Thursday, January 31, 2008

Best and Worst of the Best Actor Oscars

It's that time of year again, when Edward Copeland, hardest-working man in Film Blogdom, puts together another Oscar survey. This year, the extravaganza of second-guessing extends to the Best Actor category. Which five performances represent the best the film world had to offer? With which five did the Academy get it forehead-smackingly wrong? The Siren has compiled her list, and you should too. The deadline is tomorrow, Friday, Feb. 1, at the stroke of midnight. This is a huge service that Mr. Copeland performs for us each year, offering a constructive outlet for carping that we would otherwise have to direct at our office mates, our spouses or the television set (and maybe not even the TV if the strike continues). Details are here.

When looking over the long list of Oscar-winning Best Actors, the Siren was struck by two things. First, she's seen nearly all of the movies. Second, a big chunk of the list is awfully dull. Not bad, just boring. Well-meaning. Earnest. Didactic. Sidney Poitier isn't bad in Lilies of the Field, he's very good, but the movie is a snooze. Ditto Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer, Ben Kingsley in Gandhi...just nothing the Siren wants to sit down and watch again.

So for her Best Best Actor list, the Siren used this single yardstick: which five performances, if shown on TCM tonight, would likely glue the Siren to her couch, no matter what she had to do? So, with that alone in mind, here are the Siren's top five, in reverse order.

The Best

5. Charles Laughton, The Private Life of Henry VIII. The Siren doesn't expect to find this one very high on the final list, due mostly to its age. But god is Laughton good, so much so that our collective memory of Henry is neither Shakespeare nor Holbein, but rather the lusty, impulsive figure that Laughton creates here. He is, as Simon Callow says, "more Henry than Henry."

4. Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Courageous, pigheaded, utterly bonkers, Guinness carries the weight of a script that has him standing in for all the mythical glories and bloody illogic of imperial Britain. His performance is so superb that the moment you glimpse Nicholson's madness is the moment of his greatest heroism, as he is carried out of the hotbox--the colonel is still fighting for that crisp self-discipline. And you realize, looking at Guinness's wobbly yet triumphant walk, that a sane man would have snapped.

3. James Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy. As George M. Cohan, the flag-waving showman and songwriter, Cagney steals everything but the floorboards in the most sheerly enjoyable biopic of all time. The Siren never gets tired of Cagney turning a tuneless voice and a weird, high-pockets dance style into the movie's greatest virtues. That final walk down the White House staircase, which gradually becomes a hoof-step expressing all the joy of Cohan's patriotism and his vanished theatrical world, was reportedly improvised on the spot by Cagney.

2. Fredric March, The Best Years of Our Lives. March is usually described as a flashy, scene-stealing actor, but his two finest moments in this movie are played in silence. There's March's expression as he walks into his home and sees Myrna Loy, flesh and blood instead of the image he yearned for through all his time at war. And then there's March's face, tired and hung over, trying to find himself in the picture on the mantelpiece, a photo of a man he will never be again.

1. Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront. Brando had to be number one, but which to pick--this one, or The Godfather, in which he is equally brilliant? Well, The Godfather is the better movie but like a judge at the Olympics, the Siren is awarding extra points here for degree of difficulty. Simple human decency will never have the glittering, seductive fascination of greed, power and violence. Brando gives us an ordinary man of somewhat less than average intelligence, and makes that man's struggles with his conscience not only interesting, but moving.

The Worst

With the exception of No. 4, the Siren probably wouldn't watch these again even if she were snowed in and without other entertainment at the Missoula International Airport.

5. Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou. Here we have the major, major problem with the Academy Awards: Rarely has the Academy known what to do with comedy. On the infrequent occasions that it honors a comic performance, it picks the wrong damn one. This example isn't as egregious as the Siren's number one, but it still hasn't aged well, assuming you ever thought it was all that great. Listen, the Siren finds Marvin appealing too--the man had cool to spare. But when Cat Ballou is viewed dispassionately, without all the awe at his incredible Lee Marvin-ness, the fact is that his timing is leaden and overall his drunk routine isn't a patch on W.C. Fields. Somewhat amusing in spots but the best actor of 1965? No wonder Richard Burton's drinking began to get worse at this point.

