Criterion Sunday 543: Modern Times (1936)

I am, if I’m being realistic, more than halfway through my life, which for someone who watches as many films as I do, is late to be getting into Charlie Chaplin. Of his features, I’ve only seen A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), which is probably not considered the classic way to start (his last film, although it’s certainly interesting for its era). But Modern Times holds up: a lot of its critiques of workplace relations and management pressure hardly seem to have aged at all, even if some of the technology it imagines is rather fanciful. The comedy is focused mostly into those sequences with the machines — Chaplin’s Tramp on the assembly line, getting sucked into the cogs, and doing a variety of pratfalls around the factory. However, it does feel far more strongly as if Chaplin is interested in social commentary, as well as finding an emotional thread with his relationship with the similarly marginalised Paulette Goddard’s “Gamin” character (she’s also Chaplin’s real-life wife of the time, and though 20 years younger than him is at least in her 20s for a change, even if she’s playing a juvenile delinquent). Overall it has a clarity to its comedic setups that focuses attention on the mistreatment of labour and the fallout of the Depression on people in America, with an undercurrent of poverty and desperation that I think sharpens some of the satire. I think it will take me a little while to deepen my appreciation of Chaplin, though, and so I look forward to seeing more of his classics as my Criterion project goes on.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Charlie Chaplin; Cinematographers Ira H. Morgan and Roland Totheroh; Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 12 June 2022.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

I don’t profess to know too much about the so-called “pre-Code era” of Hollywood, though I have a book about it that I mean to read, especially urgent now that the BFI is doing a retrospective of many of these films. What I do know is that for a brief period between the start of the sound era and the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 (a sort of voluntary self-censorship by the major studios), there was a brief flourishing of films with some rather darker and more adult themes and a view on life that didn’t always reinforce cultural prejudices or end happily for the ‘good guys’.

For Gold Diggers’ part, its place in this era comes not from any kind of boldly proto-feminist message — no surprise given the title, though its female leads are all strong-willed and get what they want, which certainly provides some small corrective — but in its bitterly sardonic take on its Depression-era setting. It’s big-budget escapism, sure, but it doesn’t try to efface just what tolls living in poverty sometimes took (even if the actresses’ shared apartment is rather swanky). The big closing number, “Remember My Forgotten Man”, is rousing and beautifully moving — though narratively, it feels like a quite different film — and shows First World War heroes reduced to beggars and bums. Elsewhere there are hints at prostitution being a option to make ends meet for some of the ‘gold diggers’ we see gathered around Broadway impresario Barney Hopkins, desperate for a part in his new show.

Three of those actresses are the leads here, and share an apartment. There’s Polly, the earnest one (Ruby Keeler), Carol the glamorous blonde (Joan Blondell), and Trixie the shrewdly self-interested comic actor (Aline MacMahon). The plot itself follows the putting-on-a-show narrative and throws in some love interests (or ‘gold digging’ interests, as far as Trixie is concerned at least), which all resolve themselves in comically perfunctory manner at the end, as uptight plutocrat Lawrence (Warren William) wrestles fairly snappily with his feelings towards Carol.

What really sets apart the film is of course the Busby Berkeley-choreographed musical numbers. I’ve mentioned the closing number already, while the opener (“We’re in the Money”) kicks things off in grand style, suggesting glamorous escapism from the country’s financial woes with Ginger Rogers singing directly into camera as dancing girls clad in costumes made of gold coins swirl around her, before making it clear the bitter irony when the cops show up midway through to close things down and take away all the costumes due to (what else?) lack of money. Most fascinating is “Pettin’ in the Park”, a weirdly surreal number that depicts a refreshingly broad cross-section of people in the aforesaid park, before introducing a dwarf playing a lecherous baby, and an iron corset-clad Polly having her clothes prised off with a tin opener. By comparison, the other big number (“The Shadow Waltz”) just seems like extra padding, though its chorus line wielding neon-lit violins certainly makes for an arresting image.

