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January 14, 2020

The Good Fairy

The Good Fairy 1935.jpg

William Wyler - 1935
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Call me a sap, but I love that Universal Pictures opening logo with the airplane flying around the world. Some eighty-four years later, that image will probably strike contemporary viewers as quaint. That buzzing propellor plane might also provide some preparation for the imagined past world of The Good Fairy.

The story takes place in what was suppose to be contemporary Budapest, Hungary, yet connections to the real city are arbitrary. Signs may be in Hungarian or English, and the name of our heroine, Luisa Ginglebusher is more East Los Angles than Eastern European. Of an unstated age, and totally naive to the ways of the world, Luisa is plucked from an orphanage to work as an usherette at Budapest's largest movie theater. A digression here - there was a time when movie theaters, the single screen palaces of the past, employed people to guide them to their seats, carrying a flashlight so that patrons wouldn't stumble on each other in the dark. At this particular theater, the usherettes dress like brass band majorettes with shiny uniforms including tall military caps, capes and an wand shaped like an arrow that illuminates the direction. This is a world where would-be Lotharios hang out near the theater's back exit hoping to score a date with one of the available girls after work.

Luisa's promise upon exiting the orphanage is to do one good deed a day on behalf of someone, to act as their "good fairy". What Luisa's not prepared for is men who may possibly have less than honorable intentions, and her fib of telling these men that she's married has unintended consequences.

The film is very loosely based on a play by the Hungarian Ferenc Molnar. Preston Sturges' hand in the screenplay is more easily evident with the premise of a naive person putting themselves in a situation over their head, the nonsensical sounding names, and bits of slapstick tossed in. William Wyler's stylistic touches, which would be developed for fully in later films can be spotted in the used of several traveling shots and some limited use of deep focus. Between Sturges writing and re-writing the script in part due to constant battles with the Hays Office, and Wyler's almost constant battles with star Margaret Sullavan, The Good Fairy went five weeks past its allotted seven week shooting schedule, as well as over budget. Wyler and Sturges got kicked out of Universal, falling upwards with Wyler primarily making the first of his canonized films for Samuel Goldwyn, while Sturges wound up at Paramount, fulfilling his wish to direct his own screenplays five years later.

I have no idea if Wyler mentioned the idea of filming Dodsworth to Sturges, but that film in the theater where Luisa works is almost a parody. A woman, begging to return to her husband, is constantly refused with the single word, "no". Comically melodramatic, the scene almost anticipates Walter Huston telling Ruth Chatterton that he has had enough with her infidelities. I could well be missing some kind of vernacular expression, but the Hungarian title translates as "The Moon - Fools and Prologues".

Not as well remembered as several of her peers, the film was primarily made as a showcase for Margaret Sullavan. In a film career that last for ten years, Sullavan was a major star who may be remembered best for the trio of films she made with director Frank Borzage. One of the extras on the blu-ray is a trailer for The Good Fairy which indicates Sullavan's star status in the mid 1930s.

Full disclosure - I have had intermittent correspondence with film critic Simon Abrams, who provided the commentary track here. This is an exceedingly well researched commentary that has a couple of slight rough patches, but otherwise is very informative. Sources quoted include biographies of Wyler, Sturges, Sullavan and co-star Herbert Marshall, Molnar's play, and reviews of the film from the time of release. Abrams also finds time to discuss the film and staged remakes, as well as the complex relationships of Sullavan and her various lovers and husbands, including her volatile marriage to Wyler while The Good Fairy was in production.

While not as good as watching a mint 35mm nitrate print on the big screen, the film is beautifully rendered here. There is some hint of how visually magical The Good Fairy was in the final shot, an extreme close-up of the face of the the bride, a crowned and radiant Margaret Sullavan.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:34 AM

January 07, 2020

The Specialists

SPECIALISTE--2-.jpg

Le Specialiste / Gli specialisti / Drop Them or I'll Shoot
Sergio Corbucci - 1969
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Unlike some of the better known Italian westerns by Sergio Corbucci that featured marquee names that would still be meaningful for American viewers, The Specialists was topped by Johnny Hallyday. A major star in Europe known as the "French Elvis", Hallyday was virtually unknown in the U.S. except for a few Francophiles. As best as i can tell, The Specialists was never released theatrically in the U.S., and may well have never been intended for a wider international release. The two language tracks available are Italian and French. Perhaps this is a result of the use of the Italian track, but the acting seems much broader, more exaggerated, especially in the comic moments. Even more conspicuous is the use of nudity, a very infrequent element in any westerns even after the establishment of a more sexually liberated cinema in the late 1960s. Even in comparison to his other serious westerns, The Specialists may well be Corbucci's most nihilistic film.

