Monthly Archives: September 2013

‘Juarez’: German Expressionism Down Méjico Way

Original poster.

Original poster.

I can’t claim it’s a great picture, but “Juarez” (Warner Bros., 1939) is a lot of fun. It’s probably much better than it has any right to be. Claude Rains as Louis-Napoléon is funny every second he’s on screen.

Here’s his first scene; it opens the picture. Rains was rarely so hammy as he is in “Juarez,” but the vigorous way he attacks the lines is exactly what his scenes call for. In this barely disguised expository scene, he’s saddled with the nearly impossible task of playing both Emperor of France and Chorus (i.e., telling us that which we need to know, but which his onscreen colleagues know only too well). He solves the problem by hamming it up to a fare-thee-well. I find it hilarious the way he flashes his eyes and emphasizes his royal displeasure by making full-arm jabbing motions at the members of his cabinet — with an overlong cigarette burning at all times. And keep your ear peeled for the first time Rains says “Monroe Doctrine.” As a boy, Rains had a terrible stammer that he worked hard to overcome, but he never quite mastered the letter “R,” which, when he was insufficiently vigilant, came out as a “W.” “Monroe Doctrine,” which is often spoken of in “Juarez,” presents an almost insuperable obstacle to him, with those two R’s in such close proximity: in this instance, it comes out as “Monroe Doctwin” (or nearly so: there is a hint of an “R” in there). This is funny in itself, but because he follows it with one of his lunging swordsman’s gestures, crying in a loud voice: “YOU!” — it’s even funnier. (It is a testament to Rains’ hard work that he only slips up once or twice on “Monroe Doctrine,” and only when he has a full head of steam up.) Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score also adds to the comedy. (To my ear, it sounds like orchestral acid indigestion: one can imagine its accompanying Elmer Fudd’s discomfort after, say, swallowing a bowl of mashed potatoes that Bugs Bunny has laced with chilies, nitroglycerin and alum.) As the Empress Eugènie, Louis-Napoléon’s dragon-lady helpmeet, Gale Sondergaard is also superbly funny. That such was almost certainly not her intention makes no difference at all: she’s a riot. Claude Rains drives every scene he’s in; because he’s such a tremendous clown, everyone who comes into his orbit automatically becomes either his comic conspirator or his stooge — including Bette Davis, as you will see for yourself in a minute.

Rains doesn’t appear again for almost an hour, and when he returns he puts on a good show. The image of him astride that wooden horse makes me laugh before he even opens his mouth. And of course, he’s still got one of his overlong ciggies going. That’s Hugh Sothern who plays the American Ambassador, John Bigelow, a representative of William Seward. Sothern looks so much like Seward, it’s a shame he never played the man. He only appeared in two dozen pictures, mostly in westerns — he played Old Hickory in two pictures (“The Buccaneer” and in one short). He’s good in this small part, but Rains wipes the floor with him, and all the while he’s atop that wooden horse.

Here’s his great scene with Bette Davis, the first one they ever played together. You can see from the still below that hers is not (ahem) a subtle performance: how could it be, with Rains’ shoveling up mountains of comedy for her to play against? She was extremely shy around him during the shooting of this picture. When she appeared on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971, she described it this way: “He was the King of France, who loathed Carlota, and I was a kid and petrified of Mr Rains. So I thought he hated me; I didn’t know he was playing the character. I thought he thinks I just STINK — what am I gonna do? But eventually we worked together quite a lot; eventually we became really great friends. We were really great friends.” What Davis didn’t tell Cavett (and no reason that she should have done) was that, like many of his co-stars, she fell madly in love with Rains, a feeling he did not return. She often sought refuge with him after the smash-up of her latest love affair or marriage, but he never gave her a tumble romantically. “Frankly,” he said, “I’m terrified of her!”

The ending of that scene, when Carlota’s fragile mind cracks and she goes tearing off helter-skelter into the void, is visually the most interesting moment in the picture, though there are many interesting cinematographic moments scattered throughout. The cinematographer is Tony Guadio: he was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to Gregg Toland for “Wuthering Heights.” The director, William Dieterle, brought German Expressionism to Old Mexico, and the combination is often arresting — even stunning. The final shot in the picture — Carlota, now forever lost in the steepy night of lunacy, while the sun streams in on her — is also a stunner. Twenty years passed before I saw the picture for the second time; it was the one image that I never forgot. Such moments are enough to make me forgive a lot of misfires. Much of this picture uses distinctly Germanic lighting, which looks like ghost stories told round the campfire with flashlights under chins. Some of it is pretty arbitrary and foolish, but when it works, it works brilliantly — trouble is, it doesn’t work often enough. (Dieterle’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” photographed by Joseph August, uses the campfire bit even more luridly and often.)

