Monday, January 30, 2012

The Oeuvre of Peppy Miller, Pt. 1

If you are under 75 and you don't know who Peppy Miller is, congratulations--you are not the type of film nerd who stays home watching TCM on a Saturday night. Peppy Miller was the Zooey Deschanel of her day (her day being the late 1920s to the late 1930s), an ethereally beautiful ingenue with an adorable awkward girl-next-door charm. She was one of the first big stars of the "talkies," a new start for Kinoscope Pictures during their shift from silent to sound films. I had only heard of her in passing in film history books before TCM ran a late-night/early morning marathon of three of her most famous films, but I got a crush on her around midnight and was deeply in love by 6 AM. She's not only gorgeous and charming, she's incredibly sincere as an actress, which I think really puts her several layers about Zooey. (I've always found Zooey sort of fake in a hipster way. Sorry.)

The first movie shown was Beauty Spot, directed by studio favorite Walter Doyle. This wasn't Miller's debut on the big screen, but it was her debut in the talkies and as a major star in the Kinoscope pantheon. This was pretty clearly written to showcase her dramatic range at the time, such as it was. (Miller doesn't have much of one, but that doesn't make her any less enjoyable as an actress--it did, however, truncate her career when she began to age of out of the "modern maiden" roles she played. She took it gracefully, by all accounts, and I think she ended up running a dance school for several decades before she died.)

Beauty Spot tells the story of Tippy Tanner, a smalltown girl who leaves her home of Riverton, Delaware for the bright lights of the big city. Tippy Tanner is played by Peppy, naturally. Her two best friends, plain Madge and boy-next-door Rich, send her off with a fond farewell. Tippy's adorable and gawky here, her natural beauty not really obscured by a frumpy flowered dress and no makeup (except for her trademark Beauty Spot). Rich is played by Paul Rainier, who'd previously only had bit parts. He was poisted to become a much bigger star than he actually did, but his boyish handsomeness really couldn't make up for his total lack of acting ability--he hams up the part with a bunch of "gosh gee whillikers" crap that makes him seem like a brain-damaged puppy. We won't be discussing him much. Madge, played by Maris Fraune, is the most seasoned actor of the bunch. The actress had just turned 30, and her cheery performance as Madge, even in the first scene, is tempered by a subtle sense of worry and jealousy.

Tippy arrives in New York, struggles for a montage (Peppy Miller waiting tables with cockroaches in her hair will be my next Halloween costume), but reassures herself that she's "got something no other girl has got." She's discovered pretty quickly by Lance Larson, a handsome sharp dresser played by Italian heartthrob Cal Mitsuvino. Cal's accent wanders a little throughout the movie, but he's got such a great, over-the-top mix of sleazy charm and violent menace that it barely matters. He's also got a wife, Lisa Larson, an aging platinum blonde played by Broadway actress Samantha Halloway, who turns in a wonderfully melodramatic performance as a bellowing shrew with good reason to be. Halloway doesn't get a lot of scenes, but they are chock-full of righteous anger. The woman clearly enjoyed chewing scenery.

Larson is a talent agent, and he convinces Tippy that he's her one and only ticket to stardom. He books her at clubs, concert halls, the like...and that's the centerpiece of the film, Tippy's glamorous rise to stardom. This is pure glamour porn without much of a plot, showing Tippy's gorgeous outfits, dazzling performances, interviews, poolside lounging, the like. The only development during the 15-minute sequence is that Tippy gets a little more demanding and orders a few gin fizzes--apparently the writers wanted to make it seem like fame had spoiled the character, but couldn't bring themselves to write Peppy doing anything really awful like slapping a waiter or kissing one of the muscle hunks that she seems to be surrounded by during many of her shows. She also gets cozy with Larson, and by the time the montage ends, Larson's wife has left him, and he and Tippy are shown living in sin in a gorgeous Art Deco flat that I want to own, I don't care if I have to schtup a sleazy talent agent to do it.

