Dogtooth: midnight’s newest movie

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Christos Passalis (son), Mary Tsoni (younger sister), Christos Stergioglou (father), Aggeliki Papoulia (older sister), Yorgos Lanthimos (director)

[I sent some of these thoughts to an esteemed colleague and close associate to see if he wanted to engage in some sparkling repartee on the subject, but he said he needs to watch it again, and also expressed some skepticism about my very premise that Dogtooth is going to be discussed by people like us a decade from now. Nonetheless, here’s my response to some guy who was wrong on a podcast somewhere.]

It’s been interesting to watch Dogtooth gradually attain cult-film status, hasn’t it? This is a film I saw at the 2009 Three Rivers Film Festival and deemed unique and fascinating, but not much more significant than the Greek film from two years previous, Pink [a dreamy story about an artistic youth in his 20s and his friendship with a young girl, starring its director Alexandros Voulgaris, who we see in one Dogtooth scene as the bored dog trainer]. A year later every amateur critic had an opinion about it, the Flashdance-inspired dance sequence had been used for any number of YouTube mashups, and it was the most peculiar Foreign Film Oscar nominee … ever? Since Antonia’s Line in 1996? Maybe since The White Ribbon last year — that category is not as formulaic as it was.

So, my favorite mainstream-nerd-type podcasts are recommending Dogtooth to their listeners, which is good since it’s better as a shared experience than as something you watch by yourself and go to bed satisfied. I hope it’s now required watching for pretentious members of the Pitt class of 2014, like Battle Royale was for us. But often these recommendations are painting the movie as some sort of harrowing exercise in audience torture. Particularly when someone didn’t get anything out of the movie, like one caller to Filmspotting, who can be paraphrased as saying  “I get it, it’s like Funny Games, it made me feel awful, it was supposed to make me feel awful. Congratulations, filmmaker, you made me feel awful, now what exactly was the point.” Or Roger Ebert, whose review concludes with this:

The message I took away was: God help children whose parents insanely demand unquestioning obedience to their deranged standards.

That’s not the message, Roger! It’s certainly not the only message. This of all films you could have expanded on in one of your speculative blog entries, instead of just recounting the plot as if you had watched it with no subtitles. Sometimes I’m embarrassed defending you against the effete and stuffy elitists.

Dogtooth is not just a movie about child abuse or cults. It’s about power but it’s more about control of information, and how that confers power. I thought it was more of an allegory for dictatorship than anything else. What the parents do, they do out of ideology. The father is afraid of his children being corrupted by the outside world, in much the same way the North Korean regime claims to view its people, according to The Cleanest Race. The father trusts nobody and yet he engages in weird compromises with the outside world that are inherently hypocritical, like letting that woman wander around the house unsupervised engaging in acts of commerce, and then claiming that her bringing VHS tapes to his children is an unthinkable betrayal. Obviously he’s unbalanced and destructive, but this doesn’t mean he’s likely to lose his power over others anytime soon.

There is an extreme portrayal of homeschooling here, if you presume that homeschooling is a phenomenon of people who can’t tolerate compromise to their ideology. The parents make the children dependent by spreading myths about dangerous animals and a hidden brother, and their lessons include intentional lies [using the wrong words for things] that have no other effect but to make the children question everything they see in the real world as immediately incompatible with the very basis of their beliefs. This could be compared to an insular religious community, but I tend to think those communities don’t consciously mislead and handicap their children. It’s really more comparable to state-driven propaganda that shifts as the political situation shifts. The world in which the parental authorities decide what a word means, and flatly change that definition once the children get close to appreciating reality, is clearly a microcosm of the world of 1984.

In general I think the film is definitely disturbing, but its disturbingness is more comparable to Brazil than Funny Games or Salo. Nobody in Dogtooth gets any enjoyment from cruelty. And there’s no attempt to implicate the audience in the cruelty. I haven’t seen Salo, I understand it’s a political power allegory as well, but as I understand it, the victims are basically made to perform for the decadent amusement of the villains. As for Funny Games, the idea that Dogtooth is an attempt to make the audience feel bad is way off-base. Haneke is so minimal in his assessment of his own films’ significance that I don’t think he’ll be offended if I say that unlike Dogtooth, Funny Games does in fact have exactly one point, which is that the audience should consider feeling bad for wanting to see people brutally victimized. There’s no audience figure in Dogtooth, and it bears no resemblance to Haneke’s “enact the tropes of a genre you despise, to show how formulaic and worthless they are” approach. It’s more about unpredictability and world-building. Yes, there are protracted scenes of extreme awkwardness, but there’s a lot more scenes that are interesting because their significance is not immediately clear.

What do you think about what Dogtooth is about? Is it in the “grueling endurance test for the audience” category? I don’t think so. Every scene is short. Every scene suggests or resolves a little mystery. It doesn’t force you to look at protracted suffering like Dogville or Bad Guy or  even something like Old Boy.There’s a jumble of ideas it wants to give you. One can easily poke holes in the world-building and point out character inconsistencies. Andy Horbal:

I do not believe that each character represents something, and this is part of what I will tentatively call a “lack of rigor” that is one of the reasons the film does not appeal to me. Another for instance: after years of being given incorrect information about what words mean, shouldn’t these children be speaking a completely garbled and unintelligible language all their own by now?