O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown! Bette Davis as the Mad Carlota.

O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown! Bette Davis as the Mad Carlota.

Although Bette Davis feared that Claude Rains hated her, she seems never to have given a second thought to Brian Aherne, who played her uxorious husband, the Emperor Maximilian von Habsburg. The thin-skinned Mr Aherne roundly detested her. Some years later, he observed, “Surely nobody but a mother could have loved Bette Davis at the height of her career.” In their scenes together, he gazes at her tenderly — love-besotted — while she rarely looks at him except as a means of putting exclamation marks on the ends of her sentences, or sometimes in the middle of them. She was a very great actress; her performance in “Juarez,” however, is not one of her best. It is certainly one of her busiest.

The biggest surprise in “Juarez” is that Brian Aherne gives a first rate performance. For once, his tree-top height and fey superiority don’t work against him. In comedies like “The Great Garrick,” he’s too diffident and self-conscious to be droll, and in drama, he’s too lightweight to be taken seriously. He’s rather good in the late-fifties sudser, “The Best of Everything,” but only by accident, I expect. In that one, he plays a boozy, ass-pinching, over-the-hill paperback editor — boozy, he can do; ass-pinching, less so — but in “The Best of Everything,” his reminiscences of long-ago days with Fitzgerald and Perkins, of how with them he heard the chimes at midnight, are what work best in his performance; they’re strangely effective, precisely because you don’t believe a word of them. His inability to make the tawdry third-rate stuff seem credible works in his favor. This must surely be an accident: I make no doubt that we’re supposed to believe his tales of his youthful triumphs and escapades; we’re supposed to pity the man because his success came too early and has been followed by an unbroken string of failures and humiliations: we’re to imagine that he became a soak somewhere along his sad and messy descent into has-been-hood. But Aherne’s performance suggests that he’s a glassy-eyed boozer because he’s a never-was, and that he never knew any of the literary celebrities who are the supporting players in his tippler’s tales of salad days that never were. At any rate, it’s a more interesting story that way. And I like to give second-raters like Aherne the benefit of the doubt. I’m also well-disposed toward Aherne because he wrote a charming book about George Sanders entitled “A Dreadful Man.” (Indeed he was.)

In “Juarez,” however, Aherne’s feather-weight superciliousness and scarecrow physique are perfectly suited to the Emperor Maximilian, an unwitting puppet of Louis-Napoléon. Maximilian is the most interesting and complicated character in the story — perhaps the only one who isn’t a Classics Illustrated cartoon. Maximilian’s unimpeachable integrity and unshakable belief in absolute monarchy as the wisest form of government are undermined by his incompetence as a leader and naïveté as a politician. When he learns that he has been duped by the petit-bourgeois French king, his agony is incredibly moving, but his attempts to set things right are doomed to fail, even pathetic. It takes a weak sister like Aherne to make this predicament tragic instead of merely ridiculous. For Maximilian is a ridiculous character, with his Viennese dandyism ludicrously out of place under the burning eye of the Mexican sun. Quite apart from the fussiness of his attire, he sports the most extravagant tonsorial fashion: the Emperor Maximilian and that year’s other cinematic would-be autocrat, the Cowardly Lion, appear to give their royal custom to the same barber.

Separated at Birth? 1939: The Year of Royal Oddballs; the Emperor of Mexico, da King of da Fores'.

Separated at Birth? 1939: The Year of Royal Oddballs; the Emperor of Mexico, da King udda Fores’.

Aherne’s performance was the only one in “Juarez” to receive an Oscar nomination, but he lost to horrible Thomas Mitchell, who won for his performance as the drunken sawbones in “Stagecoach.” Poor Brian Aherne! How terrible to lose to a performance so low as that one!