There’s so much going on in this film, it’s hard for me to find any particular moral coherence, but such is often the way with Hollywood’s spectacles. It offers a sardonic commentary on the tolls of the Depression and Prohibition, while keeping things amorally snapping along. Its narrative of three women triumphing by exploiting the men around them is one that would be repeated in a number of pre-Code films of the era, but then there are the musical numbers which choreograph an almost endless line of flamboyant chorines, so maybe it’s the filmmakers who are the gold diggers and we the audience their willing victims. In any case, it’s a high-water mark of the Hollywood musical and a glorious tribute to Busby Berkeley’s art.

Gold Diggers of 1933 film posterCREDITS
Director Mervyn LeRoy; Writers Erwin S. Gelsey and James Seymour (based on the play The Gold Diggers by Avery Hopwood); Cinematographer Sol Polito; Starring Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Warren William; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Friday 9 May 2014.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

At their worst, the Coen Brothers can come across as dilettantish, with an air of superiority to their characters (who often seem little more than caricatures), and it would surely be possible to argue that they’ve shown this hand in O Brother. They’ve certainly marshalled a whole host of period references to the 1930s into a comic book confection to little lasting effect. And yet I have a warmth of feeling towards this film that derives primarily from the music, not to mention the gorgeous widescreen Cinemascope photography and the easy affability of George Clooney as a lead actor. I don’t think any of this makes the film less shallow, but it does make me more fondly disposed towards it.

Certainly its basis on the Odyssey doesn’t add any depth. George Clooney plays Ulysses Everett McGill, a convict on a chain gang, who, with help from two fellow convicts (played by John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson), is trying to get home to his wife Penny (Holly Hunter). There are many other references to famous characters and scenes from Homer’s story which show up in passing (the Lotus Eaters, the Sirens, the Cyclops, at least one suitor, and a deus ex machina of sorts), but it’s a sort of Cliff’s Notes transposition that provides a bit of passing interest along the way for these three escapees from a chain gang. The rest of the characters and situations are scavenged equally superficially from popular culture: a blues musician who’s sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads (Tommy Johnson, though the detail of the hellhound that the ‘devil’/sheriff has with him seems more Robert Johnson); George ‘Babyface’ Nelson, the bank robber; a Ku Klux Klan rally; some corrupt good ol’ boy politicians; some soulful black men; a little recording shack out in the middle of nowhere; and so on.

Moreover, much of the feeling of the film, not to mention its title, is derived from Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941), wherein a Hollywood producer with a background in knockabout humour wants to make a social problem movie called O Brother, Where Art Thou?, dealing with the plight of ordinary folk in the Great Depression. Perhaps the idea at the core of the Coen brothers’ film is that this is the film that character would have turned out, and if so, it’s appropriately shallow. There were certainly many inequalities and brutalities in this period, but it’s all so much comedy window-dressing for the Coens; this is a cartoon and, at times, a corny one at that (the escaped convicts even steal a pie from a windowsill) and needs to be taken in that vein.

Its greatest pleasures then are in the luminous widescreen cinematography by Roger Deakins, tweaked in post-production into a subtly sepia-tinted antique hue, and above all, the wonderful soundtrack. Perhaps the soundtrack album, or the documentary concert film Down from the Mountain (2000) derived from it, are really the best way to experience this, but there’s certainly a generous use of music and performance in the Coens’ film. In fact, it all builds to a big show, with Ulysses’ motley band (under the sobriquet the Soggy Bottom Boys) a dab hand at old time melodies it turns out.

If I’ve almost talked myself out of liking the film, I can’t ultimately deny that I enjoy its broad comic touches and above all the images and music, and on that level, it’s successful.


CREDITS
Director Joel Coen; Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (based on the epic poem Ὀδύσσεια The Odyssey by Homer Ὅμηρος); Cinematographer Roger Deakins; Starring George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Friday 4 May 2001 (and on TV at holiday apartment, Rovinj, Saturday 1 June 2013).