Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Cinematic Vegetables (Part one in a continuing series)

The last time sister Kat was in town to pay us a visit (for the uninformed, she moved to the wilds of the PNW with her partner and my nephew back in April of 2013) she cracked a Napoleon Dynamite joke after seeing a half-gallon of 2% milk in our refrigerator.  She then learned, as I have in similar situations, that the joke has a tendency to fall flat if no one—namely my parents and I—has seen the movie.  So she attempted to tell me what the movie was about…and I still didn’t find the reference all that amusing.

But it did pique my interest in seeing the film, so I DVR’d it the last time it ran on IFC and sat down with it this past Saturday.  Jared Hess’ deadpan tribute to Idaho eccentrics and oddballs has acquired a considerable cult following since its release in 2004, but it must be one of those features that you either hold tightly to your bosom (heh—I said bosom) or you do not.  Truth be told, I laughed twice during the movie—and both of those times occurred during the five-minute “wedding” epilogue that was apparently added on after Dynamite had become a hit at festivals and in its limited release.  (The audible sigh from a member of the bride’s family tickled me to no end, as did a close-up of Napoleon’s gramma rolling her eyes.)

I’ve discussed my sister’s and my somewhat divergent tastes in movies on the blog before (she refers to my classic film obsession as my “black-and-white”) but I checked out Dynamite because I’ve been making a concerted effort to watch films that are a little out of my wheelhouse.  There are a goodly number of releases that I’ve avoided because the subject matter just doesn’t interest me; my tastes run toward classic comedies, film noirs, classic horror movies, silent films, etc.  Be that as it may, I decided that in 2014 I would try to broaden my viewing experiences…and just as your mom always told you that you should eat your vegetables because they’re good for you, I present for your edification (in what I hope will be a recurring feature on the blog)…Cinematic Vegetables.

The Letter (1929) – I’ve seen the venerable Bette Davis version of W. Somerset Maugham’s play/short story a time or two, but this is the original talkie version (also released as a silent) featuring the legendary Jeanne Eagels, who would shuffle off this mortal coil seven months after the film’s release (from a drug overdose).  Eagels plays Leslie Crosbie, the bored wife of a rubber plantation owner (Reginald Owen), who busts a cap in her lover (Herbert Marshall—who would play the husband in the Bette version) and fabricates a story that might pass muster with the jury…providing her lawyer is able to obtain the titular missive from Marshall’s mistress (Lady Tsen Mei), which will scuttle her defense if it comes to light.

Depending on how many nits you’re willing to pick (some have argued that Eagels wasn’t so much nominated as she was “under consideration”), actress Eagels received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her portrayal in this vehicle that admittedly isn’t too cinematic but does give modern-day audiences a chance to see the innovative Broadway star (it’s her only talkie to survive—her cinematic swan song, Jealousy, is lost); Davis’ performance in the 1940 remake is similar (you can see traces of Jeanne’s influence in Davis’ performance in Of Human Bondage), and Bette's 1946 film Deception is essentially a reworking of Eagels’ Jealousy.  Long unavailable for the home video market, the Warner Archive made it available on MOD in June of 2011; I’d be a bigger fan of the film if I had more of an affinity for Maugham’s work (I had to read Bondage in high school, and it was a trying experience).

Madame X (1929) – The only version of this movie chestnut (it’s been filmed multiple times) that I had previously seen was the 1966 Lana Turner version—I grabbed this at the same time as The Letter because X's star, Ruth Chatterton, was also nominated for Best Actress in the same year as Eagels.  Based on the 1908 play by Alexandre Bisson, the titular character is Jacqueline Floriot, a woman (Ruth) tossed out into the street by her wanker of a husband (Lewis Stone) after she admits to having an affair; she becomes a female of dubious reputation and winds up with a no-good named Laroque (Ullrich Haupt), who’s planning on blackmailing Mr. X, now Attorney General.  Jacqueline takes a lesson from Leslie Crosbie and fills Laroque with lead…and she refuses help from the lawyer appointed as her counsel, unaware that he’s her grown-up son Raymond (Raymond Hackett), who she unfortunately had to leave behind when Mr. X kicked her to the curb.

Madame X has a little difficulty transcending its stage origins, and it’s not helped by the fact that it was filmed in such a deliberate fashion by Lionel Barrymore (who nevertheless received an Oscar nom for his efforts).  Still, Chatterton is sensational (convincingly making the transition from Madonna to whore) and the presence of future Charlie Chan Sidney Toler (as one of Laroque’s shady associates) made me snicker.  It’s unusual to see Lewis Stone and Halliwell Hobbes (as the guy what played around with Chatterton) as "romantic" characters…with hair, even.

