The Morning After #29: January 10, 2011

A weekend of catching up on the Netflix discs I have been sitting on a few weeks as well as the completing of one television series and winding down with a brainless comedy.

So, here is what I watched this weekend:

THE QUIET MAN (1952)


John Ford was one of history’s most prolific and well respected directors. And while I’ll forever remain mystified as to why How Green Was My Valley was a better film than Citizen Kane, there is little denying his ability to capture small town life and people as they should be.

The Quiet Man is a quaint, slice-of-life film about self-retired American boxer Sean Thornton (John Wayne) who decides to return to his birthplace in Inisfree, Ireland to escape himself and return to the salt-of-the-earth living his family had come from. In purchasing his ancestral home from a wealthy spinster, he sets in motion a vengeful battle between himself and another noted local landowner, Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen) who happens to be brother to the handsome red head Sean falls in love with at first sight. Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara) lives up to the reputation of her fiery mane, obstinate, strong-willed and passionate.

Ford’s film is as much concerned with conveying life in a small Irish town as he is with the narrative thrust of his story. From the moment Sean arrives in Ireland, we are introduced to countless colorful citizens, including the gaggle of opinionated bystanders at the train station intent on trying to help him find Inisfree, but more interested in gabbing with one another, and also the drunken carriage driver (Barry Fitzgerald) who carts him off to the town. These are lively, believable people who embellish the colorful natural tableau across which the film is set. Despite the poor film-to-video transfer that I watched, it’s easy to see how beautiful the area of Ireland in which the film takes place is. From the supple green meadows to the vivid white homestead with its brazen emerald green doors, the film is a better Travelogue for the Irish countryside than a lot of Travelogues in evidence during the period.

Fitzgerald and McLaglen, and most of the rest of the cast, are caricatures to be sure, but they are lovable ones. Despite how stereotypical a lot of the performers are in the film, they are nevertheless a wonderful supporting cast for the film’s two leads. My opinion of John Wayne has not changed a lot in the last several films I’ve seen of his, but I can understand why he was so beloved by audiences of the period (and even still today). He has a commanding screen presence that dominates each scene he’s in. Choosing the perceived ideal of the American male to portray Sean Thornton was an inspired idea. Not only did he feel out of place, but he also felt strangely at home in the spartan world of traditions.

But the film would be nothing without Margaret O’Hara’s outstanding performance. Mary Kate is a role any great actress would have loved playing and I could easily have seen Katharine Hepburn, no stranger to strong female roles, in the part; but seeing O’Hara on the screen removes any idea that she could have been replaced. Her indelible work as the spirited, head-strong “spinster” is vibrant and commanding. And despite having a less visible career on the big screen as her co-star, she waltzes into each scene she shares with Wayne and manages to make him look less formidable in comparison.

It’s hard to pick a better John Ford film to represent the rest of his lengthy filmography, but The Quiet Man stands firmly alongside Stagecoach and The Grapes of Wrath as films that should define Ford at his best.

DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE (1932)


A classic, oft-told story, Dr. Jeykyll & Mr. Hyde found themselves in no better hands than director Rouben Mamoulian and Oscar winning actor Frederic March.

Dr. Jekyll, a conscientious scientist who wants to better understand the disconnect between good and evil, embarks on a stark journey of discovery when he uncovers the secret to unlocking his primitive side while his fiancee is away with her father who is trying to distance them from Jekyll’s incessant pursuit of marriage ahead of custom. Joining Frederic March in his dual role of man and monster is Miriam Hopkins who plays the seductive prostitute who draws the animalistic Mr. Hyde to her flat. Rose Hobart plays his intended Rose Carew and Halliwell Hobbes her father. Rounding out the cast are Holmes Herbert as Jekyll’s friend Dr. Lanyon and Edgar Norton as Jekyll’s butler Poole.

