Sunday, October 23, 2011

Twentieth Century

20th Century (1934)
Directed by
Howard Hawks
Screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Macarthur (with uncredited help from Gene Fowler and Preston Sturges), based on an unproduced play by Charles Bruce Millholland.
Starring John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karnes, Charles Lane
IMDB Entry

There isn't a really good definition of "screwball comedy" other than the classic, "It's what I'm pointing at when I say, 'That's a screwball comedy.'"  The genre thrived in the 30s and was a combination of romantic comedy and farce, only with more fast-talking verbal wit.  Twentieth Century is one of the earliest examples of the form, and still a very funny film.

The story hints at its stage origins in that it can be divided into three acts. The first shows Broadway director Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) starting rehearsal for his new play.  He had unveiled his new discovery, Lily Garland (Carole Lombard) -- actually a first-time actress named Mildred Plotka, who is just terrible in the early rehearsals, much to the dismay of his accountant, Oliver Webb (Walter Connolly) and to the amusement of his wisecracking publicist Owen O'Malley (Roscoe Karns). But Jaffe insists he can make her into a star and we see him bully, cajole, trick, and seduce her into a successful performance.

The play opens and Lily becomes a star.  She as Oscar are a great team, but Lily decides that she needs to get away from him and his control.  She quits and goes to Hollywood.  Oscar says she'll never amount to much.

Of course she does, and, at the same time, Oscar's fortunes flag.  After a few years, it reaches the point where he desperately needs to hire her back as his lead actress or end up in jail for all the money he owes.  After a disastrous performance in Chicago, Oscar has to sneak out of town on the Twentieth Century Limited, the express to New York.  And, of course, Lily Garland is aboard, ready to sign a contract with Max Jacobs (Charles Lane*), Jaffee's main competitor.  Oscar has to try to convince Lily to sign with him.

Lily and OscarThe script is funny to begin with, but what really makes the movie special are the performances of the leads.  John Barrymore may be the only of the Barrymore siblings not to win an Oscar, but he was the biggest star and arguably the best actor of the three.**  He was a matinee idol of his time -- the Great Profile -- but seems to enjoy playing comedy and even kidding his own image***. 

Carole Lombard was chosen by director Howard Hawks for the role. She was an unknown at the time and Hawks fought to get her the part.  She is wonderful, starting as the scared and timid Mildred and evolving into Lily, who is a female version of Oscar -- just as strong and sure of herself as he is. 

One of the main jokes of the film is that Oscar is always playing a part, acting and overacting to get what he wants.  Lily also starts playing that game, and there are several delightful scenes where the two of them are acting at each other and reacting as though they don't realize the other is playing a role.  Both Barrymore and Lombard manage to walk the tightrope of making their overacting seem realistic and very funny. 

Despite everything, they make it clear they love each other, even though they would never lower their guard long enough to admit it honestly, or to believe it if they heard it.  And all they know about love, really, is theatrical melodrama, not honest emotion.

Roscoe Karns is also delightful.  He is the Greek chorus of the movie, commenting on events with the cynical wisecracks of the 30s. 

Howard Hawks directs in his usual matter-of-fact style, ensuring the each scene moves along to gain the maximum effect.

The movie was a big success, and created Lombard's career.  It was later turned into a successful Broadway musical.

*Charles Lane was one of the great character actors in Hollywood, appearing in hundreds of movies and TV shows, usually as a sharp-voice nasty man whose distinctive voice made him easily identifiable.  In 1937, just to pick a year, he appeared in sixteen films, often with no more than one or two lines, and he talked about showing up on one set in the morning, saying his line, and then going to another set in the afternoon. He is best know for his recurring role in Petticoat Junction, but also was one of Potter's assistants in It's a Wonderful Life. He lived to be 102, and never officially retired.

**Lionel, of course, is best remembered as Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life, but most of his roles were similar: an irascible old man, either mean, or kindly.

