Archive for the ‘Classics’ Category

A Note on The Wild Bunch

June 7th, 2021 No comments


The Wild Bunch immediately establishes itself as a film not just pushing the limits of what people have seen in Westerns up until the time (1969) but it explores the moral ambiguity of the American Western. Nobody in the Wild Bunch wears the white hat or the black hat. They’re all a dusty gray.

Professional outlaw Pike Bishop (William Holden) lead his gang to rob a bank in an unnamed town while posing as “law enforcement.” Their ride into town played over the opening credits, where it is intercut with a group of teetotaling members of a temperance movement holding a church service and a group of bounty hunters set up on the roof tops around the town bank. By the time the ‘directed by Sam Peckinpah’ credit faded from screen a tense scene had already been perfectly established. Very economic storytelling.

Once the outlaw gang cleared out the bank vault, Bishop kept them waiting. Church had been adjourned, the temperance protesters paraded through the street advocating for their cause. Bishop, without concern of collateral damage or perhaps thinking the bounty hunters won’t shoot into a crowd, waited for the church-goers to get close enough to be his cover.

The gang made a break for it, and chaos erupted. When the first man is shot blood sprayed from his body and he fell off the San Rafael building. For an audience accustomed to Leone westerns from earlier in the decade, this was startling. Blood never congeals in the dirt around the body in Leone’s world. But this was made in a post-Bonnie and Clyde Hollywood; the Hollywood heavily invested in squibs and zoom lenses.

Bishop and his gang took bystanders as shields. The bounty hunters rained down hellfire, hitting outlaw and civilian indiscriminately. Each bullet wound sprayed blood and soaked the ground. It takes our American nostalgia and glorification of the shoot ’em up Cowboys and adds a sense of consequence. A sense that perhaps the violent birth of the American West should not be romanticized.

Only half of Bishop’s men escaped the ambush, and one that made it out was badly injured. Without hesitation, Bishop executed him so he would ‘t slow them down. Back in town, the bounty hunting posse descended on the dead and picked them clean before the carrion birds arrived. They didn’t just loot the bodies of the outlaws, but the innocents as well. The only twinges of compunction came from Bishop’s right-hand man Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) and his former-partner-turned-bounty hunter Deke Thompson (Robert Ryan).

Deke was ashamed at the sight of his dessert-trash posse disrespecting the dead. Dutch was dismayed at the gang’s leader executing one of their own. But they both trundle on, accepting the violence of their times.

We know this world now. None are safe from the violence; not outlaw, law enforcement, hired bounty hunter, soldier, freedom fighter, parishioner nor pacific citizen of the town There were only have two types of people in this world, murderers and victims. Where violence begat violence.

The cultural climate in 1969 practically begged for an updated honest take on the American Western. Throughout the decade filmmakers used lighter weight cameras and more manageable zoom lenses to shoot in the field. Leone, Ford and Hawks had established basic “rules” ready to be subverted. And Bonnie and Clyde was a primer for the bloodshed.

One thing that stuck me was the way Peckinpah used the zoom lens to help give context to background characters. There’s one moment when the frame starts close on a mother breast feeding her child and the zoom pulls wider to show strangers on horseback riding into town. This intimate interaction between mother and child was disregarded by the strangers, these outlaws. Peckinpah does this quite often, giving a quick zoom in on helpless citizens or pulling wide to reveal the disorder around them. Again this highlighted the collateral damage done during the settlement in the west. And the nursing mother, specifically, underscored the violent upbringing that will be forced upon future generations.

The town Pike rode into was the seemingly idyllic hometown of Angel, a member of Pike’s gang played by Jaime Sánchez. The town, however, was under the oppressive reign of General Mapache who had also absconded with Angel’s girlfriend, Teresa. This is where Angel tranformed from being a member of a gang of outlaws to being the representation of the oppressed innocent bystanders during endless conflicts of the region.

Jaime Sánchez as Angel

From here on the camera lingers on Angel at different moments so we can see the pain, anger, jealousy and moral battle raging inside him as it is in the citizens of Mexico at the time. Pike and his men never really faced this dilemma. Their loyalties, their sense of right and wrong, was all dictated on whether or not their actions would make money.

Emilio Fernández as General Mapache

This brought Pike and his gang to pull a job for General Mapache that would secure him guns for his war against the Mexican Revolutionaries. Angel had other plans, knowing the arsenal would be used to continue the oppression of his town. Angel’s plan was revealed to Mapache and in turn Mapache had his men beat Angel and drag him behind his car.

When they drag Angel behind the car the camera is mounted to the vehicle and we can feel the dust in our eyes, can feel every jostle and every turn. When he stands up, we see his battered abused face.

