Friday, November 20, 2009

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Director: Frank Lloyd
Cast: Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone
Genre: Drama
Other Nominees: Alice Adams, The Broadway Melody of 1936, Captain Blood, David Copperfield, The Informer, Lives of a Bengal Lancer, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Les Miserables, Naughty Marietta, Ruggles of Red Gap, Top Hat

I have noted in various reviews of The Mutiny on the Bounty that people complain about the film’s historical inaccuracy. Apparently the events portrayed here do not match what really happened on board the ship. To be frank I do not really care if the movie is not based on reality because in the end I enjoyed this one too much to care! A more accurate version was made in 1984 starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins so if you want to see what really happened rent that one but be warned that it was poorly received with bad reviews. This 1936 version may not be true to life but it makes for a great film and, with respect to the movies left to see from the 1930’s, it might even go down as my choice for movie of the decade.

The movie tells the story of Fletcher Christian played by a moustache-less Clark Gable. It is the first time Gable ever appears on screen without his trademark moustache and apparently he was very reluctant to shave it off (Gable was the Hollywood superstar at this time. Consider that he was also a lead in the previous Best Picture winner, It Happened One Night. Apparently he was on quite the roll). Fletcher is the first mate aboard The Bounty serving the abominable Captain William Bligh, played by Charles Laughton. It is Fletcher who enacts the movies namesake and mutinies against his captain after he can no longer withstand seeing the cruelty inflicted on the sailors.

The success of this movie is in its ability to make the audience hate the captain as much as the men do. The first half of the film is example after example of the cruel punishments that the captain uses to rule his ship by fear. One minute he sends one of them to the top of the mast in a massive storm and the next he ties another upright in the baking sun. Beatings are common for even the slightest offence. He steals from the ships supplies and then forces his men to work on meager rations. Probably the most striking example is the very first one we see when he continues to have an already dead man whipped so that the punishment is completely carried out. By the time Fletcher mutinies the men on board the ship are not the only ones relieved. As a viewer you really do want to see Bligh get his comeuppance. As Fletcher puts it:

I've never known a better seaman, but as a man, he's a snake. He doesn't punish
for discipline. He likes to see men crawl. Sometimes, I'd like to push his
poison down his own throat.

The scrolling introduction makes the point that the treatment of sailors improved in the decades after this event and that the mutiny that took place on the Bounty had a direct impact on this. I do not know how true that is but the message that the movie makes is clear. There is a speech made towards the end of the film that talks about how great the Navy could be if the wickedness was stamped out and if the sailors were treated right. A part of it goes:

He could sweep the seas for England if he called his men to their duty, not by
flaying their backs, but by lifting their hearts

I was going to start talking about the inaccuracies of the film as they are well documented but I realized that I do not watch movies for accuracy. I watch movies to see a good story told and to be entertained. The reality is that there is a very good story to be told here and like all great stories it has a hero you can relate to and a villain you can despise.

Next Up: The Great Ziegfeld

Sunday, November 15, 2009

It Happened One Night (1934)

Director: Frank Capra
Cast: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly
Genre: Comedy
Other Nominees: The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Cleopatra, Flirtation Walk, The Gay Divorcee, Here Comes The Navy, The House of Rothschild, Imitation of Life, One Night of Love, The Thin Man, Viva Villa!, The White Parade

In researching this one I learned that It Happened One Night was one of Friz Freleng’s favorite films. Friz was a Warner Brothers animator who helped create Bugs Bunny and he noted in his memoirs that this movie helped inspire the carrot chewing, wise cracking rabbit. I loved this little nugget and could not help seeing aspects of Bugs as I watched the film. There is a surprising amount of carrot chewing going on!

And doing most of the chewing is Clark Gable. This was my first Gable experience and I was surprised by his role. Without having seen him in action if you had asked me what I think of when I hear his name I would have told you Clark was sleek, sophisticated, suave, and all those other “James Bond” words beginning with “s”. Instead we see him as something of a lowlife here. When we first meet Peter Warne we see a drunk slurring into the telephone, surrounded by a slew of fellow drunks. An out of luck journalist, he is making a drunken call to his boss which is never a good career move. As he sobers his wise cracking nature comes to the surface. This is a romantic comedy but the romance does not come easily. In fact for most of the movie Peter grumbles to, complains about, and yells at his sweetheart. All in all he comes across as less of those "s" words and more of a jerk.

