Saturday, November 30, 2013
by Douglas Messerli
Robert Riskin (screenplay, based on a story by Samuel Hopkins Adams), Frank Capra (director) It Happened One Night / 1934
I stand somewhere in between those critics who praise the realism of film director Frank Capra’s presentation of everyday Americans and those who simply cannot abide the stereotypes and platitudes of his often corny view of the world. I guess if I had to choose between the two sides, I’d agree with the “Capra-corns,” who mock his sentimental point of view. Certainly there is nothing at all “realistic” about his view of the rich and the poor. The heroes of his films, nearly always the down-and-out, love baseball, bus and train sing-alongs, and take great pleasure in the mobs of folk who people his busy streets. The rich, fat and haughty, are either outright evil or, at the very least, in need a good comeuppance, if not a swift kick in the pants. At their best, Capra’s likeable films (and there are several that I find quite unlikeable) are fables for an imaginary everyday man, the John Does of Depression desperation.
Even the movies that one might describe as examples of near-great film-making—It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—play out standard stock plots, with scripts that stink of the stable. When he gets his hands on a fairly witty screenplay, as he did in Robert Riskin’s adaptation of Samuel Hopkins Adams’ story, It Happened One Night, the director does nearly everything in his power to transform cleverness into the mundane.
Both his central actors in this work, Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, were rumored to hate the story, with Colbert, in particular, angry about even having to work with Capra, showing it in numerous tiffs and tantrums throughout the shoot. After finishing the film, Colbert complained to an acquaintance: “I just finished the worst picture in the world,” and, determined that she had no chance of winning an Academy Award, was on a cross-country train at the very moment the Oscar ceremony announced her as the Best Actress of the year. Harry Cohn sent studio assistants to “drag her” off the train before it left the station.
Capra, in fact, worked with their enmity for him, beginning his movie with the boredom and rebellion of Ellen “Ellie” Andrews (Colbert), who has been captured aboard her father’s yacht in order to prevent her from marrying aviator, fortune-hunter “King” Westley (Jameson Thomas), and the drunken journalist Peter Warne (Gable) having just been fired. True love seems the furthest thing from these characters’ minds, and, in fact hardly is mentioned thereafter. Within moments, however, the film, begins its seemingly endless journey forward, as the characters, swim, bus, walk, hitchhike, and drive in the forward rush of this “on the road” drama—the comedy of the work sneaks in between the cracks, so to speak, in the characters’ disdain for one another—that ultimately takes them where neither really want to go. But that is just what is so delicious in this work—that Ellie, in attempting to reach her would-be husband, and Peter, in his black-mailing attachment to the wealthy socialite, are forced on a voyage to nowhere. The only events they experience involve “detours.” As critic Daniel Eagan describes the film’s plot:
A bag is stolen, a ticket is lost, a bus swerves off the road.
Money goes missing, rewards are offered, a car needs gas,
rain washes out a bridge….
Neither of these figures, moreover, are particularly appealing: Peter is a “self-important,” cynical newsman who, as I mentioned, attempts to blackmail Ellie. As Ellie, herself, describes him: “Your ego is absolutely colossal.” His answer, “Yeah, yeah, not bad, how’s yours,” says everything. Ellie, in turn, is an entirely self-centered consumer. As Peter describes her: “You know, I had you pegged right from the jump. Just a spoiled brat of a rich father. The only way you get anything is to buy it, isn’t it?”
Together, the two lie to small-town motel operators and detectives, use sex to catch free rides, and steal a car (although only after the driver has stolen their own bags). Neither of these figures—except in the visualizations of them by cinematographer Joseph Walker—is presented in romantic or sexy contexts. Despite their sharing a motel room, a simple blanket hung between them is enough to keep them out of each other’s arms and beds: Peter admits that because he has “no trumpet,” the wall of Jericho will not come tumbling down, as if hinting at his sexual impotency. A night in the hay results in little but straw clinging to their hair.
What the director seems to comprehend is that if you put two lovely actors in the same room for—not just the one night of the title but—several nights without even a kiss, the audience will all the more desire a consummation of the actors’ unspoken love. It is only at the very last moments of this voyage, as Ellie makes her way down the aisle to her doomed marriage with the groom who has just easily and flawlessly flown in—the only character who has had an pleasant time in travel—that she takes yet one more detour, running off once again, this time into the arms of the man with whom she has already shared a life-transforming journey. In short, it is not the destination that either of them was really seeking, but the trip itself. In Capra’s unpredictable story, love does not, in fact, bloom in “one night,” but through many days and nights, through hunger, poverty, and exhaustion—through the “better and the worst” events of life.
