Criterion Sunday 255: Opening Night (1977)

Coming the year after The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, this could be construed as another film about Cassavetes’ relationship to art and artistic practice — and that is certainly a major element in it — but after the very masculine energy of the previous film, this one refocuses the story once again on Gena Rowlands and becomes about her character Myrtle’s (not-entirely-)self-destruction. By that I mean that she, as a celebrated theatre actor, has the adulation and the awards, but she also has a coterie of people around her who are only too happy to enable her in her downward spiral, just so long as they can make some money off her along the way. Her trajectory is triggered by the death of a young fan, whose presence comes back to haunt her throughout, which gets her to contemplating her own mortality and ageing, and perhaps it’s also a little to do with having to perform boring bourgeois plays about families and relationships (which she doesn’t really have in the same way). Maybe that last one is my misreading, but Myrtle’s erratic behaviour (brought on by the way she’s constantly pushed by those around her) leads her to ditch much of the text of the play she’s in, during its small-town off-Broadway run, such that by the Broadway opening night of the title she and Cassavetes are riffing on something completely different (to the irritation of the playwright, the legendary Joan Blondell). This sequence is largely improvised, and it’s unclear to me whether we’re supposed to take it as a swipe at how theatre audiences will laugh at any old nonsense, or about how much the actors react against the original text, or just about a person breaking down and opening themselves up, but in any case it’s a potent story about the price of art.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Ben Gazzara speaks to Gena Rowlands at her home in the mid-2000s, discussing the film’s themes, the other actors, how it was made, and how annoyed Cassavetes got at being called an auteur. There’s another short piece where DoP/producer Al Ruban speaks about making the film and the way he talks about Cassavetes does sort of fit that description, but then there’s a lot about the way he specifically collaborated on his creations.
  • There are two fairly straightforward trailers that lean heavily on footage from the final performance of the play-within-the-film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographer Al Ruban; Starring Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Joan Blondell, John Cassavetes; Length 144 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 15 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 2001, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Friday 12 July 2019).

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Three on a Match (1932)

The odd title of this concise pre-Code film is a reference to a popular superstition that the third person to light their cigarette from a match would be cursed with bad luck, and indeed such turns out to be the case in this scenario as three friends from childhood grow up to lead quite different lives. There’s the bad girl Mary (played as an adult by Joan Blondell), the school swot Ruth (Bette Davis), and the most popular girl Vivian (Ann Dvorak), though part of the film’s appeal is that these youthful roles don’t define their adult lives. Then again, the film does offer moral judgement of a sort on Vivian, whose downfall is at the heart of the film; playing her, Dvorak shows a wonderful range, moving from loving mother to addled addict, and she even lends pathos to the rather strained crisis-of-conscience near the end that brings the film to its melodramatic conclusion. The narrative is structured in an episodic way that can be a little perfunctory at times, transitioning through the years with brief snatches of archival footage and some newspaper headlines to give context. However, at the heart of the film is the story of the three women and how they relate to each other across the years, and at this level it remains fresh and appealing.


© Warner Bros.

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Mervyn LeRoy | Writer Lucien Hubbard | Cinematographer Sol Polito | Starring Joan Blondell, Bette Davis, Ann Dvorak, Warren William | Length 63 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 15 May 2014

My Rating 3.5 stars very good

Night Nurse (1931)

A fascinating little pre-Code film, largely overlooked these days, but one which revels in its seedy criminal sub-plots and in which, tellingly, none of the characters ever seeks the help of the authorities to solve their problems. Lora (Barbara Stanwyck), whose only dream is to help people, manages to finagle her way into a nurse’s job by flirting with the right doctor, and her first job is to be rostered on the night shift, helping the chronically ill daughters of a wealthy family. She quickly discovers that something foul is afoot: the mother is only ever seen liquored up and partying, while the children’s doctor is a shady character with little interest in their health. Added to the mix is the black-liveried chauffeur (a clean-shaven Clark Gable), looking every bit the fascist footsoldier and with all the moral scruples that might suggest. Stanwyck gets to be a tough no-nonsense central character who is no-one’s stooge, though she falls into a wary relationship with bootlegger Mortie (Ben Lyon), who wins her heart in the end with some off-screen vigilante vengeance. The director, William Wellman, also has a propensity for showing his two nurses, Lora and Maloney (Joan Blondell), changing into their nurse’s uniforms, which would be leering if it weren’t all so tame by modern standards (though perhaps a little racier than the soon-to-be-enforced Production Code would allow for). Like many films of the period, it clocks in at a brisk running time, and is certainly worth looking out for.


© Warner Bros.

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director William A. Wellman | Writer Oliver H. P. Garrett (based on the novel by Grace Perkins [as Dora Macy]) | Cinematographer Barney McGill | Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell, Ben Lyon, Clark Gable | Length 72 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 11 May 2014

My Rating 3.5 stars very good

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.


© Warner Bros.

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
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

My Rating 4 stars excellent