Thursday, May 30, 2013

Kitty Foyle: The Not So Feminist Everywoman

Ginger Rogers won the Oscar in 1940's Kitty Foyle, for a dramatic turn as the titular heroine, a white-collar girl torn between a socialite (Dennis Morgan) and a doctor (James Craig). Kitty is nothing like the characters Rogers played alongside Fred Astaire in musicals such as Top Hat and Swing Time, though she has Rogers's trademark toughness. Instead, she is meant to be an Everywoman, a working girl without wealth or social position.

Kitty comes of age just as the Great Depression hits, forcing her to seek work as a secretary at a magazine. Her boss, Wynn, comes from a snooty Philadelphia clan that can't understand his interest in her. After the magazine folds, Kitty goes to New York to find a job, where Wynn follows her and persuades her to marry him. The wealthy family intervenes, expecting Kitty to attend finishing school and tow the family line. Kitty walks out and goes back to New York, where the doctor, Mark, pursues her. In one day, she discovers she is pregnant and Wynn is engaged to another woman. Rather than tell him about the baby, she decides to become a single mother, but the baby doesn't make it. Five years later, Kitty must decide whether to marry Mark or run away as Wynn's mistress.

There are a few politically incorrect lines - "I'm free, white, and 21" and "We're the same color, aren't we?" - that are positively cringe-worthy, but the gender politics are even more backward and dated. Granted, the production code is partly to blame. In the original novel, Kitty is sensible and has an abortion, while in the movie, she "heroically" becomes a mother only to have the baby die. This is a pet peeve of mine - the pregnancy adds drama, but the baby would be inconvenient for the plot, so it gets killed off. After all, would the doctor condescend to consider a woman who already has a kid? The pregnancy subplot feels cheap and soapy, not to mention predictable, and gives us little insight into much of anything but the conventions of melodrama.

My real frustration with the film is the central premise - will Kitty choose the socialite or the doctor? The possibility that she might turn both of them down (an excellent idea given that they are both priggish and self-satisfied) is never on the table. This is ridiculous. By the end, Kitty has been given the responsibility of opening and managing a second branch of the perfume shop where she works. She's entirely independent and self-sufficient. She doesn't need them. I admit that few producers in Hollywood in 1940 (or today for that matter) would be too keen to embrace a film that considers the possibility that a woman doesn't need a man. But did both of these guys need to be manipulative, demanding, and selfish? Couldn't one of them have been capable of an adult relationship that isn't predicated on the wife being a remote-controlled baby-making machine? Kitty Foyle is a strong, independent heroine. All the more reason to want to her to choose freedom and independence.

In the end, Kitty Foyle is a well-made but very dated drama. Unfortunately, many women may still relate to Kitty Foyle and like her, forget the third option - self-sufficiency.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Best Movies of 1936

1936: Jesse Owens ran to victory in the Berlin Olympics, Beryl Markham became the first woman to complete an East to West flight over the Atlantic, Margaret Mitchell published Gone with the Wind, Edward VIII of England ascended and abdicated the throne, Hitler made the Hitler Youth mandatory, Franklin D. Roosevelt was reelected for a second term, and an animator named Walt Disney was busy working on a foolhardy project called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Here are the best films of the year.

5. Camille
This drama taken from the tragic novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils, stars Greta Garbo, Lionel Barrymore, and a very young Robert Taylor. It's one of the finest dramas Hollywood made in the 30s, as well as one of Garbo's best pictures. Garbo plays the courtesan Marguerite with whom Robert Taylor as the wealthy baron, Armand, falls madly in love. Class politics and sexual power dynamics, as well as the pleas and demands of Armand's father, are the hefty obstacles that threaten their genuine romance in a society that tolerates sexual misbehavior only as long as "pure" women are separated from "impure".

4. Modern Times
  Charlie Chaplin's scathing criticism of industrialism and materialism and the vagaries of the society that embraces them was controversial for a number of reasons. First of all, Chaplin vetoed the idea of making this film as a talkie, at least partly because his Little Tramp character is so quintessentially pantomimed. Second of all, people in this movie use cocaine on screen, in direct opposition to the Production Code. Third of all, the film gleefully criticized the powers that be - industrialists, politicians, even the police. The first twenty minutes are riotously funny, with the Little Tramp going crazy after a long shift in the factory. There is also a brief and very charming sound sequence in which the Tramp sings a song in Italian-sounding gibberish.

