Friday, September 18, 2009

Money in the Bank

Whenever I start to get annoyed at our local art house (Columbia, Missouri's Ragtag Cinema), I need to remind myself of how completely awesome they are from time to time. Oh, sure, their main features occasionally leave me less than enthusiastic--a problem with the indie sector more than with our art house specifically--but they really do go the extra mile sometimes. They have two series in particular that make me inclined to forgive everything. The first is their "Ragtag 101" series, which is similar to TCM's "Essentials" series, but which tends to be a bit quirkier than that. The other is the "Passport" series, which focuses on contemporary foreign films. Both series are a godsend to this wicked little town.

I hadn't been to one of the Ragtag 101 films in a while, but I was damned if I was going to miss The Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933, oddly enough, directed by Mervyn LeRoy), which is one of my very favorite films. I mean, really, what can you say about a movie that starts with Ginger Rogers dressed in a gaudy outfit made of coins singing "We're in the Money" in Pig Latin? It's one of those completely out of left-field things that makes movies from the Pre-Code era a constant delight. There were no rules yet, so anything goes (as Cole Porter would later write).

In truth, this film's predecessor, 42nd Street, is probably a better film, but this one is the better movie. It's certainly more in love with surreality. The accomplishment of Busby Berkley in this film, and others, is to reclaim the "cinematic" for movies. Most early talkies are stage-bound. They unlearned everything from the silent era and had to re-learn it all over again. The Gold Diggers of 1933 is is a stark break from that. Even though the musical numbers are presented as diegetic, as performances on stage within the film, there's no way these were ever performed on a stage. There's no way they were designed the way that they are to be seen from down in a theater audience. The camera roams too freely for that. It becomes an active participant in creating the image, particularly from deliriously abstract overhead shots in which dancers become moving design elements. Parts of this film look like it was designed by Dr. Seuss.

The musical elements alone would be fun enough. But this is an interesting movie for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with the musical numbers (or, reasons that feed them). It's a film of pretty stark contrasts, made in the deepest part of The Great Depression. Like many films, it presents an escapist fantasy for Depression audiences. Unlike many films--particularly those made by MGM, which would never have made a film like this--this film doesn't shy away from the Depression, either. Part of this stems from the movie's parent studio, Warner Brothers, who were New Deal populists (in contrast to MGM's Louis B. Mayer, who was a Hooverite), and took it upon themselves to speak for the little guy and to deflate the rich and pompous. A good deal of this film's plot is devoted to exactly that. Anyway, as a stark reminder of the world outside, the "We're in the Money" number is shut down by the show's creditors, putting our showgirl heroines out of work before the show even opens. The placement of the musical numbers suggests a kind of yin and yang, too. The film is front loaded with the exuberantly upbeat "We're In the Money" and "Petting in the Park," but it finishes up with "The Forgotten Man," which is as dark a number as I've ever seen in a musical. The host for this showing, a pretty smart guy named Lokke Heiss who teaches film at the University here, prefaced the showing with documentary footage of the "Bonus Army" that Hoover had forcibly removed from Washington (with tanks, no less), as a means of providing context:

This is the state of the Union just before this film was made, and it adds a good deal of desperation to the "Forgotten Man" number at the end of The Gold Diggers of 1933:

Beyond all that, the film itself is typical of the pre-Code movies, in so far as it has a knowing sophistication and freedom of sexuality that would vanish from American movies a year later. The double entendre is employed like a razor in this movie, often by Aline MacMahon's Trixie, the comedian, but also from squeaky clean couple Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, and from Joan Blondell, to whom the film ultimately belongs.

Powell plays the scion of a rich family who would cut him off if they found him composing for and appearing in a Broadway show, which is the movie's McGuffin. Powell is fine, but Warren Williams has a much harder role as his uptight brother, who begins as a complete snob and thaws as the movie plays out. He manages the difficult task of becoming a character the audience actually likes.

All of which adds up to a film that would be my favorite movie musical if Singin' in the Rain didn't exist.


The Passport Series brought me The Chaser (2008, directed by Hong-jin Na) last week, a Korean film in the mode of Memories of Murder. Like that film, it tracks the investigation of a serial killer. Also like that film, it goes to great lengths to show the strain the investigation exerts on the cops. But from there, it parts company. The hero of the film is Joong-ho Eom (Yun-Seok Kim), an ex-cop turned pimp who starts to get worried about the number of his girls that are disappearing. The latest to disappear wasn't even supposed to be working, and he takes it on himself to find her before the killer does her in. The rest goes to great pains to subvert the serial killer procedural, sometimes to the film's detriment. This is especially true of the film's ending, which seems gratuitous, though, admittedly, it's the kind of ending that would NEVER fly in Hollywood (there's an American remake in the works, unfortunately).

What the film lacks in, well, "heart" for a better word, it more than makes up for in forward motion. This is director Hong-jin Na's first film, but the narrative pulse he gives it is sharper than what many veteran directors can manage. It helps that the streets of Seoul at night represent a terrific noir background. There's a palpable sense of danger in the setting. The character arc of our hero is good, too, and Yun-Seok Kim invests him with a world-weariness that suggests that his choice of professions is taking a spiritual toll on him.

Worth seeing, in any event.

1 comment:

Putergurl said...

As usual, your entry sent me on a paroxysm of fact finding ;) It was doubly enjoyable because it tied in two of my favorite things at once, history and cinema.

The first thing to set me off was how you pointed out the influence of the studio head's personal politics on the films a studio puts out. For good or for bad, it aids the understanding of history to see the different sides presented by each studio's films. I'm doubtful our own films today dare to have as much to say about current goings on. I imagine it's the stricter focus on the bottom line as well as the studios identity being submerged in corporate layers.

It was also interesting to note how the uptick in the box office during hard times is not particularly helping the studios this time, since the increased box office take is being offset by their parent companies losses.

The 'Forgotten Man' reference also kicked off reflection on one of my favorite films of the era, "My Man Godfrey (1936)". I had not made that connection before, and it laid a whole new layer of sarcasm to what I initially saw as a much simpler commentary on the idle rich.

Good stuff!