Saturday, August 27, 2011

Frank Borzage | Seventh Heaven

by Douglas Messerli

H.H. Caldwell, Benjamin Glaser, and Katherine Hilliker (titles, based on a play by Austin Strong), Frank Borzage (director) Seventh Heaven / 1927

Long before Alfred Hitchcok's Rebecca and Leo McCarey's An Affair to Remember, Frank Borzage revealed that a tear-jerking melodrama can be converted into memorable cinema. All three are centered upon sensitive and dreamy heroes and weak—or at least in the case of Deborah Kerr's character—debilitated heroines in need of the heroes' love and support. Chico (a ridiculous name for the French sewer worker, played by Charles Farrell) is, as he declares, "an optimist," always looking up toward the stars, beautifully reiterated in the film by the camera's floor by floor perspective as he returns to his "penthouse" home. The far more moody, but just as hopeful Max de Winter of Rebecca, is looking for a life free of the past and a return to his youthful purity. Playboy Nickie Ferrante in An Affair to Remember is seeking to settle down and to engage in a creative endeavor, in his case painting.

On the distaff side (and I purposely use that old-fashioned word here, since all three films portray women in need of male love and nurture), poor Diane (Janet Gaynor) of Borzage's Seventh Heaven, unable to stand up to the tortures of her drunken sister, spends much of the early part of the film prone upon the Paris streets, unable to even move. In Rebecca the second Mrs. De Winter is so inconsequential, ill-at-ease in the world, and outright clumsy that she is not even given a name. Although in An Affair to Remember, Terry McKay begins as a successful night club singer, her accident renders her unable to walk, and for the rest of the film, she sits upon a wheelchair or couch, tethered by fears that her lover, if he discovers her condition, will grow to pity her and become entrapped in a unwanted relationship.

Of course, in all three, being romances, the lovers ultimately come together, and, presumably, live happily ever after, even if they cannot return, as in the case of Rebecca, to Manderley. The one big difference in Borzage's film from the other two, is that Chico and Diane, having nothing with which to support themselves, face a most uncertain ending. Although Diane, just happy to see that her husband has returned from war alive, declares that she will become the eyes for him in his blindness, the film does not explain how they will eat—unless the uncle who once promised his nieces a fortune if they could declare that they had been "good" girls, miraculously returns.

That seemingly small difference between the three melodramas represents a world of consequence, and transforms Borzage's weepy love tale into something far more dramatic and possibly horrific than even Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers can conjure up in Rebecca. Based more on stock character types of the 19th century than the later two films, Seventh Heaven presents a far more ruptured and depraved world than the other two. Like scenes out of Zola, the early sequences of Seventh Heaven manage to touch on drunkenness, prostitution, torture (by whipping and beating), starvation, suicide, and lying to the police, as well as the smug complacency of the better off. Borzage's film begins in the sewers with Chico and his partner literally racking the shit from the polluted waters near which they stand and, occasionally, fall into. Chico's great achievement is to become a street cleaner, an important step up in his brutal society. And it is that rise that brings him into contact with the suffering Diane.

While the later two films are ritualistically centered upon marriage, in Chico's world—far ahead of the moral conventions of mid-century—the two live together without marriage, and cannot find enough time to conventionally marry when war is declared and Chico called upon to serve. They symbolically marry by exchanging religious necklaces given them by a passing priest.

The war, as presented by Borzage, is nearly as horrific as that represented in All Quiet on the Western Front, and the viewer is convinced that the hero dies at the front. In the meantime Diane has had to ward off further attacks by her sister and the sexual advances of an officer. As the movie comes to a close, it appears that she will have no choice but to give in to the officer if she wants to survive.

The deus ex machina return of her Chico, blind but still living, may temporarily fulfill all the expectations of a romantic melodrama, but we can only recognize that in the world in which this couple lives, it is truly a "blind love" that cannot help them from their near-certain fates. There is only the possibility of a miracle given Chico's claim that he is "a remarkable fellow," who looks to the stars.

It is this paradox, as you might describe it, that gives Borzage's silent film a much more flinty and powerful edge than the others.

Los Angeles, August 27, 2011

Monday, August 22, 2011

Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman | The General

by Douglas Messerli

Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton, Charles Henry Smith, and Paul Girard Smith (screenplay, based on the book The Great Locomotive Chase by William Pittenger), Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman (directors) The General / 1927

Recognized as the greatest of silent films and as one of the best US films of all time, Keaton's The General has often been written about. My viewing it for a second time recently in conjunction with The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences "Summer of Silents," perhaps for the knowledgeable reader will offer few new insights. But I do feel it necessary to make some observations.