3. The Story of a Cheat (Le roman d'un tricheur)
Sacha Guitry directs and stars in this adaptation of his own novel. Beginning with an unusual narrated credits sequence, the film tells the life story of a man, the cheat of the title, who discovers that cheating pays and honesty is a recipe for insolvency. Highly reminiscent of Thomas Mann's unfinished novel, The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, Guitry's hero narrates this mostly silent film with quiet irony and philosophical self-possession. They could never have gotten this movie past the Breen Office, given the extra-marital sex, gambling, thievery, and a host of other vices deemed "smut."

2. My Man Godfrey
Gregory La Cava's superb screwball comedy stars Carole Lombard and William Powell, as a zany heiress and her butler. This was one of the few screwball comedies to portray the terrible conditions of the unemployed during the Great Depression. Lombard comes across William Powell in a dump during a scavenger hunt - she is looking for a "forgotten man." The heiress convinces him to become her butler and he soon finds out that there's a good reason this family can't keep servants. They are, every last one of them, absolutely bonkers. This was another movie to challenge the Production Code - Mama's "protege" is most obviously a gigolo.

1. A Day in the Country (Une partie de campagne)
Jean Renoir's unfinished film stands on its own as a lovely and bittersweet idyll. A bourgeois couple and their daughter go out to the country for a picnic where mother and daughter meet two young men only too happy to give them a good time. The day ends and the two women return to their husband and fiance. A year later, the daughter returns, now married, and reunites with her lover. It is difficult to convey the exquisite beauty and melancholy of this film, which equals Renoir's later masterpieces, Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game. A rare perfect film.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Review: Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl

I thought I had read all of Roald Dahl's marvelously grotesque books for children, until this year when I discovered that somehow I'd missed out on Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, the sequel to the classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This wouldn't do. After all, Dahl wrote many of my absolute favorite children's books, like The Witches, The BFG, Danny the Champion of the World and Matilda. Unfortunately, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator isn't the strongest of Dahl's books - I might even call it the weakest.

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator starts where Charlie and the Chocolate Factory left off. Charlie and Grandpa Joe, along with Wonka himself, have picked up the rest of the family and are sailing upward in the factory's glass elevator. They soon find themselves orbiting around Earth, just as the United States is celebrating the grand opening of the first hotel in space. But Vermicious Knids from the faraway planet of Vermes turn up with malevolent intentions.

During this first part of the book, scenes with Charlie and Willy Wonka are interspersed with scenes with President Gilligrass of the United States, his vice-president (and former or not so former nursemaid), and his advisers. These characters form a satirical caricature of the American government during the Cold War. There's the Chief of the Army who likes "blowing things up... It makes such a lovely noise." There's the Chief Financial Adviser who spends his time literally balancing the budget on his head. And Mrs. Taubsypuss, the president's cat. The problem with this is that the book is meant for children, who will certainly not pick up on the political satire - though they might pick up on the uncomfortably stereotypical accent of the Chinese premier - "Here is Assistant-Plemier Chu-On-Dat speaking. How can I do for you?" Yikes. Although much of the satire is sophisticated, the tone is still geared towards children. A series of silly knock-knock jokes, for example. The chapters with the President bog down what is otherwise a fun adventure battling the gruesome Vermicious Knids. Speaking of the Knids, their first appearance in the book is a high point and precisely the sort of half-hilarious half-terrifying writing that one expects from Dahl.

The second half of the book takes place back in the chocolate factory, where Mr. Wonka invites Charlie's aged grandparents to take Wonka-Vite, a pill that literally makes you twenty years younger. This amusing idea is developed over eight chapters, but it has about enough substance for two or three at the most. This is where Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator is so different from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: in the latter, clever ideas are quickly developed, only for new clever ideas to supersede them, while in the sequel, we basically have two ideas, the Vermicious Knids in space and Wonka-Vite. The potential for expansion in the first book is enormous. After all, there are always more rooms to explore in the factory. The sequel on the other hand is really about two good chapters' worth of material stretched out to a whole book. It's not surprising that Dahl never completed a third book about Charlie and Willy Wonka.

The best part of the book is a long Oompa Loompa song about a child named Goldie who eats an entire bottle of her grandmother's chocolate-covered laxatives. The moral is to never take medicine if you don't know what it's for - or end up like Goldie, who "was forced to stay/ for seven hours every day/ within the everlasting gloom/ of what we call The Ladies Room." The song hearkens back to the wonderful Oompa Loompa songs that run through the first book and adds a much-needed spark of ghoulish humor.