Since the picture is called “Juarez,” I suppose I should mention Paul Muni, who plays the title character. Oh, God . . . Well, he’s less terrible than usual. He plays the role under many pounds of makeup. In some scenes, he looks like the shorter brother of Boris Karloff as the Monster in the first two Frankenstein pictures. He looks as if Wile E. Coyote had dropped an anvil on his head. As Benito Juarez, Muni is a whole lot less animated than was his wont; in many scenes, he indicates gravitas by becoming nearly catatonic. It’s beyond me how he can be absolutely motionless and say almost nothing, yet still come across as an incorrigible ham. And to tell the truth, I dislike the guy so much, I haven’t been willing to do enough homework to unravel this mystery — I’d rather accept it as an unknowable perplexity than put myself through the punishment of figuring out how he does it. Of course it’s possible that I’m too prejudiced against him to accept that his performance is not hammy. But I sincerely doubt it. His makeup does a lot of hamming for him: his eyebrows have been concealed under some sort of prosthetic skin, and a pair of furry nubbins, like a black caterpillar cut in half, have taken their place. Muni manages to pull the corners of his mouth down so low that he often reminds me of the churlish apple tree on the Road to Oz.

Separated at Birth? Paul Muni and twin.

Separated at Birth? Los Dos Sourpusses: Paul Muni and twin.

The nadir comes when he interviews a spirited young peón named Pepe (Manuel Díaz in his only movie role), who is so animated, one may be forgiven for imagining his name is Peppy. Juarez asks the young shepherd boy how his dogs fought off the depredations of a ferocious timber wolf; Pepe tells him the tale of the war of attrition against the marauder, with much exasperating pantomime: Muni’s slit eyes go evermore slitty till he says, “Jes, Pepe! Dat is de right way to fight a wolf!” And from this interview, the President of Mexico derives his ingenious strategy for the campaign which will eventually rid his beloved republic of the European overlords. It’s damned silly stuff. And I may say, not Muni’s fault. But why not blame him anyway?

The screenplay is by John Huston, with help from Æneas MacKenzie and Wolfgang Reinhardt, and is based in part upon a play by Franz Werfel and a novel (“The Phantom Crown”) by Betina Harding. In the circumstance, this has not proved to be too many cooks, though the quality of the script varies from scene to scene. Huston & Co. get through a lot of exposition in a hurry — it’s not good, but at least it’s fast, which is more than can be said of most historical pictures from the Studio Era. Muni’s scenes veer toward sanctimoniousness and sentimentality, but I’m unprepared to say whether this is the fault of the actor or the writers; it is probably a combination of both. Rains’ scenes are the funniest, though I doubt they’re intended to be; Aherne’s are the most touching — especially those with his Mexican cohorts who stand by him when the French withdraw their support. His romantic scenes with Davis aren’t entirely satisfactory, partly because she doesn’t bother to work with him and partly because I find it hard to take the tune that underscores their love scenes, “La Paloma,” seriously as a harbinger of tragedy. The orchestration is beautifully reminiscent of Puccini; the unidentified singer is a mezzo with a fast, tight vibrato (very much of the old school); she sings it ardently and with perfect simplicity, but the tune is — I don’t know — too familiar, too on-the-nose; it has underscored too many corny scenes of gay caballeros and their dreamy, hot-blooded señoritas Down Mexico Way.

The supporting cast includes a lot of famous actors, who give solid support. John Garfield plugs away at his role, but is miscast and affects an unfortunate accent that comes and goes without warning. It doesn’t help that we are treated to the sight of him in prison eating a raw ear of corn like an animal . . .

Oh, for corn sake, Porfirio! John Garfield as General Dìaz.

Oh, for corn sake, Porfirio! John Garfield, being all insolent and bestial as General Díaz.

Here’s an exchange between Garfield (as General Porfirio Díaz) and Aherne: the Emperor Maximilian visits the captured Díaz in prison to seek his help in restoring peace and order to the country. Garfield slices the baloney as thin as his talent will permit, but he’s quite hopeless. I don’t buy a word of it. His little stabs at a Mexican accent — on “Benito Juarez” and “constitution,” for example — make the whole thing seem idiotic, yet for all its silliness, I still find it mildly rousing: I know what it’s supposed to do, and am able to indulge Garfield’s incompetence. (I’d much prefer to see Gilbert Roland as Díaz, though he was perhaps far too aristocratic for the role.) Much of the picture is in approximately the same vein: constantly aiming high and missing the mark. But I like the ambitiousness of it. And in some scenes, it actually works just as it’s supposed to do.

