The Manichean in the Garden

Double-Star: Genesis
August 9, 2007, 2:59 pm
Filed under: Loy, Wm. Powell

I’ve been watching so many movies lately (an interlibrary loan bonanza + the Film Noir Boxed Set vol. 4 + today’s featured item) that I’ve had no time at all for writing about ‘em!

But there’s nothing like a good, healthy disagreement to draw me away from the television and onto the keyboard!

The source of the disagreement? This article, by the web’s greatest DVD-reviewer, Glenn Erickson. Specifically, I object to The Savant’s hasty dismissal of one of my favourite Powell-Loy vehicles– Double Wedding (1937)

Now, I can’t claim to be objective in these matters, I love every single film this pair made together… although, as a part-time Hammett scholar, I can tell you that the Thin Man series–yes, even the first one!–does a terrible disservice to the source-novel, a pitch-black comedy which summed up the author’s worldview so well that he never bothered to do anything of substance ever again… I get annoyed because most academics seem to mistake the film for the book, and they treat Hammett’s oeuvre as if it really ends with The Glass Key… but I can’t stay mad at Powell & Loy, and their Nick ad Nora ARE very pleasant, in their own way…

Anyway, I have no such reservations about Double Wedding! I consider it an absolutely key entry in the P & L series, and one of MGM’s best comedies of the mid-thirties. Yes, the film IS maddeningly formless. That’s one of its glories! All it gives us are two great stars (surrounded, of course, by some of the greatest character people of the era–slow-burn master Edgar “I Ain’t No Ape” Kennedy, Jessie Ralph, Barnett Parker, Sidney Toler, and my beloved Katharine Alexander), each playing at the furthest reaches of their respective comedic ranges (the better to exemplify the “opposities attract” concept which here substitutes for a plot), on a collision course! (with exemplary patsies John Beal and Florence Rice caught in the middle)

For me, the joy of this movie is the way it distills the Powell and Loy personae down to their essences… (which is why I find it so hard to believe that Savant thinks the movie is miscast!) Powell IS a debonair non-conformist/clown… Loy is THE incarnation of amiably mocking respectability (and she is amiable in this film–even at her most systematic) Yes, both of these actors could (and, usually, did) incorporate other, more complex elements into their portrayals. Star acting is variation upon a theme, but in Double Wedding we get the theme itself!

Can you picture anyone but Powell getting so much mileage out of the stuff with the gong? (”You mustn’t! It’s for the telephone”–I’ve been using that “you mustn’t”, in my best approximation of the slightly demented intonation Powell reads it with, whenever things aren’t going my way, for years now) And Loy gets almost as many opportunities to shine. Her deadpan recitation of Waldo Beaver’s family lineage nicely anticipates the dementedly overlong disquisition upon housepaint in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, and could not have been delivered by any other actress that I know of.

And it’s not as if the two stars are always doing their own respective things in a vacuum, apart from each other–their scenes in the trailer (especially the one that is punctuated by her question: “Do you take dope?”) are excellent, although it IS true that the sympatico banter which defines P & L in the public’s mind is completely absent from Double Wedding. They are not merely playfully adversarial in this film (as in the early scenes of Libeled Lady), but really, genuinely, philosophically at odds, each as yet untouched by the constellational bond which holds their wildly disparate personae together in every other film! But again, that’s why I love this movie–it shows us just how miraculous this teaming really is, by giving us a taste of what each star would be like, in her/his own orbit, and leaves the banter we know to play out in our imaginations after the credits roll.

good afternoon friends!



Hold Your Man (1933)
July 30, 2007, 3:07 pm
Filed under: Harlow, Sam Wood

So I’ve been snarfing up old VHS tapes (of films not available on DVD) through interlibrary loan… This weekend it was Fritz Lang’s incredibly underrated You and Me (which I hope to discuss here very soon) and MGM’s Hold Your Man (1933), directed by Sam Wood. As Mark noted in the comment threads a little while ago–very often, in the thirties and forties, the studios which gave their names to the era were the true auteurs of the movies they produced, distributed, and (as a general rule–with Universal and Columbia being the major exceptions) exhibited. That’s certainly the case with Hold Your Man, a textbook MGM star-vehicle.

