The Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons
After reading the novel, I had to watch the film directed by Orson Welles. The Magnificent Ambersons is considered a classic film though not up to the level of Welles’ Citizen Kane. The film is quite faithful to the book, but I wished it included George with his rival redhead Fred Kinney, the part when Eugene falls over laughing when he sees how similar George and Fred’s conflict is to his own foolishness and how Lucy was not exclusive to George, how she would go dancing and socialize with other young men and how that made George feel so insecure.

The film was good, but not as full as the book, which is so often the case.

Welles had the actors in dark settings. I wished the mansions had more light. Buy some candles! Or get electricity!

The film was enjoyable and a classic. Reading the essay on Criterion, I learned how much Welles’ vision was altered:

But in Welles’ absence, RKO Studios recut the original version of the film mercilessly—Welles said it looked like it had been “edited with a lawn mower”—reducing its running time from 131 to the present 88 minutes. Nevertheless, what survives is still one of the most strikingly beautiful and technically innovative films ever to come out of Hollywood. It also tells a good story—about the decline of a once powerful and wealthy turn-of-the-century Midwestern family—with a conviction and maturity that are rare for the old Hollywood system.

I wish I could see the 133 minutes, but I’m glad I saw this.

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The Black River

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Mask Kobayashi paints a bleak picture of Tokyo during the 1950s in The Black River. Set in a neighborhood beside a U.S. Army base, Kobayashi shows how Japan’s become corrupt. When Nishida, an upright student/bookseller, moves into a decrepit apartment building that’s more of a shanty than a building, we meet a motley crew consisting of parasites, prostitutes and a couple good guys who don’t stand a chance of fighting city hall given that most of their neighbors would sell out their own mother given the chance.

Soon both Nishida and Killer Joe, a Japanese low level gangster, fall for Shizuko, a lovely, innocent young woman. Joe shows his colors early on by ordering his hoodlum pals to attack Shizuko. It seems they’re going to rape her, but Joe happens by and fights them off. He professes his love and while Shizuko is briefly wooed, Joe then forces himself on her and she’s reviled. The next day Shizuko visits Joe to tell him she was going to report him to the police, but decided she’d be willing to marry him to salvage her reputation. What a sacrifice! It’s hard to believe that a woman would even have to consider such an option, but in some times and places that’s how people thought.

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Meanwhile Joe’s plotting with the greedy landlady to evict the residents of the shanty. Both will make out like bandits if they can get the not-so-beautiful losers out of the place.

The film then criticizes the greed, pettiness and lack of morality in society without blaming the problems on the American Army.The Black River shows how the characters contribute to their own troubles. Certainly, Shizuko was a victim in many ways, but she winds up but her choices also lead to an end where I saw no happily ever after for her.

Pygmalion

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I was skeptical about Pygmalion (1938) starring Leslie Howard, whom I only knew as Ashley in Gone with the Wind. Boy, was I wrong. This film is every bit as good as My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison.

Faithful to the George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion shows us how the arrogant Professor Higgins takes on the bet to transform Eliza Doolittle, played by Helen Hill, a poor flower girl with bad English into a socialite. The film moves briskly and the performances were top notch. It should be seen and discussed by every do-gooder as it’s easy to take on a person’s problems without giving thought to what’s to become of the person after they’re transformed.

The only flaw in the story, which is well acted with witty dialog, is the ending for poor Eliza, the flower girl. In the end she does wind up with Higgins, but he hasn’t been transformed. Isn’t there someone more kind and thoughtful for the sincere, kind Eliza? Mr. Shaw, what were you thinking?

Forbidden Games

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Such a powerful film!

Set in WWII, Jeux Inderdict (Forbidden Games) follows Paulette, a girl of maybe 5, who’s fleeing Paris with her parents. Refugees run along a country road as I suppose they do now in the Middle East. As war planes bomb a bridge, refugees seek cover. Paulette gets separated from her parents as she runs after her little dog. Soon, both parents and her dog are killed by German bullets. Paulette’s left to wander amongst the refugees.

Eventually, Paulette crosses paths with Michel Dollé, an older farm boy who’s searching for a cow that’s scared by the bombs and shooting. Michel brings Paulette to his poor family and they take her in. There’s no other place for her to go, other than to the neighbors, whom they view as snobs. The father does not want the neighbors to get a good write up in the local paper for taking in a war orphan.