***At one point, he is forced to don a putty nose to hide his identity.  Later, he starts playing with the putty, stretching it out like Pinocchio, and making sure it is seen in profile.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Howard Hawks

IMDB Entry

Howard HawksIt's odd how critical opinion waxes and wanes.  And no one shows this as much as Howard Hawks.  He directed as many classics as any filmmaker you can name, and Andrew Sarris named him as one of his pantheon directors in The American Cinema in 1968.  Yet during most of his career, he was ignored.  He only got one Oscar nomination, and his name was overlooked by most American and UK  critical film studies before Sarris.  But Sarris started a boom in his reputation, which put him among the front line of directors.
Now, not so much.  When people think of directors of his era, they think of Hitchcock, or John Ford, or maybe Orson Welles, of William Wyler or John Huston.  Hawks being overlooked.
Why?  Most likely because he switched genres and studios so often that it's hard to keep track of him.  A Hitchcock film is nearly always a thriller, but a Hawks film could be a comedy, or a western, or a drama, a gangster film, and action-adventure film, or even science fiction.  But he's managed to direct so many films that make list of tops in their genre, that he rates plenty of attention.
Hawks entered the movie industry in 1924, and started directing films the next year.  He went on to direct 47 films, many of which are classics.  Some of the better-known ones include: 
  • Twentieth Century (1935). One of the earliest screwball comedies, this stars John Barrymore as the vain theater director Oscar Jaffe and Carole Lombarde as his star Lily Garland (born Mildred Plotka). 
  • Bringing Up Baby (1938).  The greatest of screwball comedies, with Cary Grant* and Katherine Hepburn as two people whose paths cross while searching for dinosaur bones and a pet leopard.
  • His Girl Friday (1939).  A reworking of The Front Page with Cary Grant as Walter Burns and Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson.  Hawks got the idea of making Hildy a woman when he noticed his secretary running lines for the movie.
  • Ball of Fire (1941).  Gary Cooper as the head of a group of seven professors compiling a dictionary of slang and Barbara Stanwyck as a chorus girl who shows that the need to widen their search.
  • I Was a Male War Bride (1949).  Cary Grant again, as a French officer who marries Ann Sheriden, an American officer, and has to come to the US under the war brides act -- which is not used to dealing with the reversal of roles.
  • Monkey Business (1951).  Cary Grant as a professor who develops a "fountain of youth" serum, which turns his behavior  into that of a wild teenager.
  • Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).  Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell as two women out to find a rich husband.  One of Marilyn's best roles.
  • Scarface (1932).  Not to be confused with the later semi-remake, this is one of the best of the 30s gangster films, with Paul Muni as the gangster, and where George Raft got his image.  More information here.
  • Only Angels Have Wings (1939).  Cary Grant starring as the head of a South American air service.**
  • Sergeant York (1941).  His only Oscar nomination, in this biopic of the World War I hero.
  • To Have and Have Not (1944). A vehicle of Lauren Bacall, who Hawks discovered.  It's probably the only film of a book by a Pulitzer Prize winning author (Ernest Hemingway***) with a screenplay by another Pulitzer Prize winning author (William Faulkner). The team of Bogart and Bacall became a screen legend.
  • The Big Sleep (1946). Next to Casablanca, Bogart's best film, and his work with Bacall was terrific.
  • The Outlaw (1943).  Not really a good film, but infamous for turning Jane Russell into a star, thought that had little to do with Hawks.
  • Red River (1948).  One of the top ten westerns of all time, with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift.
  • Rio Bravo (1959).  John Wayne again as a marshal fighting against lawlessness.
  • El Dorado (1966). John Wayne again as a marshal fighting against lawlessness.
  • Rio Lobo (1970). John Wayne again as a marshal fighting against lawlessness.
  • The Thing from Another World (1951). The classic sf horror film, and one that's to be praised for the intelligence of its conception.****
So why was Hawks ignored for so long?  I think his versatility counted against him.  He also wasn't a particularly "stylish" director.  I don't mean to say he didn't have a style all his own:  he was the master of overlapping dialog***** and he tended to focus on smart and competent men and women doing difficult tasks.  But his style didn't call attention to itself and was so simple and direct that it looked easy.
In his career, Hawks helmed 48 films, with a track record that put him among the greats.  I plan to highlight a few of these films in the future.
*Grant appeared in may of Hawks comedies, happy to play something that subverted his usual screen image of debonair charm.
**There is a character named "Judy" and Grant say her name a lot, though not three times in a row.  Probably at least part of the origin of "Judy, Judy, Judy" as the Grant imitators catchphrase.
***Hawks claimed he was fishing with Hemingway and tried to persuade him to write for the movies.  Hemingway wasn't interested, but Hawks claimed he could take Hemingway's worst book and turn it into a film.  Hemingway asked him what his worst book was, and Hawks told him, "To Have and Have Not." Luckily for Hawks, Hemingway agreed.
****The film is credited to Christian Nyby, Hawks's long-term film editor.  But Hawks produced and everyone agrees that he had a strong hand in the production. Hawks said he let Nyby get the credit as a favor so he could join the screen directors guild. 
*****Where characters don't wait for others to stop talking before they speak.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Pentangle (music)

