Sunday, July 10, 2011

It Doesn't Get Much More Epic, or Influential, Than This Classic

If you were to compile a list of quintessential films of the last one hundred years, which films would be on it? My list would include "Singin' In The Rain", "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", and the original three "Star Wars" films, to name a few. This film would certainly be near the top of my list. It's epic in scope, and influenced generations upon generations of filmmakers. The film I'm speaking of is a classic, made in 1933 by RKO pictures. It's none other than "King Kong".

The story begins with a New York filmmaker named Carl Denham, played by Robert Armstrong. He's found a remote island (under mysterious circumstances), and has decided that he must find a female lead for his film. During a scouting mission, of sorts, in Manhatten, he walks by a fruit stand. There, he finds his leading lady, in the form of a beautiful, but nearly destitute woman named Ann Darrow, played by Fay Wray. They board a ship set to sail for the mysterious Skull Island. With them is a full crew, led by Captain Englehorn, and a man soon to become young Ann's love interest, Jack Driscoll. When they reach the island, which they believe to be uninhabited, they hear the mysterious sound of drums in the distance. With Denham in the lead, determined to finish his film, he and his crew, with his young actress, venture deep into the jungle, and discover that they are not alone. They soon encounter a tribe, native to the island. While their language is foreign and their rituals bizarre, one thing becomes clear. The tribe has come to worship one singular being on their mysterious piece of earth. This creature is only known to them as "Kong". Ann soon falls into the clutches of Kong, and it's up to the crew to save her. After a fatal trip deep into Kong's territory, only Denham and Jack survive. While he's deadly to everybody else, Kong is protective of his new love. Ultimately, Ann is saved, and the beast captured. What happens next, as they say, is history. This film is truly cinematic history at its zenith.

I'm always hesitant with films of such an epic scope. Films such as this have no doubt been held with such high regard, with such esteem, that it's hard not to go into a film like this for the first time with very high expectations. I've often found that if I enter into something with high expectations, I often end up disappointed, or even angry that what I've just seen didn't live up to the hype. So I went into seeing this film with trepidation. From the very beginning of the film, I knew that I would not be let down. The suspense builds, literally, from the opening overture. The film's score adds a aura of suspense, even though the first few minutes of the film are simply a gray screen with the word "Overture" written across it. And then the actors appear. Armstrong plays Carl Denham as somewhat of a cliche by Hollywood standards (or what we have come to know as standard). Carl is a famous (in his own mind) filmmaker that can do no wrong. Now, he's making a film that will make him millions. He believes he knows how to make this film, but those employing him want something that he's not sure if he can work with; a woman. Enter Ann Darrow. What can I say about Fay Wray? She was a stunning woman. She had large, gorgeous eyes, and flowing blond hair. Her acting wasn't campy and over the top like some actresses of the same era were guilty of. She was quiet and reserved, but when it was called for, she could be robust and dramatic. And perhaps, most famously, she was dubbed "The original Scream Queen". And rightfully so. She had a scream that could curdle milk and shatter crystal.

Of course, we can't forget to mention the star of the film, the big ape known as "King Kong". He begins as a mysterious figure, one whose very name conjures up the deepest of all goosebumps. This is a complex film. With the exception of Jack and Ann, all other characters act as both good and evil. For instance, Carl is a very strongly opinionated man. His opinion of using a woman in his film is, to say the least, unfavorable to the opposite sex. However, when Ann is kidnapped, and Jack ventures into the jungle to rescue her, Carl quickly turns from curmudgeonly filmmaker to a concerned friend. He tells his crew, "If we don't get Jack's signal by sunrise, we'll go ashore anyway." Another example is, of course, Kong. On one hand, he's a terror to the film's crew, and later, to the native villagers on Skull Island. However, he's willing to fight for Ann, fighting members of the "dinosaur family" as they're ignorantly called by Denham, and keep her safe by any means necessary, even at the cost of his own life.

I'd be remiss if I didn't briefly acknowledge the special effects in the film, which are spectacular, especially for a film made in the 1930s. The scenes in which Kong is fighting various predators, such as vicious dinosaurs and large snakes are stunning. The final scene (and one of the most famous in cinematic history)in which he sits atop the Empire State building to fight off the planes, and to protect a cowering Ann, is absolutely amazing. Not to mention it's the first time in the film that you feel a substantial shift in the film. No longer is Kong feared, but as he falls from the building to the street below, you can almost feel the emotion begin to build. The film then culminates with the shift from evil to good complete.

I LOVED this movie. Everything about it was stunning, all the way down to the sets, extras and lighting. And the final scene, in which Carl is standing, with the policemen in the street among a throng of onlookers as Kong plummets to earth, is spine tingling. And then there's the final line spoken in the film. The policeman leans in and says, "The planes got him." Carl returns with, " was beauty that killed the beast." It's powerful and deep. It's truly a beautiful culmination to a spectacular film.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Story of Prohibition Bootleggers is Fantastic

The 1920s is and was a very famous part of American history. It was an innovative decade in which music became more liberating, films began to talk, and a movement to ban the sale and consumption of alcohol, known as prohibition, began. Prohibition, in turn, gave rise to people known as bootleggers, who transported alcohol for profit, and the underground tavern, called the speakeasy. This also introduced much violence and competition, not only from the battle between the police and the bootleggers, but among regular citizens as well. "The Roaring Twenties" made in 1939, tells the story of warring factions of bootleggers.