Though he’s probably about 9 or 10, Michel’s the most educated of his family. He knows all the prayers by heart and regales Paulette with facts about animals and religion.

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Paulette’s been carrying around her dead puppy and Michel convinces her to bury it. When Paulette sees a cross in the Dollé’s house, she’s curious. She never knew what they were for. Thus Michel leads Paulette to build their own private cemetery in a deserted mill and they begin to steal crosses from wherever they can get them–graves, churches, hearses.

The adults can’t understand who’s taking the crosses and the rivalry between the neighbors grows.

All in all, Forbidden Games  is a natural, haunting film that mixes innocence, war, poverty, generosity and faith. It’s a simple, yet profound film, one I doubt anyone could make today.

N.B. French with English subtitles

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.

The Kid

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I wasn’t prepared for the pathos of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. I didn’t expect the storyline either. In The Kid a single mother gets out of the charity hospital and doesn’t know what to do. Though it breaks her heart, she abandons her baby in an empty car in front of a wealthy home. It’s understandable since her love drops her photo in a fire and when he pulls it out, decides to toss it back to burn.

Yet comedy ensues and much as he doesn’t want the baby, Chaplin’s Tramp is stuck with it. The Tramp lives in a squalid apartment where just about every possession is broken or tattered. Yet he ingeniously manages to care for the baby. I loved how he rigged up a coffee pot to serve as a bottle.

Five years pass and the two are a family. They make money with a scam. The boy, who’s the epitome of a street urchin in looks, throws rocks through people’s windows. A couple minutes later the Tramp appears and he’s in the window glass business so he’ll repair the window right away. However, the local police are soon wise to them.

Meanwhile the boy’s mother has become a successful opera singer and his father, a famous artist. The two meet each other, but since the boy’s gone, there’s no reason for them to rekindle their love.

The story features so much clever slapstick and imaginative moments. It also plays on viewers heart strings big time, yet the film isn’t depressing. Chaplin and little Jackie Coogan are terrific and their story makes a commentary on how orphans and unwed mothers were treated.

Tidbits

  • There’s a 50 to 1 ratio between the footage Chaplin shot and what he used.
  • Chaplin discovered Jackie Coogan, when he saw Coogan on stage at a music hall with his father.
  • Chaplin had been suffering from writer’s block. Then his wife gave birth to a son, who died three days later. That incident sparked this story.
  • Chaplin himself spent time in an orphanage.

Life of Oharu

Sentenced to Banishment

Sentenced to Banishment

Life in 17th century Japan certainly wasn’t easy for women if The Life of Oharu is anything to go by. I really loved this movie about a beautiful young woman. First Oharu is a courtesan at the Imperial Palace. When she gives in to a lower class retainer’s advances, she’s found out. Then she’s banished from Kyoto. Her parents are also banished because they failed to guide their daughter properly. When they’re led out of the city, soldiers keep back their loved ones separating them with a pole as they proceed to the city limits in tears.

Oharu’s lover did not get off scot-free. He was beheaded after dictating a letter urging Oharu only to marry for love.

After a long banishment, Oharu lucks out. An emissary from an important lord must hunt for the perfect courtesan. The requirements are so specific. Feet must be a certain length, certain earlobes, background, talents. No one fits all the criteria — no one except Oharu. At first she kicks and screams, but eventually she goes to Edo (now Tokyo) where she delights the lord and infuriates his wife. She bears the lord the desired male heir and things are looking up. She finally feels at home, valued. However, the wife, who’s jealous of her husband’s fondness for Oharu, sends her packing with very little cash. Oharu’s father has over extended himself in business thinking he’ll be taken care of for life as his daughter bore the heir. The film continues to show this poor woman’s hardships and to reveal how precarious life could be in this highly structured society. The acting is superb and the story compelling as I had no idea what to expect. I really was shocked that Oharu was tossed out after producing a royal heir.

With the emperor

With the emperor, before she warmed up to him

While the film is melodramatic, there’s humor such as when a prostitute drags a man into an inn, while he’s calling out, “I’ve got to get home to my wife.” Based on the novel, The Life of an Amorous Woman, this film is beautiful with images that will stick with you. For more on the cinematography read this essay on the Criterion Collection website.