Saturday, October 18, 2014

Grand Hotel

Year 6, Day 290 - 10/17/14 - Movie #1,878

BEFORE: Wrapping up the Joan Crawford chain by jumping back to this Best Picture Oscar winner - it's been a while since I watched one of those, I think the last one was "Rebecca".  Out of 86 Best Picture winners, after tonight I will have seen 69 of them, with plans to watch another 3 that are on the list.  Damn, that would just leave 14 unwatched, I could theoretically complete the set in a 2-week span...

I'm getting a late start tonight because were out at the theater, watching "Les Miserables" on Broadway as part of my wife's birthday celebration.  Of course, it's odd to compare a stage production to a film because a film can do so much more with props and scenery - but still I found the stage production to be rather minimalist.  There were many times when actors appeared on what was essentially a bare stage, with a colored or moving backdrop.  A bare-bones use of props meant that they could really keep the play moving in an innovative and constructive way - scene changes were so rapid that there was no need for the use of a curtain between set-ups, for example - but still it almost felt that when it came to decorating the stage in some scenes, they just weren't even trying.

THE PLOT:  A group of very different individuals staying at a luxurious hotel in Berlin deal with each of their respective dramas.

AFTER: Speaking of minimalism, this film features a group of people staying at a hotel.  Apparently it didn't take much to impress audiences back in 1932 - what year was it when audiences were shown a film of an approaching train and they all ducked out of reflex?  I can only imagine the same people being bowled over with exciting footage of people checking into their rooms, and talking on phones!  Oooh, now they're drinking at the bar!  How very grand!

I guess you have to figure that the Great Depression was also taking place, so people were looking to movies as a form of escape from their financial troubles, so staying at an opulent hotel in Berlin was probably not in the budget for most Americans.  High-stakes gambling and fancy dining and dancing may have something of a pipe dream, so perhaps that explains the appeal here.

I've seen some strange depictions of the upper-class this week, it's almost like Hollywood didn't quite know what to do with rich people.  The rich Monte in "Mildred Pierce" was sort of an idle rich man, slowly going broke by paying taxes on his properties and letting them be foreclosed on - but still, getting a job and trying to salvage his situation seemed out of the question.  And Bette Davis' character in "Now, Voyager" used a long ocean cruise as a form of both therapy and matchmaking - why, it was the answer to all her problems!  (And the start of a few new ones.)  And then in "The Catered Affair" we had the dilemma of rich parents of the groom while the parents of the bride were working class.

Here in the "Grand Hotel", oddities among the rich are surfacing again, so I've got my unexpected theme for the week.  You'd expect a baron to have some money, but the one depicted here is also a cat burglar whenever he needs cash, or perhaps he just likes the thrill.  Then we've got a factory owner involved in high-level negotiations for a merger - and an employee of his who just happens to be staying at the same hotel, having saved for years to do so.

The employee, Kringelein, represents the working class - as does the stenographer played by Crawford who's not above making a little extra money from lonely executives by staying the night.  Hey, you did what you had to do during the 30's, I guess.  The character of the doctor summarizes the hotel by saying "People come. People go. Nothing ever happens."  But he couldn't be more wrong, a lot goes down but I guess he just couldn't see it, or had seen too much of it.

I said I'd be pulling some fast and loose linking - perhaps you're expecting me to follow this one with "The Grand Budapest Hotel".  It's not on the list yet so I'm not planning it, but I had the option - and, I like the way you think.  I programmed this one thinking I might have that film on the list by now - but I think it's running on premium cable next week, so I'll have to add it to next year's list.  But that's a great example of the TYPE of linking that's coming up before the end of the year - two films from different eras that are essentially the same.

Also starring Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt.

RATING: 4 out of 10 Louisiana flips

Friday, October 17, 2014

Mildred Pierce

Year 6, Day 289 - 10/16/14 - Movie #1,877

BEFORE: This is what I was worried about vis-a-vis October.  Because of the set-up for NY Comic Con, plus working there for four days, then the tear-down and recovery, by the time I catch my wits again, October is half gone.  Then it's birthday time, Halloween and before you know it, I'm getting ready for Thanksgiving and mailing Christmas cards.  Time to buckle down and get these last 24 films watched so I can face the upcoming holidays.  