A great deal can be said about the physical transformation Frederic March goes through in order to play the ill-tempered Mr. Hyde. March shows us aspects of his inner psyche that are almost terrifying. While playing the mild-mannered Jekyll, March is calm, insightful and generous; when he becomes Mr. Hyde, jealousy, lust and anger each rear their ugly heads. It’s such a tour-de-force performance that it’s not surprising he was the only actor to win a lead Oscar for a role in a horror film for nearly sixty years (until Anthony Hopkins became only the second for The Silence of the Lambs). The rest of the cast is blissfully subservient to his talent. But the one man who holds more responsibility for the film being a success than March is the film’s director.

Rouben Mamoulian was a visionary. Not only was the superb initial transformation handled beautifully, the technique remained a mystery for decades before Mamoulian revealed all. His use of colored filters to match March’s makeup and thus slowly revealing his change of appearance was revolutionary, but would be replaced by a visual effects artist’s computer today. Yet, it wasn’t just this technique that defined Mamoulian’s revolutionary work for me. The use of tracking shots in the film as well as a long-term first person camera made for an engrossing experience. The entire first magical five minutes are a smorgasbord of newer techniques. You start out looking at the world through Jekyll’s eyes as he prepared to meet his lovely girlfriend at a party that evening. The scene where he stands checking himself out in the mirror is a delightful bit of camera trickery. It looks as if he’s seeing his own reflection in the mirror, yet he’s standing on the other side of a hole in the wild dressed to look like a mirror, complete with duplicated candles and other knickknacks.

It’s one of many outstanding scenes in the film. You not only get a sense of time and place, but watching it these 80 years later gives you a new appreciation of the strides great talents like Mamoulian made in the early years of film. This is a gem that cannot be tarnished by subsequent re-imaginings.

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957)


Tony Curtis had been a Hollywood player for some years, but this film gave him one of his juiciest roles to date. Second-billed to Burt Lancaster, but ostensibly the star, Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a press agent who never knows when to quit and tries to make a success of himself despite others’ attempts to prevent it. Lancaster plays J.J. Hunsecker, a popular columnist whose vitriolic pen can bolster or tear down anyone’s career. He and Falco have a tough relationship, both trying to use one another for their own ends and neither particularly liking the other.

J.J. wants Falco to arrange for the termination of his sister Susan’s (Susan Harrison) relationship with musician Steve Dallas (Marty Milner). However, in spite of his plans and Falco’s attempts to circuitously better his own life, J.J. can’t seem to part the two. Falco hatches a stellar plan to break the two up, but his machinations prove too capable and he threatens his own livelihood in spite of his successes.

The movie plays like a mystery thriller letting the audience attempt to piece together what will happen to all parties in the end. Will Falco succeed in bringing J.J. down while making a success of himself and will J.J. get Dallas out of his sister’s life.

The over-protective brother act wears thin really fast and Lancaster’s performance becomes grating rather quickly. While this is probably the best I’ve seen Curtis so far, he cannot overcome the tart barbs Lancaster throws out like they are the most colorful and impressive words ever written. However, everything said in the film comes off somewhat pretentious and seldom believable. Of course, that’s part of J.J.’s line of work and so it fits him perfectly and Falco seems to want J.J.’s job, so his dialogue is also rapid-fire brazen. Yet, neither character is particularly likable and whether either succeeds or not, I didn’t particularly care.

Despite all of my problems, many still consider this a great film. It has received countless praise in many circles, so perhaps it’s just a style of filmmaking and performance I won’t ever understand.

DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE (1941)


One of many remakes of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson novel, this 1941 edition has a star-studded cast, but lacks magic or inspiration and that’s partly because all of the inventiveness was claimed in the 1932 version.

Spencer Tracy takes on the role of noble scientist Henry Jekyll who believes that there is a trigger in the human mind that changes a man from good to evil. Along with that theory comes research trying to prove that he can separate and tame the beasts. However, as we all know, his attempts only manage to sever his own psyche and he creates his monstrous alternate personality Mr. Hyde. Ingrid Bergman plays the prostitute whom Hyde takes an interest in while Lana Turner takes on the role of the woman Dr. Jekyll is intent on marrying. Donald Crisp plays her father and Ian Hunter play’s Henry’s medical associate and friend. C. Aubrey Smith and Sara Allgood also appear.

