Thursday, June 14, 2018

Review - Girl Shy


June 14, 2018

Girl Shy – U.S., 1924

I suppose one of the tricks to thoroughly buying into slapstick is to put aside our normal empathy for those characters unlucky enough to have borne the brunt of it. Being able to do so, this line of thinking goes, enables us to laugh when someone arguing with the Three Stooges is poked in the eye, rejoice when the Marx Brothers make a perfect stranger’s life an utter nightmare, and excuse someone for running an innocent bystander over as he darts to an important destination. In real life, we would likely be horrified by such behavior, and I suspect that if a movie contains too many examples of such boorish behavior, we begin to have mixed feeling about what we are watching. Perhaps this is why as Harold Lloyd’s Girl Shy reached its frenetic conclusion, I began to feel uneasy about all of the people he was affecting in pursuit of the woman he loved. Sure, I admired his tenacity, but did he have to leave so much carnage in his wake?

In Fred Newmeyer’s Girl Shy, Lloyd plays Harold Meadows, a tailor’s apprentice who has a made a habit of studying women. An early intertitle add this caveat: the more he does so them, the more he fears them. Fear is probably the wrong word here, for Harold’s problem is not that he believes himself to be in imminent danger, but that when he is in the presence of a lady he freezes up completely, becoming tongue-tied and breaking into an intense stutter, the treatment for which, humorously, is the sound of a whistle blowing. In one scene, Harold is asked to sew a woman’s stockings – while she is still wearing them, of course – and the initial result is shock, sweat, and a pricked leg.

Meadows is also an aspiring author, yet his choice of a topic is a curious one. His manuscript is entitled The Secret of Making Love, and in the forward to the book, he brags of having a wealth of experience. The movie shows of two such “experiences”: the first, with a vampire; the second, with a “Flapper,” which according to Wikipedia refers to “young Western women who wore short skirts, bobbed their hair, listened to jazz, and flaunted their disdain for what was then considered acceptable behavior,” such as smoking. In each, Meadows uses different techniques to win their affection, and then, having done so, simply notes the accomplishment on a piece of paper. There is no evidence that he is claiming to have done anything else. The scene with the Flapper is certainly not PC and produced a somewhat negative reaction in me as I watched it, but it helped to remember that these were the words and ideas of a naïve young man who has likely never been in a relationship; they display his ignorance of the opposite sex and reflect notions that were not all that uncommon at the time.

There are a few treats in these early moments of the film. One of them is the delight in watching Lloyd’s character become overwhelmed by some live music and begin moving his feet to it even though he is far removed from the party. It made me recall Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine. Also, Lloyd’s mannerisms around several female characters adequately establish his awkwardness and hopelessness around women in general, which makes the contents of the book all the more hilarious. Soon, Harold meets a rich young woman named Mary Buckingham (Jobyna Ralston). The interesting thing about her is that she finds Harold’s subject matter both promising and hilarious, and her reaction works wonders on him. From here, the only question is how they’ll get together.

Other elements of the film stand out. There’s a beautiful scene on a narrow river that makes excellent use of reflections and physical space. There’s also the cute way that Harold and Mary each walk around with an object that reminds them of the other and some great comic bits involving nature’s attempts to spoil their romantic moment which will remind some viewers of O.J. Simpson’s first scene in The Naked Gun. The scene is one of the most authentically romantic ones I’ve ever seen, and Lloyd and Ralston have amazing chemistry onscreen.

And pretty soon after that we’re off to the races. Why? Because in practically every slapstick comedy, the protagonist must do something extraordinary as a finale – be it Keaton showing his athletic prowess at the end of College, Chaplin fighting off city officials trying to take “the kid” away, or W.C. Field’s galloping to the rescue in his trusty Ford in Sally of the Sawdust, a gag that may have been inspired by a similar one in this film. Here, as in many other films, it is love that ignites the journey, and what an exciting, jaw-dropping, exhausting journey it turns out to be!

When I watched Girl Shy, it was the end of a long, somewhat punishing day, so much so that the notion of simply going to sleep would not have been a bad one. At times like these, watching a film can resemble an unpleasant chore. Thankfully, this was not the case with this film. Girl Shy perked me up, brought a smile to my face, and calmed my flailed nerves. It also gave me something to look forward to – six more films with this remarkable comic duo.

