Daily Film Thoughts: Classics, Castles and Communism

So I went almost two weeks without any consistent outlet… that sucked.

First up is the classic: Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, perhaps the first film in history to incorporate humor, depression and romantics without feeding too heavily into either. A balanced romantic-comedy which is very much unlike some of my favourites in The Awful Truth or even His Girl Friday.

Set during Hungary’s depression,  a long time employee at a well-to-do accessory business, Matuschek’s, finds himself trapped. Having worked underneath Hugo Matuschek for all of his adult life, the once aspiring mind of Alfred Kralik (Jimmy Stewart) is in a rut. Because the economy hinders his desires, Alfred finds the only escape from his banal existence is writing to a woman he does not know. They share wonderful letters to one and other that discuss literature, longevity and above all, love. Having been a bachelor all his life and sustained plain friendships, Alfred dwells upon his escape. He ponders leaving the ordinary establishment to in hopes of a better occupation, in turn building his confidence up enough for him to ask the woman he exchanges letters with to marry him.

When Klara, a young woman who has nowhere else to go stumbles into Matuschek’s looking for a job, Alfred’s life is flipped upside down. Even though the establishment can’t take on new employees, a high-on-life Hugo (Frank Morgan) decides to hire the woman after she demonstrates her minimal use. There’s immediate tension between Klara and Alfred — when it boils down to it, the two hate each other. She mocks his pomp and anal retentive behavior and he mocks her stupor; a generic slapstick setup.

However, this is no slapstick comedy. Infidelity is hinted early on when Hugo begins to distrust his employees. A once jolly man becomes a cynic — his destruction is a miserable sight to behold. If not for this character and the trials he faces throughout the first two acts, this story might have fallen into the slapstick pack.

It is for this that I both admire and am annoyed by this film. On one hand it adds emotional depth; a depressive resonance that keeps it memorable above most other fluff. On the other hand, the script chops in these moments in a less-than-ideal way. There may be a moment of Alfred tearing Klara a new one for her remissness, but this humorous momentum isn’t utilized to its full potential as it is then cut down by a man and his marital woes. It makes for a slightly frustrating viewing, but nothing an old fashioned Stewart smile can’t fix, if only temporarily.

The film also plays heavily on ironies. The story is about two people that hate each other, but are communicating their most intimate feelings to one and other through letters, unbeknown to both parties. There’s also Hugo’s tragic subplot where he hates one man for having an affair with his wife, but it isn’t the right man. It because pretty predictable, but the way the actors work their roles makes all this obviousness work. Frank Morgan is bound to break your heart with his work. In turn, your heart will be mended by the humorous/hateful/loving chemistry conjured by Stewart and Sullivan. So while The Shop Around The Corner has its undeniable flaws, it’s supplementing excessive humor to reflect the heartbreak love can cause makes it worth its 99 minutes of running time.

Although I’ve given the two Robert Bresson films I’d seen prior 10’s (A Man Escaped + Diary of a Country Priest), I couldn’t find the motivation to watch another film by him until recently. I’ve no idea why it’s taken so long since the last, but I know it won’t happen again. Consider Robbie B. 3 for 3.

Widely acclaimed and held in disdain for its minimalist approach to this medieval classic, Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac is as complicated as the tale of Lancelot is obscure. Immediately we’re displayed Bresson’s interpretation of the times: raw and anticlimactic. Raw because watching an unknown man being decapitated in battle shows both a lack of remorse that these men had and the death that always followed. Anticlimactic because life is never certain when in battle.

The story follows Lancelot (Luc Simon) and his men around villages as they search for the Holy Grail. Of course, when there’s a man in charge of men, there will always be those beneath him that want him gone. Jealous that his uncle Arthur chose Lancelot to lead the group in the scavenge, Mordred (Patrick Bernhard) plots with his men to murder Lancelot. It’s from here where most of the tension in the film builds, and yes, it’s too simple to be taken entirely seriously.

