Weekly Mishmash: January 25-31
All the King’s Men (1949). Although we watch a lot of old movies, I’ve seen probably less than half of previous Best Picture Oscar winners. This one helped fill the gaps. — and unlike many other Best Pictures, it didn’t disappoint. The film follows the ups and downs of a politician (Broderick Crawford, Best Actor) in an unnamed Southern state as he succumbs to corruption. It’s fast-paced and absorbing, highlighted by magnetic turns by Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge (who also took home a golden boy as Crawford’s lesbianish lackey). Handsome John Ireland also delivers a good performance, as the one “normal” character in a sea of neurotics. What a pity that the print on Columbia’s DVD is grainy and speckled, and the only extras relate to Sean Penn’s flop remake.
The Bird and the Bee — Ray Guns Are Not Just The Future. As far as current music goes, The Bird and the Bee are one of my few faves. Ray Guns Are Not Just The Future follows the same dreamy, this-side-of-twee vibe of their self-titled debut. Despite having more downtempo songs, I think this one might even improve on the first album. The album feels more coherent, the instrumentation is bewitching and varied (they even do a quasi-vaudeville arrangements on one of the weaker cuts, “I’m A Cad”), and Inara George’s vocals could charm the sweet out of a cupcake. Highlights: “My Love,” “Birthday,” “Love Letter To Japan” (I wonder if they have a big Japanese following?).
Double Harness (1933). The kind of genteel melodrama in which people say things like “What a lovely play — it made me feel all feminine and clingy.” The difference is that these lines are delivered with a twinge of modern irony, and they have perfect vessels in the persons of William Powell and the unjustly forgotten Ann Harding. With her long blonde hair and patrician face, Harding didn’t look like a typical ’30s leading lady. She did, however, give her characters an intelligence that even makes an otherwise unremarkable soaper like this watchable. I imagine this film has the same appeal today that it did in 1933, seeing the rich suffer so elegantly, only now we have historical distance to make it even more fascinating.
The Garden of Eden (1928). A late silent in which flashes of brilliance don’t quite overcome a banal plotline. The charming Corrine Griffith stars as a meek European girl who tries to make a go of it as a cabaret singer, only to find herself fired. But wait! The best friend (Louise Dresser) that she thought was a humble seamstress turns out to be a baroness in disguise, so the duo journey to Monte Carlo to snag rich husbands. The first half of this one illustrates how sophisticated silents got by 1928, with fluid camerawork by director Lewis Milestone. Once things move to Monte Carlo, however, the film gets draggy and predictable.
Her Name Is Barbra: An Intimate Portrait of Barbra Streisand by Randall Riese. Published in 1993. I was expecting a gossipy bitch-fest along the lines of J. Randy Taborelli’s Call Her Miss Ross. What I got instead was a multi-faceted portrait of a very complicated woman. What some may interpret as bitchy, others see as assertiveness I guess. Overall, it was a pretty even-handed treatment, and Riese’s breezy style made it a quick read. The only problem is that he devotes way too much space to The Prince of Tides, the thorny production of which easily takes up four times as many pages as any other project Streisand did. Random things I learned from this: Barbra exhibited diva-like behavior well before she got famous, as a youth she pioneered the thrift shop chic look by wearing self consciously kooky ’30s castoffs, and son Jason Gould was likely gay from the day he was born. Of course, I too would be ecstatic if my mom invited Donna Summer over to the house for an afternoon chat.
I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955). I can’t believe I’ve never seen this movie before. Although it toys with a lot of standard showbiz biopic clichés, Susan Hayward towers above all in a soul-baring performance as ’20s/’30s singer Lillian Roth. The movie never really establishes any smooth chronology (it kind of drifts from Roth’s childhood until she becomes a fully grown alcoholic has-been), and the musical numbers are campy but fun. Hayward, however, is so fearlessly good I almost wish she’d won a Best Actress Oscar for this instead of I Want to Live! a few years later (Anna Magnani won for 1955). Also laudable is the fact that someone famous owned up to her own difficulty with substance abuse. Nowadays it’s common of course, but back then it was a brave and trailblazing act. The movie made us want to check out what Roth was like in her heyday. Which brings us to …
The Love Parade (1929). Lillian Roth appears as a maid in this early musical, and her charming, vaudeville-style numbers are the only redeeming quality in this frou-frou trifle from director Ernst Lubitch. Smooth direction and the presence of a young Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier make this a favorite with old movie lovers (where it gets a shocking 7.5 score on IMDB), but in actuality this was a small ordeal to get through. Let’s face facts: Maurice Chevalier makes me want to puke. He can’t sing, can’t act and is totally smarmy. It’s surprising to see MacDonald as a sensual beauty and not all sugary like she’d end up later on at MGM — but she doesn’t fare much better here, either. I can appreciate this film from a technical standpoint — it certainly doesn’t play like the usually clumsy musicals from that era — and there are some mighty impressive set designs here. A few pluses don’t make up for an avalanche of minuses, however. All in all, I wouldn’t watch this again even if forced to by gunpoint.
Sway (2006). An intriguing but frustrating Japanese drama follows two brothers as the girlfriend of one gets mysteriously killed on a bridge deep in the woods. Subsequent courtroom scenes play out Rashomon style as each brother has a differing account of the tragedy. This was slow-moving but interesting, although by the end I was confused about just what transpired. A sustained mood of quietness and nice cinematography bolster this film enough to give it a slight recommendation. Christopher enjoyed it much more than I did, though.