The lack of rigor is something that Bunuel or especially Lars von Trier can often be accused of.  Do they contradict themself? Very well, they contradict themself. It’s a combination of story-telling and mood-evoking. The films are conversation pieces, something you can have a disagreement about.

In Dogtooth I also don’t think each character represents something [albeit I don’t remember which daughter did what]. The son is — I’m impressed that he wasn’t being brought up in some sort of Spartan military way, he was quite similar to the daughters in personality and body type. With the mother — clearly there we have the culpability of silence. She says little but she never disagrees with the father in public. She could end this by getting the law involved, and probably would take little punishment, but she backs the status quo. Why? It’s not too late to change things, the daughter who gets into the trunk of the car knows that. The mother may make no statements in support of the regime’s policies, but her actions make it clear what side she’s on.

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Where’d he get that J?

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Inspired by the Bulls-Pacers series that features A.J. Price, C.J. Watson, and T.J. Ford, I looked at the last 30 years of NBA players who use the ?.J. style of moniker. Is it more often an abbreviation of the first and middle names, or the first name followed by a “Junior”? Or just a nickname, like B.J. Upton?*

First name + Junior:

  • B.J. Armstrong [Benjamin Roy, Jr.]
  • C.J. Miles [Calvin Andre, Jr.]
  • C.J. Watson [Charles Akeem, Jr.]
  • D.J. Augustin [Darryl Gerard, Jr.]
  • D.J. Strawberry [Darryl Eugene, Jr.]
  • D.J. White [Dewayne, Jr.]
  • J.J. Hickson [James Edward, Jr.]

Initials:

  • A.J. Bramlett [Aaron Jordan]
  • A.J. English [Albert Jay]
  • A.J. Guyton [Arthur James]
  • A.J. Price [Anthony Jordan]
  • B.J. Tyler [Brandon Joel]
  • O.J. Mayo [Ovinton J’Anthony]
  • T.J. Ford [Terrance Jerod]

Nickname:

  • J.J. Anderson [Mitchell Keith Anderson]
    [resemblance to Jimmy “J.J. Walker]
  • J.J. Redick [Jonathan Clay Redick]
    [reduplicative sibling mispronunciation]
  • P.J. Brown [Collier Brown, Jr.]
    [from “peanut butter and jelly”?]
  • P.J. Tucker [Anthony Leon Tucker, Jr.]
    [from “Pops junior”]

It’s a damn mystery:

* [stay tuned for corresponding results from the world of baseball]

Two more with Terry Moore

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Beneath the 12-Mile Reef [Robert D. Webb, 1953]

The more I think about Beneath the 12-Mile Reef the better it seems. This may be because the overacting is tiring to watch, but leads to warm memories later. The third movie shot in Cinemascope, it simply looks great. Filmed on location, the setting is convincing [though the characters aren’t], and the scenes onboard the boats convey a good geography: home versus far away versus not so far away, open ocean versus inlets, it’s pretty immersive. There are quite long sequences filmed underwater that use the novel wide-screen technology to its fullest, though these don’t take up much of the running time. Edward Cronjager’s seventh and final Oscar nomation was for Beneath‘s cinematography. Here’s an interesting trailer for the film — you’ll note that it’s basically a trailer for Cinemascope.

This is a story about Greek sponge-divers in Tarpon Springs, Florida, and their rivalry with non-diving WASP sponge fishermen [called “the Englishmen” once, and “the Conches” thereafter] in the Florida Keys. If these topics are as foreign to you as they were to me a week ago, this bit of history is a good introduction. How much did this rivalry existed in real life? The two areas are over 200 miles apart.

An obvious response here is to wonder why this groundbreaking technology was employed for an on-location blockbuster about Greek sponge-divers. It’s not based on a novel. Was there a Life magazine article about Greek sponge-divers that had recently captured the nation’s interest? Greek-Armenian-American screenwriter A.I. Bezzarides [Kiss Me DeadlyThey Drive By Night] certainly was not basing it on his own formative years in the orchards of Northern California. Obviously making your characters Greek indicated that they were emotional, spontaneous, lived life to the fullest and so forth. The WASP family, led by Richard Boone, are pretty emotional themselves, but not devil-may-care like our heros. From an interview with Cineaste editor and modern Greek culture expert Dan Georgiadis:

From the 1930s-1950s well over half the Greek American characters are professional gamblers. There is also a theme of Greeks as wrestlers. Broadly, there are many more male characters than female, and the female characters are almost all stereotypical mothers or sisters. From the mid-1950s onward, there begin to be more and more Greek professionals such as attorneys and architects.The first Greek professional identified so far is from a film of the late 1960s…Also there is a kind of minor genre featuring sponge divers of Florida.

