Son of Frankenstein
(Rowland V. Lee, 1939).
The third in Universal’s famed series of Frankenstein movies would seem to have all the necessary ingredients for success. Boris Karloff returns as the monster, Bela Lugosi plays Ygor, and Basil Rathbone stars in the title role of the mad doctor’s son, who returns to Transylvania to claim his inheritance and winds up falling under the evil influence of his father’s legacy.
The film, however, never gets off the ground. Willis Cooper’s story, involving a plot by Ygor to kill off the jurors who had condemned him to hang, drags out the exposition while failing to elicit anything close to a real scare. The production design is pared down—the studio’s faux Gothic style seems much more abstract here—and Lee seems to rely on mere atmosphere to elicit the required effects. The most important missing element, obviously, is the sure hand of James Whale, who directed the first two films with a style not only of pure horror, but also with a kind of baroque black humor.
Rathbone does his best, but I think his cold, intellectual manner works against the material here. Lugosi is uninteresting. It was essential to get the right tone in the scenes with the monster—to evoke the combination of shock, pity, revulsion, and queasy fascination that Whale managed to achieve, especially in the masterful Bride of Frankenstein from ’35. But here Karloff just isn’t given enough to do. He’s a plot device, a mere tool in Ygor’s scheme. Even when he seems to threaten the doctor’s child late in the film, there’s isn’t much of a sense of menace. Of course, the monster’s appearance may still have been enough to make audiences shiver at the time. (This was the last feature film appearance by Karloff in this role.)
Universal spent a lot of money on this film, and it did great box office. In the long view, however, it represents the beginning of an inevitable decline when the studio set about turning inspiration into formula, an example of a phenomenon that will continue in cinema as long as there is money to be made from sequels.
(Charles Chaplin, 1952).
In early 20th century London, an aging music hall comedian named Calvero (Chaplin) rescues a young ballerina (Claire Bloom) who has attempted suicide in another flat. While he nurses her back to health and encourages her stage ambitions, he plans a comeback for himself as well.
This was Chaplin’s last movie made in Hollywood, before McCarthy-era slander led him to leave forever for Europe. The style is resolutely old-fashioned, matching both the aesthetic of the story’s time period and the sensibility of the 62-year-old filmmaker and star. The picture starts in a boisterous, comic mood (the entire sequence of the drunken Calvero returning home to his flat is masterfully witty), then settles into the form of an elegiac, sentimental drama about the role and life of the artist/performer in society.
There are several sequences with Chaplin doing pantomime routines on the stage, most famously (near the end) partnered with his old rival Buster Keaton. One may expect more from these routines than is reasonable—Chaplin is here depicting a style of comedy that predates even his early films; they are a tribute to a vanished era. This is of a piece with the entire thrust of the film, which is about the end of a tradition epitomized and capped off by Chaplin himself. In the guise of Calvero, Chaplin talks more than in any other of his sound pictures, and it’s clear that much of the talk concerns himself—not his film persona, but the artist Charles Chaplin and his long journey which is now entering decline.
It’s hard to avoid mixed feelings regarding Chaplin’s depiction of himself in Limelight. Calvero’s ideal of the artist is close to that of the Romantics: the artist as carrier of mankind’s greatest aspirations—a figure of almost religious sublimity. The old clown (and by implication, Chaplin himself) has a profound belief in his own importance. Even in regards to the plot concerning the ballerina Terry, where one would expect the focus to be on her, while Calvero would be the adoring old servant of a gorgeous young woman, all the dramatic weight is put on Calvero instead, with Terry displaying complete devotion to and worship of the older man. Quite a few of Chaplin’s utterances struck me as egotistical and self-centered, yet I’m convinced that he was not being naïve on this point. If anyone had a right to display some ego in a drama about the art to which he’d devoted his life, it would be Chaplin, the most famous figure in classic cinema. More importantly, it is very often part of the makeup of a performer of Chaplin’s stature to be self-involved and self-serving, and Limelight very frankly portrays that part. Calvero is supposed to be a difficult and exasperating person, although ultimately loveable. I have to say that he fails to inspire in me the kind of affection that would make me reach for a handkerchief during the melodramatic finale. Without any knowledge of the history underlying the figure of Chaplin in modern culture, it’s hard to imagine what a viewer would make of Limelight, but Chaplin clearly wasn’t trying to speak to an audience that lacked such knowledge.
The production design, photography, and editing are all very spare and simple, creating a sort of antique, classic look. The 20-year-old Bloom is of course beautiful, but a bit awkward in this, her debut part. Chaplin’s son Sydney plays her love interest, which is quite a literal way to symbolize the passage from old to new. The script is a mixed-bag: Calvero’s wisdom about how to get through life with humor and dignity can be awfully commonplace, but there are also interesting viewpoints on the artist’s relationship to character, and the need for love from an audience that can be just as fickle as generous. Limelight is the last time Chaplin got to make a movie completely his way, and for this reason alone it is worthwhile.
The Trial of Joan of Arc
(Robert Bresson, 1962).
Bresson’s sixth feature is exactly what it says it is: a depiction of the famed French martyr’s trial for heresy in 1431. With locations confined to a courtroom, the prisoner’s cell, and finally the stake, and at a length of only a little more than an hour, this is Bressonian minimalism at its starkest. The dialogue is almost entirely that of the actual court transcript. Jeanne D’Arc is played by the 20-year-old non-professional actress Florence Delay (credited for some reason as Florence Carrez), who acts with stoic defiance and resolve.
