MALE AND FEMALE (Cecil B. DeMille, 1919).
The butler (Thomas Meighan) of a wealthy family is secretly in love
with his spoiled mistress (Gloria Swanson). When the family and servants
go on a yachting trip, they end up stranded on a desert island. The
effete aristocrats must rely on the butler's practical skills to survive,
and the balance of power shifts from master to servant.
J.M. Barrie's 1902 play The Admirable Crichton was a witty farce
about the pretensions of the English ruling class. The comic idea was
that if these twits were reduced to a state of nature, they would be
completely dependent on - and inferior in their attainments to - their
own servants. The play's humor is primarily verbal, as one would expect.
It's understandable, then, that something would be lost in the translation
of this work to the silent screen. What is less understandable, however,
is the complete dumbing down of the material in long-time DeMille collaborator
Jeanie Macpherson's screenplay, and ultimately in the action itself.
Instead of elaborating on the central theme as the play did, the movie
restates this simple idea over and over again with numbingly obvious
intertitles. The preliminary scenes at the mansion do have a few nice
moments - particularly Swanson's famous bathtub scene that accentuates
her character's pettiness about comfort. But as we move to the desert
island, the humor - already leaden - sinks to an idiotic level. Furthermore,
instead of demonstrating the equalizing effect that the shipwreck has
on class, the film establishes a reverse hierarchy - the butler Crichton
is now the dominator for whom the others work, and the primacy of gender
(the women now compete for the virile butler's attention) is presented
as a punishment for Swanson's uppity ways.
This is all very crude and embarrassing, but it is made even more so
by DeMille and McPherson's penchant for pseudo-historical tableaux of
forbidden pagan eroticism. Crichton, you see, has a fantasy of himself
as a Babylonian tyrant and his mistress as a Christian slave (a motif
from a poem that is repeated ad nauseam throughout the film) and so
we are made to endure a flashback to a former life in which Meighan,
an absurdly dressed up potentate, has Swanson (similarly attired) thrown
into a pit of lions. The famous scene with the star about to be mauled
by one of the beasts was filmed with Swanson lying down in front of
an actual lion. Oh, the things they used to do for a shot!
In fairness it should be said that in 1919 the mass audience for films
was probably too unsophisticated to fully appreciate many of the jokes
in Barry's play. A certain level of simplification was probably necessary.
That still doesn't excuse the distortion of the play's meaning, the
dumb intertitles that add nothing to the plot, and the ludicrous Babylonian
fetishism. Although I acknowledge that DeMille can be credited with
some important innovations in American film, for the most part I see
his work as appealing to the lowest elements of human nature. I laughed
at Male and Female, but not for the reasons intended.
The last word should go to Barrie himself. When told that DeMille's
adaptation had changed the title from The Admirable Crichton
to Male and Female, he said sarcastically, "Why didn't I think
NO MAN OF HER OWN (Mitchell Leisen, 1949).
Helen Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck), pregnant and unmarried, is given
a one-way ticket out of town by her abusive boyfriend. On the train
she is befriended by another pregnant woman and her husband, but when
the train is wrecked in a disaster that kills the young couple, Helen
survives and - through an unusual bit of luck - is mistaken for the
young bride, who had no surviving relatives. She goes on to join the
dead husband's family, impersonating their daughter-in-law, but then
her scheming ex-boyfriend discovers where she is.
This outlandish, improbable story was adapted from a Cornel Woolrich
novel. The notion of having to pretend to be someone else in order to
start anew is full of possibilities for tension, and it was an idea
that popped up more than once (e.g. Robert Wise's House on Telegraph
Hill) in postwar suspense films. Here the always dependable Stanwyck
pulls you in and makes you care about the heroine's fate - no one was
better at combining dramatic anxiety with a sense of determination.
It's a shame, though, that Paramount couldn't pair her with someone
more appealing than John Lund. His performance is so dour and inexpressive
that for a good part of the film I thought he was supposed to be the
Mitchell Leisen was an expert at getting liberal ideas past the censors
and into his "women's pictures." The main character suffers so many
setbacks that the lunkheads guarding the Production Code must have been
distracted into not noticing how the film passes no judgment at all
on her having a child out of wedlock. Leisen's characteristic visual
texture is in evidence, darker than usual, but still crisp and graceful,
with a fine sense of timing.
Overall, the movie is an interesting mixture of the Hollywood women's
drama, with its concerns about passion versus the constrictions of society,
and the postwar crime film, with its bleak fatalism and despair. A bit
too morbid for its own good, and with a wind-up that is almost as improbable
as its set-up, No Man Of Her Own is nevertheless an entertaining
variation on the "noir" genre, worth seeing if only for La Stanwyck's
EMPLOYEES' ENTRANCE (Roy Del Ruth, 1933).
The pre-Code sound film seems like an Eden when viewed after the "Fall"
of Hollywood moralism, which descended like a cloud of mediocrity on
the American cinema. Especially when said film was produced at Warner
Brothers/First National, the toughest and frankest pre-Code studio.
With a battery of wisecracking screenwriters imported from New York,
and workhorse directors churning out movies at record rates (Del Ruth
directed five more films after this in 1933), Warners was the best at
making provocative comedies and dramas, many of which were still being
censored on commercial TV forty years later.
Warren William plays the manager of a New York department store who
will stop at nothing, will use and discard people with no moral qualms,
in order to make a profit. His life is his work, everyone hates his
guts, and he doesn't care. He seduces a young girl (the so very lovely
Loretta Young) who is looking for a job. Later she secretly marries
one of his salesmen (Wallace Ford), and when their relationship interferes
with his plans, he tries to poison their love for each other with an
Throw in two or three hilarious subplots, some crackling dialogue,
and a storyline that careens around corners like a NY taxi, and you
have this unknown gem, thoroughly involving, funny, and naughty in the
best sense. The main character is clearly a heel, and he's meant to
get a comeuppance, but at the same time the picture allows us to admire
his amoral energy and ambition, and to laugh at the nasty lengths he's
willing to go. Del Ruth demonstrates the fast-cutting style that was
a Warners signature, and the actors are marvelous (even the usually
annoying Ford). This is perfect entertainment with no regrets.