This movie is not about anything–it’s an exercise in applied iconography. Which is not to say that nothing happens–on the contrary: everything happens! The classic stars were no vapid pinups–with very few exceptions, they excel in the peripatetic climate of melodrama, in the best tradition of the 19th century novel. Nor are these films concerned with “character development” (all of that stuff about “round characters” that your high school teacher filled your head with). A star vehicle reacquaints us with a dynamic personality that the storytellers assume we already know and love. Star acting (and exhibition) is not about “development”–it’s a journey into Whitmanian “multitudinousness”! For instance, when Gable bursts in on Harlow in her bathtub (a scene which almost certainly triggered memories of a similar meeting between these stars in the previous year’s even more impressive Red Dust–another film which Warner had better commit to DVD forthwith!)a few minutes into Hold Your Man, we are not meant to wonder “who is this woman?”, but rather, “hey! there’s the woman I came to see–how’s she gonna react to this situation?”(and which aspects of her persona will come to the fore?)

And Harlow has a lot to react to in this movie!

1. Gable’s softer-than-usual precode thug (these things are all relative–all Gable has to do, during this period, to qualify as comparatively “soft” is not threaten to hit any women), who begins inquiring about the possibility of a kiss the minute the police go off looking for him in another apartment… Here she busts Loos(e) with some great tough dialogue (“you try it and lay this iron on your pan” “suppose I wait until it cools?”, “then I won’t lay it, I’ll swing it”)

2. Stu Erwin’s “right guy”, who wants to “take her out of all this” (this being, as usual, a life in which Harlow’s source of income is “conjectural”)

3. Gable’s pal Slim (Capra-favourite bit-player Gary Owen–this just has to be the biggest part he ever had! usually he gets stuck painting names on office doors over and over or stands around wondering if the newlyweds are ducks), who wants him to use his new “moll” to clip an unsavoury laundryman, played by ace bastard Paul Hurst, who often finds himself knocked down by the boyfriend of the leading lady–sometimes he dies, sometimes he doesn’t–but he always deserves to!)

4. a women’s “reformatory”, which is populated by wonderful people like Sadie Cline (a “socialist, not a communist”), Lily Mae Crippen (another fine portrayal by Theresa Harris, of Baby Face fame–you know it’s an MGM film because none of the African-American players are credited! her career really declined during the Breen era), and Gypsy (an old rival for Gable’s attention that Harlow gets to punch a few times–not that this will stop them from having their moment of sisterhood! everyone loves Jean in this movie–and you really cannot blame them)…

5. and, finally, a reformed Gable (he even cries!), who gives Harlow a chance to “get out of the life” (and even to take the same escape route–to Cincinnati–that Erwine, still a “right guy”, had proposed!)

There are some very characteristic MGM touches in this film. The matrons are played by lovable people like Elizabeth Patterson–they’re stern, but, ultimately, they care. Not a sadist in the bunch–at Warners, there’d be at least one (actually, there might only be one non-sadist!) Everyone is redeemable (except, I suppose, for the lecherous Paul Hurst), and no one (except for Sadie the Red–who is treated surprisingly sympathetically, given that the film is directed by Sam Wood, future HUAC-supporter deluxe–although let’s not overstate the case–we’re supposed to like Sadie in spite of her “kooky” dialectical materialism, not because of it! And, like everyone else, she winds up pulling out all of the stops to help validate Harlow’s bourgeois desire to marry Gable…) questions the viability of the system which created the absurd economic situation they all find themselves in (and Wood gives us some pretty nice proto-neorealist shots of the squalid apartments these people occupy–although he also shows us that they do, with a domestic little effort, clean up quite nicely!)

