Soaring Spectacle: 10 Reasons to Watch Wings (1927)

sterBig budget movies from any era typically don’t do much for me. Give me snappy dialogue and recycled sets over earthquakes and casts of thousands any day.

There are, however, a few exceptions to my dislike of big bottom lines… and William Wellman’s Wings, which cost a whopping $2 million to make, is exceptional in almost every way.

The story focuses on two young men who enlist as combat pilots during World War I: middle class, happy-go-lucky Jack (Buddy Rogers) and wealthy, contemplative David (Richard Arlen), both of whom love the same woman (Jobyna Ralston). The fact that neither man is in love with Clara Bow as Mary, Jack’s vivacious neighbor, taxes my suspension of disbelief, but the plot all makes sense in the end.

As Jack and David train and join the fight, they form an unlikely friendship, a mutual loyalty that will be put to the ultimate test by their romantic rivalry and by the sobering sacrifices of war.

If you haven’t seen it, remedy that as soon as you possibly can. I can hardly conceive of a better way to spend 2 hours and 20 minutes. It’ll probably cost less than whatever you paid to see any Oscars contender this year, and it’ll be way better.

In case I need to convince you of the glory of Wings, here are the reasons, in order of ascending significance (does that sound official enough?), why I consider it a great and historic film.

Warning: this post does contain some spoilers.

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10. It won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Picture.

On May 16, 1929 in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, industry professionals gathered at a banquet to celebrate excellence in contributions to American film from 1927 to 1928.

The event included practically none of the pomp or the fixtures that we associate with the Oscars today. It wasn’t recorded or broadcast. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. hosted a program consisting of about 15 minutes of award presentations.

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The winners, selected by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, had been announced far in advance. Studios received congratulatory telegrams in February of the previous year.

A welcome prestige nod for Paramount, Wings won the prize for “Outstanding Picture,” claimed by producer Lucien Hubbard. William Wellman, the film’s director, wasn’t even invited to the ceremony!

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9. You’ll see both male and female nudity. In a general admission film.

Do you have a friend who thinks silent films are boring? Well, first off, you need to make better friends. Second, you should sit the aforementioned loser down (use restraints if necessary) and play Wings for his or her benefit. Don’t worry: there’s a little something for everyone.

Want to see 3 naked men standing in a row? Keep your eyes wide open during the first 15 minutes of the film.

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Interested in the prospect of topless Clara Bow? You’ll see exactly that, briefly but unmistakably, about halfway through the runtime.

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Yeah, I went there. The things I do to encourage people to watch old movies.

And remember, no ratings system existed for movies in 1927. Audiences of all ages could enjoy what was, ahem, on display. It really was a simpler time.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I shall try to recover my dignity (doubtful) and proceed with my post.

8. Would-be filmmakers could learn a thing or two about how to balance spectacle with story.

A popular epic and a technical miracle, Wings glides above the clouds but never loses sight of its human dimension. The film’s reputation today primarily (and justly) rests on the scale and innovation of its airborne sequences. Yet all that derring-do would be meaningless if we didn’t care about the characters. And Wellman worked hard for the viewer’s emotional investment.

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Wings could serve as an instructive example for the industry today. It demonstrates that a colossal movie (and a box office juggernaut) can and should have a heart. As many recent blockbusters show, spectacle for the sheer sake of spectacle just doesn’t cut it as art.

7. It catapulted Gary Cooper to stardom—even though he’s onscreen for less than 5 minutes.

Even before the public knew his name, the female employees at Paramount sure did. When Coop walked by their offices, a collective sigh rose from the secretarial pool. As B.P. Schulberg’s secretary described the actor, he was “the most beautiful hunk of man who ever walked down this hall!”

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Cooper had already distinguished himself in a supporting role in The Winning of Barbara Worth, but remained a relative unknown.

It’s not exaggerating by much to say that if you blink during Wings, you might miss the ‘Montana Mule.’ Nevertheless, William Wellman tested dozens of actors for the small role of a pilot who dies during training before he chose Cooper to play doomed airman White.

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When White crashes, the shocking incident exposes the shadow of fear and peril that airmen lived under, even before they squared up against the enemy. Cooper’s strange blend of casualness and intensity spurred audience members all over the country to swoon over the bit player.

6. Buddy Rogers was adorable… and quite brave, to boot!

Due to the limitations of cameras and the instability of planes in flight, the leading actors of Wings both flew their planes at times and turned on the cameras to film their own close-ups. This wasn’t a big problem for the ruminative Richard Arlen who had aviation experience.

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But Buddy Rogers, a 22-year-old rising star from Kansas, had never flown a plane before. After each flight—and he spent almost 100 hours up in the air—he would vomit out of anxiety and motion sickness. Then he immediately got back to work.

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Even tough customer Wellman had to admire Rogers’s persistence and courage. But he had another trick in mind for the poor kid.

