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September 22, 2020

Misbehaviour

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Philippa Lowthorpe -2020
Shout! Studios

There is not that great a distance between the mischievous children in Philippa Lowthorpe's previous film, Swallows and Amazons and the disruptive women of Misbehaviour. Lowthorpe shows a delight in the shenanigans of this loosely assembled group that made up the beginnings of the Women's Liberation movement in Britain, notably putting a halt to the Miss World competition that was internationally broadcast in November 1970.

It is to the credit of Lowthorpe and screenwriters Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe that they are able to present a story about the cultural shifts that took place fifty years ago without a heavy hand. The essentially true story cross cuts between the burgeoning activism of then student Sally Alexander and her cohorts, with the organization of the 1970 Miss World competition attempting to stay relevant initially based on charges of racism, particularly in the representation of South Africa. For the Miss World organization, progress seems to be one step forward followed by two steps back as Bob Hope is brought in as special presenter, bringing with him his own questionable relationship to the contest.

In retrospect, there was an unintended symbiotic relationship. While the Women's Liberation movement was quite visible in protesting beauty contests, questioning the ways in which women were objectified, the Miss World competition was radical in that a woman of color, Miss Grenada (Jennifer Hosten) had won. The contest also, at the last minute, included a black woman from South Africa (Pearl Jansen) in addition to the white contestant, with Ms. Jansen taking second place. Aside from breaking the racial stereotype regarding notions of physical beauty, Hosten's professional life in academia and diplomacy benefitted from greater gender equality.

The Bob Hope seen here is the one that was generally hidden from the public in 1970. He accepts the gig to go to London, much to the chagrin on his long-suffering wife, Dolores, who knows all about his infidelities. The last time Hope was at a Miss World contest was in 1961. The winner, Rosemarie Frankland, had a long-term relationship with Hope, hinted at in the movie. While Hope was still popular with a sizable audience, his brand of humor was increasingly dated. In a bit of dramatic license, Sally Alexander nearly has a direct face-off with Bob Hope, anarchic feminism versus the hidebound patriarchy. What is true is that Bob Hope, who had years of live performances under the threat of wartime conditions was rattled by this group of unruly women.

Keira Knightly appears as Sally Alexander, with Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Jennifer Hosten. Greg Kinnear has Bob Hope's facial expressions, but not his speech cadences, alas not in the same league as his impersonation of Bob Crane in Auto Focus. My two favorite performances belong to Jessie Buckley as the joyfully careless Jo Robinson who pulls Alexander into her group of street activists, and Lesley Manville as the steely Dolores Hope. The film ends with brief titles with post contest followups, with the real life Alexander, Hosten, Jansen and Robinson making appearances. If some of the issues raised in Misbehaviour seem obvious or familiar, the film should be understood as noting a time when such issues became inescapably part of the general conversation.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:37 AM

September 15, 2020

Disputed Passage

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Frank Borzage - 1939
KL Studios Classics BD Region A

Disputed Passage was the second of three films based on novels by Lloyd C. Douglas that were filmed by Frank Borzage. Previously, there was Green Light (1937) with Errol Flynn as a doctor facing a spiritual crisis. The Big Fisherman (1959), a big budget religious epic about Jesus' disciple Peter. The theologian turned novelist is probably best remembered for the cinematic adaptations of Magnificent Obsession and The Robe. Disputed Passage shares with Green Light and Magnificent Obsession narratives where the medical intertwines with the spiritual. The title is from a Walt Whitman poem regarding one's path in life.

In terms of Borzage's output, this film is something of a lesser effort, falling in between the more prestigious and better regarded The Shining Hour and Strange Cargo, both starring Joan Crawford. Which is not to say this is a bad or uninteresting film. Contemporary interest would be based on interest in the overall careers of Borzage and star Dorothy Lamour. The film also begins with an appearance by author Douglas giving written approval of this screen adaptation.

Young Dr. Beaven (bland leading man John Howard) has decided to follow his medical school mentor, Dr. Forster (Akim Tamiroff), in approaching medicine from a purely scientific standpoint. It's mentioned sarcastically by Forster that Beaven's undergraduate studies were religious in nature. Beaven's dedication to his medical practice and aloof attitude are challenged when he meets Audrey Hilton. Beaven performs minor surgery and the two fall in love, until Forster gets in the way.

