Criterion Sunday 457: Magnificent Obsession (1954)

I don’t know enough about the career of German expatriate director Douglas Sirk to be certain, but this feels like the first film of his imperial phase of filmmaking, or at least an important milestone in defining that peculiar style of gaudily-coloured, stylistically heightened melodramas of the late-50s, often produced by Ross Hunter and starring Rock Hudson. It’s not to my mind the equal of All That Heaven Allows or Written on the Wind (or the monochrome Tarnished Angels) but it orchestrates a thrillingly tangled web of obsessions pretty well.

Jane Wyman plays Helen (or Mrs Phillips), a woman indirectly widowed due to wealthy playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson)’s misadventures, which prompts him to reform himself and, via a series of ridiculous plot contortions, win the love of Helen (sure) and restore her eyesight (don’t ask) by becoming a world-leading surgeon (look, okay, yes). To say that last half hour is a rush of absurdity heaped upon absurdity is hardly to deny the central power of the film as a full-throated melodrama, and indeed Sirk is attentive to the power differentials between characters (even if Helen’s eventual acceptance of her feelings toward Bob — who initially rather dubiously romances her under a different name while she’s blind — feels a little bit perfunctory). Still, if you like Sirk’s style, it’s all done with an assertive sense of style.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is the bonus disc dedicated to a presentation of John M. Stahl’s original 1935 adaptation of the same book (written by Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman and George O’Neil, cinematography John J. Mescall, starring Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne). I’ve seen a few of Stahl’s films as director (mostly at Il Cinema Ritrovato) but still don’t feel I really have a grasp on him. That a handful of his films, like this one, were remade by Douglas Sirk is probably unfortunate to Stahl’s own standing but I just wonder if these early melodramas would ever make quite the same impression as Sirk’s gloriously overwrought 50s pieces. I’m certainly surprised at how much is similar in both, mostly all the ridiculous plot twists, but while this is a fine Irene Dunne performance, I am nevertheless somewhat underwhelmed by the sneering arrogant Bob Merrick of Robert Taylor, the poor man’s James Stewart as far as I can tell (both started around this time, so maybe 30s Hollywood just liked that look). Where Sirk brought the saturated colour and equally saturated string section, this plays a little more austerely, largely as a morality play of Taylor grappling with his conscience over the way things have played out and resolving to become a better man. A likeable film without the obvious hooks of Sirk’s but probably that’s down to me.
  • There are a couple of short ten-minute pieces paying tribute to this film (and Sirk) by Allison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow, both of which are effusive in their praise and interesting in terms of each’s own filmmaking, even if neither strikes one as particularly Sirkian.
  • The screenwriter Robert Blees also speaks a bit about his work on the film as the primary writer (there are a lot of credits, including the writers on Stahl’s own film) but clearly Blees was more attuned to what Sirk and his producer Ross Hunter wanted.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Douglas Sirk; Writers Robert Blees and Wells Root (based on the screenplay by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman, itself based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas); Cinematographer Russell Metty; Starring Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Barbara Rush, Agnes Moorehead; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 1 August 1999 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Monday 30 August 2021).

Criterion Sunday 372: Sanders of the River (1935) and Jericho (1937)

At this remove, of 85 years now, it’s fairly clear that Sanders of the River is condescending paternalistic colonialist propaganda about the civilising influence of the British in their conquest of Africa, specifically among the inland tribes of Nigeria. There are sequences of tribal dances and customs that feels at times close to ethnographic documentary, but it’s all allied to a plot that is just insidiously insistent that Africans can’t govern themselves without the gentle guiding help (and gunboats when necessary) of the British. It’s remarkable then that Paul Robeson agreed to be in this, though by his account it was a different film until late in the editing process. There’s also a fine role for Nina Mae McKinney as his wife, and though neither feels particularly convincing as a Nigerian, it’s clear too that the film has only the most surface of interests in Africa (including a few sequences of dancing women that presumably got by the 1930s censors for their, er, National Geographic ethnographic interest), because the prominence of Leslie Banks’s bland colonial administrator Sanders destabilises the whole thing. Still, for all that I dislike it, it certainly is interesting when viewed in the context of Robeson’s career, and that’s the way that Criterion presents it, alongside Jericho of two years later.

That, of course, is part of the interest in Criterion’s Paul Robeson boxset: his career is a fascinating one, and it wasn’t long after American silent films like Body and Soul before he found more opportunities on the big screen in European productions, with a number of British films in the 1930s. Jericho follows an unhappy experience making Sanders of the River, and gives him a stronger lead role. He plays the titular character (whose full name is Jeremiah Jackson), a sailor during World War I who disobeys his superior officer to rescue some trapped men, accidentally killing the officer in the process. He is court-martialled but escapes, and, in the tortuous way of movie plots, ends up taking up a new life as a leader amongst the Tuareg people in the deserts of North Africa. It’s an interesting portrait of camaraderie amongst Black and white men during wartime, and about the possibility of personal redemption for Jericho, who is essentially a good man and understood as such throughout the film, despite what happened. He gets a slightly annoying American sidekick on his journey to the Tuareg (Wallace Ford), and the final resolution with a fellow soldier who took the blame for his escape (Henry Wilcoxon), doesn’t quite have the emotional heft it probably needs, but it’s a solid role for Robeson and he gets the chance to exercise his vocal cords on a few occasions too.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

Sanders of the River (1935)
Director Zoltán Korda; Writers Lajos Bíró and Jeffrey Dell (based on stories by Edgar Wallace); Cinematographers Osmond Borradaile, Louis Page and Georges Périnal; Starring Paul Robeson, Leslie Banks, Nina Mae McKinney; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Sunday 15 November 2020.