For a rowdy drunk scene set at the Folies Bergère, Wellman opted to make Rogers’s performance as genuine as possible. As the actor recalled years later, “Here I am this little boy, never had a beer or champagne, and Billy says, ‘Why champagne’s good for you, Buddy. It’ll relax you.’ And so he relaxed me, relaxed me, relaxed me. And he said, ‘Do the scene this way.’”

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Rogers carries the film on his narrow shoulders. We watch him convincingly transform from a carefree teenager to a traumatized hero redeemed by love. His sparkling boyishness and irresistible charm give way to abject despair and guilt. A beloved, important star of the 1920s and 1930s, Rogers is undeservedly forgotten today and due for rediscovery.

vlcsnap-2015-02-21-15h48m42s169 Looks like somebody’s not in Kansas anymore.

5. Even during earthbound scenes, the cinematography will astound you.

Wings dazzles the viewer with so many fluid camera movements and multi-plane shots that it would take far more space than I have here to go through them all.

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Perhaps the most impressive shot occurs during the Folies Bergère scene when the crane-mounted camera swoops over several tables of carousing couples (including a same-sex couple!), finally ending up on the rim of Jack’s champagne glass as he stares agog at the bubbles.

4. Clara Bow will awe you with her talent and range.

Sex symbol, 1920s icon, flapper ideal: sure, Clara Bow was all of those things, but first and foremost she was a tremendously gifted actress. Saucy romantic comedies made Clara Bow the biggest star in the world, but she proved just as adept in dramatic situations.

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Playing the girl-next-door who goes overseas in the female volunteer corps for the chance to see her sweetheart again, Bow lends beguiling credibility to a rather expedient part. Although one could argue that her role merely serves to add gratuitous helpings of ‘It’ to an otherwise manly war drama, her poignant performance justifies every second of screen time she gets.

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Her incandescent naturalness wins you over from her first entrance, parting a pair of bloomers on a clothesline and bursting with joy at the sight of Jack, her childhood crush. Few actresses in the history of cinema could exude such enthusiasm and energy without seeming strained. Even doing something as mundane as driving an army transport truck, she doesn’t fail to hold our attention with her wondrously animated face.

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Bow also evokes much of the film’s piercing melancholy. She imbues the movie’s wild centerpiece, the Folies Bergère scene, with a moral resonance and establishes a special bond with the audience. As the hero loses himself in an unselfconscious haze of alcohol and oblivion, she reflects his innermost sorrow to the viewer. Mature beyond her years, she understands the sadness of his pleasure far better than he does.

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3. William Wellman claimed it as his masterpiece. And that’s saying something.

Before he took on Hollywood, Wellman graduated with honors from the school of life by joining up with the Lafayette Flying Corps as a combat pilot during World War I—and coming home to tell the tale. Although 29-year-old Wellman had only directed a few movies by the mid-1920s, Paramount executives knew he possessed the real-life knowledge of military aviation necessary to oversee the massive production of Wings.

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Wellman would go on to direct a staggering run of great films. He helmed the virtuoistic gangster saga The Public Enemy (1932), the gritty, unforgettable social drama Wild Boys of the Road (1933), the uproarious screwball comedy Nothing Sacred (1937), the much-imitated Hollywood satire A Star Is Born (1937), and the seminal Western The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).

He’s also the man you can thank for the ass-kicking, scantily clad Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Night Nurse (1932), so hip-hurray for ‘Wild Bill’!

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Towards the end of his life, when asked to name the film of which he was most proud, he mentioned Wings. In fact, it was not only his best, but his most personal film, the perfect expression of all that he’d experienced and all that he could help others to experience through cinema.

Wellman makes a cameo appearance in the movie—but not in the air, as you might expect of a venerated pilot. Instead, he dies during the big attack at Saint-Mihiel, looking up towards the sky at the planes decimating the enemy. He croaks his last words as a blessing to those men in their flying machines, “Attaboy! Them buzzards are some good after all!”

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2. It conveys the bitter irony of war.

Over the course of the film, Jack mistakes his friends for strangers twice. The first time, he confuses Mary with one of the French floozies at the Folies Bergère. The second time, he mistakes David for a German flyer. And kills him.

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Shot down behind enemy lines and presumed dead, David hijacks a German plane and heads back to the base. On the way, he encounters Jack, mourning his comrade’s “death” and bent on revenge.

To me nothing looks like hell with the lid taken off more than Jack’s impossibly pretty face contorted in blooddrunk triumph and fury… not realizing that he just shot down his best friend.

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Similarly, after mowing down swaths of his German counterparts, we can read Jack’s lips as he callously mutters, “Bastards!” By dehumanizing his enemy, Jack lets his own humanity slip. No one can blame him for doing so; we would all do the same in his situation or perish.

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The point isn’t merely that Jack kills his friend, but rather that he remorselessly kills men who might’ve been his friends, who aren’t substantially different from himself and David. Put a cross or a tricolore on your plane and you become anathema to the other side. The irony of David’s death begs the question, why invest so much hate in symbols? Why take lives because of them?