Díaz: How can I help you?
Maximilian von Habsburg: By bringing peace to Mexico.
Díaz: Only one man can bring peace to Mexico: Benito Juarez.
Max von H: What is he, Benito Juarez, that he inspires men such as yourself, General Díaz? Tell me.
Díaz: What is he? He’s an ugly little man in a black frockcoat. He is Benito Juarez. He was born in misery, to live on a few grains of corn a day. He labored for an education; he used it to help his own people, and they elected him as a representative. He was imprisoned and exiled by a dictator, but he helped to destroy the dictator and free Mexico. He wrote the constitución. He became President of Mexico. He ruled it justly and well. Till traitors and landowners and speculators brought the French to depose him and put you in his place! YOU! Maximiliano von Habsburg!

I particularly like Gilbert Roland as Colonel Miguel López; Roland was one of the few Mexicans in the large cast. He looks great in military uniform and has authority and real finesse in a fairly underwritten part. He’s a perfect foil for Brian Aherne and Bette Davis, and a handsome devil.

Hola, guapo! Gilbert Roland as Col. Lôpez.

Hola, guapo! Gilbert Roland as Col. López.

Davis always had a soft spot for Roland: when she was first making her way in Hollywood, over at Universal in 1931, she was hired to be a “test girl,” which position sometimes required her to lie on a divan and be kissed by dozens of hopeful young actors. Kissing onscreen is a complicated business; not everyone can do it right so that it looks smooth and romantic. The first day on the job, she said she almost died of embarrassment — but the one young actor who was a marvellous kisser was Gilbert Roland. He got the part. Eight years later, they worked together in “Juarez”; they have only a few brief exchanges, but she has better chemistry with him than with Aherne.

Joseph Calleia, as the villainous vice president, Alejandro Uradi, who has designs on Juarez’s presidency, is almost as hilarious as Claude Rains, and like Rains, he steals every scene he’s in.

‘Great Expectations’: David Lean’s Finest

Original Poster. At the time, the picture was too mature to be considered suitable for general exhibition?

Original poster.

“Great Expectations” is far from Charles Dickens’ greatest novel, but David Lean’s adaptation (Cineguild, 1946) is, I think beyond any question, the best of all the many Dickens pictures. There is everything right with it. Frankly, I found the book, with its contrivances, coincidences and cartoon characters, so exasperating that I avoided the picture for many years. When finally I saw it (under protest), it so thoroughly enchanted and touched me that I had trouble remembering what, precisely, about the book could have displeased me. David Lean and his actors bring clarity and logic to the whole enterprise: the picture has a moral authority and a richly satisfying emotional pull that I failed to detect (much less appreciate) in the novel. The blend of buffoonish comical characters, multiple coincidences and social criticism is an uneasy one to make work, except as satire. But “Great Expectations” is by no means satire. Under David Lean’s direction, it’s a medium-grim fairy tale whose romantic atmosphere is repeatedly rent by sudden, startling flashes of realism that unexpectedly come crashing through and lighting up the fairy tale world like claps of thunder and bolts of lightning. Here’s one example of the sort of realism I mean. You will kindly note that it is also wonderfully poetic. It is Dickens, after all, and even the harshest reality in his work has poetry in it. I mean, really: beat this for filmmaking. It’s as perfect a cinematic moment as I’ve ever come across.

Whenever I look at this scene, I’m reminded of a tremendous line from a mad soliloquy spoken by Harry Andrews in “The Ruling Class”: it’s the day before he must pass a death sentence; he’s dressed in his play clothes (red military tunic, ballet skirt and a cocked hat), and he’s indulging in some auto-asphyxiation with a pearl-white silken noose, which his pear-shaped valet has suspended from his bedroom rafters. Just before he puts the noose round his throat, he murmurs, “Once you’ve put on the black cap, everything else tastes like waxxx frrruit!”

