PÉPÉ LE MOKO (Julien Duvivier, 1937).
A notorious, charismatic jewel thief (Jean Gabin), having evaded capture
for years, is now holed up in the Casbah - an impenetrable urban maze
on the edge of Algiers. As long as he stays there, he and his gang can
dodge the law, but a wily police inspector (Lucas Gridoux) sees a chance
to lure him out, by exploiting his attraction to Gaby, a beautiful Parisian
tourist (Mireille Balin).
Attractive criminals and antiheros had appeared in films before, but
never with such an aura of romance and unapologetic charm as Gabin has
here. With his world-weary eyes and solitary habits, he gives Pépé
a soulfulness and depth unusual for a movie gangster. The film's crime
elements are secondary to the theme of loneliness, of Pépé's
isolation in the Casbah, his longing for his Paris home, as symbolized
by the alluring Gaby.
Duvivier's stye is impeccable - the pace, lighting, editing, and evocation
of underworld atmosphere are all marvelous, and the actors perform wonders
as well. The picture has suspense, humor, excitement - and what is more,
its quiet moments are among the best. There is something of exoticism
here - the colonialist's assumption of superiority, as in the depiction
of Pépé's fiercely loyal Algerian girlfriend (Line Noro),
but it's no more than one usually sees in films of this period, and
certainly less than in Hollywood films of a similar stripe.
In comparison to later works in the "poetic realist" stream of pre-war
French cinema, Pépé le Moko is a bit lightweight,
but it's a fine picture nonetheless, and I think it sums up a sort of
casual fatalism that was prevalent at that time - the sense of being
a victim of forces beyond one's control and yet remaining passionate
and courageous in the face of it.
Gabin was already a star in France - largely due to his previous work
with Duvivier. This film, a huge box office success, made him famous
SYLVIA SCARLETT (George Cukor, 1935).
Katharine Hepburn plays the adventurous scamp of the title, who disguises
herself as a boy to escape with her embezzler father (Edmund Gwenn)
from France to England, where they hook up, by chance, with a Cockney
thief and con man played by Cary Grant. After they form an acting troupe
and tour the countryside, Sylvia falls for a handsome artist (Brian
Aherne), but he treats her like a child.
From the very first scene, with its parody of sentimental stage melodrama,
the film lets us know that we should not expect believability. It's
a good thing, too, because, first of all, Hepburn is far too beautiful
and her voice too distinctly feminine for anyone to really be fooled
by her disguise. And the picaresque story, with the characters changing
from swindlers to performers in pierrot costume, and wild shifts between
comic and tragic moods, is anything but realistic. Apparently audiences
weren't ready for the picture's playful, edgy approach to gender (at
one point a girl kisses Hepburn on the lips), or its eccentric humor
- it flopped at the box office. This perception of the movie as strange
has, I think, prejudiced later viewers against it. Well, it is an odd
film, but it's also quite fun and entertaining, and it's too bad that
after all these years it's still not better known or appreciated.
Best of all is Grant, who up until then had been playing conventional
leading man roles. Here, in the first of his three films with Cukor
and Hepburn, he is a funny, swaggering, decidedly unromantic tough guy.
For the first time he really showed that he could act, and it was the
beginning of his ascent to greatness. If you're used to him as suave,
Hepburn as sophisticated and mature, or, for that matter, Gwenn as kindly
and wise (here he's a dishonest, pathetic buffoon), Sylvia Scarlett
might come as a shock. Their screen personae had not yet solidified,
and this unusual romp allows them some freedom to be outrageous and
silly. Hepburn's part, as someone pretending to be a boy, accentuates
the independent streak in her nature, the part of her that challenges
convention, which I think is a key to her lasting appeal.
I don't wish to overrate the film. Its tone never resolves itself into
anything but a minor key, and certain elements and characters (notably
a floozy played by Dennie Moore) tend to be jarring. Still, it's not
a bit dull, and you're never quite sure what's going to happen next,
right up to the end.
THE SOUTHERNER (Jean Renoir, 1945).
