Les Visiteurs du Soir (1942)
Marcel Carné is a French film director best known for his acknowledged masterpiece, Children of Paradise, which I will get to eventually this year, but I had long been intrigued by his previous movie, Les Visiteurs du Soir (English title The Devil’s Envoys), not only because of my interest in the fantasy genre but because somehow I had never frickin’ heard of it. Given how much film text I had read over the years, how was this even possible?
Towards the end of the 15th century, two minstrels ride into the castle of the recently-widowed Baron Hugues (Fernand Ledeux), who is celebrating the upcoming wedding of his daughter Anne (Marie Déa) to the rather brutish Baron Renaud (Marcel Herrand). The minstrels, Gilles (Alain Cuny) and Dominique (Arletty) are the envoys of the title, whose mission is to spread despair throughout the world. To this end they will use magic and their own beauty and wit to seduce the members of the wedding, and then suddenly leave their victims, bereft and heartbroken. This plan runs aground when the flawed Gilles – who doesn’t mind using his powers for an occasional good deed – confronted with Anne’s immaculately pure heart, falls in love with her and forsakes his mission.
Dominique works overtime seducing both the Barons, and the Devil himself (Jules Berry) arrives on the scene, disguised as a traveller seeking shelter from a sudden storm. By asking seemingly innocent questions, he sees to it that Gilles is imprisoned and the two Barons will duel to the death over Dominique – but then he, too, becomes infatuated with Anne’s incorruptible heart and love for Gilles, and must find a way to undermine it and make Anne his own.
This is a bit of a departure for Carné, who along with Jean Renoir and Jean Vigo were the main proponents of the somewhat nebulous Poetic Realism movement in French cinema. The major reason for this, though, is unmistakeable: the Nazi occupation of France in 1940. Declining to work for the German-controlled Continental Films, Carné, after several abortive projects, teamed with independent producer André Paulve. To avoid censorship, they decided on a purely escapist feature, set in the past, with no political content. The production shuttled between studios in Paris to the Free Zone in the South for the exteriors, which must have been difficult for the several Jewish crew members, working under aliases.
The result was that Les Visiteurs du Soir was a rousing success in France, who really needed their escapist fare (and though Carné denied it, there were still whispers of political allegory). There would be several more medieval fantasies released to French screens in the coming years, arguably leading up to that form’s ne plus ultra, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast in 1946.
Les Visiteurs is a charming distraction in this day and age, well-acted and shot, with Jules Berry a definite standout as the chatty, fun-loving Devil. Not a bad way to spend an evening, at all.
Break out your dictionaires:
A Field in England (2013)
During the 17th century English Civil War, three deserters from the battlefield (Julian Barratt, Peter Ferdinando and Richard Glover) fall in with another seeming deserter named Cutler (Ryan Pope), who, under the guise of taking them to a nearby alehouse, feeds them soup heavy with psilocybin mushrooms. This is a means of taking them hostage for his master, O’Neil (Michael Smiley), an alchemist who feels there is a treasure in this Field, and he needs people to find it and dig it up. Complicating matters is one of the deserters, Trower (Barratt) is seeking out O’Neil for stealing papers from their master – and Trower refused to eat the mushrooms.
That’s the basic plot there. Now, what actually happens in A Field in England is open to interpretation. This is the work of prolific director Ben Wheatley, whose Kill List I found unique, daring and quite striking. He is challenging without being obscure; I find his work genuinely refreshing, and sometimes a little annoying. There is a lot of bizarre stuff to parse in A Field in England, some of it I’m not quite certain we’re ever supposed to understand, like the tendency of Glover’s character, Friend, to die and come back to life suddenly and unexpectedly. How much of the bizarre action in the film is due to the characters’ ingestion of hallucinogens, and how much is due to strange magicks that are unleashed? If Trower hasn’t indulged in the mushrooms, why does he keep having visions of a “bad planet” set to unleash its wrath upon them? It begs for an immediate second viewing, if not a third.