To my amazement, there is indeed a minor genre featuring sponge divers, including Greek and Greek-set movies, and others about the Florida gulf coast [Harbor of Missing Men, 16 Fathoms Deep, and at least one “Flipper” episode]. Beneath the 12-Mile Reef certainly limits its female characters to stereotypical mothers and sisters [the father addresses his wife as “wife”, that sort of thing]. The male characters are diverse in their accents if not in their personalities. Future TV star Robert Wagner is cocky young Tony who sounds like any other American. As his father Mike, Mexican-born Gilbert Roland plays Big Chief Red Indian. The ovoid moneylender [Jacques Aubuchon] sounds like Shylock. And as for Uncle Soak [Socrates], the vocal resemblance to Speedy Gonzales is enhanced by his lack of height. I looked up Irish-American actor J. Carrol Naish to see if he specialized in the Speedy Gonzales thing. His roles include “Chico” and “Papa Rico Molina”, but also “Rabbi Arnold Fishel”, “Dr. Igor Markoff”, “Signor Michel O’Sullivan”, Charlie Chan, about a dozen Native Americans, and five years as star of CBS radio’s Life with Luigi, in which he sounds like any other Italian stereotype.

A promotional shot of Robert Wagner for this movie. I swear, it's not a musical.

The opening credits are scored by an overbearing Bernard Herrmann soundtrack including some of the most forceful harp glissandos ever recorded. The music is fun, using weird themes for the underwater scenes including a terrifying trombone for the terrifying octopus. Some might say there’s too much music, like when Uncle Soak is telling everyone to be quiet as a mouse [“every word like bullet!”] as the soundtrack almost drowns him out. More than once I was shocked when the characters didn’t burst into song. Possibly because Robert Wagner looks like a professional dancer straight off the set of West Side Story, and possibly because of the enthusiastic-Greek gesticulating and leaping around. Maybe the startling physical chemistry between Wagner and Terry “Hollywood’s Sexy Tomboy” Moore would be…let’s say, classier…if their flirtation was in the form of song lyrics rather than dialogue. It certainly would make their initial courtship less ridiculous [she runs away from her family with a guy who has a sustained and violent grudge against all of them, literally two minutes after meeting him] if it were in a musical, where everything is heightened and stylized.

Terry Moore’s character is named “Gwyneth Rhys”. She shows the romantic impulsiveness of her Welsh mythic predecessor Blodeuwedd in turning against the all-male family that has dominated her life. I think it’s an intentional Romeo-Juliet parallel that she seems particularly juvenile here, always with either a huge smile or a huge look of concern. Tony seems like the older and experienced guy who sweeps her off her feet, outshining her boring, even-older presumed fiance Arnold Dix [Peter Graves]. Terry Moore was born in 1929, Robert Wagner in 1930, and Graves in 1926, so the dynamic is a bit weird. Richard Boone’s father figure is written very well as he seeks to pacify this situation and the feud with the whole Greek family.

Not only is that Terry Moore, it's her character from "Beneath the 12-Mile Reef".

So, yes, Peter Graves. That’s the only name I recognized from the cast. He’s introduced as if he’s the hero. He’s trying to get her to marry him, she loves him as a brother, he’s boring. His jealousy after she meets Tony leads to violence. Thinking about his character, I think it’s one that would be extremely hard for actors to play nowadays. Arnold is prejudiced against Greeks, as is the Rhys family with whom he spends all his time. He’s the villain. But his racism, even though he directs it toward the hero, is not one of his character flaws [those would be jealousy and short temper].

The whole family thrives within a racist system. The Greeks can dive for sponges in the dangerous waters near Tarpon Springs and Tampa Bay, including the eponymous reef. The Anglos use hook-boats to find sponges more easily in shallow waters [“the glades” here]. Sometimes the Greeks get desperate and fish in the glades, and are met with violent reprisals, death threats, and the theft of their catch, delivered from smiling faces who aren’t so much bullying as restoring order. Arnold has respect for Greeks in theory, he allots them a place in society, but when they aspire to his place in society, he can’t believe what he’s seeing. And then, only after he thinks other people see him as weak, does he respond with violence.

58 years later, and 44 years after In the Heat of the Night, isn’t it rare to see a depiction of a racist character where the very fact of his racism doesn’t mark him as some sort of sociopath?

Come Back, Little Sheba [Daniel Mann, 1952]

I think this is more a staged tableau representing the movie than an actual still from the movie.

The inveterate TCM viewer and DVR recorder will have often seen films in the listings of the sort that would not be appealing on the basis of its stars and story, but becomes intriguing on the basis of being adapted from a prize-winning stage play. “At least there’ll be good dialogue”, you think. Then you start watching, and the arms of sleep beckon when it turns out to all be set in three rooms, and contain 25-minute scenes of people in armchairs talking, and be filmed in uninspiring black-and-white because filming in color would signify lack of maturity. Or it may be a naturalistic story that comes across super-depressing on film — enjoyable on stage because you can take breaks and suspend your belief by noting that these are clearly actors and this is clearly a set, but hard to take in what looks like a real house in a real town.