And this would be relatively simple except that for the contemporary viewer, attitudes and representation of race make this film much for complicated. Hilton is a white woman who was raised by a Chinese family in China and thinks of herself as culturally Chinese. Keep in mind that at the time the film was made, interracial love was not allowed to be depicted in Hollywood films. Lamour is not exactly in "yellow face" but her costumes, hair style and make-up signify an exotic other. While it is to the film's credit that the Chinese characters and Lamour speak Chinese to each other, according to IMDb, there is no consistency with the dialogue switching between Cantonese and Mandarin. The film was made at a time when the audience was expected to have some awareness of Japan's attempts to colonize China, yet due to U.S. neutrality at the time of production, the scenes in China only refer to "the enemy". Some might have a problem with a scene in which Keye Luke plays a young medical student who presents himself with an Anglo-Saxon name, but my own experience includes personally knowing several Japanese immigrants who have done the same thing to ingratiate themselves as Americans. It is also of interest to compare Disputed Passage with the more clearly depicted relationship between an American pilot and a Chinese woman, portrayed by a Chinese actress, in China Doll (1958).

Borzage's hand is most evident in the final third of the film. Beaven travels to China in search of Ms. Hilton who has chosen to take a more active role in conflict against Japan. China is first introduced with stock footage which looks to me like it came from the same reel that was used in an earlier Paramount set in China production, The General Died at Dawn. Beaven travels by horseback to a small village. A lateral tracking shot depicts sick, hungry and dead Chinese along the pathway, illuminated in the darkness with expressionistic lighting. The scene with Forster operating on the injured Beaven uses a series of shots with canted angles. Near the end of the film, Dorothy Lamour is framed in an extreme close-up with her face partially in shadow except for her eyes.

Nick Pinkerton's commentary does provide some key information regarding the making of Disputed Passage. He presents the quite plausible theory that Lloyd Douglas, fully expecting that his novel would be sold to Hollywood like his past novels, had deliberately created the character of Audrey Hilton as the white woman with the Chinese identity in order to get around the still active Hays Code regarding interracial relationships. Pinkerton also notes that the leading Chinese-American actress of the time, Anna May Wong, served as an uncredited dialogue coach for the scenes in which Lamour speaks Mandarin. Aside providing brief biographies on several of the cast and crew members, Pinkerton's commentary is most valuable in discussing the historical context in which Disputed Passage was made. For the more serious cinephile, Pinkerton also generously quotes from an earlier piece written by film scholar Fred Camper.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:19 AM

September 04, 2020

My Prince Edward

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Norris Wong Yee-Lam - 2019
Cheng Cheng Films

Even if it was not that good a film, My Prince Edward is refreshing as a true Hong Kong film, rather than a bombastic production financed by mainland Chinese studios. The good news is that Norris Wong's debut as a writer/director is as worthy of acclaim as has been indicated by earlier critical reviews as well as award recognition.

The title alone has multiple meanings, first as the primary location in Kowloon, Hong Kong where most of the film takes place, an area known for its bridal shops. Prince Edward refers to the British royal who abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Simpson. Mostly taking place in a bridal shop and the apartment right above the shop in the Prince Edward section, Fong must decide if her co-worker and lover, Edward, is really her prince.

Nothing is easy for Fong as she navigates between the conflicts of contemporary attitudes against traditional expectations regarding love and marriage. At the heart of this conflict is whether she should reveal to Edward that she has been previously married, and the divorce she seeks is delayed due to government red tape as well as a husband who has seemingly disappeared. Wong also touches on the ideas of personal freedom as well as the cost and status of getting a new apartment in Hong Kong. Some aspects of the film may be lost on viewers unfamiliar with some aspects of life in Hong Kong as well as Hong Kong's relationship with mainland China at the time the film was made. The film is primarily in Cantonese with a pointed scene involving mainland bureaucracy that is partially in Mandarin.