4. Spencer Tracy, Captains Courageous. To a younger generation the once-unquestionable reputation of Spencer Tracy as the best actor in Hollywood is sometimes understandable, and then again, sometimes not. "You never catch him acting!" said his enraptured colleagues. True enough in something like Bad Day at Black Rock. However, not only can Tracy be found acting in Captains Courageous, he can be found indicating, mugging and just plain hamming it up. The accent is inexcusably dreadful but it's only the most obvious manifestation of Tracy's phoniness as a Portuguese fisherman. Freddie Bartholomew is a good deal more truthful in his transition from sniveling brat to nice kid. The Siren maintains that Bartholomew is the one who gives Tracy more believability, not the other way around.

3. Bing Crosby, Going My Way. The story goes that Noel Coward, at the peak of his popularity, one day found himself surrounded by a large group of reporters shouting questions. "Mr. Coward! Mr. Coward!" bellowed one. "Have you anything to say to the Star?" "Certainly," replied Coward. "Twinkle." Bing Crosby here takes that admonishment, and turns it into an entire performance.

2. Al Pacino, The Scent of a Woman. The intelligent, carefully calibrated actor of Dog Day Afternoon and The Godfather movies hides behind a wall of shouting, tangoing, full-throttle mannerisms. The mere thought of watching the movie again gives the Siren a headache.

1. Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful. The Siren left the movie with her lace hanky soaked to the hem with her tears, ready to snatch Roberto Benigni bald-headed for this nauseating exercise in audience manipulation. The man has an enormous talent for slapstick but no taste whatsoever. He's so busy being touching and humane and the endearing character whose comic eccentricity makes him the island of sanity in an ocean of madness that he can't be bothered to REact to anyone, including his beautiful, ghost-eyed son.

NOTE: The Siren hasn't seen Ray, Capote, Gladiator, The Last King of Scotland, The Last Command, The Way of All Flesh and In Old Arizona.


This week marks the one-year anniversary of Tom Watson's excellent brainchild, Newcritics. As a celebration, all this week we are contributing posts on the one bit of media that touched our lives in the past year. You will not be surprised to hear that the Siren's post is still under construction, but meanwhile do mosey over to Newcritics and have a look around.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Canada Lee: A Brief Tribute

Does this sound familiar? You have stuff to do. Important Stuff. Then you turn on TCM. And a movie is playing that you have seen many times and you think, okay, I don't need to watch this one again. And then comes a scene you love. And then another. One hundred some-odd minutes later, you are sitting there realizing you haven't done a thing you were supposed to, but you don't care.

Body and Soul. The Siren didn't need to see it again, but then again, she did. The first time she saw it, she loved John Garfield. The second through third or fourth time, James Wong Howe's cinematography killed her. Has there ever been a fight sequence better than the finale? Raging Bull quotes its every aspect, ramps up the realism, sends the blood and sweat flying, but still can't touch it.

But this time the Siren watched, and Canada Lee tore her heart out of her chest. Lee's character, Ben, serves as the ethical anchor for Garfield's ambitious fighter. That wasn't a new role for African Americans in the movies; Mammy serves the same purpose in Gone with the Wind. The role of the black angel on the white character's shoulder persists to this day, as a matter of fact. But Lee reaches beyond the character, to meet Garfield as another man, equally yearning for success, equally bitter about his treatment. Ben's description of what it was like to win a fight, to walk down Lenox Avenue and bask in the admiration, becomes a window into the yearnings of all people for respect. What a shot of adrenaline it must have been in 1947, to see a black man form a genuine friendship with a white man on screen.

What the Siren wouldn't give to see Lee's stage performances as Bigger Thomas or Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi.

As a belated Martin Luther King Day post, or early for Black History Month, a bit about the great, tragic Canada Lee. Here is Otto Friedrich:

He became an actor, a passionate actor at a time when blacks were supposed to be amusing...nobody ever forgot seeing him as the punch-drunk fighter in Garfield's Body and Soul. Shortly after that, his name appeared in the mass of hearsay flushed out of the FBI files in the course of the spy trial of Judith Conlon. 'The drivel that has come from the so-called secret files of the FBI,' Lee called it at a press conference in 1949. 'I am not a Communist...I shall continue to help my people gain their rightful place in America.'

That's what they all said. The next time Canada Lee came up for a TV role, he was barred by the sponsor, the American Tobacco Company. Over the next three years, he was barred from about forty shows. 'How long, how long can a man take this kind of unfair treatment?' he asked the editors of Variety.

