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If you had to sum up the genius of Victor Fleming you could say that he had a gift for telling sentimental stories in unsentimental ways, a gift for telling melodramatic stories in un-melodrmatic ways.
Because he was himself a hard-nosed, manly man — not the sort of fellow to get carried away by sentiment or melodrama — he knew how to sell a sentimental or melodramatic tale to people like himself. He first disarmed audiences with his cavalier attitude towards the mushier emotions, then crushed them with emotional effects they never saw coming.
The Wizard Of Oz is so funny, is carried along by such breezy wit and good cheer, that the deep emotional impact of Dorothy’s ultimate farewell in Oz to her three comrades-in-arms takes us by surprise. Fleming knows how we’ve felt all along about the friendship between these four friends, but he’s taken care never to milk it with obvious appeals to the heart. When he finally acknowledges, lets us acknowledge, the depth of our feelings, we’re helpless to resist them.
“Now I know I have a heart,” says the Scarecrow, “because it’s breaking.” Fleming never appeals to the heart, never tries to break our hearts, until he’d convinced us, by indirect means, that we have one.
Rhett Butler’s cynicism in Gone With the Wind stands in for the attitude of everyone who’s inclined to resist a sappy love story. Scarlett O’Hara’s fiddle-dee-dee silliness reinforces the suspect nature of the enterprise. We root for these two to get together long before we realize we’re rooting for it, how deeply we’re invested in their love story.
We’re unprepared for how happy it makes us when they finally hook up, how devastated we are when they part at the end. We’re undone by the melodramatic power of the tale long before we realize how utterly in its power we are.
Captains Courageous is a story about a spoiled boy learning how to be a man, how to deal with rough knocks, how to deal with loss. The people who teach him these things do so in an almost heartless way — the lessons are too important to sugarcoat. We know what’s at stake long before the film acknowledges what’s at stake.
The process is all about love, real, hard, fierce love, but it can’t ever be presented as such. No one is allowed to say to the boy, “I’m being cruel in order to be kind.” That’s something only the boy can figure out.
Fleming shows us the love in action, but gives only glimpses of the tenderness involved in it. The tenderness of the teachers is not the point — the boy’s coming of age is the point. It’s only when the boy does come of age that we’re allowed to cry, to love his teachers as much as they’ve loved him.
It’s an overwhelming experience, because we’ve understood it all along and been forced to deny it — forced to deny the emotional undertow of it, out of our concern that it might not serve its purpose, that the boy might not get the message.
Fleming was hard-nosed enough, manly enough, to know the value of sentiment, of emotion — a value so high that it admits of no shortcuts, no fudging, no tricks. He specialized in making grown men and women cry over things worthy of their tears.
At RKO, Tim Holt played second lead in a few B-Westerns in the 1930s before the studio decided to make him the star of his own series. They launched it with Wagon Train, a superior showcase a cut above the standard B-Western.
Holt plays a scout leading a wagon train loaded with desperately needed supplies for settlers in a remote town, navigating perilous country, threatened by Comanches on the warpath and a gang of road agents working for a rival express company.
Production values are high, the script is taut, and Holt is at his most appealing, ably supported by a fine cast, including Martha O’Driscoll (with Holt above) as the leading lady. Trained as a dancer, she had a middling career in Hollywood for about ten years, until she gave it up to raise a family and pursue other interests.
She attained a certain cult celebrity for her appearance in House Of Dracula (above), but she was a very good actress, too, with a striking screen presence. She anchors the romantic subplot in Wagon Train with her vexing, self-assured performance in a role that has more substance than usual for a female lead in a Western.
The film is really a modest A-Western and became the first of 46 Westerns Holt would star in for RKO. They would become increasingly formulaic — enjoyably so for the most part — but a film like Wagon Train makes one wish Holt had starred in more Westerns of similar ambition and quality.
The Bride from Bride Of Frankenstein is my favorite character in any movie. Her few scenes in the film (as a living being) last a bit over four minutes and she speaks no lines — she just screams and hisses a few times, in what Elsa Lanchester, the actress who played her, said was an imitation of a swan’s hiss.
Yet for all that she has become an iconic movie monster, and she continues to fire my imagination, as she has since I first caught sight of her — in a TV broadcast of Bride Of Frankenstein one Saturday night in 1962, when I was 12.