3 and a half stars

*Girl Shy appears to be out of print on DVD. It is available on YouTube.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Review - Four around the Woman

June 7, 2018

Four around the Woman – 1921, Germany

If I had my way, the poster for Fritz Lang’s 1921 drama, Four around the Woman, would be accompanied by the following tag – The story of a decent woman and the men who didn’t deserve her. Notice I’ve taken out the number four, for while the number is indeed pertinent to the plot, Lang’s version of Germany circa 1921 is hardly the land of gentlemen. Instead, it’s a place when men congregate in smoke-filled taverns around mid-day and have their fill before resuming their work. It’s a place where people leer at men they envy and make reference to the beauty of their wives, and coming from them, such sentiments are not always compliments. They’re warnings, indirect ways of placing these women’s heads on bulls-eyes and announcing their less-than noble intentions. It’s telling that no one takes issue with any of the sentiments expressed.

First, a note of caution. Four around the Woman is an incomplete film, and it is clear that much of what was lost had to do with the film’s first act, for the first twenty minutes of so of the film are so unfocused and opaque that it seems only logical that scenes existed that helped fully flesh out what now resembles a jigsaw puzzle missing every other piece. For example, in this part of the film, we learn a certain character is involved in white collar crime and masquerades, yet we never learn if his actions are the result of money problems or a defect in his moral compass. Another character arrives saying he’s looking for someone, and then just sits around lounging aimlessly, waiting – for what, I was not entirely sure. All I could tell was that there was a man looking for his brother, a brother not wanting to be found, a husband (Ludwig Hartau) disguising his identity so that he could purchase jewelry at a bargain from people down on their luck, and Florence (Carola Toelle), the woman who thinks the world of the criminal schmuck. The fourth man referred to in the title is the husband’s assistant, and he shows up at Florence’s door with flowers and a devious plan to – for lack of a better word – “woo” her.

Fortunately, once the first part of the film has mercifully ended, the film begins to make sense, and it becomes quite enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed Lang’s use of flashbacks, or should I say parts of one? In an interesting scene, Florence begins to tell her friend Margot (Lisa von Marton) about a particularly important night – the night she got engaged to a man she didn’t want to marry. This led to an unexpected visit by the man she did love, but their conversation ended up being quickly interrupted by Florence’s fiancé. If you asked, “And then?” you have something in common with Margot. Yet a narration of the subsequent events is put on hold after Florence’s maid brings word of a visitor. And so we wait, but this time it’s a good kind of wait, for the rest of the story proves to be the catalyst for much of the drama that transpires.

Does the film ever fully come together? Sadly, it does not. Oh sure, it ties up a number of loose ends, but it leaves Florence high and dry. It seems to suppose that a decent woman will naturally fall in love with a man she is forced to marry, and that, even when there is another in her heart, the right course of action is to dedicate her life to pleasing the guy you never wanted to be with in the first place. It’s matchmaker propaganda at its finest, and Florence is its poster child. That these views were much more prevalent in the early part of the twentieth century, I have do doubt, yet watching them be portrayed as the truest evidence of a good wife just seems wrong, especially given the fact that a better choice is standing right next to her. In fact, given how the film ends, I wondered what the purpose of the more attractive alternative was. It seems to me it was to make Florence’s emotional words all the more stirring. Modern audiences are more likely to interpret them as evidence of a society that valued order much more than individual contentment.

When the good folks at the now shuttered website notcoming.com reviewed The Wandering Shadow, the film Lang made prior to this one, they pondered the best way to review it - Should they highlight small signs of the genius that Lang’s later work reveal him to be, be honest about the film’s narrative mess, or just express elation that the film survives at all? Having seen The Wandering Shadow, I would reference the first and last aspects momentarily, yet spend most of my time on the quality of the film. And let’s be honest, the quality cannot be said to be high if what remains presents viewers with fragments that do not come together to produce a compelling narrative. For such films, the overused phrase for collector’s only seems entirely appropriate.

