I'M NO ANGEL (Wesley Ruggles, 1933).
Mae West, in her second starring role, plays a lion tamer who also
tames every man in sight, natch. She falls for Cary Grant, and he proposes,
but an old partner frames her as unfaithful and Grant breaks it off.
West then sues Grant for breach of promise - this unlikely ending to
an already outlandish story providing the excuse for Mae to strut and
swagger through the hilarious courtroom finale.
Written, with some help, by West herself, the picture is, truth to tell,
not as funny as She Done Him Wrong, her previous film made the
same year, although the direction is tighter. It does feature some of
her most famous lines, such as "Beulah, peel me a grape" and "When I'm
good, I'm very good. But when I'm bad I'm better." Her comic forte was
turning the tables on the prevailing image of female "virtue," and her
projection of unashamed sexual bawdiness almost singlehandedly brought
the fury of right-wing religious zealotry down on the heads of Hollywood.
The Production Code soon gained its teeth, and sex was effectively repressed
in the pictures for the next twenty years. West's own pictures were,
as a consequence, never as much fun as the first two. Seventy years
later she is still one of a kind, and still flat out funny.
TWO ENGLISH GIRLS
(Francois Truffaut, 1971).
Sexual love was one of Truffaut's abiding themes. Not the mythical
romantic love depicted in movies, but the often messy reality of actual
relationships, in which wills do not meet in perfect union, and where
happiness is mixed with generous portions of misunderstanding and regret.
Here he returns to the triangle motif of Jules and Jim (and like
that film, the story is based on a book by Henri-Pierre Roché)
but with the genders reversed and with a subtler and more nuanced exploration
The story takes place around the turn of the last century. Claude,
a young Frenchman (Jean-Pierre Léaud), is befriended by an outgoing
English girl named Ann (Kika Markham), who invites him to stay with
her family in Wales the next summer. He does so, and it becomes evident
that Ann wishes to arrange a match between Claude and her neurotically
shy sister Muriel (Stacy Tendeter). In time he does fall in love with
Muriel, or thinks he does, but the families oppose the match and it
is decided that they must spend a year apart, with the condition that
if they still want to get married after a year, they will not be hindered.
During the absence, Muriel becomes obsessed with Claude - but he drifts
away, has sexual experiences with other women, and breaks off the match.
Later, he runs into Ann on the continent and they end up having a sexual
This sketch of the plot, which only covers roughly the first half of
the picture, does not of course convey the film's flavor, which in Truffaut
is everything. His insight was that people, and especially young people,
don't usually understand themselves or their desires very well. Therefore
the ups and downs of their relationships do not constitute a fulfillment,
but instead are like the stumbling steps of a journey towards a painful
awareness of their failings. The actions of the three main characters
in Two English Girls seem enigmatic at first glance because of
this lack of knowledge and purpose, which lends the film its rueful
air - love is within their grasp but they don't have the means to see
it. This is particularly true of Claude, whose readiness for the next
stage of experience is always out of step with the evolution of the
sisters' awareness and their relationship to each other.
The picture is perhaps Truffaut's most visually beautiful work. The
soft palette (Nestor Almendros shot the film) evokes the impressionist
paintings, and looks - perhaps deliberately - a bit like the old two-tone
Technicolor. The two actresses, both relative newcomers to film, are
fine - especially the intense Tendeter, who creates a moving portrait
of repressed desire. But the movie flopped when it was released - its
muted classicism out of step with the style of the day. Always one of
the director's favorites among his own films, it has been steadily gaining
critical esteem in recent years. I found it sad and intriguing - the
one weakness being Léaud, who I don't think shows quite enough
vigor. Still, I admire the honesty, the willingness to take account
of the wreckage that can be created in the name of love.
THE MUSIC ROOM (Satyajit Ray, 1958).
An aging landowner (Chhabi Biswas), scion of a declining Bengal nobility,
continues to live opulently despite his increasing debt. His passion
for music, and his pride in sponsoring "jalsas" (classical music recitals)
for his neighbors, has self-destructive consequences when the competition
of an upstart moneylender inspires him to engage in a show of one-upmanship.
The great Indian director, with his fine dramatic sense, here portrays
an extinct world with a blend of mordant satire and reluctant admiration,
then miraculously achieves something close to tragedy in the final reel.
The film's central figure, played beautifully by the prominent stage
actor Biswas, is a decadent and thoughtless fool, and yet his stubborn
denial of reality for the sake of a single evening of music has a reckless,
absurd grandeur. Ray's theme is the pride of the heart in the face of
inevitable change, the refusal to let go even when all that is dear
is threatened. The old man is pitiful, never admirable, but his is a
way of thought that we can perhaps notice in ourselves, which is what
makes The Music Room moving.