Joan Crawford carries over from "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?". 

THE PLOT:  After her cheating husband leaves her, Mildred Pierce proves she can become independent and successful, but cannot seem to win the approval of her spoiled daughter.

AFTER: This was another tough one to get a read on - like "Now, Voyager" it's generally about relationships in the 1940's, and that's just not my area of expertise.  The battle of the sexes just had different ground rules back then, I don't even know enough about the relationships between my grandparents to have any clue what the word "love" meant to people back in the 40's.  

I want to say that Mildred Pierce is an early example of a feminist, but something tells me that's putting too fine of a point on it.  She's married at the start of the picture, but gets divorced before long, and then gets married again later in the film, but for entirely different reasons.  It almost seems like love and affection aren't ever part of the deal, which indicates that people back then got married out of a sense of obligation, or just to have children - which kind of jibes with what I've heard about the decade, but again, no real frame of reference.  

Beyond the relationship angle, I feel like they should show this film in business school.  Mildred gets a job as a waitress and then (with the help of her lawyer) turns an abandoned property into a thriving restaurant with NO MONEY DOWN, which is quite a feat.  Then this becomes a chain of restaurants, though she later gets squeezed out of her own deal by said lawyer and husband #2.  Lots of life lessons here for the wanna-be entrepreneur. 

But really, this is about the relationship between Mildred and her daughter, which itself becomes a symbol of class struggle.  Wanting the best for her Veda backfires and results in a spoiled child, who  wants to associate with the idle rich, but needs to borrow money from waitresses to do so.  She loves how much money her mother gives her, but can't stand the fact that it comes from serving "greasy" food.  I say, whatever your parents do to keep a roof over your head and food on your table, you better love that thing.  My father was a truck driver for 40 years, and he may have come home a little greasy and sweaty, but that was the smell of hard work.  

Child-rearing is another topic I'm not qualified to comment on - but obviously there's a school of thought that says you shouldn't reward your kids with everything they want, and you also shouldn't try to buy their love.  It's a long time, and a long story told in flashback before we get all the information about what exactly went down at the start of the film. 

There's one point in the film where Mildred slaps Veda for being the spoiled brat that she is - and this just brings to mind what everyone later learned about Joan Crawford in the film "Mommie Dearest".  That would sort of be an obvious follow-up to tonight's film, but I don't happen to have it on my list.  Plus the linking's not there, but I'm going to be pulling a couple of fast ones with the linking in the weeks ahead anyway.

Also starring Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Ann Blyth, Bruce Bennett, Butterfly McQueen (last seen in "Gone With the Wind").

RATING:  4 out of 10 singing lessons

Thursday, October 16, 2014

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Year 6, Day 288 - 10/15/14 - Movie #1,876

BEFORE: Bette Davis carries over for the last time, and I start a 3-night Joan Crawford chain at the same time.  This sort of reads like a creepy horror film, so perhaps it's a good precursor to what's coming up later in the month.

THE PLOT: A former child star torments her crippled sister in a decaying Hollywood mansion.

AFTER: In its own way, this seems like a precursor to "Misery", where one person keeps another one captive in a house, while simultaneously admiring them and also treating them like dirt.  But it's so much more personal when you add in the sibling rivalry - Jane feels beholden to Blanche, but also despises her talent and fame.  She can't bring herself to kill her, but neither can she let her leave the house.  She wants to keep her safe, but also wants to starve and torture her.  Psychologically, there's a lot going on here.  

It all goes back to when they were children, and Baby Jane was a hit on the vaudeville scene, a singing and dancing and piano-playing prodigy.  But when the women were in their twenties, they worked in Hollywood and Blanche was the more successful actress - the producers only hired the less screen-friendly Jane because Blanche's contract required it.  

I would suppose that there are a ton of actors and actresses who are not seen frequently these days - for every Joan Rivers or Mickey Rooney who kept working well into their 80's there are probably a dozen Hollywood legends who just dropped off the map - whether this was because the roles dried up or their faces did, it's not for me to say.  And then you have to wonder if they're all living quietly in suburbia somewhere, or in some kind of Hollywood nursing home.  

