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Young Mr. Lincoln

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I really enjoyed Henry Fonda in director John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln. The film is fictionalized but based on an actual murder trial Abraham Lincoln worked on. Honest Abe leaves Indiana for Springfield, Illinois. Once there he does a poor country family a good turn and they pay him by giving him a barrel full of law books, which prompts him to learn law.

Later one summer he meets the lovely, Mary Todd, but he’s shy and awkward. At a summer festival two brothers from the country get into a fight with a town jerk and the jerk winds up dead. The locals are ready to lynch the outsiders but Abe steps in and turns them around with his wit.

It looks like the brothers have no chance for justice, but Abe takes the case.

Fonda does look like a young Abe. The cadence of his voice sounds small town. The film was enjoyable and would make good family viewing.

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Carrot Top (Poil de Carrote) 1932

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Written and directed by Julian Duvivier, Poil de Carrote or Carrotop (1932) will grab your heart. It’s the story of a boy whose mother has no love for him, while she spoils and adores his older siblings Felix and Ernestine, Carrot Top is the family’s Cinderella, who has to do all the chores and is the only person in the home, including the maid, who wears rags.

When the film opens, Carrot Top is getting scolded for writing a school essay stating, “A family is a group of people forced to live together under one roof who cannot stand each other.” His teacher tells him that all mothers and fathers love their children. The teacher clearly hasn’t met Mr. and Mrs. Lepic. Carrot Top has to call his parents Mr. and Mrs. Lepic and he’s absolutely right when he tries to convince his teacher that not all families are like Norman Rockwell paintings. Throughout this debate we see how smart and witty Carrot Top is.

Just as predicted, when Carrot Top arrives in his home town from boarding school, no one’s there to pick him up from the train station. When he gets home, the abuse and trouble begin. At every chance the stern Mrs. Lepic ridicules and overworks her son, who it’s well know was an “accident.” Mr. Lepic has withdrawn from home life and just doesn’t see what’s going on. He lives in his own world surviving by ignoring everything around him.

Only the new maid, Annette sees the injustice and hardship Carrot Top faces. His only other allies are the little girl he plans to marry and his good natured godfather who offers solace, but doesn’t intervene till the very end.

As the story progresses, Carrot Top’s upbeat attitude erodes. His shrew of a mother who looks for every chance to make life hard for Carrot Top is just too much. It breaks his spirit to see children his age in town who’re in nice clothes and are allowed to play.

Robert Lynen gives a realistic, sincere performance that shows amazing emotional range. Poil de Carrote was his first film. I learned from Criterion Collection’s essay, that Lynen joined the French Resistance in his 20s and was caught and executed by the Nazi’s.

I chose this film because I saw that Harry Baur of Les Misérables played the father. Again he provides an excellent, sensitive performance.

While I’d never heard of this story, Poil de Carrote began as a novel, then was a play, a silent film directed by Julian Duvivier, who made this film. Through the years, Poil de Carrote has been adapted numerous times into TV programs, cartoons and other films.

Sepia Saturday

Sepia Saturday Theme Image 390

Hmm. What to search for for this prompt. I suppose I’ll go to Flickr Commons and search “girl posed.”

I did and here’s a few photos I found.

For more inspired nostalgia, click here.

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From the National Library of Wales, circa 1885

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Library of Congress, 1939, taken near Union Station, Washington DC

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She could use more fabric ~ Library of Congress, 1910

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Norway, 1890, Library of Congress

The Rules of the Game

Rules

I had to watch The Rules of the Game under strange circumstances. My DVD only would play the film with the commentary going. Thus I read the subtitles and once in a while got a snippet of dialog without English commentary. I prefer first viewings without the expert’s take, but perhaps in this complex film the commentary was best.

 

Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game depicts two parallel classes, the upper middle class and the servant class. From the bourgeois Christine, Robert’s Austrian wife has disappointed her would-be lover Andre, an aviator who’s just completed a round the world journey. Andre gets no satisfaction from the clamoring crowd or the inquisitive press. Christine didn’t come so the whole flight was for nought.

Christine’s been in her Parisian home with her husband Robert and her maid Lisette. Robert’s tiring of his lover Genevieve and Lisette’s tired of her husband Schumacher. All are leaving for the countryside where a web of relationships will tangle creating a fine mess pulling the film from farce to tragedy with a surprise ending.