Born of an idea (while Wheatley was travelling by train) to make a movie using a single field as a setting, and shot in only 12 days, Field is one of those technical exercises that bears unexpected dividends, and makes one look forward to whatever the director comes up with next (spoiler: it’s High Rise, and he has the chops to actually do J.G. Ballard justice).
I continue to work my way through Fritz Lang’s silent days in the Weimar Republic. His previous film, the legendary Metropolis, nearly bankrupted the studio UFA (current estimates place the cost, adjusted for inflation, at 200 million dollars!), and for a time they considered releasing Lang from his contract. Instead, they placed severe budgetary restrictions on his next production, which yielded Spies.
I guess I don’t have to tell you that the movie is about spies, huh? The German secret service is having a bad time of it, with assassinations and stolen secret papers aplenty. This is the work of one mastermind running an efficient and widespread organization: Haghi (the ever-reliable Rudolf Klein-Rogge, once more playing a supervillain with a penchant for disguises). The good guys put their best man on the job, Agent 326 (Willie Fritsch), countered by one of Haghi’s best, Sonya Baranilkova (Gerda Marus). The major problem: 326 and Sonya fall in love.
Spies‘ storyline is much more complicated with that, with additional plots concerning a secret treaty with the Japanese and the duplicity of an army Colonel; but the main thrust of the movie is that star-crossed romance and the increasingly jealous Haghi’s attempts to kill 326.
The climax of the movie, with cops and 326’s organization raiding the bank that houses Haghi’s organization, desperately seeking the secret entrance while the kidnapped Sonya and 326’s assistant Franz (Paul Höbiger) are fighting for their lives, is suitably suspenseful and exciting. The rest… not so much, though there are high points. My personal favorite is one of Sonya and 326’s dates, people in black tie formal at dinner tables arrayed around a boxing ring. Once one pugilist is knocked out, an orchestra strikes up and the patrons rise to dance around the ring. Weimar Germany, everybody!
No, the real problem isn’t that Haghi is a brilliant strategist – which he is – but that his opponents are such ninnies. Even the worst threat, Agent 326, is reduced to an idiot by love. Jerry Lewis would have had a better chance against Haghi. CONTROL, on its Maxwell Smart-est day, would at least have been trying. It’s just infuriating. The fact that is likely an accurate portrait of government bureaucracy is even more infuriating.
Still, Spies was a resounding financial success. Willie Fritsch was an inspired bit of casting, being mainly known for playboy roles in light comedy. His against-type leading man turns in this, and Lang’s next movie, Woman in the Moon, ensured a long career for him. Making her film debut was Gerda Marus (also in Woman in the Moon), a stage actress. Her casting is notable for her eventual placement in Lang’s heart, ending his troubled marriage with Thea von Harbou, who had written Lang’s most ambitious movies. (Admittedly, the fact that von Harbou would become an ardent supporter of the Nazi Party didn’t help. Lang was, after all, Jewish) Our three main actors are all quite remarkable in a pretty scattered film – the American version cut out all extraneous plotlines and got it down to a runtime of a little over 70 minutes – from two and half hours!
It should also be mentioned that the financial success of Spies ultimately worked against UFA, as Woman in Space saw Lang, flush with popular success, back to his old budget-busting ways. But that’s a movie for another time.
Now witness some divine overacting and great editing in the first two minutes:
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
It is no secret that I generally despise musicals. Don’t hate the music per se, I just have my doubts about inserting it into a story. This has been pointed out – with some truth, no doubt – that this is due to my absolute lack of talent in the singing and dancing arts. I will wrestle you two falls out of three in the realm of Shakespeare, motherfucker, but ask me to carry a tune or do more than the simplest dance step, and I’m out of the running.
(Yet I will admit no small amount of fondness for 1776. I am a mass of controversies.)
But if I am going to continue my self-education in the ways of cinema, I am going to have to face up to this genre. Singin’ in the Rain is held up as sheer perfection by many musical fans, so I marked it as a gateway into such things, and the fact that I found the DVD for 99 cents in a Library Sale helped, too. Then my frequent partner in cinema exploration, Rick, mentioned he had picked up the restored blu-ray, and if you are going to watch a Technicolor movie, you should make sure your eyes are taking in all the angstroms they possibly can.