Come Back, Little Sheba is one of those adaptations, adapted extremely well. The b&w is shiny and crisp and the camera angles are well-chosen, which I wouldn’t say about Long Day’s Journey Into Night or The Male Animal. Warren Low’s editing was Oscar-nominated, when that category was less dominated by epics and thrillers. It has a variety of moods. And having heard Robert Osborne discuss how the original plan was to have Sidney Blackmer reprise his Broadway performance as Doc but get a well-known actress to play Lola [the opposite was done, when no suitable female star was found], I could spend the film wondering what it would be like without Shirley Booth’s iconic mannerisms and Burt Lancaster’s anti-theatrical underplaying.

Adapted faithfully from William Inge’s play, the story is more about dramatizing concepts than suspense or character arc. It follows turning points in a couple lives, but past and future events are just as important, and nobody has a metamorphosis during the couple months we see them. It’s about nostalgia, and voyeurism, and temptation, and addiction. Characters learn about characters. We learn about them. There are two inevitable confrontations. That’s the story.

In 1952 Terry Moore was no longer typecast as the pal of dumb beasts like the horse in The Return of October, the squirrel in The Great Rupert, the giant ape in Mighty Joe Young, and the orange-picking magician in He’s a Cockeyed Wonderbut at 23 and 5’2″ she wasn’t yet being cast as grown women.

"Sure! What's more interesting than nature? And especially our own bodies. And speaking of bodies, there's my friend Turk."

Her character is not that different from Gwyneth Rhys. A chipper young woman, who can maintain a huge smile throughout long conversations, she is beloved by her elders, pursued by two gorgeous men, and unable to think of a reason why she shouldn’t be the girlfriend of both of them. In Beneath the two guys had similar approaches to life – each working hard and standing up for his family against its rival, despite one being a hot-blooded fun-lover and the other being a stoic glowerer. In Come Back, Little Sheba college student Marie has the typical dilemma of long-distance relationship and planning for the future [with a guy named Bruce whom we barely see] versus a fling with charismatic athlete Turk [Richard Jaeckel]. Robert Wagner’s character was always trying to kiss Gwyneth, but he was about as sexually sophisticated as Max Fischer. Turk has literally one thing on his mind, and Jaeckel is very convincing as a young creature of entitlement. Their carefree coeducational college setting foreshadows the concept of the “teenager” that would arise in the mid-fifties.

However, the main setting is Doc and Lola’s house, where Marie rents a room. As Lola, the personification of the word “dowdy”, Shirley Booth seems instantly familiar to me, probably because Estelle Costanza is a parody of her persona [George even says in The Subway that he used to liken his mother to Hazel]. The actress gives Lola a sing-song form of friendliness which implies that she wants other people to truly be happy but she can only pretend to be happy. Somehow she combines a mischievous smile with a total lack of self-esteem. Doc, played by a pale, sunken-eyed, furrow-browed, though barely greying, Burt Lancaster, is accustomed to this passive-aggressive atmosphere, and tries to overcome alcoholism by immersing himself in the satisfaction of routine, then responds to that routine by regretting past choices, since everything he has is less than what he could have had. He says “Alcoholics are mostly disappointed men.”

The healthier and more realistic he gets, the angrier he gets at himself and Lola. She channels her frustration into the harmless search for the titular lost dog rather than talking about things close to home. This flatters her into sort of a saint, but one who’s lost touch with reality. Meanwhile we realize from the start that Doc has gotten the wrong idea of who Marie is, hoping something ideal has arrived in his world to balance it out, and we wait with apprehension for how he reacts to her being a normal person.

The Marie plot is destined for a conventional happy ending, and we hope Doc’s stability resumes when she leaves his house.

  • Lola: I’m pooped.
  • Doc: Honey, don’t use that word. It sounds vulgar.
  • Lola: Well, I hear Marie say it all the time. I thought it was kinda cute.
  • Doc: You don’t hear Marie saying it. Her language is refined.
  • Lola: Well, Turk then. Somebody! [giggles]

In Hollywood, if I might make a ludicrous analogy for a paragraph or two, The Lost Weekend [Billy Wilder, 1945] was to alcoholism what Brokeback Mountain [Ang Lee, 2005] was to homosexuality. It takes a topic that has been covered many times before in a superficial way, and treats it with as much sincerity as humanly possible, being richly rewarded for the effort. And to us in the audience, it’s the signal that when we see even what might be a stereotypical depiction of a drunkard, we aren’t expected to react with laughter or pity. Nuance is now permitted w.r.t. this inflammatory subject matter!

I don’t know about the theater, but it seems relevant that Eugene O’Neill waited until very late in his career to use his wealth of drug and alcohol life experience as material for drama, and didn’t allow any such plays to be performed until The Iceman Cometh in 1946. The plays Come Back, Little Sheba and Clifford Odets’s The Country Girl both date from 1950. In 1954 you have the film of The Country Girl with Bing Crosby, and Lillian Roth’s massively successful memoir I’ll Cry Tomorrow which shortly became a Susan Hayward movie that introduced harshly realistic alcoholism to the show-business rise-and-fall biopic. Then in 1958 was Days of Wine and Roses, the teleplay that was adapted into another acclaimed film in 1962.