THE LEGEND OF THE SURAM FORTRESS
(Sergei Paradjanov, 1984).
Based on one of the national myths of his native Georgia, this was
Paradjanov's first film after his release (helped by an international
outcry) from imprisonment by the Soviets. This circumstance may explain
why the film has lower production values than his masterpieces Shadows
of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and The
Color of Pomegranates (1968). The picture also has a
darker, more ambivalent feel, reflecting the director's crippling experience
in the camps. Although it isn't as beautiful as its predecessors, it
has its own special power and greatness, and deserves to be seen.
As usual, Paradjanov presents his narrative in discrete sequences that
are intended to symbolize various themes (spiritual, social, political)
rather than as links in a conventional linear narrative. The viewer
must let the story sink in, as it were, obliquely. As far as one can
piece it together, the tale concerns a young man involved in the building
of the eponymous fortress, intended to protect the community from hostile
tribes, who flees persecution after continuous attempts to complete
the structure result in the crumbling of the walls. He promises his
lover that he will return, but he betrays his promise by joining a tribe
of nomadic exiles, and marrying and having a son within it. The spurned
lover becomes a seer, and eventually the leaders of the city must visit
her in order to learn how to overcome the spell that prevents them from
completing the fortress.
Continuing his life project of creating a cinematic language for folkloric
wisdom, Paradjanov makes extensive use of longshot to evoke an archaic
feeling of tribal struggle against a background of forbidding landscapes.
The movement of figures within the frame often takes on the flavor of
ceremony, or dance. But unlike Color of Pomegranates, the spiritual
forces seem unconscious, connected to poetic truth only through the
medium of rituals that are tainted by violence. With its themes of exile,
grinding poverty, and blood sacrifice, Suram is both a tribute
to and a critique of ancient ethnic belief. The richness and wild energy
of his previous films have given way to a vision of a broken world (the
reliance on jump cuts is a telling indicator) suffering a loss of faith
that is only apparently resolved by the fable's disturbing resolution.
In order to appreciate Paradjanov's work, it is probably best to view
his films in the order they were created. In the light of his first
two works, this third film is a tragically moving parable of disillusionment,
and a bitter comment on nationalistic fervor of all kinds, now and then.
DERSU UZALA (Akira Kurosawa, 1974).
After a period of severe depression culminating in a suicide attempt,
the great director Kurosawa's spirits were lifted again, first by worldwide
expressions of support, and then by an offer from the Soviet Union to
finance a film on a subject of his choosing, to be shot in Russia. Always
a lover of Russian literature, Kurosawa chose to adapt a story from
the journals of Vladimir Arseniev, a military surveyor in pre-revolutionary
We first meet Captain Arseniev (Yuri Solomin) on a 1902 expedition
to map the Russian-Chinese border. One night his troops encounter an
old Asiatic hermit named Dersu Uzala (Maksim Munzik), who lives in the
wilderness, surviving by hunting and selling furs. The Captain takes
him on as a guide, and after initially viewing him as a source of humor,
develops a deep respect for him. The two men forge a lasting friendship.
Dersu embodies a time in history when human beings had closer ties
with nature, and felt a pantheistic kinship with animals, plants, and
the elements. He has an uncanny ability to notice details in the surroundings
that provide ways through challenges and dangers. In a brilliant sequence,
he saves the captain's life by quickly orchestrating the building of
a shelter out of reeds to protect the two of them from a deadly oncoming
blizzard. Maksim's natural performance is a wonder. We believe in the
rough-hewn wisdom of this ancient woodsman.
Years later, the Captain returns, and seeks out his old friend. Dersu
becomes the soldiers' guide again, and the friendship with Arseniev
goes even deeper, but the hunter's failing eyesight, and a bad omen,
spooks the old man and sets up the film's coda, an elegy for a vanishing
way of life and thought.
The film was shot in 70 millimeter, and it took four years to complete.
Critical reaction has been mixed over the years - perhaps because its
rhythm is so different than any other Kurosawa film. I think he captures,
as few film artists have, the different sense of time one has in the
outdoors, the vast strangeness of nature, and how it contrasts with
life in a town or city. When people walk through a forest in Dersu
Uzala, or plod through deep snow to get to a kill, it has the same
quiet feeling that such actions have in real life. Kurosawa possessed
the kind of talent that would make such a difficult effect look simple.
Because of the film's special feeling for the natural world, the progression
of the relationship between the two main characters is as real, and
inevitable, as the changes in the seasons. The picture is never boring
- it transported me to its world with seeming effortlessness, my mind
absorbed in its calm regard for human beings' essential goodness.
It is interesting that this film, the only one by Kurosawa that does
not employ Japanese settings or actors, has none of the emotional turbulence
that has so often been a feature in his work. Perhaps the Japanese and
Russian temperaments, if I can generalize in such a way, differ fundamentally
in their expression. I imagine, too, that the director's physical distance
from his homeland created an artistic distance from the material that
helped, rather than hindered, his creative force. For whatever reason,
the movie demonstrates that Kurosawa's genius was not confined to national
Dersu Uzala shifts to the world of civilization in its final
section, evoking sadness for what, it now seems, we have all lost. But
even then, Kurosawa's gaze is steady and serene, without anger, the
film's wisdom one with that of Dersu. This movie is a treasure, a spiritual
legacy from one of the all-time masters of the art.
©2002 Chris Dashiell