Footlight Parade

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Details:
Director: Lloyd Bacon (Busby Berkeley directed the song and dance numbers)
Producer: Robert Lord (uncredited)
Writers: Manuel Seff and James Seymour
Cast: James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Frank McHugh, Guy Kibbee, Renee Whitney
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 1933

Why I DVRed This: My wife is not nearly as interested in classic films as I am (not to say that she doesn’t like them—she’s just more choosy than I am), but she loves Disney World. Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park has a ride (or “attraction” in Disney terms) called the Great Movie Ride (which is now sponsored by TCM actually). It’s a typical Disney attraction—you ride on a car and drive by animatronic scenes while a “cast member” reads some inane script full of terrible puns and trivia. The animatronic exhibits include recreations of scenes from classic films, and there are a number of scenes from movies that my wife has not seen (and some I haven’t seen too). Because of that, several years ago, she made a goal of watching all the movies featured on the ride. Anyway, one of the movies neither of us had seen was Footlight Parade, which Disney uses as an example of the big Hollywood musicals of the 1930s. We actually had this sitting on the DVR for almost two years, because neither of us was evidently that excited about watching it. But we kept on it for the Disney goal, and I’m glad we didn’t delete it when our DVR was at 100% full.

Presentation on TCM: There wasn’t any at all. The movie just started playing. I have no idea why it was on, either, because I DVRed it A) a million years ago and B) before I paid attention to such things (as my DVRing of movies on TCM long preceded my writing about the DVRing of movies).

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Chester Kent, framed heroically here, will save the theater and his struggling business. © 1933 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

Synopsis: Broadway director Chester Kent (Cagney) realizes talkies will make Broadway shows obsolete, so he starts producing “prologues,” short live musical numbers that movie theaters show before the feature presentation. But a rival is stealing Kent’s amazing ideas, likely with help from someone in his own outfit! And his business partners are putting pressure on him to make increasingly more prologues at increasingly more movie theaters at increasingly more spectacular levels! Kent is so overworked he doesn’t even realize his secretary, Nan (Blondell), is in love with him. And he has to handle getting a divorce from Cynthia Kent, his wife, and Nan has to win him over from Vivian Rich, her gold-digging friend!

Analysis (contains spoilers): Boy does this movie move fast. Elements of it are slow (as are all movies in the classical style)—long scenes, long takes, long musical numbers—but in terms of the plot, everything is so quick and abrupt. In a matter of minutes, we see Kent realize he’s out of work, get dumped by his wife, and come up with his new big plan (when he realizes an economics lesson that I thought everyone knew: that a company can make more by charging less when purchases are made in bulk). Nan falls in love with him seemingly instantly too, success comes rapidly, then conflict is set up and resolved equally rapidly (there’s a short scene in which Kent finds out his plans are being copied; then, immediately comes up with the solution of locking in his dancers and singers while they produce their three big numbers for the grand finale). All of this speed serves to getting the audience caught up on the why before it is shown the big reveal: three spectacular show-ending numbers.

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The creative process is a grueling one, as the film makes clear in short scenes that always resolve themselves with lightbulb moments. ©1933 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

For a movie that’s at least partially about creating, we see very little creating, too. Obviously, no one wants to watch hours of James Cagney sitting at a piano trying to write songs, but there’s an odd amount of such footage in the movie. There are a number of short scenes in which Kent is hunched over a piano in despair, as the pressure becomes too much, but he always comes up with some ingenious solution. It’s as if the filmmakers want the audience to know that the creative process is hard but not so hard that the audience should feel guilty for watching the film. Likewise, for a movie in which one of the principal sets is a rehearsal studio, there is very little rehearsing. The film instead makes such work appear very casual and fun. Sure, Kent is stressed about writing , but then—lightbulb—“This just might work!” And, because the rehearsals are never shown, there are no spoilers for the lush and lavish musical numbers at the end.

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The musical numbers, such as “By a Waterfall,” all involve lavish stages, multiple cameras, and expansive casts and settings. They are dazzling in their unreality, and Berkeley makes full use of filmic elements to bring them to life. ©1933 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

Indeed, those musical numbers are impressive, and they are largely the reason Footlight Parade has been preserved by the National Film Registry and endures as a classic today (the Disney ride display captures this too, as it shows the waterfall of women). The three at the end are incredible and largely suggest one of the larger points of the movie—movies are better than Broadway. The montages could not possibly work in a theater, and Busby Berkeley’s direction requires multiple cameras and extraordinarily large staging. The waterfall sequence, for instance, takes place in a waterfall but contains giant fountains and cavalcades of synchronized swimmers. His camera pushes the audience into the waterfall and even in to the pool, as the world of the stage expands limitlessly. In his essay, “Genre: The Conventions of Connection” from The World in a Frame,  Leo Braudy describes this expansion as an affirmation of the “the capacity of the world of style” and a mocking of “the narrowness of the ‘real’ world outside the theater walls, populated by bland tenors, greedy producers, and harried directors.” Indeed, the genre of musical is already a heightened, stylized form of reality (in real life, for instance, the only people who bust into song are former members of Ivy League glee clubs and the deranged), and Berkeley pushes those conventions to extremes. But his decision certainly is in the best interest of the audience who is better served by getting, for instance, an aerial view of the synchronized swim sequence, and a moving camera walking everyone into the Honeymoon Hotel, or what I took to calling the Sex Hotel.

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Nope, nothing racist about this. ©1933 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

That reminds me—this movie is weirdly risqué. Two of the three big numbers are rather adult in theme. The one alluded to here is the “Honeymoon Hotel” number, about a hotel that is used for affairs and one-night stands. But the final one is even less family friendly—“Shanghai Lil,” about a beautiful Asian prostitute who services servicemen and sailors. The film also makes allusions to prostitution in the “real world too” in the form of Nan’s roommate and to Scotty (Powell) being a “kept” boy for Mrs. Gould, the producer’s wife. Footlight Parade was pre-code, so all of this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but, not knowing it was pre-code when I started watching it, I was shocked by some of the humor. I expected a musical for the whole family!

James Cagney knew the film would be good—he begged Warner Bros. for the lead role so he could show off his song-and-dance chops after years of playing tough guys—and he was right. The production comes off as a clear classic, and it no doubt left 1933 audiences with great cheer. The waterfall number ends with unmitigated support for the New Deal and the dream of a brighter tomorrow. While Hollywood movies would later show the negative side of the transition from silent films to talkies (see Singin’ in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, etc.), in Footlight Parade, a transition is merely a new opportunity to excel in America. Chester Kent should be out of a job, but a little ingenuity saves him, just as the New Deal will save us all.

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“By a Waterfall” includes this heroic imagery of America’s newly elected savior. ©1933 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

Indeed, the correlation between this film and the New Deal cannot be overlooked. The film opens on dark economic times and a theater that is chaotic and poorly run and ends by showing the limitless possibilities of the creative world. Gerald Perry, at Jump Cut in 1974, suggested that Chester Kent is essentially a fill-in for FDR, and while this reading might be a bit strained, the film very clearly shows a love for all things Roosevelt. And, Chester Kent’s decision to spend a lot of money to make a lot of money certainly sounds like Keynesian Economics to me… It’s been well established that movie musicals (still a brand-new genre in 1933) offered escape for Americans suffering in the Great Depression, but this musical goes a little farther, offering not just escape, but wholehearted liberal propaganda.

Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: Yes, absolutely. I loved watching this. It’s so fucking charming. The casting is perfect, the musical numbers (although sometimes quite racist) are catchy and visually enthralling, and even the set design is fantastic. I loved all the art deco flourishes both in the “real” world and in the musical world. Overall, I’m glad my wife insisted on watching the Great Movie Ride’s movies, because I would never have chosen to watch this on my own. But I would certainly would choose to watch it again.

 

 

Waterloo Bridge

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Details:
Director: James Whale
Producer: Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Writer: Tom Reed
Cast: Mae Clarke, Douglass Montgomery, Doris Lloyd, Frederick Kerr, Enid Bennett
Studio: Universal Pictures
Year: 1931

Why I DVRed This: True confession: I started watching this live when it was on and then DVRed it. Then, I never actually watched it on DVR. Instead, I watched it live and deleted the DVR. I have made this website a house of lies, and I apologize for anyone who is personally offended by my actions.

Presentation on TCM: …But to be fair, I got very excited to be at home at the exact time a movie started and that had a TCM host introducing it. I was getting ready to pack for a trip to Wisconsin to go to a friend’s wedding, and the film was the perfect length of time (less than an hour and a half) for me to procrastinate but not procrastinate so much that I either A) had to stop watching the movie or B) would be unable to pack.

Anyway, Ben Mankiewicz introduced the film as part of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars. That night’s programming highlighted the work of Mae Clarke, an actress I have to admit I had never heard of before. He said she was most famous for her role in Frankenstein, which was also directed by James Whale. In fact, as Mankiewicz recounted, Universal was so impressed with Whale’s work on Waterloo Bridge (because he had come in severely under budget) that the studio let him choose any project he wanted next. He chose Frankenstein and brought Clarke with him. (Prior to Waterloo, she had been famous for getting a grapefruit smashed into her forehead by James Cagney in The Public Enemy.) Obviously Frankenstein was a huge hit, and the rest is history. But it was all news to me. The things you learn on TCM sometimes!

Much of the film concerns a girl who is overwhelmed by the horrors of the world and her situation. Here, Myra looks sad and overwhelmed. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Much of the film concerns a chorus girl who is overwhelmed by the horrors of the world and her situation. Here, Myra looks sad… and overwhelmed. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Synopsis: In World War I London, an American chorus girl, Myra Deauville (Clarke), supports herself through prostitution on Waterloo Bridge. During an air raid, she meets fellow American, Roy Cronin (Montgomery), and they fall in love. But her self-hatred prevents their relationship from blossoming, despite his devotion.

Analysis (contains spoilers): So this movie is a weird one. It’s “precode,” meaning it could get away with a lot that a code era movie could not. For example, the protagonist is a self-loathing prostitute. That is not something you tend to see in movies enforced by the Hays Code. Those movies instead tended to be saccharine and show nothing controversial. “White slavery” and prostitution were outright banned as subjects. Thus, Waterloo Bridge as a whole could not exist.

Because of that, in fact, the film would be remade twice. First, it was remade in 1940, with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor in the leads. Then, in 1956, it was remade as Gaby with Leslie Caron and John Kerr. In the Vivien Leigh remake, there is no prostitution; in Gaby, the main character only turns to prostitution after her doughboy lover is rumored to be dead at D-Day (Gaby also takes place in World War II, not World War I). But in the original film (based on a less-than-successful play of the same name by Robert E. Sherwood), Myra simply chooses to prostitute herself so she can pay her rent and even returns to prostitution voluntarily after meeting Roy (who is apparently an idiot who cannot figure out what she does for a living despite obvious hints—it would be a different movie if he understood what she did and was accepting of it, but that type of movie absolutely could not be made in 1931).

Note the rather phallic divide between them on the bed. Still, for 1931, it's a bit of a surprise to even see two unmarried lovers near a bed. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Note the rather phallic divide between them on the bed. Still, for 1931, it’s a bit of a surprise to even see two unmarried lovers near a bed. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

This plot actually still seems kind of shocking to me, especially the ending—after reuniting with Roy and presumably giving up her career, Myra should have a happy ending. But walking across the very location she prostituted herself, Myra is struck by a bomb (remember, the war is going on!) and killed. It’s an abrupt and strange ending that reminds me of the advice on endings offered in National Lampoon’sHow to Write Good” article (for a story set in England, try this ending— “Suddenly, everyone was run over by a lorry. –The End—”), but to be fair, the ending is alright diegetically. The film makes clear that there are air raids during the war (that’s how Myra and Roy meet actually) early on, and so there’s a Chekhov’s gun element to the ending. More though, there seems to be a moralistic tone to the ending. Myra cannot have a happy ending after the choices she’s made (not just the prostitution but her dishonesty and maltreatment of Roy, who she runs off on), so she must die for her sins. This ending is actually very much in line with the Hay’s Code, which necessitated that criminals be punished by film’s end.

The titular bridge/prostitution hot spot, during an air raid. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
The titular bridge/prostitution hot spot, during an air raid. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Incidentally, Waterloo Bridge was made while the Hay’s Code was in effect; it just was made before the Hay’s Office was being run by Joseph I. Breen, who more actively enforced the code. That’s what historians mean by “precode” in this case (though it’s obviously a misnomer). (For a decent history of the Code, see this New York Times book review or this NPR article.) Because Universal did not want to offend people (though the film would still be protested and banned in certain cities), the film is not, as such, as immoral as it seems. There is no sex, for instance, nor any overt hints at sex (and yes, I recognize the oxymoron of overt hints); indeed, the scene in which Myra is shown to solicit a gentleman only implies that he is getting a carriage for the two of them to go out together. Of course, the audience knows what’s going on, but, it could be argued, that the audience’s assumption of sex is its own problem, not that of the filmmakers. Still, the writing makes it clear what she is doing is “wrong,” because she’s ashamed of it, and it makes it clear that she and people like her cannot ever be happy. What the film seems to imply, however, is that it is a sad world we live in because Myra deserves to be happy, even while society precludes that possibility. That is, in a different movie, Myra would find success as a singer and find and keep true love. Instead, the war, poverty, the harsh reality of show business, and the general miasma of the period force her onto a path she cannot exit with happiness. So, like so many other pieces of art from the 1920s and 1930s, World War I is shown to be a breaking point for humanity, and now people like Myra are denied happy endings because of the horrors of mechanized war, human progress, etc. But that’s probably giving the film too much credit. It’s not really art, just a movie that’s kind of ok and has some decent acting (from Mae Clarke) and some really not decent acting (from Douglass Montgomery).

A young Bette Davis also appears in the film, as Roy's sister. She doesn't do much in the movie—really, only Mae Clarke is impressive in this film at all. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
A young Bette Davis also appears in the film, as Roy’s sister. She doesn’t do much in the movie—really, only Mae Clarke is impressive in this film at all. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

As such, this movie is interesting to watch more as a relic of a different filmmaking era. The acting (overall) is fine, the script is fine, the directing is fine. In general, the film is fine, if a little stagebound. It feels a little rushed and would not generally be placed in the canon of classic films. But I can’t say I didn’t enjoy watching it. It feels like the kind of movie that today would be remade as a prestige picture released around December—the kind of movie you might see once and say was pretty good but that doesn’t leave any kind of lasting impression on you (it would probably star Benedict Cumberbatch and Kate Winslet and receive a few Oscar nominations but not any wins). Waterloo Bridge is from an era in Hollywood when there was no such thing as an auteur (I mean, of course there was—there was Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin—but the idea did not yet exist) and so directors were just assigned projects until they got power to pick their own pre-approved projects. The reward for making a fine movie that made a profit was that you could then make a bigger budget picture like Frankenstein. It seems like a nice world to have been in, I guess.

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: So this was an example of a movie that I definitely would not have DVRed simply because I had no idea it existed. I had never heard of it nor of anyone in it (excepting Bette Davis, but she’s barely in it, so that hardly counts) nor of anyone associated with it. However, I’m very glad I watched it. I can’t say I’d necessarily watch it again, but I enjoyed it enough. Plus, I was able to make fun of the melodramatic ending for a few days (even though no one understood the reference).

The Night of the Hunter

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Details:
Director: Charles Laughton
Producer: Paul Gregory
Writer: James Agee
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason, Evelyn Varden, Peter Graves
Studio: United Artists
Year: 1955

Why I DVRed It: This is quite honestly one of my favorite movies, so I see it whenever I have the opportunity. The last time I saw it was at Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn in December of 2013. At that presentation, the photographer Bruce Weber spoke about the documentary he was making about Robert Mitchum, so it felt like even more of an event. Watching the film on the big screen (and with some food and alcohol in front of me) was a significantly better experience than I knew watching it on my television in (due to my work schedule) two increments would be. But, still. I had to DVR it when I saw it on the TCM schedule.

Presentation on TCM: For once, I actually captured a movie that was properly presented on TCM! Before the movie aired, Ben Mankiewicz interviewed Jan-Christopher Horak, the Director of the UCLA Film & Television Archives. While I was thrilled to finally (FINALLY!) DVR a film with an introduction, I have to say, this introduction was pretty dull. Horak talked about The Night of the Hunter being on the cusp of the classical Hollywood and modern film era. Mankiewicz agreed, then both Mankiewicz and Horak lamented that the film has largely survived as merely a cult classic, because, if it had been an instant classic, the director, Charles Laughton, might’ve directed other films. But both agreed that Mitchum and Gish’s performances alone make the film one worth preserving. Get all that?

Mankiewicz and Horak discuss The Night of the Hunter on the TCM set.
Mankiewicz and Horak discuss The Night of the Hunter on the TCM set.

This conversation largely added nothing to my viewing of the film, as the two basically said the same stuff anyone who’s seen The Night of the Hunter would say. Of slightly more interest was Horak’s discussion of the archiving and restoration process, but even that was pretty dull.

After the movie, they talked again about Lillian Gish (who Horak met once), the restoration work done at the Eastman House, and the communications UCLA has with other archivists (they all like to make sure, for instance, that they are not preserving redundant films). So, all in all, this interview portion was not that helpful and could’ve been fast forwarded, even though that meant I would not have been able to gaze at Horak’s impressive socks…

Synopsis: In Depression-Era West Virginia, the maniacal Reverend Harry Powell (Mitchum) torments two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), in hopes of getting $10,000 stolen by their late father. The children escape after Harry kills their mother (Winters), and the Ohio River takes them to the home of Rachel Cooper (Gish). Harry follows. A showdown ensues.

Analysis (contains spoilers): This is one of the great all-time films, and it is so rich with imagery and themes that I am actually a bit overwhelmed with what to say about it. After all, most of the truly brilliant film historians and analysts have already discussed so much about it that it seems virtually impossible to not merely echo them. Making matters worse, the TCM presenters already touched on so many good talking points (the wishes that Laughlin would direct another movie, the amazing performances from Gish and Mitchum, the film encapsulating the best of the classical period as well as anticipating elements of later cinema). All of these are points I largely agree with, but, to the “acting” thoughts, I would add that Shelley Winters is just terrific in this film—she does such a good job of playing the woman no one wants to marry in this film, A Place in the Sun, and Lolita. I can’t help but wonder about the psychic scars she must have from being forever typecast as the frumpy victim, but I have to admit she was so wonderfully adept at playing that role. In this film, her role is even more interesting. Her character, Willa Harper, is a woman wronged twice over and a woman smart enough to see what’s coming but seemingly powerless against preventing it. She is a woman who knows enough to be suspicious but who is not confident enough to convince herself that her suspicions are justified. Winters gives so many great faces in the film and seems to have so many moments of anagnorisis about Harry, but they are always too late.  She realizes her marriage to Harry will not be a loving one the night of her wedding when he won’t sleep with her, when it is too late to not be married. She realizes the children are right to not like Harry only after it is too late to have Harry not be their surrogate father. And, of course she realizes that Harry is only after the money just in time for him to murder her and throw her into her hauntingly ethereal watery grave.

Willa is always too late to realize her suspicions are justified. © 1955 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.
Willa is always too late to realize her suspicions are justified. © 1955 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

That image is, of course, one of the great images of the film, but this time watching it, I was especially taken with an earlier group of images involving Willa, ones that quite successfully foreshadow her tragic fate. There’s a great sequence after Harry is released from prison. Willa is at work at the diner when the owners tell her she needs a man. She says she does not, and Laughton edits in images of a black train. Willa again says she does not want a man, and the train moves closer. Then we see Harry. The long black train is bringing her death, but she is fated to meet the train and Harry Powell, Willa’s personal Thanatos.

Willa's ending is foreshadowed throughout the film. Here, she resembles a corpse in a coffin, even though we never see her getting a proper burial. © 1955 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Willa’s ending is foreshadowed throughout the film. Here, she resembles a corpse in a coffin, even though we never see her getting a proper burial. © 1955 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

Later, on her wedding night, Willa’s sexual advances are rejected by Harry. She turns to sleep alone and places her arms over her chest, like the arms of a corpse in a coffin. She is a woman who wants to forego marriage after her first husband wrongs her by stealing $10,000, and she is a woman who largely knows to avoid the temptations of Harry Powell. She can see she does not need a man, and yet she ends up marrying him and believing herself to be a sinner. After all, if a preacher tells her she’s a sinner, then she must be one, right? That, of course, leads into one of the major themes of the movie: who speaketh for God in a world gone wrong?

The film opens with pictures of the stars and Rachel’s face preaching a true sermon to the children she has taken in. She warns them of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, obviously foreshadowing Harry, a bluebeard who claims to speak to and for God. The children are lost souls—we learn later that the Depression has made orphaned children a common problem—but Rachel (named presumably for the child-less wife of Jacob in the Bible) has taken them in and given them moral direction.

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Rachel preaches to her “many birds.” © 1955 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

Others may be taken in by a fast-talking charlatan, but Rachel can see through him, for she alone knows the true purpose of religion the film evokes: community, love, guidance, not selfishness. Harry wishes and claims to speak directly to God, but Rachel is a student of the Bible. She knows she does not know everything but claims to only be certain that she “good for something in this world” because she is a “strong tree with branches for many birds.” For Rachel, being able to follow the teachings of the Bible is enough. She compares John to Moses (because he came to her floating on the river) and speaks only what the Bible says. Harry, on the other hand, makes up his own sermons based on his love and hate tattoos. And, of course, rather than using God’s teachings to do right and raise up orphans, he uses it to control Willa and justify his killing of her. He misinterprets or outright makes up the voice of God.

Ultimately, the film takes a stance that is not so much anti-religion as it is anti the use of religion to justify misery. Religion, it seems, is meant to be a tool for good. I got choked up at the ending, in which John and Pearl have a real family with a real foundation. They celebrate Christmas, and Rachel even manages to buy John the watch he wanted, even though she is not rich. Money is ultimately trumped by faith and family, but John still gets the material possession he wanted!

The film is highly recommended. As I stated above, I can’t even begin to do it justice on this forum. The imagery is too incredible to be captured in stills (it makes use of expressionist techniques that make the whole film exist in this dreamy yet realistic fairy tale yet world), and there are too many sequences that need to be witnessed in context to have them make sense (such as the great sequence when Rachel pulls out her shotgun while Harry sings hymns). It’s simply a must-see.

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: Yes, didn’t I make that clear? As I said, I always try to watch this film when I can, and I have no regrets about DVRing it. I highly highly highly recommend this film, and it appears even richer on repeated viewings.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

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Details: 
Director: Tony Richardson       Producer: Tony Richardson
Writer: Alan Sillitoe
Cast: Michael Redgrave, Tom Courtenay, Avis Bunnage, Alec McCowen, Topsy Jane
Studio: Woodfall Film Productions (Company) British Lion-Columbia Distributors/Continental Distributing (Distribution)
Year: 1962

Why I DVRed It: This is a film I’ve long wanted to see but never gotten around to it. I first heard of it in 1999 or so, when I was perusing the British Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest films of the 20th century and being intrigued by the title. Years later, I got into running (although I want to make perfectly clear I’m not one of “those runners,” the kind who wear running clothes all the time and only talk about which trails they prefer and that kind of shit) and  became familiar with the sensation of being lonely on long runs. I used to run greater distances than I currently do (a foot injury has sidelined me from runs greater than 3-4 miles for the past two years), and I remember feeling quite lonesome on some of those runs. I’m not the type to feel fueled by the energy of others, and I remember running my first marathon and getting downright depressed when crowds of strangers would cheer for the marathoners like myself. It made me feel that there was something wrong with me, and maybe there is, but at least the title of this film says otherwise!

The film's opening shots reveal the pleasures of distance running but also the titular loneliness. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
The film’s opening shots reveal the pleasures of distance running but also the titular loneliness. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

In actuality, that loneliness is precisely what I’ve loved about running my whole life. It’s also what I love about film. Watching movies is primarily an individual experience, and almost of my TCM movies are watched in isolation. I do, of course, love going to movies and watching movies with my girlfriend, but I don’t need the company to enjoy a film. Solitude and loneliness aren’t always bad words.

Regardless, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is movie that has fluctuated on critics’ lists for decades. Sometimes it’s off the lists altogether. Right now, the greatest movies list at  They Shoot Pictures Don’t They has the film at 995, but it wasn’t on the 2013 list. However, the movie tends to be more popular with English audiences, which makes sense—the film is largely about English working class life, a state most Americans only know of through popular songs such as the Squeeze jam “Up the Junction” or the underrated Kinks classic “Dead End Street.” This movie isn’t near as catchy as those tunes, but what movie is?

Presentation on TCM: Once again, I watched a TCM movie with no introduction or anything like that. It was on at 6:15, before a night of programming centered around B-sci-fi pictures. Obviously, this movie is not that, so I really don’t know why it was on.

Synopsis: An angry young man, Colin (Courtenay), is sentenced to a boys’ reformatory (what people in England call a “borstal”) where his prowess for long-distance running earns him the favor of the school’s governor (Redgrave) who hopes Colin can win a big race against another reformatory school. Colin likes his special status at first but reconsiders it in light of his own recollections of his past that he thinks about on his unescorted long training runs.

Analysis (contains spoilers): Before I get too far into this, I will admit that there were entire stretches of dialogue that went right past me. The cockney accents of some of the characters made it hard for my American ears to decipher meaning. I wish that Tony Richardson had thought about this when making the film; I mean, couldn’t he get his statements about class differences in England across without making use of working class accents? I am the most important viewer of this film.

Kidding aside, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a terrific film. It tells the story of an angry young man, placing it into the “teenage delinquent” genre popular in American cinema in the 195os, a genre that, at least in the US, tended to be pretty lousy. Think of Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One, and Blackboard Jungle. The best of those is probably Rebel, but aside from the iconic aspects of James Dean’s performance in it, it’s a pretty lousy movie. English versions of the genre include Loneliness and later efforts such as A Clockwork Orange (based on a novel published in 1962, the same year as Loneliness was mad) and the delightful If…, about a boarding school that turns violent. (Note, teenage delinquency was considered a crisis in the US in the 1950s (see this (much briefer than anything I have ever written) blog for more information), but the UK did not start to worry about the phenomenon so much until the 1960s, explaining the discrepancy in time periods.) The English versions tend to be better than their American counterparts, and Loneliness is no exception.

Look at how pretty that looks! © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The film opens on a man, Colin, running alone on a road in England, in a rural area. It looks like a bucolic setting, and one might think this is going to be a nice movie about a nice young man who lives in a rural area and does nice people things (falls in love with the girl next door, goes to sock hops, learns to say “thee,” takes a job as a ‘prentice for his uncle). But then, we cut from him running to him in a prison-type van, going to a juvenile detention center. Immediately, the film disorients the audience, something Richardson will do again and again. Indeed, the structure of the film is itself jarring—the film cuts from the present to the past and back again as Colin recounts his life of petty crime and anguish while solitarily running. We see the violence of the reform school as well as the emotional turmoil of his home life, and the only parts of the film that are remotely peaceful are his runs. But, of course, those runs turn into ruminations on pain shown from Colin’s perspective.

The film is highly subjective and disjointed, then. Loneliness makes frequent use of handheld compositions and occasional use of POV shots; for instance, the first night Colin is at boarding school, we see through the shaky eyes of the guard as he inspects the bunks. This shot gives us a subjectivity that then reverses into the viewpoint of our main subject, Colin; that is, we are looking from a guard’s perspective until we get to our narrator and switch back to his perspective. Occasionally, the film gives us other viewpoints as well, as some of the scenes involving the governor showing off the school to rich donors or talking to his peers do not feature Colin at all. These scenes give us a privileged viewpoint, although they do not complicate our own viewpoint. They simply reinforce that Colin is right to be defiant and angry. It’s not a terribly profound viewpoint, but it is an absolute one.

Richardson seems to have an especial fondness for clever editing. He likes to cut scenes so quickly that the audience is thrown out of the comfort of one scene and back into another, as though letting the audience get adjusted and used to something would be the gravest sin. He makes several uses of contrapuntal sound; that is, the sight of one scene often starts before the previous scene’s audio is finished, breaking rules of the “classical” style as the sound and image do not align. For instance, a destructive food fight’s audio plays as we cut to a calm and sedate board meeting of the school administrators meeting to discuss the fight (providing cause and effect). Then, we see school administrators brutally beating a student while the audio plays the end of the calm meeting (providing judgement and punishment).

Frequent flashbacks to Colin's former life reveal a bleak existence, albeit one that is perfectly composed. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Frequent flashbacks to Colin’s former life reveal a bleak existence, albeit one that is perfectly composed. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Richardson also makes use of other anti-classical techniques. The film features several rapid camera movements and zooms to show us the character’s own focus. For instance, when Colin is doing free association with the psychiatrist, we zoom in on the tape recorder, which obviously has Colin feeling ill at ease. And structurally, the telling of two linear narratives (Colin in the borstal as he prepares for a big race and Colin’s journey from freedom to the borstal) is itself disorienting, even though the flashbacks are largely shown linearly and add up to a cohesive and simple story (boy’s dad dies, boy’s mom moves a bit too quickly on a new guy, boy feels purposeless and then gets into trouble). Thus, the structure of the story and the style of the film are far more interesting than the story itself or the film itself.

These stylistic flourishes seem somewhat antithetical to the gritty realness of the movie and its statement about the stark realities of working-class life in Britain, but they are actually in line with a style of documentary films Richardson and others made in the 1950s. In fact, almost all the stylistic flourishes used in Loneliness are trademarks of the “Free Cinema” movement with which Richardson was associated. Free Cinema was a style employed in a series of highly influential independently produced documentary films showcasing the working class in England. Christophe Dupin, writing at the BFI’s Screenonline website, describes the signatures of the movement as follows: The filmmakers “used black and white film and hand-held, portable cameras, avoided or limited the use of didactic voice-over commentary, shunned narrative continuity and used sound and editing impressionistically.” Loneliness makes use of all of these to disrupt the audience’s expectations and to promote a general rebellious spirit throughout.

As a fiction film with a realist bent, Loneliness feels somewhat documentary-like, but Richardson also uses several absurdist elements that further promote an antiauthoritarian and rebellious air. Courtenay’s mouth contorts in comical ways throughout the film, providing an indication that the words he says are not the words he means. Further, the governor’s pompous proclamations (such as his insistence that sports are ultimately what make boys into good honest men) are very clearly satirized, and, indeed, there is something absurd that Colin learned to become a world-class running man (to quote a great Mr. Show sketch) by “running away from the police” as he puts it, but that he is seen by the governor as a great athlete with a chance to reform himself through running. Richardson makes an even clearer absurdist statement in the flashback scene in which Colin and his friend mute the bloated politician on the telly (I felt like employing an English-ism at least once here!) as he rails against the youth of the UK. This makes the politician powerless, as an orator without a voice is a form without a purpose, a series of inscrutable faces and hand gestures, creating a simulacrum, an empty image. The kids laugh at the way it looks, but the audience laughs at the overall rebelliousness of simply cutting down the figure of power by cutting him off.

The big race provides Colin with a final act of defiance. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
The big race provides Colin with a final act of defiance. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Much of the movie, indeed, is rebellious without being rebellious in any sort of teleologic or hermeneutic sense. That is, the protagonist is an angry young man who does bad things (according to society), but he does not make a grand gesture or provide anything much to examine. He’s not James Dean in Rebel, who acts rebellious because he is stigmatized as a rebel (and has an emasculated dad!), nor is he Marlon Brando in The Wild One, who defiantly implies he’s rebelling just because he can (“What are you rebelling against?” “What do you got?”). Rather, the protagonist here is a kid who never had a chance. Add to that that his dad is dead and his mom doesn’t seem to care and has moved on to a new (in Colin’s words) “fancy man,” and we have Hamlet if he didn’t have the directions from a ghost. And we know Hamlet could barely handle fulfilling his assigned mission—what can the youth of this picture do without a chance or a purpose? He truly is, thus, a rebel without a cause. His only cause is to not be left “scarpering” for favor. As he puts it to another schoolmate (McCowen):

What’s the point of scarpering? The best thing to do is be cunning and stay where you are. You see, I’m gonna let them think they’ve got me house trained, but they never will, the bastards. To get me beat, they’ll have to stick a rope around my neck.

Colin is punished for his defiance by losing his privileges and being forced to make gas masks with the other borstal boys. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Colin is punished for his defiance by losing his privileges and being forced to make gas masks with the other borstal boys. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The movie ends with Colin living up to his goals of gaining human freedom and promoting a sense of defiance. Colin chooses to throw the race at the last minute, the film making very clear that he could win if he wanted to. But, like Clint Eastwood walking away from the town he saves in virtually every Eastwood Western, Colin is better off not tied down and beholden to anyone. The film ends with him being another loser kid at the school, stuck making gas masks in the shop. But at least he won’t have to breathe the noxious air of the governor.

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: Yes, I enjoyed The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. TCM.com calls it an “essential,” and I agree. Speaking of which, it will be on TCM again on September 5, and I think it’s worth DVRing again (although I probably won’t, having just watched it!).

Bunny Lake is Missing

Bunny_lake_is_missing_(1965) Details:
Director: Otto Preminger         Producer: Otto Preminger
Writers: John Mortimer & Penelope Mortimer
Cast: Laurence Olivier, Carol Lynley, Keir Dullea, Martita Hunt, Anna Massey, Noël Coward, the Zombies
Studio: Columbia Pictures      Year: 1965

Why I DVRed It: There were two things that drew me to this movie. First was the Zombies, one of my favorite (that means top 100 or so, not like top five) bands of all time. The group appears on camera and contributed three songs to the film’s soundtrack. The second thing that drew me to the movie was a love of Laurence Olivier. I am especially fond of Olivier in movies that are pretty dumb (like The Boys from Brazil or Marathon Man), and this movie’s premise promised that it would be a fairly dumb movie.

Presentation on TCM: Well, once again, TCM plopped the film down with no introduction. I could not figure out why it was on either, although I know it was on during the late afternoon on a Monday. So far, since starting this website, I am 0 for 5 on movies that have any sort of introduction from a TCM person, and I have to say I’m disappointed and dispirited about it.

Synopsis: A recent emigre to England, Ann Lake (Lynley) goes to retrieve her kid, the titular Bunny Lake, from her fist day of school only to find out that (as might be gleaned from the title) she is missing. But no one at the school seems to remember her at all, and the Scotland Yard investigator called in to investigate, Superintendent Newhouse (Olivier), begins to suspect Bunny may not exist. Ann’s brother, Steven (Dullea), a reporter, tries to prove otherwise.

Analysis (contains spoilers): Bunny Lake is Missing is better titled than most movies (especially if you add an exclamation point when you say it aloud), but the film does not live up to the promise or excitement of the title. In fact, this is the first movie I’ve written about for this site that I just downright didn’t like. The movie is dull and lifeless, the acting mismatched (the heavy actors are great, the actual young stars awful), the plot twist at once obvious and too convoluted to be believed, and the film as a whole just meh, very very meh. But, bad aside, there’s still a little bit interesting in the film… just barely.

For one, the film opens with one of the better credit sequences I remember. A hand rips off pieces of paper to reveal the credits one by one, replacing the pieces again, like a person disassembling and reassembling a puzzle. Finally, the camera cuts away the final paper to reveal an English garden. The sequence (designed by Saul Bass, who also did credit sequences for Vertigo, Psycho, and West Side Story) is fun, and the score that plays over it (which serves as a leitmotif throughout the film) is catchy.

The look of the film as a whole is good too, with Preminger and the cinematographer, Denys Coop, making effective use of the deep focus lens. Everything is wide, bright, and strangely flat.

Many of the shots in the film make use or corners or tripod arrangements, but the lens makes them look flat, like here, where Newhouse and Ann's conversation almost looks to be cut in half by another police officer. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Many of the shots in the film make use or corners or tripod arrangements, but the lens makes them look flat, like here, where Newhouse and Ann’s conversation almost looks to be cut in half by another police officer. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

I say “strangely flat” because so many of the shots show corners, and the camera seems to never come on a subject head-on—it’s nearly always askew. Yet the depth of field makes each shot simply look like a 2-d shot cut in half, creating a splintered effect (perhaps to show the splintered personalities of Steven). Preminger also makes use of long tracking shots which provide an almost voyeuristic effect on the audience, as though we are creeping around the edges of the truth. This effect was especially strong on the sequence in which the creepy old man landlord (played wonderfully by Coward) watches Superintendent Newhouse drive away from Ann’s house.

So, the look of the film is good, and the music is also good. The Zombies songs on the soundtrack are all good, though they are not as good as anything from Odyssey & Oracle or some of the awesome singles (like my personal favorite, “She’s Coming Home”), but they contribute nicely to an important aspect of the film: its setting in “Swinging London.” The Zombies are not active characters in the movie by any means—they merely appear on the television twice as the band guest on a variety show—but they remind the audience that the movie is a 60s movie, even if so much of it is more like a traditional thriller of the 40s and 50s.

There are a number of movies set in that London, of course, but, while watching Bunny Lake, I found myself thinking fondly of Blow Up, a movie I have never liked as much as I think I’m supposed to like (because it’s critically acclaimed and super Mod, and people like me always are supposed to be super into Mod culture, and I like British Invasion groups and so on, I feel like I should love Blow Up, but I always just kind of thought it was ok). Blow Up was made just a year after Bunny Lake and has the same setting and similar stylistic elements (and they’re both kinda thrillers), so I don’t think my thought process was that strained; however, the movies are radically different, and, as I said, I found myself liking one in absentia a lot better than the one I was watching, probably because of those radical differences.

Part of the difference seems to stem from the dilettantism Preminger put into Bunny Lake is Missing. It is a movie about a specific time and place (London in the present of 1965), but it barely uses anything unique about London in 1965 as a setting, even though Preminger chose to change the setting of the book from the USA to London. The film references 60s era topics such as protests—Stephen mentions covering a student demonstration at the airport as part of his job as a journalist—and it has some rock and roll in the diegetic soundtrack, but largely the film is out of time. It shows a group of middle class Americans who are new to England but uninterested in exploring the world or really introducing the world to the American film audience. Despite their newness to the nation, Ann and Stephen seem surprisingly adept at navigating London until the unthinkable happens. But even then, they manage. They impress the antiquated detective enough to keep him interested in the case, and he shows Carol (and by extension the audience) a “traditional English pub,” but no one ventures past the superficial elements of England.

The Zombies play on TV in the English pub—they are not part of the movie, just part of the diegetic experience.  © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
The Zombies play on TV in the English pub—they are not part of the movie, just part of the diegetic experience. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Preminger chose to set the film in England largely so he could make use of some of his favorite London settings—including the creepy as Hell “doll hospital” at which Stephen is revealed as a villain—and these settings definitely contribute to the atmospherics of the film, but they are not places that only exist in 60s London. Rather, they could exist anywhere theoretically. Thrillers like this tend to be set in “no place” because the audience is scared that the plot could happen anywhere—including next door!— but it seems that a movie that uses a weirdly specific setting ought to more fully utilize that setting. The film should more clearly feel like it’s part of London in the 60s. But, of course, that’s not the point of this movie. Instead, it halfheartedly puts elements of the youth culture in it but does not embrace them (hence the Zombies merely being TV noise). The world of Bunny Lake may be transitioning into the 1960s, but the world shown is still pretty much the same it always was and will remain the same for the characters of the movie, aside from Stephen who will presumably be committed, of course. The setting is secondary to the story here, but if the film had embraced the setting a bit more, it all might have left a better finished product.

Blow Up, on the other hand, shows a bizarro world, following a fashion photographer as he shiftlessly investigates a crime through the swingingest parts of London (the plot is weird; I described it to my girlfriend once as an episode of Hart to Hart without Robert Wagner). The scene featuring the Yardbirds (themselves a more aggressive form of the Zombies) is prominent in the film, and the film shows rather than merely talks about protesters. It is an element of the 60s, a film that preserves the time period and serves as an artifact from it. Bunny Lake is simply a movie from the same era and a largely forgettable one at that.

And that’s fine. I’m not trying to suggest that Bunny Lake has the same aim as Blow Up. The former is a mass-market big studio thriller, the latter an art-house picture.

It’s just that both films do largely the same things (thrillers with oddly specific settings featuring rock bands), but Bunny Lake does it so halfheartedly and disinterestedly. I suppose one could say that shows something about how much the world changed between 1965 and 1966, but that seems a bit strained. Really, Blow Up is just a more competent film, and Bunny Lake is kinda shitty.

One lesson to draw from Bunny Lake is how important subtlety is to a good horror movie or thriller. Olivier’s presence reminded me of Rebecca, a film that feels creepy throughout and makes better use of its atmospherics (to see the atmospherics, here’s the opening to that film in Spanish). Bunny Lake makes use of extreme atmospherics and creepiness, but it never gets creepy.

This doll hospital is legitimately terrifying. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
This doll hospital is legitimately terrifying. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The doll hospital is creepy in a carnival-haunted-house-ride way, and the room the founder of Bunny’s school, Ada Ford (Hunt) (who sits in an attic-type room and writes down and listens to audio tapes of children’s nightmares), sits in is frightening too. The atmospherics though don’t contribute anything to the final product besides a general creepiness, because they are so overdone. And, of course, because the plot is just so stupid.

And the stupidest part of the plot is the twist that Ann’s brother is a schizophrenic. This is meant to be as terrifying as the setting (who knows what kind of evil lurks in your loved ones!), but it never gets interesting, nor is it a terrifying twist. The twist in Rebecca, however, is surprising and unsettling, in part because the film as whole is just plain better than Bunny Lake but in part because the atmospherics are more subtle and better done (even in spite of the hammy cousin and some of the more bizarre elements of Manderley). The psychological thriller component of Bunny Lake just ends up being dull and stupid.

Shots like this one so foreshadow the plot twist that it becomes obvious. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Shots like this one so foreshadow the plot twist that it becomes obvious. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The result is a tired and uneven movie that has elements that should make it good (60s London, scene-stealing acting from Olivier/Coward/Hunt, a nice look, a fun sequence in a doll shop) but that largely just dress up a tedious swine in some Mod pearls.

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: No, probably not. I didn’t like this movie, and it felt like a waste of time. I guess I liked seeing the Zombies in small doses, but I never got that interested in this film. Maybe if I saw it in the theater, it would’ve been better, but it definitely did not play well in my living room, off of DVR.

Meet Me in St. Louis

Meet Me in St. Louis movie poster. Lithograph, 1944. Missouri Historical Society, Photographs and Prints Collection. NS 21652. Scan © 2004, Missouri Historical Society.
Lithograph, 1944. Missouri Historical Society, Photographs and Prints Collection. NS 21652. Scan © 2004, Missouri Historical Society.

Details:
Director: Vincente Minnelli        Producer: Arthur Freed
Writers: Irving Brecher & Fred F. Finklehoffe
Cast: Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer, Leon Ames, Tom Drake
Studio: MGM   Year: 1944

Why I DVRed It: A lifetime ago, I won a part in a staged production of Meet Me in St. Louis. After a grueling audition process, I won the highly coveted roles of both a nameless chorus member and an anonymous square dancer in a junior high production of the musicial in suburban Minneapolis. It was my first and last foray into the world of the theater, musical or otherwise. In fact, the experience was so unpleasant (believe it or not, middle school students are not nice to each other) that I was forever turned off by musicals (which I also wasn’t enamored of before learning all the words to “The Trolley Song”). Since then, of course, I’ve halfway come around to them. That is, I don’t seek them out typically, but I’ll go to a live one if someone else wants to go, or I’ll watch a movie musical if it’s supposed to be really good or at least doesn’t look awful. That has led me to see some good and some not so good films. Singing in the Rain was, of course, a delight, but even a fascination in all things Elvis could not make me stomach Bye Bye BirdieMeet Me in St. Louis is generally lumped (along with Singing in the Rain) into that category of “critically acclaimed musicals,” so I figured it couldn’t be terrible.

Additionally, I was looking to watch something that didn’t seem too intense. I’ve been watching and reading too many crime stories lately, and I wanted something saccharine—this movie seemed about as sappy as I could get.

Presentation on TCM: This was on at 4 in the morning, a time when TCM does not seem to bring out the big guns (Robert Osborne or Ben Mankiewicz). I have no idea why it was on at 4 in the morning, either—that is, there was no theme I could discern from that evening/morning’s lineup. I guess the mindset was that the type of people up at 4 in the morning (the elderly, laborers, insomniacs, hard partiers, and lunatics) would be the type most likely to watch a Minnelli musical in Technicolor.

Louisiana purchase centennial, World’s fair, St. Louis, 1904 (1903).
Louisiana Purchase Centennial, World’s Fair, St. Louis, 1904 (1903).

Synopsis: This is a musical in which the plot seems secondary in import to having ample opportunity for song and dance numbers. The year is 1903, and everyone in St. Louis is ridiculously excited for the World’s Fair the city will host the following year, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. In the Smith household, Esther (Garland) has a crush on the next-door neighbor, John Truett (Drake), and Rose (Bremer) pines for her boyfriend in New York to propose. Meanwhile, the youngest child, the doted-upon Tootie (O’Brien) has a morbid sense of humor, and the father, Alonso (Ames), decides to uproot everyone to New York—even though St. Louis is where the World’s Fair is going to be!

Analysis (contains spoilers): Meet Me in St. Louis is often regarded as one of the best of the big Hollywood musicals. In 1944, it was an instant hit and further cemented Judy Garland’s star. It was the first collaboration between her and director Vincente Minneli, her eventual husband. Garland was originally very uninterested in the film, both because it exacerbated her already overstrained schedule and because the film did not appear to have much potential. Indeed, the film was known around MGM as “Freed’s Folly” while it was being filmed. The choice of an unproven Minnelli did not help, and filming was difficult for all on the set. (For a great breakdown of the creation of the film, please visit The Judy Room.) Nevertheless, all were happy with the finished product, which raked in millions nationwide and had a profound impact on the morale of American theatergoers during the third year of World War II. Indeed, the film became something of a national treasure.

And it’s easy to see why: It shows America as the audience wants it to be, not as it is. I can’t say I particularly liked the film, but I didn’t not like it either. I just couldn’t get past a lot of the problems I have with musicals in general. The plot is quite thin (as was probably gleaned from my synopsis), and the music here pretty much never furthers the plot. All of the songs are performance pieces for characters in the movie (i.e., the characters sing standalone songs for each other’s amusement, rather than for the purpose of plot), and they could just as easily be cut for one to follow the story, not unlike the sex scenes in a porno. But, of course, the audience of St. Louis is primarily watching the movie to see Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, et al, sing, so cutting the songs would make as much sense as cutting the sex from a porno. If I were more inclined to liking musicals, I might think better of the film, but I’m not, and I don’t.

The song numbers, true, are very good. I’m far from the first person in the history of the world to note this, but Judy Garland’s got quite the voice on her. And her acting (along with that of O’Brien and Astor) makes up for rather mediocre acting from most others in the cast. I did rather like the look of the film: Set designers clearly played up and utilized all that Technicolor offered. The house, for instance, which is basically the only set for the entire movie, is quite richly decorated with lush tapestries and colorful furniture, and all of the characters wear beautiful costumes that create a variegated look to each scene.

Rose and Esther talk about the hot guy next door, but they do so in such vivid color! © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.
Rose and Esther talk about the hot guy next door, but they do so in such vivid color! © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

MGM spared no expense on this movie (remember, film stock—especially color film stock—and lighting were extremely expensive in the war years), and audiences certainly appreciated it. In truth, the look of the film makes up for a lot of its problems. The songs are all well sung but sparsely choreographed, leaving very little to focus on if not the colors. And Minnelli’s framing device, opening each season with a color postcard that turns into a live-action shot of the house, is clever for setting up the plot. I just couldn’t get past the thinness of said plot and the fact that I never really cared about the Smith family or their exploits.

What little plot there is centers around 1904’s Louisiana Purchase Exposition, a world’s fair that is today as forgotten as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 is celebrated. It was a big deal in 1904, of course, but today it is known only for its controversial displays of newly conquered “primitive Americans” (from Guam and the Philippines) and for being the place that popularized cotton candy, waffle cones, peanut butter, and other foods. In fact, the 1904 World’s Fair is probably best remembered today as the setting for Meet Me in St. Louis (even though the film only has one scene actually at the fair…). It is, however, the lack of historical import of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition that makes the fair such a perfect setting for a film that celebrates an idealized portrayal of American life; after all, few could challenge the veracity of the film’s portrayal of a fair about which few had much knowledge. The fair’s themes also underscore the idealized patriotic themes of the film. A decade after the “closing of the frontier,” the fair celebrated American expansionism (quite literally, it celebrated the centennial of the doubling of America), and, in 1944, the height of World War II, the setting of a fair celebrating world peace clearly harkens to an era of innocence. And this innocence appears permanent in the diegetic St. Louis of the film, rather than (as in the case of soooooooo many films about the 1960s for instance) as something just on the cusp of passing. If the film were set during the Chicago World’s Fair, for instance, world peace would still be on display, but so too would change—in the form of electricity. The St. Louis World’s Fair, though, just celebrated “nice things” and optimism about the future.

Of course, such innocence never truly existed, but that is exactly the point of the film. Meet Me in St. Louis showcased the idealized American life later (and concurrently) embodied by Norman Rockwell paintings, It’s a Wonderful Life (two years later), and Walt Disney. In fact, Disney’s theme parks much resemble the look and feel of the film, with the parks’ Main Street, USA showcasing the same Midwest of the early 20th century of Meet Me in St. Louis. Disney World’s Carousel of Progress, especially, bares striking resemblance to the film. In that attraction, the audience watches an animatronic old man describe all the great things technology has wrought and describes the story of America in the 20th century teleologically. The audience learns that technology is improving the quality of life for everyone while the narrator omits some of the events that actually brought about those changes (e.g., the Great Depression, World War II, the 60s). But, of course, no one wants to go to an amusement park and be bummed out about war and stuff. And that’s exactly the purpose Meet Me in St. Louis served. It offered an escape (it still offers an escape) from what was really going on in the world. The America of the film was simply a nice place in which everyone had enough of everything, including money, opportunity, love, family, and optimism.

Even the Smith's house (which is pretty much the setting for everything in the film) is an idealized
Even the Smith’s house (which is pretty much the setting for everything in the film) is an idealized “typical American” house. In reality, it is clearly the house of a wealthy family, but the world of Meet Me in St. Louis is classless, in that we never see anyone of another class (other than the family maid, but she’s sassy and a member of the family). © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

The film almost overtly projects certain ideals of American life. For one, it offers a very mawkish and romantic vision of American family life. The Smiths are meant to be an every family (even the name Smith is as generic as can be), and their middle class Victorianism is meant to look appealing to the audience. Indeed, the family is loving and affectionate to each other. Even after the father decides completely by himself and out of nowhere to uproot the family to New York (as is his right as the male in a Victorian family) and tears are shed, the family reunites over the piano to join in a popular song. Love unites the family, and music is the language of love (at least according to Shakespeare).

The film also offers the idea that the true center of American family life is out there, away from the corrupt cities of the East. St. Louis is where it’s at, and it’s where true families want to live. Tootie, a child strangely obsessed with death and disease (for more on that subject, read See St. Louis and Die) is particularly upset about the move to New York, and Esther tries to calm her by singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (yes, Meet Me in St. Louis is the source of that cherished holiday classic), but Tootie runs out to destroy the snowmen she and the rest of the family created in a schmaltzy sequence earlier in the film. In typical 40s movie fashion, Alonso watches from a window as Esther tries to stop Tootie from destroying the snow family:

Tootie: Nobody’s going to have [the snowmen], not if we can’t take them to New York! I’d rather kill them if we can’t take them with us!
Esther: Oh, Tootie, don’t cry. Don’t cry. It’s all right. You can build other snow people in New York.
Tootie: No, you can’t! You can’t do any of the things that I can do in St. Louis!
Esther: No, no, Tootie, you’re wrong. New York is a wonderful town. Everybody dreams about going there, but we’re luckier than lots of families because we’re really going… Thats’s what really counts. We could be happy anywhere as long as we’re together. 

Tootie destroys the snow family (a very heavyhanded representation of the Smiths and, by extension, the American family at large)—before New York City can. . © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.
Tootie destroys the snow family (a very heavy-handed representation of the Smiths and, by extension, the American family at large)—before New York City can.  © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

After watching this, Alonso reverses course and decides to stay in St. Louis. Interestingly, New York is the “desired place” but not the place the family is supposed to end up. The film makes a startling cry for suburban/rural domesticity and middle class values. (As someone who has been in New York too long, I guess I can agree with that sentiment—New York in July is a garbage city that smells like garbage, the same garbage that lines the garbage streets I have to walk to get to the subway overcrowded with assholes and maniacs, but I digress.) St. Louis has enough, apparently, for Tootie, whose happiness is utmost. Children were, of course, the most important aspect of any Victorian family, and Alonso knows better than to want more than what he needs: Though New York probably would allow him to get richer, he is rich enough with his gigantic house, servant, and loving children (plus, logically, the St. Louis hosting both the World’s Fair and the Olympics would probably have some ways for him to get more money if he really wanted it).

Morals do not come up in this film because no one is immoral, but they just as easily could. St. Louis is pure (note that the scene described above takes place in the driven snow), and Tootie implies that family itself will die once the family is away from America’s heartland. She will kill them all (as she kills the snowmen) if New York doesn’t kill the family first.  Finally, though, it is not the ills of New York that prevent him from moving the family; rather, it’s the joys of St. Louis. Alonso states that “New York hasn’t got opportunity copyrighted. St. Louis is headed for a boom.”

Indeed, the film ends on an even stronger pronouncement of that sentiment. As the newly engaged Esther and John gaze at the Grand Lagoon at the center of the World’s Fair, she looks right at the camera and says, of the fair, “I can’t believe it. Right here where we live, right here in St. Louis.” The film ends implying that the world is now coming to the United States, making the United States the center of the world. As World War II came to and end, this would be true, and the middle class values of Meet Me in St. Louis demonstrated just what the world should look like at war’s end (should, not would).

The world is coming to St. Louis. © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.
The world is coming to St. Louis. © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

It doesn’t matter that such innocence and optimism lack verisimilitude. Minnelli, in fact, makes it clear throughout that the film is a fiction and not realistic (for example, the framing device of announcing the seasons seems to suggest that the film shows an imagined story about what could happen in a picture postcard world). Instead, Meet Me in St. Louis provides exactly what musicals espouse: a world for us to aspire to and dream about, something, as Esther puts it of her first encounter with John, “strange and romantic.”

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: Yeah, I think so. I didn’t particularly like the film, but that’s just because I’m a misanthrope and cynic. It was well done, and it certainly provided me with something to think about (even if I only thought about it misanthropically and cynically). I think it’s important to at least occasionally watch movies that I might not normally pick (and to try new foods and listen to new bands, and all that “variety is the spice of life” shit), and I’m glad I made myself watch this one. I probably won’t watch it again, of course, but I might occasionally accidentally hum “meet me in St. Louis, Louis” or “clang clang clang went the trolley…”

Point Blank

Details:
Director: John Boorman
Producers: Judd Bernard, Robert Chartoff, & Irwin Winkler
Writers: Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse & Rafe Newhouse
Cast: Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Keenan Wynn, Carroll O’Connor, Lloyd Bochner, Michael Strong
Studio: MGM   Year: 1967

Why I DVRed It: I had heard of this movie somewhere at some time, but I honestly don’t remember the context. Apparently (I found out later!), it is something of a cult classic, so my guess is that I heard of it from talking to someone who liked to put on airs by talking about “obscure” films from the past… someone not at all like me, the person writing about films from the past.

Anyway, in truth, I think I DVRed this because I had the Bruce Springsteen song “Point Blank” (from 1980’s underrated album The River) in my head the week I saw this on the schedule, and it seemed like too much of a coincidence to not embrace, especially when I read the description and saw the names Lee Marvin and John Boorman. What the hell, right?

Presentation on TCM: This was presented as part of TCM’s “Summer of Darkness” series, which has turned out to have some real gems on it (spoiler alert: Point Blank isn’t one of these gems). No one introduced the movie, although my DVR did capture the ending of The Third Man, which included some discussion from a host I’ve never seen before. So, it was kind of like getting an introduction…

Synopsis: This is a simple revenge movie. At the Alcatraz drop point for a heist, Reese (Vernon) betrays Walker (Marvin), his partner, shooting him at point blank range (like the title!).

Walker looks on to the mainland after surviving his killing at Alcatraz. © 1967 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

Somehow, Walker lives and decides he wants the money he was owed… as well as blood. The enigmatic Yost (Wynn) gives him directions about how he can get revenge on the people who set him up, including Reese, Walker’s ex-wife (who is sleeping with Reese), and the crime syndicate (the clandestine “Organization”) that is connected to the heist and that refuses to acknowledge that Walker is owed anything, regardless of the relatively meager size of the debt Walker seeks.

Analysis (contains spoilers): Point Blank is a simple movie dressed up in a complicated package. There is nothing in its story that is particularly innovative, but the style is fresh. It’s glossy and makes uses of interesting shots as well as rapid cutaways and flashbacks. These allow the viewer a subjectivity not typically displayed in revenge films, except when those revenge films are crafted for us to empathize with the revenge seeker (because of the tragic death of his family, for instance). Point Blank is not a film that causes subjective empathy though, because very little is really on the line. Walker doesn’t seem particularly upset about his wife leaving him or his being left for dead. He’s a stoic absurdist hero or antihero (like Mersault in The Stranger). Walker is a man who simply “walks” in and out of trouble, and he could just as easily walk away from any of the action at any point in the film. While everything is shown through Walker’s perspective and psyche, Walker himself is hard to care about because he doesn’t seem to care about anything himself.

That is not to say that Walker would not be justified in his anger or any other emotion. He should be pissed off—Reese has taken his wife, his share of the money, and his life. Everyone assumes Walker is dead, and it is hard to see how he survived the assassination attempt, but he does (or does he?— some critics and fans posit that he imagines the whole movie in his last fits of death, a reading that defies textual evidence and logic albeit not as much logic as the fact of Walker’s surviving a shooting at point blank range…Far more likely is that these theories misinterpret a quotation from Boorman in which he states that Walker “could just as easily be a ghost or a shadow” as a real person, because of his ability to survive and infiltrate the Organization). But the phlegmatic Walker does not seem to care about his wife (who commits suicide after he confronts her) nor about his death. Rather, he only cares about the money he is owed, and even that he only seems to care about to a point. He uses it as a justification for his killing spree, but that’s all it is: an excuse.

Walker kills because he can and is blasé about it. But look at how pretty Boorman makes it look! © 1967 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.
Walker kills because he can and is blasé about it. But look at how pretty Boorman makes the violence look! © 1967 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

Walker is, thus, very much a 60s type character: desultory, detached, disillusioned, and demoralized. The audience of the time is supposed to identify with his countercultural instincts, even while he stands for nothing, like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate or Bonnie and Clyde, but the film misuses the subjectivity it establishes, because it never makes the audience like Walker the way it likes Bonnie and Clyde, because Walker’s not compelling (though Lee Marvin’s screen charisma is undeniable); he’s just an animal clawing his way through a tough-to-survive world. Walker’s survival depends upon his distrust of others and his unwillingness to compromise on his one demand: the money he is owed and not a penny more. Really, though, it just depends on his expertise at killing and his lack of feeling for others.

The film gives him one character to care about, Chris (Dickinson), the sister of his now deceased wife, who tells him that she always thought he was the best thing that ever happened to her sister (poor girl if the best thing that ever happened to her is a relationship with a terse homicidal maniac lacking a first name). Walker and Chris establish a relationship (despite her not having a known last name and him never having a first name), but it is not a loving one. He uses her sexuality to gain entrance to Reese’s LA penthouse when it’s under lockdown, and later in the movie, while waiting for Brewster in his house somewhere outside of LA, she hits him until he agrees to have sex with her. Thus, Chris is a tough broad who, apparently, needs little from Walker other than to be used sexually, even if it means beating Walker up to get her way.

But even with her pre-and post-coitally, he remains one thing: cool. Yost tells him early on to “take it easy—you’ll last longer.” And Walker embraces the advice. He is always calmer than the world around him, allowing him to control each situation and stay alive. While each of his victims either rushes into confrontation, begs, or barters, Walker is fine with sitting back and waiting. This allows a would-be Walker assassin to kill Carter (Bochner) instead of him, as Walker hides in the shadows watching. This coolness under pressure is reminiscent of the Clint Eastwood characters that would come later, particularly in the Westerns, but Walker seems to stand for even less than Josey Wales (and certainly less than the fascist wetdream Harry Callahan). Again, I think the audience is supposed to just like him because he is “cool,” but so what?

Nothing about Walker as a character is all that interesting. I guess he could be read as a character embodying a dying ideal of manhood and purpose in a changing America. He does not seem to understand, for instance, that the world does not work the way he thinks it does—he can’t, for instance, just get money from the people who owe it to him. As he climbs up the Organization (the nefarious cabal that Reese was attempting to buy into), he learns from Brewster (O’Connor, a highlight of the casting) that money isn’t what it once was. Brewster tells him:

Let me tell you something about corporations. This is a corporation, and I’m an officer in it. We deal in millions, we never see cash. I got about $ 11 in my pocket.

Walker is framed by his last victim, Brewster, and the woman he uses to get his vengeance, Chris. © 1967 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.
Walker is framed here by his last victim, Brewster, and the woman he uses to get his vengeance, Chris. © 1967 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

Walker would be better suited getting money from a bank or Western stagecoach, but instead he is attempting to rob a modern business, making him an anachronism, a man out of his element. That’s mildly interesting, I suppose, but the film doesn’t quite sell that point. Instead, Walker is just a man who seems to kill for no other reason than to kill, and he quits and “walks” away (sorry to keep emphasizing the obviousness of his moniker—I just think it’s kind of stupid) when he finds out he’s been a puppet for the shadowy Yost the whole time.

So what makes this movie a cult classic, which it apparently is? The movie (like most cult classics) was a bit ahead of its time. Most historians mark the birth of New Hollywood in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. Point Blank, also released in 1967, is right on the cusp then, but it never found the audience of either picture. Part of it is because the movie isn’t quite counterculture enough to really be “New Hollywood.” Lee Marvin insisted that John Boorman, directing his first feature in America, be granted final edit and be in charge of all casting decisions. Boorman made the film look very much like a 1967 production, but the story isn’t that far off a typical Lee Marvin Western. And Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson (she of the Rat Pack) weren’t exactly the stars the youth clamored to see. So, Point Blank disappointed at the box office. A lack of financial success is, of course, a prerequisite for cult classic status.

Second, the movie could be seen as an influence for other directors looking to make movies that are overly violent but lack any real causality for the violence. Walker always has a simplistic raison d’être for his killing, but everyone can see through it. Really, he’s like Travis Bickle or Rambo: he’s killing just because he can. The character of Walker is incredibly common in films these days (see John Wick, Taken, or any number of Jason Statham movies), so Point Blank’s influence is easy to see. Cult classic films are usually influential too—that’s how they endure.

Third, the film has some elements that make it more interesting than my analysis would suggest. It contains several elements of the New Wave cinema, including sweeping and long tracking shots, the aforementioned quick cuts, and some interesting cinematographic techniques to distort the audience’s expectations. Chief among these are the focus on bright lights moving in and out of focus when helicopters land and the often disorienting splices into memory. Take the film’s opening sequence. Walker is in a prison cell, mumbling “How did I get here?” We cut to a flashback of a mob of men in suits fighting. One says, “I need your help.” That is a far cry from the beginning of a traditional revenge story. It is more similar to the beginning of Apocalypse Now (which also has some New Wave elements) than it is to, say, The Outlaw Josey Wales (which succinctly provides the reason for Josey’s revenge while also summarizing the Civil War). In Point Blank, the audience is just as confused about Walker’s circumstances as Walker seems to be. The director plays with this through the use of some very clever camera work. Boorman uses a lot of reflection and stacked images throughout the movie to make the audience unsure of exactly what he/she should be looking at in each scene. This keeps one confused throughout and makes the film much more compelling to watch than it has any right to be.

The film contains several “stacked” reflection shots like this one. Such shots allow the viewer to focus on what he/she wants. © 1967 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

So, all of this combines to make the film popular with a certain audience. I’m not that audience, even while I can find redeeming elements of it (e.g., the subjectivity, the cinematographic tricks, the screen presence of Marvin and O’Connor). As an aside, it was the first film to be shot in Alcatraz. So, we wouldn’t have The Rock (and other films!) without Point Blank I guess.

Should I have DVRed This on TCM: I don’t know. The movie was… fine. It was fine. I didn’t think it was unenjoyable; it just wasn’t anything all that great or informative or profound or anything like that. But that’s a good thing. It’s a simple revenge movie, and it doesn’t try to make any overly profound statements. I usually hate it when movies don’t know their place (that is, when an action movie tries to get “deep” for instance), and this one did know its place. I liked the New Hollywood styling of it—the quick cuts to flashbacks, for instance—and Marvin and O’Connor are enjoyable; I just never felt like I cared about Walker. When Walker “walks” away from Yost, the puppetmaster, at the end of the film, without his money, the audience is supposed to feel vindicated that Walker is his own man, but I just was bored by then.

If I were more inclined to liking action movies, I might say it was fantastic. I just don’t really like the genre, even when the movie is one that is at least somewhat influential on later examples of the genre (I noticed, for instance, similarities between Point Blank and Get Carter—movies lacking clear morals and personal stakes (unlike, say, Death Wish)). And I legitimately thought the movie was rather interesting to look at (like cinematographically). So, yeah, I guess I should’ve DVRed it, but I definitely would not DVR it again.