Monday, August 20, 2012

Movie Night

So, we're back from our little jaunt, and as always after the flash of Dubai, it's nice to be home and lovely to be with the dogs.

A highlight of this trip turned out to be just staying in, as we spent the first part largely in the hotel for the end of Ramadan and then enjoyed that so much (we got upgraded and lolled about in splendor) that aside from a brief mall jaunt we hardly stirred - even passing up a night out dancing with the boys.

The temptations to be even more than usually sedentary were some of the usual suspects - our favorite hotel has a splendid indoor pool, a killer spa, and an open bar from 6 'til 9 - but also one more:  they now get TCM, and we lucked into a fun run of pictures.  It's pretty inexcusable, I know, after what's probably something in the low three figures of viewing, to spend prime vacation time watching The Wizard of Oz, but on a big screen in a decadently comfortable hotel drawing room, why carp?  Besides, Mr. Muscato's only seen it a few times, so we had some reason to be so lazy.  And you know what?  It never fails, in any way, to entertain.

That was good (as was a welcome rescreening of What's Up, Doc?, another never-fail favorite), but in addition we saw two movies in a row that really got me thinking. 

The first, as you might have guessed from the picture above, was Key Largo, which I'd seen before but really enjoyed, as I did on this second viewing.  It's a tense, atmospheric, weird picture, driven by an over-the-top performance by Edward G. Robinson as a high-strung gangster and, at the other extreme, by turns by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall that are so low-pitched that at times they seem to be standing perfectly still while the movie whirls around them.  They are tremendously effective, and I'm baffled by people who say that of their pictures together, this one has the least chemistry between them.  Their connection is the moral foundation of the movie, and while it's less flashy than the incredibly seductive To Have and Have Not, it's rock-solid.  Never in the movies have two so different people been so ineluctably right for each other, and they play the whole movie as if they know that, even when the rest of the world collapses around them.

As it nearly does when the hurricane hits.  Each of the characters suffers a kind of Dark Night during the prolonged storm sequence, but the greatest glory in it goes to the lady above, the incomparable Claire Trevor.  She plays Gaye Dawn, a faded nightclub chantoozie whose name at first seems a cruel joke - until, in the end, it becomes prophetic, for despite her desperate, destructive love for Robinson, her dipsomania, and her essential foolishness (summarized brilliantly by the tacky jewelry she wears like some sort of penance for getting older) she saves the day, and brings a happy morning after the storm.

So that was the good half of our impromptu double feature.  When I saw that the next movie was the 1976 A Star is Born, I was kind of jazzed.  I'd never seen it, believe it or not, as it came out just before I could have been allowed to see what was widely believed to be a racy film, and then its critical drubbing more or less removed it from consideration.

I'd like to report that I found it to be a lost gem, a worthy fellow for the versions by Constance Bennett, Janet Gaynor, and Judy Garland.  It's not.  It's not dreck, exactly, but it's awfully close.  No, I take that back - it is dreck:  endlessly long, excruciatingly paced, laughably staged, portentous and pretentious and utterly humorless.  It's hard to imagine that only four years separate the Barbra who was so effortlessly Judy Maxwell in What's Up, Doc? and the impassive, self-enchanted creature who walks through A Star is Born like it was a series of wardrobe stills for its misbegotten fashions (she spends what seems like hours in a knee-length white cardigan-over-bell-bottoms that made me want to throw things at the screen, while material success is represented by a series of increasingly flashy gypsy-style outfits that Rhoda Morgenstern wouldn't have been caught dead in with her eyes gouged out).  And let's not even start on Kris Kristofferson and how very much he looks like he'd rather be anywhere else, or the pointless series of cartoon bit parts for people like Gary Busey as a manipulative manager or the two unfortunate actresses who play Barbra's first-reel pals, whose roles are so exiguous that they are billed only as One and Two.  They're black, you see; fledgling-star Barbra's in a group with them.  It's called the Oreos.  Get it?  That, in fact, is the high point of funny in A Star is Born.  I rest my case.

What struck me about seeing these two pictures together is how simple Warner Bros. made Key Largo seem, and what obvious, lumbering, all-too-visible and ultimately crushing labor went into A Star is Born.  The former tells its story - nothing less than the rise and fall of its characters' souls - with essentially one set, a few not-terribly-convincing models for the storm sequence, and a short stretch on a boat.  It moves like the wind, without a moment's padding or wasted action.  Even a sequence that another script would have turned into a throwaway number, in which Trevor's Gaye helplessly displays the ruins of her voice by singing "Moanin' Low" in a sad bid for a promised drink, turns out to illuminate the character of every person in the room. 

By contrast, A Star is Born feels like nothing but padding, from the endless helicopter shots meant to awe one at the size of Kristofferson's audience to the whip-round of his Hollywood mansion that felt longer than Jackie Kennedy's tour of the White House.  Even Streisand's songs - theoretically, one would have thought, a prime reason for a Streisand Star is Born to exist - feel bloated and unnecessary.  And that's once you get past the movie's major implausibility:  unlike previous Norman Maines and Esther Blodgetts (the names are changed here, one suspects to protect the innocent, but the characters are more or less the same), the two leads have nothing at all in common including the métiers in which they perform.  Kristofferson's character is meant to be a sort of Jim-Morrison-if-he-had-lived, a full-on rockstar with a kind of grandeur in his desperate excess (that he's played by a singer/actor of middling repute and vestigial screen charisma doesn't help).  Streisand's songbird is a middle-of-the-road pop act at most.  It's as if Jimi Hendrix decided to throw it all away to save the career of Helen Reddy or Rita Coolidge (who actually makes a throwaway cameo as a Grammys presenter).  And it goes on and on, and finally it's over, and you find yourself sitting there in the dark wondering, "What the hell was she thinking with that pantsuit?"

Claire Trevor for the win.


  1. i saw the bs "star" once, when it came out. i didn't like it then and back then, i had little taste. i can't imagine myself watching a second time.

    that i say i had no taste may make you say i still don't. i saw "to have and have not" years later and slit my wrists; so boring, so slow.

    key largo i liked. claire trevor i loved, always do. sarah vaughn's version of kl is a killer.

  2. I agree Babs Star is a stinker, and I'm a huge fan so it pains me to say that. Her voice is magic but the songs aren't the best, even the Oscar winning Evergreen has never been a favorite of mine. From what I've read the set was a battleground of screaming and hard feelings which Kristofferson got through by staying steadily drunk, no surprise from his performance. What might have saved it or at least added a touch of the macabre is if Elvis had accepted the Norman Maine part that he was offered first, as is its a blot on both the story and Streisand's career.

    I didn't care for Key Largo on first view, my fav of Bogie & Bacall's films together is Dark Passage, but on a second view I found a lot more to appreciate and Claire Trevor is brilliant but even the my indifferent first viewing revealed that.

  3. Ewww, I agree - the '76 "Star is Born" was utterly terrible. Babs looked dreadful, and the whole tedious vanity project just served to emphasise why exactly Kris Kristofferson should never have been told (even in jest) that he was an actor. Then came "Heaven's Gate". Nuff said. Jx

  4. "The world will never know another ego-powerhouse like Barbra, who executive produced many films starring herself where the male protagonist had to look down upon her nestled coyly beneath the freshly dampened sheets and say 'God, you are so beautiful.'"
    Cintra Wilson A Massive Swelling

    1. Hah!

      Of course her magic is that, sometimes, she can make you buy it. But when she can't - oh, dear...