Tag Archives: howard hawks

The Silent Treatment

“The American silent cinema of the 1920s gave us three great comedians,” wrote Dave Kehr in last week’s Times, “Harold Lloyd, whose hyperkinetic optimism seemed the perfect embodiment of his epoch; Charles Chaplin, whose Victorian sentimentality was just a touching bit behind it; and Buster Keaton, who was so far ahead of his time that we’re still running to catch up with him.”

What is it about this period in film history that invites such useless debate? You never hear anyone debating Cary Grant vs. Humphrey Bogart, or Howard Hawks vs. Alfred Hitchcock. But when it comes to Chaplin and Keaton, it always gets hot. Why?

Don’t get me wrong. I love heat. Crave it. But where there’s smoke there’s not always fire. Exhibit A: Dave Kehr. Is Lloyd’s hyperkinetic optimism relevant only to his epoch? Is Chaplin’s Victorian sentimentality really his defining characteristic?

To those who have seen Speedy and Safety Last, the ridiculousness of the Lloyd remark is self-evident. The famous scene of Lloyd slipping from the hands of a giant clock ticking a hundred stories above the pavement is simply ageless. Comedy – silent or otherwise – has hardly produced a more eloquent expression of our most basic fear. Lloyd’s films were time and technology obsessed, slapstick comedies à la Dziga Vertov. Nothing could be more modern.

Now for Chaplin.

When oh when oh when can we retire the Chaplin/Sentimental polemic? What good has it done us? (I find it curious, by the way, that Chaplin’s team has not devised a counterattack. You never hear them nail Buster Keaton for, say, his simplicity. Like the Los Angelenos in the L.A./N.Y. debate, they are rarely on offense.) Taking this angle with Chaplin is as fruitless as condemning Billy Wilder for being cynical. It is merely a fact of his sensibility and speaks neither for or against his genius.

It is fashionable for “serious” film scholars – often highly analytic types who eschew sentiment – to raise themselves above the Chaplinesque masses by way of extolling Keaton’s craft. There is a utilitarian function to this; not only is “craft” the domain of the educated elite, it’s a hell of a lot easier to write about. Let me be clear: I mean no disrespect to Keaton – only to those who champion him at The Tramp’s expense. They have obviously never stopped to marvel at the mind that made dancing feet out of two bread rolls. Sentimental? I call that surrealism.

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Federico y Ginger

Amid news of a Pac-Man movie, the latest casting developments in Captain America, reviews of Iron Man 2, new TV spots for The A-Team, and Fox’s announcement of a Planet of the Apes prequel, I excavated a small piece of encouragement: Pedro Almodovar will be working with Antonio Banderas once again. The film, The Skin I Live In, will begin shooting this summer.

“The film will be a terror film, without screams or scares,” Almodovar told the Spanish daily El Pais. “It’s difficult to define and although it comes close to the terror genre – something that appeals to me that I’ve never done – I won’t respect any of its rules. It’s the harshest film I’ve ever written and Banderas’ character is brutal.”

Throughout the eighties, Almodovar and Banderas made five films together – Labyrinth of Passion, Matador, Law of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and finally Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! – an impressive, versatile streak that, in its day, ranked with the greatest director/actor partnerships around. Back then, before Almodovar had fully cultivated his current, perversely mature sensibility, Antonio Banderas was the living embodiment of his world, Cary Grant to his Howard Hawks. Under Almodovar’s direction, the actor alternated between a screwball-state of flummoxed boyishness (like Grant in Bringing Up Baby, Monkey Business, I Was A Male War Bride) and commanding manliness (like Grant in Only Angels Have Wings) – a duality appropriate to Almodovar’s madcap feeling for passionate behavior.

Together they forged new cinematic ground (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is an NC-17 comedy about a stalker in love with a heroine addicted porn-star), pushing ahead into uncharted emotional territory that they may not have reached on their own. Katharine Hepburn’s famous remark about Fred and Ginger – “He gave her class and she gave him sex” – readily applies; Pedro is Fred, Antonio is Ginger. How else could we have been lured into rooting for Banderas, who played that memorable, lovable rapist in Matador? Teamwork.

