Criterion Sunday 583: The Four Feathers (1939)

Look I don’t know, I feel like even attempting a critique is to invite the ire of the ‘political correctness gone mad’ brigade (who are nowadays known as the ‘cancel culture wokification’ mob or some such similar word salad). After all, there’s plenty cinematically to appreciate in this derring-do story of a man confronting his own lack of nerve and doing right by his friends. It’s filmed, in colour, in some spectacular desert settings that although in Academy ratio wouldn’t be bettered until Lawrence of Arabia, and there are some solid central themes. And yet! I’m sorry! But it is extremely difficult to watch plummy-voiced English toffs play dress-up at colonial war doing all their rah-rah isn’t British military discipline great and haven’t we (unironically) brought up some fine fellows with the merest patina of anti-war gesturing and then an entire sub-plot about how one of them pretends to be a disabled Arab, affecting a dead-eyed dullard expression under heavy beard and makeup to properly fit in with the imperialist view of the local riff raff, and accept it. For all that I can admire certain aspects of the film, it’s aggressively “of its era” to an extent that makes it difficult to really put up with.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Zoltan Korda; Writers R.C. Sherriff, Lajos Biró and Arthur Wimperis (based on the novel by A.E.W. Mason); Cinematographer Georges Perinal; Starring John Clements, Ralph Richardson, C. Aubrey Smith, June Duprez; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 29 October 2022.

Criterion Sunday 559: The Mikado (1939)

There were two notable Broadway stagings of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta in the year this film was made, The Swing Mikado and The Hot Mikado, both all-Black casts which reimagined the text on a less specific island than Japan. I have no doubt that both would present problems to modern viewers, had they been preserved in anything more than audio excerpts from radio and a few still images, but instead we have this document. It has lavish, Technicolor staging, and I can’t dispute that it looks pretty lovely, rich and deeply saturated colours, flamboyant costumes and a bunch of actors who are largely familiar with the traditions of Gilbert and Sullivan. I’m not a massive fan of these two’s work, though Mike Leigh’s 1999 film about them (Topsy-Turvy) is one I really like, that gets into what it is to make an artistic collaboration and to deal with delivering a consumer-focused product to a popular audience. This, however, is a curio, and not one that exactly meshes with modern tastes. Of course, its Japan is a confected one, based on a vague interest in Japanoiserie and a vague idea about Orientalism, so yes it feels decidedly racist, but you get the sense (perhaps more so from Leigh’s film) that it’s only an affectation, as it’s really about a bunch of white Home Counties English people putting on a play, and on that level it’s probably quite fun. But it is hard, very hard, to watch it and to focus on the staging and the joy of performance, and not on the fact that they are all playing ridiculous Japanese stereotypes. But the colour and the costuming and the sets are lavish.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • One of the extras is a short deleted scene of a song that was excised (“I’ve Got a Little List”), perhaps for its topical political references (to a certain Mr Hitler), or maybe more so for its racial slur in the lyrics, because even in 1939 some things were just a step too far.
  • Surviving audio clips are presented from the two African-American productions of the musical mentioned in my opening sentence above, two songs from each, and though one cannot see them, you immediately get the sense that perhaps each would have made for a fine spectacle and ones far more worth preserving than this.
  • There’s a short, silent film of The Mikado (1926) included, which is obviously missing a key component of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera on which it’s based, but it’s there to give a sense of Charles Ricketts’ new costumes for the Savoy production of the long-running show, which draws more heavily on authentic Japanese costuming. Whether or not that’s the right direction to go for such a ridiculous piece of Orientalism is unclear to me, but the short preserves some little snippets of the D’Oyly Carte company’s performers of the 1920s, and of course those costumes (with a short sequence showing the designer at work, discarded cigarette butts and all).
  • A fascinating extra is a half-hour piece of two academics (Josephine Lee and Ralph MacPhail Jr.) speaking to this production, as well as to a history of productions of Gilbert and Sullivan, and both make some excellent points, one from a specifically Asian-American perspective, but both with a wealth of knowledge.
  • Mike Leigh gives his opinions too, and he certainly has positive things to say in the 1939 film’s favour, as well as plenty of critiques. Still, it’s interesting to hear a fellow film director’s take on a film production, even if he acknowledges it’s more of a curio now than anything else.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Victor Schertzinger; Writer Geoffrey Toye (based on the opera by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan); Cinematographers Bernard Knowles and William V. Skall; Starring Kenny Baker, Martyn Green, Sydney Granville, Jean Colin, John Barclay; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 31 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 516: Stagecoach (1939)