The blond hair, unshaven face, and occasional cigar may remind some of Clint Eastwood's character in Sergio Leone's films. Hallyday's anti-social, anti-hero, gunslinger is named Hud, the same name as that of Martin Ritt's contemporary western with Paul Newman. Corbucci's Hud goes to the small town of Blackstone, Nevada seeking revenge for his brother, lynched after being accused of stealing money he was transporting on behalf of the town's bank. Hud is introduced saving a group of stagecoach passengers from being killed by El Diablo's bandit gang, recognizable by their comically oversized sombreros. The sheriff of Blackstone, the beefy Gastone Morschin in a more sympathetic role, tries to maintain law and order by disarming anyone who comes to town. If the basic premise seems familiar, Corbucci adds various unexpected twists.

In the same year that she played the title role in Eric Rohmer's My Night at Maud's, Francoise Fabian portrayed Blackstone's banker, Virginia Pollicut. In one of the few comic digressions, Fabian invites Moschin into her bedroom for some conversation, casually asking him to stay while she takes a bath. What follows includes playful banter, strategic dropping of a bar of soap, and a completely uninhibited actress.

Without giving too much away, consider this quote from Sergio Corbucci about The Specialists: "The idea was to show that I was against the hippies. Listen, at this time the Manson business hadn't happened. . . . I am against drugs and hippies. I wanted to denounce them in The Specialists. I'm really violently against their attitude, and I hate Easy Rider."

Did Quentin Tarantino read Alex Cox's book on Italian westerns, 10,000 Ways to Die, the source of this quote? Perhaps Tarantino had seen the subtitle free Italian DVD. Remember that when Tarantino's Rick Dalton goes to Italy in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he stars in a fictional western, Nebraska Jim by the very real Corbucci.

How this connects is that there is a small group of hippie type characters that appear in the opening of The Specialists, tossed in a pool of mud and shit by El Diablo's gang. They later show up in Blackstone, primarily as a source of annoyance for Hud. Where Corbucci's film roughly parallels Tarantino's is when these seemingly playful clowns show their own taste for power and desire to humiliate, and possibly execute, the town's citizens near the end of the story. If Corbucci is to be believed that his film was made before the Manson family made headlines, with the film released in November 1969, he apparently had an uncanny premonition that is jarring to say the least.

The Specialists is also unusual with the location filming in the French Alps. These are green fields surrounded by mountains. There is also a sequence with Hallyday and Moschin riding together in a narrow gulch between the sides of two mountains, emphasizing the shared spaces that bring them together, that are seemingly inescapable. The production design makes use of the wide screen and horizontal planes. Use of framing within the frame can be seen in a shot introducing the quartet of photo-hippies, huddled together between the front and back legs of a horse, and later, in a shot of townspeople observing a gunfight from behind the horizontal window of a saloon.

Alex Cox provides a conversational style to his commentary track. His feelings towards the The Specialists seems to have mellowed since the time he wrote about the film in his book, 10,000 Ways to Die. One interesting bit of information is how The Specialists originated as what was to be a collaboration between Corbucci and Lee Van Cleef. While there is no explanation as why there was an apparent falling out, Corbucci was later approached by a French producer looking for a vehicle for Johnny Hallyday. Cox points out what he considers some of the films weaknesses, but also makes clear that the blu-ray is the complete version with a moment of reckoning of the townspeople that has been cut from released versions.

