The Old Man of the Mountain

Max and Dave Fleischer Were the Opposite of Disney

Walt Disney was good at what he tried to do, but he was not really for adults. At the same time that Disney was animating his Mickey Mouse cartoons, Max and Dave Fleischer presented a much more adult vision of life in their Betty Boop cartoons. These were done before the Hays Office descended on Hollywood with their black pall of censorship. Yesterday, I watched their “The Old Man of the Mountain” on YouTube. It is about a luscious young thing who goes up against the Old Man of the Mountain (sung by Cab Calloway and His Orchestra) and starts getting chased by him. At one point, he rips off her dress, though all we see of Betty is the lower edge of her frilly panties as she hides behind a tree. (Holy Miscegenation!)

Watch the cartoon for yourself:

In another Boop mcartoon, Betty attempts to perform a tooth extraction on Koko the Clown. By accident, she winds up infecting the whole town with Laughing Gas. The cartoon, entitled “Ha! Ha! Ha!” was banned in Britain because of its casualness about drugs. In another cartoon, “Betty Boop’s Big Boss,” Betty appears to endorse the mauling of secretaries as sexual provender by big fat bosses. You can see these cartoons for free any time by Googling their titles, as in “YouTube Ha! Ha! Ha! Betty Boop.”

I actually like Walt Disney’s work, but I think Betty Boop is pretty hot stuff. At one point in “The Old Man of the Mountain,” a cripple on crutches espies Betty’s curvaceous legs, gives them a thorough viewing, and then leaves without his crutches, which go off by themselves.

There Is Some Good News

Stadium Sequence from Triumph of the Will (1935)

If you are feeling despondent about politics in America in 2018, I recommend you google YOUTUBE RIEFENSTAHL TRIUMPH OF THE WILL. People make a lot of glib comparisons between Trumpf’s Administration and Nazi Germany. Leni Riefenstahl’s great documentary of the 6th Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg in 1933 will make you see how the present differs from that dismal event eighty-five years ago. The film is one and three quarters of an hour long, but it is mesmerizing in its icy control and will suggest several major differences between then and now.

First of all, Hitler and the Nazis were always on message. There are no 3 am Tweets that contradict one another. The Führer knew what he wanted to say and said it—even when he was lying through his teeth. A major attempt is made during the Congress to heal the split between the Brownshirts (the Stürmabteilung or SA) and the SS. Yet between the Congress and the time this film was released to the German public, the Night of the Long Knives took place, and the Brownshirts were purged, and many of its leaders were executed without benefit of trial. I can only wonder how the German people interpreted all the happy talk about the SA in the film when it was finally released.

It amazed me that so many of Hitler’s lieutenants were with him to the bitter end. It is true that Vice Führer Rudolf Hess defected to England, and many of the SA Leaders were no more; but there were Gõring, Goebbels, Himmler, Streicher, Von Schirach, and many others who made an appearance in the film stayed with Hitler through thick and thin. Compare that with the revolving door in Trumpf’s White House. First there is the inevitable publicity photo of our President smiling and pointing at his new hire as if to say, “See, I bring you the very best.” Then a few months later, “he was never any good anyway.”

Then, too, America is very different. Instead of all those Nazi salutes and Sieg Heils, there would be thousands of upraised middle fingers and hurled garbage. The only way Trumpf can raise a great multitude is in his dreams (witness the size of the inauguration crowd in January 2017).

Adolf Hitler with Film Director Leni Riefenstahl

Despite the fact that women do not play a major part in the 6th Nazi Party Congress, the film of the Congress was directed by a woman who was probably one of the greatest of all women film directors. Whether or not she was a loyal Nazi, she knew how to make a great film. Her film of the 1936 Berlin Olympiad was perhaps the greatest sports film ever made. Its hero turned out to be a non-Aryan American, the great black athlete Jesse Owens.

Riefenstahl got her start as an actress in a strange German film genre of the 1920s: brooding, mystical mountain films such as The Holy Mountain and The White Hell of Piz Palü.

 

Fifty Years in Hollywood

A Film Director for 50 Years, His Work Shows Signs of High Quality Throughout His Career

There were undoubtedly Hollywood directors who worked in the industry longer than Allan Dwan, but few of them were as consistently good for the entire half century while at the same time being so little-known. I know about him because he is one of the discoveries of the politique des auteurs to which I subscribed for many years. According to the auteur theory, as it is also known, there were within the Hollywood studio system some directors whose work was almost a guarantee of quality, almost irrespective of genre, studio, or stars.

Consider the following highly shortened list. How many films in it do you recognize?