One thing Come Back, Little Sheba has in common with Days of Wine and Roses is the valorization of Alcoholics Anonymous. We see AA as a force more reliable than willpower in saving drunks from their impulses, by providing salt-of-the earth friends for the male lead to rely on [Jack Klugman in DWR; Philip Ober and Edwin Max in CBLS] and by giving him an outlet to help other people. Doc only seems motivated when he’s going out at night with Elmo and Ed to the hospital to assist an AA newcomer. He has a new identity as a volunteer.

Sixty years later, we’re always seeing movie and TV characters go to meetings of twelve-step programs, those unusual social forces that combine bureaucratic rigor with intense human encounters and the seemingly anti-modern idea of accepting one’s limitations. It’s shorthand for telling us a character has a problem, she knows she has a problem, and the tension is whether she can control that problem. But we rarely get as full a picture of how daily life is shaped by AA principles.

"They gave me a part in a thing called Beneath the 12 Mile Reef. They said I’d play with Terry Moore, and I liked that fine. So they made me her father.”

Dude, where’s my bibliography?

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  1. Greven D [2002]. Dude, where’s my gender?: Contemporary teen comedies and new forms of masculinity. Cineaste 27[3]: 14.
  2. Welsh JM [2002]. Classic demolition: Why Shakespeare is not exactly “our contemporary”, or, “Dude, where’s my hankie?” Literature / Film Quarterly 30: 223.
  3. Halberstam J [2003]. Dude, where’s my gender? or, Is there life on Uranus? GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 10[2]: 308.
  4. Ablin RL, P Kinshella [2004]. Dude, where’s my pipe? Accelerated corrosion rate threatens Phoenix sewers. American Society of Civil Engineers Conference Proceedings 146: 81.
  5. Barreto MA, L DeSipio [2004]. Dude, where’s my district? The electoral consequences of the gain and loss of Latino representation in Los Angeles. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, 2004.
  6. Daasch R, M Rehani [2004]. Dude! Where’s my data? Cracking open the hermetically sealed tester. In proceedings of International Test Conference, 2004.
  7. Brennan L [2005]. Dude! Where’s my paradigm? Creating conversations when you don’t see eye to eye. Paper presented at the Australian Technology Network of Universities (ATN) Research on Research and Early Career Researcher Development Conferences, 2005.
  8. Cutler S, P McCourt [2005]. Dude, where’s my phenotype? Dealing with redundancy in signaling networks. Plant Physiology 138: 558.
  9. Isla D [2005]. Dude, where’s my warthog? From pathfinding to general spatial competence. In proceedings of AIIDE Conference, 2005.
  10. Friedman M, L Garnett, M Pinnock [2005]. Dude, where’s my outcomes? Partnership working and outcome-based accountability in the UK. In Safeguarding and Promoting the Well-Being of Children, Families and Communities. Scott, J., Ward, H. [eds]. Jessica Kingsley [London]: 245.
  11. Banerjee A, A Mitra, M Faloutsos [2006]. Dude, where’s my peer? In proceedings of Globecom 2006, ISET.
  12. Abhyankar SM [2007]. Dude, where’s my wine? The potential effect of Granholm v. Heald on Georgia direct wine shipment regulations. Georgia State University Law Review23[3]: 631.
  13. Brown C [2007]. Dude, where’s my black studies department? The disappearance of black Americans from our universities. North Atlantic Books [Berkeley, CA].
  14. Considine M [2007]. Dude, where’s my training? The education of media teachers. Screen Education 39: 110.
  15. Eathington L, D Swenson [2007]. Dude, where’s my corn? Constraints on the location of ethanol production in the corn belt. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Southern Regional Science Association, 2007.
  16. Hayes D, S McKee [2007]. Dude, where’s my incumbent? Voter rolloff and the information costs of redistricting. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the State Politics and Policy Conference, 2007.
  17. Buhaug H [2010]. Dude, where’s my conflict? LSG, relative strength, and the location of civil war. Conflict Management and Peace Science 27[2]: 107.
  18. Cheung F [2010]. Tooth development: Dude, where’s my CaR? Nature China doi:10.1038/nchina.2010.47
  19. Gill P, Y Ganjali, B Wong, D Lie [2010]. Dude, where’s that IP? Circumventing measurement-based IP geolocation. In proceedings of the 19th USENIX Security Symposium, 2010.

Starring Victor McLaglen and Marjorie Woodworth

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An actor I’ve never heard of, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a film I’ve never heard of? Can such a man exist? Yes — Warner Baxter for In Old Arizona [Irving Cummings, 1929]; George Arliss for Disraeli [Alfred E. Green, 1930], and José Ferrer [the unloved and now public-domain 1950 Cyrano de Bergerac]. Before I achieved access to TCM in July 2008, the list included, at the very least, Cliff Robertson, Paul Lukas, and Victor McLaglen.

When I recorded The Informer [John Ford, 1935], all I knew was it starred the big galoot from Broadway Limited [McLaglen] and was about the Irish Republican Army of 1922. When the film started, its milieu of expressionist lighting, dystopian levels of fog, and tense overwrought women seemed familiar. When it was over, I looked it up and realized it was the subject of one of the best Self-Styled Siren pieces, done for the great John Ford blogathon of aught seven. Here’s another appreciation by Blake Lucas. What more can be said?

