Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Shadow of a Doubt: Girl Power!

This is my entry in The Universal Pictures Blogathon hosted by Silver Scenes. Click HERE for more Universal entertainment!

The Sick Rose

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy
 - William Blake

I've never viewed Alfred Hitchcock's 1943 "Shadow of a Doubt" as a case for feminism, but lately I'm beginning to wonder....

Like Blake's sick rose, "Shadow of a Doubt" presents us with a sick, creeping evil that lurks beneath something lovely. A lovely town (Santa Rosa, California), a lovely average family (the Newtons), a perfectly charming visiting relative (that would be Uncle Charlie). Nothing is as it seems or should be.

When we first meet her, Young Charlie (a perfectly cast Theresa Wright) is restless. Lying on her bed, she is critical of her small town life and her ordinary family. She longs for some excitement, something to "shake things up." On the other side of the country her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten in an unforgettable performance) is also lying in bed. He, too, views his world with disdain, but he does not long for excitement. He longs to elude the police and live another day.

Young Charlie has a sixth sense when it comes to her Uncle. She rushes to send him a telegram, only to find out that he has already sent one to her telling her he is on his way. The Merry Widow Waltz is inside her head while her Uncle, The Merry Widow Murderer, smiles at her across the table. But she can't see the worm in the rose. Not yet.

The longer Uncle Charlie stays, the more he begins to wear his welcome out with almost everyone except his sweet and simple sister (who he accuses of being just a gullible woman when the police try to infiltrate the Newton home with a phony magazine article ruse). He behaves boorishly at Mr. Newton's bank and place of employment and spews his corrosive view of widows enjoying their lives with their dead husbands' money. When Young Charlie challenges him with the statement that they are still human beings, Uncle Charlie sneers "are they?" Big Charlie's only positive world views are expressed when he is looking backwards, to a time when everything was (or seemed) sweet and pretty. There is no place in that world for an independent woman, a woman with money or thoughts or a will of her own. 

Young Charlie, no matter what her fate, will not become her mother. She will not be a loving slave, even if she marries her policeman suitor. The young ladies of the Newton household will become the things that Uncle Charlie despises. Little  Ann clearly has a curious mind that will not be satisfied with dolls and dress-up. And Young Charlie, once the apple of her Uncle's eye, the recipient of his trophy and token of love (that telltale emerald ring), she is put in the precarious position of defending the veneer of the life she questions by combating the person she felt was her soulmate. She has seen the worm and life will never be simple again. Her innocence is gone, her intelligence is rewarded. Take your place in the world, Young Charlie. The price is high, but you will go far.

Monday, October 19, 2015

CMBA Blogathon: Buster Keaton's "Our Hospitality"

This is my entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association Planes, Trains and Automobile Blogathon. Click HERE to view more fabulous entries about our favorite modes of transportation in film.

Buster Keaton loved trains.  “The General,” one of his most famous films, is about a man’s love for his train; a love that transcends his love for (an admittedly dopey) woman. Keaton found ways to incorporate trains in short films, long films, early films and late films. One of my favorite sight gags of all time – from Keaton’s 1920 short “One Week” – involves a locomotive. Check it out if you’ve never seen it. It never gets old.

But by far my most favorite train in all of Keaton’s films is the recreation of Stephenson’s Rocket for his first feature length film, 1921’s “Our Hospitality.”

The real Rocket

Buster plays Willie McKay, a dandified youth living in pre-Civil War New York. Unbeknownst to Willie, his family, the McKays, were engaged in an epic family feud with the Canfields for decades down South. Willie’s mother, now deceased, wanted to raise her boy away from the feudin’ and fightin’ and moved up North without ever telling her boy that the Canfields were the McKay’s mortal enemies. Twenty years later we find Willie, a true innocent, living with his aunt in the big city.

Willie gets around New York City on his Gentleman's Hobby Horse

One day Willie gets a letter informing him that he is heir to his father’s estate. Willie dreams of a great Southern mansion and immediately prepares to head down South. His aunt tells him of the feud, but Willie is determined to collect his inheritance. His method of transportation will be the train. This train.

Keaton and his team built a replica of Stephenson’s Rocket and train becomes one of the film’s most endearing characters. Based on the time period, he said that had a choice between the Rocket and The DeWitt Clinton and chose the Rocket because it was funnier looking. It also had personality. It was genteel, it was homey, it constantly jumped the tracks and magnified every bump and dip in its path. It was a modern mode of transportation that retained the elegance of an earlier time. The New York to Appalachia trip is beautifully photographed. There is a loving, nostalgic quality to the journey, as seen in Willie’s little dog follows the train to be with his master.