Watching the first part of Four around the Woman, I found myself experiencing a dose of déjà vu, and a sense of dread came over me. Yet unlike The Wandering Shadow, enough survives of Four around the Woman for viewers to fully understand the film’s plot and to make a critical assessment of the film. In truth, it did blow me away; still, I did become invested in it. I wanted Florence to find happiness, and as the film went on, I was sure that she would. To me, the ending is less a cop-out than a sign of the times. This is a world that women had to endure, one in which what is presented as a happy ending could be anything but, and I for one am glad Lang had the guts to say so. (on DVD as part of Kino Classics Fritz Lang: The Early Works)

3 stars

*Four around the Woman is a silent film with English intertitles.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Review - Love Without End (1970)

May 31, 2018

Love Without End – Hong Kong, 1970

There’s a moment in the Shaw Brothers Love Without End when a man stands at the back of a night club watching the woman he loves and with whom he’d like to reconcile sing that most popular of Chinese songs Wang Bu Liao. For those of you unfamiliar with the song, it is essentially about not being able to forget both the good and bad times after a break-up. It ends with the lines “Never can I forget the bitter taste of parting, and never can I forget the emotions of pining for you.” The song is perfectly appropriate for the moment even though by then we’ve seen this particular woman sing it several times already. The peculiar thing about the scene is the look on the man’s face. Here he is hearing the love of his life crooning about love as if it were a chapter of her life that had been permanently closed and the look on his face is not one that reflects contemplation or joy or heartbreak. No, the man just looks bitter. It is as if he’s thinking, “How dare you?” Which would be fine if that indeed were what the following scene expounded on. Yet there he is a moment later proclaiming his eternal love for her and begging her to stay with him.

The character, Tang Pengnan, is played by Yun Ling, and his performance is a big part of the reason that Love Without End works much less effectively than it should. For one, I know love at first sight. I know the feeling of being frozen in a moment, unable to look away from someone as the mind races and the heart begins to go aflutter. I have experienced the sensation that comes from understanding the urgency of the moment and the feeling that the slightest hesitation could result in a lifetime of regret. And Tang’s reaction was not love at first sight. It was a moment of warmth, there’s no doubt about that, yet that intoxicating feeling likely came more from the alcohol he had just consumed that from being struck suddenly by Cupid’s arrow. In fact, the next day he can hardly remember what happened the night before. I remember the first time I saw my great love like it was yesterday, and it has been over twenty years. That’s love at first sight.

And this is a death sentence in a film such as this one, for if you don’t buy two characters’ claims of sudden love, then the film falls apart, for the two of them don’t spend time getting to know each other. They just start dating. And then they stop. And then they start again. And then one of them runs off to Japan with someone else in exchange for a loan that will keep the other’s business afloat. Wait, what? And then that character is arrested on suspicion of smuggling illegal good into the country. Really, that happens. It’s just one of many storylines that is introduced and then dropped almost immediately. And in a way this makes sense. If a movie is going to go all Nicholas Sparks on us, it can’t get caught up in any details that would slow its path to emotionally manipulative melodrama.

So, the seedy parts of working as a singer in a club hinted at early in the film? Don’t give them a second thought. The weight Tang feels after his father dies and his business is in financial trouble? Resolved in a scene and a half. And the creepy, wealthy customer that sets his sights on Qingqing? Disposed of before you have the sense to ask yourself why a seasoned criminal would be so obvious in his methods. No, this is a film that would rather lay on the sad stuff, to give a woman a chance at happiness only to then take it away if one of the most telegraphed ways ever. Oh, and there’s the film’s other Sparks moment, when Tang misinterprets his love’s motivation and yells to her, “You’re just like the rest of them!”  No, she isn’t, and in movies such as this one, they never are.

In the end, what we have in Love Without End is a love story that never convinces viewers that the two lovers are indeed head over heels for each other. Instead, we get a series of aborted story lines that each could have evolved into something interesting, and a conclusion that is both predictable and wrong in its message. In reality, a man like Tang would be haunted by Qingqing’s final act, much like the boy is in Cinema Paradiso. Here, he just shouts out the equivalent of “How can I ever thank you for walking out of me?” Yeah, that happens.