Next to Shakespeare, Dickens is the most word-drunk popular author in the history of English literature. Like Shakespeare, Dickens is most notable for his imaginative use of language. One remembers his characters more for the way they express themselves than for anything else. Consider Ebenezer Scrooge: that he is a miser is not what fixes him in one’s mind; he is memorable on account of the force of his eloquent vituperation against charity in general and Christmas in particular. Silas Marner, his near contemporary, was also a miser: but who remembers what he ever said? Rhetorical exuberance is the engine that drives Shakespeare and Dickens. Of the two, Shakespeare is clearly the deeper philosopher, but both have at their command a genius for expressive turns of phrase. To date, no screen adaptation of a Shakespeare play has ever been entirely satisfactory, no matter how admirable individual scenes may have been. The most common theory about why Shakespearean movies never quite work is that Shakespeare is first and last about the Word, while movies are primarily about the Image; therefore, the argument goes, to film Shakespeare, you must first cut away much of the language; yet cut away the language, and you lose Shakespeare — and there you have an insoluble problem. This certainly seems true in the case of Shakespeare. (Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” kept all of the text, and that didn’t work either: in my experience, it is the most stultifying — though not nearly the worst — Shakespeare picture to date.) Yet Dickens gives the lie to this argument, since screen adaptations of his novels very often work splendidly, and the ones that work the best are always those that keep as much of his highly stylized, artificial, literary dialogue as possible. The crazy plots may be simplified, so long as the rhetoric is left standing: Dickens without his linguistic flights of fancy would not be Dickens — that is why modern adaptations of his works are doomed to fail (the Ethan Hawke/Gwyneth Paltrow modern version is an abomination: it should have been called “Great Expectorations”), and perhaps why there have been so few attempts to set his stories in the modern world. David Lean’s “Great Expectations” succeeds because so much of the dialogue has been taken from the novel verbatim, and because Guy Green’s superb cinematography captures Dickens’ descriptive passages with amazing accuracy and vivacity.

Freda Jackson as Mrs Joe: 'If that boy comes home his head blown to bits by a musket, don't look to me to put it together again!'

Freda Jackson as Mrs Joe: ‘If that boy comes back ‘ere with his head blown to bits by a musket, don’t look to me to put it together again!’

I’m lost in wonder at the stupendous number of ways David Lean and his colleagues have found to make “Great Expectations” a thing of exquisite beauty; the picture perfectly captures the spirit and sensibility of Dickens, while improving on the novel. And it’s a real movie movie — that is, it’s brilliantly cinematic (Guy Green won that year’s Oscar for Best Black and White Cinematography, the first time a British picture ever won in that category), while also containing some of the best writing and acting ever to be put on film. Lean’s adaptation succeeds so brilliantly that I find it hard to understand how Dickens could have written the novel eighty-six years before it was made; the picture is so ideally cast that one gets the feeling that Dickens must have had these very actors in mind when he wrote it. Here’s the opening sequence, which should give you a reasonable idea of all the rest of the marvellousness to follow.

Shortly after this scene, we see Pip (the excellent Anthony Wager) steal the “wittles” and the file for Magwitch the convict (played with astonishing authority and musicality by Finlay Currie — one of the most reliably entertaining actors who ever drew breath). He sneaks out to the churchyard to deliver the stolen items and this is the scene that follows:

The entire picture is as excellent as these early scenes: it’s engrossing and emotionally satisfying from the first frame to the last. Every actor in the cast is perfect. As Uncle Bumblechook, Hay Petrie is the living embodiment of a few score of Dickens’ demented tertiary characters — he also looks remarkably like a tinier (he stood 5′ 3 ½”), freaked-out Claude Rains. If Ronald Searle had drawn a caricature of Rains, the result would have looked like Hay Petrie.

Here, without introduction, is Alec Guinness in his first appearance of what would prove to be his career-making performance as Herbert Pocket. Guinness had already played the part with great success in the West End, in his own adaptation of the novel.

It is probable that Miss Havisham is the most famous character in the story; she is played to perfection by the great actress and wit, Martita Hunt. Hunt was not yet fifty when she made this picture, but you’d never know it. Here are the first three scenes that feature Miss Havisham; I think it should be obvious why her character is so famous. I show them partly because Martita Hunt’s performance is so interesting, and partly because I want to pass along a funny anecdote about the redoubtable Miss Hunt after you have taken a look at the clips. The three clips, as you will see, are all quite short and superbly entertaining — but I believe you really must have Miss Hunt’s voice clearly in your head if the story I am going to relate is to have its maximum effect.

