Title:Soak The Rich Director: Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur Country of Origin: USA Year: 1936 Screening format: 16mm on DVD Setting: home First viewing? yes
Produced, directed, and of course written by two of the finest screenwriters of the Studio era, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Walter Connolly plays an absurdly wealthy many (during the Depression, no less) convinced that Communists and FDR are out to get him. An irreverent look at just about every facet of American politics and higher education in the 1930s, like any good MacArthur and Hecht film, everyone is relentlessly skewered and pilloried through witty dialog and nearly absurdist irony. And everyone, from the FBI and the wealthy, to aspiring student radicals and a single rogue anarchist come across as complete fools. Soak The Rich proves that even in 1936, college students thought everyone who disagreed with them was Hitler (“We don’t wanna hear anything you have to say. Who does your father think he is? Hitler?!” is an actual line spoken in this film.) If Hecht and MacArthur could see us now…Well, for one thing, they would almost certainly make this film all over again (then they’d be run out of town because comedy is dead in Hollywood and Ben Hecht also happened to be an advocate for the Jewish State). As it stands, Soak The Rich is a film every modern politician and college student would likely consider hate speech and also gloriously funny (and would be even funnier if the lines were delivered quicker).
Title: Bugsy Malone Director: Alan Parker Country of Origin: USA / UK Year: 1976 Screening format: Streaming Setting: home First viewing? yes
A musical comedy about 1920s gangsters starring a cast of literal children. An interesting concept to say the least. Parker cleverly eschews the immensely disturbing image of children mowing each other down with Tommy guns by making the “Splurge Gun” (which fires whipped cream) the weapon of choice for these babyfaced racketeers. Performances from a very young Scott Baio and Taxi Driver era Jodie Foster are the obvious highlights of this juvenile production, though first (and last) timer Florrie Dugger handles the slang laden adult dialog admirably. While some of Paul Williams’ score plays true to the time period (namely the showgirl numbers taking place in Fat Sam’s Speakeasy – mostly), others veer more in the direction of the pop songs he was and is best known for (“Just An Old Fashioned Love Song”). Of the latter, the hypnotic softshoe rhythms of “Tomorrow” are a particular highlight. There’s a lot to love about the genuinely funny Bugsy Malone, from the remarkably mature performances from Baio and Foster, who are in a class of their own here, to the beautifully realistic looking pedal cars the characters “drive” around town. The only real complaint I have (one shared by the director) is the choice to dub the kids’ singing with adult singing voices. It’s blatantly obvious, looks beyond bizarre, and is puzzling to the point of distraction.
Title: Linnaisten Vihreä Kamari Director: Valentin Vaala Country of Origin: Finland Year: 1945 Screening format: DVD Setting: home First viewing? no
Linnaisten Vihreä Kamari is the anti-Vaala film in some ways. Vaala, who so often imbues his films with light (even the ones that take place at night, e.g. Ihmiset Suviyössä, are set in the summer when it is basically never dark), instead let’s the darkness play around a bit here.A little bit horror, a little bit romance, almost every bit gothic. What’s in a name? To the Littow family, quite a bit apparently, even though it may not even be there’s to begin with. Snooty relatives and con artists all vying for a piece of the action when it comes to the beautiful Littow girls and their even more beautiful inheritance. Regina Linnanheimo plays the perpetually heartbroken yet surprisingly understated elder sister Anna while Rauli Tuomi portrays the commoner-cum-nobleman architect. Vaala’s historical melodrama (based on a novel by Zachris Topelius) is, at times, dripping with so much “old dark house” atmosphere one half expects to find Catherine Morland reading by the fireside and yet the daytime scenes are lighthearted and playful. Linnaisten Vihreä Kamari can turn on a dime. And boy does it turn often. Every time one plot point seems to be tied up, a new one emerges. It’s the gift that keeps on giving—or the story that never ends—depending on your personal outlook on Finnish melodrama (I tend toward the former).
Title:L’Arbre, le maire, et la médiathèque Director: Eric Rohmer Country of Origin: France Year: 1993 Screening format: Blu-ray Setting: home First viewing? yes
Of the 16 Rohmer films I’ve seen so far, this is probably the closest he gets to a manifesto (Rohmer was a royalist and dedicated environmentalist who claimed to have never driven a car or ridden in a taxi). Ostensibly about a socialist small-town mayor determined to build a multidisciplinary library and cultural center encountering plenty of political snags along the way. In reality, the story is really only half of the film. About 30 minutes in the middle of the film all but abandon the plot entirely while a freelance journalist interviews villagers about farming and local economics and their entertainment habits before finally reaching local schoolteacher M. Rossignol (played by Rohmer veteran Fabrice Luchini) who gives probably the most memorable (and typically Rohmerian) speech in opposition to the proposed médiathèque of the film. Rohmer is really reaching for something beyond simple environmental conservation here. He’s looking for a conservation of “the old ways”, hence discussions of changes in farming techniques and the aesthetics of modern architecture and the ethics of erecting a new building in an old village. “Did it never occur to you to have a space that serves no purpose? That’s the problem with modern architecture, it’s too functional.
