanic girl (Elsa Cárdenas in the film’s most thankless role, which is saying a lot considering Sal Mineo’s “part”). He ends up figuring into the third act a lot. He’s all right. Better than Baker, who isn’t able to make the minx believable. Old man Dean is a creeper and he doesn’t hide it. It’s never believable Baker would think it was so hot.

Other than Dean being dreamy, apparently. And it’s no wonder. Taylor and Hudson’s old age makeup puts them in their, I don’t know, late sixties? They’re supposed to be fifty (at the most). Only Dean looks close to appropriate.

Screenwriters Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat bring up the aging in dialogue once or twice, with one full conversation, but it doesn’t play into the rest of the film. It’s never subtext. It’s either obvious or absent. Hudson’s increased drinking, however, seems like it might be a thing, especially since he and Dean both become massive functioning alcoholics simultaneously but separately.

In the finish, the film decides it wants to be about Hudson and his racism, but without ever, of course, being too judgy about it. Giant’s not telling people not to be racist at home, just out in public when some of the good ones might be around. But it does go so far as to tell them it’s still not really okay to be racist at home. Mind who’s around, of course. Good old uncle Chill Wills is all right, wink, wink.

And it almost kind of sort of gets somewhere. Even though it ignores this subplot actually had everything to do with Taylor before the film took it away. Giant comes through for Dean at the end. It comes through for Hudson. Well, his character at least. But it never comes through for Taylor.

Like, Dean is perving on Baker because she’s Taylor’s kid. It’s a thing. And Taylor never gets to deal with it. Stevens really lacks confidence in the leads’ abilities in the oldest aging makeup. So much so he doesn’t even try. He steps back. It works for Dean. It works for Hudson.

It doesn’t work for Taylor. It’s a bummer.

Most of the acting is good. Besides Baker. Earl Holliman’s a little ineffectual as well. But Paul Fix and Judith Evelyn are good as Taylor’s parents. Wills is good. Jane Withers, playing a character who clearly had a lot more to do in the novel, is fine.

Excellent photography from William C. Mellor. Stevens’s direction is good. It’s just a lot of story and a lot of movie. They get through it, but they don’t excel with it. William Hornbeck’s editing is perfunctory, which really doesn’t help by the third act, when the film proves unable to be soapy even when it wants and needs to be.

Still, taking everything into account, Giant’s worth it for Dean’s performance. It’s worth it for some of Taylor’s. It’s a damn shame there isn’t more to hers. The film really needed to be more confident treating second-billed Hudson like he’s second-billed.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by George Stevens; screenplay by Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat, based on the novel by Edna Ferber; director of photography, William C. Mellor; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; production designer, Boris Leven; produced by Harry Ginsberg and Stevens; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Elizabeth Taylor (Leslie Benedict), Rock Hudson (Jordan ‘Bick’ Benedict Jr.), James Dean (Jett Rink), Mercedes McCambridge (Luz Benedict), Carroll Baker (Luz Benedict II), Dennis Hopper (Jordan Benedict III), Fran Bennett (Judy Benedict), Elsa Cárdenas (Juana Guerra Benedict), Earl Holliman (‘Bob’ Dace), Chill Wills (Uncle Bawley), Paul Fix (Dr. Horace Lynnton), Judith Evelyn (Mrs. Nancy Lynnton), Jane Withers (Vashti Snythe), Rod Taylor (Sir David Karfrey), Robert Nichols (Mort ‘Pinky’ Snythe), Carolyn Craig (Lacey Lynnton), Sal Mineo (Angel Obregón II), and Charles Watts (Judge Oliver Whiteside).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE ELIZABETH TAYLOR BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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