Monday, August 17, 2009

"The Good Fairy" (1935, Wyler)

There’s something disarmingly straightforward (and straight, period) in the way that William Wyler saves all the extreme close-ups in The Good Fairy (1935) for Margaret Sullavan. It makes her the sweetheart of the movie itself, so to speak; and no wonder. She’s playing Luisa Ginglebusher – another Sturgesian masterstroke of a last name – an orphan-turned-usherette, who is too decent to make one Konrad (Frank Morgan) her sugar daddy, so she asks him to shower his money at her husband instead. The trouble is: she has no husband, so she chooses a name from the phonebook at random: and so a failed but honest (or rather: honest, and thus failed) lawyer, Dr. Max Sporum (Herbert Marshall), finds himself being offered a lucrative position by Konrad the next morning – for no apparent reason.

Both Luise and Konrad are fairly familiar characters for anyone versed in Sturges, but Dr. Sporum is a true comical masterpiece. He’s an intensification of many Sturgesian traits, crowned with a goatee that is so magnificently out of place on Herbert Marshall’s face, a good fifteen minutes worth of coaxing is needed to get him to the barbershop to shave it off. Sporum may be the most deranged of all Sturges originals: he’s definitely the first one I remember actually asking himself whether he’s deranged. The moment just after hearing the good news about a big salary coming his way is the comical highpoint of the film: Sporum plans his purchases, and what’s on the top of his list…? “A pencil-sharpener with a handle and a set of holes, different sizes! At last!”

Sporum is hilariously conceited. When he describes to Luise what happened to him the morning he got the position, he points to his new pencil-sharpener and ends with a line that cracked me up: “Hence the magnificence”.

Ultimately – even though adapted from Ferenc Molnar’s play, which was heavily edited by the way – The Good Fairy is yet another story of wealth suddenly happening to people: just like Easy Living (1937), Christmas in July (1940) and The Palm Beach Story (1942). It’s a great Sturgesian theme: how simplemindedness survives a sudden strike with a money bag.

Oh, and by the way: Frank Morgan’s turn is a bit one-note (he shouts too much), but it’s still hilarious, especially if one still sees him as Professor Marvel he was about to play in The Wizard of Oz (1939) – here, he calls himself the master of “the enchanted bankroll”. Great stuff.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

"Diamond Jim" (1935, A. Edward Sutherland)

While watching Diamond Jim (1935), it was hard for me to unglue myself from the sheer excitement of actually seeing it, since it was one of those movies I dreamed of watching for a long, long time. (And, hadn’t it been for the generosity of one remarkable Finn, it would have stayed but a dream to this day.)

Thus, it’s almost impossible for me to assess the film objectively. I have a feeling it’s something less I wished it to be, though. I imagined it funnier, for one thing. Here, even the elements that will serve as comedy in Sturges’ future projects (like seeing a grown man getting drunk for the first time in his life; see The Sin of Harold Diddlebock [1947]) – are played off in a serious manner. Still, that’s not a vice.

But there’s something else that bothers about the movie; something that has to do with the mere portrayal of James B. Brady. It’s not that I mind Edward Arnold’s performance, because it’s carefully thought out and executed. It’s more the script that I mind: it doesn’t really make Jim a true dreamer I think he ought to be.In Sturges, you have three kind of dreamers: hopeless (Eddie Bracken in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek [1944]), starry-eyed (Dick Powell in Christmas in July [1940]) and those flaunting a steely determination (Joel McCrea in The Great Moment [1944]). Now, the way Edward Arnold comes off in Diamond Jim is a bland mixture of those three, with neither one taking over. Jim’s dreams don’t seem dreamt hard enough – his drive is wiped out, all we’re left with is his success and his erotic longing.

Now, the latter is portrayed very well, and it’s Jim’s unhappiness when it comes to love life that I find the movie’s strongest asset. There’s genuine anguish in Arnold’s performance, and the scene in which Jim prepares a surprise wedding for his sweetheart, after which she bursts into tears, making him lie pitifully that “It was all a joke!”, pierces one’s heart. This is the only Sturges movie that ends in suicide (I apologize all the auteurists out there, by the way, but it’s really hard for me to think about this one as a A. Edward Sutherland’s work!). It’s the kind of suicide that John Merrick commits in The Elephant Man (1980) – one dies allowing oneself the only pleasure that is available, because the happiness one dreamed of is unattainable. With Merrick, it was sleeping without a pillow; with Jim, it’s stuffing oneself with oysters. A sad ending of an ultimately sad movie – the only one in Sturges oeuvre that I would label as such.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

"Easy Living" (1937, Leisen)

Even though I could sense Preston Sturges’ directorial hand was just what his script for Easy Living (1937) needed at some points, I still thought Mitchell Leisen did a good job. The story of a poor girl, Mary Smith (Jean Arthur), becoming suddenly rich (or at least suddenly experiencing some aspects of being rich) after a sable coat accidentally lands on her head, has a familiar taste to it for any Sturges fan. The thrower is J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold): “a Bull of Broad Street” (or “a ball of Bull Street”, as his moniker is being mispronounced at one point): an ultra-rich, stingy banker throwing fits over the spending excesses of his wife (Mary Nash). When he sees her buy a $58,000 coat, he throws it off the balcony (earlier on, he suggested replacing butter with lard, so it’s not the scale of the expenses that get to him – it’s their frequency). When he tells Mary she can keep the coat, the word gets out that he “went pfoot with his wife over a beautiful girl”, and all hell breaks loose.