Friedrich says a dead-broke Lee finally took part in a "public denunciation" of Paul Robeson, but apparently there is some dispute about that. Historian Glenda E. Gill, for example, quotes Lee's wife Frances as saying the actor flatly refused when urged to denounce Robeson (scroll to page 128; the whole excerpt is worth the time). In any event Lee got a part in a British production, Cry, the Beloved Country. He and Sidney Poitier were admitted to South Africa only after director Zoltan Korda applied for permits to bring them along as his indentured servants. Friedrich again:

It was only a temporary reprieve, and the curtain came down again. 'I can't take it any more,' Lee told Walter White of the NAACP after a few more months of unemployment. 'I'm going to get a shoeshine box and sit outside the Astor Theater. My picture is playing to capacity audiences and, my God, I can't get one day's work.' White counseled caution and patience, and Lee, all full of rage and desperation, accepted that counsel. A few months later he was dead, of high blood pressure, at forty-five.
He had such presence--Canada Lee held your gaze, even in a picture like Lifeboat. In that one he is ostentatiously granted a vote on a life-and-death matter, but he refuses to use it, leaving the big choices to the white folks. Playing scenes like that must have stung Lee, a lifelong civil rights activist, but when the camera is on him, he takes back the screen. The scene where he recites the 23rd Psalm could be another of the era's patronizing touches: "Look at the simple spirituality of the Negro--how childlike, how heart-warming." But Lee keeps his head up, his voice calm and sonorous as he becomes, for that moment, the strongest man on the boat. His detractors had one thing right--Lee was a master of subversion.

P.S. A documentary about Canada Lee, featuring interviews with his 86-year-old widow Frances Lee Pearson, is scheduled for release March 8. The Siren hopes it will come to a venue where she can see it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Mademoiselle Fifi (1944)

Mademoiselle Fifi doesn't get much love from various Internet critics, in French or in English, but the Siren enjoyed it. Perhaps that's because she saw it not as a Val Lewton mood piece, nor yet as a Resistance allegory, but as a woman's picture and a passable (albeit considerably cleaned-up) take on Guy de Maupassant, who happens to be one of the Siren's favorite French writers.*

The film combines the Maupassant short story "Mademoiselle Fifi" with his even more famous "Boule de Suif," which is generally thought to be the genesis of the tale that became Stagecoach. A coach filled with well-to-do passengers is making its way from Rouen to Dieppe just after the Franco-Prussian war. The one working-class passenger is Elizabeth de Rousset (Simone Simon), a "little laundress" as she is billed in the credits. That's one big divergence from Maupassant, as the original heroine is a large prostitute (hence Boule de Suif, literally ball of fat). During a stopover at an inn, the proudly patriotic Rousset is spotted by a Prussian officer, Lieutenant von Eyrick, nicknamed Mademoiselle Fifi. The officer asks her to "dine" with him. (As you can imagine, in the Frenchman's story he wants a wee bit more than that.) She refuses; he detains the coach. The passengers talk her into dining with him, then make it clear that they despise her for doing so. But the villainous Fifi hasn't done with our heroic laundress yet.

What's interesting in the film isn't the direction or the look of the thing. It's hard to believe Val Lewton and Robert Wise made the shimmering Curse of the Cat People that same year, and the pedestrian direction forms rather a good argument for Gunther von Fritsch's greater influence on Curse. Only a nighttime chase sequence near the end seems to have much of the visual sense of Lewton productions--darkness, echoing footsteps, the dread of what you are not seeing. That scene is also quite sexy in a suppressed, embrace-in-the-shadows way that the Siren identifies with Lewton. Otherwise the film has a rather standard period look, although that in itself is an accomplishment. In the documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, Martin Scorsese notes dryly that Mademoiselle Fifi has the "dubious distinction" of being the cheapest period film ever made to that point. The Siren's sleuthing puts the budget at a minuscule $200,000. (The ever-great John McElwee has precise figures here at Greenbriar Picture Shows.) Despite the low budget, poor Mademoiselle Fifi still didn't turn a profit. But true to Lewton's ability to get visual bang for the buck, the movie doesn't look that cheap. The one "uh-oh" moment is a drive through snowy countryside that looks like exactly what it is--a California national park, about as French as a redwood forest.

Surprisingly for an era where mangled adaptations were more common than today, Mademoiselle Fifi adheres to Maupassant in many regards, even to keeping some dialogue almost word-for-word. Lewton was, by all accounts, a cultivated man with a high regard for literature, and the screenwriters Josef Mischel and Peter Ruric treated the stories with respect. Aside from the changes mentioned above, the character of the bogus revolutionary Cordunet (John Emery) is made sympathetic, turned into a love interest capable of being inspired by Elizabeth's heroism. But many Maupassant moments fit nicely into a World War II anti-Nazi allegory. There's the scene, for example, where the Germans fill a teapot with gunpowder for the childish, barbaric enjoyment of blowing a beautiful room's interior to smithereens. That's straight out of the original "Mademoiselle Fifi," with a Hollywood line to whack us all with the symbolism: put enough powder in "to destroy the furnishings, and leave us the room," orders Fifi. Despite his character's ludicrous nickname, Kurt Kreuger, the chiseled blond who pops up in many a 1940s Nazi movie, poses more of a threat than Maupassant's short, effeminate officer, and the movie gives him a psychopathic sidekick for good measure.

The movie retains the anti-bourgeois bite of the short stories, in part by adding lines to make sure no one could miss the point. "Rich people don't seem to like little laundresses, or liberals," observes Cordunet early on, when he and Elizabeth are being snubbed by the other passsengers. Elizabeth understands: "At the laundry they always said it was much harder for the rich to be patriotic." One wonders how this screenplay escaped HUAC's notice later on, since the dialogue's at least as revolutionary as Tender Comrade. One Maupassant touch, however, didn't survive: his anti-clericalism. The hypocritical nuns of "Boule de Suif" are jettisoned, their place in the coach taken by the sympathetic priest from "Mademoiselle Fifi." And in the latter story, the heroic prostitute is a Jew, something the screenwriters also eliminated. Given what the world already knew in 1944, the Siren wonders why that aspect was scrubbed.

So, we have comparatively unexciting visuals and a Resistance melodrama plot. What, other than her delight at finding favorite bits of Maupassant still in the film, made the Siren like this movie? It's the same thing that makes her like Lewton's movies in general--not just the atmosphere of dread and suspense, but the complex, dynamic treatment of women. A Lewton film fleshes out its heroine in distress. She doesn't simper in one scene, scream in the next. She is an active agent of her own fate, for good or ill, whether trying to bring back the wife of the man she loves, clean up an insane asylum, escape an ancient curse, or even, as in The Seventh Victim, avidly pursue evil itself.

Simone Simon as Elizabeth embodies this quality well. She is by far the most principled character in the movie, and she comes into peril only when she allows weaker people to gain influence. In movies, as across cultures and centuries, a woman's chastity is drafted into maintaining the purity of all sorts of things that really should take care of themselves--country, race, family. In Mademoiselle Fifi, yes, the heroine stands in for France. She's her own woman for all that, resisting the onrushing allegory even as she resists the leering von Eyrick. She's dealt one blow after another, but picks herself up each time, principles intact. "I don't eat with Prussians," she says proudly, and instead of seeming ridiculous or petty, it is a declaration of human rights.

The first time Simon dines with Kreuger, his object isn't so much to seduce her as to humble her. He forces her to kiss him, then blows a plume of cigar smoke into her mouth. Simon's expression--mingled humiliation, pain and fury--renders the moment as close to an explicit sexual assault as 1944 ever got. "What I think of you matters very little. What I want you to think of yourself matters a great deal," he tells her. This rather moustache-twirling line, which isn't in the stories, still sums up the tenor of the movie. Of course we're supposed to think of the pride of the French people, but it's the pride of the laundress the Siren was caring about, at that moment and later. Toward the end, at another dinner, Fifi forces another kiss and bites Elizabeth so hard she gets a streak of blood on her mouth. The camera stays where it is, in a two-shot on her and Kreuger, which underlines the brutality--no way to read it except as the rape of a virgin. But Simon's expression this time is different, there is a cold deadly fury to it. What follows a few moments later comes as little surprise.

Mademoiselle Fifi isn't available on Region 1 DVD, but there is a French edition of it. The Siren thinks it deserves another chance. While the film won't satiate a hunger for Lewton's particular brand of atmospheric menace, it offers a window into his careful regard for literature and for women.