Renoir's exile from France during the war was, understandably, a difficult
period for him, both personally and artistically. His brief stints with
Fox, Universal, and RKO didn't allow him the creative freedom he needed,
and it shows in his work. Of the half dozen American features with which
he was involved, his favorite was this one, made for a small independent
firm called Producing Artists. Based on a novel by George Sessions Perry,
it tells the story of a poor cotton farmer (Zachary Scott) who, tired
of working for a rich landowner, sets out with his wife (Betty Field),
two kids, and irascible grandmother (Beulah Bondi) to grow his own crop
on a piece of rented land. The film follows the family for a year as
they struggle against poverty, sickness, the weather, and a malicious
neighbor (J. Carrol Naish), to make a life for themselves.
Visually, The Southerner is among the most beautiful
of any American film of that time. Renoir knows how to show nature as
both harsh and soul-stirring. There is a vivid feeling for the rhythm
of the seasons, the smallness of the human figure against the landscape,
the stark poetry of the earth and of a man's efforts to tame it with
ax and plow. His compassionate, clear-eyed view of character, perhaps
his most salient trait as an artist, is also in evidence. Where a lesser
director might opt for sentimentality, the people here are allowed to
be weak, self-pitying, and foolish at times, as real people are.
The choice of title was unfortunate, I think, because the manners,
accents, and mores depicted here are not Southern at all. Despite some
uncredited help with the script from Faulkner, the characters sound
vaguely, if anything, as if they hail from the Dust Bowl or the Midwest.
Unfamiliar as he was with American ways of thinking, Renoir managed
to capture the ideal lineaments of his dirt-poor human types through
the actors, but missed the specifics that would make them come alive
as residents of a particular American place. Scott does pretty well,
especially when he is called upon to be vulnerable. Field seems too
much the pretty and perfect wife. A friend played by Charles Kemper
is meant to provide a contrast with the ways of a city slicker - some
of his scenes come alarmingly close to condescension.
And yet, conceding the film's uneven and uncertain tone, it still
manages to be more honest, more sensitive, more real, than most of the
studio films being produced at that time, simply because of the personal
touch, the style and visual sensibility that Renoir lends to the material.
The Southerner doesn't really compare to his masterpieces of
the 30s, or even most of his later post-American work, but in its own
little way it has poetry, and is something of a testament to Renoir's
genius, that could find a way to still flourish, in exile from his roots.
THE FLEISCHER STUDIOS.
A compilation of eleven animated shorts on DVD, spanning the history
of Fleischer cartoons from the silent days through the 1940s. Brothers
Dave and Max Fleischer were making cartoon movies years before Walt
The first offering here, The Tantalizing Fly (1919) was
created entirely by Max, and features the clown (later dubbed Koko)
coming out of an inkwell that would become a regular feature. It's startling
to see the combination of live-acton with cartoon - apparently a Fleischer
invention - Max interacts with his drawing, and a fly keeps interfering
with his work, buzzing around, landing on the clown's nose, and then
the clown starts swatting at it and chasing it, with other marvelous
reactions and effects.
By most accounts, brother Dave was the greater artist, and by the time
of Bubbles (1922) the brothers had settled into the roles
they would play for the remainder of their partnership - Max as producer
and publicist, Dave as director and creative genius. Bubbles
is another "Out of the Inkwell" short, once more combining live-action
with animation. Max and Koko compete to see who can blow the biggest
bubble, and there are many brilliant permutations of this idea, with
Koko finally jumping into a bubble and floating out the window into
the real world, Max in pursuit. These early shorts are charming, and
also daring in their experimentation - we can see the artists playing
around with what is possible in the medium, before certain conventions
of cartoon theatrical exhibition had set in.
With Betty Boop's Ker-choo (1933) we jump ahead to the
Fleischers' great early sound period. This hilarious short, the jewel
of the collection, features a bizarre auto race in which Betty's sneezing
causes her to jump across the finish line ahead of the other cars. The
strange creatures in this alternate universe, with their big eyes and
wild, spindly limbs, move in as weird and unpredictable ways as the
objects, including the cars, which are also alive and full of mischief.