Jericho (aka Dark Sands, 1937)
Director Thornton Freeland; Writers George Barraud and Walter Futter; Cinematographer John W. Boyle; Starring Paul Robeson, Henry Wilcoxon, Wallace Ford; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Saturday 14 November 2020.

Three Films from the 1930s by Mikio Naruse: Wife! Be Like a Rose! (1935), The Road I Travel with You (1936) and Avalanche (1937)

There’s a lot of great Japanese cinema of the past and most of the famous names kept up a prodigious output of films, of which only a handful of ‘masterworks’ tend to get any kind of release (at least in the West). The great director Mikio Naruse, for example, has one film in the Criterion collection (1960’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs) as well as an Eclipse boxset of his four surviving silent films from the early-1930s, but otherwise is only known for a few 1950s films like Sound of the Mountain and Floating Clouds. However, given he made around 3-5 films every year, as you can see on his filmography, there’s a lot to watch and very few places to do so. Luckily, some kind soul has thought to upload a number of them to YouTube, albeit in fairly poor video quality (presumably from VHS rips), of which I’ve already reviewed one film, the biopic Tochuken Kumoemon (1936). I would love to see Naruse’s work on the big screen in a retrospective, but even Kurosawa rarely gets this kind of treatment so I suspect my chance to do so will be a long time coming (if I haven’t missed it already). In the meantime, here are a few of those 1930s sound films.

Continue reading “Three Films from the 1930s by Mikio Naruse: Wife! Be Like a Rose! (1935), The Road I Travel with You (1936) and Avalanche (1937)”

Top Hat (1935)

Wrapping up my several weeks catching up on my favourite films I saw for the first time in 2019, is this Astaire-Rogers musical, generally considered to be their best collaboration and certainly the most famous of them all. It’s a delightful attempt to recreate some of the Lubitsch touch (with some uncredited inspiration taken from Hungarian plays of the era, which fits in with the European-ness of the whole undertaking), and it moves along with gay abandon.


I do not love a mistaken identity plot, and it was probably a tired device even in 1935, but somehow this film manages to make it almost acceptable, though it remains a source of great frustration every time someone fails to say their name and the film gets into some huge contortions trying to keep the whole thing going. And yet! Of course it is delightful, for there is dancing. Fred Astaire plays Jerry, a professional dancer, something of a big name who finds himself in (some weird cinematic form of) London to star in Horace (Edward Everett Horton)’s stage show, a dramatic conceit that’s quickly forgotten about when… Jerry falls in love with Ginger Rogers’s Dale (not playing a character who is a professional dancer, just a character who happens to be really good at dancing) and must fly off to (an even weirder cinematic soundstage recreation of) Venice to woo her. There are all kinds of misunderstandings wrapped up with this convoluted plot, among which one that leads to Horace being punched in the face by his wife Madge (Helen Broderick, who is, by the way, a comic highlight along with Erik Rhodes as the archly self-regarding Beddini) but the writing keeps it all tight and moving along swiftly. Ginger’s dresses are also particularly on point, and the whole thing is, to use a term which was then used rather more casually (but nonetheless aptly), a gay affair. Nice to see, too, that Eric Blore’s valet Bates uses they/them pronouns.

Top Hat film posterCREDITS
Director Mark Sandrich; Writer Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott; Cinematographer David Abel; Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Helen Broderick, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 30 December 2019.

Criterion Sunday 56: The 39 Steps (1935)

It may not be the equal of some of director Alfred Hitchcock’s later works, but this early espionage thriller has plenty to recommend it in terms of propulsively silly plot dynamics, as Robert Donat’s fairly ordinary (albeit refined and elegant) bloke Richard is drawn into shenanigans at a music hall by bumping into a glamorous spy, who is soon murdered, but not before revealing a plot that he can help in exposing. This leads him into what is essentially an extended chase scene that takes up the rest of the movie as he heads north to Scotland, along the way encountering the even more elegant (and blonde, of course) Pamela, played by Madeleine Carroll, who believes him about as much as everyone else he meets — which is to say not at all. Then again, he does have a tendency to be a bit controlling, forcing himself on more than one woman, before scolding her when he’s been rebuffed — the classic Hitchcock hero, in other words. Aside from that, it’s all good fun, with plenty of hints towards comedy and some surprise plot twists. Good for a rainy afternoon, I suspect, and it may well be more unaffectedly enjoyable than much of Hitchcock’s more revered later output.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Among the extras is a 24-minute documentary Hitchcock: The Early Years (1999) made for British TV. As you might expect from the title, it covers Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood films which he made in the UK. At this length, it’s all fairly clipped, moving from his early years in the silent film system through to his more fully-realised 1930s work and is a solid introduction to some of his themes and traits, starting to develop even this early in his career.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock; Writers Charles Bennett and Ian Hay (based on the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan); Cinematographer Bernard Knowles; Starring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 10 December 2015 (and later on Blu-ray at home, London, Friday 24 April 2020).

February 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in February which I didn’t review in full.

Big Hero 6 (2014, USA)
Bride of Frankenstein (1935, USA)
Kawachi Karumen (Carmen from Kawachi) (1966, Japan)
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988, USA)
Lifeforce (1985, USA)
Lovelace (2013, USA)
La Reine Margot (1994, France/Italy)
The Selfish Giant (2013, UK)
Somersault (2004, Australia)
Stop Making Sense (1984, USA)

Continue reading “February 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up”