If there is a silver lining to watching Love Without End, it is being introduced to Jenny Hu, who plays Tang’s love interest, He Qingqing. Hu has a natural grace in front of the camera, and she puts on quite an impressive display of emotion in the film. Even in scenes that rang false, she was enough elevate the material and gave it much more credibility that it would otherwise have had. It’s not enough for me to recommend the film, yet it is more than enough for me to search out Hu’s other films. I can only hope they made better use of her talents and matched her characters with love interests whose feelings seemed genuine. Here, the love is not without end; after all, cinematic love cannot believably last forever if it never convincingly begins. (on DVD in Region 3)

2 stars

*Love Without End is in Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Review - The Half-Breed

May 24, 2018

The Half-Breed – US, 1916

Douglas Fairbanks’ Hollywood career began in 1915, a year in which he appeared in three films. The following year he quadrupled this number, with two short films and ten feature films, one of which was D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, in which he played an uncredited role referred to as Man on White Horse on IMDB. While Fairbanks is now known mainly for his swashbuckling films from the 1920s, most of the films he made in 1916 were westerns, a genre that was thought to be an excellent format for silent films. One of these films was Allan Dwan’s rather audacious The Half-Breed.

In the film, Douglas plays Lo Dorman, the son of a Cherokee Squaw woman and a Caucasian man who didn’t stick around to take care of his son. Exiled from her tribe, Lo’s mother decides to leave him with a hermit naturist, an act which she refers to as “giving him back” to the White race. It’s a gesture that that is not appreciated, for Lo too grows up to be ostracized by both of his parents’ communities. This makes him one of those classic western characters that wander the continent in search of a place to call home and someone to love and accept him for who he is.

His journeys take him to the Township of Excelsion, a classic western town replete with sin, vice, and a few decent individuals – decent, of course, being in the eye of the beholder. We’re introduced to Pastor Winslow Wynn (Frank Brownlee), a man who reminded me of abolitionist Austin Stoneman from D.W. Griffith’s seminal film The Birth of a Nation. Like Stoneman, Wynn preaches tolerance and charity, yet may not be as free from prejudice as he would like to think he is. The preacher has a daughter named Nellie (Jewel Carmen), and she is the toast of the town. Crowds of men flock to her doorstep in hopes of being selected as the lucky one to walk with her to one of her father’s sermons. There’s also Sheriff Dunn (Sam De Grasse), another of Nellie’s suitors, and Teresa (Alma Rubens), the companion of a traveling medicine swindler. The drama comes when Nellie takes an interest in Lo, and her father, the sheriff, and, well, pretty much the rest of the town, take great umbrage.

Contemporary viewers will not be surprised at such a storyline, yet I imagine it was pretty daring in 1916, especially given the fact that the film was made a year after The Birth of a Nation. The film is also rather intrepid in its honest depiction of the dark side of the Wild West. In it, not only do we see evidence of prostitution and lawlessness, but we are also reminded of the ever-present threat of rape and of the dangers that obsession can bring. Teresa seems fully aware of this danger, and at key points she refers to men being leeches who are on the lookout for an opportunity to blackmail or ensnare a woman. In her face and reactions, we see evidence of a rather rough life, one in which men could be both guarantors of security, as well as perpetrators of injustice. As for Nellie, she seems oblivious to the dangers around her, preferring instead to bask in the adulation of her followers and judging their actions as sweet and harmless, remaining oblivious to the increasingly unhealthy fixation that some are developing for her.

The problem with the film is that it introduces so many storylines that is doesn’t have enough time to adequately wrap them all up. In fact, a key storyline involving the identity of Lo’s father is simply dropped, and the film’s love quadrangle never resonates as much as it should. Part of this is due to the film’s poor development of the relationship between Lo and Nellie, and while I was watching the film, I couldn’t help thinking that the film would have been better served by giving Teresa’s screen time to Nellie. I also couldn’t help but notice that Teresa’s rebellious spirit and her status as an outcast made her a much better match for Lo. However, I can’t fault the film for depicting Lo as being blind to that. After all, men have been drawn to the wrong women since the beginning of time.

Still, there is a lot to like about The Half-Breed. I liked Douglas’s depiction of Lo as being rather carefree on his own and extremely serious when faced with injustice and discrimination. I was also intrigued by Nellie’s rebellious nature. It’s possible to read her entire interest in Lo as being the result of her father’s disapproval of any relationship between them. The film sheds lights on the hypocrisy of some people who profess to be free of racism, only to falter when faced with the possibility of a family member actually taking their message of tolerance to heart. These are indeed imperfect people in a movie set in imperfect times. Sure, the narrative could be tighter, and with another thirty minutes, many of the film’s neglected or discarded story lines could have been more satisfactorily wrapped up. However, what we have is both fascinating and bold in parts, and that makes its faults rather easy to overlook. (on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino Classics)

3 stars  

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Review - One Night in the Tropics (1940)

May 17, 2018

One Night in the Tropics – US, 1940

Lou Abbott and Bud Costello are the best part of their debut film, One Night in the Tropics. However, saying this is like saying a picture on the ceiling of a dentist’s office is the best part of a root canal. Sure, it might be slightly humorous and distract you momentarily from the spider-like hands floating and poking around your mouth, but it never completely makes you forget the main reason you are there. And with One Night in the Tropics, you are there to enjoy a movie in its entirety, no to only chuckle every ten minutes at clever dialogue that adds nothing to the film’s narrative or moves the film forward.