Renoir saw WWII coming. He also saw his society drunk on frivolity, careening over an edge. The Rules of the Game is a rare film that begins with light-hearted, harmless fun, but ends with broken hearts and a tragic death. The characters who all play at love see the consequence of their erroneous worldview.

The film is beautiful and many scenes are complex dances. Renoir was ambitious to offer such sophistication and it wasn’t till decades after it was made that The Rules of the Game was considered a masterpiece, one of the finest movies of all time.

If you think you’ve seen the actor playing Robert before, you have. He was ran the roulette table at Rick’s Café in Casablanca.

I’ll definitely watch this one again.

Port of Shadows

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Starring Jean Gabin (The Grand Illusion and many more) and Michel Simon (The Two of Us, Boudu Saved from Drowning) Port of Shadows shows people who life has roughed up trying to find love and knowing it’s as illusive as the fog.

Gabin has ditched his duties as a soldier in Indochina and is on the run. He’s sou-less, friendless, and jaded when he hops a ride from a truck driver who suggests he go to a hole in the wall bar on the harbor shore. It’s a drab place run by a bartender who hasn’t totally given up on life the way most of the characters have.

Here Gabin meets a beautiful girl, who’s trying to escape her gangster boyfriend. Both Gabin and her somewhat creepy guardian Simon try to protect her from the mobsters who’re looking for Maurice, her old love. Port of Shadows is about broken, bruised people who hope things will get somewhat better, but strongly doubt it.

The plot has a few twists and the characters emit a film noir, quasi-Bogart vibe with an understated French flair, but the film is mainly about mood, a melancholy mood.

The Only Son

The Only Son

An Only Son

My guess is Ozu can’t make a bad film. Though I’ve only seen a handful, from what I’ve read and seen, I think it’s impossible.

The Only Son (1936) tells the story of a poor boy who’s widowed mother doesn’t have enough money to send him to middle school. Only 9 boys in the class are planning to go. When the boy’s teacher obliquely urges her to see that her gifted son goes on to school, she finds a way to do so.

The film then jumps ahead to the boy’s adulthood. After college, he’s living in Tokyo. His mother surprises him with a visit and he surprises her with a wife and baby he never mentioned. In Japan this is quite a disgrace. Why wouldn’t you tell your mother you’d married? It makes her look like a bad mother. (And in the US it’s also not done.) She accepts her new daughter-in-law and dotes on her grandson.

Though he tries to hide it, his life has not worked out. He lives on the outskirts of pre-WWII Tokyo in a desolate area beside a factory. He’s scraping by teaching math classes at night. He can’t get a good job and has to ask his boss for an advance so he’ll have money to make sure his mother has a good trip.

What was all her deprivation for? Her son’s not even happy. The promise that education will lead to a good job, to security or prosperity, has not proven true. She brings this up to her son as they sit in a field of dried grass. He’s frustrated by the situation himself. He can’t and doesn’t argue with her. He has little hope and little motivation to succeed.

Yet a heroic act for a neighbor shows the mother that all isn’t lost and that her son, while he may never be rich, has a stellar character.

The film is stark and beautiful. The environment captures the characters’ plights. While the ending isn’t one you’d find in a fairytale, it’s authentic and powerful.

Passing Fancy

Kahichi and son Tomio

Kahichi and son Tomio

Yasujiro Ozu’s Passing Fancy (1933) takes us into the shitamachi, i.e. tenement neighborhood of Tokyo where factory worker Kihachi, a widower, lives with his young son, Tomio. The film opens with Kihachi watching a storyteller with his neighbors. The scene with Kihachi battling a fly are comedic. After the show, Kihachi meets Harue, a young, pretty woman who’s just last her job and has no where to go.

Not only is Kihachi moved, he’s smitten. His young neighbor Jiro kids Kihachi urging him not to get his hopes up. A lazy, uneducated jokester, Kihachi’s amusing, but you know he’ll never get ahead. Moreover, you know he’ll never get the girl. His hopes die hard. He’s unaware of Harue’s soft spot for Jiro, who rebuffs her advances. Still her continued love for Jiro means she’s never going to fall for Kihachi.

Tomio’s a good student and impudent son. His classmates taunt him and in turn, Tomio puts down his father for his illiteracy and lazy ways. The argument escalates, but Kihachi realizes his son’s situation and gives a lot of money to spend as he wishes. He hopes the windfall will alleviate the pains of their poverty however briefly. But Tomio, who’s about 9 or 10, gorges himself on sweets, which results in a critical illness. With Tomio in the hospital Kihachi, Jiro, Harue and another neighbor are brought together.