She is of course a creature sewn together from bits and pieces of corpses — a woman of many parts, you might say, a universal woman, but also the nominal creation of men. We see the sort of cadaver she was made from in a scene before she’s been assembled and animated — the cadaver of a beautiful young girl lying in a coffin in an underground crypt.
The Monster has accidentally broken open the top of her coffin and is instantly enchanted. He gazes upon her longingly and speaks the word “friend”. As a sort of animated cadaver himself, feared and mistrusted by regular human beings, he seems to think that only the dead could possibly understand what it’s like to be him.
The serene repose of the girl in the coffin is not what The Monster finds when The Bride, intended as a mate for him, is eventually brought to life. She has the furious energy of an enraged cat, and she doesn’t see herself in him — she sees a monster. As I stood on the precipice of puberty at age 12, starting to think sexually about women for the first time, albeit very vaguely, I suspect I wondered if women might react to me in the same way when the time for romancing them came around. It’s a primal male anxiety.
The Bride is anything but a monster herself. We first see her wrapped up like a mummy, with all her delectable curves plain as day. It’s an image of pure womanliness, of all the things that make women different from men physically — but the wrappings suggest her mystery as well, the idea that those curves cannot be possessed directly or easily, that some serious unraveling, both literal and psychic, will be required.
Colette, who knew a lot about sex, once did a music hall act in which she appeared wrapped in linen strips like a mummy and slowly unwound them in a kind of striptease, eventually showing more skin than was considered legally acceptable. It sounds far more erotic, more primal, than a pole dancer flinging off bits and pieces of a conventional costume.
Once The Bride’s head is uncovered and she’s fitted in her long white gown, a cross between a wedding dress and a shroud, we still see the mummy-wraps on her arms and know that she, and her persona, remain shrouded in enigma, however she’s presented cosmetically to the world. She walks in a faltering but somehow graceful way, like a newborn fawn. Her head jerks around as she takes in her surroundings as though it’s still animated by the lightning that brought her to life — her hair shoots out straight behind her, as though an electric charge is still passing through her.
Her face is beautiful, despite the scars on her neck, as beautiful as the face of the girl in the coffin we saw before, but this new girl is shot through with an energy one can’t help but read as erotic. She’s a spitfire, a handful — very other from a male perspective but wildly desirable in a purely carnal way.
She has her own ideas about things, which violate the ideas of the men who made her to mate with The Monster, the desire of The Monster to make her his mate, or at least his friend. She doesn’t want to be friends. Her swan’s hiss is a brilliant stroke, the cry of an elegant bird who’s fighting mad.
It’s all too much for The Monster, and maybe for the filmmakers, too. Where can this character go from here? What man or monster alive could handle her? What in God’s name does she want?
So The Monster throws a lever that destroys the lab where he and his impossible mate were born, killing her and himself. What she might have said about herself if she’d been taught to speak, what she might have become if she’d been given her head — these are questions that cannot now be answered, that The Monster may fear hearing answered.
It has all the makings of a tragedy, but it’s not quite a tragedy — because the image of The Bride endures, haunts the mind. We revisit the scenes of her brief life in the film, and in cinema history, to ponder the secrets she took with her to the grave, to ponder her enigma and her challenge. She remains The Eternal Feminine, in all her power and allure, and she still leads us on . . . but where? And who will speak for her, to tell us?
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Most Western saloons were not much more elegant than this — a fancy carved bar, a generous selection of spirits, a wood frame and canvas (or plain board) walls. Hollywood usually got it backwards — with fancily constructed and decorated rooms and only one kind of unbranded whiskey on offer.
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If you glance over to the right of the main page on this site you’ll see that I’ve added a new category of posts — Essential Blu-rays.
Posts in this category are short reviews of the Blu-ray editions of movies I consider important — essential to any home collection of movies, worth buying a Blu-ray player to watch.
I’m an enthusiast of the Blu-ray format — it allows one to view movies at home in a quality only exceeded by the projection of good prints on a large screen in a theater, and they’re usually movies that one has little chance of seeing projected in a theater these days.
The popularity of the Blu-ray format has fallen short of expectations — people increasingly prefer to stream movies at home in far lower quality than the Blu-ray format makes possible. But there are many movies, and not just the great ones, which only reveal their true content, their true nature, in a high-quality presentation.
In the long run, the Blu-ray format may be doomed — relish it while you can.
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