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And, lest the film end on a note of victory, Wellman deals us another gut punch of sadness. When Jack returns to his hometown, his car passes through a street of jubilant neighbors who toss flowers at him. Wellman cuts to an unusual low angle shot from beneath the car’s steering wheel. The hero is looking down at something, but what? Then a cut to a higher angle divulges what Jack holds in his hand: a miniature teddy bear, David’s good luck charm, and the medal he promised to return to David’s mother.

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Meanwhile, David’s father stares blankly out at the celebration from behind a memorial flag. David’s girl Sylvia sits catatonic on the swing she once shared with the man she was going to marry. And Jack will have to trudge through the rest of his existence missing his friend, the man he gunned down. The loss of a single young life palpitates in the forlorn final images of Wings. As WWI poet A.E. Housman wrote:

Life, to be sure, 
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.

1. You won’t find a more stunning and authentic recreation of WWI in any film.

It is not easy for a modern mind to grapple with the awe-inspiring realness of Wings.

Its battle scenes use no rear projection, no models, and, obviously, no CGI.  No tricks of any kind. Just frame after frame of clouds, aircraft, and men risking their lives to execute a brutally beautiful aerial ballet.

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220 real planes and 13 cameramen were drafted into the fray. Thousands of soldiers participated in the battle scenes. The U.S. Army blasted and bombarded vast expanses around San Antonio, Texas to reproduce no-man’s-land.

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The finished film (especially its airborne sequences) stands as a record not only of extreme physical courage, but also of material marvels, of things that actually happened at a certain time and place. The thrills of Wings depend on an inherent, mechanical quality of film: that it captures and preserves reality.

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The stakes of the action emerge from the fact that, like a fingerprint, each frame is existentially bound to the fraction of a second that it photographed. What we see—a plane careening through the air, spiraling, trailing smoke, and crashing to earth, for instance—could perhaps be faked. But that fakery would undermine everything that makes us gasp when confronted with the real thing, so daring and dangerous that it seems locked in a perpetual present.

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In fact, I can think of few mainstream movies that so intoxicatingly engage cinema’s tensions between spectacle and documentary, between fiction and reality. Wings weaves the immediacy of cinema into the visual equivalent of WWI poetry.

By turns lyrical, giddy, sentimental, and ugly (as all great war movies must be), Wellman’s film transmits the chivalric pride and the wrenching disillusionment of WWI.

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Wings allows its audience to feel both the soaring adrenaline rush and the crushing futility of the war that stole the 20th century’s innocence. You share the cockpit with the characters. You see the clouds billow around them and watch the horizon come unstuck. Perhaps no movie has ever put its viewers inside a war as completely as Wings does.

The Academy deemed it an “Outstanding Picture.” And, for once, I agree entirely with The Academy.

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This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Outspoken and Freckled, Paula’s Cinema Club, Once Upon a Screen. Be sure to check out the other entries!

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The Gang’s All Here: Five Reasons to Love The Racket (1928)

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Chicago—night, circa 1925. A high window opens and a head bobs up in front of the dim, disquieting jumble of the city. From shadowy perches in brick buildings, a few ugly mugs peer out into the street. One gives the nod. We know by their eye-line matches that they’re looking at the indistinct, moving blotch that must be a lonesome man walking down the rainy, deserted street—with a gun trained on him from above.

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What a curtain-raiser! And all without a word, without a noise. This tense little opener suggests the compact sophistication of storytelling that films had achieved on the brink of sound—and how much of the gangster picture was already there, already loaded, before audiences could hear the Tommy gun, that great star of the talkies, add his voice to the melee.

The RacketDirected by Lewis Milestone and nominated for Best Picture, The Racket snappily adapted a smash stage play by Bartlett Cormack. The plot follows a stubborn cop, Captain McQuigg, in his attempts to take down Nick Scarsi, a notorious bootlegger—a thinly veiled stand-in for Al Capone.

Unfortunately for McQuigg, Scarsi wields power over certain important political wards that could slide an upcoming election. The gangster calls on his friends in high places to get McQuigg exiled to a precinct far from the action.

But fate intervenes, sending Scarsi’s beloved baby brother—and his platinum blonde fiancée—to jail for a hit-and-run in McQuigg’s precinct! The stage is set for a  major showdown between the fiercely determined, besieged lawman and the dangerously amoral outlaw.

If that doesn’t get you interested, here are five reasons why this movie is more than worth any trouble you might go through to see it.

5. Because it was long considered to be lost!

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Howard Hughes, who went on to produce Scarface, perhaps the greatest of the 1930s gangster films, also produced The Racket. For years, the film was out of circulation and historians figured that it had been destroyed, given the widespread callous neglect of silent films, thought to be obsolete and non-bankable as soon as sound came in. Well, Hughes might have been a real nutcase, but fortunately he knew well enough to stash away a print of this terrific gangster flick, which was discovered in his home after his death and restored. So tune in to it if you can—you almost didn’t have the chance!