The rest of the tension is found between Lancelot and The Queen. During his search of the Holy Grail, Lancelot had God tell him to end his relationship with the Queen and devote himself entirely to the hunt. When Lancelot tells her this, she crumbles to pieces and begins to threaten everything in her power whether it be logical or impossible. Lancelot veils his misery with a stoic expression. Here you’re doused in plain characterization that may have blossomed into something more tragic if Bresson didn’t hire non-actors all of the time. Normally when a director picks up fresh talent, it’s either because they want to use these performers to paint upon; as if their canvas or because they impressed the director during casting. Here you’re subject to neither. Because of this, you understand Bresson is a big time nihilist. He doesn’t like men as they’re always preserving some sense of righteousness that is unfounded and entirely egotistical, he doesn’t like war because it leads to death, he doesn’t like love because it never lasts… hell, if Laura Duke Condominas wasn’t given the opportunity to cry once in the film you’d assume he also hated women. And this isn’t because he’s misogynistic — he just hates everything. Fortunately, I’m keener to the idea of hating everything than loving everything, so I’m right with him here.

Performances? Ordinary. Theme? Demonstrated plainly. Action? Subtle. Conclusion? Resolved only in prosecuting man as war has no resolve. It all depends on what your personality is. If you’re quite optimistic, look at how the Monty Python crew took to the film. They parodied the film and it’s clear that this was inspiration for their anticlimactic use of swordplay and their contemptible and menial dialogues. That’s how much these men disliked the film. If you’re overly pessimistic, well expect this to become one of your favourites. I’m more of a sad guy than happy one, so I give this a favorable rating. This is reflective art — you’ve just got to be miserable to admire it.

Last and least is Leo McCarey’s too-American-for-TV My Son John, a film that fell deep into obscurity after those against the blacklist revolted, dismissing anything reminding them of those dark, speculative times. With My Son John being at the forefront of pro-nationalism, anti-communism McCarey’s ode to Sam was bound to be buried. It’s only now that it’s being recovered from cinematic vaults and only because of TCM that I got to check this out.

And it’s  not that bad. Actually it’s great in depicting paranoia overcoming man, the helplessness in those wishing to lead a life with purpose and the family dynamic during strenuous times. It is only until the final act comes marching to the tune of Star-Spangled Banner that this film becomes diminutive in what it preaches, which is sad because I was liking the film very much until the obvious patriotism shot it down.

The film is about John (Robert Walker)… a son… who comes home from a trip across seas. He’s sporting an anti-American swagger to him that disrupts his family, or more precisely his father Dan (Dean Jagger). His mother Lucille (Helen Hayes) doesn’t believe the drunken ramblings of her husband and won’t allow the thought of her son being villainous cross her mind. Despite his political difference to that of the white Christian neighborhood he resides, his mother protects him from being labeled a Commie. Here it’s the bond between mother and child that finds most poignant. Hayes’ performance is so habitually warm that none of the nonsense proceeding can shake the soul her work here provides the film with. This includes John having a Bible thrown at him by his father — this should indicate how valuable Hayes is here. Even though she is warm and her work far from the mummery displayed around her, it’s this emulsion, this contrast that keeps the film afloat when it should be drowning in McCarey’s political preaching.

Here, the characterization is as simple as Communists are evil, Americans are saintly. Communists are scheming people with dense vocabularies, who are easily frightened and confused; Americans are simple folk with virtuous souls and always keep the faith. It becomes so painfully clear that McCarey hates reds that you’ll begin to see red. As a thriller that meanders in doubt for two thirds, there is no way this film could have ended worse. It’d be like watching The Usual Suspects only to learn that Keyser Soze was an Egyptian Prince who left Earth on a spaceship after the murders took place. It’s that’s ridiculous. Goddamn, I love Leo McCarey and he showed that this concept had brilliant potential, but he fucked this up exponentially worse than Alex Garland did Sunshine. Thank God for the performances and 70 minutes of competence, right?

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