Then along comes a film like this that suggests that not everything is perfect in the life after stardom - some people get all withdrawn and bitter like Norma Desmond, and who knows what's going on in their modest-looking houses?  Still, I feel like this film maybe didn't take things far enough - so Blanche can't use the phone and has no contact with the outside world - things could be worse, right?  Jane seems awfully misguided, but I never got the sense that she was acting evil.  Deranged perhaps, but not malicious.  OK, maybe a little. 

Also starring Joan Crawford (last seen in "Love on the Run"), Victor Buono (last seen in "Robin and the 7 Hoods"), Wesley Addy, Maidie Norman, Robert Cornthwaite.

RATING: 5 out of 10 Keane paintings

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Catered Affair

Year 6, Day 287 - 10/14/14 - Movie #1,875

BEFORE: Another Bette Davis film - I've unconsciously put 4 of her films in chronological order, so it's like I'm watching her age a little more toward old lady-ness every night.  TCM was running this in a Borgnine marathon along with "Marty", and when I realized that I didn't have a copy of "Marty" (but had watched it in film school) this one came along for the ride - two movies per DVD whenever possible, to save space.

THE PLOT: At breakfast, Jane announces that she and Ralph are getting married the next week. All Jane and Ralph want is a small wedding with the immediate family and no reception.  However, at dinner that night all Ralph's parents talk about are the big weddings they gave their daughters and everything escalates.

AFTER: Another look at love and marriage in the past - though I've moved up to 1956 now, and this one comes with a pedigree, it's a Paddy Chayefsky story, and Gore Vidal wrote the screenplay.  There's a delineation between the classes here, as a woman from a lower-class family gets engaged to a man from an upper-class family.  But traditionally the bride's family is supposed to pay for the wedding, so what's going to happen?  

The bride's father is a NYC cab driver who's just about to get the chance to buy a retiring cabbie's medallion.  Without the medallion, he's forced to take shifts in other driver's cabs, like working the less-desired night shifts.  But with his own cab, he can work daylight hours and rent out his cab to others at night.  I think the NYC cab system still works this way, oddly enough.  I guess that's not too surprising, so many of New York's systems seem antiquated - it feels sometimes like the city works the way it works only because everyone thinks that's the only way it can work. 

He and his wife live in a cramped apartment with their adult son and daughter, along with the wife's brother, who sleeps on a day bed.  This is another sign of the times, children often lived with their parents until they were married, whereas today they're likely to get their own apartments, and then after a setback or two move back in with their parents anyway.  But hey, at least they tried.  

The intended bride and groom don't want a lot of fuss, just a quick ceremony with a priest and then an extended honeymoon out west, on a trip where they're delivering a friend's car.  But a feeling of financial inadequacy, coupled with the mother's belief that her daughter secretly wants a big catered affair (coupled with the fact that she herself never got one, and always regretted it) leads to plans for a large event with costs spiraling out of control.  

Still, it's funny to hear people talk about a wedding costing hundreds of dollars, and thinking that's extravagant.  Sure, those are 1956 dollars - I never really understood why the dollars of the past seemed to be worth more, did prices just keep going up because everyone is greedy, or did our currency just get devalued somehow over time?  But anyway, a few hundred dollars was a big deal back then - today a wedding can run thousands of dollars just for starters.  

The class struggle makes this all seem pretty clich├ęd, plus there's everything one might expect in a typical wedding story - the speed of the wedding forcing gossip about the young girl being pregnant, the inability of the matron of honor to afford her gown, invitation mix-ups, etc.  Watch any modern comedy about weddings and you'll probably see a lot of the same material covered.  Still, the conflicts feel real, and it's a mostly entertaining comic story with a sweet ending where love wins out.

Also starring Ernest Borgnine (last seen in "RED"), Debbie Reynolds (last seen in "Postcards From the Edge"), Barry Fitzgerald (last seen in "The Shame of Mary Boyle"), Rod Taylor (last seen in "The Birds"), Robert F. Simon, Madge Kennedy.