The young Estella is played by Jean Simmons. In a 1999 interview, she was asked if David Lean was difficult to work for. “With me and the boy, Anthony Wager, he was very gentle. He seemed amused by us for some reason. It was a perfect part for me; sixteen is the age of flirtation.” Did she break his heart, as Estella breaks Pip’s? “Oh no, no. But we liked each other. In fact, he saved my life on the film one day. I had to go up and down those damn stairs so many times holding the candle that I was tired late one evening and I kind of relaxed and let my arm drop. Suddenly there were flames shooting up. My apron was on fire! Anthony just rushed in and brushed it out. He was there before anyone else could move. Really a great sense of timing. I often wonder what happened to him. He may have just given up acting and gone into business.” (For the record, he did continue to act, but in the late sixties, he moved to Australia, where he acted in television shows. He died on the isle of Bali on December 23, 1990.)

Valerie Hobson and John Mills as Estella and Pip.

Valerie Hobson and John Mills as Estella and Pip.

When Estella grows to young womanhood, she is played by Valerie Hobson, who was married to the picture’s executive producer, Anthony Havelock-Allen at the time of the filming. Hobson played her last starring role in 1953, when she appeared as Mrs Anna Leonowens in the West End production of “The King and I.” The following year, she married John Profumo, a member of Parliament. In 1963, Profumo’s ministerial career ended in disgrace when it was discovered that he had lied to the House about his affair with his mistress, Christine Keeler. Hobson stood by her husband, and till the end of her life (she predeceased him by eight years), they worked for charitable organizations, dealing with lepers(!) and mentally handicapped children. (A story straight out of Dickens.) She died on November 13, 1998.

“It and I have worn away together; mice have gnawed at it. And sharper teeth than teeth of mice have gnawed at me.” The rhetorical brilliance and superb balance of that one short passage dazzle me. The technical skill of the writing is a pleasure for its own sake. There’s an echo of Richard II’s prisonhouse lament “I wasted time and now doth time waste me” in Miss Havisham’s words, both in her theme and in the figures of speech she employs. But then there’s the actress, who knows how to set those devices a-work. Martita Hunt, a great actress, makes everything count.

This next clip begins with another one of those fine British character actors, Francis L. Sullivan, who plays Mr Jaggers, the explosive attorney. He specialized in peremptory lawyers and timpano-bellied plutocrats, which he played with brio and swagger. He’s roughly the London equivalent of America’s Eugene Pallette; both men were reliably funny and conveyed a special soulfulness without ever engaging in the least bit of sentimentality, but I’m bound to say that Sullivan’s range was somewhat wider — perhaps so was his girth. In any case, Sullivan is always worth watching, even in the worst drivel, but he is especially suited to the world of Dickens, which is a society of outsized people and personalities.

After making such a success as Miss Havisham, Martita Hunt spent the rest of her career playing old dragons, aristocratic crones and high-falutin busybodies. Ten years after “Great Expectations,” she was cast in “Anastasia” (a scornful pleasure of the first water) as the Baroness Elena von Livenbaum, a lady-in-waiting to the Dowager Empress Maria Federovna, which part was played by Helen Hayes. In Guy Bolton’s West End stage version of “Anastasia” in the early 1950s, the Dowager Empress was played by a highly respected British stage actress named Helen Haye (no “s”), who played the role to great acclaim. In fact, she was supposed to reprise the role in the 20th Century-Fox picture, but through a clerical error, the role went to that First Pixie of the American Theatre, Helen Hayes. (“Rather bad luck on our actress,” wrote John Gielgud, who was great friends with Miss Haye (no “s”), who had given him his scholarship to Lady Benson’s Acting School in 1921; “I remember Martita Hunt complaining bitterly because she only got a lady in waiting.”) While “Anastasia” was being filmed, Sir John was at a large party when Martita Hunt saw him across the room. She tottered up to him unsteadily — very tipsy, as he reported — and said in a dignified voice, “I am worn out by curtseying all day to that f-f-f-f-fucking Helen Hayes!” Even if Martita Hunt hadn’t been the brilliant comic actress she was, I’d have to hold her close to my heart for her taste in actresses.