Sunday, April 28, 2013


When it comes to the films that have won Best Picture, the 1930s is a dichotomous decade. The films that took home the top prize seem to be either cinematic works of wonder or disappointing duds. Scaling the zenith are films like “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Mutiny on the Bounty” and “Gone with the Wind.” However, lurking at the base are films like “Grand Hotel” and “The Great Ziegfeld.” Unfortunately for this week’s post, “You Can’t Take It withYou” is keeping company with the latter films.  

Helmed by the great Frank Capra, “You Can’t Take It with You” racked up seven Academy Award nominations, taking home the prizes for Best Director and Best Picture in 1938. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, “You Can’t Take It with You” concerns a pair of young love birds played by Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur at their aw-shucks darndest. Unfortunately, they’re from different sides of the tracks, causing Stewart’s banking tycoon father and his snobbish mother to entirely disapprove of the match. To make matters more complicated, Arthur’s eccentric family resides on a piece of real estate smack dab in the middle of the way of a munitions monopoly scheme overseen by Stewart’s father.

In many ways, this is a completely classic Capra film where the intangible forces of love and family reign triumphant over the wealthy and unfeeling forces of society. It’s a formula that played out to perfection in other Capra films like “It Happened One Night” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And even though “You Can’t Take It with You” follows the same recipe, what comes out of the oven is not even close to being in the same league as Capra’s other efforts. 

One reason accounting for the funny taste is that Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur have thin chemistry between them. Their controversial romance is really the beating heart of the story, setting all other events into motion. However, their characters are dull and don’t pull you in to root for their love to succeed in the face of such great odds. Unfortunately, dull and indifference can’t sustain the heavy lifting of any narrative and “You Can’t Take It with You” is no exception. 

Jimmy Stewart introduces Jean Arthur to his disapproving parents.
It’s interesting that Stewart and Arthur failed to be an interesting onscreen couple in “You Can’t Take It with You,” when the very next year they hit a home run as a complex and compelling couple braiding together complex emotions of naiveté and cynicism in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” another Capra classic. I think the fact that Stewart and Arthur landed with a thud in “You Can’t Take It with You” is a reflection of the material not having aged well.

Reinforcing this notion even further is the fact that the film was apparently the highest grossing film the year it was released. Obviously it connected with the audience of its time. In some ways it’s a film that is the perfect antidote to the woes of the Great Depression. After all, it showcases an evil banking tycoon succumbing to the powers of love and family, forces seemingly more relatable to the struggling classes. I would imagine that for the movie-going public of the late 1930s, this message resonated hope and optimism about the world around them.

 However, this hope and optimism resulting from the film’s perfectly packaged denouement are why I ultimately didn’t care for this movie. It’s not that I’m some scrooge who can’t appreciate a predictably happy ending. I’m a big fan of films like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “The Miracle on 34th Street.” But where those sentimental films differ is that “You Can’t Take It with You” has an overly saccharine ending that leaves you drowning in sentimentality, making it impossible not to roll your eyes at it all. I think this type of aversion is maybe a commentary on modern-day thinking to shun too much sentimentalism in favor of honest, gritty reality, particularly when it comes to a character’s evolution.

Members of Jean Arthur's Eccentric Family.
This made me think of a film I watched recently starring Denzel Washington called “Flight.” The story is a character study of a commercial pilot who is perceived to be a hero, professionally speaking. However, his personal life is teetering off the rails, due to drug and alcohol abuse. But he has somehow managed to keep his professional and personal lives running on parallel tracks, until they collide and, literally and figuratively, crash land in a way that eventually alters his character. Washington gives an unvarnished performance and spends most of the film resisting change, making the experience of watching “Flight” heartbreaking and frustrating, in a good way. But when the denouement results in Washington’s character deciding to chart a different course for his life, it’s believable and organic. His character doesn’t turn on a dime and suddenly everything is sunshine and roses, which is essentially what I thought happened before the final credits roll in “You Can’t Take It with You," particularly with the main film's main villain.

In the end, I wish they had taken it with them because “You Can’t It with You” is a major disappointment, particularly given the film’s pedigree. I’ve enjoyed so many of Capra’s other films, and I’ve always thought Jimmy Stewart was one of the greatest actors, which makes witnessing this collaborative dud that much more of a letdown. Fortunately, I can always go back and watch “It’s Wonderful Life” to restore my faith. 

Favorite Line: Truthfully, there weren’t any lines in this film that I would tag as standing out to me. So I decided not to include one as being a favorite. Better luck next time.