The movie starts out with a recap of the career of matinee idol Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), who with his partner Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) journey from vaudeville entertainers to silent pictures. Lockwood manages to parlay a stand-in for stunt work to leading man roles while Cosmo plays mood music during filming. Running from a pack of pre-Beatlemania clothes-ripping fans, Lockwood encounters Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds), who is so unimpressed with him that he has to immediately fall in love with her. The Big Twist is this is all in 1927, and a little movie called The Jazz Singer is about to change movies for good.
A lot of our plot, such as it is, is going to involve Lockwood’s co-star Lina Lamont (a pretty amazing Jean Hagen), hyped by the press to be a Burton-Taylor pair, except that Lockwood can’t stand her. Another problem is that Lamont has a voice like chalk squealing across a Brooklyn blackboard. An advance screening of their new romantic epic, The Dueling Cavalier, is a laughable disaster, at least partially due to the horrific on-set sound recording (“They need to invent ADR,” I muttered).
That evening, Brown and Seldon cheer up Lockwood by brainstorming that the actor should return to his roots and The Dueling Cavalier should become The Dancing Cavalier. After singing “Good Morning” to celebrate, Cosmo also invents ADR by figuring out that Kathy could dub in Lamont’s lines and songs in the new footage.
This will be the plot major thereon, trying to keep the secret of her new voice from Lamont and the repercussions when the plan is blown by a treacherous (and lamentably under-used) Rita Moreno (as “Zelda Zanders, The Zip Girl”). My major problem, as usual, is the damned musical numbers. I expect the number when Lockwood confesses his love to Kathy, no problem. “Good Morning” is a little harder to accept, as its impetus is the discovery that our three heroes have talked until after midnight. And worst of all is “Make ‘Em Laugh”, a number everybody loves but I always refer to as “Try Too Hard”. It’s there because Kelly rightfully thought that O’Connor deserved a solo number, but it feels incredibly shoe-horned in. Then you feel bad because you discover that O’Connor was smoking 4 packs of cigarettes a day, and filming the number put him in bed for three days. And then when he came, back, he found out somebody hadn’t checked the gate after his last take and he had to do it all over again.
Even fans seem to have a problem with the big “Broadway Ballet” number (better known to us heathens as “Gotta Dance!”), because it has literally nothing to do with the movie’s story. It’s not a problem I share, because it has no reason to be there – it is so obviously something that Kelly wanted to do, they just stopped pretending and let him do it. Though at the end of the sequence – which is supposedly Lockwood describing it to the studio’s head (Millard Mitchell) – I did get to say, “Okay, Cosmo, now you’d better invent Technicolor, too.” It’s a great, dazzling number, costing almost $600,000 to produce, but my God! What is it doing there?
Now “Singin’ in the Rain” is itself the direct opposite, the song and dance growing naturally out of the preceding scene. It’s become Kelly’s iconic number, all the more amazing because he did it while sick as a dog, with a fever somewhere south of 101 degrees. This movie really tried to kill its stars – Debbie Reynolds tap-danced until her feet bled. Literally. And Kelly still insulted her dance skills and re-dubbed all her taps himself.
For a movie with a lot of meta-textual jokes about Hollywood – when Kathy rescues Lockwood from his fans, she’s driving Andy Hardy’s jalopy – the most incredibly meta-textual stuff comes from behind the scenes. The best one involves Kathy’s re-dubbing of Lina Lamont’s lines in The Dancing Cavalier. The lines are actually being delivered by Jean Hagen herself in her natural voice, so it’s Jean Hagen dubbing Debbie Reynolds dubbing Jean Hagen. Then you find out that all of Debbie’s songs were actually sung by Betty Noyes, and you start wondering who Incepted you while you were sleeping.
There are only two songs written specifically for this movie – the aforementioned “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Moses Supposes” (“Singin’ in the Rain”? Written in 1929), causing some to point to it as the first of the jukebox musicals, which rather ignores the next movie I was going to watch.
