Yankee Doodle Dandy really doesn’t make it easy for itself. Consider the strikes against it. It is a Grand Old Biopic madly in love with its own subject matter. It is filmed by a director, who, for all his multitudinous strengths, was never all that invested in subverting or transforming his screenplays, a filmmaker who drew his vigor and interest precisely from the subject matter and the screenplay he was tackling. It is also a quintessential work of matching a great actor to an important historical figure, just about the biggest talent-suck set-up any film could possibly dread. With a performance and a subject to fill the box office and wow the middlebrows, a director has carte blanche to indulge in all the soporific tendencies of a screenplay, to blindly and blandly fill the screen with blasé Important Moments rather than to actually prop up the storytelling with invigorating artistic gestures. It is, in other words, a work that was dead in the water – artistically speaking at least – even before its release. Continue reading
And now for something completely different, although not that different when you really think about it.
Angels with Dirty Faces sees studio-man extraordinaire Michael Curtiz changing course away from the lush theatrical silliness of two of the finest pre-war matinee fluff pieces ever made, and moving toward the darker regions that would occupy the American fascination upon its descent into World War II and the harsher regions of human activity. The US spent a good deal of the 1930s hiding itself from the horrors of both the world and of itself, and Curtiz was a whiz at the sort of aww-shucks adventurous quality used to whisk America off to a dream world where problems didn’t so much trouble as exist to provide delectable, delightful solutions. 1939’s Angels with Dirty Faces does not, at first glance, appear to be the work of the same filmmaker. Tonally, it is the polar opposite of Curtiz’s two great prior works, descending into the muck of seedy, lonesome, grotesques and brutish grime that would become the “film noir” a few years later. Yet, a closer look yields a slightly different take, finding Curtiz using the same style he perfected in his previous films to wildly different ends. Continue reading
At some level, we must concede that Michael Curtiz was more of a filmmaker of efficient craftmaking than superlative artistic ambition; this sense of getting-the-job-done pervades even his masterpiece, Casablanca, but gosh darn it, well-oiled-machine filmmaking has never been more delectable than Michael Curtiz filmmaking. The perpetually underrated master of the craft was no auteur, nor did he want to be, but his films sparkle with single-minded clarity and blunt craft like nothing else from the Hollywood machine in its early days. Again, he was a studio guy for Warner Bros and he always operated with a sort of humility to his stories that saw him not so much take control of them and do with them as he would; rather, he focused on a propulsive forward movement to his tales, a sort of inescapable quality that made the stories feel like they were telling themselves first and foremost. Yet Curtiz was always there, making functional filmmaking the food of the gods and cutting through the fat to produce films that, if not entirely perfect or challenging in the most overt of ways, were at east the most perfect versions of themselves. Continue reading
Analyzing the work of an Old Hollywood stalwart is no easy task. All the prime candidates have been written about to death; who, in all my majesty and knowledge, can I actually tackle without self-repetition? So much I wanted to take on Nicholas Ray, one of the reigning “brash young men” skirting around Hollywood royalty in the 1950s, but having reviewed In a Lonely Place and Johnny Guitar (and thinking his most famous film, Rebel Without a Cause, is the least fun film of his to write about) crossed him off the list (Bigger Than Life desperately needs a review though). Jacques Tourneur certainly popped up, but I’ve already covered his two most famous films, Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, and Out of the Past and Night of the Demon can hop their way on over to Midnight Screenings anyway.