Sunday, April 21, 2013


Has this ever happened to you? After watching an old movie for the first time or learning about a new author, you suddenly see references everywhere to that movie, author or whatever else it is you’ve recently discovered. To me, this type of occurrence feels reminiscent of that scene in “A Beautiful Mind” when codes and signs glowingly reveal themselves to Russell Crowe. On a much smaller scale, this just happened to me regarding Emile Zola, although I feel certain a Nobel Prize will not emanate from the experience.

I vaguely recall having heard the name Emile Zola before. But prior to watching “The Life of Emile Zola,” I didn’t know a straw about him. Frankly, I couldn’t have even told you his profession or why he was of any particular note.  Anyway, a day or two later, I was reading a book called “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” which is a memoir by former French Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby. At one point, Bauby makes a fleeting reference to Zola as an author whose works he was fond of reading, which inspired a tiny, internal celebration on the Metro car. 

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Emile Zola was a French writer whose rise to prominence began in the late 1860s and 1870s. His writings are considered part of the naturalist literary movement, which examines the role and the seemingly inescapable forces that social conditions and environment play in shaping one’s life. His magnum opus is a series of 20 novels, collectively known as “Les Rougon-Macquart,” which chronicle the natural and social history of a family under the Imperial Bonaparte regime of Napoleon III.

Directed by William Dieterle and toplined by Paul Muni, “The Life of Emile Zola” garnered 10 Oscar nominations, taking home three awards, including Best Picture for 1937. Apart from Muni, the rest of the cast is generally populated by lesser known character actors whose names and careers have long since been encapsulated and packed away into the annals of cinematic history. More than likely, even the name of Paul Muni won’t ring a bell for most people. In a way, this obscurity might only be fitting to Muni who was noted for his abilities to completely disappear into the roles he took on and “The Life of Emile Zola” is no exception. If he were alive and working today, I suspect he would be in the same league as Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis.

Paul Muni as Emile Zola.
Interestingly, “The Life of Emile Zola’s” Oscar glory marks consecutive victories for biopic films winning Best Picture, with the previous year’s champ being “The Great Ziegfeld.” Like “Ziegfeld,” “The Life of Emile Zola” suffered from a lack of development regarding its protagonist. This flaw is rooted in the film’s script, which deliver Zola to the audience as a social superhero who simply took up his pen to criticize the injustices around him, leaving out any of Zola’ journey that led him to this point.

To continue the superhero analogy, the first half of the film moves at  breakneck speed, hastily sketching Zola’s discovery of his literary powers and his ascendancy to the top. The script’s over-efficiency leaves out any real appreciation for Zola’s struggles and battles against his social enemies. It essentially hops scotches from Zola’s humble beginnings in a drafty attic apartment to his acquisitions of fame and fortune through his writings. It’s so frustrating when a biopic film skims over large chunks of its subject’s life, eliminating their struggles, their flaws, their relationships and their controversies. Without those sorts of details, there is nothing left to find compelling. I don’t see the point of making a picture dedicated to an individual if you’re not going to give the audience some tangibles. It’s like asking people to get on board with Batman picture while leaving out all of Bruce Wayne’s personal history.

Gale Sondergaard and Joseph Schildkraut
as Lucie and Alfred Dreyfus in "The Life of Emile Zola."
Anyway, the first act serves as a set up to the film’s second act, preparing Zola for battle against his greatest nemesis: the French Military. This chapter of Zola’s life became known as “The Dreyfus Affair,” in which Captain Alfred Dreyfus is knowingly and wrongfully accused of treason by his colleagues on the General’s Staff, whose anti-Semitic prejudices single Dreyfus out as their scapegoat for an internal mole problem. Due to an entreaty for help from Dreyfus’ wife, Zola steps on the hornet’s nest, composing an open letter called, “J’accuse,” criticizing the French government of anti-Semitism and for the unlawful imprisonment of Dreyfus.

The publication of “J’accuse” in 1898 quickly lands Zola in court on charges of libel, leading the second half of the film to become a tense courtroom drama, filled with impassioned speeches. The film adopts a considerably slower pace during this courtroom setting, but I would argue that it’s also when it hits its stride. There is no parsing of the details here. Instead, the story is more concerned with the journey than the destination, taking care to illustrate what a heavy-hearted, screwed-up affair “The Dreyfus Affair” really was for Zola.

