Friday, June 22, 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 process, Lewie learns he has to grow up. However, (predictably), he loses his ability to talk. What's more, the ending suggests his entry into heterosexual desire.

Stylistically, the film feels like a high B treatment from MGM. There are decided cost cutting measures, like the reliance on lighting instead of sets.

At the same time, the production values are high enough to give appropriate glamour lighting, interesting camera set ups, and atmospheric spotlighting.

Again we have the trademark MGM Victoriana.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

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 critique and existentialist tendencies.

The opening three shots actually seem to me a good 3 to 5 years ahead of their time, which probably indicates the generative importance for these B noir pictures. We have the iconography of the nighttime aerial shot and the inky-black chiaroscuro of the minimal lighting setups, in the manner of John Alton.

Elsewhere, flatter lighting and cheaper sets add to the now generic markers. More interesting to me is DP Tannura's more nuanced work, as in this shot, which infuses a harsh, directional light into what is otherwise a superbly lit interior shot.

The narrative itself of Key Witness is too convoluted to productively summarize (at only 1h7m running time!), but its main character Milton Higby gets inadvertently trapped in crime dealings. Moreover, the ironic reversals begin to denaturalize the narrative, to the point that the film feels like Bresson in B film clothing. It's a morality play that undermines a clear sense of morality. Like I said, I am eager to see what else in 1947 may be like this.

Monday, June 11, 2012

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 painting.

The direction too, seems more in line with a prestige drama, with complicated blocking. In one scene, Katje and Charles hear a carriage arriving.

Charles goes to see who it is…

… while Katje goes around the kitchen…

…. past the fake king….

…. to answer the door. The camera in typical fashion has an independent agency and both suppresses knowledge and anticipates action.

I wondered about the significance of the narrative, set during the Interregnum in England - the exile is Charles Stuart, who lives in Holland and disguises himself as a tulip farm worker to avoid detection. He is oddly cast as a defender of democracy. I suppose in part the Puritans figure the by-then unpopular Prohibition coalition in the U.S. Revealingly, too, Charles (in disguise) tells the farm owner, Katje, that "England is an important country of 7 million inhabitants. We owe them a debt." Katje asks about her debts, the money she owes for her farm. The allegory is not precise but in the most unusual place we have a story about American Interventionism and the Lend-Lease Act.

Beyond this, there are some fascinating Ophulsian moments, both with visual abstraction

.... and use of mirrors, as in this shot-reverse shot.

Ophuls tends to lean toward the baroque, but there are mannerist elements here.

Friday, June 08, 2012

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's a plot line about building housing developments for veterans and their families, and even the musical numbers have a Mr. Blandings quality.

So, as with so many of the 1947 films, Golden Age genre formulas get reworked and recoded into an invocation of the new, both in direct thematic commentary on the postwar moment and in the ideological break with the prewar. Fitting, then, the housing development centers around what I'm quickly discovering is the quintessential MGM icon: the Victorian house. It serves both as a nostalgic marker for small town family life and for the aesthetic idiom that has to be renovated and reconfigured for a modern age.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

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 a trope of some 1930s screwball films, but by the late 1940s there becomes the obsessive sense/critique that American lives played themselves out in newspapers and on the radio.

Stylistically, this film seems to be one of the more "1930s" in feel of the A-pictures I've been watching for 1947. Leisen's direction and Daniel Fapp's cinematography (which in later films like The Big Clock and Union Station could be virtuoso noir) tend toward diffused glamour lighting, high key set ups, and restrained but intricate camera movement and blocking.