Friday, March 18, 2011

Last Five Films #5

1. No Man Of Her Own (1932)

Likeable pre-code fare with Clark Gable in full virile mode as big city card sharp, Babe Stewart, wooing small-town librarian Connie Randall (Carole Lombard) with some full-on flirtation. ('Do your eyes bother you?' he says, leaning close to her in the library. 'No, why?' 'Because they bother me.') She resists him, but in truth it's all she can do to not buckle at the knees every time he comes near. 'The girl who lands him will say no and put an anchor on it,' she tells a friend, 'but isn't it tough when all you can think of is yes?' Which is exactly what makes the first half of this film so enjoyable. The aching knowledge that she wants to say yes, even though (or precisely because) he's a predatory heel who'll high-tail it back to New York as soon as he gets his way. There's an animal intensity between them in these scenes that's a pleasure to behold, a blatent sexiness that holds the film spellbound. Unfortunately, on the toss of a coin, ('I never go back on a coin') they get married instead, and he brings her to the big city. Despite some funny scenes the film peters out somewhat after this trying to redeem Gable, who goes from criminal badass to charming rogue to love-sick good guy willing to endure prison and even work for a living! In the process the film looses much of the heat that made it such good sexy fun. Still, well worth a look, if only to see Lombard in her undies!

2. Bombshell (1933)

Cheerfully cynical early screwball with everyone involved rattling off the zippy dialogue at breakneck speed. The plot is meta before its time with Jean Harlow playing Hollywood star Lola Burns, dragged down by mooching family and thieving employees, torn between tough-guy director Jim Brogan (Pat O'Brien), continental lothario Hugo (Ivan Lebedeff) and studio press agent E.J. Hanlon (Lee Tracy). Tracy is the engine of the film, an endlessly scheming Iago with an angle for everything, manipulating Lola at every turn while professing to love her. We're on the edge of a corrosive truth about the Hollywood machine here but the film never stops moving or talking long enough to admit it. You can see fact and fiction already beginning to blur in the Hollywood sun. Lola profits from the scandal Hanlon creates around her but she craves respectibility, the realness of domesticity (posing for kitchen photo-shoots), the ideal of motherhood (trying to adopt a baby), the sanity of being unknown (she runs away to a spa resort). All these fantasies end in failure. The idea is Hanlon is saving Lola from herself by sabotaging her desires for class and stability, helping her realise that where she really belongs, where she's really happy, is in the mad-house of vulgar chaos that is Hollywood. Fast and funny, Bombshell is a love letter to that vulgar chaos, a brazen celebration of deception and bullshit that can't entirely hide the truth in its meta twists and turns, the shadow of fame's devouring neon hovering over it all.

3. My Man Godfrey (1936)

'Life is but an empty bubble,' sighs Carole Lombard's spoilt socialite in Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey, casually summing up the philosophy at the heart of the screwball comedies of the '30s. In fact, this is probably the prototype '30s film, a Depression-fuelled screwball romance with all the blithe wit of a Broadway play leavened with scabrous contempt for the rich and blessed with that mysterious light touch that the best directors of the era seemed to have in abundance. It's a classic. William Powell plays homeless bum Godfrey Smith living at the city dump and minding his own business when snobby rich girl Cornelia Bullock turns up and offers him five dollars to be her 'forgotten man' for a scavenger hunt. He refuses and she storms off. But her younger sister Irene (Lombard) stays behind, intrigued by this strange man. Touched by something sweet-natured in her (and by a curiosity to see such an event at first hand) Godfrey offers to help her beat Cornelia. In the ballroom of the Waldorf-Ritz Hotel we're treated to a scene of undignified chaos as hundreds of socialites push and shove and argue over who gets to register their scavenger hunt items first. Irene's father Alexander (Eugene Pallette) observes, 'all you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people'. And that's the film right there, the rich are crazy (with greed and boredom), American capitalism is teetering on the brink of savagery, but the poor, the forgotten men, have had all the crazy knocked out of them. It's touch and go as to who should be pitied more. Only Irene is absolved, she's a kind of holy innocent who offers Godfrey a job as their butler so she can have a protege like her empty-headed mother (Alice Brady), who has free-loading poet Carlo (Mischa Auer) as hers. As the new butler in the Bullock madhouse Godfrey is the most refined character in sight. No one had the elegant poise and knowing intelligence of William Powell. He moves through the film with the careful reserve of an adult trapped at a children's party. And Lombard is sensational, a ditzy dope with a big heart, a loveable child prone to funny moods and irrational fits of mania. There are twists and turns that ultimately let the rich off the hook somewhat, lessons learned, the social satire softened, but somehow it doesn't matter as the faultless direction pulls us through to the kind of perfectly delivered last-line closer most films would kill for.