In the film, Abbott and Costello play variations of their stage and radio characters, which by then had gained them a notable degree of fame. They are referred to by their last names and can’t seem to get through a scene without breaking into one of their routines that audiences at that time were no doubt fully familiar with, such as “Who’s On First?” and Jonah and the whale. Critics and regular viewers liked what they saw so much that the comedic duo was rewarded with a motion picture contract and eventually 10 percent of the box office gross of their films, a concession that was utterly unheard of at that time. So, the film was good for them; it just wasn’t a good film.

One Night in the Tropics, a remake of a 1919 silent film of the same name, is the story of four people in a bit of a love rectangle. First, there’s Steve (Robert Cummings), a wealthy playboy who is so in awe of a woman named Cynthia (Nancy Kelly), that he finds himself staring into space and repeating the phrase, “Oh, Cynthia” incessantly. The two are engaged, and they would be on their way to wedded bliss were it not for the fact that Steve is also being pursued by a singer named Mickey (Peggy Moran). She utters one of the film’s best lines when she tells Steve, “A man who lives a double life shouldn’t have two phones.” Finally, there’s Jim (Allan Jones), an insurance salesman who boasts of never have lost money on a policy. And he’ll sell policies on almost anything. Early on in the film, he soothes Steve’s nerves by creating a policy just for him known as love insurance. If Steve doesn’t walk down the aisle, Jim’s firm is on the hook for $1 million.

The film is meant as a comedy, yet its main narrative produces very few real laughs. Steve is such a daft bumbling fool that it’s hard to believe that anyone – let alone two women like Cynthia and Mickey – would fall for and eventually compete for him. An early scene in which he crashes into a series of people fails to produce much in the way of giggles, and his interaction with Cynthia’s aunt Kitty (Mary Boland), in which she shakes her head at and makes discouraging comments about his date of birth, feels forced.

The only two that come out relatively unscathed are Moran and Jones. Their characters both have sharp wits and an uncanny knack for mild deception, and a better film would have put the two of them in scenes together and just let the banter fly. Here, they are mostly kept apart, and even when they are onscreen together, their interactions are constrained by a script determined to sap them of all of their natural compatibility. This is done in service of putting them with characters that a wiser script would have recognized were just not quite right for them.

William Farley, who later played Ricky and Lucy’s neighbor Fred in I Love Lucy, plays the owner of the nightclub where Abbott and Costello are employed, and he does as well as he can with the role. The movie also includes a number of musical numbers, the only memorable one of which takes part during the film’s finale and which, for the life of me, I can not understand the purpose of. The others are impressively sung, yet they still did nothing for me. For example, Moran’s character sings a slow number about kissing the man she loves. It’s fine for what it is, but I felt her character would have instructed the band to play something much more tantalizingly up tempo and then stood in front of Steve shimmying. That would have been much more in keeping with her character.

One Night in the Tropics, therefore, is one of those films that are important for reasons that have nothing to do with their quality or lack thereof. It brought a legendary comic pair to the silver screen, and for that, it will always have a place among film buffs and viewers discovering them for the first time. Sadly, it just doesn’t have much else going for it. Well, other than Peggy Moran. I find myself wondering what else she appeared in. (on DVD and part of Abbott & Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection)

2 stars

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Review - Grandma's Boy (1922)

May 10, 2018

Grandma’s Boy – US, 1922

My old English teacher Mr. Dowling once remarked that it was illogical for a character to suddenly display abilities at a key moment if he or she has not demonstrated them previously. This observation came after his class had been assigned to finish a short story about a bullied boy with no athletic skills. In all of my classmates’ finales, the boy stepped up to the plate with the game on the line and hit one out of the park, an action for which the boy was lauded and paraded off the field on his teammates’ shoulders. Mr. Dowling’s point was a good one, and over the years, I’ve scratched my head at moments like these in movies – John Cusack suddenly being able to hit a basket when it counts, Sammo Hung’s partners’ mysterious martial arts skills, Kristen Stewart’s incredible horse-riding skills after spending her whole life locked in a tower, Dumbo realizing he doesn’t need the feather. (All right, I admit that last one choked me up.)