Pike finally succumbed to his conscience after Angel, this representation of the Mexican people, was slaughtered in front him. It culminates in a magnificent bloody ending. The wild bunch waged a battle against the General and all of his men, tearing through them with a machine gun. My favorite image in the film is a crazed, bloody Warren Oates screaming as he unleashed Hell on the Mexican army.

The ending is amazing even by today’s standards. We cut rapidly between what feels like hundreds of angles, squibs are exploding at a fantastic rate, the lens zooms to anguished expressions and at the end a full battalion of extras lay covered in dust and blood. It would be nice to feel our antiheroes won, at least in small sense. But we don’t. Again, all the hats here are a dusty gray and many people do not like to think of the world as an endless gray area. There is a comfort for people to think of the world as strictly good and evil, black and white. But that is not reality.

Scavenger birds sit on the walls looking down on the flesh covered vultures that rush in to raid the bodies. These are Deke’s men again, the bounty hunters that are literally digging gold teeth out of dead bodies to enrich themselves. Deke walks out of the fort, disillusioned with the scene, and collapses against the wall. Was anything gained from all the bloodshed? All the pain and suffering? No. But he seems to have resigned himself to the fact this pattern will continue. Still continues.

This film came out just one year after “Once Upon A Time In The West,” which is among my favorite Westerns. Something they did that “The Wild Bunch” also did was cast a lead against type. They cast Henry Fonda as the black hat villain. It’s a far cry from “Jezebel” or “The Lady Eve.” Then William Holden as Pike goes against every image I’ve ever held of him. I remember him as the charming and funny David from “Sabrina.” Or the congenial, callow companion to Norma Desmond in “Sunset Blvd.” Later he appeared as another morally compromised character in “Network,” and it’s a highlight in his storied career.

“The Wild Bunch” is one of those rare films that you hear is a ‘masterpiece,’ then lives up to the hype. Everyone involved is at the top of their game. Ernest Borgnine, a man I most closely associate with his role as the simple-minded Marty, actually pulls off the role of a gunslinging outlaw. What I love most, aside from the technical aspects of the filmmaking, is that it helps dispel the myths of the West. Someone like John Wayne actually lamented the death of the Old West mythology when The Wild Bunch was released. But it is important to view our history accurately and not shrouded in folklore where we idolize murderers as heroes.

Rambling about Capra and Sturges

February 4th, 2012 No comments

On my continuing journey into American filmmakers I compared Preston Sturges and Frank Capra, two great comic directors of their day. I watched the films directed by Sturges and Capra and read their autobiographies.  They both wrote their life story in the same way they told stories on the screen; Carpra wrote his life similar to his message films, like Mr. Smith Goes To WashingtonIt’s A Wonderful Life and Mr Deeds Goes To Town, where his determined will and faith in the American dream helped him overcome the odds and reign as king of Hollywood in the 30s and into the 40s.  Sturges tells his life as a somewhat episodic disjointed narrative, the way I feel The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story waere told, and he only touches briefly on his career in Hollywood spending most of his time reminiscing about lessons he learned during his wanton exploits as a globe-trotting youth being dragged around by his “Bohemian” mother.


Capra portrays himself as a man driven by a worship of money and success with a hubris only matched by that of his studio boss, Harry Cohn.  Throughout he makes vain attempts to be self-effacing, wanting us to believe that his motivations are pure in the spirit of the American dream and ideals. Everything for Capra began with a prophetic letter his family received in Sicily from his older brother telling them about the promise of Los Angeles. Capra’s only laconic moment of the book is when he tells us about the horrid condition on the ship across the Atlantic and how he started peddling newspapers on street corners at the age of 6.  He struggled against the odds to attend school, become an exemplary student and got into CalTech.  He worked three jobs while staying up on his studies to graduate with a chemical engineering degree.  Every event and conversation during these early years seem as though they were steered by Divine Providence.

When Capra was down and out, living in a room from which he’d soon be evicted and unable to find an engineering job, he was approached by a man named “Tuffy” who offered Capra $20,000 to build a still for bootlegging. He tells the story as though he wants to convince us that he is the embodiment of incorruptible American ideals.  He refuses the money, trusting that again Providence will deliver him prosperity in legitimate work. From here on out, moments that tested Capra’s morals felt more like they came from one of his movies than they did from his own life.  I can picture Gary Cooper as “Frank Capra” and Akim Tamiroff as “Tuffy” exchanging witty banter as Tuffy tells him “look here kid, this is 20 Gs, don’t be a fool.” To which Cooper stands tall, “Tuffy, I don’t want any of your, or anyone else’s, dirty money. I’m looking to make an honest living.”