It's never explained why Tomio's got the eye patch

It’s never explained why Tomio’s got the eye patch

The silent film moves slowly by modern standards, but is full of touching scenes that will reward patient viewers. Ozu’s characters are engaging. I particularly liked that the boy was sometimes the model son, who has to make his drunken father get up for work, sometimes a victim and sometimes a brat. It isn’t often that children are so multi-dimensional in film.

Related

The 39 Steps

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This week’s old movie was Hitchcock’s 39 Steps (1935), which reminded me a lot of Ministry of Fear and North by Northwest, another Hitchcock film. Still 39 Steps is compelling and moves quickly as it shows a man who mistakenly gets caught up in spy intrigue and is innocent of a murder for which the police suspect him. I’d never seen the leading man, Robert Donat, but liked him in the role of Mr. Hanney. Dona’s charming and attractive, but not an Adonis so he can come off as an everyman.

After a strange, beautiful woman asks to go back with him to his apartment. Once inside she hides in the shadows, fearful of being seen. Men are following her. She claims to be a spy who must protect military secrets. She’s a mercenary and her tale is hard to believe. Hanney really doesn’t put much faith into her story, but he doesn’t kick her out either. When she comes to him in the middle of the night with a map and a knife stuck in her back, Hanney’s convinced. Knowing he’ll be suspected of murder he flees all the while having to elude the men who killed the beautiful spy.

Like many Hitchcock films it’s the tale of an innocent man, wrongly accused. Roger Ebert told a film class I took with him that as a boy, Hitchcock’s father wrongly suspected the young genius of some childish misdemeanor and punished him by sending him to the local police where an officer locked him up saying, “This is what we do with naughty boys.” Hitchcock believed he was 4 or 5 at the time.

The 39 Steps moves briskly in part to keep the audience from pondering unexplained questions like how did the killers get into Hanney’s apartment so quietly and why didn’t they do something to Hanney since they saw the pair enter the building.  The film delights with wit and light comedy sprinkled in with the suspense and danger.

As usual, the Criterion Collection offers a trenchant essay on the film. Well worth reading.

The Story of a Cheat

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The Story of a Cheat (1936) is a delightful comedy by Sacha Guitry, whom I’d never have discovered if it weren’t for my New Year’s resolution to watch old movies. In T he Story of a Cheat, Guitry plays a suave man who falls into one incident after another where he winds up stealing or conning someone. As a boy, he stole some money from his father’s shop. He got caught and was forbidden to eat the mushrooms served for dinner. As all his relations get poisoned, he lucked out and thus the confusion over whether honesty is the best policy ensues. No matter how bad things get, there’s always some silver lining and this hero winds up doing alright – as long as he’s dishonest. Whenever he’s honest, he gets in trouble.

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It’s a fun, entertaining French film told almost entirely through flashback and voice over. Big no-no’s for movies, but this does work. The Criterion Collection provides a nice essay on Guitry’s career.

Gosford Park, No Downton Abbey

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I began watching Julien Fellows’ Gosford Park with high hopes. After all, I love Downton Abbey and Fellows won the Oscar for this screenplay.

I was disappointed. Sorely. Despite an all star cast, Gosford Park lacked a single character I found charming or likable. There was one Scottish maid who seemed mousy but nice. She wasn’t enough to carry a film of this length. The characters all came off as cold, greedy and indolent. The upperclass people spent money like water and had nothing but disdain for each other and got no joy from their money.

The downstairs servants weren’t much better. Though not as spoiled they were all out for themselves in a different way. No warmth at all. They just wanted to get their work done with as little fuss as possible. Anyone who upset their system was glared and scoffed at.

One theme that rose was how the servants felt overshadowed by their employers. I can see that, but the grass isn’t always greener. If they worked in offices, their lives would also be precarious and as one of my new colleagues asserts if you work for one company for a long time, that company forms your identity to a great extent. So if they traded their apron for a factory uniform it’s not sure that they’d be happier or more secure.

Sexual harassment was rampant as the lord of the manor couldn’t keep his hands to himself, but in a store, office or factory women run into that too.

For the first 75 minutes we see rich people bicker, whinge and finagle for money. Then the plot picks up when the lord who’s a churl gets murdered. Yet the investigation is so incompetently carried out that I just couldn’t buy it. In the end we do learn who did it, but by then I barely cared.

Fellows sure deepened his understanding about character and plot by the time he started Downton Abbey.

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