January 2011

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Guaranteed: many spoilers

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), directed by Frank Capra, is a very good pre-Code oddity, an interracial romantic drama, co-starring a Caucasian actor masquerading as Chinese (standard for the period and almost thirty years after). Set in China during a period of civil war, Barbara Stanwyck's missionary falls into the hands of a warlord who combines brutality and sensitivity (a very strong, nuanced performance by Nils Asther). General Yen is too proud if not too moral to force himself on a woman who doesn't want him, and Stanwyck, while horrified by his cruelty to others, is drawn to his intelligence and appreciation of her and of art. She intercedes to save the life of a mistress of his, in a speech which manages to be devout without didacticism, and which moves him to act against his better knowledge. They are both paid by the mistress' further betrayal, which results in General Yen's train car of gold being stolen, his troops deserting and his ultimate decision, just as Stanwyck realizes that he is her destiny, to drink the fatal tea of the title. As is the case of so many movies I appreciate, this one is about competing moral schemes; General Yen's weary realpolitik, his American financial advisor's nihilism, and Stanwyck's idealism clash, with generally sad results. Excellently directed and performed, the film was a box office failure because audiences could not stomach Stanwyck's attraction to a Chinese man. It is also unusually grim and sad for a Frank Capra movie.

It Happened One Night (1934) is a more typical, and better known, Capra comedy, a road flick about a madcap heiress fleeing her father and a journalist she meets on the bus. Capra's humor, sincerity and optimism shine through--even the spoiled heiress is just a good natured person trying to get by, not nearly the femme fatale she would have been in an Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges version of the story. The moment in which Gable's angry boss, who has fired him and cursed at him nonstop, feels sorry, tucks a little money in Gable's pocket, and tells him to come back to the office when sober, is a quintessential Capra moment.

Little Women (1933), directed by George Cukor, is a full on, no holds barred version of the classic novel of American girlhood, cemented by a wonderful, crazy, tomboyish performance by a very young Katherine Hepburn. Her sister Beth dies. What else is there to say?

No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948), directed by St. John Clowes, was a big scandal in its day. Based on a 1939 novel which set new standards for portrayal of sadistic and sociopathic behavior, it had to be totally transformed to win approval from the British censors--and still was reviled by critics as amoral and thuggish. The original was the story of a socialite who is kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a mobster; ironically, in the movie version, he treats her with love and respect, and she falls in love. This almost laughably bad movie therefore switches between scenes in which the supporting characters are harming and killing one another, to scenes of the lovers looking into one another's eyes, set to swelling music.

A Distant Mirror (1978), by Barbara Tuchman, is one of those few history books which is really accessible, an account of a very strange century (the 14th) which makes it accessible and understandable, while still horrifying. Crusades, pogroms and the Black Death are portrayed in a canvas which makes us understand how little we have fundamentally changed. Tuchman, like Gibbon, understands that history is the ledger of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of humankind.

Not sure what to say about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010), directed by David Yates. That it is an effective movie version of the novel? Convincingly dark? That it is good to see the youthful actors growing up and spreading their wings a bit? That the biggest difficulty (as I have said here about "Lord of the RIngs", "Dragon Tattoo" etc.) that the hardest thing about movie versions of series novels is the amount of exposition necessary? That you had to be there?

They Were Expendable (1945), directed by John Ford, is a picaresque, elegiac story of the troops left behind when the Japanese took the Philippines. An unusually quiet and reflective John Wayne plays an officer tasked with deploying the new PT boat technology; there are some gripping scenes of the small, fast boats in combat against much larger destroyers. He strikes up a friendship shading into romance with an army nurse. In the last scene, Wayne is one of the people selected to be taken off the island as the Japaneses conquerors approach; he will go back to Washington to apply his PT boat knowledge. There is a powerful and unique scene as the men who can't get seats aboard the last cargo plane out give messages for their wives to the ones who are leaving. Wayne meets someone who knows the nurse and asks what has become of her. She is probably still alive, either in the hills or already in Japanese captivity. And that's the last we know.

The Blue Dahlia (1946), directed by George Marshall, is second rate Raymond Chandler, which is better than first rate anyone else. Alan Ladd and two veteran pals return from the war; he finds his wife unfaithful; she is later murdered and the film allows us to wonder which of three characters is the killer, all of whom were with her after Ladd left. The film is best enjoyed for the snappy, cynical dialog, and for Ladd's relationship with Veronica Lake, an essentially Hitchcock blonde who shows up to help. There is a moment, which almost makes me dislike the movie, in which Ladd incites a veteran friend, one of the suspects, to prove his marksmanship by lighting a match with a bullet inside the prosecutor's office. Its weak writing--not really useful to prove his innocence by satisfying everyone he didn't need to shoot the woman point blank--and there's no way a prosecutor would permit anyone to fire a gun in his office for any purpose. Why do guns fired indoors for purposes of demonstration never break anything?