The nameless man in Mr Deeds…

I would be remiss if I were to ignore Capra’s tenacity and hard-work.  He started out as a gag-writer for Hal Roach’s “Our Gang,” worked through the picture-mill at Mack Sennett studios, made a comic star out of Harry Langdon and fought like hell to become a director at Columbia, bringing that little studio some major prestige.  But the manner in which Capra tells of his rise rings insincere. The same insincerity in his autobiography I felt in his message films.  In fact, there is a moment in the book where Capra is claims he talked himself into a mysterious illness when a nameless man comes to him and calls him a coward.  He tells Capra that he can reach hundreds of millions with his movies and if doesn’t use his God-given talents for God’s purpose he is an offense to God and humanity.  In the Capra’s film Mr Deeds Goes To Town, a nameless man storms into Mr. Deeds office and tells him he was given this money to do good for humanity. Perhaps he just used the encounter as inspiration for Deeds, or perhaps when reflecting on his life he recalls it being far more inspired and serendipitous than it was. What other people have called the heart and soul of some Capra films I saw as a contrivance. This is why, when I think of the genius of Capra as a director, I focus on It Happened One Night and Arsenic and Old Lace.

It Happened One Night was the movie that should have never happened.  Most people rejected the script, actors and actresses refused inflated salaries to avoid being cast.  As Capra tells it, Louis Mayer was punishing Clark Gable for demanding more money so he sent him to Columbia, dubbed Poverty Row by the bigger studios.  Then there is the incredibly charming Claudette Colbert. She was on contract with Paramount and would only do the picture if they could finish with her during her 4 week vacation and double her Paramount salary.  $50,000 for 4 weeks work.  What resulted was a production chalk full of concessions made to the two demanding stars who Capra eventually got to lighten up enough to inject incredible life into a funny script.  This road-tripping adventure has everything you need in a good comedy; quick witty dialogue mixed with physical comedy expertly and surprisingly turned by Gable and sexual innuendo that laughed in the face of the production code. “The Walls of Jericho are coming down.”

Arsenic and Old Lace was already a wonderful play by Joseph Kesselring then adapted by the genius screenwriting duo, Julius and Phillip Epstein. and Capra busted the film out on a very short schedule before he went into the Army to make war films for the Defense Department. Where One Night was successful on the performance of two stars, Arsenic and Old Lace benefits from an ensemble cast lead by Cary Grant in his funniest role. A man who, for me, only conjured up ideas of style and poise took on a script laden with physical comedy that showcased a versatility rare in actors.  But while he headlined the film, it is the supporting cast that helps this comedy transcend everything else Capra directed. Jean Adair and Josephine Hull steal the show as the delightfully, charmingly insane aunts that have been poisoning widowed men as “sympathy” killings.  They play killers that are so affable and sweet that I would probably accept any drink they hand me as to not hurt their feelings.  And while exuding a certain innocence that become endearing, you see Mortimer (Grant) doing everything to protect his aunts, risking his own life and his marriage in the process.  Rounding out the cast is Peter Lorre as a drunk and inept doctor who has butchered plastic surgery on Mortimer’s brother Jonathan played by Raymond Massey.  When each of these eccentric characters find themselves sharing a legal and deadly predicament, chaos erupts in the home.

Both films were made quickly, shot from the hip as they say, which allowed pure magic to happen.  Capra didn’t have the lax schedules he had with some of his other films and I think that restriction produced his two best films.  If you haven’t watched these movies, watch them immediately, you won’t regret one minute.  And if you have a soft-spot for the Capra-corn/Capraesque message films, they are all good, tightly directed films from a master craftsmen in the purest sense. But I highly recommend You Can’t Take It With You above all others.  It’s a film that happens to mix Capra’s good-natured message with a mix of zany characters lead by Lionel Barrymore.  And a quick final note on Capra: the films he went on to make for the War Department became the “Why We Fight” documentary series which are incredible, beautiful propaganda films that highlight Capra’s strength as a director.  They inspired a jingoism in me that I have felt in over a decade.


While Capra was busy chasing his fame and gold statues over at Columbia, Sturges was a brash screenwriter emerging at Paramount.  He started writing plays almost out of spite of girl that left him and then transitioned effortlessly to Hollywood.  Between 1940 and 1945 he wrote and directed The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, Miracle and Morgan Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero and The Great Moment (originally titled Triumph Over Pain).  He literally shot like a meteor to the top of Hollywood, but came on a whim, like he did everything in his life.

Born just months apart, while Capra fought his way out of poverty working three jobs and earning a degree, Preston’s mother, an eccentric bohemian, dragged Preston across Europe. She continually abandoned him at boarding schools and with guardians throughout his life as she traversed the continent with her friends.  Preston became part of her misadventures in between school terms and found himself around the elite class of Europeans as well as around hustlers and grifters.  His mother in fact took him along as she hustled thousands from a bank by exploiting a devaluation of the franc to bring her extra funds. The personalities and experiences from Preston’s childhood stuck in his mind and they all ended up in his movies.  Where Capra had a life of deep thought, tough struggles and a fulfillment of the American Dream while he coveted money, Sturges was raised without a country, without respect of money and events that to him seemed (derived from the structure of his book) episodic.  One event was never really born from the preceding event and this fast paced life directly contributed to the frenetic energy of his films.