I believe I could write an entire essay on the face of Buston Keaton, or at least on his entire physique. The thin, lean body of Keaton's moves with such absolute grace as he spins, bends, twirls, rolls, and jumps in an out of each frame more like a dancer than a clown. He has a kind of dancer's body, and with his long face, accentuated by his large, heavily made-up eyes, his equine nose and his thin, clearly painted lips all framed by long, curly waves of hair, he has the look of a Nureyev or a Baryshnikov (at least in his early days). Keaton's trademark straight face reiterates this feeling, as if dancing with a swan or, in Keaton's case, a large mechanical monster, were the most natural thing in the world.

Despite The Gerneral's infectious humor, there is something consistently fragile about Keaton's world. It is not just, as in Chaplin, that everything has the potential to go wrong, but that Keaton (and fate) convert even the most absurd and wrong-headed actions to slightly heroically human achievements. He is, most definitely, not a born hero, and yet as the final title card announces, he is among the "Heroes of the Day."

What makes The General so exceptional is that Keaton's character Johnnie Gray is "wrong- headed" on almost all accounts. His beloved Annabelle (Marion Mack), we gradually discover, is a petulant and slightly empty-headed woman who cannot even comprehend how to toss wood into the train's boiler. The only act she seems to be acquainted with is the housewifery task of sweeping, which she attempts to accomplish as the train roars madly forward into mayhem.

Even more terribly, it is she who causes the series of events that poor Johnnie must undergo. Once war is declared between the North and the South, she insists that her lover join up with the Confederacy as immediately as do her brother and father. But Johnnie, valued more for his train-conducting skills than for any potential fighting ability, is passed over, as time and again he attempts to move into the line—even at one point lying—to enlist. Like all empty-headed women, Annabelle is a Romantic, who believes in the heroism of war, and when she (mistakenly) is told by her kin that Johnnie "didn't even get in line," she agrees that he is a disgrace to the South, and refuses to ever talk with him again unless he appear in uniform.

It is the uniform, accordingly, not a commitment to Southern principles or ideals, that generates Johnnie's actions. Indeed, rejected from the line for the last time, Johnnie hilariously predicts "Well, don't blame me if you lose the War!"

His struggles with the North, accordingly, are almost all personal. He is outraged by the robbery of his train and desperate to prove himself worthy of Annabelle's love. The Gerneral, unlike D. W. Griffith's glamorization of the South and Civil War, is a satire of war, and is saved, accordingly, from taking a position precisely because of Gray's personal quests. The tactics of war and the ineptitude of warriors is split nicely in this film between the North and the South. Johnnie finds himself first wearing a uniform of the opposite side before he is awarded his Southern military dress. And that costume presents further problems as the platoon parades past, requiring him to salute each man while simultaneously trying to embrace and kiss his girlfriend. It appears that once again, the war will seriously impede his life. But as in all past situations, Johnnie quickly comes to a solution: sitting on the other side of Annabelle, he salutes automatically while continuing with his kisses.

One might almost think that Keaton had read F. T. Marinetti in his praise of war and the machine, since it is often the machine that controls his own and others' actions. The most particular example of this is when Johnnie attempts to fire cannon balls on the enemy's train, twice without success, before the cannon, rattled by the tracks, falls into range aimed directly at him. A swerve in the tracks saves the day, as the cannon hits near its target, missing its aim that might obviously have killed Johnnie Gray. At other times the train pulls ahead as Johnnie is attempting to gather firewood, and when Annabelle later joins him, she too moves the train into positions, back and forth, that make his attempts to rejoin her nearly impossible. The General and the other trains he attempts to conduct seem to play as active of roles as the engineer himself.

The vicissitudes of war also support in The General a sense of absurdity that one might almost describe as being close to Dada. Particularly, in his attempts to rescue Annabelle, the two stumble over and away from each other in the dark night, as in a stuporously crazed dance, nature offering up a bear, rain, and endless trees that impede any forward motion, until they are finally forced, like one of Beckett's characters, to stay put upon the ground. The title card reads: "After a nice, quiet, refreshing night's rest."

