Saturday, November 30, 2013

Frank Capra | It Happened One Night

 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

Robert Stevenson | Jane Eyre

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.

    At first her relocation to Thornfield mansion to serve as governess for her master’s young daughter, Adele (Margaret O’Brien) seems almost paradisaical after the halls of Lowood. Certainly Jane’s young charge appears so lovely and charming that it is apparent she has lived in a world entirely the opposite of Jane. But soon the halls of Thornfield, despite the seemingly gentle ministrations of the housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Edith Barrett), also hint at unnamed horrors, if only because of strange noises in the night. And it is similarly during a walk one night that Jane encounters, quite dramatically, one of the most romantic outsiders in all of English fiction in the form of Rochester atop a stallion, both of whom are startled by the sudden appearance of the young woman.
      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

Roberto Rossellini | Viaggio in Italia (Voyage to Italy)

the unhappy couple

Vitaliano Brancati and Roberto Rossellini (screenplay, based on a novel by Colette), Roberto Rossellini (director) Voyage to Italy (Viaggio in Italia) / 1953

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

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Roberto Rossellini | Europa '51

a dangerous saint
by Douglas Messerli

Roberto Rossellini (story), Sandro De Feo, Mario Pannunzio, Ivo Perilli, and Brunello Rondi (writers), Roberto Rossellini (director) Europa ’51 / 1952, USA 1954

Things in Rome are not going well for the wealthy socialite, Irene Girard (Ingrid Bergman). The trams and busses are on strike, and Irene, driving home, her pet in the back seat, is frustrated with traffic. She is apparently late, and arrives only to be told that the elevator is, once again, not working. As she arrives home, she looks nervously over the dining table; apparently the Girard’s are having company for dinner. To her husband George (Alexander Knox), petulant about her lateness, Irene announces that there will be two other guests, her cousin Andrea and a woman friend. Quickly dressing for dinner, Irene brushes her hair while impatiently listening to her young son, Michele, who is quite unhappy about something, perhaps to do with the fact that his tutor, an elderly man whom he describes to his mother as “touching” him too freely, has once again not shown up; he has been left alone for the entire day.
      In the midst of his tales of unhappiness, Irene rushes to the kitchen to remind the cook that one of the guests must have something light to eat and to check on the champagne. By the time she returns to the bedroom Michele, angry with his mother’s inattention, mocks a gesture of hanging himself.
      One of the guests brings the young boy a train, but when Michele is called down to receive it, he seems disinterested in the “toy”; although politely greeting, as he is told to, each of the dinner guests, he exits by leaving the gift behind.
      George is disturbed about the boy, whom, it appears, is not coping well with the loss of his nurse and, having suffered World War II in England with his mother, has grown up, is clearly too dependent upon her love. There are even obvious suggestions here of abnormal desires, for when his mother goes up to kiss him goodnight, she finds him naked under the covers, for which she scolds him.  
      The dinner itself, although festive in appearance, seems a rather staid affair, Irene constantly attempting to shift topics as Andrea begins to express his ideas. He is a Communist, an idealist with regard to the future, while one of the guests is an obvious pessimist, convinced there will be further war. Soon after their aborted discussion, we hear a scream. Michele has fallen to the floor down flights of several stairs, an attempt, we later discover, at suicide.

     The horrified parents rush the child to the hospital, where the doctor assures them that he has suffered only a broken femur, and that he will survive. But with his fall, something within the busy hostess has changed, which she begins to reveal the moment Michele is returned home. If before she was inattentive to him, she now almost devours him; laying her head next to his, she assures him that she will leave him alone again, reminding him of their painful adventures in England together. The moment she does leave him in the hands of a nurse, he dies—at least in the Italian version of the film—of a blood clot.
       Throughout these horrifying early scenes of Roberto Rossellini’s Europa ’51 the camera has followed Irene’s actions with near whirlwind velocity, the scenes conveying—in what is quite unusual in this director’s films—a near claustrophobic intensity. Even in the following scene, as Irene, grief-stricken and exhausted with sorrow, lies in a near cationic state in her bed, Rossellini suggests the self-absorption of this couple’s lives by having George take a business call as he sits in seeming solicitude beside Irene’s sick bed. He has only hackneyed prescriptions for her: she must get more rest, she must put the incident behind her and return to life.
   What he and others have not prepared for is “precisely” that she will soon put the past behind her and return to life in a manner far more involved that she has previously lived it. It begins with a visit to her journalist cousin, Andrea (Ettore Giannini) who tells her a story of a poor Italian family who can hardly eke out a living, and cannot afford to pay for the medicines for their sickly son. As if she had never before imagined such poverty, she quickly suggests that she can pay for their medicines, and Andrea takes her to see the family and give them the money. Invited in for a drink, Irene witnesses their love and joy in each other, and experiences a world she has never before known. Although the room in which the family is gathered in a small one, filled with family members and others from the project who pop in from time to time, this scene appears, in comparison with her many-roomed dwelling, almost spacious; and from this time forward Rossellini’s film will dispassionately witness an entire world that opens the audience and the mind of its central hero ever outward. Suddenly emerging from her bed, Irene begins long voyages throughout Rome, particularly to the poorer neighborhoods, slowly picking up information along the way while meeting starving post-World War II street urchins and a wonderfully exuberant woman, Giuletta, detta Passerotto (Giulietta Masina), who has several children, some of them her own, others who have simply joined up with her little family.