Cavalcade (1933) – Noel Coward’s 1931 play about the tumultuous lives of an English family from 1899 to 1933, the Marryots, was brought to the silver screen by Fox in 1933…and became the first film from that studio to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  It was a difficult feature to track down, DVD-wise, for many years; its previous accessibility was on the three-volume compendium The Twentieth Century Fox 75th Anniversary Collection released in 2010 that had a MSRP price tag of $500 (Cavalcade later became available in a Blu-ray/DVD combo released two years later, when it was the winner of an online poll sponsored by Fox).

For those people who shelled out the 500 simolians before the release of the Blu-ray combo: you have my deepest sympathy; it’s an okay film but it’s not worth that tariff.  (To be honest, I think Danny Peary’s suggestion—proposed in Alternate Oscars—that King Kong should have won Best Picture that year is a better choice; it’s certainly stood the test of time better than Cavalcade.)  But I’d be dishonest if I didn’t admit that despite the stage-bound creakiness of the material, Cavalcade was a more entertaining than I thought it would be; director Frank Lloyd (who also won an Oscar, as did William S. Darling for his art direction) is able to infuse the film with enough cinematic artistry (the World War I montage is quite memorable) to keep it from being too much of a talkfest.  The acting is great, too; Diana Wynyard and Clive Brook do first-rate work as the resolute Jane and Robert Marryot and there’s plenty of old pros on hand like horror film icon Una O’Connor (as the family’s Cockney servant who eventually leaves their “service”) and former silent comedy clown Billy Bevan.  The sequence with ill-fated lovers Edward (John Warburton) and Edith Marryot (John Warburton, Margaret Lindsay) on their shipboard honeymoon will resonate with those of us who’d rather not spend over three hours watching Gigantic Titanic (time I’ll never get back, by the way).

The Nun’s Story (1959) – Another movie I’ve avoided for years only because my memory of nuns rarely gets past Sally Field and those sadistic brides of Christ who made life uncomfortable during my unfortunate stint at St. Francis of Assisi in my childhood years.  (Not that Sally Field was at St. Francis or was mean; I’m talking about The Flying Nun, of course.)  Adapted from the 1956 novel by Kathryn Hulme, it stars Audrey Hepburn as Gabrielle "Gabby" Van Der Mal, a Belgian woman who decides to get her to a nunnery and devote her life to becoming a missionary nurse in the late 1920s.  Because of her extensive experience in medicine—her father Hubert (Dean Jagger) is a renowned surgeon—she would seem a shoo-in as far the nursing portion goes…but she experiences difficulty with the nun part, believing she’s not up to the rigorously harsh discipline that’s required.  (Her feelings for surgeon Dr. Fortunati [Peter Finch], the brilliant doctor to whom she is assigned to assist during her mission in the Belgian Congo, also complicate matters a tad.)

I liked The Nun’s Story despite being uncomfortable with the underlying message that it’s a sin for Gabby—or Sister Luke, to use her nom de nun—to take pride in her work (despite her failings as a sister she’s a damn good nurse); the acting is first-rate—not only from those I’ve already mentioned but Dames Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft as well as Mildred Dunnock (she’s everywhere!), Patricia Collinge, Lionel Jeffries, Niall MacGinnis and future Oscar winner Beatrice Straight.  Story itself was nominated for eight Academy Awards (including nods for Hepburn and director Fred Zinnemann plus Best Picture) but despite doing boffo box office it wound up with bupkis as far as Oscars went.  Hepburn later went on record as saying that The Nun’s Story was her favorite of her films.

Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966) – Okay, I’m kind of cheating on this one because I did watch it one time previously…but it’s practically brand-new, because I dozed off during it the first time (to give you an idea of when I originally saw it, it was playing on A&E).  David Warner plays an irresponsible artist who is trying to repair his failed marriage to ex-wife Vanessa Redgrave (Oscar-nominated for her work); his attempts at reconciliation include putting a skeleton in her bed…then later planting a bomb underneath that winds up blowing up her mother (Nan Munro) real good.  Finally he crashes Vanessa’s wedding dressed as a gorilla-la-la-la, fantasizing he’s King Kong.

David Hendry’s original 1962 BBC teleplay is the source for this cult favorite directed by Free Cinema founder Karel Reisz, which presents an unconventional hero (he has Communist parents, one of whom is played by For the Love of Ada’s Irene Handl) that I assume we’re supposed to root for…but to be honest, I’m of a mind that the last thing Redgrave should do is get involved with this fruitcake because he’s certifiable (and at the risk of spoiling it, I’m proved right at the end) and dangerous.  Redgrave is wonderful, and I enjoyed seeing Handl and other old pros like Bernard Bresslaw and Graham Crowden…but I was relieved when this one was over (and again in all honesty, I caught myself nodding odd a few times during this second attempt, too).

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) – I remember well when this was released to theaters and was picketed by angry mobs of people who hadn’t bothered to see it; we had such a protest throng in Savannah (well, when you’re one of the loops in the Bible Belt you sorta have to expect that), and the only thing that kept me from going to see the Martin Scorsese-directed adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ controversial 1953 novel was that it was playing at the mall theater, a cinema that my sisters and I mockingly nicknamed “The Train” because its layout of theater seats resembled such.  (I did see Rear Window in this theater when it played in Savannah—that might be the only time I made an exception.)