It’s pretty difficult to watch any classic movie with fresh eyes and I can’t pretend that I did that here. It’s a film I’ve seen before screened in a film class, and it has that patina of ‘classic’ that is pretty difficult to move past at times, especially as it’s been emulated so often in succeeding years, such that it’s difficult in my mind for me to think about old Westerns without thinking about a bunch of characters sharing a coach across dangerous frontier territory controlled by Native American raiding parties. That last part is of course the bit that has aged the least well, and the most I can say for it is that at least the Native Americans aren’t played by white guys in heavy makeup, a small consolation for what is still a pretty thankless part of old Westerns. However, that central chamber drama between the various passengers is played out remarkably well, and John Wayne still looks young and fresh-faced as a ne’er-do-well looking to reform himself and settle down. John Ford was a veteran director even by 1939, and he controls it all beautifully well, without flashiness but with plenty of clear vision as to what’s most effective on the screen. Well worth watching again, and perhaps I’ll try and see this on a big screen before another 20 years passes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Ford; Writer Dudley Nichols (based on the short story “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Claire Trevor, John Wayne, George Bancroft, Andy Devine, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 13 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS at university, Wellington, May 2000).

Criterion Sunday 320: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

Perhaps this just plays much more strongly to American audiences, but the swelling orchestral music that comes in at key moments makes it pretty clear what a fundamentally honourable man this simple Abraham Lincoln was, even when he was a young man just starting out in the law. This would be nothing more than hagiography (or perhaps a superhero origin story) were it not for Henry Fonda’s performance and John Ford’s guiding hand that somehow keeps it from turning too mawkish, focusing instead on the justice he wrings from a case of two young lads getting into a dust-up with a local ruffian (and Deputy Sheriff). Still, simple values isn’t the same as simplistic, and for all its overwrought melodrama, this is a canny film about a national hero made at a time of global crisis.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Ford; Writer Lamar Trotti; Cinematographers Bert Glennon and Arthur C. Miller; Starring Henry Fonda, Alice Brady, Marjorie Weaver, Ward Bond; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Tuesday 26 May 2020.

Criterion Sunday 216: La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939)

Ah, “the game”, it’s a terrible thing isn’t it? A lot of “all-time classics” can seem a little tired with age and endless plaudits, but La Règle du jeu, while it has elements that are very much of its era, still seems to hold up. It can be as furious as a slapstick at times, but underlying it all is this sense of the decadence of the bourgeois: switching partners, shooting animals, and beating each other up with no sense of consequences involved at all. Even when one of the servants, a gamekeeper, goes berserk with a shotgun, everyone treats it as just a bit of fun for a party. The magic is that Renoir, who stars as one of wealthy set, orchestrates this all without the sense of simplistic judgement or finger-wagging. It’s evident what’s going on, but there’s an indulgence to it that I think would be difficult to present today when observing the same kind of people. The staging, too, is fantastic, with some deep shots recalling Tati’s best work, and fluid sequence shots that track around all the cameras with lithe choreography. It still holds up.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir; Writers Renoir and Carl Koch; Cinematographer Jean Bachelet; Starring Nora Gregor, Marcel Dalio, Paulette Dubost, Roland Toutain, Jean Renoir; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 25 August 1999 (and earlier on laserdisc at the university library, Wellington, September 1997, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Monday 14 May 2018).