Wednesday, May 30, 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 entrance.

Or take this simple shot of the wife’s entrance, which tilts up and tracks back to show Kitty’s entrance in the mirror, then back tracks in.

It’s a simple and redundant move, but one which adds texture to what would otherwise be a stagy theatre adaptation. Indeed, the film makes the most use of the interior sets, with much of the drama taking place in parlor rooms, libraries, or dining rooms.

Even this exterior establishing shot uses a window reflection to minimize the set requirement.

Life with Father (WB, Michael Curtiz) is perhaps best known today as an early appearance of Elizabeth Taylor, but it’s William Powell’s star image that negotiates the complicated paternal figure who’s usually wrong but ultimately right. As for the paternalism underpinning the genre, the conventions to my eye seem to revolve around three ingredients: 1) a father who’s sure of his 2) a woman who actually gets the upperhand not by directly challenging the patriarch’s decisions but by deflecting and subverting them through wile and charm; 3) a teenager who is trying to negotiate between fact and norm in that battle of the sexes called Love.

As for #3, chalk it up to the times, to the Breen Office, or to a more specific ideology, but Life With Father – and this perhaps speaks to a general trend in the sentimental drama – imagines adolescence as an extended childhood. The film requires a suspension of disbelief that a young man heading off to Yale in the Fall finds girls icky until he’s swept off his feet by Elizabeth Taylor. And that his father is surprised that his son is attracted to a woman.

On a more tangential note, the film’s credits are a good illustration of relative size of star billing. Certain stars stipulated in their contracts that billing must be of a designated relative size to other stars’ billing (25, 15, or 10 percent larger are common in this time). I can’t state this with full surety, but it’s my impression that this variable billing in the final credits emerges much more in the 40s as stars gain more negotiating power.

FYI, the muddied Technicolor is not from the original film but from the public domain-quality DVD transfer.

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 the same high-genre message of Best Years of Our Lives. Moreover, it lends an extended metaphor to the psychological state of the hunted and the inadvertently criminal. Whether this metaphor works is the matter of opinion (the Time Out guide thinks not), but at the very least, it’s the occasion of some interesting juxtaposition of war film footage with the crime drama narrative, as in this dissolve-heavy montage sequence of Bogart getting sapped.

In other areas, too, subjective camera gains an intensity not often seen, even in other noirs. I like car crash scene myself.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

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 there is no woman marrying into or entering a family tinged with uncanny. In fact, the film contains little thriller element, just a sense of supernatural events. Second, the Jamesian quality shines through the adaptation, at least in the narrative development. It’s as if the story not only wants to activate Barthes’ hermeneutic code, but also strips away other codes so that the enigma functions in its purest form. Films like this make me wish I was a better narratologist; at first blush, the effect of The Lost Moment is not too dissimilar from certain modernist treatments of the enigma (or David Lynch for that matter), yet we don’t apprehend the film as resisting narrative drive in the same way.

Friday, May 25, 2007

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.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

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. Unlike the musical, Carnegie Hall provides the performance numbers only the barest of narrative value, usually through an occasional reaction shot.

The frame narrative ventures from the sentimental to the perversely psychodramatic. I know Mulvey’s essay gets a lot of shrugs and objections these days, but if you want a clearer illustration of von Sternbergian spectacle outside of von Sternberg, the complete breakdown of narrative space to foster the spectacle of the actress is a good start.

The result of this style and structure is a strange amalgam of prestige film and Poverty Row. To that end, I found this title from the trailer prescient:

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

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 production values. I’m always interested in the moments of narrational excess that these films sometimes invoke, as in the third shot shown below, from a typical scene.

This has to be the first time I’ve noticed a credit for the montage director, Harold Palmer, though this probably says more about my lack of attention during the opening credits than the lack of credit. The montage sequence in the Farmer’s Daughter, however, lacks the playfulness of the Capra films nor the visceral feeling of Don Siegel’s sequences for Casablanca or All the King’s Men.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

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 Ryan, is only up to 1934, so I will have to wait to see what 1947 brings.

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 in crisp definition. The Bernard Hermann score is both sweeping and subtle. The setting, mise-en-scene and casting of George Sanders aligns the film with an Anglophilic strain particularly strong in the late 30s and 1940s. More particularly, the film seems to absorb the model of the Rank-Ealing imports, particular the fanciful-serious hybrid of Stairway to Heaven. Mrs. Muir’s interaction with the ghost plays with the reality of the visual register and thematically draws out a parable of belief that, if not Ordet, is at least a subtext beneath the surface.

Meanwhile, the film borrows from and inverts the gothic blueprint: the creepy portrait... the glass of milk make their appearance, only the tone is turned from horror to romance and light comedy.

By now, someone has likely given a persuasive ideological reading for the preponderance of missing husbands, dead husbands, and bigamists in the cinema of the 1940s. I, too, wonder how self-conscious observers of the time were of the trend.

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 veteran currently in the mental hospital. Unlike in the social problem film counterparts, these subplots never develop into explicit messages, but other than a couple of distinctly noir compositions (see right), the social relevance is probably the only indication the film is made after World War II. Everything else speaks back to pre-1945 films, even to the point of direct quotation from Casablanca and Stella Dallas in the last scene.

Stylistically, I’m starting to notice that the voiceover usage is complex in these films. Sometimes, it’s a conventional flashback introduction, while at other times it has more the feel of an aggressive sound bridge.

The sexual forthrightness of the script is also striking. It’s often done with innuendo, much like a present-day television sitcom. Still, the narrative centers around every woman’s sexual permissiveness or restraint to a surprising degree of obsession.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

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 lasciviousness and knowingness about sexuality.

A couple of interesting moments include a dig at the Dixiecrats (when Hope sees a cloaked Mordean holding a noose, he sighs, “Democrats!”) and a moment of direct address to the spectator (“You’ve done enough looking already”). I know that comedy has allowed the breakdown of the fourth wall even in the classical days. I wonder, though, when this convention first started or spread in popularity.

Oh, and not surprisingly, there’s a plug for another Paramount picture.