PRIX DE BEAUTÉ (Augusto Genina, 1930).
A young typist (Louise Brooks) decides, on a whim, to enter the "Miss
Europe" beauty pageant. Much to the displeasure of her possessive boyfriend,
she is selected as Miss France and goes off to the pageant in Spain,
where men begin falling at her feet.
This was Brooks' last notable film, made in France after her break
with Paramount. Begun as a silent, the dialogue was dubbed in later,
which often gives the picture an awkward, stunted feeling. The story
is mildly charming, somewhat absurd at times (the screenwriter was René
Clair, but little of the wit from his films is evident), and the idea
of a woman's sole worth lying in beauty and romance is a bit painful
to contemplate. However, none of this criticism matters very much because
Louise Brooks is such a luminous presence - her intense charisma blows
everyone else off the screen. She expresses such vulnerability with
her face and movements, combined with the sense of a real intelligent
presence, that it seems a tragedy that her career in films was so brief.
It is interesting how Prix de Beauté takes the opposite
approach to the heroine's dilemma than you would find in an American
movie. In Hollywood the simple, working-class boyfriend would represent
all that is good, in opposition to corrupt continental decadence. But
this picture clearly takes the side of the girl's desire for a more
glamorous life, and hurrah for that, I say.
There is one more curious thing about this movie. The story just limps
along for most of its length, with director Genina showing a light-hearted,
essentially undistinguished style. But then, in the final sequence,
as if to make up for everything mediocre about the picture, he achieves
a stunning, unforgettable climax, as near perfect a dramatic flourish,
in terms of visual style, timing, and emotional effect, as anything
ever done on film. A direct hit.
BABY FACE (Alfred E. Green, 1933).
Warner Brothers movies from the early 30s, before the Production Code
clamped down, were often marvels of sexual frankness. Here we have Lilly
(Barbara Stanwyck), a waitress in a crummy small town speakeasy, escaping
to New York City after an accident kills her abusive father. As tough
and jaded as they come, she literally sleeps her way to the top of a
major business, using her good looks to seduce an ascending series of
executives, culminating with a young company president played by George
Brent. The crackling, perversely enjoyable script by Gene Markey and
Kathryn Scola (production chief Daryl Zanuck even helped with some of
the dialogue) has Lilly topping each of her lies and schemes with a
more outrageous one, and the picture is a total hoot without becoming
really bad or campy. It's not even close to a masterpiece, but the young
Stanwyck is so marvelous and full of energy that I was completely entertained
from start to finish. The transparency of the film's moral point of
view is quite evident - a movie like Baby Face allowed audiences
to enjoy misbehavior while ostensibly punishing it. Nowadays, thankfully,
we can just revel in the fun.
BEFORE THE RAIN (Milcho Manchevski, 1994).
This ambitious film, by a first-time writer/director, presents a vision
of the modern world in which notions of safety and security are illusory,
and the only hope lies in desperate, selfless acts. The story is divided
into three parts, the first and third taking place in a Macedonia riven
by hatred and violence between the Macedonian Christians and Albanian
Muslims. The second part is set in London, seemingly (but deceptively)
distant from the conflict. The person linking the sections together
is Aleksander (Rade Serbedzija) a photojournalist who is sick of taking
pictures of atrocities and decides to return to his village in Macedonia.
His English lover (Katrin Cartlidge), despite her passion for him, can't
relate to his experience until a tragedy brings it home to her and she
finally knows that she must follow him.
The film is blessed with spectacular photography (Darius Khondji and
Manuel Teran), a fine sense of place, and a mood of fatefulness and
foreboding that held my interest. The movie's major weakness is its
central character - an image of potent silence, vitality and conviction
without much of the sense of a real human being to lend it credibility.
Manchevski's tone of urgency is fitting, but his strangely circular
narrative scheme (which seems merely tricky rather than insightful in
any way) and his romanticism, interfere with the film's dramatic impact.
Before the Rain is not the profound statement it pretends to
be, but it's a stirring and often interesting first effort.
SHOW BOAT (James Whale, 1936).
It is difficult for us, after the Civil Rights movement, to recognize
how daring the Jerome Kern - Oscar Hammerstein musical Show Boat
really was. Here was a Broadway musical actually broaching the subject
of race, and the so-called "mixing" of races - and coming out against
bigotry. That the treatment is mild, relegated to a subplot of a more
conventional love story, and contained by cultural contexts that seem
patronizing today, does not diminish the fact that in the 1920s its
very existence was an act of bravery.
Universal owned the rights to this valuable property, and assigned
their second version (a part-talkie in 1929 had not been a success)
to the studio's top director James Whale, whose previous work had been
mainly with horror films. The result was a major hit - stylish, romantic,
full of visual poetry, professional in every way. The high points feature
Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan, reprising their stage roles. The great
Robeson, one of the most imposing musical figures in our history, performs
a moving rendition of "Ol' Man River" near the beginning of the picture,
which is helped by some of Whale's fine imagery. He also has an amusing
duet with Hattie McDaniel called "Ah Still Suits Me." Morgan shows why
she was a Broadway star with "Can't Help Loving That Man" (with help
from Robeson and McDaniel) and especially the show-stopper "Bill" which
Whale wisely films without distracting cuts.
