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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Watch List For 10/24/12

AIR FORCE (1943) --- May-be the best of combat pulse-pounders done when the war's outcome was still uncertain. Howard Hawks directed Air Force for Warner Bros., so top rungs are a starting point. I hear Hawks gave supervisors apoplexy by shooting slow and having dialogue rewritten. As many fresh words came via Bill Faulkner, you'd have to figure Hawks once again knew his business. The flying crew is a usual wartime assemblage, but clearer-drawn, and all memorable here. Placing Harry Carey among them confers instant authority. John Ridgely commands and had to have looked back on this as his shining hour in films (mostly minor parts otherwise). John Garfield is malcontent to start, but gets with the program. That sounds familiar, but he doesn't play it so. Neither do Hawks or his writers.

What We're Fighting For was never put across so effectively. First act tension derives from night flying toward Pearl Harbor just after the attack, and battle scenes to follow are just impeccably done. So much Air Force atmosphere presages The Thing, broken-up dialogue and stepped-on lines an HH signature. Underplaying applies modern patina we expect of all that is Hawks. Did he possess a crystal ball that saw into 21st-century preference? You'd not be embarrassed showing any of his best to a current crowd. That's been the case for Air Force's near-seventy years and applies as well to ones even earlier. Hawks was himself reticent and so are his characters. At no point in Air Force do any of them go over tops. It's his finest war drama, which is to say it's anyone's in that category. Long, but never feels that way. You're hardly aware of the clock. Apple streams Air Force in high-definition. I never knew anything could look so good.

BACHELOR APARTMENT (1931) --- Lowell Sherman repeats his Way Down East seducer for laughs, going about what was then expected of a well-established screen persona. Irene Dunne tames him in that way "good" women had of draining fun out of otherwise spicy comedies. Again, there are misunderstandings to eat up slow moving time. Sherman's splendidly art-deco digs are at least visual compensation. Silent-era names make late career appearance. Mae Murray seems more a stalker threat than intended comic mistress Lowell discards. Norman Kerry of added weight and thinning hair supplies curio interest for those who wonder what became of Phantom Of The Opera's leading man. Bachelor Apartment is another RKO with soft picture and flattened sound in common. Are camera negatives for these lost?

THE PERFECT SNOB (1941) --- A more silly than funny B from Fox, but I made it to 65 minutes' finish line. Star aborning Cornel Wilde is supported by comic gifts from God Charlotte Greenwood and Charlie Ruggles as henpecker and henpeckee. These two plus indulging director Raymond McCarey make The Perfect Snob fun. Ray was Leo's brother, lacked the latter's singular genius, but knew ways 'round comedy, having directed Our Gang, Roscoe Arbuckle, Laurel/Hardy, and the Stooges. He replaced Mal St. Clair --- from expertise standpoint, a mere switch from apples to oranges. Plenty creative was Fox's reuse of Swamp Water sets for Wilde and Tony Quinn's sugar plantation. Nothing went wasted at Fox. Build for one and use for three. That water-logged stage surely stank to blazes by the time this crew came by it. The Perfect Snob's story splits between there and Hawaii resort setting, so we don't feel confined, that the bane of B's where background is static and under-dressed. Cornel Wilde is actually livelier here than he'd be as a star. Did after-handlers tamp him down? The Perfect Snob is good example of talent brought along in sink-or-swim programmers where not too much is gambled toward creation of headliner merchandise. Excellent quality via Fox's On-Demand DVD.

MANDALAY (1934) --- Here was precode released 2/34 in last flowering before strict enforcement applied chokeholds. Tears are shed yet for latter-half 1934 shows shorn by censors wide awakened. Mandalay got under a net lowering and perhaps chose that occasion to give precode a wild and wooly send-off. Kay Francis is the dove soiled yet again. She loves, loses, then poisons Ricardo Cortez, for which there is no legal consequence. Mere months later would have seen her led off in cuffs, something neither audiences then nor us now would have liked. Warner Oland supplies first-half menace. He was another of those true eccentrics that bespoke precode, a face and voice to sum up the period and make a best argument for reviving its wares. Directing flair uplifts Mandalay's not-uncommon narrative, Michael Curtiz composing to maximum effect. Foregrounds are never vacant, interesting people and objects moving constantly between us and principals who emote. How is it backlot locations are more satisfying here than if they'd gone abroad to actual ports-of-call? Humblest programmers from WB are rife with flavor and incident. The likes of Mandalay are what form lines at precode revues put on by what repertory housing survives. I saw it on TCM, but a Warner Archive release can't be far off.