Three Came Home (1950), directed by Jean Negelesco, is a powerful account of the writer Agnes Newton Keith's internment by the Japanese off Borneo during World War II. Based on a real account, the movie is entitled to be more violent than most films of the age; the women are slapped and kicked and the protagonist, played by Claudette Colbert, is almost raped. Set against it all is a sensitive, dignified colonel, played of course by Sessue Hayakawa (who performed almost the same role in Bridge Over the River Kwai and probably many other movies). He knows and appreciates her pre-war book on Borneo and pays her little attentions, with respect and care; but he is powerless to prevent the violence used against her by his nominal subordinates when she reports the rape attempt. At the end, as the Allies are approaching, he tells her that his entire family, including three young children, were killed the month before at Hiroshima. He takes Colbert's son and two other children home with him that afternoon, feeds them and lets them pick his flowers, while he weeps into his outstretched arm in the background.

Jeffrey Burton Russell's Dissent and Order in the Middle Ages (1992), is a simple, clear monograph explaining why various groups stood up to, and others which did not intend to fight were rejected by, the Catholic Church. I found it interesting for what it implies about freedom of speech in the medieval era: there was quite open, free and passionate debate over topics of every kind, many as intensely metaphysical as the nature of the bread and wine in the Eucharist. The dialectics only ended when someone, usually the Pope, drew a line and said heresy lies on the other side. Medieval rulers, temporal and religious, burned some people for speech, but the debates went on.

The Making of the Middle Ages (1953), by R.W. Southern, is similar to but more accessible than the Huizinga book I reviewed last month. With chapters like "The Tradition of thought", it is a wide-ranging survey of the principal players, tropes and beliefs in the medieval world, from about the tenth to the thirteenth centuries. The Tuchman book, reviewed above, picks up where Southern leaves off. One of the fascinations of this kind of work is that it allows us to parachute in, for an afternoon, to the cell of a modest, scribbling monk, who would be astonished and pleased to know that his parchment on matters of local interest or metaphysical reflections is still being discussed eight hundred years later.

Knock On Any Door (1949), directed by Nicholas Ray, is a powerful early film by the famous director, starring Humphrey Bogart in the unusual (for him) role of a trial attorney defending a charismatic young thug against a murder charge. The movie is somewhat burdened by some didactic left-leaning speechmaking about environment creating criminals, but flourishes as a realistic New York noir, with scenes on skid row, in taverns and on the streets. The ending is unreservedly bleak: Bogart's belief in his client was misplaced, and the arc of the movie is from skid row to death row.

Flying Leathernecks (1951), also directed by Nicholas Ray, is marred by some heavy narration. Its use of actual combat footage creates a classic problem: such scenes are inherently fascinating but often don't mesh well into a fiction drama. At its core, the movie (even if a potboiler) has some strong and dark themes of the sort Ray favored: the inherent conflict between compassion and military necessity. John Wayne is good and unusually thoughtful as a tough major who wins promotion to colonel, and the always interesting Robert Ryan (who specialized in broken and exhausted men) is his XO who is increasingly unable to deal with the death of the men who have become his friends.

Fair Game (2010), directed by Doug Liman, is an effective, exciting retelling of the events surrounding the outing by the Bush administration of Valerie Plame's identity as a covert CIA operative. It is naturally sympathetic to Plame and her husband, Joe Wilson, who are well portrayed by Naomi Watts and Sean Penn (both of whom look more like the people they play than is usual for films portraying real people). The movie seems to stick very closely to the reported facts; the only assertion it made I could not confirm is that, as a result of Plame's being locked out of CIA, Iraqi nuclear experts she had promised to rescue were killed by the Mossad.

Devotion (1946), directed by Curtis Bernhard, is a powerful but ultimately fictional account of the relations of the Bronte sisters, poignantly played by Ida Lupino as Emily and Olivia DeHavilland as Jane. The rivalry, the self deception, the hopeless love and loneliness are all there, and Paul Henreid turns in a lively, wonderful performance as the drunken Bramwell. The movie hops the track in the last minutes by sending Emily off with curate Nicholls, when in reality she never married. The Brontes (the real ones) constitute an amazing mutation, a genetic sport, in the history of western letters; never before or since have three siblings been so collectively brilliant. The poverty, loneliness and brevity of their lives is the last detail lacking to make them amazing and remarkable.

Riff Raff (1936), directed by J. Walter Ruben, is a depression oddity, of the kind no longer made a few years later, where burly tuna fishermen, sympathetically portrayed, engage in some pro-union violence and the words "Trotsky" and "revolution" are bandied about. Of course, the movie hedges its bets by having the fishermen decide not to strike, and its protagonist, Spencer Tracy, beat up some Trotskyites in the climax. Nonetheless, its a sweet, energetic, gritty movie which never stops moving. Tracy is a big-headed fisherman who gets out of his depth and is hammered by life; the incomparably sexy Jean Harlow goes to prison for him, breaks out, sees he has accepted his fate, and decides to go back to serve out her sentence until they can be together again. Mickey Rooney is her spunky younger brother.

Quicksand (1950), directed by Irving Pichel, is an interesting noir which hops the tracks. Mickey Rooney, older and somewhat stockier than his Andy Hardy days and playing against type, is an ordinary guy who gets into incremental trouble, due of course to the influence of a bad girl. First he borrows twenty dollars from the employer's till, then commits burglary, armed robbery, and car theft as he gets deeper into trouble and needs more money to bail himself out. He is pitted against Peter Lorre, who, if you think about it, is a creepy Weimar Mickey Rooney. Unfortunately, when we reach the scene where the noir antihero usually dies, there is an unconvincing re-reversal of fortune and a somewhat happy ending (may we call this the "Mickey Rooney effect"?).