  • Robin Hood (1922)
  • East Side, West Side (1927)
  • The Iron Mask (1929)
  • Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938)
  • The Three Musketeers (1939)
  • Up in Mabel’s Room (1944)
  • Getting Gertie’s Garter (1945)
  • Brewster’s Millions (1945)
  • Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)
  • Silver Lode (1954)
  • Cattle Queen of Montana (1954)
  • Slightly Scarlet (1956)

Most of these look and sound like typical studio products which Hollywood turned out by the hundreds each year. But even toward the end of his career (he retired in 1961), Dwan was doing amazing things. In Silver Lode, a B Western starring John Payne, Lizbeth Scott, and Dan Duryea, there is a tracking shot through a Western town of which even Orson Welles would be proud—some two years before Welles’s amazing opening credits shot in Touch of Evil.

Lobby Card for Cattle Queen of Montana (1954)

Today, I saw Cattle Queen of Montana for the second time. The role of Barbara Stanwyck as Sierra Nevada Jones was a natural for this great star. Even Ronald Reagan managed to shine as a Federal agent investigating suspicious sales of guns to the Blackfeet Indians. There weren’t any directorial fireworks as in Silver Lode, and perhaps there were too many coincidences in the plot, but the aging Dwan showed he still knew how to cut the mustard.

 

The Game of the Goose

The Map of Paris Around Which the Plot of Jacques Rivette’s Le Pont du Nord (1981) Revolves

Sometimes one sees a great film, but it doesn’t seem so at first. Sometimes it has to rattle around in your head for a while before you realize that what you have just seen is a seminal work of art. Such is the case with the films of Jacques Rivette I have seen, particularly Le Pont du Nord (“North Bridge”).

In that film, we have two main characters, played by the mother/daughter team of Bulle and Pascale Ogier. Bulle (Marie Lafée) has just been released from prison and is too wracked with claustrophobia to enter a building or a car without freaking out. Pascale (called by the boy’s name of Baptiste) runs across Bulle three times, making her conclude that they are destined to be together. Pascale is the ultimate paranoiac, mutilating the eyes of models and actors shown on large posters.

Bulle hooks up with her old boyfriend Julien, who seems to be on some strange quest. Pascale pulls a switch on his portfolio, allowing her and Bulle to see its contents, which consists mostly of newspaper clippings and a map of Paris (above) which acts as a kind of game board. Bulle and Pascal decide to follow it, noticing that it seems to be a version of the European Game of the Goose, similar to the English Snakes and Ladders and the American Chutes and Ladders.

Bulle and Julien meet with death at the square containing the Pont du Nord, but Pascale ends up getting a martial arts lesson from “Max,” one of the mysterious characters who is also playing the game.

Pascale Ogier as Baptiste

I was strongly impressed by Pascale Ogier as the paranoid gamine. Three years later, she was to die at the age of twenty-five of a heart attack aggravated by her use of recreational drugs. She is one of those actresses whose eyes are expressive and who use their glances to attract the viewer’s attention (and, admit it, admiration). I was appalled to find, when checking out her career, that her life was cut so short.

Jacques Rivette is one of the lesser-known directors of the French New Wave. I have seen in all three of his films, set at the beginning—Paris Belongs to Us (1961)—the middle—the film we are discussing—and the end—La Belle Noiseuse (1991)—of his career. All of his films left me hungering for more.

 

Favorite Films: Some Came Running

Opening Scene from Some Came Running

We are so conditioned to thinking of the years after the Second World War as some kind of golden age that it is refreshing to see how American films dealt with the era. Some prominent examples include William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Vincente Minnelli’s film adaptation of James Jones’s Some Came Running (1958). In both pictures, the GIs come home to find that the guys with flat feet who stayed behind had all the jobs, money, and women.

From the opening credit sequence with its urban jazz music track as we see Frank Sinatra asleep on a Greyhound bus as the Indiana landscape rolls past, we feel we are in for something different. On the same bus is Shirley MacLaine as a good-time girl Frank had met in Chicago. Both had been drunk and were put on the bus by friends who specified Parkman, Indiana as the destination.

We see Frank at the beginning in his army uniform, though he has also written two books and spent time on a tramp steamer and as an oil rig worker. In Parkman, he is pursued by Shirley while he falls in love with Martha Hyer, a college writing instructor who is impressed with his writing ability but appalled by his lifestyle. Every time he is repulsed by Martha, Frank draws closer to Shirley MacLaine with her ridiculous doggie purse and showy bad-taste clothing, with an intellect to match.

Frank at Smitty’s Bar with Dean Martin

After his first encounter with Martha Hyer, Sinatra runs into Dean Martin as a southern gambler who uses Parkman as a base as he travels around playing poker in the surrounding Indiana cities. The initial scene at Smitty’s with its loud jazz track is my favorite in the film: It shows the bar with its lowlifes right in the middle of the ultra-respectable small town. It even appears that the bar is next door to Sinatra’s brother’s jewelry shop. (The role of the brother, played by Arthur Kennedy, is his smarmiest and most hypocritical role in a long career of playing villains.)