 4. Crackling dialogue—and more time to enjoy it.

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I don’t know about you, but I can’t watch a Ben Hecht newspaper comedy without getting the Benz, in a delicious way, of course, but it takes effort to process that much cleverness so quickly. The nice thing about snappy silent “dialogue” is that you get to read it and actually savor a moment to chuckle over some of the puns and double-entendres that might get overlooked in the rolling tide of talkie wisecracks or patter.

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A few samples of The Racket’s funny or clever lines:

Scarsi (getting into his luxurious car, as poor police officer McQuigg stands in the rain): “Take a tip Mac—change your racket.”

McQuigg (holding a gin bottle just thrown through a window by a drunk reporter): “This is a fine thing to come sailing out of a police station in this God-forsaken Zone of Quiet.”

Scarsi (commenting on rowdy on-lookers at the funeral of a man he killed): “They ought to have some respect for the dead.”

Helen (to a hilariously naïve reporter): “I wonder what’ll happen if you ever have a baby, and no one’s tipped you off about storks.”

3. Because you can spend quality time with some wonderful, all-but-forgotten silent stars.

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Thomas Meighan. Marie Prevost. Louis Wolheim. Do these names mean anything to you? If you’d lived in 1928, these three would have been considered, respectively, what Ryan Gosling, Mila Kunis, and Christoph Waltz are today—fan favorites in the all-round hot guy, cute hot girl, and charismatic character actor categories.

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Smiley, cheekbone-blessed Thomas Meighan parlayed his good looks into romantic leads in Cecil B. DeMille’s refined sex comedies and shared billing with La Swanson. Unfortunately, the new influx of talkie stars and the effects of the transition to sound torpedoed Meighan’s career, even though his voice apparently wasn’t a barrier. Any chance of a comeback was destroyed a few years later when he succumbed to cancer.

It’s very sad since, in The Racket, Meighan’s black Irish sparkle and pearly, mocking grin make his tireless Captain McQuigg a delight to watch. He manages to project as much cockiness and swagger as the gangsters he’s fighting and thus avoids falling into dull good-boy hero territory. My favorite moment? When he tears up a writ of Habeas Corpus and snarls, “I’m sick of the law.” Maverick cops: making us identify with the Fuzz since way before Lethal Weapon.

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Curvaceous, flirty Marie Prevost sure knew how to light up a silent screen with her naughty, fun-loving, yet cynical demeanor. As the golddigging speakeasy singer Helen, she strikes the perfect balance between sultry, sentimental, and vulgar. And smart, too—she’s the one who manages to wrench a confession from tough guy Scarsi in the end! This is one sharp tomato. Watch and learn, ladies, watch and learn.

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And Louis Wolheim gives us one of the most arrogant, puffed-up gangsters of all time—a theatrical, yet efficient SOB who grins and chuckles one instant and shoots a guy in the back the next. Wolheim’s nose, so broken and battered that it’s practically a historical landmark, deserves its own Supporting Actor Oscar, if they’d had them in 1928. He’s so irrepressibly, sneeringly good that you can hardly believe he’s a multilingual Cornell grad and ex-math teacher and not a bona fide former racketeer. Although, boy, I bet every kid in his class knew his multiplication tables by heart!

As a bonus, you can also savor seedy, runty five-foot-three character actor George E. Stone—who would continue to play gangsters and snivelling sidekicks in the sound era, most notably in Little Caesar and in the Boston Blackie series—who turns in a delightfully caddish performance Scarsi’s slimeball little brother. This spoiled dirtbag even goes so far as to pull the “my car ran out of gas routine” on the luscious Prevost hoping for a little roadside petting. Sorry, but no dice, little man. Maybe it’s the ‘stache.

2. Because The Racket‘s attitude toward corruption is really ahead of its time.

37“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” That utterance makes it onto every list of the best movie lines of all time because it epitomizes the unresolved cynicism, the disillusionment, the paralyzed force of the New Hollywood’s noirish dark side. How newfangled, how courageous, how ambiguously—oh, wait. The Racket did something totally similar in 1928. Sorry, Bob Towne.

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As much as Captain McQuigg has struggled to bring down Scarsi—and ultimately gets him out of the way—he watches a new crime lord, a new shady political honcho immediately step in to win public favor. Exhausted and defeated, the exiled policeman hunches over his desk as the already jaded Helen comes over to inform him that it’s a dog-eat-dog world. He was wrong to expect positive results from his heroism.

McQuigg’s deputy suggests that the worn out policeman get some sleep but he shrugs it off, explaining that there’s a lot of clean-up questioning and statement-giving to do. By the time the production’s over, morning will have dawned and “it’ll be time for Mass,” he sighs.