This incredible ability to excel at something all of a sudden has been a staple of comedies for as long as I can remember. Buster Keaton employed it in his fun film College, and it was commonplace in the 1980’s, a decade when Michael J. Fox’s buddies on the basketball team found their shooting touch at just the right moment, and Elizabeth Shue was able to belt out the blues without any musical training. Sometimes these changes work, providing laughs and a good sense of cosmic karma; other times, they just come across as lazy writing, the kind that you get when a writer is forced to come up with a happy ending. The suddenly they could do it moment is an easy out of a scenario that a writer has boxed himself into. Yet for some reason they work for films from the silent and slapstick periods, and a good example of this is Harold Lloyd’s Grandma’s Boy, directed by Fred C. Newmeyer.

The film is about a young man with a yellow streak a mile long. In the opening scenes, we see a montage of moments in which he declines to stand up for himself against school bullies. We finally settle on his nineteenth year, when we find him deeply in love with a young lady named Mildred (Mildred Davis) and still refusing to stand up for himself. As luck would have it, his competition for Mildred’s affection is the most recent bully to decide to push him around (Charles Stevenson). The first half also introduces a subplot involving a scary-looking tramp, one who appears to fear nothing but an old woman and a broom. In a clever bit, Harold tried to send a dog to do a man’s work, and all it takes is for the tramp to look at him and sneer for the dog to go running. In the second half of the film, Harold must find a way to deal with both of his adversaries while also proving he is good enough for Mildred. Somehow I think he has a pretty decent chance of success.

There’s an undeniable sweetness to Harold Lloyd’s characters. In him, we recognize the best of ourselves – someone that never gives up, someone that knows true love, someone who is both a sensitive soul and a warrior when called upon. He’s also someone who can be counted on to rise to the occasion, and sometimes doing so involves finding a skill all of a sudden. Is it realistic? Not entirely, yet Lloyd pulls it off, partly because he works so hard to persuade us that it is really happening. Here, he employs a talisman, one similar to Dumbo’s magic feather and Bugs Bunny’s secret potion in Space Jam, and part of the fun is in watching the way his character changes, from his new confident body language to the aggressiveness with which he pursues his goals. Lloyd embodies these changes; he makes them believable in the moment in a way that his later contemporaries have not always been able to do, and it is a wonder to behold.

The film is stacked with memorable comedic moments. There’s Harold’s shrink-proof suit, the one he dons as a replacement, the humorous intertitles, the ramifications of using goose grease to polish his shoes, and his numerous attempts to be the hero and impress the girl he loves. Much of the comedy in the first half goes by quickly, as the film rarely slows down to stretch a gag or make it a key plot point, unlike his seminal film The Freshman. The exact opposite is true of the gags in the second half. Here, Lloyd is given the opportunity to take his time, and in doing so, he creates a world of truly zany lunacy.

Is some of it predictable? Sure. Would the same situation be humorous in a more modern film? Probably not. And I have no doubt that some viewers will be more than a little put off by the positive view of the Confederacy espoused in the film. Again, this is not something we’d see much of in today’s films, but back in the 1920’s, this kind of portrayal was not uncommon. Here the Confederacy occupies a small part of the plot, which is quite unlike what Keaton did in his masterpiece The General.

I never had a chance to ask Mr. Dowling what he thought of particular motifs in movies or whether he applied the same critical standard to Hollywood productions as he did to literature. It’s possible he would look at a film like Grandma’s Boy, shake his head, and utter those analytical words Impossible. Just where did he get these incredible skills? Somehow, though, I think he would still have found a way to see the fun in the illogical, to sit back, put his hands behind his head, and just enjoy the film for what it is: a spirited work by a genius in front of the camera. I know I did. (on DVD as part of Kino’s Slapstick Symposium: The Harold Lloyd Collection)

3 and a half stars 

Friday, May 4, 2018

Review - Beggars of Life

May 4, 2018

Beggars of Life – US, 1928

To say that Wallace Beery commanded the screen would be an understatement. His face gave the impression of having been in the game for ages, and this added a layer of credibility to his performances. He was such a physical force that it was believable that his character could intimidate even the most menacing of rivals, and he had a swagger about him that made moments in which he stares down someone pointing a gun at him much more authentic than they might otherwise have been. In other words, he was a cinematic force to be reckoned with, and his name in the marquee ensured that the film had at least one thing going for it. It seems logical therefore that he acted steadily from 1913 to 1949, the year of his death.