The characters played by Harris and George Reed (as her father, Rev. Crippen) are real rarities in the MGM canon–and the moment when Gable begs the preacher to perform a clandestine marriage ceremony (after the African-American man had tellingly asked: “why don’t you get one of your own ministers?” this kind of interracial interaction was REALLY big stuff in 1933–one really wonders whether this film was cut to pieces in the South) is genuinely affecting (precisely because of the constraints we know the filmmakers were working under–even during the “pre-code” era)

And a word, before I go, about Sam Wood–whose entire career is a slap in the face to auteur theorists everywhere… I mean, this guy made tons of GREAT movies (from A Night at the Opera to Kings Row: sometimes I feel that I could write a daily blog about that one movie and never get tired–although I’m sure YOU probably would; from Our Town to The Devil and Miss Jones)–and almost none of them bear any discernible trace of his hard-right sensibilities… this guy was no faceless stooge–he definitely brought something to the films he made, but it’s not anything like a “directorial touch”–what he does is magnify the talents of the stars, writers, and technical personnel under his watch (compare Harlow in this film to the same actress in J. Walter Ruben’s–who?– pretty lame Riffraff). Hold Your Man is no exception–every element of the film is exponentially modified to the power of Wood!

gotta go!

see you soon friends!


July 26, 2007, 6:18 pm
Filed under: theory

Hi there!

My name is Dave, and I have a Studio Age Hollywood problem.

It’s not that I think that “things were better back then”–we all know they were worse! (this is the best of all possible worlds my friends–too bad it still sucks, hunh?)

So what do I love about these movies then, if it isn’t some nostalgia trip?

Well, I can’t really answer that, because I guess my obsession does have something to do with nostalgia (don’t ALL obsessions?) But what am I nostalgic for, if it isn’t the lost world these films claim to represent? That’s part of what I hope to figure out through the process of blogging my reactions to the classic films I watch–and discussing them with you!

I’ve been through this before (in a blog devoted mainly to the analysis of superhero comics), and it was rewarding indeed!

Right now, my guess is that it has something to do with the way these films tended to rely on sheer personality (i.e. the star system) to enthrall their massive audiences. Old Hollywood was more concerned with establishing “bankable” star personae than with telling individual, self-contained stories. In direct contrast to the modernist ideal of perfectly crafted “grecian urns”, the excitement of Studio Age films cannot be contained by intro- and end-credits–in a very real sense, every single studio product is in fact a “trailer” for the next one. Not old-fashioned at all, these movies actually constitute an experiment in postmodern “storytelling” avant la lettre

That’s my working hypothesis, anyway. We’ll see how I feel after a few hundred of these entries!

But wait a minute–what’s with the title, Dave? “The Manichean in the Garden”? Well, it’s a play on words, of course. A reference to Leo Marx’s influential American Studies classic, with the emphasis shifted away from the technology (although you’d have to be a fool to ignore the technological aspects of filmmaking–and believe me, I won’t!) and toward the real engine of most Hollywood genres (particularly of melodrama–and you’ll notice that I think more about people like Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Margaret Sullavan, Jennifer Jones, Mae Clarke, William Dieterle, John Stahl, Frank Borzage, etc than is good for me!)–i.e. the idea of good and evil… (not to mention the concepts of “innocence” and “possibility”–which I’ve carried forward from Marx, for whom the “Garden” meant the pastoral tradition)

It’s an idea that’s gone out of fashion, in intellectual circles. Which might be fine, except that, unfortunately, this means that the smart people have abandoned the Manichean thinking (and the splendid rhetorical opportunities this worldview affords) to asses like George W., and that’s no good. If there’s one thing I am nostalgic for, it’s for a time when no one (no matter where they found themselves on the political spectrum–and often they weren’t sure where they stood!) was ashamed to use the language of virtue and vice for maximum emotional effect–i.e. by putting that language (and the camera too!) into the mouths and eyes of performers concerned with a higher kind of “realism” than the superficial “methods” of the Strasbergs could possibly accommodate.

I don’t know a better way of summing up the appeal of Studio Age Film (at least for me!)

Okay! Enough theory! From now on, it’s just me, you, and the those wonderful movies in the dark!

good afternoon friends!