The moment Tippy muffs a line in a play (she gets dressed up in medieval togs and plays Juliet, opposite an incredibly forgettable hunk--possibly this is showing that she has Artistic Ambition)--Larson brings in a new girl, a dark-haired vamp played breathily, sultrily, by Rita von Meese. Yum yum, but this means Tippy is demoted to secretary, which means a melodramatic sequence where she learns all about the dirty ins and outs, wheelings and dealings of the talent business. Larson is in full Snidely Whiplash mode here, practically twirling his pencil mustache while he dictates memos and contracts to Tippy. Tippy, being perfect, is so good with the typing that she becomes his Girl Friday, accompanying him to shady clubs and talent offices. Of course, every dude with a tie or a pageboy cap comments on her beauty and hits on her--EVERY one, and it gets sort of repetitive and over the top, we get it, she's hot--but Larson is determined to keep her to himself.

Tippy is lounging around at home, looking unhappy and stressed, when she receives a letter from back home--Madge and Rich are getting married! And then we get a tour of Riverton, which is the most disgustingly adorable little suburban backlot in the world. Rich gets about two lines from here, and I have a feeling that Doyle ended up assigning most of Rich's lines to Madge. Good choice, because Fraune's performance is nuanced enough to set off Miller's perfectly--Madge is content and sarcastic at the same time, happy with Rich but not with the staid setting of Riverton, whereas Tippy is clearly fraying at the edges and full of nostalgia for the small town of her youth. She ends up sobbing at the wedding, falling into Madge's welcoming arms as she confesses the saga of her big city heartbreak.

And this is awesome, dear readers--Madge skips the honeymoon and ditches Rich temporarily to go to the city with Tippy, tell off Larson, and help Tippy start her own talent agency. The speeches in the last part of the film are heartfelt and elaborate, like the writers were just bursting at the seams with amazing lines that could only be delivered in sound, and wanted to cram them all in. Tippy's line to Larson is the best: "You thought I was just a silly little girl with a beauty spot, but I've got a brain, too, and I bet I can do what you do better than you've ever done it." Proto-feminist New Woman for the win! The last shot of Tippy is priceless--we see her in a chic suit, ogling her first client, who happens to be a dewey-eyed boy ingenue. Will she corrupt him? Will the cycle continue? Who are we kidding? This is Peppy Miller, and they're going to get married and make adorable babies.

The next two movies I'll review are "Shadows" and "Guardian Angel."

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

To Climb An Evil Mountain (1963)

To Climb an Evil Mountain 
Director: G. Sakke

Dennis Wain 
played by Martin Landau 

Carol Wain 
played by Barbara Bain 

Mr. Rex 
played by James Mason 

Pyotr Golovin
played by Montgomery Clift 

Sakke begins the film with an overhead shot of one of the Levittowns that honeycombed the nation, zooming slowly in on the run-down prefabricated house owned by a starry-eyed Dennis (Landau), and his long-suffering but charming wife, Carol (Bain). The scene is suffused with light, making the Wains’ cluttered house and even their mangy dog into something warm and familiar, reminiscent of the most treacly sitcoms of the era; indeed, Sakke seems to urge the viewer to embrace the Wains as a lovably ambitious couple before we even get to know them.

The film follows Dennis through the next few weeks of his new job as a salesman. A series of fortunate coincidences in Dennis’s equally warmly-lit office follows; after each one, the camera pulls away at the end to reveal Dennis’s boss, Mr. Rex  (Mason), lurking nearby. The immediate suggestion is that Mr. Rex is merely observing Dennis’s apparent skill at selling and at office politics, and indeed, only a few minutes of screentime pass before Dennis is promoted to the executive board.

This prompts another scene with Carol at the Wain house, in which she does not display harried affection towards Dennis as in the first scene, but begins to loudly plan the things she will buy and the additions she will make to the house with the promotion money. As she plans, the house becomes a little more starkly lit, the focus more claustrophobic, and Dennis becomes more visibly dismayed. By the end of the scene, in which Carol plans to have a baby and insists upon putting down their dog, Sakke has transformed the film from a domestic comedy into a drama.
The dream sequence directly afterwards, in which Dennis slowly strangles his dog and destroys the house, is shot in a series of intense close-ups and lit in a flickering, smeary soft focus, as though Sakke is afraid to let the audience think that it might be the logical next step in the narrative.