A portrait of Emile Zola painted by Edouard Manet.
In the end, this film could have more accurately been called “The Life of Emile Zola on Trial” because, in a sense, Zola’s involvement with “The Dreyfus Affair” put everything he believed in and stood for up on the stand. Despite my best efforts to remain cynical toward the larger-than-life moments of dialogue and acting during the trial scenes, I found myself admiring Zola’s character to advance from his comfortable lifestyle in defense of truth. This feeling caused me to look past my frustrations with the film itself, leaving me to ultimately enjoy and appreciate Zola’s example. And, if nothing else, “The Life of Emile Zola” introduced me to the existence of Zola and his writing, posing the challenge to become better acquainted with his works on my own time, which is perhaps one the film’s long-term intents.

Favorite Line: Early on, Emile Zola is working for a publishing company, but is essentially fired for his socially progressive views. Upon gathering his things and leaving the office, his employer snidely chastises Zola’s commitments to his beliefs over his job security by saying, “Maybe a lean stomach will teach you better.”

In response, Zola counters to say, “A fat stomach sticks out to far, Monsieur La Rue. It prevents you from looking down and seeing what’s going on around you. While you continue to grow fatter and richer publishing your nauseating confectionary, I shall become a mole, digging here, rooting there, stirring up the whole rotten mess where life is hard, raw and ugly. You will not like the smell of my books, Monsieur La Rue. Neither will the public prosecutor. But when the stench is strong enough, maybe something will be done about it. Good day!”

Monday, April 15, 2013


One of my older sister’s favorite movies growing up was “Funny Girl,” a musical biography about Fanny Brice for which Barbara Streisand won an Oscar for Best Actress. Fanny Brice was an old vaudeville comedienne who acquired fame through her work for producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. in his celebrated female ensemble known as the Ziegfeld Follies. At one point in “Funny Girl” when Fanny first signs on to work with Ziegfeld, her mother exclaims, “What kind of a mother would name her son Florenzzzz?!”

As it turns out, most people referred to him simply as Flo, but it’s still a good question. Unfortunately, “The Great Ziegfeld” doesn’t get around to answering it, nor does the film take time to explore much else about Ziegfeld the man, for that matter. This is perhaps the only thing “great” accomplishment the film can lay claim to, considering its three hour plus running time.

Winning the Oscar for Best Picture in 1936, “The Great Ziegfeld” was helmed by Robert Z. Leonard and stars William Powell, Myrna Loy and Luise Rainer. The story traces roughly 40 years of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.’s life from his early days as a struggling showman at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair to his later days as a successful Broadway producer and ultimately to his death in 1932. Unfortunately, it follows the same example as “The Broadway Melody” and “Grand Hotel” as being films celebrated in their time, but which have since withered on the cinematic vine. 

William Powell as Florenz Ziegfeld, with Myrna Loy as his second wife Billie Burke.
One of the problems with “The Great Ziegfeld” is the script. In fact it may be the main problem. In the film’s sparkly opening titles, William Anthony McGuire is credited for writing the screenplay, which says is “Suggested by Romances and Incidents in the Life of America’s Greatest Showman, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.” In hindsight, the fact that the screenplay was based only on suggested parts of his life should have sent up a red flag that this film was going to be a bland depiction of Ziegfeld’s life, which is exactly what it is. Apparently, Ziegfeld’s second wife, actress Billie Burke, who played Glinda the good witch in “The Wizard of Oz,” oversaw the script and caged any unflattering incidents about her husband’s life from being let out and put up on screen. The result is a clean, sterile film that presents a tediously flawless individual, which is extremely puzzling given that he is billed as being “America’s Greatest Showman.”

Apart from whitewashing away Ziegfeld’s warts and all, the screenplay suffers from the fact that it takes multiple detours away from the actual story to showcase Ziegfeld’s stage productions during his days managing the Ziegfeld Follies. Naturally one would expect a biographical film about a producer to highlight their work. But “The Great Ziegfeld” goes way beyond what is necessary, at one point devoting approximately thirty minutes of the film’s running time to show an elaborate musical number called “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.” These long intermissions from the dramatic narrative prevent the story from being able to gather any real momentum, which in the end frankly caused me to check my watch more than care about the action on screen.