Stormy Weather (1943)
“Stormy Weather”, the song, was written in 1933, before you ask. The movie is loosely based on the life of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who actually did lead a pretty interesting one. Only the broadest brush strokes are used in the first 45 minutes or so, as Robinson reads the current Theatre World magazine, a “Special Edition Celebrating the Magnificent Contribution of the Colored Race to the Entertainment of the World During the Past Twenty-Five Years”, and telling the neighborhood children all the following flashbacks.
…Starting with his return from service in World War I, and his meeting with the fictitious singer Selina Rogers (Lena Horne) at a dance for the returning troops. The following bits with Robinson working as a waiter at a bar run by Ada Brown with a band led by Fats Waller is necessary story folderol, as Robinson had a good career in vaudeville before joining the Army, but it provides a re-meet cute with Selina, who follows him after he’s fired for being too good in one show to another show on Broadway (in the 20s, there a brief vogue for all-black revues there). Their romance deepens, but Robinson wants a marriage and children, and Selina does not. She heads off to Paris to become a big star, and Robinson heads to Hollywood. They don’t mention for what, but we’ll get to that later.
Then who should drive up in his convertible than Cab Calloway, inviting Robinson to attend a show he’s throwing that night “for the troops.” “For the troops? I’ll be there!” And who should be at that show than Selina Rogers, singing the title song and having totally changed her mind about married life. She and Robinson have one more number, and then Cab takes us out with “Jumpin’ Jive” and an appearance by the Nicolas Brothers that will make all your joints and muscles ache just watching it.
Jukebox musical it is; Fats Waller – of course – does “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and Cab does another standard, “Geechy Joe”. There are, in fact, something like 20 musical numbers in a movie that is barely 70 minutes long. And this is not a B-movie rushed out by 20th Century Fox, either, this has prime talent behind the lens as well as in front, and a fair amount of money invested in big production numbers (though certainly not to the dizzying heights of MGM nearly a decade later for Singin’ in the Rain – the Broadway Ballet alone probably cost as much as five Stormy Weathers). That is amazing considering that in most of his other movies, Robinson is in standalone scenes so they could easily be edited out in the South. Hell, his best-known roles – in four Shirley Temple movies, where he served not only as Temple’s friend but her dance instructor – were similarly cut. Fox knew this wasn’t going to play in half of the country.
A major reason for its existence is in evidence from the first and last sequences – Robinson’s service and the proud introduction of “Cab Calloway Jr.” (actually Robert Felder), in uniform and ready to ship out for WWII. “I wish I had a son like him!” exclaims Robinson. As sure as the seal on the closing title urges you to Buy Liberty Bonds on your way out, this was telling the African-Americans in the audience that they were needed for the War Effort, and for the length of this movie, at least, Hollywood was behind them.
In 2001, Stormy Weather was enrolled in the National Film Registry, for a number of good reasons. It’s one of the few (only three I can think of right now) studio movies of the period with an all-black cast, and certainly the only one where the characters seem like actual human beings, with real desires, goals, and foibles.
You can’t say that race doesn’t exist in Stormy Weather, as it doesn’t shy from the minstrel show realities of Robinson’s early career. It’s pretty significant, and not a little subversive, that when a blackface comedy routine in that Broadway show is presented (and you should be wincing at the sight of two black men smearing burnt cork on their faces), there is no reaction from the audience until the curtain closes on it. It’s a pretty clever routine, too, lightning fast lines delivered at a staggering pace, and their disintegrating car deserved some applause – but nope. Silence. That’s a pretty sharp commentary right there.
This is Fats Waller’s final film appearance – he died too young of pneumonia just five months later. There’s also some typical Hollywood jiggery-pokery with the Robinson /Horne romance, too, since he’s 40 years her elder here. Doesn’t matter that much, though – once the man starts dancing, he’s ageless. This movie serves as a tribute to so much happy, seemingly effortless, pure talent that we should all be thankful it has survived so we can enjoy it today.