The film lacks imagination. It has no spark. The early makeup for Mr. Hyde is barely adequate and the latter transformers pale in comparison to Mamoulian’s. The film acts as a terrific precursor of all the lame-brained Hollywood attempts to recreate the magic and mystique of classics in an effort to bring in new audiences. 70 years later, the same thing is still happening, and there’s no reason to believe it will ever stop.

Bergman is the only person watchable in this film. Her terrified woman of the night predates her effortless work in Gaslight and remains inferior to it. Tracy doesn’t fit the role very well and his Hyde doesn’t build much on Frederic March’s effortless portrayal nine years earlier.

STAN HELSING (2009)


I love spoofs for one reason: they are easy to watch, filled with mindless entertainment and seldom require me to write something insightful. Stan Helsing is the latest in a long line of big screen spoofs of recent years, this one from one of the original producers of Scary Movie in his directorial debut.

Stan Helsing is an unlucky video store clerk who is being pursued by a bevvy of trite slasher spoofs intent on killing him before he can destroy them. Along for the ride are rip-offs of Pinhead (from Hellraiser), Freddy Krueger (from A Nightmare on Elm Street), Jason Vorhees (from Friday the 13th II), Michael Myers (from Halloween), and Chucky (from Child’s Play). Helsing, along with three friends, find themselves lost and trapped in a quaint, gated city whose greatest claim to fame is the location of a famed studio back lot that burned down several decades prior and resulted in a series of creepy killings, perpetrated by the aforementioned slasher masters. Helsing is believed to be the long lost heir of acclaimed monster hunter Van Helsing and must come to terms with his new responsibilities and save the town from dire evil.

There isn’t much to talk about here, the performances are on par with every other spoof film of the last decade, meaning non-existent. Pretty faces and bodies are used to titillate a young male audience without any desire to educate them. It’s not a bad way to waste some time, but definitely nothing to write home about. The premise isn’t even the lamest thing about the film, it’s the rather simplistic depiction of horror characters spoofed nonsensically. Why Pinhead has a bunch of non-pins poking out of his head or why Freddy wears a giant watch and fakes being a rapper-styled coolcat are part of the many frustrating elements of the film. Normally, I find more enjoyment in these kinds of films, but when the funniest line comes 30 minutes into the film (“You know what, Mia? I’ve been holding something back all night, so I’m gonna go ahead and say it now: That doesn’t make any sense, you stupid bitch.”), it’s a hard ride to the utterly moronic ending.

VERONICA MARS, season #3

It is no wonder to me now why this show was cancelled after the third season. What made the show in the least bit compelling was almost stripped away. While class struggles made a small impact on the show, it was mostly just a glorified smart girl goes to college season than anything else. Even Kristen Bell seemed to fade in her performances this season. She continued her normal snarky attitude, but something was hollow in it. She had very little to explore emotionally, having moved on to a single boyfriend who has a history of commitment issues and then is later pushed into a romantic relationship that seemed more narratively convenient than necessary.

On top of all of that, the great cast that flowed through the first two seasons were left wholly by the wayside as we got only a few cameo appearances throughout the show instead of regular appearances. Towards the end of the season, we got a bit more visibility from them, but for the most part, they remained part of the background leaving the audience with only Veronica and her father to care about.

And to make matters worse, not only were the mysteries less compelling this year, the decision to break the show almost in half with two major story arcs left a lot of the suspense behind. What made the first to seasons so interesting was getting a slow leak of new information as the season progressed until the major denouement in the final two episodes. This time, you got nine or ten episodes of building and one or two episodes of resolution. While the transition between stories was handled well, I would have rather had two competing season-long stories to watch than a bisected one.

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