Well, there’s the music. The first 10 minutes of are virtually wordless, and you get accustomed to following Gypo Nolan’s wanderings accompanied only by Max Steiner‘s music and the occasional exclamation. From the opening credits, which summarize each stage of the plot using a silhouette with Gypo’s trademark hat alignment, the score is fantastic. The Informer has some nice turns of phrase, like when Gypo’s sidekick is leading him around to spend all his money — but like some of Steiner’s music for King Kong [1933], it makes you wish there’d been a period when feature films were distributed without audible actors, but with specially-composed soundtracks. Is there a version of Alexander Nevsky available with just Prokofiev’s score?

Early sound films like M [1931] and The Man Who Knew Too Much [1934] have long stretches of silence that just seem unnatural [to me anyway, eighty years later] in something that’s intended as a gripping tale of suspense and roiling emotions. If only Albert Glasser could have taken trips back in time to score all these classics instead of War of the Colossal Beast and Port Sinister.

Max Steiner in the New York Times [thank you Jim Lochner]:

[E]very character should have a theme. In The Informer we used a theme to identify Victor McLaglen. A blind man could have sat in a theater and known when Gypo was on the screen.”

Katie (Margot Grahame) and Mulligan (Donald Meek)

I note that a piece praising The Informer tends to be phrased as “redeeming” it, or acknowledge that “few will defend” it. Is this because of the maudlin ending? Gypo Nolan isn’t just “tired and emotional”, he’s actually tired, and emotional, and so is everyone he meets. He’s been kicked out of his resistance chapter for making some dumb mistake, he can’t get a job, he’s spent a crazy night being reminded that people would go from scorning him to loving him if he had money. I think McLaglen’s performance is excellent. Rarely do you see a character who’s basically drunk throughout a movie, and gives so many shades to the drunkenness depending on who else is in the scene and what they think of him.

Maybe the film’s grab-bag of Irish accents make it hard to take seriously. As the ruthless but fair IRA commandant, Preston Foster looks and sounds like he’s telling Philip Marlowe to stop interfering in police business. As his vicious henchman, Joe Sawyer looks and sounds like one of Rico Bandello‘s sidekicks. Everyone else sounds fine. Every character, large or small, is distinct. Impressive for a story that follows one man’s rise and fall in the terms of a classical tragedy, over the course of about 9 hours of his life.

The Informer marks the first time since The Scarlet Pimpernel four months earlier that my wife has seen me watching a 70-year-old movie, sat down next to me, and been captivated throughout. Our only complaint was about the bathetic romance between Preston Foster and Heather Angel. And if we presume that that needed to be part of the story, it wouldn’t be possible to downplay it any more than Ford did.

In the long era between The Informer and his resurgence in much later Ford movies like Rio Grande, McLaglen served as a character actor [that character being “William Bendix with a mean streak”] in Broadway Limited [Gordon Douglas, 1941]. He threatens people, he shows the boxer’s dexterity by building a house of toothpicks, he easily makes people like him or fear him, and he reaches 100% lovable-lug status when he starts getting taunted by children and he realizes his trivial kidnapping foible might get him 177 years in prison.

Broadway Limited is about an unfulfilled Hollywood star taking a train to New York with her pretentious director who wears a monogrammed bathrobe, it’s a screwball farce with a bunch of funny supporting actors, and the confusing title is the name of the train that provides the setting. As such, it was taken by some nitpicking critics as an imitation of the great Twentieth Century, as described by the TCM.com article that is the internet’s only source of information about this film. The similarities are legion, but there are differences.

  • First of all, it should be obvious just from the title that Broadway Limited has nothing to do with Broadway. The train line is called “Broadway” because of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s broad right of way.
  • Second, the unfulfilled actress is totally different. Lily Garland [Carole Lombard] was a diva who couldn’t be reasoned with. Her personality provided most of the film’s conflict. April Tremaine [Marjorie Woodworth] is an average small-town girl who’s become glamorous and famous somehow, much as Hal Roach hoped would happen to Woodworth herself .
  • Third, there are comic character actresses. In Twentieth Century the funny people running around in the wake of the arrogant stars were all men [Roscoe Karns and Walter Connolly, plus the weirdos they encounter on the train]. Lily Garland’s assistant [would she have been an “assistant” back then? Maidservant?] was a cipher. The funniest person in Broadway Limited is Patsy Kelly as the all-purpose assistant to April Tremaine and Ivan Ivanski [Leonid Kinskey]. This is the only opportunity to see Kelly together with Zasu Pitts, the woman she replaced as Thelma Todd’s partner in Roach’s comedy shorts, and they have a fine rapport as the working-class no-crap-taker and the repressed movie buff. Dennis Cozzalio and Charles Stumpf have written nice appreciations of Patsy Kelly, who in 1941 would soon be blacklisted for a while for being too boisterous of a lesbian.