The Great Moment was not a very good movie.  Sturges had ambitions for the film that stood in direct opposition to those of the studio and they took the film over. It’s not worth a review here.  Instead, I wanted to mention two brilliant comedies, both successful in large part to Eddie Bracken: Miracle at Morgan Creek and Hail The Conquering Hero.

Miracle is about the loving, and yet unloved, Norval Jones (Bracken).  He wants desperately to be a soldier going out to the front lines, but doesn’t pass the physical.  He is also deeply in love with Trudy Kockenlocker (HA!) played by Betty Hutton who has a resounding admiration and attraction for men in uniform.  She finds herself married and pregnant after a night with the troops but can’t remember who the man was and believes the used fake names, so who could track him?  Norval steps up, offering to help Trudy, but when her father (Sturges mainstay William Demarest) gets involved Norval finds himself running from the law.  It is high energy, quick moving comedy that brings back Akim Tamiroff and Brian Donlevy to reprise their roles from The Great McGinty.  The ending is rushed and truncated again, like all of Sturges’ films, with one last play at a joke and ‘The End.’

I didn’t know Eddie Bracken before this movie but he’s a brilliant comic actor with great physicality and seems fearless as he asks us to laugh at him. Sturges again tapped into Bracken’s strengths for Hail The Conquering Hero.  Bracken now plays Woodrow, a soldier who is going to return home without ever seeing battle (again physical ailments prevent him from fighting).  He is afraid of returning home in disgrace, so William Demarest and a group of soldiers returning form the battle at Guadalcanal tell his hometown that he is in fact a front line hero.  One white lie spins out of control as Woodrow gets nominated for local office and finds the praise to be more than he can bear.  Sturges’ pace is so quick that you hardly have time to question the town’s Woodrow-fever, all you can do is sit back and go along with it.

In the end, Sturges is the fun fling. Watching Miracle  or The Palm Beach Story is always good for just an entertaining laugh. A capricious restaurateur, filmmaker and vagabond, Sturges didn’t take life too serious, believing in Sullivan’s message that laughter is all some people have. Capra is the more intellectual filmmaker that takes his role in the world much more serious.  He took his life much more serious. But no two filmmakers proved Truffaut more right than these men, possibly the first two auteurs of American talking cinema.  Their personalities and life experiences are not just stamped on their movies, they are engraved in the emulsion of every frame.  It wasn’t until studios started to control them did their movies lose their audience, and their award prestige. According to Capra the artistic fortunes that brought such great American films in the 30s and 40s started to slide with the sale of Liberty Films to Paramount in 1947.  He said, “…practically all the Hollywood filmmaking of today is stooping to cheap salacious pornography in a crazy bastardization of a great art to compete for the “patronage” of deviates and masturbators.  If that isn’t a slide, it’ll do until a real avalanche hits our film Mecca.”

That’s a bit of a pessimistic attitude coming from Capra. If he felt the deviants got hold of Hollywood in the 60s, the 70s should have killed him. But he does end the autobiography with hope. He admires filmmakers like Lumet, Kubrick, Wise, Schaffner and Jewison. Yes, there is a certain “wholesomeness” to the comedies of the 30s and 40s on the surface, but they worked in plenty of controversy (I mean, Betty Hutton didn’t even know which soldier knocked her up, Gable blew down the walls of Jericho).  His biggest complaint seems to be that he doesn’t feel filmmakers have something important to say anymore and he ends by encouraging people that have something to say to give it shot, saying “…to the discouraged, the doubting, or the despairing… ‘friend, you are a divine mingle-mangle of guts and stardust. So hang in there! If doors opened for me, they can open for anyone.”

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A Note on Preston Sturges, pt. 2 (major spoilers as I discuss the lackluster endings)

March 28th, 2011 No comments

Between 1940 and 1942 Preston Sturges made three highly regarded comedies for Paramount: The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story.  All three were made in succession right at the zenith of Sturges’ career.  In fact the man never liked taking time off, and by the end of 1940 he had released both The Great McGinty and Christmas in July with The Lady Eve in the can.  He seemed to write and direct with the fervor of a coke-addict. Immediately after wrapping on Sullivan’s Travels he was fully immersed in the script for The Palm Beach Story. He did all this while continuing to write on scripts for colleagues at Paramount and helping to cultivate the careers of up-and-coming comic directors like the great Billy Wilder.  I suppose it was wise for him to attack so vigorously the hot iron because there was a shift in the management at Paramount and he was soon to depart.  But while he still had his bloated salary and contracted players he directed three comedies that some still rank among America’s best films. With the same fury and fervor at which he attacked the scripts my daughter, Boston, and I attacked the Sturges box-set, watching three films in a row.