If some of the digressions and use of nudity make this unusual for westerns in general, there are still enough elements to signify The Specialists as very much a Corbucci film. While the politics are played down in comparison to a film like The Mercenary, the bandit "El Diablo" believes he is speaking on behalf of the Mexican population that has been displaced by American westward migration. Hud is another one of Corbucci's anti-heroes who experiences a form of resurrection prior to a final judgment. The use of the graveyard is a favored location in several film. This blu-ray release is very welcomed - and if not quite as good as acknowledged genre masterpieces such as Django, still a reminder that serious consideration should be given to more than one maker of Italian westerns named Sergio.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:52 PM

January 03, 2020

Cobra Woman

cobra woman mm.jpg

Robert Siodmak - 1944
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Cobra Woman has packed in its seventy-one minute running time an exotic beauty and her evil twin sister, an open shirted hero with his short "native" sidekick who brings along his chimpanzee sidekick, dancing maidens, shenanigans in a forbidden queendom, a live volcano, and Lon Chaney, Jr. as a blind and mute wandering musician. No time is spent attempting to make any of this meaningful, other than creating a Technicolor fantasy beautifully rendered in this new blu-ray release.

The only way to enjoy Cobra Woman is on its own terms. The film was produced at a time when Hollywood studios would regularly churn out stories that took place in a highly fictionalized and exotic location, somewhere in the Middle East or an island in the South Pacific. Cobra Woman follows the established template of the hero, a wandering sailor and adventurer, and white savior, who falls in love with a young woman who is of the island but is played by an attractive caucasian or Latina actress. In this instance, the native clothing and religious practice, which involves the worship of an actual cobra, are a grab bag from the imagination of the screenwriters. From a contemporary perspective, much of Cobra Woman might be dismissed as insensitive or ignorant. To some extent, one of the credited screenwriters, Richard Brooks, might be said to have made amends with his own socially conscious films when he ascended to the director's chair.

The short running time might also be attributed to the casting, as the three leading actors were all taking roles familiar to audiences of the time. Maria Montez' reputation primarily rests on her appearances for Universal as a royal ruler or a servant, in any case a forbidden love interest. After several false starts and name changes, Jon Hall's career took off with The Hurricane in 1937, with several South Seas adventure films to follow. The Indian born Sabu was also similarly well established with audiences, a star in his own right.

Maria Montez might not have been much of an actress when expressing herself verbally, but her legs and hips do most of the work. As the evil queen Naja, she first appears wearing a gray and silver lame bathing suit with matching cape, leading a parade of attendants, the whitest brunette chorus girls available on the Universal lot. Montez is the only one with her legs exposed, so there is no way one can not pay attention to anyone else. This queen of the conveniently named Cobra Island later sways her hips in some kind of of ritualistic dance in front of the ceremonial cobra, a combination of a close-up of a real snake and an obvious fake. Don't assume that anyone making Cobra Woman was unaware of any sexual innuendos here. While Montez is wearing a form fitting dress in this scene, it still anticipates the scantily clad snake dance performed by Debra Paget in Fritz Lang's The Indian Tomb filmed fifteen years later. (Coincidentally, Siodmak directed Paget's film debut, Cry of the City.)

While released after Phantom Lady, Cobra Woman was Siodmak's second film as a contract director at Universal. The two other films starring Montez, Hall and Sabu were directed by the more established Arthur Lubin. That Siodmak got the assignment may well be due to Lubin's commitment to the Claude Rains remake of Phantom of the Opera, and, I am guessing here, that while making films in France, Siodmak had previously directed Montez' husband, Jean-Pierre Aumont in Le Chemin de Rio. In any case, Siodmak was in no position to argue, and in interviews would discuss how he would try to improve upon the scripts he was given.

Phillipa Berry's commentary track points out several of the locations where Cobra Woman was filmed, plus provide brief summaries of the careers of the stars. It should be noted that every reliable source states that Siodmak was probably not born in Memphis, Tennessee. Berry does make some connections with Siodmak's later noir films, particularly The Dark Mirror with Olivia De Havilland as rival twin sisters. There is also discussion of Cobra Woman as a camp classic, especially as the inspiration for Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures starring drag artist Mario Montez.

To reduce Cobra Woman to the status of camp classic is a mistake. Siodmak described the film as "silly". The melodramatic intrigue, the pidgin English, and the elaborate costumes are all easy targets of parody. But there is also the sheer craftsmanship and dramatic use of color and shadows, a very effective scene of Hall and Sabu climbing the steep side of a mountain cliff, and the kind of straight-faced performances that would allow less sophisticated audiences to enjoy the film at face value. Sometimes, just being a physical presence is all that is really needed. Prior to making the kind of films that his reputation is based on, Robert Siodmak understood what was required when he was assigned to film "the Queen of Technicolor".

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:46 AM