Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Belle of the Nineties (Leo McCarey, 1934

Mae West's fourth spectacular movie. So far nearly all of her films I’ve seen are metashows—that is, their plots mostly involve West as a performer, surrounded by a romantic plot that allows her to be cynical and romantic at the same time. West wrote her own screenplays just as she did her own reviews, and why not play up what works best? This story's no different—she’s Ruby Carter, a St. Louis music hall queen with a boxer-boyfriend, the Tiger Kid (Roger Pryor). Antagonistic rivals plot to make him think Ruby’s two-timing him and he dumps her, so she goes off to New Orleans to work at the Sensation House, a club run by slick Ace LaMont (John Miljan). The best thing about this gig is the pit band—it’s Duke Ellington and co. The music Ruby sings consists mostly of blues and jazz standards, usually with updated lyrics, no doubt by West herself.

Ruby discovers another plot against her—Ace has conned Tiger into stealing her jewels (he doesn’t know it was Ruby he was robbing), so she sets out to punish them both by fixing the boxing match that Tiger would have won had she not slipped him a mickey finn. Ace is ruined, and then when Tiger figures the whole con out he socks Ace and he falls over, hits his head, and dies. Tiger doesn't run--he stays to argue his innocence in court, succeeds, and the movie ends with a marriage.

The movie features a lot of great costumes for West, and dozens of men also costumed in 90s styles and hairdos. They all flock around her, of course. There are a few great vaudeville routines, too. Only a few of the great Mae West zingers, but she manages to raise her eyebrows, roll her eyes, slink, flounce, and sidle into rooms as only she can. The New Orleans setting means there’s an obligatory massed-choir contrapuntal black camp meeting outside her window, and she sings a lonely song atop it. Anyway, it’s still fun.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Zemlya / Earth (Aleksandr Dovshenko, 1930)

In revolutionary Ukraine, the kulaks, or rich farmers, hold out stubbornly against progress, brought to the collective farm in the form of a new tractor, driven by Vassili. One of the kulaks murders Vassili at night, and the people hold a new sort of people's funeral celebration with new songs about the new life, instead of inviting the church to manage their grief. "There is no god," Vassili's father cries, and so the furious priest goes back to the church to curse the people. The murderer goes mad, crying out that he won't give up his land, spinning in circles, pressing his face into the plowed earth.

Because Soviet agricultural collectivism did not work, it is perhaps too easy to forget the condition of the common people before the revolution. They were landless serfs, bound to the landowners and living in the worst sort of poverty. Here, working the land together, their labour ennobles them and provides a promise of a better, more equitable future. The film is shot with lyrical human optimism, stunning photography of peasant faces, old faces with years and character, young smiling faces with strength and courage. The land, too, is lyrically portrayed, the film opening and closing with images of rain in the orchards, apples and melons, pears, leaves...

Some of the characters are photographed standing in grain fields, the low camera angle taking in the rippling wheat and the great white summer clouds. Vassili's bereaved fiancee hurls herself naked across her bedroom, tearing at the walls and calling his name. The people crowd the dusty lane marching and singing to lay Vassili to rest.

Zemlya is a beautiful movie; sometimes the narrative is a bit murky and hard to follow, and sometimes the photography (or the print) is dark, but the imagery carries the story as well as it does in any silent film.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Love Parade (Ernst Lubitsch, 1926)

There isn’t much to this early Ruritanian musical, adapted from some sort of stage play to feature the singing of Maurice Chevalier, the rakish count Alfred Renard, and Jeanette MacDonald as Queen Louise of Sylvania. In the early sections the count is a cheerfully cynical Don Juan, and in the end Petruchio. That is, he is a libertine in Paris and gets sent home, where he marries the queen, but soon tires of being second and uses coolness and distance to teach her a lesson. The refeminization of the dominant woman—that is, stripping her of her power to leave her simpering—is rather unpleasant. MacDonald is earnest but unconvincing as a queen, largely because of her relaxed posture and her accent, though she sings like a good stage monarch. She and Chevalier do have the good grace to be self-parodic—he’s at his best explaining, with a charming grin, why he is the only one in the movie with a French accent. There’s a charming second couple, the count’s valet (Lupino Lane) and the maid Lulu (Lillian Roth), who parallel the queen’s courtship of the count with their own rather cruder antics. Also nice is to hear the rumbling voice of the great character actor Eugene Pallette, who plays a lamentably small part, but plays it well.