FILMS I WATCHED IN 2020, THE YEAR OF OUR PANDEMIC: PART 9

So, it’s been close to two months since I last felt like writing.  This is completely apathetic on my part since here where I live, everything pretty much has continued to be in complete lockdown and I have been unable to work for the past six months.  There’s nothing much to do since the big box stores are closed unless they happen to sell food with the rest of their products roped off.   If you really desire something, you can turn to online shopping.  There is certainly no outside entertainment and only until recently has the weather been warm enough to start exercising outdoors.  The lockdown here was supposed to end on June 2nd but again they are now extending it to June 14th.  We continue to live in purgatory, or for many of us, hell.

Several months ago, I turned to Kanopy to find something different.  I watched a Japanese film called Creepy (2016) which was about a detective who quits the force after a nasty incident occurs while having totally misjudged the actions of a psychopath he’s interviewing.  Still considered a fine detective, Takakura goes on to become a professor at a university which, I suppose, brings to mind Shaw’s quote, those who can’t do, teach.  (Which isn’t necessarily true, in my opinion.)  He’s married and he and his wife, Yasuko, have moved into a new home surrounded by strange neighbours. 

A young, former colleague of Takakura’s draws him back into a cold case, and you have for a creepy cycle of events which leads back to the detective’s neighbourhood.  I found some of the scenes a bit unclear, but I’m not sure if that was just me not paying close enough attention or just the difference between (some) Japanese cinema and American storytelling.  The ending is almost satisfying in its obvious, simple, “happy” conclusion. 

Speaking of creepy, years ago I saw this 1988 Czechoslovakian film version of Alice by director Jan Švankmajer.  It was live action animation with very little dialogue and although I had taped it from TV (in the days when we did that), I lost the video.  So as I was scrolling through the films on Kanopy, I was delighted to see that they had this rather avant garde film in their catalogue.  I watched it again and still find it quite a surrealistic and dark version of the story.  It all takes place in a dilapidated house and all the creatures that Alice meets are unattractive and off-putting, including the White Rabbit.  The young actress who plays Alice is quite beautiful and whenever she shrinks down to a smaller size, she is represented by a tattered, mangy Victorian porcelain doll. 

Alice, played by Kristýna Kohoutová, is the only live character in her only film, although Alice’s English voice is spoken by Camilla Power who has gone on with an acting career.

On a lighter note, I turned to A Dispatch from Reuters (1940) which I have had sitting on my shelf for a number of years.  Like many people, I enjoy any film featuring Edward G. and since my kids’ father worked for Thomson Reuters at one point, I thought it made sense for me to watch this bio-pic.  It was engaging and delightful and since I never knew, or ever thought about where the name “Reuters” came from, was lightened of my ignorance by learning that Reuter was an actual person.  In this film version, they make him such a likeable, non-competitive person, just trying to correct what is right when others thwart him. 

Beer Josaphat was a German Jew who eventually moved to England, converted to Christianity, and changed his name to Paul Julius Reuter.  I gleaned this information from the Wikipedia entry on him, which held very basic information, and it made me think that a well-researched biography would be extremely interesting.  Herbert Marshall’s wife, Edna Best, played his wife.  The Marshalls would have divorced shortly before she made this film.  It appears this was her last film for several years, going back to her first love, the stage. 

You can never take these Hollywood biopics as gospel.  I’m sure there were many changes made, including Robinson’s portrayal of being such a likeable man.  The non-competitive point was interesting.  In reality, it would make much more sense that Reuter would have been incredibly competitive, unappreciative of anyone stepping on his toes or getting in his way of his delivering the latest news as swiftly as possible, something he most surely was obsessed with doing.  Deep down, I wondered what was more important, getting the people the news or finding the quickest way of doing so.

It also featured Eddie Albert in the role of Reuter’s hapless assistant. Why he kept him on was a puzzle to me; except that Albert’s character was somewhat likeable and, again, it paints Reuter as a man with a forgiving disposition.

In the film, Reuter’s wife Ida (Edna Best) is the daughter of a doctor, and this relationship is an important catalyst as to the two marrying and him becoming a success.  In reality, Ida’s father was a banker.  I’m just guessing scriptwriter Milton Krims (or perhaps it was already changed in the story the film was based on) found that it was easier to weave a more sympathetic portrayal, and a good twist to a crucial incident, with this occupational detail change.  I don’t recall where, but I read that Edward G. said this was his favourite film.  I find that hard to believe because he certainly played more interesting, complex figures during his vast career.

I had been interested in seeing Jean Renoir’s The Southerner (1945) for some time and noticed it was available for viewing on Kanopy, even though I later discovered it sitting on my shelf.  I’ve mostly seen Zachary Scott playing smarmy, but here he was natural, strong and charming.  It featured Betty Field as Scott’s supportive through thick-and-thin wife, Beula Bondi perfect as the irritating, tiresome but still cared for grandmother, the prolific J. Carrol Naish as their frightening farming neighbour, plus Percy Kilbride (Pa Kettle) and Norman Lloyd who was still with us when I viewed this film.  The film is the portrayal of farming people who want to make it on their own, yet nature is most often against them.  The ending depicts the strength of their perseverance without a tidy “happily ever after”.

I thought it was an unusual film for a French director and read a bit as to why Jean Renoir chose this story in his memoir My Life and My Films.