Jimmy Stewart made cold Hitchcock warm; Mastroianni gave warm Fellini cool; and Liv Ullmann gave Bergman’s films a chance at hope, like a life preserver thrown into a cold, dark sea. Antonio Banderas – a highly gifted performer who has never really been taken seriously in America – could, as Almodovar said, play “a puerile guy with an overpowering power of seduction.” Has there ever been a better summary of Almodovar’s brand of playful intensity?

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A Perfect Day for Bogdanofish

On Monday The Hollywood Reporter announced Peter Bogdanovich will write and direct an adaptation of Kurt Andersen’s monolithic novel Turn of the Century. What lovely news.

It’s been a white since we’ve had a big-screen feature from Bogdanovich, and it’s about time. The Cat’s Meow, his reimagining of the Ince yachting incident, was released in 2001, almost a decade ago. Since then, he’s been busy with everything from Sopranos to Tom Petty, and though many may not know it, Bogdanovich has used the time to turn out some terrific work. Directed by John Ford, televised by Turner Classic Movies in 2006, will surely become one of the most essential studies of John Ford in either book or film form, and will gain in importance as Ford’s legacy becomes more and more wound up in the past. While Ford’s contemporaries, giants like Hawks and Cukor, will have an easier time reaching audiences of the future – their sensibilities being so sharp and forever modern – visitors to Ford Country, I’m sure, will need more of a roadmap. Directed by John Ford will be just that.

Bogdanovich would be the first to admit that he learned landscapes from John Ford. Films like The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and Nickelodeon are full of expansive vistas, the sort of evocative, mythic terrains we think of when we think of Fort Apache or The Searchers. Even They All Laughed, Bogdanovich’s dazzling New York comedy, contains a Fordian fascination with topography. Some of those low-angle shots of John Ritter framed against shining skyscrapers bring to mind Ford’s famous depictions of John Wayne beaming against the desert sky. Monument Valley has been usurped by Times Square, but the effect is the same: setting is emotion.

This is all to say that a bit of Ford, a touch of Hawks, and a generous helping of Bogdanovich could – if the Movie Gods decree it – fuse to make Turn of the Century a very good thing. Peter Bogdanovich is at home in a crowd, and a rollicking, expansive satire like Turn of the Century, with its cast of thousands and epic scope, may very well provide him with the sort of omnibus ingredients that have buttressed his handful of masterworks.

At least I hope it does. Bogdanovich certainly deserves another terrific piece of time. “An’ that’s the thing,” Jimmy Stewart said to him, “that’s the great thing about the movies…After you learn – and you’re good and Gawd helps ya and you’re lucky to have a personality that comes across – then what you’re doing is – you’re giving people little…little, tiny pieces of time…that they never forget.”

Turn of the Century is scheduled to begin shooting next spring in New York.

Hawks on Lombard

Bogdanovich: The scene [from Twentieth Century] in the train compartment with Lombard trying to kick Barrymore looks particularly impromptu.

Hawks: That was the first scene we shot in the picture. Lombard had never done that kind of comedy before, but I cast her because I’d seen her at a party with a couple of drinks in her and she was hilarious and uninhibited and just what the part needed. When she came on the set, though, she was emoting all over the place – she was trying very hard and it was just dreadful. Barrymore was very patient and we tried it a few times and she was just so stilted and stiff. Then I said to her, “Come on, let’s take a walk,” and we went outside and I asked her how much money she was getting for the picture. She told me and I said, “What would you say if I told you you earned your whole salary this morning and didn’t have to act anymore?” And she was stunned. So I said, “Now forget about the scene. What would you do if someone said such and such to you?” And she said, “I’d kick him in the balls.” And I said, “Well, he said something like that to you – why don’t you kick him?” She said, “Are you kidding?” And I said, “No.” So we went back on the set and I gave her sometime to think it over, and then we tried that scene and we did one take and that was it. And when I said, “Print,” Barrymore yelled out. “That was fabulous!” And she burst into tears and ran off the set. Well, she never began a picture after that without sending me a telegram that said, “I’m gonna start kicking him.”