Showing posts from May, 2007

Life With Father

The notion of “timelessness” is a vexed enough notion, and one that I don’t imagine a lot of film scholars are invested in. I’m not sure how generic preferences over impact popular understandings of timelessness, but the sentimental drama has to rank up at the top of forgotten (forgettable?) genres. Life with Father (WB, Michael Curtiz) seems especially instructive, coming from the same studio and director as the “timeless” Casablanca. Only this tale of a bourgeois family in the 1880s growing up under the stern patriarch is the kind of drama that does not translate well to a period with different family dynamics and different nostalgias. In fact, the historical difference between 1947 and the setting of this film is pretty much the same as between 1947 and today.

It’s not as if Curtiz’s stylistic touch isn’t in evidence here. An understated camera style and blocking punctuate much of the drama. For instance, the framing here uses negative space to anticipate and balance the maid’s entr…

Dead Reckoning

Dead Reckoning (Columbia, John Cromwell) could serve as an ideal type for the 40s A-film noir: flashback frame story with voiceover narration; an average guy thrust into circumstances pushing him into the role of investigating a murder; a femme fatale around whose unreadability much of the plot twists turn; and a visual style . The average guy here is Rip Murdoch (Humphry Bogart) and the fatale is played by Lizabeth Scott, doing an impression halfway between Veronica Lake and Lauren Bacall.

The cinematography adopts many of the same noir tics, usually with striking effect. The hard edges of fast film stock give way to more standard softer style in the flashback. There is a prevalence of underlighting the scene, without key or fill light.

Or in drowning the subject in too much fill.

What distinguishes Dead Reckoning from other noirs is its returning veteran subplot. It allows the film to comment slyly on the difficulty of the workforce; Dead Reckoning, that is, uses low-genre means to th…

The Lost Moment

Walter Wanger may have held an image as Hollywood’s sophisticate and as a “serious” producer, but oddly enough his films were often especially generic. (Dennis Bingham has made this observation; additionally, Matthew Bernstein’s biography of Wanger is an excellent study of a producer both typical and unusual.) This tension is perhaps best illustrated by The Lost Moment (Walter Wanger/Universal, Martin Gabel). It is an adaptation of a Henry James story, “the Aspern Papers” and like other quality literary adaptations (How Green Was My Valley, I Remember Mama), make extensive use of a literary-style 1st person voiceover narration. Generically, however the film is a Gothic film shot in a manner not too dissimilar from horror or gothic films of the time. A couple of qualities distinguish this one from other gothic films of the 40s. First, it is a male-centric gothic; I’d noted that Two Mrs. Carrolls subverted the traditional focus on the heroine’s subjectivity, but in the Lost Moment ther…

3-D Historiography

Apparently one part of the New York Times film page should talk to the other more. Dave Kehr fact-checks the many wrong facts in Sharon Waxman's industry-trend piece on the resurgeance of 3-D filmmaking. Beyond the gotcha element, though, his rejoinder is definitely required reading - its a far more thorough explanation than any I've happened to read (including Peter Lev's volume on 1950s cinema) on the topic of 3-D's proliferation and demise in 50s Hollywood. Donald Crafton has argued that in no area has the divergence between popular historiography and academic film historiography been greater than on the topic of the coming of sound to Hollywood. 3-D comes in as a respectable also-ran on that count. As 1926-7 recedes rapidly from even popular memory, though, we might look more closely to these other misunderstood periods in the medium's history.

Carnegie Hall

I didn’t realize it possible to have a noir-musical hybrid, but Carnegie Hall (Federal Films/UA, Edgar Ulmer) is such a creature. Well, it’s not a musical as many would apprehend the term, but it takes many of the conventions of the musical melodrama (the Kitty Foyle films or The Jazz Singer/Jolson Story) for a frame narrative centered around classical music performances in Carnegie Hall. Furthermore, Carnegie Hall is not a noir film, but Ulmer’s German Expressionism drives a remarkable number of the stylistic choices, from the use of shadow and extreme deep space

to the angled set models of transitional establishing shots

to rear-projection distinct spatial planes that seem more Straub-Huillet than Hollywood

Carnegie Hall may not have the long take emphasis on actual recorded music that Chronicles of Anna Magdalene Bach has, but it is surprisingly similar in its stop-start narrative structure, as the frame story develops, then pauses for the performance of the well-known musicians. Unl…