However, that isn’t to say there weren’t some enjoyable moments or performances in “The Great Ziegfeld.” Ironically, the previously referenced, half-hour long musical number is perhaps the most memorable and entertaining slice of the entire movie. It’s a shimmering showcase orchestrated with exotic and complicated costumes and stage sets that combine to evoke an elegance and glamour on the scale that rivals one’s idealized notions of ancient Egypt or Rome. All of the film’s sartorial elements were overseen once again by Adrian Greenburg, who this time around was given the screen credit “Gowns and Parades by Adrian.” Curiously, he did not receive even an Oscar nomination for this film. The only possible explanation I can come up with is that perhaps several of the film’s costumes were recreations instead of original designs. Whatever the reason, some of the get ups in this film make Lady Gaga look tame, which I think in and of itself deserves some Oscar attention.

An example of the many opulent costumes in "The Great Ziegfeld."
For me, the real highlight of the film is Luise Rainer’s performance as Anna Held, a vivacious stage performer who would became Ziegfeld’s first wife, helping inspire his creation of the Ziegfeld Follies. As Held, Rainer, with slender features and Betty Boop sized eyes, is slightly bratty and overly indecisive. But paradoxically, it’s those negative traits that make Anna so charmingly irresistible. It’s to the film’s detriment that Ziegfeld didn’t stay married to Anna in real life because Rainer’s presence was the high tide that elevated all else.
Luise Rainer as Anna Held in "The Great Ziegfeld."
Before this, I had never seen a film with Rainer in it. But I couldn’t shake the notion that she bore a striking resemblance to a young Meryl Streep, circa “Sophie’s Choice.” It’s too bad some producer didn’t make a film about Luis Rainer when Streep was younger because she would have played the part perfectly. Apart from their looks, both Streep and Rainer share Oscar victories, with Rainer deservedly taking home the prize for “The Great Ziegfeld.” Incidentally, she would also carry off the same award the following year for her portrayal as a Chinese peasant for 1937’s “The Good Earth.” With an Oscar in her right and left hand, Rainer made history by becoming the first individual to win consecutive Academy Awards.

Meryl Streep in "Sophie's Choice."
Interestingly, Rainer’s career quickly lost steam after “The Good Earth,” and she departed Hollywood a mere three years later. Her life seemingly splintered in several directions, leading her at one point to even begin studying medicine. However, she eventually returned to acting, mainly on the stage, but never replicated her early success generated by “The Great Ziegfeld” and “The Good Earth.” Her career has been cited as a prime example of the so-called “Oscar curse,” wherein an actor’s career flounders after winning an Academy Award. Amazingly, at the time this post was written, Luis Rainer is still alive at the ripe old age of 103 and currently resides in London.

In the end, “The Great Ziegfeld” feels too distant. It’s ironic that the film turned out to be such a disappointment, particularly given Billie Burke’s efforts to shield her husband’s flaws from being included in the story. To know a character’s flaws and shortcomings, while witnessing their triumphs over their trials is what makes them intriguing. It’s what makes the audience care. But blanch away the blemishes and you’re left with very little. It’s impossible to appreciate the light without the dark or the sweet without the sour. Better to be remembered as a sculpture, than forgotten as a sketch. But because “The Great Ziegfeld” took the approach of only demarcating one side, we’re left to wonder what really was so great about Florenz Ziegfeld?

Favorite Line: At one point in the film, Luis Rainer’s Anna Held is rehearsing a number that has a catchy, recurring line. She sings, “It is better to be jolly. To be be be be be be be be be be jolly.” It’s obviously more memorable in its musical form, but nonetheless, it was my favorite line from the film.

Monday, April 8, 2013


My utterly, unscholarly snapshot review of “Mutiny on the Bounty” is that it rocks the party. I can’t believe that 32 years have lapsed before I finally got around to watching this film. In fact, I can’t believe I haven’t even really heard anything about it before. I kind of feel like people have been holding out on me or something. I know there must be someone I know who knows this movie is epic and maddening and glorious and just hasn’t told me about it. Well whoever they are, they should know they’re in big trouble for not bringing “Mutiny on the Bounty” to my attention earlier. 

It truly is that rare film that has managed to avoid the destructive elements of time to still be thoroughly entertaining and watchable, even by contemporary standards. Directed by Frank Lloyd and starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, “Mutiny on the Bounty” was nominated for eight Academy Awards in 1935, walking away with only the top prize. Apparently, it is the last film to win Best Picture without winning an Oscar in any other category.

The titular mutiny erupts on the HMS Bounty, which set sail in 1787 from Portsmouth, England to Tahiti. Its mission: Collect 1,000 breadfruit trees and deliver them to West Indies for the purpose of providing cheap food for the slaves there. The ship is captained by the odious William Bligh, a brutal tyrant with an obsessive streak for administering harsh punishment at every infraction. Even in death, members of Captain Bligh’s crew can’t escape their due penalties as, at one point, he insists upon a dead sailor still receiving his two dozen lashings. 