(This post is a belated offering for Michael Guillen's Val Lewton blogathon over at The Evening Class. Please stop by there and check the links--the blogathon has brightened the Siren's week.)

*You can read her all-time favorite, "Useless Beauty," right here. The Siren finds that one quite cinematic and wonders why no one has filmed it. "Mademoiselle Fifi" and "Boule de Suif" are also available online.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

The Siren may not have posted much over the last month, but she did manage to watch a fair number of movies, for a change. December was William Wellman month on TCM, a happy development. You can add William Wellman to the Siren's list of Favorite Directors With Shaky Auteur Status, along with Mitchell Leisen, Jean Negulesco and the award-laden but Cahiers-dissed William Wyler. The Siren saw Night Nurse ("You mother!") and rewatched a bunch of old favorites (no amount of Mr. C's pointing out what the Foreign Legion was really like can dim the Siren's love for Beau Geste). The revelation, however, was Wild Boys of the Road, an uneven but sporadically brilliant movie, sort of what might happen if you sliced out two scenes from an Andy Hardy film and used them to bookend They Shoot Horses, Don't They?.

After watching a Depression-era movie the Siren often turns to one of her favorite works of social history, Since Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen. Published in 1940, the book has the advantage of immediacy, and the Siren hasn't read anything that betters Allen's descriptions of daily life in the Terrible Thirties. Still, it must be admitted that Allen is not especially good on the movies, drawn as he is to prestige pictures. Here's his introduction to an aside on Hollywood's output:

As for the movies, so completely did they dodge the discussions and controversies of the day--with a few exceptions, such as the March of Time series, the brief newsreels, and an occaisonal picture like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and They Won't Forget--that if a dozen or two feature pictures, selected at random, were to be shown to an audience of 1960, that audience would probably derive from them not the faintest idea of the ordeal through which the United States went in the nineteen-thirties.
To which the Siren responds, "yes and no." Back we go to the Pre-Code debate below--the crackdown in 1934 had the not-so-coincidental effect of trimming back overt social critiques. From that point on, escapism became the far more dominant mode for big-budget Hollywood productions. But if you watched enough genre movies, you still might get a clear enough picture, and if you watched pre-1934 films you would definitely know how hard the times were. And Joseph I. Breen locked up a lot of Pre-Code movies, so Allen's memory of early 1930s cinema may have faded. Wild Boys of the Road, from 1933, offers a particularly bitter and, the Andy Hardy ending perhaps excepted, accurate indictment of the Depression's cruelties.

The beginning of the movie might fit more comfortably in Only Yesterday, Allen's history of the 1920s. Eddie (Frankie Darro) and Tommy (Edwin Phillips) are teenagers concerned with cars, girls and getting into the local dance. Tommy, whose mother takes in boarders, is barely clinging to the middle class. Eddie has his own car and a father with a steady job. But Eddie soon comes home to find his parents talking quietly and desperately at the dining room table: the father has lost his job. Eddie sells his beloved car for scrap, but despite handing the $22 he makes over to his father, he can't find anything steady to help at home. Unwilling to become a burden on their parents, he and Tommy decide to light out for the territories by hopping freight trains.

Wellman filmed the boy's wanderings on location, and the decision gives the long middle section of the film a depth and darkness the Siren has seldom seen in American movies of the era. The two main actors were quite petite, and Wellman plays this up when filming the dangerous task of getting on and off the trains. The sense of peril, of the speed and size and impossibility of stopping the moving train, makes you realize how something like Sullivan's Travels has glossed over the difficulties. (Wild Boys renders train-hopping several times more terrifying, for example, than watching Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones.) The cars themselves are dark, cold and offer no protection from predators.

Once on the train the boys meet fellow drifter Sally, who is hopping freight trains disguised as a boy. (Sally is played by young Dorothy Coonan, whose later marriage to Wellman lasted 42 years and produced seven children). There's a humorous bit where Sally, unjustly accused of stealing food, lands a hard blow on Eddie's face that sends him scampering to the other side of the boxcar, even as he realizes he's just been hit by a girl. But Wellman still films this in a way that conveys Sally's vulnerablity--she's horizontal, on one side of the frame, face out of sight, two boys looming over her. You sense the physical dangers for these kids at every second. Later, when the threesome join an expanding army of transient children, Sally's comparative luck is re-emphasized as another girl, left alone in a boxcar, is raped by a guard (Ward Bond, in one of his few turns as a rotten apple). When the crime is discovered the boys, already forming their own rough social code, surround and beat the guard (to death, it's implied).

