Monday, June 17, 2013


This week Turner Classic Movies is showing Devotion(1948), a highly fictionalized yet very entertaining story of literary legends, sisters Emily and Charlotte Brontë. The story begins with the Bronte siblings, Emily (Ida Lupino) Charlotte (Olivia de Havilland) Anne (Nancy Coleman) and Branwell (Arthur Kennedy) spending a day out on the moors. Kennedy's Branwell Bronte is a tortured, darkly cynical, self defeating alcoholic, living in the shadow of his more driven sisters. Lupino plays Emily as stoic, practical and shy about her work. She is haunted by dreams of a dark, mysterious stranger on horseback riding the moors. De Havilland plays Charlotte as the driven, ambitious romantic who dreams of literary success for her and Emily. Younger sister Anne is the perky sister played by perky Nancy Coleman.

L to R: Olivia de Havilland, Ida Lupino and Nancy Coleman as the Bronte Sisters in Devotion
Enter Paul Henried as Reverend Nicholls. Emily and Nicholls strike up a friendship but to Emily it's more than that. They roam the moors and she takes him to the foot of a hillside where stands a dark, abandoned house. Emily is haunted, yet attracted to the site, which she has named "Wuthering Heights". Over time, she becomes more infatuated with Nicholls. Not long after, Emily's siblings return home. One night, Nicholls escorts the three sisters to a party thrown by one of the town elites. Nicholls is immediately attracted to Charlotte, but the feelings are not reciprocated. There is a wonderful scene where the three sisters, all in a row, pull out their fans, flip them open, smile, (all in unison) and enter a huge ballroom, chomping at the bit to do some dancing.  Charlotte is not deterred by Nicholls' advances. She is trying to save money for her and Emily to go to Brussels to teach English in return for an education at the school.

Olivia de Havilland, Arthur Kennedy and Nancy Coleman out on the Moors in Devotion
Once in Brussels, a lovesick Emily pines for Nicholls and the moors. Charlotte meanwhile has become swept off her feet by a married professor. During this time, both sisters work on their novels....Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. After a bout of disillusionment, Charlotte returns home and reevaluates Nicholls as Emily helplessly watches. There is a great scene between Emily and Kennedy when he deduces from his sisters novels that they are both in love with the same man. To one Nicholls is Rochester, to the other, he is Heathcliff. Eventually, Nicholls realizes that the developing triangle can not continue and their relationship ends badly.  Charlotte, in a great scene, looks at her manuscript for Jane Eyre and says to Emily--"I know nothing. I understand nothing. Yet I have dared to write two hundred thousand words about life."

Bedtime for the Brontë's

This is a great, moody, gothic love story as well as being one of my favorite Ida Lupino films(coming in just a few films below The Hard Way). The film is enjoyable enough that you really don't care about the staggering amount of historical inaccuracies. It starts off with rather disjointed pacing but it suddenly gels about a quarter of the way in and really takes off. It has a wonderfully complex musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The films photography looks great. My only nitpick is that the scenes on the moors are done on soundstage. These scenes would have benefited nicely from some location shooting.

Ida Lupino and Arthur Kennedy in Devotion

While I enjoyed the love story elements, the thing that I enjoyed the most was the relationship between the sisters and between Kennedy and Lupino. Lupino understands the brother in a way that none of the other family does. Kennedy is great as the drunk, dark, brooding and tortured artist. He knows he's doomed and so does Lupino. But it’s that understanding and acceptance of each other and their fates that only they share that I found fascinating. Also adding to the enjoyment is Sidney Greenstreet as William Makepeace Thackeray. There is a funny scene when Greenstreet comes out of a book signing with De Havilland. A man says "Hello Thackeray" and Greenstreet replies "Hello Dickens". De Havilland is upset that Greenstreet doesn't introduce her. Greenstreet responds...."I shouldn't like you to get involved with that kind of riff raff my dear".
The Brontë nightshirt competition.  My money's on Ida.
Devotion was actually filmed in 43. However, De Havilland was in a contract dispute with Warners that lasted three years. During the dispute, Warners shelved the film, not wanting to give De Havilland any positive press. De Havilland won her case and was released from her contract with Warners. She then went on to do To Each His Own (1946) for Paramount for which she won a best actress Oscar. Wanting to cash in on that success, Warners then released Devotion.