“What attracted me in the story was precisely the fact that there was really no story, nothing but a series of strong impressions…”, although as an observer there is certainly enough of a storyline to hold the viewer’s interest.  “(Hugo) Butler’s script was excellent, but to my mind it failed to convey the calm grandeur of the theme.  It laid too much stress on the leading character.  But what I saw was a story in which all the characters were heroic, in which every element would brilliantly play its part, in which things and men, animals and Nature, all would come together in an immense act of homage to the divinity.”  This is when, with Butler’s assent, Renoir took over the screenplay.  This film offered Renoir a second chance to return to Hollywood.  His ambition, if The Southerner was a success, was to run a small company specializing in low-budget, experimental films.  Originally Joel McCrea had “more or less” agreed to play the Scott role but declined after reading and disliking the script.  Without McCrea to star in the film, United Artist was ready to can it.  However, producer David Loew (son of MGM founder Marcus Loew) threatened UA that he would withdraw all his films if they did not give The Southerner a fair chance.  Surprising to me, Zachary Scott was from the South, so Renoir was confident at the least with his accent being genuine.

Originally wanting to shoot in Texas where the novel had been written, but due to it still being wartime and transportation being reserved for the army, filming took place in a Californian cotton-field not far from the small town of Madera on the bank of the San Joaquin River.  One religious group of people who lived in these parts, the Ancients, refused to allow any pictorial representation of, apparently, all humans.  After signing the contract for the use of their cotton field, the owner wanted to renege on the agreement when he learnt that people were being photographed.  (Gee, it was for a film after all and how can a small group of people have control over world photography?)  Without another suitable field, the filming company threatened heavy compensations if this cancellation occurred, so the owner relented. 

And as a final comment, here’s Renoir’s humourous recall once the film was completed: “To my great relief the film was a success.  François Truffaut has recalled the manner in which the newspaper Combat described it on its first appearance in France, which was at the Biarritz festival.  Henri Magnan reported on it over the telephone.  It was a bad connection, and the sub-editor who took down his review called it Le Souteneur (The Pimp) instead of The Southerner and described it as ‘un film de genre noir’ (a sombre film) instead of ‘un film de Jean Renoir’.

As far as I remember, this was the first time I watched Each Dawn I Die (1939).  As mentioned above, I sometimes wonder if I am just not paying as much attention to the story as I should be, because in this instance I found some of the story hard to follow although I could more or less figure out what was happening yet didn’t always understand why.  In case you don’t know the film, it’s basically a story about two men who are incarcerated—one who is a gangster (George Raft) and the other who isn’t (James Cagney).  Although Cagney’s character is putting himself out on a very narrow limb to save Raft from further jailtime–meaning assists in his escape–Raft believes that Cagney has betrayed him.  However, Cagney is sure, even after months and months in solitary confinement, that Raft who is on the outside, will rescue him.  It just wasn’t clear to me why Raft thought Cagney had let him down; was it because Cagney was unable to control how the establishment reacted?  Anyway, it wasn’t that important in the scheme of things.  I watched a little feature on the DVD afterwards talking about gangster language.  For me, some of it doesn’t age well and I kind of laughed when Raft talks about Cagney being a “square guy” or some such thing.  Perhaps it’s also because I find Raft a bit laughable.  The more I see him in films, the less I appreciate him.  I prefer other prison films from that era to this one, but now I can say I have seen it.

Having watched and written about The Song You Gave Me back in November 2020, I watched an earlier film by Austrian-Hungarian director Paul L. Stein, Sin Takes a Holiday (1930).  The print wasn’t great, but the film was entertaining enough.  It featured Constance Bennett and Basil Rathbone.  I would say this falls into the “chauvinistic” category.  What men are allowed to do, women shouldn’t.  It’s been quite a while since I viewed this but its a lingering impression that in this instance it was not Basil who was the cad. 

Basically, it’s okay if Kenneth MacKenna, (who incidentally was married to Kay Francis for a couple of years in the early 30s), marries his secretary (Bennett) so as to keep his married mistress (Rita La Roy), who’s looking for a new husband, at bay.  MacKenna’s friend, Rathbone, is very interested in Bennett.  Even though money is no longer an object, Bennet is not allowed to have any extramarital relationships although she’s not enjoying these particular conjugal benefits that go along with marriage.  Not that MacKenna would object to having his cake and eating it too.

In a number of the film notes I had been adding to the Toronto Film Society website as well as in a manuscript I had read on Maria Montez, there had been mentions of Rita Hayworth’s role in Blood and Sand (1941), directed by Rouben Mamoulian.  I finally decided to watch the film which I had not seen probably since I was a teen.  I’m not a big Tyrone Power fan because at times I find him one dimensional, although I do watch a fair amount of the films that he’s in.  I do quite like Linda Darnell and think of her as one of Hollywood’s most beautiful actresses along with Hedy Lamarr and Gene Tierney, yet here it was Rita who stole the show.  She was just fabulous!  Apparently, Montez was vying for the role and It certainly was a good thing that she lost out.  She was more of an unknown than Rita at that time, unable to dance or sing, but still went on to fame and fortune in Arabian Nights made the same year. And really, other than Rita and the colourful costumes, I really didn’t much care for this rendition of the story.  I haven’t seen the silent version in a dog’s age but I bet it’s the better one.

It kept it interesting to see who else was cast in this film. Silent star Nazimova plays Juan’s (Tyrone Power) mother, Señora Augustias; Anthony Quinn as Manolo de Palma, Juan’s replacement; once again there’s J. Carrol Naish, Lynn Bari, John Carradine and a man of few but memorable films, Laird Cregar.

I hope to do a write up on more of last year’s films before the lockdown is over—although at this rate, it feels like it may be never.  However, like everything, I suppose, this too shall end.

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