What the god-botherers with their undies in a bunch were unaware of was that the movie is actually one of the most honest and moving portrayals of Jesus Christ on film; granted, author Kazantzakis took some liberties with the original source material in presenting an alternate reality of Jesus’ life (while on the cross, Christ has a vision of living out his life as a mortal man) but Scorsese makes it very clear with a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that this depiction is fictional.  (Perhaps the protesters were putting away their signs at this point and missed it.)  Even a heathen like myself will find this a first-rate film despite its weaknesses (the decision to cast Harvey Keitel as Judas Iscariot was probably not a good idea unless Judas tooled around Brighton Beach before moving to Galilee); Willem Dafoe plays the titular Messiah, with splendid contributions from faves like Barbara Hershey, Verna Bloom, Roberts Blossom, Harry Dean Stanton, Nehemiah Persoff and David Bowie (as Pontius Pilate).


ClassicBecky said...

I've never seen Napoleon Dynamite or Cavalcade, and I applaud you for diving into the pool, where i have yet to get wet! I have seen the Turner Madame X, but not this one. I do really love The Nun's Story -- Hepburn and the supporting case are fabulous -- and I recommend reading the book. Of course the book delves more deeply into the reasoning and beliefs of nuns, as well as Sister Luke's inner monologue.

What really interests me is your viewing of The Last Temptation. I remember all the picketing and nonsense too. Aside from Harvey Keitel (you are right on about his casting as Judas -- he really pulled my focus and was not at all suitable), the movie did pretty well in trying to put on screen this complicated book. My first adult book at the age of 12 was Kazantzakis "Freedom or Death". I never went back to Nancy Drew. I read through every one of his books in short order, and the only one my Dad would not let me read was The Last Temptation. He thought it was a truly great book, but wanted me to be a little older and a little less in love with Kazantzakis before tackling it. I remember being furious, but he was right. I was about 17 when I did read it. Marvelous! Kazantzakis was excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church because of it, but I don't think anyone should be punished for thinking and questioning. You should read it, Ivan -- no movie could really come close to capturing it, although this one did a good try.

Boy am I wordy today. You just really struck a chord about something I have always loved. That makes a great article to me!

Rich said...

I've written before about the feeling that there are some movies one feels 'obligated' to watch, for whatever reasons. How are you deciding which movies fit that criteria for you? Because these movies don't seem too different from the types of movies you usually write about here, at least on the surface.

Also, some of those old posters are so beautiful.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

How are you deciding which movies fit that criteria for you?

I guess the seed for this started during TCM's 31 Days of Oscar - an event I avoid as a rule because most of the Oscar winners shown I've seen already. I saw Cavalcade on the schedule and said to myself: it won Best Picture and yet I've never watched the darn thing. Maybe it's time I did.

The Nun's Story followed, and a couple of other movies (Madame X, The Letter) as I recorded one or two other films that I ended up deleting because I wanted to make certain I had plenty of room for the free HBO/Cinemax stuff this weekend. I'm really making a concerted effort to watch more movies that I would normally shrug off with a "Meh."

Karen said...

I really enjoyed your post, Ivan, and I look forward to your future veggies! I have not seen most of these either -- I did see Napoleon Dynamite, and I think I enjoyed it more than you -- but not a whole lot more. I tried to watch Cavalcade, but it just didn't do it for me -- I may try again one of these days. I can't believe people paid $500 for it! I bought The Letter, but so far, I've been unable to get all the way through it. I think that the Bette Davis performance is just too firmly engraved on my heart. And I'd love to see Madame X!

Stacia said...

Boy, I did NOT like Cavalcade. I actively hated that film, actually, though the Eisenstein-esque moments of using Diana Wynyard as the classic representation of Lady Britain was interesting enough, though wildly outdated. When the drunk guy, whose character name escapes me at the moment, kicked off, that was the end of it for me. There were even moments when you could see the actors struggling to make the leaden dialogue work; they'd blink and hesitate and you could practically see smoke come out their ears.

I absolutely MUST see Morgan, though from your description I'd be surprised if I didn't catch some of it back in my "stay up 27 hours straight and watch everything on Encore" days.

Brian Schuck said...

Ivan, I admire your fortitude. To me, these titles are not just cinematic vegetables -- they are the cinematic equivalent of over-cooked brussel sprouts (and if there's one thing I hate, it's brussel sprouts).

The oddball in this collection of virtuous nuns and stoic female castoffs is of course Morgan, which (I'll be dam*ed!) I've never heard of. But with your help, I visualized it as another of those '60s "Look at me! look at me! Aren't I crazy and eccentric and don't you just love/hate me?" things that can be dreadful to watch. I was intrigued for a moment, then decided I'd pass.

Keep it up though, you may just yet inspire me to watch some things outside of my comfort zone.