In order to understand Bresson, one must realize that he made contemplative films, not dramas. He abandoned, as far as it was possible, the structures and conventions of drama, such as character development, emotional emphasis, climax and denouement. He presents the viewer with the physicality of an event as a subject for observation, without that sense of an author behind the scenes eliciting a response. His films are, in effect, a statement of faith in the freedom of the viewer to respond as needed to the subject Bresson has selected.
In this case, I think he went as far as he could go in this direction. There is practically no music, and very little inflection in the line readings. The film doesn’t have the impact of A Man Escaped, or even Pickpocket, because the subject’s historical status has a certain rigidity. The virtue of the picture is in its uncompromising resistance to interpretation—the events are just there, like the facts, without a hint of interiority, which makes Jeanne’s stunning replies to questioning seem as dumbfounding as they must have seemed in real life.
It’s tempting to make comparisons with Carl Dreyer’s film about Joan of Arc, especially since Bresson reportedly despised La Passion. Suffice it to say that the pictures couldn’t be more opposite in method and intent. Dreyer is all about subjective experience, which he evokes through close-ups. Bresson focuses on the mercilessness of objective fact, indicating different points of view only subtly through camera angles. However, both are radical experiments in form. Dreyer’s is a masterpiece, Bresson’s is interesting, but somewhat of a dead end for him. In his subsequent works, he returned more explicitly to the mysteries of suffering, opening up the subjective dimension while remaining very minimalist in his formal approach.
The Curse of the Cat People
(Gunther von Fritsch & Robert Wise, 1944).
RKO had a knack for slapping silly titles on producer Val Lewton’s sensitive low-budget films. This one attempts to make audiences believe that it is a sequel to Lewton’s hit 1942 horror film Cat People, but there are no curses and no cats, just the return of some characters from that film, in what is not at all a horror movie but a sort of Gothic mystery. It concerns a little girl named Amy (the 7-year-old Ann Carter, in a remarkably vulnerable and touching performance), whose imagination and feelings receive only incomprehension and “concern” from her parents and school. Told to make friends instead of spending her time daydreaming, the girl is visited by Irina (Simone Simon), her father’s deceased first wife, the cat woman from the earlier film. Irina gives Amy the love and attention she doesn’t get from her parents.
There’s a subplot involving a neighbor, an embittered spinster (Elizabeth Russell) living with her deranged old mother, who cruelly denies that she is her daughter. The theme of the girl’s imaginary friend is neatly tied in with this melodrama at the end, dramatizing the potentially healing power of a child’s imagination.
For Simone and the little girl, the acting tends to the “B” side, as was often the case in Lewton’s films, but the “look” of the picture, the photography (Nicholas Musaraca) and production design, is striking. One will find it hard to forget the luminous scenes (especially at night) in the girl’s back yard, when the ghostly presence of the dead woman appears. The script is by DeWitt Bodeen, but the conception of portraying intense loneliness through a child’s point of view was from Lewton, who inserted some autobiographical details into the picture as well. In his first feature assignment, Von Fritsch fell drastically behind schedule, so the editor Wise was brought in to finish the project. The studio, of course, expecting a horror film, was disappointed with the picture and tried to market it deceptively. It failed at the box office.
The point of the story is that children’s need for imaginative play should be honored and respected, and that it’s hurtful to treat them with condescension, or assume that their daydreams are pathological, as the father (Kent Smith) does here. What a refreshing and unusual message this is, even in our time, but especially then, when kids in movies were usually precocious mouthpieces for adult concerns, cloying little projections of sentiment, or just dumb comedy relief. Once again, Val Lewton found a way to express humanist values in the guise of escapist entertainment.
The Conquering Power
(Rex Ingram, 1921).
After Ingram and top Metro writer June Mathis scored a spectacular hit with The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, they again used that film’s two leads, Rudolph Valentino and Alice Terry, in this film, an adaptation of Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet. Valentino plays young Charles Grandet, who is sent to live with his uncle after his father is financially ruined and takes his own life. There he falls in love with his beautiful cousin Eugenie (Terry), but the miserly uncle (Ralph Lewis) wants her to marry a rich man. Charles goes to South America to seek his fortune, and then the evil uncle intercepts all of his letters so that Eugenie thinks she’s been abandoned.
Valentino and Terry are gorgeous to look at, but more importantly, Ingram keeps the actors in check and achieves some subtle naturalistic effects. Everything goes smoothly until the uncle’s obsession with money leads to a mental breakdown. In a scene where superimposed images of gold and treasure drive the old man to madness, Lewis overacts to the point of almost literally chewing the scenery. Then, of course, the picture changes Balzac’s ending, because Hollywood producers always seemed to know how to end a story better than classic authors. The film ends weakly, with Valentino trumping a group of rich elderly suitors. The Conquering Power was not a success. Despite the poor ending, the movie’s first half demonstrates a degree of delicacy and charm. In its themes and style, the film seem like a tribute from Ingram to his idol, D.W. Griffith, and it has some of the virtues and faults of that great man’s work.
2011 Chris Dashiell
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