38Whoa! No triumphalism, no note of self-congratulation. Just grim soldiering on in the face of insurmountable vice. Way to portray an unrelenting cycle of violence and the Sisyphus-like labors of a decent man in a bad world! The Racket refuses us the comfort of a happy, neat ending and thus delivers a stronger message about crime, corruption, and society than many movies that have come after it.

1. Because it showcases the force of the cinematic medium.

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In some ways, The Racket proves how a silent crime picture could actually use cinematic language better than its soon-to-follow talkie descendants. The need for sound synchronization snuffed out some really witty material, as this movie shows us. For instance, in one farcical scene, Scarsi pays his phony respects to a bootlegger rival (whom he himself filled full of slugs!) at a big production gangland funeral. Why, no self-respecting punk would miss the event! As the seasoned racketeer Scarsi surveys at a row of trimly dressed mourners, the camera lingers to examine the black bowler hats on their knees… and then a dissolve provides this laugh-inducing shot of what they’re hiding!

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Scarsi chuckles at these deceiving appearances—since his trained mobster X-ray vision can see through them. These kinds of purely visual, abstracted touches don’t show up as often in sound gangster films. Don’t get me wrong: talkie crime films possess moments of apt creativity, like the off-screen killings in The Public Enemy, but I love The Racket for its whimsical, abstracted moments.

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For me, this film also deserves major props for proving that the movies can improve on stage play source material—not just reproduce its success. For instance, that opening sequence in which all the eyeline matches, as the hired killer trains his gun on McQuigg, harness the power of editing to keep us on the edge of our seats—that rhythmic use of shot length couldn’t exist in theater. That manner of orchestrating and taming space is unique to the Seventh Art.

Again, when Scarsi shoots his rival in a speakeasy, we see him pull the trigger from under the table. Of all those present, only we the viewers are in on his secret, though we experience the killing from the vantage point not of Scarsi, but of the gun itself. This movie’s sly, fast-paced visual storytelling, carefully trimmed down to slick efficiency, should hardly come as a surprise, since it was shot by Tony Gaudio (who also did the cinematography for talkie gangster classics like Little Caesar and High Sierra.

So check out this silent gem. And if you think silent films are composed of all swooning maidens and melodramatic plot twists, you better watch The Racket and reevaluate your prejudice. ’Cause the boys are all here—and it’s gonna be one wild, hard-hitting ride.

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This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled. Visit their blogs and learn more about this wonderful blog event! Find the blogathon on Twitter by searching the #31Days hashtag.

I’m doubling my fun here, since this is also part of the Scenes of the Crime Blogathon! Check it out, see?

Scenes of the Crime Blogathon

Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot? The Divorcée (1930)

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The Divorcée is an odd film.

To the eyes of a modern viewer (at least the cinema-seasoned eyes of this modern viewer), the 1930 M-G-M Norma Shearer vehicle, directed by Robert Z. Leonard, comes across as both shockingly bold and, on first viewing, annoyingly stilted and stagey. I’ll fess up: I did squirm at the oh-so-sophisticated depiction of divorce among the upper classes—where there’s no financial consequences, children, or overwhelming familial disapproval to make the rupture messy. This a fantasy divorce, make no mistake, in which virtually nothing peels away at the veneer of glamour, lacquered thick over the whole affair.

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On the other hand, I cannot quite choke back the glee when Norma Shearer informs her dismissive, one-time-philanderer hubby, “I’ve balanced our accounts.” Is there a wittier way of informing one’s, ahem, better half that you’ve attained sweet, sweet revenge?

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Norma gave us her matter-of-fact opinion on sex in motion pictures in this interview from the 30s.

I swoon at the glamour of Norma’s outfits by Adrian. Whether she’s a good girl or a girl behaving badly, career woman Norma parades around in some of the most to-die-for suits and evening gowns I’ve ever drooled over.

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Best of all, she barely dips her toe into vamp territory. We understand that she’s neither a home-wrecker nor a Gothic man-eater, a variation on the succubus. On the contrary, she’s just a sharp lady who wants to have a little fun. And look damn good while doing it.

Shearer won an Oscar for her performance—but she had to fight to get the role. Her husband, Irving Thalberg, head of production at M-G-M, didn’t think she could handle the role. He worried it would eat away at her star image and her popularity. It took a photo shoot that Norma arranged of herself in steamy pre-Code lingerie to prove otherwise. Irving caved to her demands.

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And I must acknowledge that The Divorcée throws quite a few hard punches. Ones that send me reeling, that’s for sure. (Oh, and there are spoilers in this post. If you want to bail out now, I’ll let you.)

So, how are we to evaluate a film like this? One that feels tiresomely backwards—yet looks strikingly forwards? It’s New Years, so I think I have some time to contemplate this Janus-faced creation. In particular, I want to ask the question that the movie seems to cling to: should old acquaintance be forgot? Only, instead of talking about ex-husbands, I want to ask that question about this movie and give a few reasons why, despite a few mawkish angles, The Divorcée deserves to be remembered.