    "He's an old boyfriend of mine who works on the Pennsylvania Railroad. If he's not married or dead, he's a cinch to help us."

  • Fourth, we don’t see the actress or director acting or directing. It’s all set on the train and the audience is unlikely to care about these people’s efforts to get publicity for whatever they’re doing.
  • Fifth, the small man creeping around in this film is not a wealthy eccentric. He’s a person who seems to be a blackmailer, and basically provides all the movie’s tension by having McLaglen think he’s a blackmailer, and then [SPOILER ALERT] turns out to not be a blackmailer. I’ve seen some unsatisfying displays of deus ex machina, but that is one of the most infuriating twists in the history of happy endings. He actually threatened McLagen at one point, doesn’t he? I mean, why was he doing that? And who are those guys with him? Maybe he’s a wealthy eccentric too, who likes to toy with people. The Sir Guy Grand of 1941.
  • Sixth, in Twentieth Century the bland and naïve young fellow who wants Lily Garland to settle down was an arrogant Princeton man, while in this movie the bland and naïve young fellow who wants April Tremaine to settle down is her former high-school sweetheart, who says things like “But on a staff doctor’s salary?”. And she runs into him by chance while travelling with her director, instead of running into the director by chance while travelling with her sweetheart.
  • Seventh, the whole baby plot is idiotic. Or you could just say the plot is idiotic. A promising starlet suddenly has a baby? With no known father? This is a good publicity stunt? Publicity for what? And am I wrong to think Ivanski is being unrealistic by ordering that a baby be found, on the double, for this stunt, and then being horrified to see that the baby his assistant has managed to generate is a stolen baby?
  • Eighth… if you’re like me, you’ll think you’ve spotted a monumental continuity error when Zasu Pitts’s beauty mark disappears. Well, the movie is clever about that. The explanation makes no sense, but the very fact of an explanation made me laugh.
  • Finally — although Twentieth Century may contain thirty one-liners better than anything in this film — Broadway Limited matches its satire of theater people with a parody of radio people, in an extended spoof of Renfrew of the Mounted, a real show [sponsored by Wonder Bread!] that the Zasu Pitts character loves to an unholy extent. But before we get to our world-exclusive Renfrew parody transcript, a discussion of leading lady Marjorie Woodworth.

She starred in many Hal Roach films of less than an hour’s duration, and had supporting roles in a couple higher-profile features [Decoy, Salty O’Rourke]. This was her one starring role. According to TCM:

Hal Roach tried to launch a new star with his 1941 farce Broadway Limited only to discover what most of Hollywood already knew: Stars aren’t made, they’re born. But he still came up with a spirited comedy that provided a nice showcase for some of Hollywood’s best comic sidekicks. He even launched another Hollywood stalwart, though it wasn’t a human one.

The star Roach tried to create was Marjorie Woodworth, a blonde beauty he was grooming to become the next Jean Harlow.

Woodworth’s career never took off. The Times critic noted, “For the record, this film marks the emergence of the widely-heralded Miss Marjorie Woodworth as a leading lady. For the record only; no other reason.” Although praised for her figure, which was amply displayed in various degrees of undress, Woodworth did not make a strong impression on moviegoers.

Well, you know, that wasn’t her fault, you know. The movie is funny, but she’s like Allan Jones in A Night at the Opera. Other characters’ madcap mischief alternate with her wringing her hands in uncertainty or swooning in the boring arms of Dennis O’Keefe. That’s all she’s given to do! And every audience member is justified in wanting to skip past the bland romantic stuff to see more of McLaglen getting insulted by small children or Pitts falling out of bed. Maybe if she’d been in the real Twentieth Century instead of Carole Lombard, the diva’s narcissistic acting out would just seem like whining, but there’s no way of telling, based on this.

When you give your would-be star one of two non-funny roles in a big ensemble comedy, you may be saying “She rises above this base and coarse silliness”, but you also say “She is not capable of being funny”. She doesn’t seem funny, at least after the initial scene when she pleads, “I’ve done everything you wanted me to for two years. I’ve posed in bathing suits in the middle of December, I’ve ridden wild horses, I’ve collected Russian wolfhounds, and I’ve even been the sweetheart of the orange growers’ association. But I’m telling you right now, Ivan, I’m not going to have a baby!” Once the baby appears, she prevents the action from descending into the heedless craziness that would make us ignore our “baby in danger!” concerns.

So it’s bad that she grounds the movie in reality, that she’s the only person in it who seems perceptive and honest? Yes, because the film has a nonsensical baby-kidnapping plot. I don’t know if this was really an attempt to launch her as a star, because by now Hal Roach Studios had started making movies that were more ambitious than the usual slapstick, and one might think that the Next Jean Harlow would be put in something with aspirations to seriousness, or at least given ten different things to do like Joan Bennett in The Housekeeper’s Daughter. Or maybe her limitations became clear during filming.