In the end, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator suffers chiefly because it feels so much like a mere addendum, a short detour before the happy ending. But we already know from the first book that Charlie's troubles are over, Vermicious Knids or no. He has won for himself and his family a happy, secure life at the chocolate factory and whatever adventures may happen, the essential tension of his story has already been resolved. Real Dahl aficionados will find lots to love in this book, but for most readers, particularly parents looking for something to read to their children, Dahl's other delightful books should take precedence.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Most people of my generation seem to favor contemporary novels over the classics, with a couple of exceptions (Jane Eyre, anything by Jane Austen, The Great Gatsby). After college, it's hard to find the time to read any books, let alone the literary monoliths - are they worth it? In a lot of cases, I give a resounding yes. Here are some of the classic novels that are definitely worth the effort, and a few that should stay on the shelf.

Novels Worth the Effort:

 Les liaisons dangereuses - Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
This oft censored masterpiece of sexual predation still has the power to shock us today. The elegant, sinuous prose of this epistolary novel narrates the machinations of two French aristocrats who exact cruel revenge on their social nemeses and on each other. Sophisticated, bitter, and dangerously sexy.

Middlemarch - George Eliot
This dazzling and profound portrait of a small town in 19th century England explores sexual and class politics through the stories of Dorothea Brooke, a brilliant, idealistic, and wealthy young woman, and Tertius Lydgate, a brilliant, idealistic, and not very wealthy physician. This one may require more than a few visits to wikipedia to brush up on British history, but it's none the less a pleasure for that.

Between the Acts - Virginia Woolf
All of Woolf's novels are well worth reading, but this, her last novel, might present greater obstacles. Written shortly before her tragic suicide at the age of 59, Between the Acts is a complex reflection on English history on the eve of World War II. Part modernist novel, part surrealist pageant, the book is alternately mystifying and illuminating.

The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov
Bulgakov's greatest work is the most ecstatic and holistic vision of Christianity of the 20th century. It's a kick in the pants of the repressive Soviet government of its time. It's also gleefully anarchic, pulsing with sexual inebriation, and pungently witty.

Ada, or Ardor - Vladimir Nabokov
My favorite of Nabokov's novels, Ada, or Ardor is difficult on a number of levels. For one thing, it's about an incestuous relationship between cousins (that might be siblings). For another, there is heavy use of both French and Russian. The novel takes place in a sort of parallel universe, which is both far ahead and far behind our own time, and it also functions as a book within a book. An even greater challenge than Lolita, this masterpiece is ecstatically written and quite lovely despite its bitterness.

Don't Bother with These:

Les Miserables -Victor Hugo
This is coming from the person who read the entirety of The Expressions of Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin when I was 14. Don't bother with this thousand page disaster. Hugo absolutely refused to have his manuscript edited down, leaving us with one of the most endlessly redundant novels of all time.

Moby Dick - Herman Melville
I've never been able to get through any of Melville's works, not even Billy Bud, which is barely a hundred pages. His writing is grandiose and emotionally sterile. He's like a literary Wagner - his work is monolithic and enormously ambitious, but his hubris pervades it with a pungent stink.

Ulysses - James Joyce
Yes, it's brilliant. No, it's not the slightest bit amusing.

Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable - Samuel Beckett
Beckett's trilogy gets progressively more unbearable until one would think it couldn't get worse - then it does. These books have no perceivable plot, and less and less discernible character. They are essentially a treatise on post-modernism, but they leave the reader depressed, depleted, and miserable. Save yourself the pain.

On the Road - Jack Kerouac
Beloved of adolescent writers everywhere, this trippy homage to the self-abusive lifestyles embraced by Kerouac and his buddies is sloppy, self-indulgent, and not all there. Though it may be enormously influential, it's one of those novels that grows less and less interesting as one grows older. It's better to leave this one with the high school yearbooks and homemade hash pipes.

Obviously, these lists are only a small sampling and could be endlessly expanded. Readers, what would you add?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

10 War Movies to Watch on Memorial Day Weekend

Memorial Day is right around the bend, which means it's almost time for Turner Classic Movies' war movie marathon. TCM always puts up an interesting program, but this year I notice that none of my favorites will be shown.  Most of the war movies that I admire aren't gory, patriotically simplistic, or straightforward - I prefer films that grapple with the moral turmoil and ambiguity of war, films that reflect on the meaning of the violence rather than the violence itself. A lot of war films commonly recognized on best-of lists, like Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, and Full Metal Jacket, are missing from this list, for the simple reason that they are too gory for me to have any reaction to them but nausea. Here is a list of my 10 favorite war movies.