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First off, the title intrigues me. No surprises there. Somebody’s getting divorced! The title already announces a separation, so we, the viewers, know that the wooing, cooing couple we see in the opening scenes, Norma and Chester Morris, is going to end up splitting. But how? That’s suspense, right there. And some rather refined irony!

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Don’t get too attached to this couple!

With jazzy credits music and a bunch of people giggling in a country house, the film’s opening lures you in with the promise of a witty marital sex comedy (of the Private Lives ilk) then steers you right into ugly drama. The movie begins with a blithe little party among friends in the countryside. We get a rather ordinary love quadrangle: Jerry loves Ted, but so does Paul—even though Dorothy loves Paul. So, when Paul hears that Jerry is going to marry Ted. He doesn’t take it so well.

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He gets drunk, drives off the road, and the accident smashes up Dorothy’s face.

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Talk about going from zero to sixty! The scene made my jaw drop. The expressionistic angles of the crash, the sense of loss and irrevocable damage, the shrill shrieks of Dorothy’s sister as she cries for revenge over her sister’s disfigured body.

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In a split second, The Divorcée plunges us into darkness and we’re still gasping for breath when the light comes.

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Right from that nasty car-crash scene, we go to a chapel where Jerry and Ted are going to be joined in matrimony. Movie weddings often bubble over with joy—or at the very least hijinks—but at The Divorcée’s doomed wedding, the sheer inauspiciousness of it all virtually whacks you over the head.

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Sure, the bride blushes and the groom smiles, but something’s not right. We’re all too shaken—and full of presentiments—to bask in the joy.

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There’s a very significant dissolve from the priest reciting the service to this shot of the bride and groom taking their vows. Notice how abstracted it is—no heads, no personality. It’s a picture of Marriage, not of our marriage, not a union between two living, breathing people. It reminds me of a glib Victorian illustration.

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And as if that uncomfortably headless shot wasn’t irony enough, another dissolve transports us to another marriage—the atonement marriage of Paul and Dorothy, who wears bandages in place of orange blossoms and a veil, as she reclines, mutilated for life, in a hospital bed. The Divorcée equates these two weddings and prods us to think hard about the apparent chasm between the dream wedding and the nightmarish one—because, in point of fact, they’re not so different.

The Divorcée

Hands actually play a very important part in this film. Once Jerry separates from her husband and embarks on a series of affairs, we see them transpire in rapid succession through a bunch of shots of hands meeting over tables.

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The Divorcée

The Divorcée

I love this clever montage for its acidly funny encapsulation of relationships. I’d also point out that the lack of faces allows the viewer to put herself in Jerry’s place and experience the vicarious rush of her lusty divorced life. But, most important, the sequence reminds me of Jerry’s and Paul’s weddings—and not just in a simple “that was right, this is wrong” kind of way.

On the contrary, I think all this hand-play encourages us to see both extreme forms of relationship—lifelong commitment and casual sex—as equally dangerous if undertaken without thought…when you leave your head out of the picture.

Living in the moment is dangerous, The Divorcée tells us, because every moment you’re bargaining with the rest of your life, even when you’re not vowing “ ’til death do us part.”

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The pleasure-haze of an addled brain—a kaleidoscope of good times.

We see this truth alluded to by the motif of drunken mistakes in this film: Paul’s accident, Ted’s infidelity, and, the most carefully portrayed, Jerry’s drunken affair with Don, who was the best man at her wedding. She learned a few hours ago that her husband cheated on her with a woman who “didn’t mean a thing” to him. But, unsurprisingly, that doesn’t make her feel better.

The Divorcée

So she goes out drinking, and we savor a cloudy, loud nightclub as a tracking shot jerks dizzily over to her table where we see written across Norma Shearer’s face a look of blank, despairing stupefaction. All the festivities are lost on her.

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The Divorcée

Then Don leans towards her and in that close framing, we can practically feel their breath and smell the alcohol on it. She smiles—it feels nice to be appreciated.

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Without a line of dialogue, this scene nails the dim, sleepy, assault-on-the-senses ambiance of the situation, which could’ve felt contrived. It’s almost as though we’re watching someone’s fuzzy memory replay of what happened the night before.

So they go back to his place.

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As Don suggestively strokes Jerry’s fur coat, the soon-to-be-adulteress looks almost right at us, as if defying us to judge her, to think that we’d do any different in her place.

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Curtains close. Lights go out. Sex makes for the best ellipses, doesn’t it?

Even nowadays, I can’t think of too many movie women who get their bedroom revenge so quickly. I can’t think of any who make the walk of shame look as good as Norma does. But again, it’s hard to congratulate this movie. What’s the take-away message? That women should do as they like? Or that women are just as bad as men?

The Divorcée

Perhaps Norma’s Jerry says it best when she dismisses this kind of broadly gendered talk:

Oh, Ted, don’t let’s talk about men and women. They do all sorts of things. We’ve got to live our own life, dear. There’s so much of it ahead.

