FIVE STAR FINAL (Mervyn LeRoy, 1931).
Edward G. Robinson plays Joe Randall, the editor of a big city newspaper.
Since being hired, he has tried to steer the paper away from gutter
sensationalism and toward real news, but circulation is falling and
the publisher, with pressure from the ad men, wants him to come up with
a juicy scandal to drive up sales. So Randall decides to do a sort of
"Where are they now?" story: to find out what happened to a woman (Frances
Starr) who had killed her lover twenty years before, but got acquitted
by a sympathetic jury. As it turns out, however, the woman is happily
married with a daughter; and the daughter is scheduled to get married
to a high society fellow the very next day. Nobody in her life knows
about the mother's past except her husband -- a news story coming out
now threatens to ruin their daughter's life.
In the 1930s, the newspaper picture constituted an entire genre in
its own right. Stories about reporters mixed urban social drama with
fast-talking, tough-guy humor. Here, LeRoy has a lot of fun with the
rough-and- tumble atmosphere of the newsroom. George E. Stone does an
amusing turn as an eccentric underling who spends his time thinking
up contests and other publicity gimmicks for the paper. Boris Karloff
plays an unsavory newshound -- an expelled divinity student who doesn't
mind impersonating a man of the cloth to get a story. Best of all is
the interplay between Robinson and Aline MacMahon as his secretary --
it's the usual "secretary in love with her boss without saying so" role,
but MacMahon's sad-eyed, low key wit makes it work.
Instead of a celebration of the journalistic life, Five Star Final
is an attack on the news industry's willingness to invade privacy and
violate ethics in a quest to boost circulation. This note was played
in other newspaper pictures, but here it is the dominant one, and it
makes the story seem remarkably relevant today, when exploitations of
crime and celebrity (and the combination of the two) seem to have replaced
even the semblance of investigative reporting. The screenplay (Robert
Lord and Byron Morgan from a Louis Weitzenkorn play) contrasts the decent
life of the targeted woman and her family with the venality and deception
of the newspaper people, creating feelings of outrage and impending
doom. This is great up to a point -- but then the story overplays its
hand. Without giving anything away, I can only say that the actions
of the tale's victims push the film over the edge of tragedy into grotesque
melodrama, damaging our sympathy and understanding in the process.
Still, it's a sharp, vigorously acted little film in good early Warner
Brothers style. Robinson is superb: totally believable and in command
of every scene he's in. There are perhaps only four sets in the entire
movie, and yet it doesn't seem stagy because LeRoy knows how to keep
things moving. And a sequence in which the mother tries to stop the
paper from printing the story is one of the few times that split-screen
has been used to right effect.
CAMERA BUFF (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1979).
Filip (Jerzy Stuhr), a Polish factory worker, buys a portable movie
camera so he can record his newborn daughter growing up. After word
gets out at the factory that he owns a camera, the boss asks him to
shoot a company celebration. Then an organizer (Ewa Pokas) for an amateur
film festival discovers his little movie while scouring for local talent,
and persuades the company to enter the film in competition, where it
wins third prize. Filip is now obsessed with making movies, and as he
gets more involved in his new passion, his wife (Malgorzata Zabkowksa)
feels increasingly jealous and angry.
Over time, Filip gets in the habit of filming everything he sees, which
gets frustrating for his wife, who wants him to be more present in their
relationship. His old ideal was simply to have a comfortable, quiet
life with his family. Now that he finds a new purpose, he can't go back
to his simpler existence because he has tasted the joys of creation.
At the same time, his vocation causes suffering, alienating him from
his family and complicating his life in various other ways.
This quietly engaging, clever, and humane film works on many levels:
as a portrait of an ordinary man awakening to his calling as an artist,
as a gentle comedy about the nature of film and the conflict between
being a participant in life or an observer of it, and as a satire on
Polish society and media under socialism. Kieslowski's keen eye for
human foibles is already evident in this early film, as well as his
compassion. The director's own background was in documentary and TV
work, like his protagonist, and there's a sense of genuine insider enthusiasm
about a beginner's struggle to learn what it takes to make movies.
The film contains quite a few sly jabs at cinematic pretense. Towards
the end of shooting the company celebration, Filip casually films a
couple of pigeons on a windowsill. It ends up in the finished product,
prompting someone at the festival to ask about the "meaning" of these
pigeons. When he explains that they just happened to be on the windowsill,
the response is, "I see. So you just shoot whatever's there. Interesting
idea." Pioneer director Krzysztof Zanussi shows up as himself, making
an appearance by request at Filip's home town to encourage the local
film club, and this accentuates the picture's pleasantly self-reflexive
Later, when Filip makes a documentary about a long- time worker at
the factory who also happens to be a dwarf, the boss tries to block
it from being submitted to a TV station, saying that it paints an "abnormal"
picture of the company. Filip submits several more conventional works
about the factory, but when they ask if he has anything else, he shows
them the film about the dwarf. Of course, that's the one they like.
Subsequent films get into more controversial territory, prompting a
show- down with the boss, who explains that negative publicity ends
up costing people jobs. This prompts a crisis of conscience for Filip.
How can he keep making films if it causes problems for others?
All of this is presented by Kieslowski in such a drily observant style
that we never feel a sense of dramatic urgency or artificiality. A calmness
at the film's center allows the story, with all its poignant and satiric
elements intact, to coalesce naturally. As unassuming as it is, Camera
Buff is one of the best films about filmmaking I've ever seen. The
last shot, bringing us full circle, is perfection itself.