In addition to the thematic references in the title, there is the apartment that Fong and Edward share, notable for a couple of movie posters in the background. Edward is the bridal shop's in-house videographer, always attempting to make videos that show an idealized version of the newlyweds. The two posters in the apartment are from films that are centered on more problematic relationships, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Rebecca. Unlike in Gondry's film, Fong is unable to fully erase either her husband or Edward from her life. A possible loose interpretation with a twist would be Fong's entering into a second marriage with a man whose home is subject to the constant interference of his mother, somewhat as Mrs. Danvers dominates the home of Maxim de Winter. When not shooting videos, Edward plays video games, indicative of a situation where he has greater control.

As a modestly budgeted film, Stephy Tang is the most familiar name in the role of Fong. Starting out as a Cantopop star, Tang has evolved into a serious and award winning actress now in her mid-Thirties. The cinematography by Pong Ho-Wai at times evokes the documentary feel of some of the more classic American independent films. The film is also abetted by Eman Lam's piano dominated score. Providing significant assistance to Ms. Wong was the final editing done in conjunction with Wong Car-Wai collaborator William Chang. My Prince Edward is currently making the rounds in various film festivals in the U.S. Check the individual festival sites for concurrent streaming on their affiliated platforms.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:20 AM

September 01, 2020

Black Gravel

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Schwarzer Kies
Helmut Kautner -1961
Kino Classics BD Region A

The most incendiary moment in Black Gravel is also an illustration of how the depiction of an anti-social act can sometimes be misread as an endorsement. A bit of background is required - the film takes place in a very small West German village, with a population of about three hundred people. A U.S. Air Force base is under construction nearby. One of several bars opened to serve the American servicemen is a converted barn. The barn's former owner, an old farmer who probably served in the first World War has a love of marching songs which are part of the offerings on the bar's jukebox. The farmer's attitudes towards the popular dance music is to make the derogatory comment of "Negro music". It is only casually indicated that the bar is now owned by a Jewish proprietor named Loeb. At one point, Loeb asks the farmer to stop with his repeated playing of a marching song, pulling the plug from the jukebox. The farmer calls Loeb a "dirty Jew". The next shot is of Loeb's arm seen through the jukebox glass of his concentration camp tattoo. The farmer reacts in a way that to me indicates a sense of horror and shame. A member of a West German Jewish committee sued writer-director Kautner and the production company for what he interpreted as the film's anti-Semitism rather than as a presentation of one character's verbal assault. The original release version of Black Gravel was cut. This new blu-ray has both that version plus the complete version restored in 2016.

Kautner's film was one of the few to look the impact of American military bases in Germany. Relationships are mostly transactional, with several of the men working on the construction site augmenting their salaries in the black market. The younger, attractive women work in the bars or as prostitutes. The young wife of one of the supervising American military officers, a middle aged man, has chosen security in an uncertain time. By chance, she is reunited with the man she really loves, currently transporting the precious gravel to the construction site, but also rerouting his loads illicitly. The sound of jets overhead are a constant reminder of the American presence in the area.

Programmer and critic Olaf Moller provided the commentary track, which offers a wealth of information about Kautner, as well as putting the film into the contexts of both the filmmaker's work and the events of the time. For those unfamiliar with Moller's writings, he is both erudite and at times extremely funny. His own theory regarding the charges of anti-Semitism is that there may have been more extreme sensitivity as the film was released at the same time as the Adolf Eichmann trial was taking place. Also, with greater tensions between East and West Germany, this was the year the Berlin wall was built. An example of Moller's humor is in his discussion of German beer halls. Kautner remains relatively unknown in the U.S. even though his Captain from Kopenick was a foreign film nominee for the 1956 Oscars. Even two English language films made for Universal, The Restless Years and A Stranger in my Arms are currently unavailable.

While the other German films about the impact of U.S. military bases are unavailable, it may be worth noting a handful of other films. Just one year earlier saw the release of the Elvis Presley vehicle, G.I. Blues, something of a fictionalized version of Presley's own time as a peacetime draftee in West Germany, with the base and soldiers as benign entities. The German-American Town without Pity (1961) was more serious, about four soldiers on trial for the rape of a German girl, while glossing over the cultural impact of the American military in Germany. It is the films of Japan that one can more frequently see action that takes place near military bases. Masaki Kobayashi's Black River (1957) may be the one Japanese film most similar to Kautner's in both subject matter and treatment.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:23 AM