On this charming, unique and faintly ridiculous train, Willie meets, Virginia, the lady of his dreams. Unfortunately, he doesn’t learn until much later that Virginia’s last name is Canfield. After a harrowing, bumpy, dirty, and wholly delightful train trip, Willie and Virginia are in love. Virginia, also innocent of Willie’s pedigree, invites him to dinner to meet her family… a family that consists of a father and 2 brothers who remain rabid for McKay blood.

Willie and Virginia: Strangers on a Train

Willie, of course, is oblivious at first as the brothers try to rub him out. But, they are inept and Willie is just plain lucky. After many hilarious attempts on his life that are thwarted by Willie’s clever escapes, the 2 families finally bury the hatchet (sort of) when Willie bravely rescues Virginia from a raging river. In one of Keaton’s greatest stunts, he clings to a tree branch as it sweeps across the river, managing to pluck the drowning Virginia out just as she was almost carried over a waterfall. Willie and Virginia marry and the brothers lay down their arms (but Buster has a few pistols concealed in his coat – just in case). Oh, and, of course, Willie's inheritance was a shack.

Willie must always keep one eye open when the Canfield Boys are around

“Our Hospitality” was a real Keaton family affair. In the prologue, Buster’s infant son, Buster, Jr., played Willie as a baby. Virginia was played by his wife, Natalie Talmadge. While Natalie as not a star like her sisters Norma and Constance, she is quite lovely here and very convincing. The Engineer, who had to put up with much harassment on his journey, was played by Buster’s father, Joe Keaton, and it is a treasure to see them perform together.

3 generations of Keatons: Buster, Jr., Buster and Joseph Keaton

As Stephenson’s rocket roams the American landscape, navigating tracks laid over logs, rocks and gullies, Keaton’s eye for beauty is on full display. The journey and the mode of transportation are one: modern with an appreciation of the past. Keaton loved the steam that takes us places, but also loves the beauty and serenity of all of the places on the way.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Hollywood's Hispanic Heritage Blogathon: John Sayles' LONE STAR

This is my entry in the Hollywood's Hispanic Heritage Blogathon, hosted by the lovey Aurora at Once Upon a Screen. Click HERE for mucho more!

I love this film. Everything about it feels authentic, everything from the town, the characters, the emotions and the secrets. It is my favorite John Sayles film, and that is saying a lot. Dealing with the deceptively ordinary, it is anything but. The overwhelming humanity makes you catch your breath, not so much as it unfolds before you, but maybe later, as you sit back and go “aha…of course.”

The story begins with the discovery of a skeleton in the Texas/Mexican border town of Frontera. Frontera is a melting pot whose diversity keeps it simmering. Turns out the bones belong to the hated sheriff Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson), who disappeared in 1957. By all accounts, Charlie was a real SOB – a corrupt tyrant, a bigot and thug. The Mexicans hated him, the blacks hated him and the whites weren’t too fond of him, either.  Legend has it that Charlie had absconded with $10,000 of county money. There are lots of legends and lots of back stories in Frontera. There are spoilers galore ahead, so if you’d prefer not to know how it all turns out, stop reading now.

He used to be a big shot....
The current Sheriff, Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) is a man who got his job on the coattails of his wildly popular father, the late sheriff Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey). Buddy was Charlie Wade’s deputy at the time of his disappearance and as glad as everyone was to see Charlie go, they were glad to see Buddy stay. It’s up to Sam to find out what happened to Charlie Wade.

Sam really, really wants another job......
Reluctantly, Sam must revisit the stories of the fathers and sons and mothers and daughters of Frontera in order to learn the truth. Otis “Big O” Payne is owner of nightclub and a leader in the town’s African-American community. His son, Delmore, is the base commander of the nearby Army base. Delmore has no respect for Otis, due to his cheating ways. Otis runs a somewhat shady establishment, but Otis learned long ago what had to be done to get along when men like Charlie Wade ran the show. Otis knows something, but what?

Good Cop/Bad Cop
Miriam Colon, the owner of a local restaurant, knows something, too, Sam has a particular dislike for Miriam because Sam was sweet on Miriam’s daughter, Pilar (Elizabeth Pena), but both Miriam and Buddy put the kibosh on romance. Sam thought it was because both parents disapproved of a white/Hispanic relationship.

Star-crossed lovers
By chance, Sam and Pilar reconnect and resume their love story. Meanwhile, Sam learns the final truth about everyone: Charlie tried to kill Otis because he thought he was being cut out of Otis’s illegal gambling profits, Buddy and his partner, Hollis, shot Wade to protect Otis and buried him in the desert, and Buddy and Miriam were lovers. As the last piece of the puzzle slips into place, Sayles’s story of diversity and community comes into focus. Buddy was Pilar’s father; Sam and Pilar are half brother and sister. And they don’t care. They agree to continue their thwarted romance and say to hell with the past. In a place where everyone is different yet the same, this feels right.

So many secrets in such a small town

Remember - there is mucho more at Once Upon a Screen!