James Cagney stars as Eddie Bartlett. Eddie comes home from Europe after fighting in World War One. He arrives, expecting for his life to pick up where it left off. But what he finds is that his world has changed. His job as an auto mechanic has been given to somebody else, and now he is out of work and nearly destitute. His friend and roommate Danny (played by frequent Cagney collaborator Frank McHugh) is a down and out taxi driver. Eddie begins to pick up twelve hour shifts as a driver to help make ends meet. Suddenly, he's thrust into the underground world of bootlegging. As business picks up, he builds a fleet of taxis, for the purpose of delivering the illegal substance. With the help of a his partner, an ex-saloon keeper named George, played by Humphrey Bogart, and a lawyer he's retained as is own, Lloyd, played by Jeffrey Hart, Bartlett begins to manufacture his own product for the sole purpose of selling to the speakeasies. It soon gets complicated when Eddie falls for a beautiful young actress and singer, Jean, played by Priscilla Lane. But she has eyes for Bartlett's lawyer, Lloyd. Enter speakeasy owner Panama Smith, played by Gladys George, who only has eyes for Eddie. Where as Jean is sweet and innocent, and perhaps a little naive (which may be why Eddie falls for her) Panama is more like Eddie. She's rough around the edges and fully aware of what Eddie and his crew are involved in. What ensues is a story of violence, love and betrayal. It's a complicated and beautiful film.

The film was based on a story by Mark Hellinger. As it's explained at the onset of the film, Hellinger lived a similar story to the one depicted in the film. To me, this makes it more real than other films I've seen about the prohibition era. While parts of the film are likely dramatized, the film possesses an authenticity that may be lacking in other similar films. It would have been a much different film without it's director, Raoul Walsh. He and Cagney (as well as other actors in the film, namely McHugh), were frequent collaborators. Walsh had many filming signatures. He loved long panoramic shots, and his female characters were often as hard and tough as the male leads. This can be seen in the character of Panama Smith. She's a complete contradiction to the other female lead in the film, Jean. She's outspoken, and hard living. Walsh also used this method in another film (one of my absolute favorites) "White Heat". The difference is that there is definitely a contrast to the two female characters in this film. In "White Heat" both of the women are strong and independent. In "The Roaring Twenties" the contrast between the two female leads adds even more to the authenticity of the film. Finally, it goes without saying, but Cagney is most definitely the star of this film. He is absolutely in his element in the gangster persona. Eddie is not pure evil though. We can see his human side. We can see that Eddie loves Jean, and we feel for him when she falls for Lloyd instead. He becomes despondent and throws himself into his work. At the end of the film, when he picks up Jean in his taxi, he's a regular guy. While it may be hard for him to face the love of his life, he's very genuine and kind-hearted. The scene in which he is meeting Jean and Lloyd's young son (who is supposedly four years old, but seems to be more like ten), is very touching, and Cagney does an excellent job of playing this type of role, then, in the next scene, playing the part of the fearless antagonist. Cagney was one of the few actors of his, or any era for that matter, who could achieve playing the role of both protagonist and antagonist in one character. He and the rest of the cast are fantastic.

While other films of this era, and of this subject can often just become convoluted and frustrating, this film is not one of them. It's filmed and acted brilliantly, and it's one of the best films I've seen recently.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is Excellent, Entertaining

George M. Cohan was a very prolific song writer, dancer, actor and producer in the early part of the twentieth century. He wrote many famous songs, among them, the title song for this film, "Give my Regards to Broadway" and many others. This is the story of his life.

James Cagney, in his Oscar winning role, plays Cohan. The film begins in Cohan's childhood, performing (with mild success) with his parents (played by Walter Huston and Rosemary DeCamp) and younger sister. Eventually, the troupe moves onto vaudeville, where young George really becomes enamored with show business. As he gets older, he begins to act as the group's manager, and in the process, becomes a bit of an ego-maniac. He ventures out on his own, leaving his parents and sister behind, but never forgetting where he came from. The film is told through flashback. Cohan is an old man now, looking to retire. He's summoned by the president of the United States to be given the Congressional Medal of Honor, as a result of his influence over American songwriting, among other things. He sits down with the president and begins to tell his story. So, the film, literally, begins and ends with Cagney.

It's pure irony that this role as a song and dance man earned Cagney the only Academy Award statue of his long career. He was probably most famous for his roles in gangster films. Nonetheless, at a certain level, Cagney brings that gangster mentality to this role as well. He plays Cohan as if he is very headstrong and stubborn. He knows what he wants, and he will stop at nothing to achieve his success. Also brought to the film was his unique dancing style. Cagney is graceful on his feet, but at times, his dancing looks like a newborn horse standing up for the first time. He's certainly not as elegant as Fred Astaire, but he brings his own elegance to his clipped style. It's as if he's galloping across the screen. His singing is in a similar style to that of Rex Harrison. He, more or less, speaks his way through a song, as if he's just telling a story. He does sing a few notes, but for the most part, he "sings" as if he's just delivering another one of his lines. The supporting cast is excellent and very complementary to Cagney. It's also worth noting that his adult sister in the film was played by Cagney's real-life sister, Jeanne Cagney. While actors can easily develop a rapport with one another, as you saw the Cagneys together, it was easy to see that their chemistry was something more than just two friends working together.

James Cagney's Oscar was very much deserved. The film was amazingly written, and the casting couldn't have been better. This film is very patriotic in it's general feeling and material. As a lover of the musical film, and of our country, I highly recommend this film.