Tuesday, September 04, 2012

100 Years of Paramount Pictures: The Big Clock and the pre-code marathon

I really would have liked to see more of the "100 Years of Paramount Pictures" series at the Harvard Film Archive, but something kept getting in the way - Fantasia, a trip to Maine, wanting to catch and review something on Friday night, or just having the HFA fly below my radar a lot. And then, when the series did line up with my free evenings, the film shown was often something I'd already seen, maybe even recently, and didn't exactly feel the need to revisit.

It's a bummer, because there was a lot of classic material shown, and I only really got a chance to catch up with it on the last nights. The strange thing is, it sort of looks like Paramount didn't have much to do with the series aside from loaning out a few prints of movies they still owned, which explains why this series didn't run at one of the venues that does much more of this relatively-mainstream stuff - the Brattle, for instance, or ArtsEmerson's Paramount Theater (which seemed to be running a Paramount series in the spring). A lot of prints came courtesy of Universal, which at one point purchased much of Paramount's catalog (that's why Psycho has a Paramount logo even though Universal puts out the DVD/BD/etc.), and their 100th anniversary series (which will play at the Brattle) seems to be touring and curated in-house, but they've always seemed to have much more interest in their history than Paramount did. I'm not sure Paramount is doing anything special for their centennial other than putting "100 Years" on their logo and maybe reissuing some existing DVDs in new trade dress.

Anyway, I'm glad I got to see The Big Clock, which is a lot of fun, and the pre-code marathon, which was also fun and would have been a whole lot more fun if it had started, oh, six hours earlier. Not that the idea of watching racy old movies overnight wasn't good, or that the movies were particularly bad choices, but... Well, I dozed off a lot, even though it hadn't been a hugely exhausting Saturday, and though I was actually feeling pretty good as I came out of the Archive and headed home at 6:30am on Sunday, I was a zombie for the rest of the weekend. The attrition rate among the Archive's older membership was something fierce, too.

Again, not bad movies, but few really seemed worth staying up for, and not that scandalous aside from the Betty Boop shorts. And, seriously, those Fleischer cartoons are really kind of amazing in how their still remarkably sexy eighty years later despite Betty's wide head and gait that would look absurd on a real woman. They're just really up front with how they mean to titillate, and I wonder how my aunts and uncles whose daughters had Betty Boop stuff in their early teens would have reacted if anybody had seen the real thing rather than just the context-free brand she morphed into later.

Worth mentioning: Everything was run from 35mm film, and by and large looked fantastic. It sort of boggles my mind that studios are rushing headlong to digital even as they celebrate their long histories: For as much as digital makes for pretty good workflow today, it is considered a terrible archival medium - to the point where Kodak is refocusing their film business to emphasize preservation - and locks the upper limit of how good a product can look pretty low. Fifty years from now, film is still going to look great on 16K televisions or whatever we're using then, while 2K or 4K "high definition" productions will look pretty sad when compared to either earlier or later pictures.

The Big Clock

* * * (out of four)
Seen 31 August 2012 in the Harvard Film Archive (100 Years of Paramount Pictures, 35mm)

The Big Clock isn't quite cynical enough to be a true film noir, and seems to lack the malice necessary to be a truly great thriller, but it's got a clever set-up for a game of cat and mouse: Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) is the tyrannical head of a publishing empire, George Stroud (Ray Milland) is the true crime-magazine editor with a knack for finding fugitives, and Pauline York (Rita Johnson) is Janoth's mistress whom he murders in a fit of range after finding evidence of another man. Janoth insists George help find "the killer", not knowing that George himself was the one who spent the evening drinking and comiserating with Pauline.

The movie's got a couple of issues: First, there's a little too much comic relief; Elsa Lanchester's Louise Patterson is a fun, clever character, but her performance seems like it would be much more at home in a farce than a thriller, and even though it wouldn't take much to make her appearances threatening or insinuating, she throws things off almost every time she appears. Plus, it often feels like one call to the police stop everything in its tracks, especially since the (reasonable) explanation that Janoth could buy the cops, witnesses, etc., is only vaguely alluded to.

