Other Dashiell Writings:
- February/March 2000
The Tales of Hoffmann
Elevator to the Gallows
Snob's Favorites of '99
Don't Cry / Holy Smoke
plus The Hurricane (1999)
The End of the Affair (1999)
THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN
(Frank Capra, 1933).
A missionary's fiancee (Barbara Stanwyck) is abducted by a Chinese
warlord (Nils Asther) during the revolution. This intriguing drama is
one of Capra's more underrated efforts. While its characterization of
the Chinese may occasionally seem backward by present standards, by
the standards of 1933 the film is positively daring. The audience is
set us up for the usual tale of virtuous womanhood threatened by the
brutality of an Oriental villain. Then, in a series of surprising turn-arounds,
the picture undercuts all plot expectations while providing some interesting
commentary on Western assumptions. Beautifully shot by Joe Walker, the
movie has a fine rhythm and a kind of sensuality one doesn't usually
associate with Capra. A highlight is a seductive dream sequence which
is among the most beautiful examples of the type ever done. The choice
of a non-Asian actor to play the title role is not surprising considering
the time, but the Swedish Asther turns in a subtle and moving performance.
Stanwyck is marvelous too - but then she was great in almost everything
she did in those days. Banned in some areas because it crossed the taboo
of interracial romance, The Bitter Tea of General Yen was always
one of Frank Capra's favorites among his own films.
THE KID BROTHER
(Ted Wilde and J.A. Howe, 1927).
Harold Lloyd plays the wimpy youngest son in a family of big tough men
living on a farm. Through a series of mishaps, it falls upon him to
save his father's life, redeem his family's honor, and win the heart
of the girl he loves. If you come to a Lloyd film expecting something
comparable to the genius and athleticism of Chaplin or Keaton, you're
in for a let-down. Lloyd was a more middle of the road kind of talent,
but what he could do he did quite well. The best gags in The Kid
Brother center on the triumph of spontaneous wit and invention over
brute strength. Lloyd is the perpetual innocent, constantly caught in
embarrassing situations, never losing his naive optimism. The picture
is weighed down a bit by its own plot. It doesn't have as many purely
hilarious moments as The Freshman or Safety Last, but
it flows nicely and is pleasant to watch. Children may especially enjoy
the film's sense of hapless, inevitable accident.
EASY LIVING (Mitchell Leisen, 1937).
A millionaire (Edward Arnold) angrily throws his wife's mink coat out
of a window during an argument. It lands on a working girl (Jean Arthur).
After the millionaire gives her the mink coat and a hat in order to
apologize, people begin to wrongly assume that she is his mistress.
Meanwhile the millionaire's son (Ray Milland), who has gone out to make
it on his own in the world, meets and falls for her. This is one of
the most delightfully madcap comedies of the studio era. Scripted by
up-and-coming talent Preston Sturges and directed with Leisen's usual
stylish ease, it steadily builds on its absurd premise until it reaches
ridiculous heights. A slapstick sequence in a cafeteria, which might
have failed under less talented hands, had just the right mixture of
wit and insanity to make me laugh until I thought I would collapse.
The picture is populated by droll character actors like Luis Alberni,
Franklin Pangborn and William Demarest - a foretaste of future Sturges
ensembles. Jean Arthur never had more charm, but the real surprise is
Edward Arnold, an actor I usually associate with boring patriarch roles.
His performance as the thundering, hot-tempered J.B. Ball is an absolute
stitch. All in all, Paramount at its classic best - what the cliche
"They don't make 'em like that that any more" really means.
KAMERADSCHAFT (G.W. Pabst, 1931).
Shortly after the Great War, when French miners are trapped underground
after an explosion, a group of German miners cross the border to help
in the rescue effort. Based on an actual incident, this film is Pabst's
eloquent plea for international solidarity, and by implication an attack
on the nationalism which was gaining ground in Germany. In keeping with
this intent, the picture is a German-French coproduction, with the actors
on each side speaking their respective languages. All this is fine and
in the best humanist tradition, but Kameradschaft is more - artistically
it's a brilliant piece of work, proving that Pabst was just as much
a master of the sound film as he had been of the silent. He often uses
natural sounds for dramatic purposes rather than relying too much on
music. The use of the moving camera and the cutting back and forth between
the action underground and the anguished families above, is brilliantly
done. There are amazing shots within the mine of explosions, fire, collapsing
rock. (The interior mine sets were meticulously constructed at great
cost.) It is an altogether admirable, exciting film and it did very
well in France, where they honored Pabst with the Legion of Honor. But
the Nazis (not yet in power), and other rightists in Germany, vilified
the movie and it failed commercially. In a way it represents a lost
historical opportunity, a vision of brotherhood for which the world
wasn't ready. A road not taken.
A SIMPLE PLAN (Sam Raimi, 1998).
Two brothers, one a hard working husband and father (Bill Paxton), the
other a mixed-up unemployed loser (Billy Bob Thornton), discover - along
with a friend (Brent Briscoe) - four million dollars in a crashed airplane
in the woods. Against his better judgment, the Paxton character agrees
to not tell the authorities, and split the money up between the three
of them. As one might expect, greed and dishonesty lead to suspicion,
which leads to one sickening disaster after another. There's nothing
very distinctive about this material - evil temptations corrupting even
the best of us and so on - and for the most part A Simple Plan
doesn't dive too far beneath the surface of its arid premise. Raimi's
horror movie background stands him in good stead - he's good at building
the tension. The whiteness of the film's visual look fits well with
the mood. But it's still essentially a genre piece, entertaining in
a shallow way, except for one distinguishing factor: the performance
of Thornton as Jacob, the troubled, dull-witted brother. The shading
he brings to this role, the unexpected dimensions he reveals in a character
who against all expectations becomes a truly sad and moving figure,
moves the picture up several notches.
SONATINE (Takeshi Kitano, 1993).
A mobster (Kitano) is sent by his boss to Okinawa to settle accounts
in a petty gang war, but begins to wonder if he's being set up. Every
once in a while (not too often, thankfully) there is an artist or a
picture that generates great critical praise and interest, and a lot
of popular buzz, but when I finally get to taste the experience in question
- I just don't get it. This can be embarrassing, but there's no use
pretending. I don't get Sonatine, and I can't tell what all the
fuss is about. Sure, "Beat" Takeshi displays a certain visual flair
at times, and his sense of humor is off-beat to say the least. But,
first of all, I found the story so convoluted that I actually had trouble
following the action or even knowing who was who. Secondly, the actions
and the fate of the main character, the smiling and laconic gangster,
involved me not one iota. I cracked a smile at some of the bits - hit
men playing with paper Sumo wrestlers, weird dance-like games on the
beach - but these strange conceits do not add up to a movie. Well, I'll
admit it - I am not an admirer of the idea of the criminal as hipster.
In Melville's Le Samourai, the hero's impassiveness was his doom.
In Sonatine there is no such sense of rigor - any point is lost
in a kind of self-reflexive parody, unfocused and utterly soulless.
Maybe I need to give Kitano another chance. I'm certainly willing to,
but on the evidence of this film I may put off that other chance for
quite a while.