Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The 1930s: Negative prognoses, tyrannical sea captains and Bela Lugosi

On to the 1930s!

It was a relief to get out of the 1920s, three films of which I watched in September, but one thing that amazed me was how quickly filmmaking leaped forward to what we would consider a fairly modern incarnation of the form, so relatively soon after spoken dialogue was introduced to the medium.

But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. I have to explain what this post is first.

This is the fourth in a monthly series called Decades, in which I watch three films I haven't seen from a specified decade each month, then report on them at month's end. I'm concentrating on the decades between the 1920s and the 1970s, to help fill in my knowledge gaps among older films. Selecting randomly, I hit the 1970s in July, the 1960s in August, the 1920s in September and now, the 1930s in October. Which means only two decades left to take me up to the end of 2010.

But back to what I was saying ... what astonishes me is how fully developed some of these films are, for cinema seeming to be in its infancy as recently as ten years early. Now, I know that's not really true -- filmmakers in the 1920s were doing astonishingly sophisticated things. I think it's just that having dialogue cards on the screen held back the perception of what filmmakers were accomplishing, like if you had a super computer that you had to start with a foot pump. Well, no longer. In the 1930s, more or less modern cinema arrived.

Shall we get into the specifics?

Dark Victory (1939, Edmund Goulding). Watched: Wednesday, October 13th

I had seen Dark Victory on the library shelves a couple times before, and thought that the title sounded provocative. I imagined it to be some kind of war movie, or perhaps something to do with evil forces. I also knew it was one of the ten films nominated for best picture in the year (1939) the Academy cited as evidence of why ten nominees could work again, when they implemented ten nominees again in 2009. For the record, the others that year were Gone With the Wind, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Not a bad year indeed -- even with having seen relatively few movies that came out in the 1930s, I've still seen four of those.

And Dark Victory makes it an even half of the nominees from that year. However, I was really lucky to come across it. Having gone the first half of October without seeing my first movie from the 1930s, I was running dangerously close to my dad and his wife arriving to see the new baby just two days later, at which point I knew I wouldn't be able to watch anything for the following week. So I made a desperate lunchtime trip to a different branch of the library, not the one where I'd originally seen Dark Victory on the shelves. It just so happens that Dark Victory was the only movie from the 1930s that they had that I hadn't seen. At least there was one. It's rare and precious these days that I'm able to squeeze in movies that my wife is not also watching, so I didn't want to have to squeeze three movies from this decade into the last ten days of October.

Okay, enough about the logistics of watching the movie, and on to its substance. The movie was not about naval battles or necromancers, but rather, a young socialite (Bette Davis) who has a brain tumor. One of the primary characteristics of the tumor is how it affects her vision -- therefore, her attempts to beat cancer, or at least diminish its influence over her spirit, is considered to be her "victory over the dark" (as spoken in a line of dialogue). If this were Seinfeld, however, the movie would have almost certainly been called Prognosis Negative, as the various second opinions on Judith Traherne's health read ominously "PROGNOSIS NEGATIVE" at the bottom of the page. (Despite the cancer going into a temporary, symptom-free remission state.) In fact, one wonders if the Seinfeld writers weren't making a direct reference to Dark Victory in coming up with their fictitious film Prognosis Negative for the show.

It's a melodrama alright, but in the best sense of the word -- melodramas don't necessarily have to be melodramatic, if that follows. There seem to have been a number of disease movies from this period in which the heroine (it's always a woman, isn't it?) has a death bed scene in which the music swells and she raises the back of her hand to her forehead in a gesture of exaggerated angst. Except the difference here is that Davis is a really good actress, and though she has a scene that fills this function, she underplays it terrifically. She isn't always victorious over the dark, however, as this movie has some definite darkness to it -- times when she loses her will to live and acts out against the world in surprisingly reckless and boozy ways.

What I was really surprised by was the excellent cast. I don't know why I should have known that he was in this, but Humphrey Bogart plays what amounts to a supporting role with one big scene in a horse stable. His Irish accent goes in and out, but it was fun to see him. Even more fun to see was Ronald Reagan, our former president. I went through his film catalogue afterward and realized that this was the first time I had seen Reagan on anything other than my TV screen. His role is even smaller, but it was really fun to see him so young, and doing the thing that made him famous in the first place. I also like the male lead, George Brent, playing Judith's doctor, who falls in love with her. I probably should have been familiar with him, but wasn't.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, Frank Lloyd). Watched: Wednesday, October 27th

The second 1930s film I watched was not just a nominee, but an actual best picture winner. Oddly enough, Mutiny on the Bounty won just that single award, something that almost never happens. (I think it's happened another time but can't be bothered to look it up.) My wife and I had had a project of trying to catch up on the best picture winners we hadn't seen, but this was the first one in over a year, and since she'd already seen it, she didn't watch it with me. But I always like ticking a best picture winner off my list. I actually have a spreadsheet where I have a list of all the best picture winners, and put a check in the column next to the title each time I see another. I'm sure it surprises you not at all to know I have a list like this.

I probably should have seen Mutiny on the Bounty before now, considering how generally famous it is and how generally rousing I found it to be. I was glad to see that it stars Clark Gable, one of my favorite actors from this period. But I was perhaps more impressed by Charles Laughton as the nefarious William Bligh, who was surely one of the great film villains of the 1930s. As the captain of the titular vessel, Laughton is mercilessly domineering, unendingly petty and paunchy in a cowardly way. In other words, he's not impressive per se, but he is effective, even when at his most weaselly.