Title:Mieheke Director: Valentin Vaala Country of Origin: Finland Year: 1936 Screening format: DVD Setting: Home First viewing? yes
A little white lie spirals out of control. How many times have we heard that one before? It’s films like Mieheke, I suppose that lead to the inevitable comparison of Valentin Vaala with Ernst Lubitsch. It certainly isn’t the serious melodramas like Ihmiset Suviyösää, beautiful though they may be, that gave Vaala his reputation for “sophisticated urban comedy”. Mieheke gives Finland born, Michigan raised actress Tuulikki Paananen the first major role of her brief career (the most well-known in the US being Consuelo Contreras in Lewton’s The Leopard Man). Paananen plays a young woman who lies about being married in order to obtain a job as a secretary. When her employer insists on meeting her husband, she plucks one from the cafe across the street in the form of Tauno Palo. In true “sophisticated urban” fashion, the men are incorrigible philanderers and the women love to tease. In keeping with the Lubitsch tradition, there are even a handful of musical numbers. Tuulikki Paananen, in her first starring role, is an absolute delight as the waifish mastermind of this particular marriage plot. We also get to spend a few memorable minutes with a still quite young Regina Linnanheimo a few years before she would turn in a blistering performance in Teuvo Tulio’s Levoton Veri.
Title: The Clock Director: Vincente Minnelli Country of Origin: USA Year: 1945 Screening format: TV (TCM) Setting: Home First viewing? no
Could Vincente Minnelli’s whirlwind wartime romance The Clock have been made had it not been, well, wartime? In a sense, yes. Light speed romance movies had been made before (Lonesome: 1928) and since (Before Sunrise: 1995) with several others in between. But The Clock has a subtle lyricism about it that I don’t think can be found in similar films, and much of that is due to the wartime setting. Robert Walker is, after all, a soldier on leave, about to return to the front. As such, there is a cloud of potentially impending doom constantly hovering in the background. And, though characters rarely address it directly, they do live as though every moment is precious because there really may not be a future for them. It’s actually refreshing to see Judy Garland act without breaking into song at any point. And James Gleason is always a highlight of any film he appears in. But what is most remarkable about The Clock is the elegance with which the subject matter is treated. Minnelli never really resorts to melodrama or sappy romance, though the temptation must have been very real. The Clock is instead funny, romantic, suspenseful, heart-breaking and uplifting. It is genuinely sweet and unselfconscious and, like any whirlwind romance, over all too quickly.
Just about every year around Easter, TCM airs Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings. To me, it is essential viewing, not simply because DeMille epic grandeur (I mean, you’ve seen his Ten Commandments, right?) but for the sensitivity with which he relates the story.
I have no idea how many times they’ve tried to film the life of Christ. It’s a lot, I know that much. And while they each serve a purpose in their own way – Ray’s King of Kings (Technicolor), The Passion of the Christ (historically graphic violence), Monty Python’s Life of Brian (hysterical, heretical) – DeMille brings a poetic approach to the story that I can’t recall finding in any of the Jesus movies I’ve watched. Of course, I believe that all 155 minutes of King of Kings are worth watching, but on this particular point, the poetry of the image (DeMille’s film is silent, after all), there is one moment that perfectly captures my meaning.
The film opens with several accounts of Jesus and his miracles, people recounting to other people what the things they’ve heard about Jesus. “I have seen him heal the blind.” “’Tis said he can raise the dead.” It sounds great, but it sounds like little more than gossip and rumors. DeMille hasn’t even shown the audience what Jesus looks like. A crowd gathers outside a house. He’s in there, we’re told, but still no sight of him. Even now, Jesus is nothing but a story.
It is about ten minutes in that DeMille first introduces a young blind girl, groping her way through the crowd, desperately seeking Jesus, to no avail. Like her, we too are looking for Jesus while DeMille, obstinately, refuses to bring us to him. It is then that a formerly lame boy, Mark (yes, the Gospel writer), hears her cries, takes her hand, and promises to lead her to Jesus. Mark brings her to Mary who brings her to Jesus. And yet, we, the audience, have still never seen him. We know he’s there, but he is still hidden from view.
And the girl pleads with Jesus. “Lord, I have never seen the flowers nor the light. Will you open my eyes?” And the screen goes dark.
When a small shaft of light begins to break the darkness. Slowly, the light grows brighter as an image begins to emerge, at first faint, overexposed and out of focus, but growing stronger until it is revealed to be the face of Jesus.
This is a perfect illustration of what is so powerful about DeMille’s approach to the story of Christ. Our first glimpse of Jesus is not in a simple, documentarian manner. There is no “hey, that’s Jesus, by the way” moment like there is for the introduction of every other character in film. We are not introduced to Jesus as disinterested, third party observers. We see Christ first through the eyes of a blind child who had lived her entire life in darkness until she met Jesus. And the message is clear. We are that blind girl. We, too, have been living in darkness, never truly seeing until we have seen Jesus.