The low points involve the main story line, something to do with a
romance between the show-boat captain's singing daughter (Irene Dunne)
and a ne'er-do-well gambler (Allan Jones). Dunne clenches her teeth,
doing her best to be charming, and she's not too bad, although the spectacle
of seeing her do a blackface number is a horror I won't soon forget.
Jones is just insipid, and that's putting it kindly. The real problem
is that the subplot concerning the mixed-race past of Julie (Morgan)
is so startling, that I wanted more of it. Yet it is quickly disposed
of in favor of the creaky saga of the star-crossed lovers, which has
dated badly. Still, taken as it is, Show Boat has its attractions
- the beautiful music, stylish direction, and good performances by the
supporting cast make this one of the better Hollywood adaptations from
A WOMAN OF PARIS (Charles Chaplin, 1923).
At the height of his success (after making The Kid and The
Pilgrim), the most famous entertainer in the world wanted to direct
a different kind of picture. He left First National and helped form
United Artists. The first film he made for the new company was this
off-beat portrait of a Paris courtesan, part romantic tragedy, part
comedy of manners. It is only one of two Chaplin films in which he does
Marie (Edna Purviance), a simple, trusting girl from the country, is
tyrannized by her father. She is about to elope with her sweetheart
- whose family disapproves - when unbeknownst to her, his father dies
suddenly and he is unable to join her at the train station. Thinking
that she's been abandoned, she goes to Paris by herself. Cut to several
years later - Marie has become a famous courtesan, "kept" by a wealthy
and sophisticated bachelor played by Adolphe Menjou. When he arranges
a marriage of convenience with an heiress, she feels her position threatened.
At the same time her old lover, a struggling artist, appears on the
The story is simple, and not very interesting, if truth be told. But
what Chaplin did with it makes the film important. The acting is understated,
much more than so than most American films of the period. The pacing
flows naturally - Chaplin allows scenes to develop their inner logic
without trying to force effects. He manipulates light and space in novel
ways - the scene in the train station, for instance, uses light to suggest
a passing train without showing the train, while at the same fully expressing
the young woman's anguish, with no need for any melodramatic acting
on her part, just a simple gaze offscreen. This was a new kind of artistry
in American films, and disproves the old idea that Chaplin was not a
"cinematic" director. Also new was the amusing, slightly jaded air of
continental gaiety. Menjou's performance is a model of wit in this regard.
The story turns soggy towards the end, and Purviance (at the end of
her relationship with Chaplin) seems too old for the part, but it's
one of the more inventive experiments from the early 20s. Most critics
praised it. Its style also made an impression on other directors - Lubitsch
cited it as a major influence - but it failed with the public. It seems
they wouldn't accept a Chaplin film without The Tramp. He withdrew it
from circulation for fifty years, after which he finally released it
again, to critical acclaim.
AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD
(Werner Herzog, 1972).
An expedition of Spanish conquistadors, exploring the Amazon jungles
in search of the golden city of El Dorado, is overthrown in a mutiny
by the power-hungry Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), who drives the
soldiers ever deeper into the jungle on his mad quest to establish a
Herzog, one of the boldest experimenters in modern film, here subverts
the adventure genre in the service of his metaphysical and political
obsessions. For him, the Spanish Conquest, so blithely related in our
history books, is a symbol of insane self-destruction. The subjugation
of the Indians, the maintenance of the trappings of European royalty
in the midst of the most threatening wilderness, Aguirre's gradual equation
of his own will with the wrath of the Divine will - all these combine
to create a mood of strangeness, terror, and helplessness in the face
of evil. In contrast to the more conventional idea of civilization freeing
us from "the jungle," Herzog's savage parable portrays the quest of
such civilization as cruelty and madness, and the jungle as an impersonal
and immortal force that will swallow all who pretend to conquer it.
Filmed in Peru, the picture has astonishing photography (Thomas Mauch)
and a compelling performance by Kinski, whose hunched, brooding presence
emanates a sense of delusional power over his surroundings. Herzog does
not make it easy for the audience - his visual perspectives are unfailingly
confrontational and disturbing, his point of view eerily detached, like
an over-aware observer who is powerless to intervene in disaster. The
shoot was so difficult that Kinski is said to have threatened to leave,
only staying after a physical altercation with the director.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God is one of Werner Herzog's most brilliant
achievements. Although it lacks the intriguing spiritual dimensions
of some of his later films (the sense of confinement within the hell
of the ego is almost stifling), it manages to overwhelm the viewer with
a vision of the utter futility of the power principle in human affairs.