This was a rather schizophrenic week for me, split between classic Westerns and classic Cukor. Highlights:
I’m no John Wayne fan. And the more stylized he gets, the less I like him. (Once he’s in color, he reminds me of Joan Crawford in color. Both are best in black-and-white, before they become caricatures of themselves.) I loved Stagecoach, a great character study. Who do we become and how do we relate to each other when we face threats? To me that’s the central question the film poses, and even though the threat is racial/cultural difference, a.k.a. “Injuns” (Geronimo and the Apaches, more specifically), I did enjoy the cast enormously and the gender issues in particular. Claire Trevor and John Wayne managed more chemistry than I expected. RECOMMENDED.
As I was saying above, I’m no fan of Joan Crawford’s middle period. She’s a cartoon, an overfilled balloon always ready to pop. And she brings every bloated bit to the Western psychodrama Johnny Guitar as Vienna, a character we are led to believe every man either follows or wants to possess…or both. I get why men obey Vienna: in Crawford’s hands she’s harsh and so icy-tough you can cool your beer when you’re in the same room with her. When she plays vulnerable, I cringe at the suggestion. The best part of this film is not its rambling, overlong plot nor Vienna’s relationships with “The Dancing Kid” (Scott Brady with gayest cowboy name ever) or the titular Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden). It’s her love-hate relationship with the cattle baroness Emma (Mercedes McCambridge). Their shoot-out is like nothing I’ve ever seen in a Western, though I can’t say it’s worth the price of admission, even if we read the film as camp. NOT RECOMMENDED.
I love Judy Holliday. Born Yesterday (1950) remains my favorite, but It Should Happen to You is highly enjoyable. Holliday plays a woman longing to rise above the crowd, and she does so by putting her name (and nothing else) on a billboard. Her boyfriend is played by Jack Lemmon in his first major film role. Their bickering is delightfully New York (Jewish), and they have more chemistry than I’d have predicted. The film is generally read as satire, an early Hollywood commentary on the kind of empty celebrity we see daily today. But I read beyond that to find Holliday a heroine, a woman enjoying the little power she has and trying out the American Dream. If the ending is too heteronormative and domestic, I still enjoy the ride. RECOMMENDED.
Like Stagecoach, Dinner at Eight is a film full to bursting with excellent actors in an ensemble drama. Marie Dressler, who earns top billing, is superb as an aging actress, while Billie Burke is the neurotic housewife supreme. Both John and Lionel Barrymore star, and both give superb performances. Then there’s Jean Harlow, playing a role that’s part Mae West, part Judy Holliday, and all excess. I welcome the humor sprinkled into a dramatic film that offers some heavy messages about the absurdity of high societal ambitions and the fleetingness of youth and fame. RECOMMENDED.
I also finished the fourth season of GRIMM, and how I got addicted to this drivel I have no idea. The bromance elements are gone, the soap opera is in full force, the actress who plays Juliett still can’t act, and Hank (the sole regular black character) has been reduced to a dull sidekick. And yet I can’t wait to watch season 5. Ah mediocrity, how it compels.