Even in the scene before that, in which the action, in hindsight, seems less improvised than their embracement of nature, is delightfully absurd. Seeking to escape the forces of nature, Johnnie climbs through a window to steal some food, only to discover he has entered into the Union General's headquarters. Just as characters in later movies (one thinks immediately of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis hidden under the banquet table of the mob in Some Like It Hot) Johnnie is forced to hide beneath the table where the General is making plans to invade the South. But even here, in the throes of intrigue and possible death, Keaton takes the story in an absurd direction as one of the listening soldiers inadvertently burns a hole in the tablecloth with his cigar. The act seems pointless, until a few minutes later, as they bring in their captive, Annabelle, Johnnie glimpses his lover through the same hole.

That scene seems nearly a perfect metaphor for Keaton's vision. All mistakes, bad judgments, errors in logic, and plain human frailties, have the potential in his world to be redeemed, to be transformed into something good—or at least something else. At film's end, the fact that Johnnie has now been made a Lieutenant means little, we suspect, since the insanity of love is at the heart of the achievement. Johnnie (with Keaton's impeccable poise) will continue to dance through life with the grace of an unintentional acrobat.

Los Angeles, August 20, 2011

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Elia Kazan | Gentleman's Agreement

by Douglas Messerli

Moss Hart (screenplay, based on a novel by Laura Z. Hobson), Elia Kazan (director) Gentleman's Agreement / 1947

I have watched the film Gentleman's Agreement more than a dozen times in my life, and have come to feel that it is one of my favorites. It brings out all my missionary zeal, and, following my parents' feelings, I have an intense hatred of anti-Semitism.

Watching it more carefully this past week, however, I realized, despite its overall excellence, that the film had a great many flaws, some of them perhaps fatal in their overall effects. The most obvious, of course, is the positioning of Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck)—one cannot imagine a more waspish middle name—as its "hero." Green, assigned to write on anti-Semitism by magazine publisher John Minify (Albert Dekker), decides, after great skepticism about the piece, to "become" Jewish by ridding himself of his middle name and simply declaring that he is Jewish, Phil Green.

Phil Green: Ma, listen, I've even got the title, "I Was Jewish for Six Months."
Mrs. Green: It's right, Phil.
Phil Green: Ma. it's like this click just happened inside me. It won't be the same, sure, but it'll be close. I can just tell them I'm Jewish and see what happens. ....Dark hair, dark eyes. Just like Dave [his long-time Jewish friend]. Just like a lot of guys who aren't Jewish. No accent, no mannerisms. Neither has Dave.

Like journalist John Howard Griffin, who in the 1960s, chemically darkened his skin to pass as a black man, writing of his experiences riding the buses throughout the racially tense US South in Black Like Me, so Green "becomes" Jewish, as it were only a matter of declaration. And before he can even tell his girl-friend, Minify's divorced niece, Kathy Lacy (Dorothy McGuire), he begins to experience racial and social tensions. Before long he is suffering feelings, as he describes it to Dave Goldman (John Garfield), he has apparently never encountered before: "I've been saying I'm Jewish. ...It works too well. I've been having my nose rubbed in it, and I don't like the smell."

At one time in my early years, seeking for something I didn't have in my own family life, I wanted to convert to Judaism, but after about a day of thinking, I realized what I was most searching for, family traditions, a sense of community perhaps, had already passed me by, and what I would be left with was only the religion, the faith—which I find hard to maintain in any religious context.

Yet here, it is as if Phil Green can comprehend everything with very little experience. Except for a racial attack by other boys on his son, Tommy (Dean Stockwell), it is, in fact, the little things that most attract his attention. While Dave cannot even find a home for his family in New York, Phil goes about the city fighting mostly with his fiancĂ©e for having qualms about his decision, and raging against his secretary—whom he discovers is herself Jewish—for her disparagement of "the wrong Jews." The most serious thing that occurs to him personally is that he is turned away, when he enquires whether the hotel takes only Gentiles, from the famed Flume Inn, where he was to have spent his honeymoon with Kathy. While these offences, along with whispers and slurs, are certainly offensive and destructive, it is clearly Dave who has the real perspective.

Dave Goldman: You're not insulated yet, Phil. The impact must be quite a business on you.
Phil Green: You mean you get indifferent to it in time?
Dave Goldman: No, but you're concentrating a lifetime into a few weeks. You're not changing the facts, you're just making them hurt more.