Attempts to find help get nowhere. Sally, Eddie and Tommy descend upon her aunt. The aunt, it becomes clear, has a brothel to run, but at least she seems willing to help. But police raid the place and the kids must go on the run again.

The number of kids on the train grows until Wellman captures an army swarming off the boxcars in an unforgettable image of social breakdown--his camera never lets you forget that these are children. The fear you feel for them reaches a harrowing climax in a scene frequently excerpted in Wellman tributes. Tommy is jumping off the train with the others, but like a much younger kid he doesn't watch where he's going. The boy's head strikes a metal crossing sign with enough force to send him to the ground, dazed, as a train approaches. Tommy tries to crawl away, but he can't make it in time, and his leg is crushed.

The Siren can't imagine watching this film in 1933, especially as what it depicts is no exaggeration. Allen tells us that by the beginning of that year, estimates put the number of transients at about a million: "Among them were large numbers of boys, and girls disguised as boys. According to the Children's Bureau, there were 200,000 children thus drifting about the United States." Adults having failed them, the kids in Wild Boys form their own city in the sewer pipes, taking care of each other in a set-up that probably gave the socialist-hating Breen the willies. The brief period of safety is broken up by cops, acting on orders to clean out the area. The police are sympathetic--"How do you think I feel?" snaps one, "I have kids at home myself"--but they still turn on the firehoses, and the central trio must move on again.

Toward the end there's a James Cagney moment, which Goatdog nails beautifully in his review (by far the best review available on the Web, by the way):

When the police chase Eddie into a movie theater after he inadvertently gets involved in a holdup, the theater in question is showing another Warner Bros. release, the Lloyd Bacon–directed Busby Berkeley musical Footlight Parade. This goes far beyond cross-promotion and into a covert criticism of escapist entertainment (perhaps specifically answered by Preston Sturges with Sullivan's Travels). Footlight Parade is about Chester Kent (James Cagney), who creates live musical prologues for films; during the chase, Eddie ends up onstage where such a prologue might occur, James Cagney looming over him mid-tapdance. Eddie has become one of Kent's prologues, a bit of escapist entertainment for the audience members, who get an extra vicarious thrill out of Eddie's suffering.

The movie winds up with Eddie, Tommy and Sally before a judge. Society, having manifestly failed the kids for the rest of the movie's running time, is suddenly ready to step up to the plate. All three kids will be taken care of, happy days are here again. As Goatdog notes, no one says the name "Roosevelt" but they might as well have his picture looming over the judge's shoulder instead of the equally subtle NRA poster. This ending was altered by Warner Brothers from a far more downbeat original, but Wellman manages a bittersweet coda. Eddie, overcome with happiness, steps outside the courtroom and does a couple of back flips. He turns around, still giddy--and meets the eyes of Tommy, whose leg is gone forever. Tommy gives a melancholy smile, Eddie returns it--but the point is made. Some marks from bad times are permanent.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Something to Sing About (1937)

(A brief excerpt from the movie, story by Victor Schertzinger and screenplay by Austin Parker, posted for Karen, Bois de Jasmin, Exiled in NJ, Peter Nellhaus, Gloria, J.C. Loophole, SurlyH, email correspondent C.M.R. and all other Cagney fans)

Terry Rooney (James Cagney), a bandleader, has gone to Hollywood to take up a contract and make a picture. The crooked studio people are conspiring to make him think he's lousy, when in fact Rooney is dynamite and a surefire hit. (Small wonder this plot, of a talented star being cheated, appealed to Cagney, who made this movie at Grand National while in the midst of a contract dispute with Warner Brothers.) In this scene, a dispirited Rooney turns to his manservant, Ito, for comfort, but Ito (Philip Ahn) has limited English, or so it seems.