Mary is receptive to the wealth being thrown her way, but she doesn’t go head over heels about it. She doesn’t grab at things; she’s selective (car, yes; jewelry, no; fur coat, “I already got a fur coat!”). Even though she is (and admits to be at one point) a dope, she’s not aggressive in her dumbness: she always tries to figure things out, even as she remains blatantly immune to even the most clear forms of reasoning (J.B: “Imagine! A farmer burrows one hundred cows…”). In fact, Mary’s dumbness serves almost as a certificate of her integrity: the opposite of Judy Holliday’s case in Born Yesterday (1950), where integrity grows with every slice of dumbness being peeled off.

The one thing I really minded was Ray Milland’s blandness in some moments. I guess it’s not fair on my part, but I missed Joel McCrea’s fury in his performance. I couldn’t help to agree with Mary when she made her slip and said to him: “You’re just a little underdeveloped, that’s all”. I much prefer Milland in The Major and the Minor (1942) and The Lost Weekend (1945).

As it’s usually the case with Sturges writing, there are single lines here that sent me through the roof, namely: “Go and fry yourself in lard, you dirty capitalist swine, you!”, and an angry denial of complicity with Mary Smith by one Louis Louis (Luis Alberni): “I don’t want to be complicated!”. Not to mention my absolute favorite: the name of the periodical Mary works for at the beginning - "Boy's Constant Companion" - being mistakingly named by J.B. as "Boy's Constant Reminder".

Overall, the script for Easy Living seems to be a first try-on for a full-blown “accidental wealth” comedy that will arrive with Christmas in July (1940). But it’s still a very satisfying movie in its own right. And Mary’s efforts to break a piggy bank with a heel of her shoe (she misses the first time, and when she succeedes there are no coins to be found among the cracked pieces) made me think of the slapstick tour de force to come, when Sir Alfred de Carter (Rex Harrison) will try (11 years later) to follow through his elaborate plan to kill his “unfaithful” wife.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sturges' Faces

Ever noticed how brilliant Preston Sturges was in crowding his frame with a multitude of portraits?

There’s a lot to be said about using crowd in movies – Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffith would be the first to testify, along with Carné of Les Enfants du paradis (1945) finale – but what Sturges gave us wasn’t a crowd exactly. His frame is full of people, but for the most time each of them has a face of his or her own. When I watched all his available movies in a row, I was struck by the careful way he and his regular DPs devised frame compositions that offered so many living portraits at once.

Consider the scene in the surgical amphitheatre in The Great Moment (1944): many a director would play the set decoration against the people in it, making their figures seem locked into this weird and perverse structure, designed to scrutinize pain, and guts, and death. Sturges, as it were, makes us see faces, lots of them (most obviously in a shot of elderly professor addressing his students about doctor Morton’s not showing up). Watching that scene I couldn’t stop thinking about Rembradt’s “The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” (1632), with seven unforgettable faces of Tulp’s students: each different, with their gazes at cross purposes (literally, symbolically and also in terms of the painting’s mere composition).

Now, Sturges was all about reaching this same effect. There are brilliant shots in Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) where one face seems literally to grow of another person’s neck, and yet another piles upon a separate group. Consider the first speech of the mayor of Oaksbridge: faces seem almost lined up for us to shift our eyes from one to another – mayor’s, his son’s , Eddie Bracken’s, his sweetheart’s, and everyone else’s in the frame, whether a character or not.

Sturges’ frame rarely – if ever! – opens up. His California (in Hail...) is no place of open spaces, as Diane Jacobs noticed in her “Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges”. Even when on location, we don’t get to see much of the world at large. The single sequence that covers most space in its mise-en-scene may be the bum first stealing from the hero in Sullivan’s Travels (1941), only to get killed by a train - but even than the space is blacked out (it’s nighttime) and our eyes don’t get to breathe, so to speak.

According to his biographers, Sturges loved the crowd; he relished at his packed-to-the-roof restaurant, and he consequently made his frame crammed, not with an excess of junk and props, but human faces. One of the pleasure of watching his movies is to let your eye wander freely and discover the richness of expressions, of beauty, of individuality he offered us to witness.