New Criterion releases coming:
Heaven Can Wait, 1943 - Dir. Ernst Lubitsch - Criterion Web Site Page - Aug 21, 2018
Memories of Underdevelopment, 1968 - Dir. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea -Criterion website page - Aug 28, 2018
Smithereens, 1982 - Dir. Susan Seidelman - Criterion Web Page - Aug 21, 2018
Riffraff - 1936
Riffraff - Released Jan 3, 1936. Dir. J. Walter Ruben
Jean Harlow appeared in a number of 1930s films that modulated between comedy and melodrama with finesse, but Riffraff isn't one of them. Not that Harlow appears to be to blame here, she attacks her scenes with the same energy found in thousands of other feet of celluloid with other directors, but in Riffraff it looks like she's pointlessly pedaling harder on a downhill grade.
Spencer Tracy (as "Dutch" Muller) overdoes it as a tuna fisherman-cum-labor leader, but it's hard to blame him for throwing off the balance of the film, either, as the whole cast seems to be overdoing it. Joseph Calleia and George Givot take on their roles as a factory owner and his attorney with so much caricature involved that it looks like they're competing with Chico Marx.
The question that plagued me while watching this film was how can Riffraff play at screwball comedy (i.e., Givot and Calleia) but still be a melodrama chock full of soap opera? The dilemma of Dutch's ego and the trouble it brings everyone else (eventually getting Harlow in prison) is the main plot action here, but the film portrays the union fishery workers as a lunk-headed mob, and Dutch as only slightly smarter, the factory owner (Calleia) as only a bit smarter than him, and Hattie clearly brainier than the whole lot (as are many of the other female characters). But Hattie's only interested in true love and so sticks to her man Dutch despite his overweening pride, knee-jerk jealousy and eventual desertion. Their on-and-off again love and marriage is supposed to be a drama of a cannery factory girl (Harlow) and the big-headed would-be "Trotskyite" union leader Dutch, and how they overcome adversity and their own inner-demons to finally triumph, and it is true that this tone eventually takes over the third act of the movie and evens out the histrionics, despite the unbelievability of the overwrought story (courtesy of a staff of writers: Frances Marion, H.W. Hanemann, Anita Loos, George S. Kaufman, John Lee Mahin, and Carey Wilson).
But usually in a classic era Hollywood film of this type, despite all the character flaws on display, we still end up sympathizing and liking the main characters as they go through their trial-by-ordeal, but in Dutch's over-the-top self-love he gets to be rather unbearable as either a comedic/dramatic lead or as a failed husband putting Hattie through the ringer.
On the other hand, Harlow certainly looks gorgeous in Riffraff while enduring the trauma. Despite being a lowly cannery girl, she wakes up in bed with perfect 1930s eye lashes, hair and makeup, and manages to wear silken outfits (a frequent wardrobe for Harlow in many other movies where she plays characters rather more well-off). This being black-and-white, we can barely tell Harlow is her true brown-headed self, instead of the Platinum Blonde of dozens of other films. All the same, Harlow's energy and looks can't can't carry the movie, and Tracy's mix-matched effort of comedy and drama doesn't gel either, and though it's only 94 minutes long, it feels more like 194 minutes of not-quite-sure-what-kind-of-movie-we-are-making.
By the end, Hattie finally finds happiness and will return home (after prison!) to a stable marriage and husband, because inexplicably Dutch has finally reduced his tumor-like egomania to a more modest size. In some ways, the film Riffraff resembles Dutch, both start off as out-of-control and bizarre, but end up humble, humdrum and puzzling.
The Eagle Has Landed
The Eagle Has Landed - released April 2, 1977 (NYC). Directed by John Sturges
The Eagle has Landed has the unusual gambit of trying to get us to like and admire one of the main characters, a German paratrooper (Michael Caine) and to witness the basic humanity and even heroic action of him and his troupe of daring cammandos. Oberst Kurt Steiner (Caine) has the difficult task of kidnapping Winston Churchill, or, if absolutely necessary, assassinating the UK leader, but it takes a little while for the military gears for this adventure to really start turning. The first half of the movie is more of a talk fest as all the pieces for perpetuating the scheme are moved to the coast of Norfolk in the United Kingdom where Churchill is supposed to be arriving for a short holiday. Besides Caine's Germans (who will arrive dressed in disguise), the story also revolves around the activities of a German agent among the villagers (Jean Marsh), an Irish IRA agent (Donald Sutherland) and young love (with Jenny Agutter), along with an American unit led by a humorously incompetent leader named Colonel Pitts (Larry Hagman).
Sturges' direction in the latter part of the movie is an expertly told running battle between the small German unit and the American soldiers, but the first half is partially melodrama with the funny comedy of Larry Hagman's arrogant Col. Pitts and his mad desire to get into combat (which turns out to not be a very good idea for him nor his soldiers) bridging the two halves of the story.
Michael Caine's honorable German paratrooper who is commanded by Nazis who he appears to loath (and who we are supposed to loath right along with him) is another large part of the tale, and we are shown Caine's character heroically trying to save a Jewess prisoner near the beginning of the film, an action that gets him into trouble and if it were not for his particular skills being called upon to parachute into England, he might have been executed right then.
With his Nazi superiors watching him and a later problem of suddenly having a group of English hostages on his hands and no way out, the real tension of the movie appears to be whether Caine's Oberst Steiner will remain the humane soldier we saw at the beginning or will he go full-on Nazi killer. How Sturges and writer Tom Mankiewicz (from the Jack Higgins novel) wrap it all up is as serviceable a conclusion as can be expected from such an odd tale of World War II heroics with the Germans being a nominal group of "good guys" despite the understood necessity that they fail in their mission (although, in a way, they succeed).
The Blu Ray from Shout Factory is sharp with good color and sound.
Stranded - 1935
Stranded - Released June 29, 1935. Directed by Frank Borzage
Kay Francis (as Lynn Palmer) is tough, and George Brent (as Mack Hale) is tough, too, in this drama set in San Francisco. Both of their positions require it: she runs the Travelers' Aid desk at a train terminal in San Francisco where people in distress regularly show up, and he is the foreman on a bridge construction job on the Bay where racketeers, crooked union officials, and drunkenness in the crews threatens lives and the building deadline he is struggling to achieve.
Coming new releases from Criterion:
AMAZON Bluray: 6 Disc Set: Dietrich and von Sternberg in Hollywood : Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, The Devil Is a Woman - The Criterion Collection - July 3, 2018
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