Friday, April 11, 2014

On Two (Lesser) MGM Musicals

I Dood It (Vincente Minnelli, 1943)

Vincente Minnelli's second film is pretty much a straight remake of Buster Keaton's last silent picture, Spite Marriage. Red Skelton plays the Keaton role, a sap obsessed with an actress who finds himself married to her when she wants to get back at her lover. The actress is played by tap-dancing dynamo Eleanor Powell, and the film's primary flaw is how little she's allowed to be herself.

Throughout her late 30s films, Powell proved herself a remarkable film presence, athletic and fast and graceful, her performances exploded the otherwise disastrously generic films she found herself in. (She arguably out-danced Fred Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940, not even Gene Kelly could claim that accomplishment). When she wasn't dancing though, she was mostly harmless, charming, cute, but unmemorable. She gets a lot more to do acting-wise her and she manages to pull out off splendidly. Not just as the comic prop in the famous "putting the passed-out wife to bed sequence", the best sequence in Keaton's film and passably recreated here, but in the film's less spectacular spaces she manages to create a whole, realistic person, no easy feat in a Red Skelton movie.

The problem though is that there simply aren't enough musical numbers. MGM seemed to realize this, as there are a couple wholly superfluous number right in the center of the film, with Hazel Scott doing "Taking a Chance on Love" (the best song from Minnelli's debut, Cabin in the Sky) and Lena Horne singing "Jericho". These are terrific, but their only relation to the movie we're watching is that Skelton happens to be in the theatre at the same time as them.

Even worse is that Powell only gets three dance numbers. The first comes near the beginning, a fantastic Western number with rope tricks. The second is an all-too-brief Hawaiian dream sequence. The third is outright stolen from the climax of Powell's 1936 film Born to Dance, with Skelton simply cut into the footage where James Stewart was in the original. Try as TCM's Robert Osborne did to convince me that wartime necessity made such a recycling an understandable necessity, I remain unconvinced. It just smacks of corporate laziness. And Osborne didn't mention it, but as I suspected, that second number is ripped off too, from Powell's 1939 film Honolulu. Lame. Eleanor Powell had such a short film career, with only about ten films over eight years before she retired (there were a couple of minor roles to follow, along with a nightclub act, but mostly she focused on raising her son (she was married to Glenn Ford)). I've been trying to think of a kung fu movie equivalent for Powell. In terms of career brevity and performing skill, and subpar quality of the pictures she found herself in, the best match I could think of is Bruce Lee. She's obviously not the multi-national icon Lee was and remains to this day, but in terms of on-screen output, I think it's a fair comparison. If so, then this might reasonably be considered something like one of those Bruceploitation films that recycled old footage of him into a cheap formula product.

In the Good Old Summertime (Robert Z. Leonard, 1949)

It's tempting to say that the difference between The Shop Around the Corner and this its musical remake is the difference between the work of an auteur like Ernst Lubitsch and the work of a studio machinist like Robert Z. Leonard. Tempting, but that doesn't really capture just how much is wrong with this film.

There's the sitcomization of the plot, with the central conflict between the shop owner and his best employee reduced from the suspicion of sexual betrayal leading to attempted suicide to a simple misunderstanding revolving around a leaden prop-based running joke.

There's the total inadequacy of Van Johnson as the romantic lead. I mean, it's no easy task being compared to James Stewart, the greatest motion picture actor of all-time, but apparently Van Johnson was a thing with great popular appeal and I have no idea why. He's tall I guess. He's fine as Gene Kelly's morose, cynical, drunk sidekick in Brigadoon, but as the prime mover of this film he's inert.

There's the ghost of Buster Keaton, in the last of his MGM roles. At least in this one his character isn't named "Elmer". He'd be a waxwork in the next year's Sunset Blvd.