And the interesting thing about his character is that he also pulls off a feat that truly is impressive. When the crew, led by Gable's Fletcher Christian, finally stops tolerating his cruel and monstrous behavior, and performs the mutiny of the title, you'd expect the defeated captain to wither up and die. In fact, that's the most likely outcome for any person in his position, regardless of personal fortitude, as Christian basically gives him and a dozen or so followers a death sentence, leaving them in a boat with minimal food, 3500 miles from the nearest port. Yet Bligh somehow makes ten days' worth of water last a staggering 40 days, until land is finally spotted on the horizon. You could say that the thirst for vengeance alone kept him alive.

This passage with Bligh's survival at sea is cunning in the sense that it shows the movie's shades of gray. One would expect a lack of ambiguity in a tale of a righteous officer (Christian) and a malevolent tyrant (Bligh), but this passage shows Bligh's capacity for something like heroism, while back on board the boat, the victory of the mutiny seems decidedly hollow for Christian and his followers, especially since one other officer (Franchot Tone as Roger Byam) has been left on board despite disagreeing with the decision to mutiny. His undying allegiance to the chain of command comes to seem equally heroic to Christian's support of the abused men -- maybe even more so. It's shades of gray for sure.

One part of the film that really surprised me was the time spent in Tahiti. I expected the whole story to take place on the boat, and was prepared for that. A 15-minute stretch in the middle on the island of Tahiti, with beautiful native girls and the British navymen scampering in small bathing suits, was therefore something of a tonal shift. At first I wasn't sure what I thought of it, but in the end, decided that it worked for me. I was especially surprised to learn that this portion was actually shot in Tahiti. The production cost $2 million -- a staggering cost for 1935 -- but obviously paid off, as it is a grand adventure in every sense of the word, and a best picture winner.

Dracula (1931, Tod Browning). Watched: Friday, October 29th

I had hoped for this to be our Halloween night viewing, but my wife let it be known that that was pretty unlikely. So I moved it up by two days and allowed it to kick off Halloween weekend after she went to bed on Friday night.

Dracula seemed like as much of a must as anything on this list. Not only is it considered by many to be the consummate cinematic version of Bram Stoker's tale (I still like Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula best for that, just for the sumptuous production design), but it's the movie that made Bela Lugosi famous. And if I thought the fact that I had not previously seen a Ronald Reagan movie was bad, the fact that I hadn't seen anything starring Bela Lugosi made me feel like a real pretender for sure. (White Zombie, which also stars Lugosi, was a candidate to be viewed this month as well, but Dracula took the one available horror slot.) I have long been a fan of the Bauhaus song "Bela Lugosi's Dead," so I thought it was finally time to see Bela Lugosi when he was still alive.

But the name that may have attracted me most was director Tod Browning. I guess Browning directed a lot of monster movies, but the one I was most familiar with before now was Freaks, the controversial 1932 film in which actual "freaks" -- little people, a man without any arms and legs, and other circus attractions -- are used in the making of a horror in which these characters rise up and kill the normal people who taunt them. I saw this movie a couple years back and was amazed at what Browning was able to get away with, in an era that I previously assumed was characterized by a certain conventional morality in filmmaking. In truth, the 1930s in general were a lot more daring than some of the subsequent decades, when the standards became considerably more conservative.

Anyway, I knew Browning could bring a real weirdness to this movie, and indeed, he does. The opening of Dracula, when the action is set in Transylvania before moving to England, is by far the creepiest and most affecting passage. There's a deafening silence in the soundtrack that sets the mood of the film, as Renfield (the spooky Dwight Frye) visits Count Dracula to set up his real estate deal in England. (As a side note, that's not how the action occurs in Bram Stoker's Dracula -- it's Jonathan Harker who makes the visit to Transylvania that we see on screen, and I don't know which is actually more true to Stoker's source material.) The dark passageways leading up to Dracula's castle are foggy and mysterious, and it only gets worse inside the castle. And here's where I really saw Browning's touches, as you see close ups of scurrying insects inside the mouldering grounds, and then -- most effectively -- a couple armadillos walking around. Armadillos? Yes indeed, and they feel as unholy as anything you've ever seen on screen, so strange is their presence. Browning also uses an interesting technique to give Lugosi that otherworldly vampire quality, shining pricks of light on his intensely staring eyes to give him that indelible, iconic appearance.

The movie loses some of its steam in England, when (as my colleague at my website describes it in his review) the film "deteriorates into a drawing-room drama." Having Bram Stoker's Dracula as my reference point, I was expecting a lot more darkness and mystery to endure here. The mood is still there, but the action begins taking place in a lot of well-lit rooms and bed chambers, and there's a lot of standing around and talking. It's still the Dracula we know and love, but it just doesn't have the corporeal eeriness involved in the opening 20 minutes of this film. And that may be the best indication that this film was made only a few years after dialogue was introduced into filmmaking -- it's still basic in some important ways. However, the ways it's advanced, and represents outside-the-box thinking, are the more important takeaways from Browning's Dracula.

Okay, what's in store for November? We only have two decades left, the 1940s and 1950s. Excuse me for a moment as I draw randomly between them ...

The 1950s it is. Perhaps the most conventional decade of them all in terms of filmmaking? Here's hoping I can come up with something good. Hey, Hitchcock was working throughout this decade, so I'm sure I will.


Theis said...

I would recommend that you see the great movie "Edge of the city" (Martin Ritt, 1957) as part of your 1950s movies. It stars John Cassavetes and Sidney Potier.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks, Theis. Netflix has it, and I've just added it to my queue!