The lady in question, the 1930’s answer to Paris Hilton, is played by Claudette Colbert. Ellie Andrews is the daughter of a millionaire and a starlet in all the papers. Rebelling against her father she jumps ship (literally) and makes a break for freedom. Ellie is on the run from her father who has put a reward out for anyone who returns her to him when she meets Gable’s character, who sees in her an opportunity to get a great story. They both agree to dodge her father’s hounds and head for New York together.

There are some great scenes in this movie. There is the classic hitchhiking scene, probably the most recognizable one, where Ellie shows some leg to get cars to pull over. And there is the “Walls of Jericho” analogy as the sharing and division of various motel rooms is accomplished by the hanging a sheet -- a sheet which can only be brought down by “Joshua’s trumpet”.

Frank Capra directed and the only thing I know about Frank is that he also was responsible for one of my favorite films of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life. So it is no surprise to me that I enjoyed this one.

I will leave you with some Oscar trivia: Not only is It Happened One Night the first comedy to win an Oscar it is also the first Oscar winning film to win all five major Academy Awards -- Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. Only two other movies since then have matched that feat (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1974 and The Silence of The Lambs in 1990).

Next Up: the swashbuckling Mutiny on the Bounty

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Cavalcade (1933)

This is the last time that this will happen I promise but Cavalcade is not currently available on DVD. has the following entry as a synopsis:
A cavalcade of English life from New Year's Eve 1899 until 1933 seen through the eyes of well-to-do Londoners Jane and Robert Marryot. Amongst events touching their family are the Boer War, the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic and the Great War.

Sounds like an interesting film. Perhaps I will get to see it one day. Until then…

Next Up: It Happened One Night

Grand Hotel (1932)

Director: Edmund Goulding
Cast: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone
Genre: Drama
Other Nominees: Arrowsmith, Bad Girl, The Champ, Five Star Final, One Hour With You, Shanghai Express, The Smiling Lieutenant

I love to look through the American Film Institute’s top 100 movie quotes of all time. There are some great, great quotes found on that list and Grand Hotel makes an appearance at number 30. Greta Garbo stars as a depressed ballet star who despairs that she “wants to be left alone” and it is this anguished cry that makes the list.

But I thought there was an even better quote to be found in this film and it comes from a minor character, Dr. Otternschlag. The doctor may not have a lot of lines but when he did speak I found he had the more interesting things to say. The quote I am referring to appears at both the beginning and the end of the film when he observes “people coming, people going … nothing ever happens”.

The irony here is that while things appear non-eventful the truth is a lot happens behind the closed doors of the guest rooms. In fact the five guests who make up the ensemble cast experience a stay at the Grand Hotel that changes all of their lives.

The five characters in question include a wealthy baron with a secret, a depressed Russian ballerina struggling with suicidal tendencies, a hyper stressed businessman anxious to make a deal, a dying man living his last days on Earth in luxury, and a penniless stenographer desperate for money. With the star studded cast being spread across these roles this is the first movie to use the technique of telling separate stories that blend together to create a tapestry of a film. Think of Grand Hotel as the early days Crash (Oscar winner 2006). It is a story telling technique that is to be seen again and again throughout the Hollywood decades.

The doctor has another observation about half way through the film, this one on the nature of hotels in general. He comments that “no one knows anything about the person next to them. And when you leave, someone occupies your room, lies in your bed, and that's the end.”

As each character’s stay comes to and end and they check out we see exactly what the doctor was talking about. Someone else arrives and occupies the room, lie in the same bed, and life goes on. One of my favorite scenes in the film comes right at the end when new batches of guests arrive. A recently married couple can barely contain their excitement at having entered the Grand Hotel and as the camera begins to pan away from them I wondered what the events of their stay will end up being. What will their story be?

This movie does not go out of its way to be creepy, it is not a horror film, but it certainly does make me think about the nature of hotels and about what it means to stay at one. After all, the doctor is right… In the time that we are guests we know nothing about your neighbors, about the people who have stayed there before us or about the people who will stay after us. And all around us stories could be unfolding that we are completely unaware of. Stories have happened in our very room that we are unaware of. I cannot help but be a little creeped out by that thought!

Next Up: Cavalcade

AFI Top 100 Movie Quotes: