Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Stagecoach (1939)

The disreputable doctor who cracks wise and drinks heavily, but sobers up when the chips are down. The golden-haired prostitute who brightens incandescently when a naive cowpoke calls her “a lady.” The shifty-eyed gambler with a gun at his side and, presumably, an ace up his sleeve.

And, of course: The square-jawed, slow-talking gunfighter who’s willing to hang up his shootin’ irons — who’s even agreeable to mending his ways and settling down on a small farm with a good woman — but not before he settles some unfinished business with the varmints who terminated his loved ones.

Why? Because, as the gunfighter tersely notes, “There are some things a man can’t run away from.”

These and other familiar figures had already established themselves as archetypes by 1939, that magical movie year in which Stagecoach premiered. Even so, director John Ford’s must-see masterwork arguably is the first significant Western of the talking-pictures era, the paradigm that cast the mold, set the rules and firmly established the dramatis personae for all later movies of its kind. Indeed, it single-handedly revived the genre after a long period of box-office doldrums, elevating the Western to a new level of critical and popular acceptance.

And unlike, say, Raoul Walsh’s creaky and badly dated The Big Trail (1930) — John Wayne’s first starring vehicle, but a career-stalling flop in its time —Stagecoach remains a lot of fun to watch.

Ford’s film is a classically simple tale of strangers united in close quarters for a brief but intensely dramatic interlude. In this case, the characters are passengers aboard an Overland Stage Line coach during a dangerous trek through Indian Territory. The journey begins in the small town of Tonto (no, really) as two social outcasts — Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), a gleefully roguish alcoholic, and Dallas (Claire Trevor), a tearfully vulnerable prostitute — are forcibly exiled by the good ladies of The Law and Order League.

These pariahs board the stage to Lordsburg along with Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt), a very proper and very pregnant Army wife; Hartfield (John Carradine), a courtly gambler who appoints himself as Mrs. Mallory’s protector; Peacock (Donald Meek), a mild-mannered whiskey salesman whose sample case is progressively depleted by Doc Boone; and, at the last minute, Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a blustering banker who has absconded with the contents of his office safe. Buck (Andy Devine) is the driver, and Sheriff Wilcox (George Bancroft) rides shotgun. Just outside of Tonto, the travelers are joined by The Ringo Kid, a boyishly handsome gunfighter who has broken out of prison to avenge his murdered father and brothers.

As Ringo — the role that saved him from the professional purgatory of B-movies — John Wayne makes one of the greatest entrances in movie history: While he spins a rifle like a six-gun, the camera rapidly tracks toward him, then frames him heroically, almost worshipfully, in a flattering close-up. Ringo is a friendly and forthcoming fellow, even when dealing with Sheriff Wilcox. But he leaves no room for doubt that he’s quite capable of minding his own bloody business at the end of the line.

If you’re familiar with Stagecoach only through its reputation, or if you’ve seen nothing more than cut-and-paste highlights from Ford’s classic, you may be surprised by the movie’s intimacy. To be sure, the majestic landscapes of Monument Valley — to which Ford returned for several subsequent Westerns — are grandly impressive. And the much-imitated Indian assault on the speeding stagecoach, replete with breathtaking stunt work choreographed by the legendary Yakima Canutt, is every bit as exciting as its reputation attests.

But what really makes Stagecoach so vital and memorable is the emotionally charged interaction among its vividly drawn characters. Much of the movie consists of expressionistically lit interior scenes. (Orson Welles reportedly viewed Stagecoach several times as part of his preparations for making Citizen Kane.) And in many of its most memorable moments, the archetypes reveal unexpected depth and complexity. Even Carradine’s ostentatious gambler turns out to be truly chivalrous in his fashion, redeeming himself gracefully under fire. And Wayne demonstrates that, long before his speech patterns and body language ossified into self-parody, he could give as soulfully affecting a performance as any hero who ever rode hard and shot straight in the most American of movie genres.

And by the way: Has any film actor ever had a better year than Stagecoach co-star Thomas Mitchell did in 1939? Consider: In addition to earning an Oscar for his work in Ford's classic, he also contributed memorable performances to Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings, Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and (playing opposite Charles Laughton's Quasimodo) William Dieterle's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And, not incidentally, he played the heroine's dad in a little movie called Gone With the Wind. Cowabunga.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Public Enemy (1931)

Despite what you’ve heard from four or five four generations of nightclub comics and impressionists, James Cagney always insisted that he never really said “You dirty rat!” in any of his movies. Not even in William Wellman’s The Public Enemy, where such verbal belligerence typified his portrayal of Tom Powers, a cocky and crafty bootlegger whose unbound id, hair-trigger temper and insatiable appetites have enduringly defined the character as a prototype for cinema’s most memorably monstrous gangsters.

On the other hand, Cagney most certainly did shove a grapefruit into the face of co-star Mae Clark during a key moment of Wellman’s 1931 classic. Decades after the movie’s first release, this celebrated scene remains shocking in the sheer casualness of its brutality. Cagney’s bantamweight thug tires of nonstop nagging by his increasingly annoying girlfriend during breakfast, so he simply grabs the first object at hand to silence her yapping. It’s not merely a spontaneous gesture, it’s a wielding of absolute power -- he does it because, dammit, he’s entitled to do it. You won’t find a scarier example of nonchalant sociopathy this side of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990), wherein Joe Pesci’s demented Mafioso matter-of-factly shoots a troublesome waiter, then kills the poor guy for complaining.

Cagney didn’t merely become a star, he established himself as an icon in The Public Enemy. With showboating displays of mannerisms that would forever define his on-screen persona -- the frightfully ambiguous smile, the insolent curl of his lip, the staccato delivery of dialogue, the chronic hitching of his pants with clenched fists – he gives a performance at once theatrically stylized and persuasively naturalistic. And if that sounds contradictory, well, that’s also part of his magic. As actor Malcolm McDowell, a Cagney admirer, perceptively noted, “The point is that you believed him – and he was real, but not realistic. They’re different worlds altogether.”

Cagney was the right man in the right role at the right time. During Wellman’s must-see movie, his Tom Powers traverses an arc that begins with increasingly violent juvenile delinquency – he’s betrayed by a Fagin-like crime boss, Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell), who later pays dearly for his treachery -- and reaches an apogee with his spectacular success as a mid-level mobster. Along with Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), a childhood friend and long-time partner in crime, Tom makes his mark as sales representative for a bootlegger with unforgiving rules regarding product placement. Tom enjoys fast women (including a sexy young Jean Harlow) and big money, much to the mounting concern of his saintly mother (Beryl Mercer) and Mike (Donald Cook), his honest brother.

Much of the violence in The Public Enemy – including the shooting of the traitorous Putty Nose, and the vengeance killing of a horse that may have inspired similar animal cruelty in The Godfather (1972) – occurs off-camera. (Steven Soderbergh makes a specific visual allusion to the film’s violent climax – Tom goes into a rival gangster’s den and, while the camera remains discreetly outside, wreaks bloody havoc – in his own 1999 drama, The Limey.) But there’s never any attempt to soft-pedal the unadulterated joy Tom takes in dishing out rough stuff. When Mike dares to complain about Tom’s murderous business methods, Tom sneers at his sibling, a decorated WWI vet, and sarcastically snaps: “You didn’t get those medals for holding hands with the Germans!”

In the end, of course, crime can’t pay and the criminal must die: The final scene has Tom deposited as a bandage-wrapped corpse on his poor mother’s doorstep. But that grisly quietus does relatively little to dim the attractive glow of earlier scenes that tend to glamorize strutting outlawry and conspicuous consumption. Those elements were potently symbolic, and politically charged, in an era before the Production Code curtailed violence and other antisocial behavior in movies. Many Depression Era audiences, enduring unemployment and deprivation in the wake of the stock market crash, dreamed of revenge against a system that had failed them. As a result, gangsters of the sort essayed by Cagney, Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar, 1930), Paul Muni (Scarface, 1932) and Humphrey Bogart (The Petrified Forest, 1936) frequently were greeted as fantasy fulfillments.

Even now, Tom Powers’ nose-thumbing disregard for convention (to say nothing of his lack of impulse control) is echoed in the protagonists of contemporary crime stories – Casino, The Sopranos, etc. – and gangsta-rapper music videos. Robert Warshaw insightfully illuminated the phenomenon in The Gangster as Tragic Hero, his seminal 1949 essay, when he noted that a character such as Cagney’s natural-born killer “appeals to that side of all of us which refuses to believe in the ‘normal’ possibilities of happiness and achievement; the gangster is the ‘no’ to the great American ‘yes’ which is stamped so big over our official culture and yet has so little to do with the way we really feel about our lives… And the story of his career is a nightmare inversion of the values of ambition and opportunity.”

His Girl Friday (1940)

It’s the kind of grand Old Hollywood story that, if not true, should be. Filmmaker Howard Hawks claimed on several occasions, to a variety of sympathetic interviewers, that he was entertaining dinner guests in his home during the late 1930s when someone steered the conversation toward the fine art of movie dialogue. Hawks flatly announced that the best dialogue he’d ever heard came from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and that the very best Hecht-MacArthur dialogue came from The Front Page, their exuberantly cynical 1928 stage play about roguish reporters covering an execution in a colorfully corrupt Chicago.

