Sunday, April 28, 2013


After feeling the slight pull of my eyelids as Marmaduke Ruggles (Bill, or the Colonel, to his best friend) finally opened the Anglo-American Grill to the hungry citizenry of Red Gap, Washington, I felt like a little fortification was in order. My friend, future hall of fame film archivist Ariel Schudson, had thoughtfully saved me a seat as the crowd filed in for Ruggles of Red Gap, so after we settled into our seats for the next feature, I made my way downstairs and brought back a couple of mid-sized schooners of coffee to help us along on our journey which, after the great comedy we’d just seen, was still less than halfway accomplished. The caffeine was a nice insurance policy, but I imagine that what lay ahead of us would have buzzed us sufficiently all on its own.

I knew next to nothing about I Am Suzanne! (1933; Rowland V. Lee) as I headed into the tiny auditorium, but the fascination level spiked almost immediately when Katie Trainor, archivist for the Museum of Modern Art, introduced the movie and informed the crowd that what we would be seeing was a fresh “wet” print. It was so fresh that it had never even been run through a projector for an audience before-- even Trainor hadn’t seen it. In fact, we would be the first audience to see the movie projected in 35mm in over 80 years—the only prints in circulation have been dupes generated from raggedy 16mm copies. How’s that for a set-up? And the movie lived up to all the precious attendance to its preservation.

A follow-up to their previous collaboration, the atmospheric fairy-tale Zoo in Budapest, the movie reunited Lee with his cinematographer, Lee Garmes, and lead actor Gene Raymond for another fanciful story, this one anchored by Raymond and Fox-contracted ingénue Lilian Harvey. Harvey plays Suzanne, a dancing star who catches the eye of puppeteer/starving artist Tony Malatini (Raymond), who wants to design a puppet of Suzanne and build a show around it to bolster the meager attendance of his own company’s productions. But when Suzanne is injured during a dangerous entrance to an elaborate production number, he helps Suzanne recover by teaching her how to conduct the Suzanne marionette herself, and their romance blossoms as Suzanne forges a union with Tony’s company and has to face the dilemma of whether to continue on with this new pursuit or return to the perhaps greater popularity awaiting her if she returns to dance under the guidance of her matronly mentor (Georgia Caine) and a singularly sleazy and untrustworthy manager (Leslie Banks). Lee and Garmes give the movie a nimble grace, and the ineffable chemistry between Raymond and Harvey is considerable, but it’s the movie’s utterly unaffected joy at performance, its complete belief in and lack of cynicism about the impulse to entertain, that prove to be the aces up its sleeve.  The use of marionette performance works on several levels too, not least of which for the sheer handmade magic of the puppeteering itself—the movie conveys a strong sense of the physical demands, not only of choreography and coordination but also of pure endurance made upon the performers, and how their joy seems at times literally transmitted through the strings, into the wooden actors and out into the audience. But it also resonates metaphorically in very satisfying ways.

The title I Am Suzanne! (that exclamation point is important) speaks to the heroine’s struggle to define herself through her art, a difficult task while under the influence of Banks’ money-grubbing, manipulative, socially pretentious management, or even the relatively benign encouragement of Tony, who respects her as a performer but may actually relate more completely to her representation as a marionette—his creation—than he does to her in a flesh-and-blood format. (They both, on separate occasions, lay claim to responsibility for her popularity and talent with the titular phrase.) “You’ll make a beautiful puppet!” Tony gushes to Suzanne after he first sketches her for his designs, and before she’s ever rendered in wood we see his prediction coming true—when Suzanne is hospitalized and in traction after the accident, her limbs attached to a bed frame by a series of pulleys and cables, Tony helps her in her recovery with a series of muscle movement exercises, effectively turning her into a medically arranged marionette and signaling his own sublimated desire to turn her into a object of his own fulfillment. That the movie recovers from its darker impulses and becomes a thrilling testimony to performance, and of course love, is only one of the reasons that I found I Am Suzanne! to be one of the most enthralling  movies of the weekend so far.

Just as exciting, but in a completely different way, was It Always Rains on Sunday (1948; Robert Hamer). In tandem with I Am Suzanne!, it made for the sort of thoroughly invigorating revelatory experience that one can only hope for in a film festival environment of any kind. As introduced by “czar of noir” Eddie Muller, we were prepared for what has been considered in some circles the quintessential British noir, and Muller spared no enthusiasm for the movie. But he also drew a distinction between American noir, with its chiaroscuro roots in German expressionism and stories of crime and the absence of redemption, and its British variant, of which It Always Rains is considered a prime example. Muller observed that British noir tends to display much more interest in the realities of the country’s underclass, where crime is an undeniable element in the fabric of the tales told, but not always the primary focus. This is certainly the case with It Always Rains on Sunday which, as might be guessed from its title, favors a rich milieu of street-level life, overlapping with noise and anger, passion and oppression, fear and desire and, yes, the vitality of a close-knit (or perhaps more accurately, close-pressed) community of postwar citizens, survivors and hangers-on. 

