Thursday, February 17, 2005

I Close the Iron Door On You!

My two must-have DVD releases for February 22 are Twentieth Century and Leave Her to Heaven.

Columbia/Sony's DVD of Twentieth Century is nothing special: no extras, hideous cover art, and a so-so print of the film (the negative is lost). Still, it's a decent transfer, and the film itself is so very, very, very funny. Exhausting, because unlike most screwball comedies there are no sensible people, at least not in prominent roles; there's no Cary Grant or Joel McRea to be the voice of sanity. Instead everybody's a lunatic, not counting the one character who's an actual lunatic (Etienne Girardot as the religious fanatic putting "REPENT!" stickers all over the train), and while John Barrymore of course gives the most insanely hammy performance in movie history, the others almost keep up with him. It is, as I've said, exhausting, and the central relationship is truly creepy, but it is one of the funniest movies ever made.

It's also an example of the advantages of "Pre-Code" movies (it was made just before the studios started strictly enforcing the Hays Code). In a previous post, I mentioned that Pre-Code movies aren't always all they're cracked up to be, but this is one of many exceptions to my over-generalization. Post-Code, they could just about have gotten away with most of the insinuations about Oscar and Lily's affair (though probably not the bit where Roscoe Karns sees Carole Lombard's boat-shaped bed and asks whether Barrymore was "rowing" last night). What they couldn't have gotten away with was the way the movie, like the play it's based on, constantly makes fun of religion. Indeed, most of the jokes about religious fundamentalism and showbiz types dabbling in religion (Barrymore, anticipating Mel Gibson, wants to produce the Passion as a big-budget spectacular) haven't dated at all. Which should provide a comforting feeling for anyone who feels that these things are new and worrisome.

I think my favorite shot in the movie is the one just after Barrymore meets the two German Passion players (including Herman Bing, father of Metropolitan Opera impresario Rudolf Bing). In a single take, Walter Connolly pushes them out of the stateroom, turns back to Barrymore, pushes him into his seat, and pours out his heart: "O.J., listen, I know you won't believe this, but I'm more than an employee -- I'm the best friend you've got... I'm not gonna let you get mixed up with any phony art." What I love about the shot is that the composition is, in film-school terms, totally wrong: Connolly and Barrymore wind up bunched together in the left-hand corner of the frame, with empty space in the rest of the frame. What clearly happened, as with many of the shots in the film, is that Howard Hawks liked the spontaneous quality of the acting in that take, and left it as was, with no "coverage," no editing. No studio would let a shot like that get by today; they'd have sensible compositions, lots of cutting back and forth between characters, and they'd drain all the life out of the scene.

Leave Her to Heaven is one I haven't seen since I was a kid, but I always liked it, despite the implausible nature of the story (not the Freudian psycho-killer stuff; I mean the fact that two women who look like Gene Tierney and Jeanne Crain are fighting over Cornel Wilde, for Pete's sake). From what I've seen of the DVD so far, it's a great transfer and the Fox Technicolor looks jaw-dropping.

Gene Tierney in Technicolor sort of reminds me of what Pauline Kael said about Candace Bergen in some early '70s movie, to the effect that she was so beautiful she seemed like a science-fiction space creature. I don't really get the fuss about Bergen, but Gene Tierney, in these '40s movies, fits that description very well: she's so beautiful, and Fox's use of Technicolor so gorgeously artificial, that she looks like she's from another planet, albeit a planet of very good-looking people. I remember that when I saw Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait on a big screen (that movie, by the way, is being prepared for DVD release by Criterion) there were actual gasps from the audience when she made her first appearance.

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