The Lady Eve is a film that plays heavily on the “fall of man.”  From Genesis forward men have been suckered in by women, and Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) is the biggest sucker since Adam. On a cruise ship back to America after spending over a year in the Amazon studying snakes (again, a Genesis reference), Charles is the rich man for whom all the ladies are clamoring. The poor oaf never picks up on any of their advances, so the conniving Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) plans an elaborate con on the man in order to win his affection and hopefully his money.  Harrington trips Charles in the dining room, and because of his good nature, ends up apologizing to her. Before he knows what hit him he finds himself in her cabin.  The well-choreographed seduction, an example of Sturges’ ability for brilliant mise en scene, sets the tone for their entire relationship.

It was around this time Boston had to take a nap, 9-month olds apparently aren’t great with movie marathons. I tried to keep her up to see this comical card game where Jean and father (Charles Coburn) use their own card tricks to undermine each other while the oblivious Charles just plays along.  But she fell asleep just as we start to see true emotion starting to build between Jean and Charles and she missed the major plot points.  Charles’ loyal attendant Muggsy (played by Sturges mainstay William Demarest) grows increasingly suspicious of Jean and uncovers her dark past of hustling wealthy men.  This effectively ends their whirlwind romance and sets the stage for the second half of the film in which Jean plans to exact revenge.

Jean arrives months later at the Pike estate for a party under the alias Lady Eve Sidwich, but fails to disguise herself any more than speaking with a phony accent and putting her hair up.  Muggsy continues to insist “it’s the same dame,” but Charles thinks she would disguise herself more if she were trying to seduce him again. The only people that could be possibly fooled by this would be Charles and the people working with Clark Kent at the The Daily Planet. AH! It was about a thirty minute nap for Boston and she’s a awake around this point and completely lost.  What does she expect when sleeping through most of the second act?  I refuse to rewind it for her because parenting is all about teaching lessons: #1, don’t fall asleep during movies.

I saw on Boston’s face that she wasn’t buying this con of Jean’s, even with Charles’ firm belief that Eve just can’t be Jean.  We listen to Jean’s partner in crime, Sir Alfred (Eric Blore), lay a thick and wild history of coachmen and torrid affairs on Charles that would explain the coincidence in appearance.  This seems to satisfy Charles and us as the audience, so we let it slide because (lesson #2) it’s important to suspend our disbelief in a screwball comedy such as this, so one explanation should do. And then Sturges goes too far.  He wrote a quick speech for Jean, telling us that Charles couldn’t recognize her because on the boat they were in love and when you’re in love with a person you see them differently. I thought it a weak bit of writing actually, a sign of a writer not trusting that his audience is already along for the ride. Boston scoffed at the line and continued to eat her veggie poofs that taste like healthy Cheetos so I ate a few myself (lesson #3, guard your food).

This is one of my favorite roles for Henry Fonda, the other is a dark role as the villian in Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West. Fonda plays Charles Pike with an endearing innocence and naiveté mixed with a clumsy charm that plays heavily into Sturges’ theme of the “fall of man.”  According to Sturges in his autobiography (oh yeah, I should mention that I’m reading his autobiography, it’s pictured on my nightstand to the right, the second book down.  The book above it is You Shall Know Our Velocity! by Dave Eggers which I highly recommend) people advised against using so many pratfalls in this film, but Sturges loves his pratfalls and they work  for him.  I’m not a huge fan of slapstick comedy, a guy just tripping over himself doesn’t really get a big laugh out of me, but with Fonda’s approach to Pike’s character it worked with a strong cumulative effect.  From the onset we get the sense he’s an uncoordinated naive man that is quick to fall in love and quick to fall over a couch.  And it becomes important that we understand Pike’s character in this way otherwise we’d never believe the ensuing con on the mainland. Stanwyck and Fonda are great as a screwball couple, Sturges should’ve continued to utilize Fonda in all of his films, but this was the only film that paired the two.  Sturges would move on to work with Joel McCrea.


Drama seemed to dominate the landscape in film school, and drama tends to win out when festivals and academies dole out awards.  I’m not sure if people simply feel there is more merit in a dramatic film, or if it’s a more difficult task or if they think somehow drama is able to more aptly portray the plight of man but they are all wrong.  A good comedy does more to express the human condition than any drama and it is far more difficult to create a successful comedy.  Now as Sturges explains it, during a time in the early forties when all of his friends were dedicating their pages to the dramatic he got caught up in a conversation about why he would continue to scribe and direct the comedic picture.  Instead of engaging in a heavy debate he decided to make a movie as his answer, and Sullivan’s Travels was the result.

