Saturday, December 11, 2010
No Greater Glory; Or, Is Subtlety Necessary?
Last week Tom Shone asked when uplift became a quality reserved for children’s movies, and wearily observed, “We toast the misanthrope. We ask for morbidity's autograph.” James Wolcott issued a hearty second, and the Siren votes in favor of the motion.
Today, however, she has a different, but perhaps related query: Is subtlety necessary? We don’t seem to require it when the plot slams into ways in which we humans are, frankly, a bunch of slobs. But when the subject is the yearning for love, home and friendship, or the virtues of peace over war, suddenly modern audiences are all about a lighter touch--unless, as Tom also notes, we have a bit of distance lent by CGI animation. Wanna show the beast within? Hit me with your best shot, baby. (As the very first commenter on Richard Brody’s 25 Best of the Year puts it, “What’s wrong with unpleasant?”) But dial up the emotion on the love scenes, and some--not the Siren’s distinguished company in comments, but some--are going to squirm, especially if you’re unlucky enough to be in a snickering moviehouse audience, as the Siren has been on a couple of occasions she’s complained about too much already.
This meditation is inspired by the Siren’s second viewing of No Greater Glory, the 1934 Frank Borzage masterpiece that she urges you once again, in a most unsubtle way, to just click over and buy, please. Themes are spelled out in line after line, big moments are brandished like the flag the young characters fight over, the sentiment and melancholy are grand and conspicuous. The film is not subtle, and that’s why it’s great.
In an Eastern European city just after World War I, a gang calling itself the Paul Street Boys is fighting a rival group for control of a lumberyard that serves as their sole playground. The Paul Street Boys are just that, no more than ten or eleven years old. Their enemies, the Red Shirts, are maybe three or four years older, larger and tougher as well. At first young Nemecsek (George Breakston) seems the weakest of the Paul Street Boys, but the film gradually shows that he is, as Lawrence Quirk put it, “the one pure spirit of the lot.”
Quirk included this in his collection of The Great Romantic Films, and for years the Siren thought it a rather odd choice. What’s an antiwar allegory doing side-by-side with Death Takes a Holiday and The Life of Vergie Winters? One viewing showed her why, of course. Nemecsek’s devotion to the Paul Street leader, Boka (Jimmy Butler) is irrationally romantic and very like a women’s picture, where the love object is often unaware, undeserving and unable to respond until the woman does something drastic, such as catch her death. Boka doesn’t seem to deserve Nemecsek until the end, and perhaps not even then. It’s the leader of the rival gang, Feri (the handsome and quite marvelous Frankie Darro) who declares to Nemecsek, “You’re all right,” and treats him with respect from then on. But as in other classic Hollywood love stories, the appeal of a rival is beside the point. When Boka realizes, too late of course, that the devotion he’s been mocking is the worthiest he’ll ever experience, he goes to Nemecsek’s bedside--and Nemecsek rears his head off the pillow with a light in his eyes more blazing than Camille’s.
The movie starts with stock war footage, then cuts to an embittered soldier raging about war: “They made me fight.” Then we see that same soldier, older now, in front of a class lecturing the boys on the old lie, “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” It’s a loud echo of a similar scene in All Quiet on the Western Front, but the switch also prepares the ground for No Greater Glory’s tonal shifts.
Nemecsek’s ineptitude gets played frequently for laughs, underlined by a rather bouncy score that includes some Strauss late in the movie when the gangs swing into their version of war. But Borzage switches emotions during those scenes with ease, as when Boka chews out Private Nemecsek, and it’s amusing until Nemecsek starts to cry, gets mocked for it, and we remember the agony of such moments from our own childhood.
Take the scene in a greenhouse where Boka, Nemescek and another Paul Street boy are hiding from the Red Shirts. Nemecsek, already shivering and soaking wet from falling in the lake, is ordered into the greenhouse pool to hide and, absurdly, he covers his head with a lily leaf. The camera shows us a frog on another lily pad, and the first cut to Nemecsek shows his nervousness as funny. Then we see the frog closer, and the croaks get louder, and the cuts back to Nemecsek reveal the boy’s genuine terror, and the way he’s fighting not to scream. But he stays in the pool, big-eyed and fearful, even after the Redshirts have finished their search and left. Nemecsek won’t get out until Boka tells him to. Subtle, no--the scene’s effects are obvious--but it’s an astonishing feat of tone, ludicrous childhood fears giving way to the movie’s purest example of courage.
What knocked the Siren sideways in both viewings of No Greater Glory was just how ravishing it is. George Breakston’s weak-chinned, big-nosed face takes on the aspects of a Christ child. The boys shoot marbles, their arms lined up in perfect rhythm. Lamplight turns the scenes in the botanical gardens into glimpses of the supernatural. Nemecsek climbs a pile of lumber to see whether someone is trying to steal their flag, and the camera follows him with a movement so lovely and precise the Siren gasped. The simplest shots, like one looking down a row of boys being inspected by Boka, are so immaculately balanced the Siren drank them in as though she were spending the afternoon at the Frick. There isn’t a single graceless frame, not one shift of the camera that doesn’t give complete aesthetic satisfaction. On that basis alone, the Siren would happily call this her favorite Borzage movie (and the Siren loves Borzage in general, she loves him very much indeed).
If the Siren wants to irritate herself, via the same impulse that has some of her Twitter pals live-tweeting certain talk-show hosts, she can look up a treasured old romantic film and find someone sneering. And not necessarily a modern critic either; there’s always Bosley Crowther, so consistently, flamboyantly wrong the Siren has developed a weird affection for the prosy old bore (scroll down for a nice example). So it’s really quite heartening, in this holiday season, to note this movie’s fervent support in unexpected quarters, and look at the IMDB ranking, and see the comments from all sorts of viewers who get it. Perhaps, pace Tom, we don’t need to “lighten up.” Maybe we just need more romance--obvious romance.
Note: Several people have commented on the new banner, from Desk Set. It comes from the splendid Six Martinis and the Seventh Art, which the Siren has been praising a lot lately, for excellent reasons. If you want a larger dose of Christmas cheer, in black-and-white and even (unusuallly for the blog's proprietor) color, just click over to Shahn's series from December 2007.