The yin to Captain Bligh’s yang is embodied by Fletcher Christian, the Bounty’s lieutenant, who disapproves of his superior’s governing methods. It’s this disapproval that eventually pushes Christian to rally the men to mutiny against Captain Bligh and those loyal to him. The mutineers send the lot of them adrift in a life boat on their merry way toward the blue horizon, before turning the Bounty around back toward the paradises of Tahiti. Captain Bligh and his band survive their ordeal, eventually reaching the Dutch West Indies. Thirsty for revenge, Captain Bligh returns to Tahiti, but fails to capture Christian, leaving his sense of crime and punishment in tattered frustrations. 

Captain Bligh really is a villain for the ages. He came in ranked number 19 on AFI’s list of the greatest 100 Heroes and Villains, which puts him ahead of such classic cinema baddies like the Terminator, Freddy Krueger and Cruella de Vil. I mean come on, if you’re worse than a woman whose ambition is to skin puppies in the name of fashion, you must be pretty bad.

Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh, left, scowling upon his crew, as usual.

I think a lot of the credit for why one would brew such a strong repellent sense toward Captain Bligh belongs to Charles Laughton’s dedicated performance. For starters, Laughton  looks physically villainous, but in a completely out-of-the-box sort of way. He possesses a total ham face, adorned with a giant grey wart perched like some moldy cherry on top of a melted sundae. His posture is slumped diagonally forward, pushing his face outward in a way that makes it appear as though in a permanent state of  beady scrutiny

But Laughton doesn’t just rely on looks alone, or lack thereof, to make Captain Bligh so detestable. He has this effortless ability to project a smugly superior countenance. However, due to his authoritative demeanor,  it feels like a countenance completely fueled by a sinister “revenge of the nerd” mentality that one would imagine was forged over several years in the harsh social trenches of a high school setting. But despite his best efforts to reinvent himself into a sea captain, the reality seems as though Captain Bligh is doomed to retain his status as an awkward outcast, try as he might. This is evident at the end of the film when, upon learning of his behavior on the Bounty leading up to the mutiny, his equals and superior officers regard him as though he were just an intolerable odor bringing shame to the gang. Moreover, his seething anger in failing to apprehend Fletcher Christian seems to reinforce his inner tortured socially discordant self because Clark Gable is the comparative opposite: good looking, athletic and effortlessly popular with everyone. In a way, it's as if the jocks are still emerging triumphant.

Clark Gable, left, and Charles Laughton in "Mutiny on the Bounty."
Apart from loathing Captain Bligh, the film’s story is thoroughly engaging because at the heart of it all is the enduring question of whether it is acceptable to defy lawful authority. In “Mutiny on the Bounty,” I think the case is made in the affirmative, as Captain Bligh is so over-the-top in his abuse of powers that it crosses the line of what is legal. Adding to this sense of affirmation is the trial of several of the mutineers, an event which the film implies led to revised attitudes among the leadership of the Royal British Navy regarding the way crews should be governed. In effect, if it were not for the mutiny on the Bounty defying lawful authority, reforms might not have been called for as quickly as they were.

On an unrelated note, during the opening credits of “Mutiny on the Bounty,” I noticed that the film was edited by a woman named Margaret Booth. This caught my attention because I suspect that not many women were given the opportunity to cut together a major Hollywood film in the 1930s. Given the time period, it would seem like the field of film editing would have largely been dominated by men. A quick Google search reveals that Booth had started out working for D.W. Griffith before moving to MGM, where she ultimately established a career that spanned nine decades. Curiously, her only nomination sprung from her superb efforts in “Mutiny on the Bounty.” Thankfully, she was later awarded an honorary Oscar for her lifetime achievement. However, nothing I read delved into whether she faced any gender discrimination early on in her career, which would be interesting to research. I wonder if she is sort of the Amelia Earhart of the film editing world. Somewhere in there is a good documentary.

To wrap up, anyone who loves movies should take the worthwhile voyage on“Mutiny on the Bounty” at least once. It truly is a great cinematic ride for the ages. And if anyone tries and tells you differently, then I suggest raising a mutiny of your own in protest to such irresponsible criticisms. 

Favorite Line: In a conversation with Fletcher Christian and other high ranking members of the Bounty, Captain Bligh sarcastically replies to one of his colleagues, “You would have made an excellent historian. You have a profound contempt for facts.”