  • [note: all characters speak in an emotionless monotone]
  • Melinda: It’s Renfrew. Oh, thank goodness.
  • Renfrew: You’re right. It is Renfrew. Stand where you are, Jack Dalton. And you’d better reach for the sky.
  • Dalton: No you don’t, Renfrew. I’ve been savin’ this .45 slug just for you.
  • [bang bang]
  • Melinda: [squeals] Oh, Renfrew, are you hurt?
  • Renfrew: It never touched me.
  • Melinda: Oh, Renfrew, darling, you saved me from a fate too horrible to think about. I don’t know how to reward you.
  • Renfrew: Ridding the country of a skunk like that is reward enough, Melinda.
  • Melinda: But surely —
  • Renfrew: That, and the soft light I see dancing in your eyes.
  • Melinda: Renfrew, darling. You may kiss me.
  • Announcer: Will Renfrew kiss Melinda? Listen at the same time tomorrow night, ladies and gentlemen, for the further adventures of Renfrew of the Mounted, presented each weekday everning by the makers of…
  • [radio shuts off, everyone gratefully returns to their conversations]

Based on Broadway Limited as well as Niagara Falls (Gordon Douglas, 1941), one of Hal Roach’s unique “Streamliners”, Marjorie Woodworth has a predominant mood and facial expression, and it’s not a spectacularly appealing one. She’s annoyed all the time. Now, there are limited roles for a “pretty girl” in the sort of comedy that we now associate with Warner Brothers cartoons. The funny girl is going to be a woman who looks a bit off-kilter. But the pretty girl — if she’s not the vamp who leads men astray, she’s likely to be the good girl whose life gets disrupted by the wackiness.

In Niagara Falls she’s the latter, and as such she’s frustrated and annoyed much of the time. This provides comic possibilities. But there’s no lightness to her tone, she doesn’t roll with the punches, she doesn’t look at other people much. She really makes it clear that she wants Tom Brown’s womanizing character to go away and she’s not going to play along. We follow these two mismatched non-lovebirds through a series of misunderstandings that coop them up in a honeymoon suite together. A busybody Oklahoma oilman threatens to plug Brown full of bullets if he doesn’t spend the entire night consummating his marriage, and eventually Woodworth gets the upper hand on Brown and changes her expression to a smile. At the end we leave this reverie and return to the suicide attempt.

From a Google image search, you can see a bunch of pinup shots and magazine ads Woodworth appeared in as a model. I’d say the closer they are to being film publicity stills, the more ill at ease she looks. There were successful starlets who looked awkward in photographs [Margaret Sullavan, Priscilla Lane, Jennifer Jones], but when acting, they looked animated. Not so much with Woodworth. It must be hard for a newcomer to fit in with an extensively drilled troupe of farceurs.

Niagara Falls can be watched for free at archive.org.

I thought about Marjorie Woodworth again when seeing Lucille Ball in Du Barry Was a Lady [Roy Del Ruth, 1943], an adaptation of Cole Porter’s musical without most of Cole Porter’s music. Ball was in several of MGM’s big-budget musicals, in roles that every starlet’s supposed to want — the inaccessible glamour girl who’s soon revealed to be the relatable good girl. I’ve never seen where the idea came from to make her the star of these movies, but her first one, Du Barry, was a success, so she was put in more of them. Du Barry is split into two parts that make it particularly clear what she’s good at and what she’s not good at. And yet what she’s not good at is what the studio kept having her do.

The first half is a madcap comedy in which she hardly has anything funny to say, as May Daly, star nightclub singer who’s forcing herself to seem like a mercenary gold-digger to get back at the guy she’s really in love with [Gene Kelly]. Lucille Ball as a self-loathing Sugarpuss O’Shea. What kind of casting is that? She was more appealing and interesting as the gritty girl detective in Lured. If the goal of this film were to make the audience fall in love with her, it would be a costly failure. Then you’ve got the second half, an extended dream in which Red Skelton imagines himself as XV, Lucille Ball as Madame du Barry, and Gene Kelly as a dashing anti-royalist agitator. Her humongous hairdo, and the nonstop puns and one-liners, turn this into the greatest sketch in Simpson Family Smile-Time Variety Hour history. Suddenly Ball comes to life, getting chased around on a trampoline bed and infiltrating a sans-culotte hangout. The dream sequence made up the bulk of the Broadway show; it takes up about 40% of the film, making Du Barry Was a Lady a plotless melange of entertainment, like Thousands Cheer.

In his first Technicolor starring role, Skelton is an intensely likable, overconfident Philip J. Fry type. Until he turns into Enjolras, Gene Kelly has nothing to do except play the piano and mope around being jealous and noble about May Daly’s principled refusal to entertain a non-rich man’s attentions. There are weird musical numbers: exactly at the halfway point is a multi-movement suite advertising Esquire pin-up calendars — and then there’s Virginia O’Brien applying her unique style to one of those pun-laden songs about hotties from history. There are plucky war references, like the hat-check guy who says they can’t find a girl to do his job because they’re all working in shipyards. But maybe the best reason to watch it is to see a young Zero Mostel, drawing on his nightclub comedy act as a swami who resembles Andy Kaufman. Like Bill Murray in Caddyshack, it’s hard to explain what he’s doing here, but who needs an explanation?

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