    At first, she meets regularly with Andrea, who admits that he has always loved her. She reads his socialist and Communist books, but determines that it is still not the right route for her, particularly after substituting for her friend Giuletta, in a factory for two days. There she discovers work does not ennoble them, but abuses them like slaves. In her desire to love without bounds, including her dead son, she, accordingly, turns briefly to the spiritual, entering a church for solace and prayer. But here, in the overwrought glory of church wealth, she also finds it difficult to find what she is seeking, which Rossellini expresses in her brief goodbye to the church with the simple gesture of the cross, forehead to stomach, breast to breast.
     Indeed, throughout these early episodes Irene is almost speechless, especially when her husband and mother try to comprehend where she has been each day. Irene’s dress and appearance, as she wanders, has become disheveled, her clothes those of a dowdy street person, and it is not long after, having discovered what she has been reading, that her mother warns her of her political sins and her husband begins to suspect that she has fallen in love with Andrea.
     Rossellini—although he has a great deal to tell us—does not lecture, dropping his major vocal provocateur, Andrea, soon after, while Irene acts more and more instinctually, herself wondering at times, whether she has lost her mind. Discovering a sickly prostitute, who she has met earlier on, and who has now just been beaten by her fellow street walkers. Irene takes her home, calling a doctor who tells her the girl, sick with tuberculosis, has only a few more days to live. This time, instead of returning “home,” Irene stays with the girl until she dies. When she goes next door to report the girl’s death to the neighbors who son had previously been ill, she finds an elder son holding them hostage with a gun. He has just attempted a nearly robbery. Suddenly finding new force within, she demands he hand her the gun as she helps him to escape, but also demands that he “turn himself into the police.”
     So much unconditional love, like that of St. Francis of Assisi, Rossellini hints, must eventually be checked in a world of Europe 1951, with its post-war consumerist and selfish values. The police arrest her, questioning her activities over the last several weeks. Accused of having had an affair with her cousin and/or others, she is freed only to be committed to a mental institution by her husband and family.
      For a few moments, it almost appears that Rossellini’s film might devolve into a work like Anatole Litvak’s overwrought The Snake Pit of three years before. But instead of reacting in horror and revulsion to the open and often hostile stares of her fellow inmates, Irene, having now truly reached a kind of saintliness, finds her new home a place for reflection and penance. When questioned by psychiatrists and judicators, Irene, with the kind of subtle sophistication of Joan of Arc, answers with both humility and cleverness. She does not see her role as a savior, does not embrace any of the ideologies which might have saved her, but, having truly found freedom, has created her own moral creed:

                    The love we feel for those closest to us, for those who should
                    be and maybe really are dearest to us, suddenly isn’t enough. It
                    seems too selfish, too narrow, so that we feel the to share it, to
                    make our love bigger, until it embraces everyone.

      It is a far too radical statement for the conventional society in which she lives, more radical than even the political and spiritual values expressed by others. She is condemned to live out her radical sanity in an institution devoted to curing her of her misconceptions. But Rossellini brilliantly demonstrates that she is now so free that she has been completely transformed. As her poor friends, on a visit to the institution to see her, chant below about her sainthood, the bars of her new prison seem almost to float away, to melt in the gentle smile of Irene’s inner vision. The woman who had no time to talk to her son, suddenly has all the time in the world to speak to those she loves, including her fellow prisoners.
      Clearly, Rossellini’s film, in this sense, was also too radical in its social and moral implications. Although there have been a few quite intelligent commentaries on the work, relatively little attention has been paid to this—one of the director’s most appealing and representative films—in comparison with the other two works which he created with his wife, Ingrid Bergman. Together, I would argue, these three films stand as some of the greatest works of post-war Italian cinema!

Los Angeles, November 20, 2013