The Divorcée serves up a story about individual consequences that aims to look at mature situations. It’s not the clarion call of a sexual revolution. It doesn’t need to be, though. And I refuse to fault the movie for not being one. Even if I do get a little miffed at its contrivances, I can see the ways in which this 1930 sensation still echoes through to today.

As Don, Robert Montgomery dances his way through a performance so likable, yet loose of morals that you feel like he was born to provide consoling vengeance. He’s nice, handsome, rich, smooth, witty—and totally no-strings-attached. They could package him up in cellophane and sell him at Rebounds-Are-Us.

The Divorcée

I adore how fun and non-evil he is as the cheerful “other man.” Especially when, years later, he runs into Jerry’s husband (who has no idea Don slept with Jerry) and talks about Jerry’s mysterious rebound guy. “What would you do if you ever found him,” asks Don. “I’d kill him,” Ted replies. The look on Montgomery’s face is priceless.

The Divorcée

He’s so sweetly caddish that you can also easily trace his descendants in the sitcom, rom-com lineage, including Patrick from Stephen Moffat’s top-notch Coupling and Barney from How I Met Your Mother. (Yes, yes, I watch that stuff too!) Don is still with us, my friend!

The Divorcée

The New Year’s reunion at the end of this movie also, I daresay, inspired the conclusion to When Harry Met Sally. But, it’s a lot more problematic since, in the end, Jerry finds her ex and vows to rebuilt their life together. Lots of people would argue that this ending is lame and conservative—making an otherwise scandalous Pre-Code film palatable to a crowd of morality thumpers ready to knock down the studio doors. However, I would argue something different.

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As Jerry kisses her ex-hubby and “Auld Lang Syne” swells on the soundtrack, we get a vaguely happy feeling, but what’s done cannot be undone. These two adults recognize this—which is why their marriage stands a chance now. They’re people who’ve seen more of the world, enough to know that actions have repercussions. Even Jerry’s insistence that “all the world gets a fresh start,” sounds plaintive and a trifle reserved.  And that’s why, with broken illusions, they can embrace as the lights go black.

The Divorcée

Genuine bitterness: Ted knocks over a wedding cake when he discovers that Jerry’s paid him in kind.

It’s no accident that, at the very beginning of the movie Jerry and Ted were acting out a parody of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s most clueless and immature lovers.

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When I was in seventh grade and first read Romeo and Juliet, I didn’t like it one bit. I thought it was mushy and dumb. It’s taken me many, many years to come ’round and see it as a delicate exposé of teenage romanticism—the kind of steam-heated, fast-expiring passion that is so very tragic, not just because it makes people do tragic things, but because if those same people had waited one more week they probably wouldn’t have even remembered the caprice.

Not looking forward is pretty stupid. That’s what the characters in the movie do at the beginning. They marry without knowing much about life. They can’t see past some nebulous notion of “forever.”

But not looking back is even worse. The past returns in a tangible and frightening form in The Divorcée when Jerry gets involved again with Paul who proposes to divorce his disfigured wife (there’s a keeper!) to marry her. Jerry is waiting for Paul in her apartment one day when a knock comes at the door. A woman wearing a thick black veil stands there—and the camera even pivots almost imperceptibly to heighten the unease of this apparition.

The Divorcée

The Divorcée

Whatever you want to say about this movie, the raw, surreal jolt that you get out of seeing the deathly figure appear out of nowhere, in such an ordinary, posh setting, cannot and will not be denied. Like I said, in its own way, this movie packs a punch. The Divorcée tugs at the complex tangle of time, past hopes and overshadowed futures. Poor faceless, blameless Dorothy, encased in layers of black tulle, totters into the film like a specter and, to me, remains the most memorable part of the movie.

The Divorcée

In a film that puts drama and comedy into a cocktail mixer and shakes ’em hard, Dorothy seems to come from a horror film—she’s like a ghost. She brings back the past, she’s almost one of the living dead. Even her sister says that it would be better if she died. Nobody seems to want Dorothy alive, yet she lives. And needs to be listened to.

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But—and this is why I chose The Divorcée for my last post of 2012—we can all learn not to turn our backs on the past.

And, when we do look back, we shouldn’t look back with smugness and condescension, like I wanted to when I put this movie on. This year, I’ve met a lot of lovely people who cherish old movies like I do. However, I’ve noticed a lot of old movie bashing and bristled at different enunciations of the idea that we know better now than they did then.

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Messy streamers in the first of The Divorcée’s two New Year’s scenes suggest that the connections between people never get fully severed. Just tangled up.

As Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” The past always comes back. It wears a veil, no doubt, but only idiots choose not to look at it. The past comes to us and tells us things that we don’t want to hear, things that we often chose to denigrate rather than decipher.

Well, guess what? Someday we’ll all be past—and a new crop of urbane scoffers will assess us.