Back at the office, Dennis is shown to be in over his head as he accidentally becomes embroiled in a complex business scheme, handling each inexplicable encounter very badly; this time, Mr. Rex’s presence at the edge of each scene is sinister rather than passively benevolent. When Dennis is fired for reasons that neither he nor the viewer is allowed to fully understand, the look of anguish on Landau’s face is exquisite, and the camera lingers on it as the light fades from the scene, accentuating each shadow and wrinkle on his face.

There is a smooth transition as the camera pulls back to reveal Dennis in a gloomy bar, knocking back drinks, tie undone. He is soon approached by Pyotr (Clift, with a charmingly atrocious accent), who offers to buy him drinks and lend a sympathetic ear. Their dialogue and body language is intriguingly ambiguous; Clift plays the role with a tense seductiveness, and Landau (who shot the scene completely sober, despite rumors spurred by the realism of his acting) plays a receptive, tactile drunk. When Pyotr escorts him home, the contrast between his physical protectiveness of Dennis and Carol’s brusque handling of her passed-out husband is so great as to be almost ironic.

This first half hour of the movie has only set the stage for the bulk of the action, as Sakke weaves the story of Dennis and Pyotr’s friendship into a Cold War thriller. Sakke draws out the audience’s realization that Pyotr is a Communist spy by alternating emotionally complex scenes of Dennis’s growing alienation from his wife and his obvious dissatisfaction with the myriad menial jobs he takes (and is subsequently fired from) with scenes that illustrate the growing friendship between Dennis and Pyotr, in each of which Sakke makes it more and more obvious to the viewer (but apparently not to Dennis) that Pyotr is constantly engaged in various subtle forms of espionage.

Sakke sets up the movie’s climax by having Dennis storm out of their house during a fight, after which Pyotr invites Dennis to “sleep on the sofa” (the line is delivered with unambiguous irony), ostensibly while he finds a better-paying job. In a brief and ironic return to the atmosphere of domestic bliss set up at the beginning of the movie, Pyotr’s apartment is warmly lit and inviting, suggesting a haven for the worn-down Dennis. But before the audience can see them engage in any telling scenes of domesticity, Dennis is captured and relentlessly interrogated by American agents who demand, in a stark and intense scene, details about Pyotr’s anti-American plans that neither the audience nor Dennis is privileged to know.

The movie briefly dips into formulaic action territory as Pyotr rescues Dennis from his captors. Sadly, the climax is the weakest part of the movie, as Sakke intersperses quick, almost identical shots of Dennis in a cramped cell with the progression of Pyotr’s movements. One wonders why Sakke would choose this moment to depart from the narrative limitations he has placed on the rest of the movie; perhaps it is because he could not resist showing off the bogglingly complicated rescue plan he had created for Pyotr, a sequence which would have worked better in Landau’s later vehicle, Mission: Impossible.

Their escape is unhampered by more guards or agents, which leaves Dennis and Pyotr ample time for a wrenching, emotional conversation, during which Pyotr tries to convince him to defect to Russia. Dennis faints before he can begin to agree or refuse, and Pyotr must carry him for the second time in the movie.

The movie then jumps to its second dream sequence, in which Carol, smiling and demure in the Wains’ newly luxurious house, hands a baby to a bruised and disheveled Dennis, who strangles it in an almost shot-for-shot replica of the first dream sequence. This scene, considered by many critics to be one of the most disturbing in mainstream cinema, was cut out of the movie for American audiences but fortunately reinstated in the DVD edition (along with “deleted scenes” showing Clift and Landau exploring their characters in the set for Pyotr’s apartment).

The last scene shows Pyotr and Dennis, well-groomed and in suits, in an airport preparing to leave for Russia. The very last shot before the credits roll begins with the pair with their backs to the camera, arms around each others’ shoulders, as the camera slowly pans out from the airport and into a wide, gleaming shot of New York and the Atlantic Ocean.

Welcome to the Library

Hi there. I have a Netflix subscription and I finally sprung for the mail-in DVD option. It's amazing. I just got a Kindle for the winter holiday, and I'm gobbling up eBooks by the handful. I also have a cat, and I have this great big mug of wine. It's glorious. I love to be entertained and I want to tell you about it.