Criterion Sunday 431: The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

The Criterion release of this film has a commentary by Scorsese and Coppola, and you can understand when you watch it what might appeal to them. Would that every era of cinema had such a colourful and inventive spectacle and I can see that children exposed to this in the 1940s or 50s might have had little to compare it to in terms of the effects it achieves. There’s a gloriously saturated colour scheme in the filming and the production design and costuming that heightens the magical wonder of the storytelling. It’s just that watching now makes for a more problematic experience and it’s not that I’m out here calling for any ‘cancellations’ or whatever your term du jour is when you read this for the idea that maybe art has certain responsibilities. After all, things that seem a bit racist now (or orientalist or just a bit misguided, depended on your point of view) might have been equally so back then, it’s just that there was an unexamined expectation that putting dark makeup on very white English actors and having them enact Middle Eastern-set stories was perfectly fine and nothing to be concerned about. Of course, compared to some contemporary films, there was certainly worse racism in othering depictions of such parts of the world and their people, but that doesn’t excuse what at best just seems a little painful now, however well-meaning it might have been. There’s plenty to enjoy here, and those who find it easier to tap into the childlike spirit at play will be rewarded more handsomely than those hatchet-faced killjoys like myself who’d rather not watch fully-grown and very English gentlemen (along with a German, an Indian and an African-American) play dress-up as Arabs.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan [as well as Alexander Korda, Zoltan Korda and William Cameron Menzies, uncredited]; Writers Lajos Biró and Miles Malleson; Cinematographer Georges Périnal [as “George Perinal”]; Starring Conrad Veidt, John Justin, Sabu, June Duprez, Miles Malleson; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 27 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 373: The Proud Valley (1940) and Native Land (1942)

The director of The Proud Valley (the first film on this disc) — who was a descendent of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson — died the year after it was released at the remarkably young age of 28, but he shows a sure sense of direction in this work set amongst Welsh miners at the cusp of war. Of course, the star is the African-American expatriate Paul Robeson, by this point no longer particularly welcome back in his home country, and who had already had most of a decade working in Europe to various success. This film escapes the jingoistic colonialism and condescension of Sanders of the River (1935) and is much more in-line with the kind of noble depiction of the Black American that Robeson was far more interested in conveying. Indeed, racism becomes very much a minor issue amongst this group of workers — when they’re down the mines, after all, they’re all coated in coal dust — and the film is about the small town’s attempt to reopen their mine and restore work to the struggling community above all else. In that sense, it has a fair amount of feeling for the struggle of working class people across racial divides that would certainly seem to become rarer in British culture thereafter.

The final film on the set, the American film Native Land, certainly isn’t perfect — it pitches itself somewhat as a documentary about the union activism, its suppression by forces of government and capitalism, and its triumphant resurgence, but intersperses the documentary portions (narrated by Paul Robeson) with re-enactments of incidents in the struggle for union rights. These bits are a little bit stagy, but still valuable and interesting, though certainly I’ve seen persuasive critiques at the overall tone, a sort of patriotic nationalism that ties in the Declaration of Independence to labour struggles — and to be fair I can somewhat understand that impulse to cast the union as a patriotic institution deserving of vigorous defence. It also begs the question of whose land this is, and who exactly is native to it, and while the answer is presumably the honest worker, one does wonder at the lack of nuance around indigenous rights and anti-racist struggles. Still, it’s flying the flag for a progressive agenda, and for the power of the unions to affect our lives in a positive way (which they have historically done and continue to do in many cases), especially against the organising of fascists and their sympathisers, a theme that sadly has not aged.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

The Proud Valley (1940)
Director Pen Tennyson; Writers Fredda Brilliant, Louis Golding, Herbert Marshall; Cinematographers Glen MacWilliams and Roy Kellino; Starring Paul Robeson, Edward Chapman, Simon Lack, Rachel Thomas; Length 76 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Thursday 19 November 2020.

Native Land (1942)
Directors Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand; Writers Hurwitz and Ben Maddow; Cinematographer Strand; Starring Paul Robeson; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Sunday 22 November 2020.