Having said all that, I must admit to having misgivings about his role in William A. Wellman’s 1928 film Beggars of Life. Like Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho, Beery’s character, Oklahoma Red, does not begin the film as its central character. Instead, the first half of the film focuses on two young people whom life has not been kind to. First, there’s Joe (Richard Arlene), a poor, down-on-his-luck wanderer trying to make his way to Canada. When we first see him, he is walking along a dusty road, desperate for food. He stops at a house that has the front door open, peers inside, and sees a man in a chair next to what to him must look like the most delicious meal in the entire world. He enters the house and offers to work for any food that the man can spare, only then realizing that the man is dead, the victim of a gun shot to the head. It is at this point that we meet the film’s other central character, referred to in the credits as simply the Girl (Louise Brooks). We learn that the deceased man had adopted her and that it is she who shot the bullet than ended his life. We also learn the reason: In her words, the man couldn’t take his hands off of her, and just before Joe’s arrival, he had gone even further in what was clearly an attempted rape. Soon the two of them are racing to the nearest train stop so as to get as far away from the law as possible.

I found this part of the film incredibly involving. Here we have two characters thrown together by fate. One has no option, but to run; the other can clearly sympathize, though we’re never told exactly why. The film is also brutally honest about the risks involved in a woman being a hobo and hopping trains. It is for this reason that she doesn’t trust Joe to be different than any of the other lecherous individuals we meet throughout the picture. In a scene in which the two of them seek refuge from the cold night air in the middle of a haystack, we see the Girl clutch her jacket defensively just below the neck. Later, Joe suggests that she pretend to be his younger brother, and this makes complete sense. In a particularly powerful scene later in the film, we see just how much the sight of a woman can bring out the worst in desperate people.

And then Oklahoma Red makes his entrance and changes the narrative. Now it is he that drives the story. It is here also that the film slightly loses focus, for having built Joe and the Girl up as survivors trying their hardest to make their way to the promised land, it suddenly makes Oklahoma the central character; Joe and the Girl begin to react instead of taking the initiative, and at several points when it would seem logical to flee, they stand around as if paralyzed with indecision. This leaves Joe to be whatever the film needs him to be, be that a protector or a bully.

Oklahoma’s presence also allows the film to veer into unfortunate comedy, and a mid-film scene in which he assumes the role of a judge and gives his henchmen the role of lawyers is a mistake. When faced with the possibility of physical harm and sexual assault, it’s awfully hard to laugh at a character’s zany antics, even if that character has the charisma of this one. Another result of Oklahoma’s larger-than-life presence is that the film does not have enough time to credibly establish Joe and the Girl’s blossoming feelings. As a result, the revelation of their feelings comes across as cheap and unearned, instead of sweet and moving,.

And yet, I rather liked Oklahoma’s character and all of his twists and turns. In another movie, one which followed him from the first scene to the last, they would have complemented each other and given audiences the impression of a truly complex character, one whose views of the world we would witness changing right before our very eyes. Given that extra time, his final actions would make absolute sense. Instead, they feel convenient, the result of a writer sticking too closely to established narrative structures which dictates that characters like Oklahoma can never be entirely bad. The film even has the heroine observe that much. I simply wasn’t convinced.

And this is a shame, for the first half of the film has so much going for it. Wellman, whose films often championed regular, everyday characters, brings to life a world in transition, one in which, like today, there is a clear separation between the have’s and the have-not’s, and one in which the weakest of society get very little empathy and are lent few helping hands. I liked this half a great deal; the rest I appreciated, yet couldn’t shake the feeling that it belonged in another film. In the end, Beggars of Life is hit-and-miss, but what hits is astonishing and what misses still has such style and flair that I feel utterly petty complaining about it. Credit that to Wallace Beery. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 stars