Turner Classic Movies will be showing Devotion on Wednesday at 2:45 pm Eastern. Don’t miss it!

Friday, June 14, 2013


As I sat in the theater watching Man Of Steel, witnessing all of the all too real looking devastation taking place in the wake of the battle between Superman and General Zod, all I could think about was how it was going to take decades for that city to recover and rebuild. I guess that comes from living in a post 911 world. The destruction was so thorough and complete and so effectively portrayed with terrific effects that all I could think of was how these people were ever going to recover from this. I think to best sum up my feelings about Man Of Steel, I’d have to quote from Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s film Team America: World Police. There’s a scene when the puppet version of Kim Jong Il tells one of the Team America agents “It will be 911 times a thousand.” The point being that Man of Steel is serious. Really, really serious.

Henry Cavill as Kal-El aka Clark Kent aka Superman

The problem is that it maintains that tone throughout the film, never letting up once to give us a quiet moment of humor or to let us take a breath long enough to get to know the characters in this newest film version of the Superman mythos. Even when we get to the Smallville moments, it’s still so, so earnest! One good example of that is when we see how Clark Kent loses his father. Remember in the original film when the brilliant Glenn Ford gave us that terrific death scene when he quietly clutches his arm and has his heart attack? It was a tragic, touching and incredibly poignant moment. In Man Of Steel however, Kevin Costner’s Pa Kent doesn’t go out so quietly (nor with as much emotional impact). No, he is killed by a monstrously gargantuan and deafeningly loud tornado. And on it goes.

Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer as Jor-El and Lara
Superman is the last survivor of Krypton, a planet whose core is about to implode. Jor-El warns them all of course but everyone is too busy fending off General Zod who is trying to take over the planet. Jor-El, in an attempt to save his species and his newborn son, imbues the child with the genetic code of the Kryptonian race by zapping the genetic information stored in an old broken skull into Kal-El’s tummy before the child is sent off into space. Ok. Zod is eventually stopped and, along with his fellow traitors, frozen and shipped off to the Phantom Zone.

Michael Shannon as a very angry General Zod
Meanwhile, on Earth, we are given a muddled series of flashbacks showing a young Clark Kent trying to cope with his powers and occasionally saving people, much to Pa Kent’s dismay. He fears that if his adopted son’s powers are exposed that Clark will be feared and hunted. He’s even willing to needlessly sacrifice himself to a gigantic tornado and force Clark not to save him in order to keep Clark’s secret (although one supposes that there might have been any number of easier ways to make his point). Oddly, the film borrows more than a little from Peter Parker and Uncle Ben with regards to Clark’s growth as a hero.

Of course it wouldn’t be a Superman movie without Lois Lane. I have been on record as saying that Amy Adams was miscast as Lois and after seeing the film I stand by that. I have nothing against Adams. I think she’s a talented actor. However, as Adam’s plays her, she’s subdued, subtle and has the annoying habit of over enunciating her words. I was reminded of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady reciting “The Rain In Spain” for Rex Harrison. Adams has none of the moxy of Kidder or Hatcher or Noel Neill or even cartoon Lois Dana Delany. There’s no real explanation for why Lois makes her first appearance in the Arctic. She seems at first to be some sort of military or scientific consultant rather than a reporter trying to get a story. All we know is that she had to get a court order to get there and makes a “dick measuring“ comment to the officer in charge but does it with all the forcefulness and wit of a librarian on Xanax. She is fascinated by Superman (as a good Lois Lane should be) and he by her even though the film doesn’t‘ give them much choice as they are thrown together in a harrowing series of events almost from the moment the two meet until the films end. But, in the immortal words of Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom “No time for love, Dr. Jones!” There isn’t much of a relationship between Superman and Lois because there’s no time for one. Too much death and destruction and desperate battles going on. The film makers seem to realize this so even though there’s no time to actually develop their relationship in any way what so ever, they still have the two look dreamily into each others eyes when they get a breather. Fair enough.
Ayelet Zurer as Superman's mother Lara
It’s an interesting experiment to recall the Superman vs. Zod scenes from Superman 2 and then watch this new film. There are a lot of similarities, even down to Zod’s two sidekicks, both knock offs of Superman 2’s Ursa and Non and both doing basically the same thing, only this time it’s less comic booky and much more serious. For example, we don’t get any interesting character quirks like Superman 2’s Ursa collecting buttons and patches from the men she had killed. Faora just kills people--with earnest. We don’t really get much of anything with regards to scenes at the Daily Planet even though Laurence Fishburne does what he can to make his limited screen time as Perry White count. There are nods to The Matrix, why I don’t know. There are scenes on Krypton that remind me of Avatar, what with all the flying creatures and things. Russell Crowe is watchable as Jor-El. Costner and Diane Lane are, well, earnest. For my money, the most quietly intriguing and interesting performance of the film was given by Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer as baby Superman’s mother Lara. In fact, I want to put her name up now as a possible contender for the role of Princess Diana if and when DC/Warner Bros ever make a Wonder Woman film. When it was all over, I found myself thinking of Ayelet’s performance the most. Michael Shannon’s performance as General Zod is great(even though I kept having flashbacks of him as Kim Fowley from The Runaways). But he overshadows everything and everyone much like Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s first Batman film.