It does, however, have a lot to recommend it - the set-up really is great, carrying the movie through some iffy plotting. Charles Laughton is fantastic as Janoth, overbearing and throwing his weight around so effortlessly that the audience has no trouble believing that this is an ingrained part of his personality. Rita Johnson makes such a great impression that the inevitable takes the audience by surprise. And director John Farrow has a nice, vicious streak when it comes to the violence that moves the story forward.

Girls About Town

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 September 2012 in the Harvard Film Archive (100 Years of Paramount Pictures "Hot Saturday" Pre-Code Marathon, 35mm)

We start the pre-code "Hot Saturday" marathon with a 1931 movie that follows two escorts who take a job on a yacht, with the mercenary one (Lilyan Tashman) teamed with a cheapskate (Eugene Pallette), while the one who wants out of the business (Kay Francis) falls for a nice businessman from Lansing (Joel McCrea). It's cute enough - Francis and Tashman are both plenty likable as the escorts in question, and Joel McCrea cuts a dashing figure. There's funny bits throughout.

But, it's worth noting that "pre-code" doesn't really mean "anything goes"; the winking sexuality turns out to be almost hilariously tame, to the point where it almost seems like the movie buys into the claim that these girls are only hired to be around the rich men. The girls wind up having almost completely separate stories, which means we really don't get that much of Marie and Wanda as an odd couple. And the guys they're paired with are kind of dull, really.

It's an occasionally amusing movie, and George Cukor keeps things moving well enough. It just seems kind of childish, even beyond what the mores of the time were.

She Done Him Wrong

* * (out of four)
Seen 1 September 2012 in the Harvard Film Archive (100 Years of Paramount Pictures "Hot Saturday" Pre-Code Marathon, 35mm)

I'm sure I've seen and written about this one before, but I couldn't find any evidence of it. Ah, well. It's not like there's really that much to say.

It is, after all, a Mae West movie, and those are about Mae West being voluptuous and speaking entirely in innuendo, which she underlines to make sure that absolutely everybody in the audience gets what she's talking about. Here, she's got Cary Grant in her movie but is so dominant a force that he's reduced to a vague presence.

There's a story going on here, too, but it's delivered half as off-screen exposition and squeezed out by subplots on one side and schtick on the other. A murder seems like a minor inconvenience and what's going on gets pushed aside on two or three occasions so that West can do her vaudeville act. So, basically, if one likes Mae West, there's plenty here to enjoy, especially with Cary Grant hanging around. If she's not a particular favorite, well...

White Woman

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 September 2012 in the Harvard Film Archive (100 Years of Paramount Pictures "Hot Saturday" Pre-Code Marathon, 35mm)

You know what's great when midnight comes and you need a second wind during a movie marathon? Carole Lombard. Understand, Carole Lombard is great at virtually any time, but an hour of her after the same amount of Mae West is just fantastic.

Sure, this pre-code melodrama has its problems: Set in colonial Malaysia, it is chock full of less-than-enlightened attitudes; there are sudden shifts in the story; and they combine in a climax of "and suddenly, the natives attack!" But it embraces its nature with barely-contained glee, especially in the performances of the leads. Kent Taylor plays a rakish-looking swashbuckler who practically breaks down in tears when he confesses to having been a coward, while Charles Bickford is almost a parody of machismo as the guy who would replace him. Charles Laughton is delightfully horrible as the guy who seems kind and understanding in the city but becomes a monster when he's got his pretty new wife up the river in his domain.

And, of course, there's Lombard, the quintessential brassy 1930s dame who can swallow her pride only so much. She's a special delight in the opening, putting extra sarcasm into her voice when she gets the chance, and throughout the movie she never seems anything less than defiant even when circumstances bring her low. But, then, this is a Carole Lombard character, and should we expect anything less?

