Monday, December 27, 2010

Mare Nostrum (1926)

Mare Hokum is more like it. While often visually impressive, with scenes shot in Italy, France and Spain, Mare Nostrum's an odd and not really satisfying WWI spy drama.

Antonio Moreno, who at one short time was a competitor to Rudolph Valentino, plays a sea-obsessed freighter captain, Ulysses Ferragut, who falls for a German spy played by Alice Terry (the wife of the film's director Rex Ingram).

Ulysses has a wife at home who's so unimportant to the plot, she only appears in three scenes -she's cold and unloving in the first one and apparently going mad in the last one!

One of the reasons Ulysses falls for the German spy, Freya, is that she reminds him of a portrait he keeps of Amphitrite, a goddess of the sea. Okay... I didn't buy the Freya character; in the first half of the movie she's vamping it up, seducing Ulysses and conniving around. Then she suddenly (and stupidly) reveals to her co-spy that she loves the guy! We don't see anything on the screen to indicate the abrupt turnaround.

When Ulysses' son (the smartest and most loyal character in the story) is killed by a German submarine which Ulysses helped situate, Ulysses joins the war effort. Ulysses and Freya both end up dying for their war crimes, both memorably. Ulysses floats to the bottom of the sea to the arms of his beloved Amphitrite, while Freya, in a well directed scene, is shot in a firing squad.

Mare Nostrum's a very mixed bag. Some of the most important scenes of the film are blemished by the use of obvious ship models. Other scenes benefit from on location footage.The film has good actors, a good budget and good direction, but a screenplay that sinks.

Mare Nostrum was for many years considered a lost film. Turner Classic Movies has broadcast a beautiful print of it, with a fine piano score accompaniment. The film is not currently available on DVD.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Billy the Kid (1930)

This is my kind of movie!

I initially approached Billy the Kid with trepidation. The great King Vidor directing a 1930 MGM western? The movie had to be an odd antique. It is, as it turns out, odd, but it's not an antique.

Billy the Kid is a slick, romanticized version of the real Henry McCarty and Pat Garrett and their involvement in the six-month long, 1878 Lincoln County War of New Mexico. Though the war is much simplified, some of what happens in the film was apparently true: the corrupt, government-tied land monopoly in the county, the cold-blooded murder of John Tunstall, the women's safe passage from the McSween house before it was burned.

It was Pat Garrett himself who helped mythologize Henry McCarty after the Kid's death. Garrett claimed to have killed him, but that story's been disputed. The real Billy was reportedly as cold-blooded a killer as the posse he was fighting against, an unscrupulous opportunist. Played here by Johnny Mack Brown in a star-making role, Billy is a romantic, non-compromising sharpshooter who's willing to risk everything for justice and is heroically non-plussed; when the ceiling beams of a burning house fall in front of him, he takes the opportunity to light his cigarette from the flames.

Wallace Beery, in a role which confirmed him as a star, is perfect at the ambiguously-motivated Garrett. Kay Johnson plays the love interest in a minimally-written role, and the movie is packed with character actors like Karl Dane, Roscoe Ates and Russell Simpson.

This is a western that doesn't play the by the rules of western movies. Like most MGM films of the period, it mixes humor into the events, creating some bizarrely incongruous, violent scenes.

King Vidor does a fine directing job; the location shots are gorgeous, the sets memorable, the storytelling compelling.

Billy the Kid was originally shot in the widescreen format, but only the more standard size ratio print exists. The film is available on Warner Archive DVD and has been broadcast by Turner Classic Movies. The version shown is the American one, wherein Pat Garrett allows Billy to escape with his life; the European version has Garrett shooting him dead.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Chasing Rainbows (1930)

If only films had been preserved as well as literature. Imagine, for example, some of S.J. Perelman or Robert Benchley's earliest books not surviving. Seems preposterous, but here we have MGM's second full-length musical, Chasing Rainbows, and the biggest music segments (in early Technicolor, yet) are missing. This is the movie that presented the song "Happy Days Are Here Again" to the world - and that song is missing.

Because of this, it's difficult to determine how good of a musical Chasing Rainbows is. What we have left seems, to my mind, not as focused or driven as MGM's earlier The Broadway Melody, but also not without charms.

A very young Jack Benny plays the ringmaster, the stage manager of a touring road show. Bessie Love is teamed again, as in The Broadway Melody, with Charles King. Marie Dressler and Polly Moran are the comic relief.

Jack Benny is fine for his role, but the problem is it isn't much of a role: the stage manager tries to keep the company on an even keel - and that's about as interesting as his character gets.

Bessie Love plays virtually the same role as in The Broadway Melody, jilted through most ofthe film by the clueless and weak Terry (Charles King), whose seduction by Nina Marten provides the movie's conflict. Love's big emotional scene is so acute, it's practically dropped in from a different movie.

You either find Marie Dressler and Polly Moran funny or not. I do - guilty as charged. Dressler was capable of both serious work and comedy (and singing, which she does in this film and which she did on stage years before she enteredthe movies) and Moran, with her expressive face and body language, had unexploited dramatic potential as well.

The version of Chasing Rainbows showing on TCM inserts explanatory title cards in the spots which have been lost to time. Still, several songs remain, all enjoyable.

This film has been released on Warner Archives DVD.