10. The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) 
This fascinating film stars Fredric March and a very young Cary Grant as World War I pilots. March's character becomes increasingly distraught over the carnage he witnesses, while Grant's character's callous behavior makes him unpopular with his fellow pilots. This isn't strictly a pacifist film, but the complex reflection on what makes a war hero - dying or living, killing or being merciful - gives no easy answers. The film is particularly eye-opening, given that it was produced in between the World Wars, just as Hitler was coming to power in Germany.

9. The General (1926)
Buster Keaton's masterpiece about a lowly railway engineer who becomes a Confederate hero when his beloved locomotive is hijacked by Yankee soldiers has some of his most impressive stuntwork and undoubtedly qualifies as the best movie ever set on a train. Simultaneously hilarious and suspenseful, this film is a textbook on how to make a genuine tragicomedy.

8. Europa Europa (1990)
 Agnieszka Holland's World War II film is one of the most interesting survival stories of all time. Solly Perel, a character based on a real-life Jewish survivor, narrates his chameleonic transformations as he struggles to survive Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, at one point posing as the perfect Aryan in a school for Hitler Youth. The film resists easy judgments and no character is either entirely good or entirely bad. Betrayals and mercies are portrayed as arbitrary or a simple matter of being in the wrong (or right) place at the right time. Europa Europa is one of the most powerful stories of Jewish survival ever put on screen.

7. Decision Before Dawn (1951)
 This World War II drama is also based on a true story. Oskar Werner, who in real life was a pacifist and deserted the German Wehrmacht, plays a German prisoner of war who volunteers to spy for American intelligence. One of the first post-WWII films to resist portraying Germans as monsters, this powerful movie focuses on the human costs of war. Werner's character is constantly torn by wanting mercy for the victims - a soldier executed for desertion, a boy informer, a dancehall singer who has lost a leg - and his moral purpose of bringing the war to a close. This is also worth watching for the locations of bombed out German cities that had not yet been rebuilt.

6. The Mortal Storm (1940)
The Mortal Storm was one of the first American films to honestly face the horrific realities of Hitler's regime, in particular the extermination of Jews in concentration camps. The film was not terribly successful when it came out, at least partly because Americans resisted facing the truth. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan play two young people who stand up against their families and friends who have embraced Nazism. This portrait of resistance is uncompromising in its humanitarianism. Long unavailable, this important film has finally been released on dvd as part of the Warner Archive Collection.

5. A Very Long Engagement (2004)
 This immensely complex mystery set during the aftermath of World War I in France is stunningly beautiful and absolutely heartbreaking. Audrey Tautou plays Matilde, whose lover Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) has been reported dead. Matilde refuses to believe this and plunges into a search for him that leads her into a maze of army corruption and fiercely guarded secrets. Jean Pierre Jeunet gives this film many of his signature quirky touches, but they never overwhelm the seriousness of the subject matter.

4. To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Ernst Lubitsch's hysterical comedy was another courageous effort to bring attention to the horrors Hitler was wreaking across Europe. The movie is set in Poland just before and after Hitler's annexation. Jack Benny and Carole Lombard play husband and wife actors, called upon to join the Polish resistance and thwart the evil intentions a Nazi spy who has infiltrated. There are at least three Hitler impersonations and the movie is truly funny, but it is easy to miss how subversive this movie was until you remember that it was made when Hitler was winning in Europe and the United States was only just accepting that it would enter the war.

3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
 Powell and Pressburger's meditation on the changing morality of war was loathed when it was released, in large part because it rejects the simplistic patriotism of popular British movies of the time. Today, it is recognized as the masterpiece that it is. Roger Livesey plays the colonel who strives to behave like a gentleman through three wars and Anton Walbrook plays his German friend, also a soldier. There is a healthy dose of British humor, but the film's real power lies in its prescient recognition of how World War II would change warfare and the British national identity.

2. Paths of Glory (1957)
Personally, I think this is Kubrick's best and most powerful film, as well as his best collaboration with the magnificent Kirk Douglas. Set in the trenches of World War I, Paths of Glory is about the court-martial of three "representative" soldiers from a regiment that refused to follow orders that were tantamount to suicide. Douglas plays their colonel, who struggles to negotiate a merciful outcome for them. This film feels painfully real and, unlike so many acclaimed war films, doesn't buy into any comforting myths.

1. Grand Illusion (1937)
Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion is one of the greatest films of all time, with a cast that includes Jean Gabin and Erich von Stroheim. A group of French prisoners of war plot their escape from Germany during World War I. The film examines both the rifts and the bonds between the soldiers of different backgrounds, emphasizing the huge class divisions that made friendship an almost tortuous enterprise. The film got Renoir into hot water at the beginning of the second World War because of its subtle condemnation of antisemitism. If you watch just one war movie, this is the one it should be.