The musical sequences (Ravi Shankar is included among the performers
of traditional works) are lengthy by western standards. They were a
startling innovation for Indian audiences - instead of being employed
as interludes between scenes of action, they are used to build tension,
and have their own dramatic significance, with the final performance
delivering the climax, and indeed the entire point, of the tale. The
Music Room is a stark little gem, a bit rough around the edges,
but the work of a master.
THE WHOLE TOWN'S TALKING
(John Ford, 1935).
Edward G. Robinson gets to play two characters in this outrageous
little comedy, a sort of screwball gangster film. Arthur Ferguson Jones
(Robinson), a meek office clerk, has a secret crush on a saucy co-worker
played by Jean Arthur. Unfortunately he bears a striking resemblance
to escaped convict "Killer" Mannion (Robinson), which causes him to
be picked up by mistake. When it is finally determined that the police
have blundered, Jones becomes a celebrity, and is given a police pass
to prevent him from being picked up again. But (of course) this attracts
the attention of the real "Killer" who decides to switch identities
with Jones so that he can continue his criminal career unmolested.
The Robert Riskin / Jo Swerling script takes every possible complication
in this tale to the limit. In fact, the whole double identity thing
gets a bit too involved in the film's last third. But the performances
are just marvelous. Robinson is so funny as the timid Jones that I wonder
why he didn't do more comedy. He obviously was also having the time
of his life playing off his own screen image as the gangster, Mannion.
And as if that's not enough, Jean Arthur is at the top of her form
playing a wisecracking free spirit who's afraid of nothing. There is
a scene after Jones is arrested when the police are questioning her
- she furiously smokes a cigarette while "confessing" to every bank
robbery within a thousand mile radius, and it's an absolute stitch.
John Ford had already been making movies for two decades by the time
he made this one for Columbia. It usually doesn't get more than a brief
mention in overviews of his work, but the same uncanny instincts for
camera placement and dramatic rhythm are in evidence as usual. It also
shows that he was just as much at home in comedy as in other genres.
The picture is a delight, and deserves to be better known.
THE LAST EMPEROR
(Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987).
The life story of Pu Yi, who ascended the throne of China at the age
of three, and was eventually deposed, is told in flashback during his
detention and "reeducation" at a prison camp in the 1950s.
In this story Bertolucci found both a match for his political and humanist
concerns, and an outlet for his desire to work on an epic scale. His
recreation of the Forbidden City, with its archaic pageantry and poisonous
insulation, is awesome in its meticulous detail, and its flow of imagery
and color. The bright reds in the scenes of childhood form a meaningful
contrast with the drab grays and blues of the scenes in the prison.
More important than the film's formal techniques, however, is its use
of the epic form to portray an unusual vantage point on modern history.
Pu Yi represents the ancient ways, the heirarchy that had ruled for
centuries, but which was already on the way out at the time of his birth.
He thus stands at an ironic crossroads, a figure stuck in the past through
no choice of his own, literally imprisoned by his own rule as emperor,
and - despite an urge to escape to the outer world - mentally imprisoned
as well. The emperor is really a pawn, and later, by his own tragic
choice, he becomes a puppet of the Japanese. The film thus displays
the spectacle of modern history from the point of view of a supposed
leader, which is in fact the point of view of an almost passive observer
swept along by the tide, just as millions of victims were swept along
by the murderous forces let loose in that deadly 20th century. The personal
story of Pu Yi, emperor, reflects the pathos of an agonized, powerless
John Lone plays the adult Pu Yi with a fragile, tentative sort of dignity.
We can see the young man struggling to maintain the pretence of power
even to himself. The later scenes in Manchuria, when he has fooled himself
into reprising the role of emperor with Japanese support, are heartbreaking.
Slowly it dawns on him that he has chosen complete ruin for his lot.
In the role of the empress, Joan Chen expertly portrays the transformation
from loving hearted girl to bitterly disillusioned woman. Peter O'Toole
lends his arch, amusing English manner to the role of the Emperor's
tutor Johnson. His performance is hypnotic, which is not all to the
good, actually, since he tends to overwhelm the other actors.
Success sometimes has a way of inspiring scepticism. The Last Emperor
ended up winning nine Academy Awards, including best picture and director,
and one of the unexpected results of this is that the film gained the
stuffy aura of respectability. More than one critic has complained that
the title character is too passive, as if that wasn't exactly the point.
Admittedly, Bertolucci is missing a certain something - I am tempted
to call it "soul" for lack of a better word - that would deepen his
film and allow the elements to cohere in a way that really strikes to
the heart of the viewer. But rather than wish that the director had
genius in addition to talent, I choose to appreciate what he did attain
- a remarkable portrait of the world from the point of view of greatness
grown ineffectual. In a sly sort of way, the film knows that the individual
nowadays, faced with the nightmare of history, would most likely wish
for the same thing as the emperor turned humble gardener - to be left
©2001 Chris Dashiell