Perhaps it is his utter humorlessness that betrays Phil most about his not being Jewish. At a party given by fellow journalist Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holm), Professor Fred Lieberman (Sam Jaffe in a stand-in role of Einstein), answers the question about anti-Semitism in a manner that Phil could never comprehend:

Professor Fred Lieberman: Millions of people nowadays are religious only in the vaguest sense. I've often wondered why the Jews among them still go on calling themselves Jews. Do you know, Mr. Green?
Phil Green: No, but I'd like to.
Professor Fred Lieberman: Because the world still makes it an advantage not to be one. Thus it becomes a matter of pride to go on calling ourselves Jews.

Accordingly, Gentleman's Agreement, in some senses, is doomed by its own righteousness. I suppose the nation would learn nothing if the information Phil Green shares in his magazine article might come from the pen of a Jewish person himself, but that is, after all, the whole problem. No one is willing to listen from the other side. Like Griffin's acts and publication, there is something inevitably paternalistic about an outsider revealing to the world what "insiders," the sufferers, have so long complained about.

Is it any wonder that both in the film and in reality, film producers such as Samuel Goldwyn and others attempted to discourage Darryl Zanuck from making the movie? Would it change anything? Certainly they, as Jews, had not previously been heard. It might actually cause harm.

The most serious flaw in this film, however, is not the crusading outsider hero, but the fact that that hero cannot evidently see that a man like himself, who supposedly has grown up under the guidance of his wise and saintly mother (the wonderful Anne Revere), is doomed by his infatuation with Kathy—an intelligent, but also rich, snobbish, and self-deceiving woman of great beauty. There is something always "pinched" about McGuire's acting, as if it hurts her to open up herself to others. That was certainly true in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, where she played a hard-working mother inured to life's difficulties, but unable to enjoy the humor and zest of her musician husband. Later roles such as those in Three Coins in a Fountain and Friendly Persuasion continue to cast her as half-spinster and half-shrew, or at least "a scold." In Gentleman's Agreement she is perhaps softer, and she smiles quite sweetly from time to time.

But inside we still sense something unutterably cold. Her prejudice by silence is at the center of Phil's discoveries:

Kathy Lacey: You think I'm an anti-Semite.
Phil Green: No, I don't. But I've come to see lots of nice people who hate it and deplore it and protest their own innocence, then help it along and wonder why it grows. People who would never beat up a Jew. People who think anti-Semitism is far away in some dark place with low-class morons. That's the biggest discovery I've made. The good people. The nice people.

As opposed to Kathy's cold and meek "niceness," Moss Hart focuses on Phil's colleague, fashion editor, Anne Dettrey, who, through Celeste Holm's striking performance, comes alive as a vibrant, witty, fun, and intelligent figure.

Anne Dettrey: Mirror, mirror, on the wall. who's the most brilliant of them all?
Phil Green: And what does the mirror say?
Anne Dettrey: Well, that mirror ain't no gentleman.

The viewer instinctively feels that she, who recognizes what a gentleman is or isn't, is the equal of Phil Green, someone who would fight for the right causes with him. Dettrey portrays this time and again, and even reveals her spunk by, as she puts, "laying her cards on the table," in an almost "catty" moment attacking Kathy and all she and her family stands for. I was convinced, and will continue to be by her arguments. Moreover, the very idea that Phil Green, his mother and son would be comfortable in Kathy's impeccably designed Darrien cottage, is inconceivable. There is absolutely no way that "Atlas," as Phil has been nicknamed early in the film—carrying the world on his shoulders, rushing this way and that, and stepping on everyone's toes—could for one moment sit comfortably in that fragile house!

Equally unbelievable is Kathy's sudden self-discovery, after a conversation with Dave, that her refusal to leave or comment on a dinner-table guest telling a disgusting anti-Semitic joke, is at the heart of the problem. Clearly it has taken her the whole film to comprehend what Phil has explained to her again and again.

At least, in allowing Dave and his family to live for a year in her Darrien house, while she moves in her with her sister next door—in order to make sure the neighbors treat them correctly—the Goldmans will be near their friends the Greens, and Kathy will be out of his life for a short while. Yet the story seems to indicate that Phil and Kathy will ultimately marry and settle into Shangri-La. Of course that will mean Phil's demise. Atlas can at last shrug.

For all that, the movie is still powerful and moving. Elia Kazan won an Academy Award for best director, and the film won for best movie. So powerful was its message that the nefarious House on Un-American Activities Committee called Zanuck, Kazan, Garfield, and Revere to testify. Revere refused, and both she and Garfield were placed on the Red Channels of the Hollywood Blacklist.

Los Angeles, August 15, 2011