Cleopatra (1934)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 September 2012 in the Harvard Film Archive (100 Years of Paramount Pictures "Hot Saturday" Pre-Code Marathon, 35mm)

The print for this one had a big ol' "Approved by the Production Code" title card on the front of it, which seemed kind of hilarious. Not just because it was shown as part of a pre-code marathon, but because of its astonishing dedication to showcasing Claudette Colbert's trim-but-curvy body in as many different half-costumes as Vicky Williams could come up with. Though unusually long for the period (at 100 minutes, it was easily the longest film in the marathon), I imagine it kept the teenage boys of the time riveted.

Not that showing off Colbert's figure is a particularly bad basis for a movie. Cecil B. DeMille and company made a movie that was all about sex and how a woman who knows how to work it can accomplish what may take men an army, and though it makes the occasional attempt to frame the story as a romance, it comes off more as showing that sex is a weapon that can backfire on its wielder. Of all the movies shown during the marathon, this is the one that most makes it easy to believe that 1930s prudes would have flipped out.

It's also the one that works the best today, if only as a camp classic. DeMille's production is suitably grand, and the production is full of nifty details; it really is a good-looking movie. And yet, for most of it, the actors seem to be in two different hilarious movies: Colbert plays the title character in a doggedly contemporary way (it's surprising she doesn't ask to be called "Cleo" at some point), while most of the male actors playing Romans try to add gravitas to Shakespearean dialogue that has been translated to modern English. It's like they didn't get the memo that DeMille was just talking a good game about this being educational and were trying to elevate the material while trying hard not to notice the scantily clad girls all around them.

(Most unintentionally hilarious thing: Romans laughing at the suggestion the Cleopatra might be black. Mostly because Claudette Colbert isn't, of course, but it made me wonder how much traction that meme had made in the early thirties.)

The Wild Party

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 September 2012 in the Harvard Film Archive (100 Years of Paramount Pictures "Hot Saturday" Pre-Code Marathon, 35mm)

It's interesting that when Clara Bow is discussed, it seems to be entirely as a creature of the silent era. It's understandable; her two most famous pictures (It and Wings) were sans dialogue, but she's perfectly capable here in a 1929 talkie. It's not a great performance, but then, it's not a great movie.

There's something about it that's more charming than it's got any reason to be, though, with Bow playing a college student more interested in partying than studying, trying to land her hunky anthropology professor while getting her studious roommate to spend a little more time thinking of boys and a little less time in the books. It handles the transition of women's dreams unusually well, considering the period - both the paths of education/professional life and finding a man come across reasonably, especially when the latter path is likely to lead to adventure.

Of course, the introduction felt the need to mention that fraternization between teachers and students is expressly forbidden at Harvard. It's obviously against the rules at this movie's fictional university, but it's kind of a metaphor to how pre-code movies worked: There were rules, but breaking them was no big thing as long as your heart was in the right place.

Hot Saturday

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 September 2012 in the Harvard Film Archive (100 Years of Paramount Pictures "Hot Saturday" Pre-Code Marathon, 35mm)

Okay, maybe I nodded off or something toward the end, but how does the last scene of this movie made any sense? Is it just because the guy with Nancy Carroll's Ruth Brock is Cary Grant and has been the least of a jackass to her over the course of the movie? I mean, either way this movie could end seem like Ruth is rushing into something, but I really wasn't getting a love triangle vibe from this movie.

That's a lot of griping about the last few minutes of the movie, I suppose, but one sort of has to because the rest of the movie was pretty decent, and played out at a leisurely-enough pace that the ending seems super-rushed. It's not really a slow burn, but we get an impression of who Ruth is and how her reputation can unravel quickly, especially considering what we see of the other people in town. Grant pops up on the line between foreground and background, and later on we get an early appearance by Randolph Scott. It's a little difficult to buy at points - the slightest effort to explain or defend herself would seem to make a world of difference for Ruth - but, hey, she's a girl from eighty years ago. Things were different then.

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