Sullivan’s Travels is Sturges’ biggest “message” film, a commentary on the Hollywood landscape of the 1940’s (referencing his friends Capra and Lubitsch) and addressing the needs of the downtrodden man.  We open with a brilliantly funny scene with a big-shot movie director, John Sullivan (Joel McCrea), insisting on directing “O Brother Where Art Thou,” a fictional dramatic novel. He wants to make a movie about the real working man, about the suffering of the everyday American, a movie with messages and political commentary and then I imagined a modern day film executive driving his Bentley while talking into his bluetooth about how he wants to make a drama about the suffering of the common man. The studio heads must have the same sort of imagine in their heads and they insist Sullivan doesn’t know the first thing about human suffering.  This strikes a cord in Sullivan, so he insists that he will set out on his own without any money or assistance to learn about the suffering of the common man.  The first message in the film comes from one of Sullivan’s servants who says, “The poor know all about poverty, and only the morbidly rich would find the topic glamorous.”  Take note Academy members that vote for movies like Precious.

It was lunch time for Boston and I, but we didn’t want to miss anything from a movie that starts so strong, so we made the lunch in front of the TV, I with a sandwich and she with a bottle and some pears (I wish I loved anything as much as this kid loves pears). On Sullivan’s journey he encounters a struggling actress, played by the stunning Veronica Lake.  Lake is very soft-spoken with a dead-pan delivery of very witty dialogue.  Sturges has a way of writing strong female characters, although The Girl is a small step backward from Jean Harrington.  Now that there’s a girl in the picture, “because there’s always a girl in the picture,” Sullivan has a partner on his adventure.  They try to find hardship, but it proves difficult to get away from the Hollywood execs that are looking out for their director.

We finished our lunch just as The Girl and Sullivan were scrounging the streets for a meal and then run back to Hollywood. Sullivan’s lame attempt at getting in touch with the common man was supposed to end with his generous giving of a thousand dollars to those he feels helped him.  But this act of condescension backfires as a greedy street urchin attacks him for the money.  In the midst of it all he does find some kindness wherever he goes, from other homeless and from a magnanimous prison guard when Sullivan finds himself on a chain gang.  Now I fear spoiling some of the finer points of this smart comedic adventure into the troubles of the working class transient citizens of the world, so I want to skip to something Sturges wrote in his autobiography about this film.

“The ending wasn’t right, but I didn’t know how to solve the problem, which was not only to show what Sullivan learned, but also to tie up the love story…There was probably a way of doing it, but I didn’t happen to come across it.  It might be profitable for a young director to look at Sullivan’s Travels and try not to make the same mistakes I did.”

At the end of Sullivan’s Travels it wraps up with the message being stated plain and simply, we make comedies because sometimes laughter is all a person has. (lesson #4 for the day, never underestimate the value of laughter). It’s strange that he makes a point to comment on the ending of Sullivan’s Travels opposed to his other films.  Sullivan’s Travels may have been the only one that could get away with such a brief conclusion, whereas The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story suffer from the unsatisfying brevity of their final act.


But regardless of what feels to me a tacked on and unsatisfying end to The Palm Beach Story, it’s so far my favorite Sturges film.  The biggest draw to this screwball comedy is Claudette Colbert’s magnitude (magnetic attitude, thanks Community).  I would’ve absolutely loved to see Colbert in The Lady Eve, I enjoy her so much more than Stanwyck.  And on that note, as much as I like McCrea, Fonda would’ve been pure dynamite opposite Colbert in this film.  I digress! Why talk about what could’ve been when the movie is solid without any changes at all.  So let’s get into it!

Boston has this little chuckle that she does, it’s like a courteous laugh to a joke that wasn’t very funny but you don’t want to make the situation awkward by not laughing.  She chuckled like this through the beginning of The Palm Beach Story, but it’s because I think the whole situation was a bit over her head.  She doesn’t understand the wonderful timing and delivery of Claudette Colbert.  Colbert plays Gerry, a devoted wife that insists on divorcing her husband Tom (Joel McCrea) because of their financial and professional troubles. Earlier in the day “The Wienie King,” a delightful old man who is hard of hearing, gives Gerry enough money to run off to Palm Beach, FL where she hopes to meet a wealthy man she can marry in order to help her soon to be ex, Tom.  But Tom is not willing to give up the woman he loves so easily and tracks her down to Palm Beach, only to find that through a series of comedic events she has gained the favor of one of the richest men in the world, JD Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee). He must now pretend to be Gerry’s brother as she tries to extort money out of her new suitor.