GERVAISE (René Clément, 1956).
Clément teamed with his Forbidden Games scenarists, Jean
Aurenche and Pierre Bost, to create this adaptation of Émile
Zola's novel of working class degradation, L'Assommoire. Gervaise
(Maria Schell) is a lame washer-woman whose lover (Armand Mestral) abandons
her and their two children. Eventually she marries a roofer, Coupeau
(François Périer), who becomes an alcoholic after he's
injured in a fall. With the help of a loan from a friend (Jacques Harden),
a blacksmith who secretly loves her, she opens her own laundry shop,
but her troubles are just beginning.
The novel is an intensely realistic story of life at the lowest rung
of the social ladder, vividly detailed and containing several masterful
set-pieces, including a wedding and a feast, that illuminate an entire
lifetime through the depiction of single events. It is always a daunting
task to adapt a novel of such scope to the screen. The film seems to
rush through the novel's opening sections rather too briskly, so that
it's hard to grasp who the characters are or how much time has elapsed.
Fortunately, things settle down after Gervaise marries Coupeau, and
Clement manages to attain something close to the density and scathing
naturalism of the text.
The film's period detail is a model example of historical accuracy.
This is Paris during the time of Louis Napoleon -- the sets and costumes,
and the production design as a whole, are flawless. Robert Juillard's
black-and-white photography has just the right texture for this period,
and Clement's instinct for finding the most interesting shots and camera
placements is almost uncanny. Among the performers, Périer is
brilliant as the drunken Coupeau, but the entire cast shines as an ensemble
(much of the action occurs with groups of more than two people, since
the characters exist in close quarters).
Maria Schell does possibly her best work here, showing Gervaise's descent
from a trusting, hopeful young woman into gradual cynicism, apathy,
and despair. But although it seems unfair to say so, I think she is
perhaps too beautiful for the part. The point of the book is to portray
the lives of ordinary, poverty-stricken people. In the film, because
of Schell's beauty, the tendency is to identify with her as a tragic
victim of circumstance in a conventional sense, rather than seeing her
with her vices and faults and ignorance as Zola does. Nevertheless,
Schell does an excellent job, creating a moving portrait of a woman's
It has been tempting for critics to see this as a story about class,
or poverty, or alcoholism. Yes, it contains all those elements, but
its vision aims to encompass the entire human experience under the stress
of intolerable living conditions. That is to say that the interest lies
in the reality of life and character rather than in making points about
society. Zola's perspective is very dark. Gervaise's story exposes the
poisoning influence of grasping self-interest and the triumph of mere
survival over empathy. Clement's film, bursting with life and harrowing
in its precision, does justice to the book.
UNDERWORLD (Josef von Sternberg, 1927).
After struggling in Hollywood for several years, and an acrimonious
parting of the ways at MGM, Sternberg got his breakthrough hit at Paramount
with this gangster movie, made from a story by Ben Hecht. George Bancroft
plays a tough crime boss named Bull Weed. He takes an alcoholic ex-lawyer
(Clive Brook) under his wing as an assistant, nicknaming him "Rolls
Royce." The assistant and the boss's girlfriend (a stunningly beautiful
Evelyn Brent) fall in love, but don't act on their feelings out of loyalty
to the boss. Meanwhile, a rival gangster who has been slighted by Bull
wants to get his hands on the girlfriend for revenge.
The story is simple, and the plot mechanics tend to drag things down,
especially in the last third. But the pace is superior to most films
of its kind in the silent era, and Sternberg finds ways to tell the
story, including unusual camera angles and inventive use of shadow,
to keep things interesting. Some of the elements of the gangster genre,
such as the criminal holed up in his lair shooting it out with the cops,
are here for the first time. Bancroft's performance, crudely boisterous,
can be hard to take, but it's the first instance of a gangster being
portrayed with likable aspects rather than just as a pure villain. The
best part is the long gangland ball at the film's center, where Sternberg
shows his amazing skill at filming crowd scenes.
Paramount had no faith in the picture. They dumped it into one obscure
New York theater, and Ben Hecht tried to get his name removed from the
credits. By word of mouth alone it became a major hit, and Hecht ended
up winning the first Oscar for original screenplay. Sternberg went on
to greater things -- Underworld looks a little musty now, even
just compared to his films from a year later, such as The Last Command
or the magnificent The
Docks of New York, but it still holds up as one of the
more watchable early crime flicks.
BACHELOR MOTHER (Garson Kanin, 1939).
Ginger Rogers plays a department store clerk who is mistakenly identified
as the mother of an infant foundling. The son (David Niven) of the store's
owner (Charles Coburn) gets altruistically involved in her predicament,
which leads to further misunderstandings, as the store owner comes to
believe that the baby is his grandson.
And so forth. Some of the clowning is fairly standard, but the proceedings
are enlivened by the faintly risqué subject matter -- the picture
dances around the subject of unwed motherhood without getting into trouble
with the censors, which was a pretty deft piece of footwork in those
days. Credit the snappy screenplay by Norman Krasna, and good work by
the principals, especially Rogers, whose post-Astaire career got its
first boost from the success of this picture.
Kanin directed a handful of good comedies for RKO during this period,
of which this was one, but the war interrupted his directing career,
and when it was over he made his name as a writer (for stage and screen)
instead. His style here doesn't have the madcap quality of the best
screwballs, or even the smooth assurance of a Mitchell Leisen film.
Bachelor Mother is in fact considerably tamer than I had hoped,
but it's quite a bit of fun, just the same.
©2005 Chris Dashiell