There are a number of significant divergences between the James Jones novel and the Minnelli film. As I have not yet read James Jones, I cannot say which I prefer. But one thing I can say is that Minnelli’s film is even better than The Best Years of Our Lives at portraying the sick soul of America coterminous with its postwar glory, even though the two films are more than ten years apart.

 

 

 

Morose Delectation

Anna Karina and Eddie Constantine in Godard’s Alphaville

I have begun my re-evaluation of the films of Jean-Luc Godard, beginning with one of my favorites, Alphaville: Une Étrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965). One thing hit me between the eyes right away: I am and have always been in love with Godard’s then wife and star Anna Karina. Those almond-shaped eyes! That beautiful face! For some reason, I had always assumed that she was Russian, probably because the similarity of her name to Anna Karenina, the Tolstoy heroine of the novel of the same name. Instead, she is Danish, born Hanne Karin Bayer.

Long one of my favorite Godard films, Alphaville lurches between two genres: the spy film and science fiction. The original Lemmy Caution was an FBI agent, the creation of a British novelist named Peter Cheyney. Between 1936 and 1945 he wrote ten novels starring Caution, all of which have him speaking a rural dialect in which and was always written as an’ and coming as comin’. I tried reading This Man Is Dangerous (1936), but gave up quickly. Godard took obvious liberties with the character and placed him in another galaxy far far away. Curiously, the French films based on the Lemmy Caution novels usually starred the same Eddie Constantine who played the role in Alphaville.

In the Alphaville of the future (which looks suspiciously like Paris circa 1965), a massive computer called Alpha 60 controls in detail the lives of all its denizens. As a homage to Orwell, Godard has a “Bible” in every room, which is none other than a dictionary of approved words. Words that are dropped out include such terms as “conscience,” ”love,” and “tenderness.”

Could This Be the Most Beautiful Face of the 1960s?

Lemmy Caution falls in love with Anna Karina (playing the role of Natasha Von Braun), whom he refers to as a beautiful sphinx (“Joli Sphinx,” which he repeats twice). Lemmy pulls the old Captain Kirk trick of talking the computer into destroying itself, and while the residents of Alphaville are stricken and dying, drives off with Anna Karina to the Outlands of Nueva York.

Sigh! I think I’ll see some more Godard films with Anna Karina in an act of what one of my old friends called “morose delectation.”

 

 

Return to Godard (After Many Years)

Jean-Luc Godard During His “Golden Age”

From my last two years at Dartmouth to my first two or three years in Los Angeles, I thought that French film director Jean-Luc Godard was the greatest living filmmaker. Since he was still under forty, I thought he had many productive years ahead of him.

When I first came to L.A., I did not drive (that came almost twenty years later). Most of his films received their Southland premieres at the Laemmle Los Feliz Theater on Vermont, a few blocks north of Hollywood Boulevard.  It was a long bus ride involving a transfer in Beverly Hills at Santa Monica and Cañon to a bus that let me off at Santa Monica and Vermont. From there, it was almost a mile to the theater. This was at a time that I was suffering from urethral strictures that made long bus rides an ordeal for me. Several times I wound up wetting myself on the way back. That is a singularly unromantic way of paying for one’s love of art.

The last Godard film I loved was Week-end (1967). Afterwards, he continued to make films, but as a dedicated Maoist and Communist Revolutionary. We all saw signs of this coming in La Chinoise (1967), but couldn’t believe he could throw away his talent for mere propaganda.

After 1970, the only new Godard film I saw was Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love), made in 2001, which I saw early this year. In the intervening years, I continued to see my Godard favorites over and over again: Le Mépris, or Contempt (1963), Pierrot le Fou (1965), and Alphaville (1966). This morning, I saw Vivre Sa Vie (1962) and became quite suddenly unblinkered.

Anna Karina Crying in a Movie Theater in Vivre Sa Vie

I always saw Godard as a free spirit, but now I realized that there was a formal excellence that I had not appreciated. The film stars his wife, the lovely Anna Karina, who in twelve tableaux turns to the world of prostitution, falling in with a pimp who shoots her in the end. Where one would expect such a film to be relatively devoid of emotion, Godard follows Karina during the stages of her fall with a delicacy showing how strongly he felt for her. The above photo is taken in a movie theatre, where she tears up while seing Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).

As if my life were not complicated enough, I am now going to stage a multi-year re-evaluation of Godard’s work—if I am lucky to live so long! There really is something there. I’m glad it was not just a youthful infatuation.