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Paul catches a glimpse into Jerry’s train compartment. Fate intervenes to bring the past back to him and to Jerry.

We shouldn’t always look back in fondness. Sometimes we need to look back in anger. But, always, always, we need to look back with receptiveness and a little holy dread.

The Divorcée

So watch this movie. For the wisecracks, the shocks, the clothes, the feminist overtones. Whatever. But watch it.

Watch an old movie you want to discredit. Watch it and it might astonish you. I hope it does. It may not. But don’t sneer at it before you’ve given it a chance.

That’s why I watch old movies. Because I enjoy looking back. Because I like learning from and laughing with the past. Because I like remembering, even when it’s painful to remember.

Because someone damn well needs to.

Take this curtain, for instance, which shows up in the first of The Divorcée’s New Year’s scenes. You only see it for a few seconds:

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But I recognized that curtain! I’d seen it in the 1927 M-G-M silent, Mr. Wu. I wrote my thesis on it!

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There’s nothing new under the sun. But that’s no excuse not to look at what gets recycled, at what we keep, at what we remember.

Should old acquaintance be forgot? Not on my watch.

The Divorcée

Nitrate Divas: A Tribute to Four Female Film Editors

“Women are a finer filter of reality.”

—Michelangelo Antonioni

Margaret Booth in her natural habitat: the editing room.

I wrote this article as a way of commemorating Ada Lovelace Day, an occasion to celebrate those extraordinary women who have contributed to the fields of science and technology. Now, cinema might not be the first field you think of when you hear the words “science and technology.” Nevertheless, cinema is a medium of invention, a relatively new medium with a definite and modern physicality—unlike painting or sculpting, say.

Cinema is chemistry, optics, psychology, and so much more. A movie’s production relies on analytical minds, men and women who fill the chasm that separates entertainment, science, and art. Perhaps no one grapples with the technological aspect of cinema more than a film editor. He or she must combine a mathematical, sequential intellect with a rich comprehension of drama and aesthetics.

And the very term, “film editor,” as opposed to the vulgar “cutter” of early cinema, was created by Irving Thalberg for a woman: Margaret Booth.

So, I’d like to take a moment to applaud Booth and a few other remarkable women who not only prevailed in the male-dominated culture of studio Hollywood, but also succeeded in fusing aesthetics and technology. These women shaped stories out of time and space, they cut together strips of celluloid and emulsion into beautiful dreams. In the tradition of the whimsical, but sharp imagination of Ada Lovelace Byron, they were masters of art and of of science and showed us that perhaps we shouldn’t see these two things as so different.

Here are some of the rhythms they teased out of strips of plastic.

Margaret Booth (1898-2002)

Cut 44 films (that are listed on IMDB, but she most definitely worked on more) and became Editor-in-Chief of M-G-M.

“[I]n the old days, we had to cut negative by eye. We matched the print to the negative without any edge numbers. We had to match the action.

“When I cut silent film, I used to count to get the rhythm. If I was cutting a march of soldiers, or anyting with a beat to it, and I wanted to change the angle, I would count one-two-three-four-five-six. I made a beat for myself. That’s how I did it when I was cutting the film in the hand. When Moviolas came in, you could count that way too. You watched the rhythm through the glass.”

—Booth, quoted in Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By

Perhaps Booth’s masterpiece, the horrifying, yet liberating “taking of the ship” sequence from Mutiny on the Bounty. Booth incorporated Sergei Eisentein’s montage techniques without resorting to the same didactic feel. She adapted and invented, stretching the medium to tell a story even in crisis.

Click here to watch the clip (TCM won’t let me embed it).

I also love the elegiac grace which Booth’s leisurely, but attentive cutting brings to this clip from the Garbo silent, The Mysterious Lady.

Viola Lawrence (1894-1973)

Editor of 99 films, including The Lady from Shanghai, In a Lonely Place, and Pal Joey.

Enjoy the taut pacing she brings to this scene in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings.

Dorothy Spencer (1909-2002)

Editor of 74 films, including Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, his Foreign Correspondant and Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be.

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She also edited one of the greatest Westerns of all time, John Ford’s Stagecoach. This concluding stand-off will remain etched in my mind as one of the greatest examples of pacing and suspense in cinema history. Often copied, never equalled.

Verna Fields (1918-1982)

Editor of 14 films—many of them movies that launched the “Hollywood Renaissance,” including the breakout films of Stephen Spielberg (Jaws), George Lucas (American Graffiti), as well as Peter Bogdanovitch’s Paper Moon.

The opening sequence of Jaws owes much to how the rapid—but not too rapid—editing frays the audience’s nerves. Fields set a new standard for film editing in horror movies for which she more than deserved her Oscar.

This is a brief post (for this blog, at least!) but I encourage you to discover more about these, and other women who have influenced cinema history with their inspired command of the mathematical and artistic sides of the film medium.

They were real nitrate divas. I’m honored to blog about them.