That should have been my last movie for this round (this has gone on long enough, hasn’t it?), but then an impromptu Internet poll determined I should watch one more, and it was a fairly fortuitous choice:
The T.A.M.I. Show (1964)
Now this is a literal jukebox movie. Who the hell needs a story, anyway?
But the story is pretty interesting: After The Beatles’ landmark appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, this concert and film was put together by Bill Sargent, who had developed a technology he called Electronovision. An early bid to develop high-definition TV, the cameras sent a then-walloping 800 lines of video at 25 fps to tape, creating an image that could yield a reasonably good picture when transferred to 35mm and projected; it had been used once before for a Broadway production of Hamlet starring Richard Burton, that made the rounds of non-New York theaters. It was used to record this concert, and then only a handful of times, the most notable being a production of Harlow starring Carol Lynley.
Oh, but what a concert. Opening with Chuck Berry and “Johnny B. Goode” (I’m going to digress here to point out that another media landmark, the supposed Country Music icon Hee-Haw, also opened with “Johnny B. Goode”, though performed by Buck Owens), and then Berry and Gerry and the Pacemakers alternate for a while, then the Miracles (hi, Smokey!), Marvin Gaye, Lesley Gore, Jan and Dean (who also play hosts), The Beach Boys, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, The Supremes (hi Diana!), The Barbarians, James Brown and His Famous Flames, and The Rolling Stones.
That is two hours of incredible music, recorded and mixed live on the fly, apparently cut down from a five hour event (we are spared equipment moving and the like). This is pretty much the soundtrack of my youth, and I sat there with a dopey look on my face.
I had only thought I had seen The T.A.M.I. Show before; what I had actually seen was a mashup with a later, similar event called The Big TNT Show that had some of The T.A.M.I. Show cut in to be released as This Was Rock. It turned out that Burton had all the Electronovision versions of Hamlet pulled, and somebody in The Beach Boys organization decided that their performance needed to be pulled from all prints. That didn’t quite happen, fortunately, which is why these days we can watch Brian Wilson singing with The Beach Boys, something that would not happen again for 19 years; this was only a few months before his nervous breakdown.
There’s other little festive things, too: the pack-in book for the DVD infers that assistant choreographer Toni Basil only appears in the opening credit montage, but I’m pretty sure I spotted her among the dancers (who are doing some OMG get-me-some-oxygen gyrations that would have impressed The Nicolas Brothers with their freneticism) but truthfully, I was looking for another dancer in the lineup, and I finally got a good look at her during the Supremes’ number: hai, Teri Garr!
If I have time to watch it again, I need to try to get a better look at that backup band, too: that is the legendary Wrecking Crew, which at the time included future stars like Glenn Campbell and Leon Russell.
Another telling bit concerns the last two acts: James Brown and The Rolling Stones. Sargent wanted The Stones to close the show, probably because they were the closest thing to The Beatles he could afford. The Stones didn’t want to follow Brown, and Brown wanted to close the show. Hell, everybody realized that Brown should have closed, except Sargent. So Brown proceeds to make The Stones wish they had never come to America with a set that threatens to melt your TV set. The Stones rise to the challenge, throwing in a bit more footwork than usual in their first song, “Around and Around”, but it doesn’t matter to the screaming teens; the two acts are really for different audiences, and in that one night, both audiences are there, and they are enjoying the hell out of each others’ music.
That’s the other big cultural landmark that happened in 1964: The Civil Rights Act, signed into law on July 2, outlawing discrimination and segregation. The thing is, The T.A.M.I. Show is an accurate depiction of the radio of my youth; we didn’t care about the color of the music, we cared about its quality, and I heard an astounding variety of music on my little transistor. Modern radio, categorized and pre-boxed and yes, segregated cannot compare, and we are honestly less for that.
Which makes me more glad than ever that Shout Factory has finally managed to put it out on home video, Beach Boys and all.
Please be advised I will not be held responsible for this video melting your computer monitor. Please! Please!
Hopefully you’ve now have enough of me for a while. I’m going to be spending the next couple of weeks on my Villain Blogathon entry, and as usual, I rue my choice and the work I have cut out for myself. See you in a couple.