Again, Boston’s not buying into the plot much.  I remind her of lesson #2 from earlier in the day, suspend your disbelief in a screwball comedy (or any movie for that matter).  She seems to forgive any plot holes in this more than in The Lady Eve.  So we allow ourselves to get swept into the story, laughing at the rambunctious group of wealthy men that smuggle Gerry onto the train, then we got uncomfortable at the overt racism, but again laugh as the plot becomes complicated with Gerry and Tom both getting in over their heads with deceit.  Deceit is a very common theme with Sturges.  From The Great McGinty on he uses aliases and disguises to have characters deceive on and other.  Harrington becomes Eve, Sullivan becomes a vagrant, and here Tom becomes Gerry’s brother who is now being pursued relentlessly by Princess Centimilla (Mary Astor), who still being pursued by an old suitor, Toto.  Toto is the bumbling shadow to Centimillia, but the princess is determined to get Tom as her next husband.

It’s more than a love triangle the ensues, it’s more of a love square.  And Boston can’t keep her eyes open any more and I paused the movie to put her down for another nap.  But kudos to her for making it through all of Sullivan’s Travels.  When I unpause the movie Gerry enters Tom’s room with a zipper that she cannot unzip on her own.  This recalls an earlier incident where simply helping with a zipper turned into a passionate night of sex.  It was wonderfully planted and now paying off as their love for each other cannot be denied.  What was not planted was the idea of having twins.  *SPOILER* When Tom and Gerry tell Hackensacker and Centimillia they are clearly distraught but seem content in knowing that both Tom and Gerry have twins.  So we end quickly with a Hackensacker and Centimillia marrying the siblings of the people they want to marry.  They all live happily ever after, or do they? It was actually an odd, contrived and rushed ending.  It could be argued that the twins were set up in a sort of prologue in the film, but not well enough for the audience to earn this ending.  So, lesson #5 – earn your third act.

Aside from the apparent racism in all of his films (do all black people really talk like that?) the biggest, possibly the my only issue, with Sturges is he doesn’t earn the ending and likes to just burn through the third act.  Like I said earlier, I like the concluding moment in Sullivan’s Travels, but the final sequence of The Lady Eve brings us suddenly back on a cruise ship, Pike trips over Harrington and then they run off to his cabin confessing their love for each other.  It’s just too quick. Despite this flaw of his, Sturges still remains a master of comedic choreography, mise en scene and witty dialogue.  If he made no other films than these three he would still have been cemented as one of the greatest Hollywood directors of the 1940s.

All in all it’s not a bad way to spend a day.  Three good films, funny and optimistic, and some great parenting.  I taught her five very valuable lessons; and she probably took away even more gems that I just shelled out for free not even aware of it.

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A note on Preston Sturges, part 1

February 10th, 2011 No comments


Again, the wife has started her night shifts, Bean goes to bed early, so at the age of 30 on Saturday nights in a whirling metropolis I shut myself up in my apartment and satisfy a promise I made to Our Man In Hollywood, Jim Brown.  During my trip to his house for Thanksgiving Mr. Brown was slightly disappointed in my knowledge of classic American cinema and could care less about my knowledge of German Expressionism, Eisenstien, the French New Wave, Italian Neo-Realism, etc. etc. etc. and I realized (again) that my education has in another way failed me.  There isn’t much emphasis on the classics in American cinema even though they directly inspired the filmmakers of other movements that are studied ad nausea. So, even though Brown told me to start with the musicals by Vincent Minelli and Busby Berkeley, I started with the celebrated comic writer/director Preston Sturges.  Starting where it only makes sense, at the beginning, I watched The Great McGinty – it was the first film directed by Sturges, from his original screenplay, and launched a relationship with Paramount that saw Sturges rise as one of the most prolific writer/directors of the 1940s.

The story is told almost entirely in flashback by Daniel McGinty (played by 40s noir star Brian Donlevy) as he lives in exile as a bar tender in a banana republic.  His story begins on the night of a mayoral election.  As a hungry vagrant looking for a quick buck, McGinty hustles from voting booth to voting booth earning him $2 for each vote he casts for the incumbent mayor.  It exposes quickly a layer of corruption that reaches from the mayor, through The Boss and into the police force and breadlines.  After casting 37 votes  around town he’s entitled to $74, which The Politician (played by Sturges mainstay William Demarest) cannot pay.  This gets McGinty into The Boss’ office and starts a profitable but contentious relationship that lasts through the duration of the film.  As a pugnacious opportunist McGinty rises in the ranks of corrupt politics, eventually marrying his secretary for pretense and appearing to be an upstanding mayor.  But as my favorite segment in Paris, Je T’aime says, “By acting like a man in love, he became a man in love.”  His loyalty to his wife and kids forces this corrupt politician into an honest moment that cost him everything and he must flee the country, which was wonderfully ironic that in the end it wasn’t all of his illegal dealings that got him in trouble but his honesty.  It’s the story that could’ve happened if George W. and Karl Rove stopped with the governorship.