Terry: If I'm as bad in the picture as they say I am, I'm going to do the sensational nosedive of the century.
Ito: (deep bow) It make honorable master very happy to joke with humble servant.
Terry: No joke, Ito. Even the director doesn't think so.
Ito: (another bow) Honorable master would like humble servant bring dinner?
Terry. No thanks, I'm sick and tired of eating in this joint.
Ito: (still stooped) Yes, please.
Terry: You know, Ito, you're the only one around this studio who'll even deign to talk to me, and all you can say is "yes, please."
Ito: (straightens up, makes eye contact, and in beautiful mid-Atlantic English says) Would you rather that I spoke ordinary English, sir?
Terry: (agog) Is that you?
Ito: Yes, sir. My former employers felt that the accent lent a certain dignity.
(Cagney's skeptical look at that is quite wonderful -C.)
Terry: Now look here. You're not going to stand there in all this heat and tell me this Japanese lingo is an act?
Ito: Very much so. (Especially since Ahn was Korean-American. -C.)
Terry: Pull up a chair. Siddown. I want to hear about this. Tell me about yourself.
Ito: (sits) I came here aspiring to be an actor.
Terry: Uh-huh. And they couldn't mold you, huh?
Ito: They didn't even try.
Terry: So tell me, how do you like being a gentleman's gentleman?
Ito: Oh, very much. As an actor it was a long time between meals.
Terry: What are you doing for dinner?
Ito: I know of a place on Hollywood Boulevard where they serve wonderful Wienerschnitzel.
Terry: May I come along?
Ito: It's a little embarrassing, but there's a young lady that I had, uh ...
Terry: Oh I'm sorry, don't even mention it. Forgive me, would you? Well, you're probably late for your date now. You go on.
Ito: (grabs hat, bows deeply, back to fake accent) Oh sank you please.
Terry: Go on, Ito. Stop kidding me, will ya?
Ito: (another bow) Sank you, sank you please.
Terry: Will you go? Go home!
(Ito leaves. Terry moves to the telephone, musing to himself)
Terry: There's the topper and the payoff. A Japanese who speaks better English than I do and has a weakness for Wienerschitznel. Too much for me in my weakened condition ...

The Siren is sorry to say that this refreshing scene gets undermined later by Ahn's being forced to slide in and out of the pidgin for reasons that aren't always in character, such as when Cagney gets embroiled in a fistfight and Ahn must stand on the sidelines clapping his hands and chirping, "Good for honorable master!" However, later on, William Frawley comes looking for Cagney for plot reasons that don't bear recapping, and Ahn stalls by repeating "No sir please." Frawley snaps, "Will you beat it?" and Ahn returns to his own cultivated voice: "I resent your tone. I came out here to Hollywood to be an actor, not a servant. I shall go. In your own vulgarism, I shall beat it, and I shall not come back. I bid you good day."

The Siren closes by repeating her favorite story about Cagney, one that illustrates the sort of hairpin he was. During World War II, the great cinematographer James Wong Howe was forced to wear a button reading "I am Chinese" lest anyone confuse him for a treacherous enemy saboteur. According to Howe's nephew, Cagney, a good friend of Howe's, responded by wearing one too.

More on Ahn, a charismatic and (when he was allowed to be) handsome actor here, also here and here.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Code Nostalgia

The Siren clambers back on board the Cinephile Cruise Lines, half-drowned from December but toweled off and ready to report for duty, just in the nick of time. During her absence it seems another outbreak of Production Code affection has infected certain commentators. The apparent cause is Thomas Doherty's biography of Joseph I. Breen, flat-footed and flat-headed dean of the Hays Office, the man who was America's bulwark against movies containing double beds and the word "chippie." The Siren is quite eager to read the book, as reportedly it's fairly sympathetic to Breen. All the same, the Production Code was a blight. Let us quarantine this nostalgia virus before it can spread.

Once more, with feeling. The Code was not merely some quaint artifact designed to scrub sex, bad language and strong violence from the screen. It was explicitly political, designed to uphold one view of American life and one view only. Miscegenation was forbidden. So was any mention of birth control. No abortion. No homosexuality. No venereal disease. No drugs. But these subjects were risky for a producer in any case, though certainly some of the topics were broached in Pre-Code movies. No, as noted in Hollywood Goes to War and elsewhere, by far the most onerous provisions for filmmakers were those bearing on political and social themes. Religion and religious figures had to be treated respectfully. Criminal behavior must be a character defect, not an endemic societal problem, much less could social institutions be shown or implied to be criminal or corrupt as a whole. Bad deeds must be punished, and we must never sympathize too much with the bad-deed-doer, no matter the motivation or circumstances. Not that the Code bothered to censor certain aspects of American mores that we find distasteful today. The authors acidly note that Howard Hawks' Air Force depicted the intrinsic disloyalty of all Japanese Americans (or "stinkin' Nips," as the script puts it), and added a tasteful "Fried Jap going down!" when a plane is shot down. Breen passed all that, but carefully excised the forbidden word "lousy."*

The idea that the Code made films "better" is wrongheaded. It's often argued that censorship made movies more subtle, that it forced more creativity from directors and screenwriters who had to labor under its provisions. Force Picasso to get more creative by restricting him to an Etch-a-Sketch and hey, he's still Picasso, and maybe his stuff looks BETTER that way, you know, more SUBTLE.

