Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Good Fairy (1935) - a funny and endearing Preston Sturges film

The Good Fairy (1935) is chock full of warm performances and relentlessly clever lines. You haven't finished laughing when a tear-jerking scene climbs up from the ground with a sucker punch.

You're floored.
The good usherette and a her "magic" wand ; fairytale imagery is laid on thick in this film.
Based on a Ferenc Molnár play, Fairy follows innocent Luisa Ginglebuscher (Margaret Sullavan) who finds that helping people (i.e. being a "good fairy") is complicated beyond the orphanage. After Mr. Konrad (Frank Morgan) hires Luisa to be an usherette at his movie theater, she discovers that Konrad wishes his newest employee to be his mistress. To fend off his advances, Luisa pretends to be married  to Dr. Max Sporum (Herbert Marshall), an impoverished attorney whose name she randomly picks out of the telephone directory. Undaunted, Konrad wishes to supply the would-be kept woman with presents by giving her husband a profitable career.

Mistaken identities follow and hilarity ensues, as only  Preston Sturges can write them. Morgan is a hoot as a lech. I had to pause the movie to laugh after he intoned, during what passes as foreplay, “I‘ll be the mountain lion, and you‘ll be the little lamb. You‘re eating grass and I‘m… hungry too.” There's plenty of animal imagery in this film, as befits a fable. Konrad is a predatory lion, Luisa a lamb, and there's big todo about Sporum's goat-like beard.

Sporum  is an attorney of the highest integrity  who admits his faults, but perseveres in his ethics knowing he's right. Luisa has been brought up in the same school of thought, but she's a little less strident. The movie characterizes both of these adults as children, not deridingly so, but as an indulgent parent might. The script takes great pains to show Sporum becoming excited over finally being able to afford a pencil sharpener with his new lucrative job under Konrad. He's as giddy as a child getting a train or bike for his birthday.

I wondered why the film would spend so much time gently poking fun at its two leads' earnestness. It's just to set up what's at stake when at last both will have to decide whether their moral fortitude is strong enough to weather myriad temptations. Nice.

Yours truly was struck by the care with which the complex moral issues were handled. Luisa finds herself in a web of lies of her own making, and ultimately must choose between sacrificing her virtue and keeping her word. At this juncture, the director, William Wyler, lays into the soft focus, as if the camera is tearing up along with Luisa. In one particular scene, Wyler allows the camera to remain still during a fairly long close up of the protagonist as tears threaten to trickle down her innocent face. No cuts, just Ms. Sullavan's face. The actress is allowed to perform with minimal aid, which is wonderful.


I was a bit choked up myself, which is very rare when watching a film that doesn't include prison, war, death or famine. I like to think of myself as one who cannot be manipulated by sap. But, because this intimate little morality film achieved the gargantuan feat of extracting tears out of me, it's now a new favorite. (Plus it's entertaining.)

Norbert Brodine's cinematography in The Good Fairy is one for the history books. There's a receding mirror shot which invites comparison with Orson Welles' famous hall of mirrors scene in Citizen Kane. Still, this one doesn't come crashing near the end of a depressing story, but at the apex of Luisa's joy. She's made Spurom's life less burdensome, and now she's happily trying on clothes in a department store.



At first glance it seems this shot is wasted on a film that would be perfectly fine without such extravagance. That might still be the case, but the scene nags me. What is the story trying to tell us with these mirrors? That there are thousands of Luisas out there having to make the same choices? Or is this simply a neat little trick of cinematic virtuosity that is to be appreciated in and of itself?

Trivia

  • Long before the Sullavan film, Sturges had written a play out of the Molnár book called Make  A Wish.
  • Fairy was remade in the 1940s as a Deanna Durbin vehicle, I'll Be Yours. It costars Adolphe Menjou as a very creepy lecher and Tom Drake as the attorney. Drake is one of few leading men in Hollywood to costar with both Durbin and Judy Garland.
  • Speaking of Garland, the star of The Wizard of Oz (1939), here's some eerie foreshadowing for your yellow brick road scrapbooks. In The Good Fairy, Frank Morgan as Konrad is at his foreplay routine again, and wants to pretend to be a wizard who will grant a little girl's wishes. Morgan, of course, would later play the title character in Oz. 

  •                     Deanna Durbin and Frederic March in "The Good Fairy"


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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Quote of the Day: Gene Kelly

"Since VCRs came in, I get a lot more fan mail than I did when I was a movie star. A lot of it is sort of funny because they're mash notes from fourteen, fifteen year old girls who think you just made the picture last year." - Gene Kelly, on the set of That's Entertainment III in 1993.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon: When you think of film noir...

When you think of film noir what comes to mind? A femme fatale whose virtue is as thin as the paint on her face? A hard-bitten private dick spouting Mickey Spillanguage while packing a gat? Carefully staged Venetian blinds? Lights and shadows? Lang and Curtiz?

I think of that anklet. You know the one. The one that reads “Phyllis.” The one that gets Neff hot and bothered and into trouble.
I think of a bed, blood and a pockmarked face full of buckshot.
I think of a long-haired lady with a pouty mouth and rapier wit.
I think of naked light bulbs in a claustrophobic casino.
I think of a distracting mole on the face of a living corpse.
I think of a bird that doesn’t fly.
I think of a striped blouse that mimics prison-wear
I think of ashtray patterns on a silk dressing gown.
I think of a dancer who doesn’t dance with a singer who rarely sings.