Los Angeles, November 29, 2013
Sunday, November 24, 2013
the woman in the attic
by Douglas Messerli
John Houseman, Aldous Huxley, Robert Stevenson and Henry Koster (screenplay, based on Charlotte Brontë’s novel), Robert Stevenson (director) Jane Eyre / 1944
The 19th century fiction about the unloved orphan, Jane Eyre (Joan Fontaine) who falls in love and is loved by her employer, Edward Rochester (Orson Welles), is so well known that it doesn’t need to be retold. Although Stevenson’s solid direction departs from the novel in a few places, it basically recreates the often menacing and forlorn world of its heroes, as they make their way through bleak worlds without love.
Jane’s Cinderalla-like existence is almost right out of Dickens, as she (played in her younger manifestation by Peggy Ann Garner) suffers under the cruel and selfish care of her aunt, Mrs. Reed (played with mischievous delight by Mercury Theatre regular Agnes Moorhead), and later suffers the tortures of Lowood Institution under the dictates of the mean-spirited Revered Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell). And two of the most memorable scenes in the film occur early in the girl’s history, one, as she enters the Institution only to immediately be branded as a liar and forced to stand in front of her peers upon a stool in punishment; the second as her childhood friend, Helen Burns (a very young Elizabeth Taylor) is forced by Mr. Brocklefhurst to shave off her beautifully curling locks and with Jane to march in circles in the pouring rain. That second incident results in Helen’s death and Jane’s determination to escape Lowood the moment she comes of age.
If the blustery and still dramatically handsome Orson Welles immediately consumes the attention of Stevenson’s camera, Joan Fontaine almost retreats from her character—as she had previously been forced to do in her roles in Rebecca and Suspicion—becoming more of an observer and questioner than a forceful figure in Rochester’s house. When Rochester brings in a whole caravan of wealthy and sophisticated guests, moreover, Jane shrinks into nonexistence, becoming ever more pained to hear from Mrs. Fairfax that the dashing man to whom she indebted to her survival may marry one of the well-dressed women, Blanche Ingram (Hillary Brooke).
What’s more, Jane begins to perceive that something in this large house is terribly wrong, as she awakens, previous to the visitation of Rochester’s guests, to a screech of laughter, finding Rochester’s bed has been lit on fire. The destructive “other” woman (whom she believes to be Grace Poole) might almost remind one, in fact, of a mix of Rebecca (the former wife of Hitchcock’s melodrama) and the evil housekeeper of that work, Miss Danvers, who also sets the house afire. Other visitors to Rochester, such as a man named Mason, further convince Jane (and us) that something is strangely amiss in this house, which may also explain Rochester’s long absences. Mason’s visit also results in another attack by the strange woman in the closet, as Rochester leaves the governess to care for the bleeding visitor as he fetches a doctor.
Uncomprehending events and fearing for her own future, Jane finally comes somewhat into her own by confronting her employer with the question of her own future once he marries, only to suddenly discover that it is she whom he wants to marry, and soon after, facing the revelation that the woman in the attic, so to speak, is not Grace Poole but Rochester’s mad wife, Bertha, to whom he is still married. Despite her awful upbringing, Jane is still a moral (and perhaps bourgeois) being, who refuses Rochester’s offer for the two of them living unmarried abroad, and leaves the only real home she has ever had.
Only now can Jane have an opportunity to discover herself, as she returns to the home of hated childhood, discovering that her aunt has suffered a stroke after the suicide of her selfish son. For a while, it appears that like so many such figures, Jane might be confined to being a kind of saintly caregiver, as she looks after the formerly mean relative (the screenplay allowing her no opportunities for a better life that the novel offers in the later protection by her cousins). But when her aunt dies, Jane is finally freed to give in to her own Romantic fantasies, as she hears Rochester calling out to her in Welles’ booming baritone voice: “Jane, Jane, Jane.”
Taking up Rochester’s call, Jane returns to Thornfield with a resolute transformation of her character so complete, now faced with Thornfield’s destruction and Rochester’s blindness, that she finally perceives herself in a position that she has found not only someone who truly loves her but to whom she can minister, the art that she has been so dutifully taught throughout her life. And in that transformation, a true miracle seems to occur, as Rochester regains his sight enough to see their new-born baby.
Although we are told that Bertha, in her mad attack on her husband and house, jumped to her death, in a sense it does not matter that Rochester has finally been freed of his social and marital ties to the past, because Jane has herself finally abandoned the moral sanctimoniousness of the world that so abused her. Stevenson’s Jane (just as Brontë’s) finally is able to assert her being against a patriarchally-controlled and class-bound society which has previously contrived to nearly destroy her.