Well, first of all, the "blossom under censorship" argument presumes that films made during the height of the Code (1934 to about 1954) are better than those made before the Code's strict enforcement, or after it withered away. The Siren won't make this argument. She readily proclaims that this era--call it Classic Hollywood, High Studio, the Golden Age or whatever you like--is her own favorite. She will happily discuss many films of the period as pinnacles of American art. But Kevin Brownlow could make a passionate argument for the art of the silent era, and in recent years many critics have done the same for the late 60s-early 70s Hollywood renaissance. (That isn't even taking the cinema of other countries into account.) The Siren prefers the studio aesthetic, the look, texture, sound and dialogue of the period, the wider variety of acting styles, the exuberance of directors and cinematographers who were in a great phase of discovery. But better than any other era, anywhere? A shaky proposition, prone to collapse at the first gust of critical hot air.

Even if the Siren yields to her own preferences, and says sure, that was it for filmmaking, as good as it ever got or will get, why on earth do people point to the Code as a major contributing factor? Vertical integration of production and distribution, lack of television competition for talent and audiences, an ironclad contract system, the ability to pay to lure talent, as well as an influx of expatriates as Europe went to hell, surely had more to do with the era's glories. And if you look at the great films of the studio era, it becomes plain that they're great despite, not because of, the Code. The movies we venerate from the period were made by filmmakers testing the limits of censorship, not the guys setting the table with buckets of Breen's wholesome cream of heartland wheat. (Quick, which would you rather watch tonight--Double Indemnity, or Going My Way?)

The best artists in Hollywood worked within the constraints of the Code, as a poet may work within the rigid form of a sonnet. That doesn't mean freedom would have hurt the movies, or made them hopelessly violent or vulgar. The morals of the times alone would have set boundaries; it's silly to suppose that no Code means Lubitsch would have made Last Tango in Paris. Instead the Code forced filmmakers to focus on minutiae such as whether "nuts" was being used in its permissible sense of "crazy" or whether Ona Munson's bosom was too padded in Gone with the Wind.

During the same period the American theater, which had far fewer strictures, also underwent something of a Golden Age. Imagine that Hollywood had been able, say, to film Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, which was produced as a play in the 1930s. Or that Robert Sherwood's Idiot's Delight had been filmed as written, instead of bowdlerized at the behest of Breen. (The censor was so anxious not to offend Mussolini that in 1938--19-thirty-bloody-eight, mind you, after the invasion of Ethiopia and the year Nuremberg-style anti-Semitic laws were passed in Italy--that he carried a copy of the script to Rome for inspection by the government there.) Imagine a film version of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? made soon after the novel appeared in 1935. The Code's dim view of social and political subjects meant Hal Wallis spoke for many when he groused that "Hollywood might as well go into the milk business."

It's easy to get all misty-eyed over past glories and forget all the messy bad stuff. People dealing with the Code at the time gave it the contempt it deserved. Let's allow David O. Selznick, maker of films we nowadays regard as fine stuff for the whole family, to have the last word:

We need at least to have something like the freedom that newspapers and magazines and book publishers and the legitimate stage have...Instead, this short sighted industry allows itself to be strangled by this insane, inane and outmoded Code.

*The Siren is also dismayed to see a lot of bloggers pushing the meme that Hollywood movies were in lockstep with the American government's war aims during World War II. The record is, of course, more complex. The Office of War Information spent a great deal of time trying to tone down the slavering racism of many movies set in the Pacific theater. And if there was a simplistic good vs evil dynamic to most WW II movies, that was due in part to Hollywood simply pasting the war into as many stock plots as possible, from the Bowery Boys movies to Tarzan to backstage musicals. The Siren could go on but, unfortunately, her schedule forces her to deal with myths one at a time.