But mostly, like Neff, I think of that anklet.






This post is for Ferdy On Films' and The Self-Styled Siren's For The Love of Film (Noir) fund-raising blogathon to preserve the film Sound of Fury. CLICK HERE here for more info and for links to other blogathon participants. CLICK HERE to give a donation to the Film Noir Foundation.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Palm Beach Story (1942)

The DVD cover of The Palm Beach Story (1942) features a steamy picture of Joel McCrea having his way with Claudette Colbert in a cozy train compartment. The title's font curls languidly around itself, suggesting an engrossing romance or at least a twisted Payton Place soap opera.  Palm Beach is anything but that. It's a giddy comedy that seems to be shot out of a cannon from the start.

Written and directed by Preston Sturges, the story follows a wife (Colbert) who decides to raise money for her penniless husband's (McCrea) invention by divorcing him and marrying a wealthy man.

Don't worry; it is a comedy.

The film makes it clear throughout that the couple will remain married, they just don't know it. The story, then, becomes a who's who of supporting players. Which eccentric character or caricature will the leads meet next? Franklin Pangborn as the officious apartment manager with a twitch? William Demarest as a drunken hunter who shoots saltines  like skeet  while on a  crowded train? Mary Astor as an hilarious, hot-to-trot divorcee with a boyfriend named Toto? Yep. The gang's all here.

Life Magazine
Train films are awesome, and the second act of Palm Beach largely occurs in a locomotive. Don't you just love those obsolete sleeping arrangements which force the leading lady to step on a stranger's lower berth and onto his hands and face while getting into bed? Today that would be lawsuit fodder, but here it's a meetcute. [Obsolete meetcutes could be a great post... ]

In this film, Sturges leaves an unshakable whiff of another of his screenplays. As in Palm Beach, The Good Fairy (1935) also features a woman who is willing to "sacrifice herself" so that the leading man can acquire extra cash. In Fairy, however, the plot point is played for pathos; here it's all-out slapstick.

If there is a problem with this strange little story it is this: like a train, the narrative picks up and drops off people very quickly. You wonder where the story is going to take this or that character, but then it just strands the person in the middle of the story, never to be heard from again, and you're off to the next vignette.

Speaking of being stranded, there's a comic bit where Colbert's purse and clothes are left in an abandoned  train car. To her horror, she awakens to find the car gone. This was inspired by actual events in Sturges' life.

A relentlessly humorous tale. Lots of fun.


The Palm Beach Story - Old Gold Comedy Theater broadcast from Oct 29, 1944, starring Claudette Colbert

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Art Imitates LIFE?

The author of a 1940 Life Magazine article declares that movies should not be "pure entertainment," that they should be "sociological dramas," otherwise they are "trivial and unadult." To bolster the point (or probably to show off more of Life's famous photography), the February 19th article, titled "Speaking of Pictures,"  displays stills from the movie The Grapes of Wrath  alongside Horace Bristol's photographs of migrant Oklahoma sharecroppers.

Life Magazine
click to enlarge
The brief article disappoints in not giving an indepth argument as to why sociological dramas are preferable to fantastic movies. Still, it's a treat to see how well the costume and set designers researched thier subject for the film.

Read the Life Magazine article here. 

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

3D Movies Can Be Subtle: Another Lesson from Alfred Hitchcock

After Hitchcock taught me how to frame actors kissing in a romantic two shot, I had no idea I would have the benefit of his tutelage again so soon (and about 3D of all things).

Java knows squat about 3D movies. It's that gimmicky format meant to lure audiences away from other passive forms of entertainment and into a public place to wear goggles so that someone can throw random things at your face. It's a pie throwing contest, and you're the target.


Or so I thought.

A few weeks ago, yours truly happened upon The Alfred Hitchcock Geek's 5-part series on why the master of suspense is also the master of 3D movies, using Dial "M" for Murder to set up his points. The author, Joel Gunz, notes that when Margot reaches towards the audience as the killer strangles her, it's a plea for help that draws the viewer in, as opposed to the usual 3D film where that which lunges out of the frame is meant to repulse.  Gunz also points up  items in the foreground (e.g. fences, lines of bottles on the tables, etc.)  used when Hitchcock wants to divide space, or keep the audience at a distance during a crucial moment in the plot.

I found the Dial "M" series very informative, not only about this particular movie's machinations, but also about 3D movie tropes in general. Hitchcock uses the process subtly, - no spear throwing, snakes lunging or cars jutting out over a precipice -  a simple point that I had assumed wasn't possible without making  the 3D format superfluous in a movie.

Fast forward and I am at the cinema watching a film in 3D. I'm not thinking about  Dial "M" until there's a random row of flowers on a desk spanning the bottom of the screen, tickling my nose. They are directly in front of a character who is about to be murdered in cold blood.

I giggle.

The blooms, coffin-like, are boxing him in (framing him like the lamps and bottles which frame Margot and her forbidden lover in Hitchcock's movie). The guy is already pushing up daises; that's kind of cool. Unfortunately, the movie goes downhill from there, rarely using the gimmicky format for anything but hurling people and shrapnel at you as explosions hit. But for one brief moment, I appreciate a rather macabre, but funny, joke that nicely incorporates 3D.

Professor Hitchcock does it again.
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