Sturges handles the relationship between McGinty and The Boss with a wonderful mix of verbal irony and comedic banter with a streak of slapstick. It’s a dynamic that works wonderfully in a political satire; the two power hungry morally bankrupt men that rely on each other to further their own careers.  The actors Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff played on each other so well that Sturges brings them back to reprise the roles years later (or so I read, I haven’t gotten that far in his film anthology yet).

Even more interesting is the way Sturges presents corruption reaching even to the innocent secretary.  Played aptly by Muriel Angelus, the secretary even justifies the corruption she’s a part of with a funny slant on the idea of ‘steal from the poor and give back to the poor, so where’s the stealing?’  She almost leaps at the chance to marry McGinty to satisfy political aspiration, but more so to save herself from being a single mother of two.  Selfishness and deceit abound! That is, until McGinty and Catherine decide they love each other want the marriage to be legit – then by embracing family values suddenly they take a moral turn.  A message almost worthy of a Capra film.

Preston Sturges had been writing for years, under contract with Universal and then on short term or per project contracts at all the major studios, and becoming one of the highest paid screenwriters in town. It took a while for Sturges to take a chance on him as a director though, it’s that old Catch-22 that still exists. They don’t want to hire you to direct a feature until you’ve directed a feature. While Sturges’ writing far outshines his direction in The Great McGinty, we get that first taste of a director who is on the rise, he just needs to find some ways to improve the visual storytelling.  The best attribute to his directing the camera is his judicious use of the closeup.  I think I mentioned before when lambasting Susane Bier, but when the closeup is overused it loses its power.  So when watching a Sturges film you can feel something happen to the characters when we cut into that closeup. He’s does create great little moments in the film, using small camera pans and tilts for reveals; I love the moment when we do a slow tilt down Catherine’s legs when McGinty  considers marrying her.  Her response, “Well what does that got to do with anything?”

Sturges’ follow up film, Christmas In July, is charming in its brevity – complete and effective at only 67 minutes.  The plot is established immediately with a few quick shots of people from all walks of life huddled around radios.  They’re all anticipating the announcement of the winner of the Maxford Coffee slogan contest with a top prize of $25,000.  Among the masses is Jimmy and Betty.  Jimmy has strong ambition but seems to lack the brains to get there.  With his slogan idea, however, he is just certain life get better.  You see, he’s come up with a slogan he is certain can’t lose; “If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee… it’s the bunk.” The trouble is nobody else is very confident in that slogan, least of all Betty who insists that coffee does keep you up at night.

Jimmy’s co-workers decide to have a little fun with him, sending him a phony telegram announcing him the winner of the contest and asking him to report immediately to Maxford’s offices to receive his check.  This creates such a buzz that Jimmy’s boss even thinks his talents could be put to better use helping with their own ad campaigns.  Jimmy is quick to accept the promotion and heads straight down to claim his prize.  While the committee to select the winner is still deadlocked, the head of the coffee company, Dr. Maxford, assumes the telegram is legit and pays him out.  Jimmy embarks on a spending spree, amassing gifts for almost everyone he knows and ring for Betty.  By the time Dr. Maxford discovers the selection committee is still deadlocked Jimmy has created chaos on his street in celebration and spent the money all over town.

It’s a funny situation that is created by these office pranksters.  Watching executives and business owners try to take the gifts back was a great scene.  But like all films, Christmas In July requires a healthy suspension of disbelief (as in Sturges’ subsequent films).  We have to believe that Dr. Maxford wouldn’t check with the selection committee before shelling out $25,000.  We have to believe Jimmy would go on a lavish spending spree, spreading his wealth and fueling a hype around himself that engulfs his boss and everyone around him.  As soon as we buy into Sturges’ situations we can let go and enjoy them for what they are, and here it is an examination of the hysteria that can result from one small moment of recognition.  Jimmy had gone unappreciated his entire life.  As soon as Maxford Coffee says that he’s an ad genius, everyone believes it.  This becomes a satirical look at power of suggestion.  Nobody believed in the slogan before he won, but if someone loves it, we must all love it.  It’s how I view a lot of modern art.

Sturges didn’t make any great strides as a director going from McGinty to Christmas.  It appears to me he took a step back, honestly.  Where Christmas In July is a more of a situational comedy, McGinty was full of irony, pratfalls and colorful characters in the middle of a situation at is more painful as an accurate depiction of American politics than it is funny.  Dick Powell is great as Jimmy, so convinced that his slogan was a gem that he can’t believe this could be a hoax.  Without any solid counterpart, however, it only made me miss the chemistry between Tamiroff and Donlevy.  I would recommend McGinty over Chistmas but that hardly matters when looking at the career that was launched by having two big successes and an Oscar in one year as a writer/director.  Paramount had found their preeminent comedic director in a decade when audiences were begging for comedy.

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