Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - August 2002
The Puppetmaster
Nostalghia
The Mayor of Hell
Thieves Like Us (1974)
Lacombe Lucien

Every Picture Sells a Story
The anti-aesthetic of commercials, and how it's taken over the movies.

Flicks - July 2002
The Merry Widow (1925)
Sabotage (1936)
The Green Wall
The Awful Truth (1937)
The Brother From
Another Planet

 

 

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 worldwide.

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 Disney.

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 in color.

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
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