MABEL AT THE WHEEL (1914) --- Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand fun-making for Keystone. There's renewed life in this antique for archival gathering of multiple nitrate prints used to cobble a best-ever presentation of CC's for Sennett. What's wondrous is street and background life we observe as comics cavort amongst real folks going about daily life. Do general (not film) historians realize what valuable social documents these are? There are people standing in distant backyards to witness Charlie and Mabel merriment as if that were routine incident. Heck, maybe it was. Best of the Keystones for me are when they plop down clowns at actual events such as parades, auto races, whatever engaged a pre-WWI populace.

On this occasion, it's a motor derby and Mabel is indeed at the wheel. Other drivers are kitted in turtleneck and goggles, looking sporty and not a little teens-era glamorous. Speed roadsters spin on mud as Sennetteers (including Sennett himself) dodge them. We're less taken with foreground frolic than onlooker eyes darting between Chaplin/Mabel and the camera photographing them. A lot by then would have known CC for the up-and-comer he was. Others look frankly bored. One smiling man leans backward into the arms of a male companion (out and proud circa 1914?). Mabel At The Wheel is 23 minutes truly spent in another era, print quality at last permitting us to reach forward and feel the air.

CHINA DOLL (1958) --- Blame director Frank Borgaze for the ocean of tears to be shed at a wallop emotional finish to this WWII romance. The impact comes slow and unexpected, opener reels suggesting little past odd pair-up of hardened flyer Victor Mature with a Chinese waif he unknowingly "buys" from her father. Give it time and China Doll will hand you something memorable. Borzage's name assures plenty out of the ordinary. Mature shows again how good he routinely was by this point of a prolific career.  Robert Morrison produced for the Batjac company --- he was John Wayne's brother. Duke could have played this, and well, but not so well as Vic. Dish Network comps subscribers with On-Demand HD of China Doll and others of United Artists origin. It looked terrif in 1.85.


Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

MABEL AT THE WHEEL, being Chaplin's first two-reeler, was something of a breakthrough, in that it got more attention in the trade press than was usual for Keystone. In its review in the April 22, 1914 issue, the NY Dramatic Mirror noted: "The bright particular star who carries the male lead is Charles Chaplin. Long acquaintance with the speaking stage, and a naturally funny manner of appearing have made this clever actor, in the three months' experience that he has had in motion pictures, second to none. Mabel Normand carries the female lead with her usual bright success."

1:28 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer sends along some thoughts about "Air Force":

I was about 12 years old when I tried to watch "Air Force" for the first time. It was late at night, my folks had gone to bed, and I was on my own. The next thing I knew, it was three o’clock in the morning, I was lying on the rug of my living room, it was dark, and a test pattern was playing on the television screen. "Air Force" was long over. Watching telecasts then was a “real time” experience, before VHS and DVDs, and this was not the only disaster I suffered in my younger days.

When I finally got to see "Air Force," I liked it a lot. As with most films by Howard Hawks, it is exciting and well done, with its understated sentiment and spectacular action sequences. I still find it entertaining, but I’m more aware now that it doesn’t have much to do with the war. It uses ethnic stereotypes in a way that virtually defined the concept of “World War II bomber crew,” but none of the characters is truly fleshed out with the strengths and weaknesses that make us human. Hawks was never especially sympathetic towards weakness in any case, but at this time in the war, with the outcome still in doubt, it was probably thought necessary to appeal to the strength of the men who would be going into combat or the people back home, supporting them. Other films from the same period, such as "Wake Island," "Guadalcanal Diary," and "Fighting Seabees" show the same reticense. Only towards the end, with victory almost certain, could such films as "They Were Expendable" or "The Story of G.I. Joe" be made, with their appreciation of the cost of the war or the trial it was for our fighting men.

The particular perspective of "Air Force" is also flawed, though in an understandable way. The film is essentially a dramatization of the role of the Army Air Force in the American victory at Midway. The flyers were the first back to describe what had happened, and to hear them tell it, they had blown the Japanese fleet of the water. It made for a good story, and Hawks is good at telling it. What wasn’t generally known at the time, however, was that the Army bombers hadn’t scored a single hit on a Japanese vessel. It wasn’t that they hadn’t dropped a lot of bombs or fought hard, but all the scoring on the American side that day was by Navy dive bombers. The celebrated Norden bomb sight might have been able to drop a bomb into a pickle barrle from 30,000 feet, but a pickle barrel doesn’t move. A ship does, and all through the war, high altitude bombing was found to be more or less futile against manuvering ships. This would have surprised Billy Mitchell, but then, he would really have enjoyed "Air Force." For myself, I just put Midway out of mind and think of the Army boys being especially lucky in sort of an imaginary South Pacific battle.


5:22 AM  

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