Lois and Clark: Not Fun
During the occasional 15 to 30 seconds when the action briefly lets up, Hans Zimmer’s score keeps the relentlessly serious and desperate tone of the film consistent. There is no doubt that director Zack Snyder has a flair for the visual if not the coherent. He proved that in Watchmen and 300. But both of those films had a sense of humor in spite of their bleak stories where Man of Steel does not. There is literally no sense of humor or a single ounce of wit to be found in this film. Anywhere. At all. Zip. After the film ended, I watched as the audience filed out of the theater, looking dazed and exhausted and expressionless. There was no “How about that scene when Superman did X or Y.”

Lois and Clark: Fun
  There was no laughter or cheering. I thought of how stark a difference this reaction was to when I saw the first Superman film where the audience virtually leapt to their feet and cheered or laughed. I was also reminded of Marvel/Disney’s The Avengers where the audience was much more invested and the audience experience seemed much more interactive. Here the audience seemed dumfounded. And with good cause. The collapsing buildings and death and destruction that takes place in Metropolis as General Zod terraforms the planet and fights with Superman is wholesale and complete and might make some feel kind of raw when it’s all over.

The winner and undefeated champ since 1978.  Christopher Reeve is Superman

I wouldn’t’ take a young child to see this film and that speaks to the main problem of Man Of Steel. It’s Superman. You know? Superman! Superman is the one comic book character where I can forgive a certain amount of sappiness and copious amounts of idealism and even a little bit of camp. You need a little bit of each in order to sell an audience on a flying alien in blue long johns and a cape. If Man Of Steel accomplishes anything it is to remind us how amazing Christopher Reeve was in the role. Christopher Reeve once said that, when it came to his portrayal of Superman, he let the costume, that silly, iconic costume, do all the talking while he just played it straight, just played a nice guy. That was the genius of his performance and that‘s why, in spite of all the silly things about that first movie, it continues to be the gold standard of Superhero films because it had heart, a sense of humor and a hero we cared about. Henry Cavill definitely looks the part and, with a script that lets him do more than brood and frown and simmer, he could potentially be a pretty good Superman. He’s no worse or better than Brandon Routh. But he’s no Christopher Reeve and Man Of Steel is no Superman The Movie. Superman the Movie made me smile, made me laugh, made me cheer. I left Superman The Movie feeling happy. As I did with Avengers and some of the other Marvel films. There was absolutely no joy in Man Of Steel and that’s a real problem when you’re doing a Superman movie. And I think that is DC’s problem when it comes to their Superhero films. A lack of humor, too much of an investment in shoehorning a comic book character into the real world. Or, at the very least, a really, really serious world.

Thursday, June 13, 2013


What I love about King Vidors H.M. Pulham, Esquire(1941) is that after all the times I’ve seen it the film never seems to lose it’s relevancy. The way the film goes about examining friendships, love, work and the day to day battle of life as seen through the eyes of a guy who grew up with a loving family and who just lives his life trying to be a good person, always inspires me.

Robert Young contemplates the path not taken in H.M.Pulham Esq.