4. Easy Living (1937)

Poor Mitchell Leisen. So many good films, so little credit for any of them. With Easy Living the reason is screenwriter Preston Sturges. The film feels so much like a forerunner of the Sturges style he has to get much of the kudos. Smart lines, farcical plot, slapstick shenanigans? It's all here along with several of the Sturges stock company. But then, Leisen trained as an architect before going into movies and surely he's responsible for the amazing rooms Jean Arthur is shown around by hotel owner Louis Louis. They're a dream of opulent elegance, the kind of insane luxury that makes it obvious why Louis is going bankrupt. The only possible response is Arthur's when left alone in this impossibly swish suite; a half-awed, half-appalled 'Golly!' Wealth here is like a fairy-tale. You are always only a lucky break away from riches. It's a lottery that can fall on anyone. There's little of the moral distain that fuels My Man Godfrey, no forgotten men, just a good girl struggling to get by whose life is changed forever when fate lands a fur coat on her head. The coat in question belongs to the third richest banker in New York, J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold), who throws it off the roof of his penthouse apartment in a row with his wife. It lands on Arthur as she passes by in an open-topped bus, breaking her hat. When J.B. tells her to keep the coat and takes her to buy a new expensive hat rumours spread that she's his mistress. As newspaperman Van Buren brilliantly puts it, 'the bull of broad street, with a girl, in the sable-est sable coat they ever sabled!' As a result she loses her job but gets offered the hotel suite by Louis as a way of insuring J.B. doesn't foreclose on the hotel. Suddenly everyone wants to cash in on her notoriety while she remains oblivious as to why. Add in a romance with J.B.'s cheerfully useless son (Ray Milland), a near riot in an automat, a run on the stock exchange and plenty of shouting, outrage and confusion and you have a cock-eyed cocktail to savour. The end is too neat (a Leisen failing) but Arnold's manic bluster, Milland's boyish charm and Arthur's sweet smile are what will stay with you afterwards.

5. Nothing Sacred (1937)

'For good clean fun, there's nothing like a wake,' declares newspaperman Wally Cook in William A. Wellman's Nothing Sacred, supplying this acid satire with the perfect tagline. In this case the wake is Hazel Flagg's (Carol Lombard) except she isn't dead yet, just dying (of radium poisoning). And, frankly, everyone couldn't be more pleased about it. There's just one thing; she isn't dying, she was misdiagnosed. But the chance to escape her small town, to enjoy the big city delights of New York, prove too tempting, so she lies to Cook (Fredric March), a once great reporter in need of a big story. She's exploiting everyone's sympathy while the newspaper exploits her, and the public get to bask in the glow of her 'bravery' and cry crocodile tears at her impending death. No one escapes in this savage film. You only have to think of the recent Jade Goody story (hated loud-mouth celebrity transformed by cancer into brave mother and national heroine) to see how on the money this was and is still. The only other film I can think of that displays the same contempt for the malign influence of the media and the baser instincts of its audience is Network (1976) but unlike that film's atmosphere of intense, shrill seriousness Nothing Sacred maintains its era's fast-paced, crazy spirit throughout. Ben Hecht's script zings with great lines while tough-guy director Wellman keeps all sentiment at bay. It doesn't waver for a second. As the man says to the Dutch girl; 'Show them the finger babe'. And it sure does.

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