Showing posts from June, 2012

My Brother Talks to Horses

I have an essay forthcoming for publication on the sentimental melodrama, drawing extensively on my 1947 viewing and arguing that a cycle of films was marked by nostalgia for the turn-of-the 20th-century and by coming-of-age narratives that figured childhood loss as a kind of historical trauma. As the essay was written some time ago, I am gratified to see my thesis further supported by examples I've seen since. My Brother Talks to Horses (MGM Fred Zinnemann) typifies much of what this cycle does.

The boy Lewie (MGM child star Butch Jenkins) has a special rapport with animals and is able to talk to horses.

His brother John (Peter Lawford) is a dreamer who pins his hopes on the unproven medium of radio.

John takes Lewie to the horse races. The plot develops as Lewis develops a bond with the race horses. As with other films in the cycle, the injury of an animal becomes a key event, one that has to be witnessed obliquely. We witness the witnessing but do not witness.

In the proc…

Key Witness

I have been making good progress on the A pictures from the major 8 studios in 1947, but need to track down and watch more of the B pictures. (These tend not to be the titles with an official studio home-video release.) I am now especially eager to see more of Columbia's titles, if only to see how representative Key Witness (D. Ross Lederman) is.

To begin with, the film exhibits characteristics of a certain B-noir ideal type. There's a good amount of historical scholarship, revisionist and otherwise, which has called into question or at least bracketed the idee fixe of noir, and my viewing of 1947 has revealed that noir tendencies cut far and wide but that relatively few of the "noir" films live up to the canonical take. However, this one does, if less for a hard-boiled/femme fatale narrative - I like to think of a Cornell Woolrich-like strand that influences many of the B noirs. And here a similar dark vision pervades, as does both a theme that combines class criti…

The Exile

I have come to think of 1947 as an anti-1939 of sorts. Not only is there a dearth of canonical films during a prolific year, but there is also the oddity that many canonical auteurs release lesser, even forgotten, films during the year. Hitchcock's Paradine Case is one example, but almost as fascinating is The Exile (Universal), Max Ophuls' swashbuckler with Douglas Fairbanks. From the start it is clear that The Exile does not follow the usual generic treatment. It could be the copy I watched, but the cinematography seems consistently downbeat, with heavy use of low- and especially medium-key lighting, in distinction to the high-key world of, say, Captain from Castile. The DP, Frank Planer (IMDB states that Hal Mohr and George Robinson worked uncredited as well), uses effects lighting extensively, even obscuring the actors' faces at a key narrative moment of emotional epiphany.

At other times, the cinematography adopts the pictorialism of Northern European Renaissance pa…

Living in a Big Way

If viewers today are aware of Living in a Big Way (MGM), it's like to be as a failed, or at least third-tier, MGM musical. Part Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen dance-musical, part Gregory LaCava-directed romantic comedy, the film's production values and genre hybridity keep it out of the musical canon. The reviews at IMDB are instructive in this regard.
To me, the mix of generic material and the aspirations for thematic seriousness are precisely what interests me in the film. The opening title sets up the tongue-in-cheek tone. 

What I was not prepared for is how the statement works as commentary: Living in a Big Way is a social problem comedy. To begin with, the film uses a screwball divorce-comedy premise to reflect on the issue of postwar divorce and failing "war marriages" - in a manner not dissimilar to Suddenly, It's Spring. On top of this, the Dinner at Eight-ish madcap quality sends up the industrialist classes and makes digs at war profiteering.

Finally, there&…

Suddenly It's Spring

Another light comedy from Paramount, Suddenly It's Spring (Mitchell Leisen) updates the divorce-and-reconciliation screwball formula to reflect the impact of World War II. Claudette Colbert [CORRECTION: Paulette Goddard... whoops] and Fred MacMurray play war veterans Mary and Peter Morley who, on the verge of divorce before the war started, reunite at the war's end having to decide what to do with their marriage. MacMurray has become interested in a divorcee, whom he intends to marry after the divorce; Colbert has a new wealthy suitor. The typical screwball complications and resolutions follow, but behind it all are a few new concerns: the collective fate of marriages caused by war time absence; the status of the wealthy who stayed at home during the war; and the general allegorical importance of getting back to normal.

Even here, the comedy plays out in the public sphere, as Mary's role as marriage counselor in the WAC plays out on the front page of newspapers. This was …