Robert Young plays the title character, born into wealth but with a work ethic and a sense of honor, going with the flow, not quite sure of himself but always a gentlemen in every situation, something that father Charles Coburn teaches him from a very young age. Young has a good relationship with his father and while their communication might seem superficial, there is a deep love and respect held by Young for his father(as is the case with most father/son relationships). It’s heartbreaking when Young’s father Charles Coburn tries to convince Young to stay with the family and work at the family company. We can see Young just feel horrible about it yet he sticks to his guns none the less.

Bonita Granville and Robert Young in H.M.Pulham Esq.
At the beginning of the film we see Young is married and in a comfortable rut with wife Ruth Hussey. Young is called out of the blue by an old college pal who invites Young to a reunion of his fraternity and asks Young to write some bios for some of the group, starting with his own. He’s not quite sure what to write until he gets a call from old flame Hedy Lamarr. That call forces him to examine his life and we see that life in flashbacks. There’s a humorous scene with Young as an officer in WW1 who goes into no mans land to talk to a German officer who offers Young some very honorable terms of surrender. Young is surrounded and out numbered. He politely turns down the German officer’s offer, telling him that, no matter what the outcome, that he’s been very nice about it all and thanks the German. It’s a brilliant scene. He ends up fighting and winning and getting decorated for his troubles.

Robert Young and Hedy Lamarr
He returns to his home where his college friend Van Heflin talks him into breaking away from the family and moving to the big city to go into advertising with Heflin. There he meets co worker Hedy Lamarr. This might be Lamarr’s best performance ever as the daughter of poor immigrants who builds a good career for herself and clings fiercely to her hard earned independence. She’s amused by Young at first, thinking he’s just a green doofus. But she soon sees that he’s anything but that. He’s a good, honest person who tries to be polite and not hurt others. It’s funny to watch Young not really understand the world of marketing and advertising yet shine when he has to promote a laundry soap to a low income housewife by just being honest and sensitive. And by doing her laundry. It’s a funny and charming moment as Lamarr (and the housewife!) falls in love with him for it.

Things get a bit difficult for Young when he returns home to visit his family. He returns because his mother is sick but it’s his father who is seriously ill. Heflin and Lamarr come to visit Young at his home and Lamarr is immediately intimidated by his wealth and his family who show each other the kind of love that she‘s never known. It’s an honest and warm kind of family bond that is so foreign to Lamarr it actually makes her recoil from Young. Ultimately this drives a wedge between them. The wedge is pushed in even further when Young’s father dies and he must take over the family business. But it’s a decision that Young makes because of love of family and out of respect for his father, not because he feels pressured. That difference is key because it makes Young’s decision all the more poignant.
Van Hefflin, Robert Young and Hedy Lamarr
In the aftermath of his break up with Lamarr, Young starts to rekindle an old childhood relationship with Ruth Hussey. As we see in flashbacks, Hussey is both nerdy and forceful. They meet as children at a dance when Young heads for a pretty girl but gets detoured by Hussey. Young never really takes to Hussy growing up but now, as adults, with both having come off of relationships with people who were “opposites”, the normalcy and comfort of their sameness has a strong appeal for both of them. Neither is sure that they love the other but they love the idea that they “match”. But when Lamarr reenters Young’s life, he begins to question the important decisions he’s made through the years.

Ruth Hussey and Robert Young in H.M.Pulham Esq.
The dialogue in the film is smart, quick, subtle and refreshing and still holds up today. The players are all interesting to one degree or another but more importantly, they‘re all likable people. We aren‘t manipulated into not liking someone in order to emphasize the goodness of someone else. There are no villains in the film. We‘re simply given a group of people who are trying hard to live good lives, find self worth in their work and trying to just be happy. Suffering failures and achieving small and large victories along the way. Vidor gives us some amazing direction in this. His camera work is almost Scorsese like. There’s a scene at the very beginning where the camera zooms in on a bunch of mundane little activities that Young does for his morning routine that is evocative of Scorsese’s work in Age Of Innocence. The phone conversations don’t have the static noise to make it sound like a phone but instead sound like the person is in the room talking with them. The photography is beautiful, the pacing of the film is tight, the scenes have a wonderful economy to them.