Los Angeles, November 24, 2013
Saturday, November 23, 2013
the unhappy couple
Of the three films Roberto Rossellini made with his wife Ingrid Bergman in the early 1950s, the last of them, Voyage to Italy (Viaggio in Italia) is usually described by his critics as his masterpiece.
Like the two works before it, it concerns a woman suddenly encountering, for better or worse, a new world, which will be a transforming experience for her and, presumably, the sensitive viewer. But here the transformation does not necessarily lead outward, particularly as it did in Europa ’51, but ends in a kind of resignation, in the status quo.
The English couple, Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) and Alex Joyce (George Sanders), have come to Italy to sell a small villa left them by her recently deceased Uncle Homer. The home, currently lived in by a happy couple, is absolutely stunning, and most of us would immediately be willing to exchange any British flat, no matter how commodious, for such a Neapolitan treasure. But the Joyce’s are not a typical couple: Alex is an acerbic womanizer, who has journeyed to Italy unwillingly and can’t wait to escape what he perceives as a common place country and return to his British homeland. Critic Paul Thomas describes him, aptly, as “disillusioned, sour, and cynical.” Katherine, dispirited and almost always appearing slightly dyspeptic, if less abrasive, is nonetheless equally unhappy with life. Their voyage to Italy, we immediately realize, will also be a voyage within their selves—although it is also quite apparent that for Alex that will mean merely a kind of self-satisfied disdain for all else. One might argue that Alex, in his self-centered vision of the world, lives in a kind of perpetual stupor. As he himself proclaims, “One does sleep well in this country.”
Both agree that their being together in this “strange” land is the first time they’ve truly been spent time alone since their marriage, and for Katherine it provides insights into the man with whom she lives. Noting on evening out his deep engagement with another young woman, she notes: “How silly of me. I didn’t know you were interested in other women.” At another time, he observes of her: “Everything you do is utterly senseless.” So unhappy is this couple (and as Rossellini tells it, so was Sanders during the filming of this work) that we find it almost unbearable when they are together. Fortunately, Alex soon trots off to Capri—the most British and American spot in all of Italy—leaving Katherine on her own to explore various Neapolitan sites, as if her uncle were reaching out to tell her, like the ancient Homer, of another kind of voyage.
The large part of Rossellini’s film, accordingly, explores not only the inward dissolution of her marital commitment (Bergman and the director were simultaneously drifting apart in their own relationship at this time) but a kind of tour of the local region, including the National Archeological Museum, Cumoe, the cave of Sibyl, the lava fields near Vesuvius, and the ruins of Pompeii. But Rossellini’s camera, fortunately, transforms these tourist spots into psychological landscapes filled with the grandeur, the horror, and the simple wonderment of human life past and present. Katherine is not always overjoyed to witness what she is being shown, but through Bergman’s intense stares and facial reactions, we do see her discovering something internally. As Thomas puts it:
Life is taken as if by surprise. The camera tracks, pans, and
cranes, always beginning with what is being looked at and
always ending—without a cut—on Katherine’s facial expres-
When Alex diffidently returns after his stay in Capri, both agree that they should divorce. But almost at the moment they attempt to leave, they are trapped in the car by a funeral procession. Abandoning the car, they are surrounded by a swarm of humanity and temporarily separated. Katherine quickly becomes terrified, as if suddenly awakening to the fact that she too is not at home in this new world. At the same instant, however, we can only recognize that her sense of terror, along with many of the sites she has recently visited, has a great deal to do with the sudden realization of her own mortality. When the two meet up again within the swelling crowd, we see that he too has grown equally desperate, as each of them apologize to one another, clinging out of fear.
For me, this ending, so unexpected, left me feeling that Rossellini had failed in his vision in this film. It is as if he were willing an ending which we knew was improbable. How could the curious beauty remain with such an odious, self-centered man? Of course, we do not know what will happen, just as we do not know what did before they sudden arrival in Italy. Through Rossellini’s “temporary” ending, we perceive that the director is offering us perhaps a more honest vision than we might have wanted. Not all searches end in revelation or transformation. Some people simply cannot make such radical changes as did Irene in Europa ’51. Like the wandering couple of Antonioni’s later film, L’Avventura, what brings people together is not always abiding love. Sometimes, perhaps more often than we would like to believe, people simply need someone of their own kind to survive.
If I still prefer the transformative passion of his previous film, there is no question that in Voyage to Italy is has created something deeply troubling and profound.
Los Angeles, November 22, 20113