The Farmer's Daughter

I don’t know how I’ve missed seeing this film before. Given that my book-in-progress on the social problem film places the genre in the political culture of the 1940s, I’m certainly going to need to account for the film’s participation in a postwar liberal consensus. The Farmer’s Daughter (Selznick/RKO, H.C. Potter) is not a straightforward social problem film; it follows in the tradition of Capra and the cycle of social comedies like Devil and Miss Jones. Kathryn Holstad (Loretta Young) is the eponymous farmer’s daughter, a headstrong Swedish-American Midwesterner who comes to the state capital and gets a job as a maid for a congressman (Joseph Cotten) and eventually decides to run for congress herself to oppose the party bosses. Along the way, the film champions a modest welfare state, argues for internationalism, and suggests the fascist threat of the KKK.

The Dore Schary production was low-budget for a Selznick picture but still maintains a prestige picture style with high producti…

Film Blogging

Michael Newman brings some needed medium specificity to the discussion of film blogging. I suspect he's right that one of the functions of the new medium will be a meeting ground between academic media scholars and educated, even self-educated fans and cinephiles outside the academy. I don't have a problem with writing for and reading from an insular community - I'm at the stage of my career when that is an obvious and overwhelming priority. But when I do have the time to really delve into the nonacademic film blogs out there, I can't help but be impressed by the seriousness and erudition of writers who aren't getting paid to be serious or erudite. Case in point: Girish Shambu's recent discussion of noir and crime film. Or a blog I just discovered, Film of the Year, which is proceeding through cinema history year-by-year, writing analyses of the movies, complete with footnotes; it's sort of a diachronic counterpart to my 1947 project. The author, Thom Rya…

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

One critical hat trick the auteurists introduced was the inversion of Hollywood’s taste hierarchies: trash cinema could be art, while serious cinema hollow pretension. I happen to think this taste formation was symptomatic of a larger shift in cinema’s place in a cultural hierarchy and that if the auteurists had not existed someone would have had to invent them. The late 1940s fascinate me in part because I see them as a crucial pivot point in the establishment of this new taste formation. Paradoxically, the period offered the most excessive examples of “serious cinema” because the industry was caught in the tradewinds of a changed place of cinema in American cultural life.

Against this backdrop, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (20th Century-Fox, Joseph Mankiewicz) balances the prestige picture and the genre film in fairly equal parts. The cinematography (Charles Lang) offers both elaborate setups that compositionally express their meaning and natural light shooting that captures the subject i…

The Man I Love

Given the opening shots – a high angle shot of a studio mockup of Manhattan skyscrapers, a closer shot of the 39 club – The Man I Love (Warner Brothers, Raoul Walsh) seems a throwback to the iconography and style of 1930s Hollywood.

Indeed, the genre-blending film seems most comfortable in the “marked woman” film territory that Warner Brothers specialized in during the late 30s. Ida Lupino plays Petey Brown, a big city nightclub singer who’s come back to her hometown to visit her family. She ends up singing in a nightclub owned by a notorious womanizer, who has the eyes on the blonde neighbor, and... let’s just say the plot is both complicated and typical. What’s unusual – and interesting from my perspective – is the inclusion of social problem material into the gangster and woman’s film. Like Susan Hayward in Smash-Up, Petey and her love interest are frustrated musicians whose personal demons drive them into alcoholic self-destruction. Meanwhile, the sister’s husband is a war hero vet…

Where's There's Life

Where There’s Life (Paramount, Sidney Lanfield) starts off much like an Eric Ambler novel: in a fictionalized Eastern European nation of Barovia, a shady terror organization called Mordea assassinates the king just before the installation of a constitutional monarchy; circumstances bring an unwitting American into the thick of the political unrest. Only this American is played by Bob Hope, and the film is a spoof of the spy film and of dramas like Hangmen Also Die.

Beyond Hope’s comedic style, which can be a historical relic and a matter of taste, the film is strongest in its pithy visual gags and fanciful compositions.

Perhaps most dated is the intense repetition of jokes barely sublimating male desire. One thing that gets overlooked in popular memory of the period is the two sides of sexuality postwar comedy; certainly the repression of overt sexual references was required by the Code and the cultural groups it represented, but alongside the wholesome reputation of Hope’s humor was a …