The best thing about the film, as usual, is Judy Garland. But the part wasn't written for her; she was a last-minute replacement for June Allyson. Rather than rewire the script to accommodate more music, instead they just awkwardly shoehorn in some songs for her to sing (because apparently when you buy a song score at a music shop, you want the clerk to sing you the tune (though if you can't read music, why buy the score?). The songs aren't very good, even the best one, the title song, sounds like a cheap rehash of "Meet Me in St. Louis" (not unlike the film's turn of the century Chicago setting and that earlier Garland film, actually). Of course, the film takes place almost entirely at Christmastime, so maybe naming the movie after that song wasn't the best idea?

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Ann Hui's Zodiac Killers

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

A somewhat misleading title, as the movie doesn't have anything to do with a zodiac, or really even killers. Instead this 1991 film is a portrait of Chinese students in Tokyo leading desperately miserable lives. Directed by the great New Wave filmmaker Ann Hui, it was apparently an attempt by her to move toward the mainstream by making a modern gangster film, though I'd say she already made that move with the fine 1984 melodrama Love in a Fallen City and her follow-up project, the two-part wuxia The Romance of Book and Sword (which I very much need to see).

Andy Lau, who had one of his first major roles in Hui's 1982 Boat People, stars as a young student with a tiny apartment filled with the detritus of pop culture (it reminded me most of Marty McFly's room, actually). He falls in love with another immigrant, the lovely and sad Cherie Chung. Chung loves a Japanese man named Asada, a former yakuza assassin. The first half of the film carefully lays out the somewhat hopeless dreams of the various immigrant characters: one is trying to rise up the ranks of the gangster world, one of Lau's fellow film students is looking for his old girlfriend, who had moved to Japan sometime earlier and is now lost, various girls are trying to eke out a living while not quite becoming prostitutes for disgusting Japanese businessmen, and so on. The second half follows a more conventional action film structure, with the chase and suspense sequences unfolding while just about all the diasporic Chinese come to tragic, often bloody, ends.

The melding of Hui's social realism with the heroic bloodshed genre isn't quite successful. It feels like a significant chunk of the film has been cut out, most noticeably the scenes where Chung meets and falls in love with Asada. As it is, it feel like we jump into a completely different world halfway through the film, and when Lau suddenly finds he has a rival, we have no idea who that guy is. Hui briefly flashes back to Chung and Asada's first meeting later in the film (an effect she repeats a few other times with other characters, such flashbacks being not at all unusual in these post-A Better Tomorrow movies, though they're unusually poignant given Hui's less hyperbolic style). Hui reportedly had some trouble getting the film distributed once production was complete, so I wonder if what survives is a compromised version of the original story. If perhaps the flashback refers to a scene that was in the original cut of the film but had to be removed to get the running time down below the Hong Kong-standard 100 minutes.

Despite all this, Hui's direction is sure enough and Lau and Chung nuanced enough performers that there's a real beating heart to this otherwise obvious plot. Hui isn't as flashy as John Woo or Wong Kar-wai, but her realist images are no less artfully composed: Chung and Lau in a subway station, passing trains briefly separating them; looks up at the skyscrapers of Tokyo as oppressive symbols of unattainable success; a beachside Ferris Wheel that serves as a reminder of Asada's youth as he too is an exile, even in his home country (a sentiment that also underlies a wonderfully desperate cameo by Kyoko Kishida (star of Woman in the Dunes) as an aged geisha who helps Lau and Chung at a crucial point. The Chinese aren't the only ones lost in modern Japan.) The editing and performance of the fight sequences is solid but unspectacular and a final chase sequence is wonderfully scored with a ticking, propulsive beat that recalls more the opening of Touch of Evil than the post-Matrix electronic pulses we get today. In one of her last roles before retiring, Chung gives one of her finest performances. Perpetually on the brink of tears, affecting the poses of a demure and deferential young girl, lost in a foreign world, her eyes nonetheless show flashes of a haughty, obstinate determination, as if she knows she deserves better than this terrible world.