The Pentangle: Renbourne, Thompson, Cox, McShee, Jansch Bert Jansch (guitar), John Renbourne (guitar), Jacqui McShee (vocals), Danny Thompson (bass), Terry Cox (drums)
All Music Guide Page

In memory of Bert Jansch.

The Pentangle was one of the most acclaimed groups of the British folk-rock scene in the 60s because they included five virtuoso musicians playing an eclectic mix of folk, blues, pop, and whatever else. 

The group started with Bert Jansch and John Renbourne.  Both were already highly accomplished and influential acoustic guitarists when they met and became roommates.  They loved playing music together and their album Bert and John showed a strong talent for writing and arranging songs.

While playing, singer Jacqui McShee sat in and they soon discovered that her voice meshed perfectly with Jansch's.*  They soon added bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Terry Cox, who had played together in the Alexis Korner Band.  With five members, the name Pentangle seemed natural.

The group was unusual for the time in that they played only acoustic instruments.  But they were amazing at it.  McShee had a sweet and pure soprano that worked so well with Jansch's rougher tones.  Both Jansch and Renbourne were masters of their instrument, as was Thompson, whose upright bass playing was perfection itself.

The group's first two albums -- The Pentangle and Sweet Child**  -- were critical successes, and their third, Basket of Light, also was popular enough to reach #5 on the British charts.   Here's "Light Flight," from that album:

After the success of Basket of Light, though, the group made the mistake of switching producers and recording an album of traditional folk music. Cruel Sister flopped.  The album didn't sell, since it it stuck with an area that was far less popular than the combined genres of their first three albums and, with only five songs on it, there was just not enough variation for continued success.

The group released two more albums, but their hearts weren't in it.  Jansch and Renbourne had been releasing solo albums during this time and Pentangle was more of a side project with them.  The group broke up in 1972, with occasional reunions.

*To me, "meshing" means the voices, while not necessarily singing harmony, always sound great together.  Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi of Traffic is another example.

**I just noticed that Sweet Child has a version of "The Trees They Are So High," a traditional folk song. The song has special meaning to me, since one version, arranged by composer Benjamin Brittin, was dedicated to my father.  See here for details.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Blake's 7 (TV)

Blake's 7 (1978-81)
Created by
Terry Nation
Starring Gareth Thomas, Paul Darrow, Michael Keating, Peter Tuddenham, Jan Chappell, Jacqueline Pearce, Sally Knyvette, Steven Pacey, Josette Simon, David Jackson, Brian Croucher, Stephen Grief
IMDB Entry

During its run, it was considered one of the best British SF series ever, but now it's mostly remembered for the awful way it ended.  But Blake's 7 is still first-class science fiction.