The “plot” concerns the prison escape of a petty criminal, who hides out in the home of his former lover, Rose Sandigate (Googie Withers), a woman now married to a decent man who nonetheless feels trapped and angered by her familial circumstances, which include bumping heads with her husband’s grown daughters and her own sense of the tight walls of their modest flat closing in on her. The various vices and distractions of the movie’s single rainy day swarm and jangle around her, providing the sense of vitality as well as impending fate, rendered in stunning imagery courtesy of Douglas Slocombe and Hamer’s expansive directorial sensitivity—Hamer also directed Kind Hearts and Coronets, the blackest of British comedies, which doesn’t really hint at the sort of richness of mood and setting and narrative deftness he achieves here. The movie feverishly anticipates the movement of British kitchen-sink dramas while maintaining the constant surge of dark energy derived from film noir, and it anticipates as well the skillful, naturalistic weave of Robert Altman in its approach to telling the stories of its working-class neighborhood, which spark off each other and contribute mightily to the movie’s dark, stylized representation of its specific and grim reality.

And then there’s Googie Withers, a force of nature all her own and completely riveting in her disappointment and fury and undeniable attraction to the convict (John McCallum) who will lead her to a downfall as he flees toward his own. The attraction between the two is palpable on screen in part because it wasn’t faked—Withers and McCallum met on this film and married soon after, remaining together for the rest of their lives. But it’s Withers, a critical element in the film’s overall impact, who cannot be ignored. After Night and the City last year, The Lady Vanishes and now this one, she must be considered the great anti-heroine of the TCM Classic Film Festival. As for It Always Rains on Sunday, its subject may not be exactly uplifting, but the invigorating charge that radiates from its intense and intricate portrait of an underclass informed and vitalized by dark currents of petty crime and desire could never be depressing. After seeing this movie, I couldn’t have been happier.

Next, Ariel and I stuck together and headed off to see Hondo (1953), a western starring John Wayne that I had never seen. And I probably didn’t put too much urgency behind pursuing it because of the absence of either John Ford or Howard Hawks in the credits. Silly me. As it turns out, Hondo is John Wayne at his most electrifying and, frankly, beautiful—even Leonard Maltin, who introduced the film, had to admit that Wayne probably never looked as good, as a purely physical specimen, than he did here. But it’s Wayne’s performance, as a part-Apache gunman who protects Geraldine Page (in her first film) and her son from an encroaching Apache onslaught, which was the real revelation for me. He does the simple things, like a lovely, naturalistic conversation with Page while shoeing a horse, which few could duplicate with such apparent ease. But his reactions in the small moments- the look of disbelief that flits across his face when Page describes him as a gentleman—that are priceless and, as it turns out, key to the level to which Wayne seems present and alive to his circumstances in this movie. The persistent myth that John Wayne was a bad actor or, at the very most an invariant and uninteresting one, is probably one of the most annoying bits of mythology that still swirls around Hollywood, even among fans of classic films. This screening certainly helped put to rest any remaining vestiges of that myth that may have been floating around in my mind. And oh, yeah, the  3D was fantastic!

But we still had movie #7 for the day to get to. Fortunately the coffee I gulped eight hours earlier was still working its magic, so we met up with Richard Harland Smith and made our way into the TCM Underground-sponsored midnight show, a very rare 35mm presentation, in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio, of Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s Plan Nine from Outer Space (1958). Richard, in his own piece for TCM, rightly pointed out, with no small amount of “take that!” satisfaction, that though this movie gained much of its notoriety from the Golden Turkey phenomenon spearheaded by Harry and Michael Medved, who dubbed it the worst movie ever made, it’s the Medved books that now languish in indifference while Ed Wood’s movie is screening at the TCM Film Festival! That “Worst Movie Ever” moniker has stuck like a piece of used gum to Wood’s movie, but, as comedian-writer Dana Gould (The Simpsons) pointed out in his hilarious introduction to the film, it’s one that the movie doesn’t really deserve. No movie that’s as entertaining as this one, inept as it most assuredly is, could possibly be the worst ever made. (I offer the somnambulant Lily Tomlin-John Travolta romance Moment by Moment as one possible replacement for this dishonor.) 

The key to Wood’s “failure” is, of course, the many well-documented ways in which the movie falls short of even the basest standards of production value and acting discipline, but lording it over such an obviously impaired picture on those grounds is really only part of the fun. As suggested by Tim Burton’s great Ed Wood, what’s fascinating about looking at Plan Nine from Outer Space, especially in a print that probably looks better than the movie has ever been seen by even its most snarkily ardent followers, is its sincerity. He may have been a terrible writer and an insufficient storyteller, but Wood was most definitely a believer. Even as it builds to its gloriously incoherent climax, I was hard-pressed to detect so much as a single frame of cynicism in his demented mise-en-scene. And seeing it at midnight, the capper to a day which saw six films before it, was the perfect, delirious way to end what I’d wager was the single greatest day of movie-watching I’ve ever experienced over my four-year history with the TCM Classic Film Festival, and maybe even of my entire movie-watching life.

Coming up next, reports on yesterday’s Deliverance experience, plus They Live by Night, Max von Sydow and The Seventh Seal, how I joined the ranks of the cads who walked out on Mildred Pierce, and the story of how I won my TCM fleece picnic blanket.

But right now, it’s back to Hollywood, where I’ll hit the road with Gene Hackman, Clark Gable, Al Pacino and Claudette Colbert, and tie a ribbon on this year’s festival with Grace Kelly, Ray Milland and Alfred Hitchcock while wearing yet another pair of those stylish 3D glasses. I’ll be in touch.


1 comment:

Ned Merrill said...

Big fan of ZOO IN BUDAPEST so I look forward to catching I AM SUZANNE! when it graces MoMA's screen.