Wednesday, September 23, 2009

RIP(ed) Patrick Swayze

While Patrick Swayze was one of the few actors to ever make People's Sexiest Man Alive (1991) who did not appeal to me, I've always enjoyed the outrageous campiness of his movies. From Roadhouse to Red Dawn his movies are just fun and incredibly fun to mock. Mike Nelson of Mystery Science Theater fame has made a second career out of deriding Swayze , of course, in an affectionate way. So I love the movies, but Swayze himself? Sorta like watching a cold burrito on screen. Maybe it was the mullet? I dunno though, Bono had a pretty serious mullet throughout the 80s and that didn't stop me from plastering his picture all over my locker. So I can't even blame the hockey hair. But I post this bit of eye candy for those of you who did love the Swayze in all his shirtless (and often pantless) glory.

My favorite so bad it was good Swayze film was Next of Kin (1989) in which he plays a cop and violinist (I know!) who must take down a gang of mobsters who have killed one of his brothers. Meanwhile another brother, a hillbilly (played by, I kid you not, Liam Neeson!) decides to take the law into his own hands and starts using a crossbow on local wiseguys. This movie is so packed with mockability that it really deserves its own shrine, website, or at least a pic spam where I dissect the stupidity scene by scene. Maybe another day my friends.

So to the actor who gave us the immortal pot throwing scene in Ghost, the line "Nobody puts baby in a corner," the Chippendales dance off with Chris Farley, and the surfing bank robber philosopher in Point Break, I say Rest in Peace, dude. Rest in Peace.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Knight without Armor (in a savage land!)

This fun Marlene Dietrich/Robert Donat melodrama has all hallmarks of a great movie about the Russian Revolution: action, romance, dancing Tartars and wacky hats. Robert Donat plays a British journalist who, after being threatened with deportation from Russia, decides to assume a false identity and spy on revolutionaries. His cover is so good that when he gets caught and sent to Siberia by the Czarist regime, no one ever finds out he's a Brit. He manages to switch sides at will in the conflict to suit his purposes, which mainly involve cozying up to an imprisoned countess (Dietrich). Charged with delivering her to her probable execution, he decides to help her escape instead. This makes for a pleasant cross-country romantic adventure story that's not dissimilar from The Thirty-Nine Steps when you get down to it.

Perhaps because it's an English film, it feels quite a bit racier than typical American fare of the period (1937). Dietrich has no less than two gratuitous bathing scenes and she and Donat spend their time unchaperoned and unconcerned with sleeping arrangements. In one scene Donat tells her "They'll call off the search now. In a few days we can leave the forest." Dietrich inquires in her smokiest, most suggestive baritone "Don't you like my forest?" to which Donat replies, "I adore it" and they kiss, while the scene fades out. When next we see Dietrich she is skinny dipping, a scene reminiscent of the pre-code Blonde Venus (1932).

Though it was filmed in England and lacks that David Lean sweep of landscape that would make Doctor Zhivago an immortal classic, Knight Without Armor still manages to capture some of the insanity of that period of history. In a tense sequence Donat and Dietrich wait for a train that isn't coming, even though the station master insists on mustering passengers to the platform despite the obvious non-presence of the train. The longer they wait the more danger they face from Donat's own underlings who've decided to kidnap the Countess for themselves. There is a creeping irrationality to the peasants who are all mostly out for themselves and the good time to be had. The film presents no heroes or villains on either side, only individuals who are either sympathetic to the cause of the lovers or they are not. I suppose you could argue that this focus on the individual over the collective whole would be a way of taking sides after all.

At one point they encounter a young officer (John Clements) of the revolution who is so taken by the Countess' beauty that he deliberately allows them to escape, creating a diversion by killing himself. This conveniently allows the leads to have to avoid that big sacrifice that I was expecting from them, this being a 1930s melodrama. It also makes for some interesting dynamics between Donat and Dietrich. Donat uses the cover story that he and the Countess are brother and sister, so he has to sit by and watch while this young officer flatters and makes love to his girl. Donat applies his usual mask of indifference, appearing to trust Dietrich to prevent the fellow from going too far. In a beautifully filmed night scene, Dietrich reaches her arm out to Donat in the train car and he kisses it passionately, silently, all while the young officer looks on jealously. Yet, the young man never confronts the couple, preferring to push his advantage as far as he can, until he realizes that she will never love him. All of this is accomplished with minimal dialog and great skill from every quarter.

Certainly Knight Without Armor isn't a great film. Though Belgian director Jacques Feyder's other films are well-respected, this one is largely forgotten and I think it's partly his fault. The flow of the movie is a bit choppy and even occasionally hard to follow. There are scenes obviously left out (Dietrich's marriage and the death of her husband) and it isn't simply a case of a director deciding the audience is smart enough to fill in the blanks. It really seems as if he's not quite in control of the material or the pacing. Despite this criticism, I like the way he treats Dietrich as an actress rather than an object. He still manages to get her "little butterfly" in view in a few close-ups, but spends more care in setting up the drama the lighting. Take this clip which shows the moment when the Countess realizes that she is on the losing side in the revolution. Notice the time and elaborate set-up involved in building the drama of this scene. When Dietrich realizes that her servants have joined the rabble who've over run the estate, she is framed in a classic glamour close-up. She steels herself, asks "what are you waiting for?" and marches forward to face them. The crowd of rabble advances and an elderly woman from the crowd shouts, "c'mon she's only a woman!" The wit here is subtle, with Dietrich's power as a film star and her potency as a femme fatale being pitted against an angry mob.