It's set in the future where the Federation is in charge.  But this isn't the Star Trek Federation -- is an evil dictatorship.  Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas) was a revolutionary who has been drugged to remain docile.  As he starts to remember, he's charged with pedophilia, and put on a prison ship.  Of course, he manages to overpower the guards and -- luckily -- find a passing alien spaceship of very advanced design.  Blake dubs the ship "The Liberator" and gathers a motley crew of criminals who try to overthrow the Federation.  They are known as Blake's 7.

The members of the original crew were:

  • Blake.  An out-and-out revolutionary -- smart but willing to do what was necessary to destroy the Federation.
  • Avon (Paul Darrow).  He had no interest in revolution and in little else other than his own self-interest. 
  • Vila (Michael Keating). A petty thief who wants to avoid danger as much as possible. 
  • Jenna (Sally Knyvette). A trained spaceship pilot and smuggler.
  • Gan (David Jackson) is a murderer with aggressive impulses, controlled by a chip in his brain.
  • Zen (voice of Peter Tuddenham).  The computer controlling the Liberator.
  • Cally (Jan Chappell), a telepath and the last to join the original crew.

Gan, Avon, Calley, Blake, Jenna, Vila Blake starts causing trouble with the Federation, and their Supreme Commander, Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce) makes it her business to take him down, using her best soldier, Travis (Stephen Greif, later replaced by Brian Croucher*) to find him.  So it becomes a battle between the Federation and the Seven.

The series was created by Terry Nation, the writer who launched the Daleks into the world. The mood was dark -- that Blake was fighting a gallant but possibly losing battle, not just against the Federation, but with his crew.  This is no Star Trek.  Vila is not interested in fighting, and Avon has no intention of being a hero.**  The group quarrels, disagrees, and commanding them is like herding wildcats -- though Blake manages to get his way most of the time.

The characters are all memorable, but the standouts are Paul Darrow's charismatic Avon and especially Jacqueline Pearce's Servalan. She is a wonderful villain -- clever, subtle, sexy, and dressed all in white.

And the show had a very dark side.  Main cast members died, starting with Gan in the second season.  But there are always seven, so he was replaced with Orac*** (Tuddenham again), a super smart computer that might be able to predict the future, and with a testy personality. 

And later, Blake himself is missing.  Avon has the Liberator, but starts fighting the Federation, though keeping his acid tongue and superior air.

The show had three great seasons, but started dropping in quality by season four.  Part of this was that they has planned to end thing after three seasons and had to scramble to build a plotline.  Also, Servalan changed, losing the qualities that made her a great villain (her wardrobe changed from white to red to black, a clear signal that she was becoming less interesting).  She became more standard, though there are hints of romance between her and Avon.

The show had a painfully low budget, even by BBC standard (see the logo, for instance), but the end was a complete shock -- the entire crew of the Liberator was gunned down, and even the ones who were still alive elsewhere were reported dead.  There is a little wiggle room***, but it was clear that the show wasn't going to be back.  Fans were outraged and blamed the BBC's general dislike for science fiction as the cause, though it does look like it was the creators' idea. And, strangely, the ending did seem to fit in with the series' streak of pessimism.

In any case, Blake's 7 was one of the gems of televised SF.

*The change hurt the show.  Croucher's Travis was far more strident and less interesting.

**One of my favorite exchanges happen when something explodes and Avon pushed Blake out of danger.  Afterwards, Blake says, "Thank you... why?"  Avon replies, "Automatic reaction. I'm as surprised as you are."  His line, "I'm not stupid; I'm not expendable; and I'm not going" was a great catchphrase.

***I used to use Orac as the shutdown sound for my computer:  "I am closing down. I have much to do. You have engaged my circuits on your petty affairs for far too long."

****They cut to black before Avon was shot, and it's possible the Federation guards had their phasers on stun.