To prove his point, Hawks produced two copies of the original Front Page script. (Pretty convenient, his just happening to have those scripts on hand, but never mind.) He gave one copy to a young lady in attendance, and asked her to read the part of Hildy Johnson, the veteran reporter who vows to quit the wordsmith racket so he can marry into wealth and respectability. Hawks himself read the part of Walter Burns, the robustly unscrupulous editor who will use any means, fair or foul, to keep Johnson on the staff of his newspaper.

“And in the middle of it,” Hawks recalled, “I said, ‘My Lord, it’s better with a girl reading it than the way it was!’” Which led, according to Hawks, to his remaking The Front Page – previously filmed in 1931 by Lewis Milestone, with Adolph Menjou and Pat O’Brien in the leads -- as His Girl Friday.

Fact or fiction? As author Todd McCarthy notes in his admiring biography, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, it’s mighty strange that no dinner guest, including the unidentified woman who read Hildy, ever mentioned being present during this fateful evening in Hawks’ home. And it’s even stranger to imagine Hawks, aptly described by McCarthy as “the antithesis of the fast-talking, hard-driving verbal type,” zipping through the rapid-fire repartee penned by Hecht and MacArthur.

But so what? To paraphrase a line from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – spoken, appropriately enough, by a newspaper editor – when the legend becomes accepted as fact, why print anything but the legend? The story may be apocryphal, but it exemplifies an anything-goes, seat-of-the-pants creative process that we’ve come to accept, even romanticize, as typical of Hollywood’s golden age.

In much the same way, His Girl Friday – arguably more than the Hecht-MacArthur original, and definitely more than any other film adaptation -- indelibly established the stereotype of reporters as rudely sarcastic iconoclasts who talk fast, crack wise and raise hell while they comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. When Hawks’ Hildy Johnson (a Hildegard rather than a Hildebrand) makes her grand entrance into the press office of the Chicago Criminal Courts Building, to join the deathwatch for a luckless bumbler who accidentally shot a cop, she rubs her fashionably padded shoulders with a vibrantly motley crew of ink-stained wretches. Despite her claims to the contrary, she looks and sounds like she’s precisely where she’s meant to be, because she can talk faster and crack wiser than anyone else in the room.

Rosalind Russell wasn’t Hawks’ first choice, or even his fifth, to play Hildy Johnson, but her image-defining performance as the sassy and brassy newspaperwoman is swell enough to suggest that no one could have done it better. (Whenever I screen His Girl Friday for college-level film courses, female students seem particularly impressed by Russell’s portrayal of a woman liberated way before women’s liberation was cool.) Her most attractive attribute: She is a spectacularly worthy opponent in verbal jousting with Cary Grant, perfectly cast as Walter Burns, her conniving ex-editor and, more important, ex-husband.

Months after divorcing Water, Hildy returns to the Morning Post newsroom, only to announce her engagement to Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), an affably bland insurance salesman. Bruce has no connection to the madcap world that Hildy wants to leave behind, a fact Hawks subtly underscores by having Walter wait outside a newsroom gate marked “No Admittance” while Hildy bids Walter good-bye.

But, of course, Hildy doesn’t fare well while trying to say farewell: Walter tricks her into doing what she really wants to do, which is remain a reporter who comes alive most fully when she’s on the prowl for a big story. And while Walter and Hildy may be, like Elyot and Amanda of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, unable to live happily either apart or together, there is no doubt that they are soul mates who speak the same language with the same warp-speed alacrity.

Such rhetorical virtuosity is a defining characteristic of screwball comedy, a genre that thrived throughout the 1930s and early ’40s. Films of this sort were an escape from the harsh realities of Depression Era life, offering carefree and attractive characters behaving with abandon and freedom in a world filled with colorful but (usually) harmless eccentrics and blustering but (usually) impotent authority figures.

Like many other screwball classics, Hawks’ must-see masterwork belongs to the sub-genre known as “Comedy of Re-Marriage,” being the story of divorced partners who simply must be reunited because they bring out the best in each other. Walter may be a sneak, and his motives are hardly selfless, but he genuinely admires – and values – Hildy’s professional abilities. Hildy has every reason to distrust Walter – except, of course, when he’s telling her that no one else would appreciate her, and encourage her, the way he does.

His Girl Friday ranks among the finest and funniest screwball comedies, largely because Hawks, with a little help from Hecht and MacArthur, gave his characters so much to say so quickly and memorably. Although chronically averse to theorizing or philosophizing about technique, he hinted at the key to his movie’s appeal with this pithy quip: “They’re moving pictures. Let’s make them move.”