There's a nice story attached to the making of this film, that stuck with me as I was watching it. Apparently during production Donat became ill and the film's producers wanted to replace him. Dietrich refused, saying that no other actor could play the part so well. She got her way and production was stalled till Donat could return. Perhaps all this really says is that Alexander Korda was more of a push over than Dietrich's usual Hollywood bosses. But it is nice to think of a little bit of chivalry involved in Knight without Armor, even if it is on the part of the damsel in distress.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Eye Candy of the Day: The 39 Steps

Robert Donat and Madeleine Carrol are literally shackled together and shacking up in Alfred Hitchcock's adventure thriller the 39 Steps (1935). Richard Hannay (Donat) steps into a music hall to divert himself and before long finds himself hip deep in a spy ring, beautiful women, racy sleeping arrangements, and murder. The action begins with a pick-up: a mysterious woman in a veiled hat invites herself up to Hannay's apartment and winds up dead a few hours later. Hannay borrows her ploy of using sex to get what he wants and finds women mostly willing to go out of their way to help him. Hitchcock exposes a society ready always to believe the lascivious and vicious before the innocent truth. Of the three women Hannay ends up spending the night with he falls for the one he fights with (Madelaine Carrol) which is true to the spirit of the screwball comedies that were bubbling up in America.

There's an interesting and poignant interlude on the Scottish moors with a woman who is completely swept off her feet by the dashing mysterious stranger who has stumbled briefly into the miserable cottage she shares with an even more miserable husband. The film leaves her behind, but not before she gets the memorable chance to make a noble sacrifice for him and get a kiss from our hero. She's like the fleshed out version of the woman into whose hospital room Cary Grant passes through in North by Northwest. Speaking of which, The 39 Steps is remarkably similar to that later more famous Hitchcock film. Both movies use a man on the run from the police as an excuse for a cross country chase and a series of entertaining adventures as he dodges the law, deadly thugs and prevents a master spy from stealing important military secrets. The focus of North By Northwest is a sweeping, technicolor travelogue while The 39 Steps has a more intimate agenda. Unlike the larger than life characters that inhabit North By Northwest, the supporting cast in 39 Steps insinuate themselves quickly into the memory and seem like real people glimpsed in the midst of their daily lives. That moment in North by Northwest when Cary Grant is treated like the movie star he is by the woman in the hospital room, is funny because the audience is in on the joke of the whole stylized, over-refined universe. And a similar moment in The 39 Steps is completely uncynical and poignant because Hannay begins his flirtation with crofter's wife as part of a role he's playing and ends with his genuine concern for her welfare. His good-bye kiss is what is required of the part but you can see him conflicted about the game he's played.

In both movies, Hitchcock seems to enjoy torturing his heroes, putting them not only in constant peril, but continually uncomfortable, awkward and embarassing situations. They get hungry, tired and dirty along the way (though not quite as much as mortal men would) but they never seem to get lonely! If there's one thing you should learn from these movies its this: chicks dig fugitives.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Show and Tell

Every once in a while, I have a bunch of disorganized, random stuff to tell you guys. (As opposed to every day when I have slightly organized random stuff to tell you guys about movies that I've watched.) I call it Show and Tell.

I'm on Ask Mick LaSalle. Again.

OK, so I admit I was annoyed that the last time I was on Ask Mick LaSalle they edited out the part where I said the name of my blog. So I devised a question that I knew he'd want to answer (though I did genuinely also want to know what he had to say) and deliberately phrased my question so that they couldn't easily edit my plug out. So if you want to hear me shamelessly self-promoting myself, go here.

I don't know why but I sound like I'm tranquilizers. I think I was trying to talk slowly or deliberately and it just sounds like I'm on meds. Oh well!

Amazing flash movie tributes are...amazing

While searching around for hard to find DVDs online the other day, I stumbled onto Raven Maven's site. Maven has some DVDs for sale, and enticingly, some wonderful flash video tributes on Robert Donat and Alfred Hitchcock among others at her site. I have gotten used to the fairly pedestrian quality of these things on Youtube, so I'm blown away by one that is done by someone who really knows how to use graphics and animation effectively.

Old time radio and other audio treasures

You know you are obsessed with an actor when you start seeking out their radio performances. I've heard so many Cary Grant Lux Theater episodes that I'm probably going to have to buy some Lux toilet soap which everyone knows is the secret that keeps all the stars looking so young and beautiful. One of the things I love about the radio performances is that frequently movies were adapted to the format and the casting changed. This makes for interesting listening. Cary Grant playing opposite Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild; Herbert Mashall reading the Gary Cooper part in Desire; Good-bye Mr. Chips, starring Laurence Olivier; and Brian Aherne and Bette Davis doing Jane Eyre.

Some actors went outside merely reinterpreting roles they'd played on screen. Warren William helped develop and star in the radio program Strange Wills and went so far to create his own radio production company Warren William Inc. Other actors made a few extra bucks by recording great literature for use on the radio, in a sort of pre-cursor to books on tape. Among these, Robert Donat reading Ode to a Nightingale stands out.

While not exactly radio, I also have a fond affection for sound galleries. Before you could just upload video willy nilly onto the internet, one of the best ways of getting some multi-media content online was to record snatches of dialog and put it in .wav files. (This was pre-MP3s, people). I spent many happy hours recording bits of my favorite Cary Grant dialog for the Shrine. Occasionally I run across an old-school site that still has sound clips in this way. I recently found this one that has the best bit s of Alan Rickman dialog ("The air is full of spices!") with everything from the ubiquitous Harry potter movies to the obscure Barchester Chronicles.

Gallery and Playlist Updates

The Herbert Marshall Gallery is twice as big as when I first posted it. Also my Herbert Marshall playlist on Youtube is off the chain! Or as off the chain as anything about Herbert Marshall can really get, anyway with 29 videos, many of which are links to entire films. My other playlists include Robert Donat, Warren William, Michael Redgrave, Rosano Brazzi, Franchot Tone, Brian Aherne and Ernst Lubitsch.