Most enjoyable of all is Robert Young. What a superb performance he gives as the humble, awkward, kind, honest and at times charmingly oblivious Harry Pulham. Bonita Granville also has some fun moments as Young’s kind sister who shocks him by being just a little bit rebellious now and then yet sympathizing with the tough decisions and sacrifices her brother must make after their father dies. Hussey has what might have been a thankless role but she really sinks her teeth into it and manages to give the character a lot of depth. She’s supposed to be a bit abrasive and a bit patronizing but she manages to be both while remaining likable and sympathetic and their scenes together when they meet again after their respective break ups are fun and touching. Van Heflin is also very enjoyable as the college cynic who is repulsed by the obnoxious jock who tells football stories that Young is thoroughly  intrigued by. I’ve always felt the mark of a great movie is when you wish the characters of the film were real and you knew them and you were friends with them. H.M. Pulham Esquire is that kind of film.

Turner Classic Movies will be showing H.M. Pulham Esquire this Saturday at 7:00 AM Eastern time.

Monday, June 10, 2013


The classic Bronze Age Spider-Man story The Death of Captain Stacy has always been more about a moment than the three issues of story that lead up to that moment. The moment in question comes after yet another epic battle between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus. It’s a great battle to be sure but it’s the battle's collateral damage that is at the heart of the story.

Captain Stacy, father of Peter’s true love Gwen Stacy saves a little boy from being crushed by falling bricks and is mortally wounded as a result. Spider-Man picks up Capt. Stacy’s broken body and tries to get him to a hospital but Capt. Stacy insists that Spider-Man sets him down so they can talk while there’s still time. Stacy tells Spider-Man that Gwen loves him very much and that now there will be no one to look after her. He then calls Spider-Man by his real name, Peter. That Stacy knew who Spider-Man really was wasn’t that much of a surprise to readers. It had been hinted at in several issues prior to this story that Stacy had suspicions if not proof. However, it is a shocking and poignant revelation to Peter.

Peter’s secret identity always had more meaning to me than it did with other superheroes because it seemed there was always more at stake. This is due in part to the fact that we are so emotionally invested in the supporting cast in Spider-Man. We care about these people and we care if harm comes to them. We care about what Peter cares about. Peter loves his friends and family like we, the reader, love our friends and family.

Peter's secret was almost revealed in Amazing Spider-Man 12

This was what was always so much more interesting about Spider-Man than other heroes whose secret identity really didn’t seem to matter. One doesn’t get the same sense of danger if say Superman’s identity is revealed. Or someone like Bruce Wayne who is more wrapped up in being Batman than Bruce Wayne and who’s family is basically comprised of other heroes. Peters circle of friends and family are more like regular people. Some, like Aunt May, are more vulnerable than say Robin the Boy Wonder(or Girl Wonder, depending on your Robin of choice). There was one incident in Amazing Spider-Man 18 when Peter’s Aunt May is deathly ill yet again. The Sandman has escaped from prison and is itching for a rematch with Spider-Man. Spider-Man actually hides from Sandman rather than engage him in a battle where he might be killed because if he dies there would be no one to look after his Aunt.

"I'm not chicken!  I just really care about my Aunt" Sure, Pete.  Sure.

Peter is so afraid of what will happen to his loved ones if his identity is revealed that he can’t even trust the secret with his closest friends or the woman he loves (at least at this particular point in time. Much has changed since the Bronze Age). This is why stories involving the Green Goblin were always so intense. He knew who Spider-Man was and taunted him with that information and went after his loved ones. Peter carries this burden by himself and most of the tragedy in his life is the result of that secret that he keeps.

So when Captain Stacy reveals that he knew all along, it’s a very powerful moment for us and for Peter. Peter tells Stacy “You must have always known! But--you never told! You never gave me away!” Stacy dies and Spider-Man is distraught, mourning the “second best friend” he ever had. The first being, of course, his Uncle Ben. That Stacy kept Peter’s secret and continued to be his friend, continued to let him love his daughter, let Peter know for the first time since he had become Spider-Man that someone sympathized with his plight and cared. I find this revelation to be much more powerful than the tragedy of Gwen’s death which is itself a powerful story. But the death of someone that Peter put in the same classification as Uncle Ben is unique and had a power and poignancy to it that, for me, has still not been matched to this day.