RATING: 6 out of 10 canasta hands

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Now, Voyager

Year 6, Day 286 - 10/13/14 - Movie #1,874

BEFORE: Bette Davis carries over from "Dark Victory".  It's weird for me because Bette Davis was old when I was young, so I've never really seen her as a young woman before.  It's a bit like seeing Angela Lansbury in "Gaslight", which was her first movie appearance, you can easily forget that someone who's been old for so long was once not so old. 

THE PLOT: Boston spinster blossoms under therapy and finds impossible romance.

AFTER: Just as there was a lot that science didn't know about cancer when they made "Dark Victory", I'm guessing that therapy, and feminism, have also come a long way since the days of "Now, Voyager".  Today it's a lot more accepted if a woman hasn't been married by the age of 30 - especially if she's been concentrating on her career.  But back in the 1940's, if a woman didn't have a ring by her mid-30's, she was labelled a "spinster", and she just might as well start wearing shawls and granny glasses and purchase a cemetery plot for one.  

Shy girls are shy girls, no matter the decade, but we wouldn't send a woman to an institution these days just because she wasn't having much luck in the romance department.  "Single" does not equal "crazy" the way it used to.  When you factor in the divorce rate, sometimes I wonder if the eternally single don't have the right idea in the long run anyway. 

Here Davis plays a sort of "late bloomer", or rather she bloomed when in her early 20's, and her overbearing mother nipped that in the bud.  She fell in love with a crewman on a cruise ship, and then doesn't get another chance at love until years later, when she takes another cruise.  Cruises are social places, but they represent an altered reality.  To me it's not surprising that she falls in love on a cruise, and then can't keep the same relationship going afterward - when you leave the ship, it's like going back to the real world. 

She gets engaged to another man, but that's sort of scuttled when she sees her love from the cruise again - and what he represents, I suppose.  But other events send her back to the sanitarium, where she just happens to befriend her cruise lover's daughter, seeing her as a kindred spirit.  The way to a man's heart is through his neglected, socially awkward daughter, I suppose.  What's surprising is that the psychiatrist who runs the institution allows this friendship to develop, even though he knows that she was once involved with the girl's father.  As I said, I think therapy has come a long way since - this is another thing that probably wouldn't fly today.

Also starring Paul Henreid (last seen in "Casablanca"), Claude Rains (last seen in "Notorious"), Gladys Cooper, Bonita Granville,  Mary Wickes (last seen in "Postcards From the Edge").

RATING: 5 out of 10 ivory boxes

Monday, October 13, 2014

Dark Victory

Year 6, Day 285 - 10/12/14 - Movie #1,873

BEFORE: The New York Comic-Con is over - I really didn't have any time to watch movies for the last 3 days, I barely had time to come home, shower and get some sleep before it was time to get up early and head out to another day at the Geek Show.  I was completely knackered on Sunday night, but still managed to get through this film without falling asleep too many times. 

Charles Boyer links to Bette Davis (last seen in "The Scapegoat") via "All This, and Heaven Too". 

THE PLOT: A young socialite is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and must decide whether she'll meet her final days with dignity.

AFTER: Eh, I'm just not impressed by this one.  Maybe I was just too tired.  Too depressing, too melodramatic.  I'm sure it happens from time to time, but I thought that doctors weren't supposed to fall in love with their patients.  From that point of view, it almost seems like a story cheat, making the doctor and the love interest the same character.  

I guess realizing that one's days are numbered can turn a person from a flighty socialite to a more down-to-earth wife sort, but that hardly seems like a gigantic revelation, just a mere change in character prompted by an outside event.  I suppose you could view this as an earlier version of something like "The Fault In Our Stars", but I haven't seen that yet, so I'm not inclined to.

Since this was made in a different time, there is a lot of on-screen smoking.  Since the main character gets cancer, it's worth noting that there were no warning labels on cigarettes in the U.S. until 1966.

Also starring George Brent, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Humphrey Bogart (last seen in "Casablanca"), Henry Travers (last seen in "Shadow of a Doubt"), Cora Witherspoon.

RATING:  4 out of 10 horse jumps