It's almost impossible to describe the amazing complexity of the technique
here. Every second in this film offers some kind of bizarre visual gag
or eye-popping contortion. This was probably one of the best of its
kind, but it was by no means atypical. The Betty Boop shorts - including
in this collection More Pep (1936) combining Betty with
the "Out of the Inkwell" mixture of live action and cartoon, and the
delightful Grampy's Indoor Outing (1936) - were consistently
funny and inventive, a feast for the eyes, yet with a naive quality
that makes them especially fascinating today, quite the opposite of
the slick style pioneered by Disney.
Little Swee' Pea (1936) offers a good example of the
Fleischers' other immortal character, Popeye the Sailor. These early
black and white Popeye cartoons are almost as anarchic as the Betty
Boops, and the dialogue - with Jack Mercer's quirky little voice as
Popeye making comments sotto voce, alternating with his louder public
croak - is actually funnier. This one has Popeye taking Swee' Pea to
the zoo, where the child crawls into the cages, just barely escaping
being trampled or eaten by the animals, while Popeye gets into scrapes
with all of them in his efforts at rescue. Funny bit: Popeye tames the
alligator by rubbing his belly, starts to walk away, then the alligator
bites at him and they fight again - this time the alligator tames Popeye
by rubbing his belly, then walks away.
Other shorts in this collection highlight the brothers' talent for
exploring variations on the animal world. The sweet and beautifully
drawn Song of the Birds (1935) is about a kid's remorse
when he hits a little bird with a popgun. Small Fry (1939)
is the rather bizarre tale of a young fish who wants to hang out in
the underwater pool hall with the tough fish instead of going to school.
Ants in the Plants (1940) features a brilliant battle
sequence between an army of ants and a huge anteater. All of these are
The last two selections from the early 40s, featuring the obnoxious
Gabby, a later creation, and Popeye in a version of the Aladdin story,
sadly demonstrate how higher production costs, and disappointing returns
on their full-length animated features, led to a decline in quality
for Fleischer cartoons. The drawing is less fluid, the scripts are rather
pedestrian, and everything points to the eventual demise of the brothers'
partnership, which came soon after.
This is a fine overview of a great, innovative cartoon team, whose
achievements have tended to be over- shadowed by Disney. The Fleischers
made over 600 cartoons from 1918 to 1942 - this Winstar DVD provides
just a taste, and now I'm hungry for more.
BILLY LIAR (John Schlesinger, 1963).
Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) is a young man who still lives with his
parents, and works as a clerk for an undertaker in a dreary Yorkshire
town. But where he really lives is in a fantasy world - a mythical country
called Ambrosia, where he is king, dictator, general, political prisoner,
famous novelist, and any number of other beloved figures. While whiling
away his time in imaginary heroics, he fends off reality by weaving
an elaborate web of lies, most of them designed to make him seem more
important to others - but his implausible stories only create more and
more chaos in his life.
Schlesinger mines this comic tale, written by Keith Waterhouse and
Willis Hall, for all it's worth. The film's sharp vision of small town
pettiness is interspersed with brilliant and hilarious fantasy sequences.
(The imaginary parade scene that opens the film, for instance, features
a squadron of wounded soldiers who can only salute with their left arms,
since they all happen to have lost their right ones in battle.) Courtenay
is excellent in the title role - outlandishly funny, but with a sad,
lost quality that makes you care about him.
Most of the film tracks the audacious progess of Billy's stories, particulary
his engagement to two different girls - borrowing the ring from one
on the pretext of fixing it at the jeweler, and then giving it to the
other. But there is one note of hope beckoning to him - the free-spirited
Liz, played by Julie Christie in her first major role. She understands
Billy and his need to escape, because she's done it herself, traveling
about the country and doing as she likes. Christie invests her few scenes
with an enchanting energy. She adds a touch of spontaneity to the film's
somewhat deterministic feel.
Crisply shot in black and white by Denys Coop, with dead-on performances
from the supporting players, Billy Liar feels small, like a chamber
piece as opposed to a symphony. But it's one of those comedies that
ends up meaning a lot more than you expect it to. Fantasy, it seems,
is not only a defiance of the dreary, oppressive world that hems Billy
in - it also represents the fear of making a real break with it. This
double meaning meets in the hidden recesses of his tragicomic anguish.
When we're brought up to never believe in ourselves, we can end up trying
to lie our way into love.
©2002 Chris Dashiell