Criterion Sunday 135: Rebecca (1940)

What a film, eh? Rebecca feels in many ways like the ur-text for every filmed gothic melodrama where people stand in gloomy rooms withholding secrets from one other, whilst dolefully looking out of frame clutching some treasured object. It’s all gripping novelistic stuff that most people will probably be familiar with already — a naïve, unnamed young woman (“I” in the novel) marries a wealthy landowner and finds she can never live up to her unseen but omnipresent (not least in the title) predecessor. It’s Hitchcock’s first proper Hollywood film, even if still largely set in England, and it’s made with panache, employing a fluid, gliding camera in glorious monochrome. Joan Fontaine pitches her role just the right side of coquetry, and Laurence Olivier has the gruff ways of a Mr Darcy type.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock; Writers Joan Harrison and Robert E. Sherwood (based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier); Cinematographer George Barnes; Starring Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson; Length 130 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 27 November 2016.

Criterion Sunday 78: The Bank Dick (1940)

W.C. Fields is one of those distictively American comic performers who have always passed me by, having not been brought up on the brand of vaudevillian comedy of pratfalls and slapstick that he seems to fit into. Indeed, another great troupe in that lineage (the Three Stooges) is represented here by a small role for Shemp Howard as a bartender. It’s a comedy style that really emphasises physical grace, not something you’d expect from a man with his diminutive stature and alcoholic persona (which I gather rather carried over into his personal life), but Fields is excellent at these, no doubt due to a lifetime of stage training which began with juggling. This 1940 feature film also incorporates a number of tropes that are repeated throughout his oeuvre as elements of his comic persona, including a dismissive attitude to people of other races (luckily a fairly minor part of this film) and a strong dislike for children — though they tend to get one over on Fields’s protagonists in the end. As to the film itself, which follows the fortunes of one Egbert Sousé (who is indeed a souse, but not pronounced that way) as he unwittingly foils a bank robbery and quickly finds himself installed as a security guard, it’s a loose structure to hang a series of gags and setpieces. However, that needn’t be a bad thing for a comedy, and there are indeed plenty of laughs, though quite how you’ll take them depends on your taste for Fields’s work.

Criterion Extras: Nothing is included on the disc aside from the film, but there’s a printed essay with a bit of context for the new viewer.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Edward F. Cline; Writer W. C. Fields [as “Mahatma Kane Jeeves”]; Cinematographer Milton R. Krasner; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 72 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 February 2016.

Christmas in July (1940)

Preston Sturges is fairly acclaimed as a master of screwball comedy with a penchant for narrative experimentation in films like Sullivan’s Travels and The Lady Eve (both 1941), but even amongst his oeuvre, it seems like Christmas in July, his second feature film as director, is underrated. Which is a pity because it has two qualities I greatly admire in a comedy: laughs; and a concise running time. A lot of filmmakers probably think their films need more of everything, but the 67 minutes of this film proves quite the opposite — though Sturges does cram his scenes with quite a lot of action and an abundance of plot.

We start, however, with our protagonists, Jimmy (Dick Powell) and Betty (Ellen Drew), sharing a NYC rooftop view while talking about Jimmy’s dreams of winning a contest, any contest — he habitually enters them in the hopes of making a fortune and a break for himself — though at the moment the film begins, he’s specifically focused on the slogan contest for Maxford House Coffee. The couple live together, unmarried and in relative poverty, wondering at gadgets that make the most of a single-room apartment. In any case, things snowball from there, and the couple experience ups and downs, all borne along at the whim of those who have money, but exemplifying the caprice of capitalism and the way it confers moral authority on those who are presumed to be wealthy.

The film is a masterclass in tight narrative structure, conveying all kinds of details about their lives with great economy, revelling in the warmth of their extended tenement community, and poking fun at the self-important manager classes. It’s also, as is not unusual either for Sturges or for films made during this wartime period, partial to a bit of sentimentality. However, Sturges never wallows in it, and there’s always a sharp riposte even after a period of relative mushiness. And along the way, Jimmy repeats his absurd winning slogan so many times that it goes from being idiotic to maybe-actually-good-who-knows, proving the words of Jimmy’s boss that he hasn’t a clue whether any idea is any good unless someone else says so. So perhaps it’s because Christmas in July didn’t win any awards that it’s underrated? In any case, it’s easily worth 67 minutes of your time.

Christmas in July (1940)CREDITS
Director/Writer Preston Sturges (based on his play A Cup of Coffee); Cinematographer Victor Milner; Starring Dick Powell, Ellen Drew; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 12 February 2016.