24 January 2011

First in the Talkies

The four Warner brothers (Bette Davis not pictured).
The more films I watch from the early sound era, the more it seems that Warner Bros. had the superior track record in comparison to MGM. Metro may have had the prestige, the star power and the production values, but Warners' comparably modest pictures seem to have aged much better. Much of this, I suspect, has to do with the material the two studios chose to adapt to the screen.

In its glory days, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer gave every indication that it thought of itself as a purveyor of high-minded and respectable material. This approach, if nothing else, was certainly profitable -- it played quite well to the American social mores of the day. To be sure, MGM did make quite a few good films at the onset of the talkies, but as the years have gone by many MGM productions of the time have begun to feel stodgy and antiquated. Many Metro pictures of the day were society dramas, adapted from the stage -- at their core, episodes in the lives of attractive, well-to-do Anglo-Americans with problems,  typically of the marital variety. There are several such films that remain quite watchable to this day, but most feel a bit highfalutin and tedious.

Although Warner Bros. did try its hand at several such pictures, that studio demonstrated a much greater willingness to probe uncharted territories (indeed, it was Warner Bros. who began the talking pictures revolution with The Jazz Singer in 1927). Where MGM stuck with glamor, Warners' took a decidedly grittier angle -- the studio came to be specialize in pictures seemingly torn from the real world of the depression, in the process virtually inventing the gangster film as we know it today. The studio also imported from the theater the right kind of talent for these pictures -- James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell and Paul Muni, to name just a few (a bit later, the studio brought in a guy named Humphrey Bogart; you might have heard of him).

The pre-code crime drama was not the only area where Warner Bros. proved willing to blaze a trail. In 1932, the studio gambled on revitalizing the then-stagnant genre of the musical, beginning production of 42nd Street. The picture was a major success when it premiered in February of the next year, and  Warner Bros. followed up with a series of successful musical pictures.

In both categories, MGM had to play catch-up. Although Metro had cornered the market on musicals by the 1950s, it never did achieve what Warner Bros. in the field of the crime drama. Fortunately for them, Metro's prestige pictures remained wildly popular, and in flux of new talent -- both on-screen and behind the scenes -- allowed the studio to be the only consistently profitable studio throughout the depression. Yet even if its pictures were not as immediately lucrative, the willingness of Warner Bros. to push the envelope has given many of its films a far more lasting appeal.

[Image Sauce]

17 January 2011

Characters I like, Ep. 2

*Jean Arthur not included.
More than once I've wondered what I would do if I were to somehow come into a major financial windfall. My inner cynic suspects that I would probably blow a significant portion of my money on a luxury condominium and a high-end booze (lots and lots of high-end booze), but the better angels of my nature would, I hope, convince me to devote at least as much wealth to some noble act of philanthropy, very much in the spirit of Gary Cooper's Longfellow Deeds.

Longfellow Deeds is the eponymous character in Frank Capra's 1936 picture Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, in which an unassuming guy from the picturesque burg of Mandrake Falls inherits a fortune from a distant uncle in New York. When he arrives in the city, Mr. Deeds is besieged by all manner of spongers and opportunists out to turn a profit at the expense of the rube cynically dubbed the "Cinderella Man." Far from being a small-town dullard, however, Longfellow Deeds is a quirky mix of pragmatism and eccentricity. Put simply, he's the sort of fellow who will insist on hearing the treasurer's report before allowing the Opera committee to make a decision on funding, but on the other hand will slide down the banister of his staircase, chase after firetrucks in hopes of helping to put out a fire, and play his tuba in order to concentrate.

Such personality quirks are an essential part of the reason why I identify with the character like I do. Just as Longfellow's tuba-playing is cited as evidence of his being "pixilated", I too have a few unconscious tics that manifest themselves when I am thinking about something (these habits were once mistaken for symptoms of autism when I was a kid). Another aspect of Longfellow's personality to which I can relate quite well is the fact that he is no suave lady-killer -- the slightest attention from a pretty girl causes him to act like a big dope. This is most perfectly illustrated by a scene wherein Deeds, following a successful date with girl reporter Babe Bennett (played memorably by the inimitable Jean Arthur), is so excited that he runs down the street at full speed, only to crash headlong into a garbage can. Undeterred, he gets right back up and charges around the corner (at which point we hear him plow into another trash can as the scene fades out). It's precisely the same sort of oafish thing I would probably do (if I ever had occasion to, anyway). Along similar lines, I can't help but appreciate his seemingly out-of-place sense of chivalry -- specifically, Longfellow dreams of rescuing a lady in distress. I don't know that I've ever held such romantic delusions, but I can certainly understand the sentiment.

As Longfellow Deeds, Gary Cooper nailed the "average schmuck" angle so perfectly that it allowed him to virtually reinvent his screen persona. Previously primarily a dashing hero of western and adventure pictures, Cooper came, in the wake of Mr. Deeds, to typify the everyman protagonist (not that he wouldn't return to the Western hero well a few times in his career). Indeed, he and director Frank Capra  reunited five years later for a similarly-themed film entitled Meet John Doe. To make a tired point, it's virtually impossible not to like Longfellow Deeds as Gary Cooper portrays him, and it's very nearly as difficult not to identify with him in a least some way. Even if Gary Cooper hadn't brought him to life so perfectly, the character of Longfellow Deeds would still be an agreeable one -- I find it hard not to like a guy who has a left hook like Jake LaMotta and yet plays the tuba to help himself think.

08 January 2011

Pink Floyd - The Division Bell (1994)

As the years have gone by, my tastes in music have evolved and changed drastically. To give but one example, in 2007 I was very much into Black and Death Metal, whereas nowadays I am much more likely to listen to Benny Goodman or Starship Amazing than, say, Deathspell Omega. Yet amidst the ebb and flow of ever-changing musical tastes, there have been a few bands, albums and even songs that have stood the test of time. Foremost among this select few may be counted Pink Floyd, one of the most enduring bands in the history of Rock music. When pressed to name a favorite album of, most Pink Floyd enthusiasts will pick either Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here. These are certainly difficult choices to argue against -- although I am curious as to what degree these choices might be influenced by nostalgic recollections of listening to the albums on 8-track tapes whilst hot-boxing the back of a van -- but I would have to go with a more unorthodox option: 1994's The Division Bell.

This is perhaps a difficult choice to justify. Despite achieving double-platinum status in a matter of months, The Division Bell was panned by critics upon its release. Much of the bellyaching seems to revolve around the fact that The Division Bell sounds so very different from other Pink Floyd albums. This is an understandable complaint -- much of the music here seems more like experimental Space Rock than the sort of Classic Rock prevalent in Pink Floyd's earlier work (indeed, one critic dismissed it as "New Age noodling"). It should be remembered, however, that this was not the same Pink Floyd that recorded Dark Side or Wish You Were Here. Roger Waters had ended his association with the band nearly a decade earlier, and his absence is audible on The Division Bell -- put simply, the album just feels much different from its predecessors. Why, though, should that be such a bad thing? The Division Bell deserves to be judged on its own merits.

Those merits, it turns out, are considerable. With David Gilmour at the helm, the music here has a decidedly introspective and meditative character about it. Throughout the album there is a recurring theme of human communication, on various scales, whether it be a song of two humans, a cacophony of nations or a single man's alienation from the world around him. The point is perhaps made most manifest by none other than Stephen Hawking who, in one song, reminds us that "all we need to do is keep talking." Some critics have claimed that Gilmour's guitar work is somehow uninspired in comparison to his earlier work, but to perfectly honest, I just don't hear it. The musicianship on The Division Bell is no less impeccable as any of Gilmour's work before or since.

Although every track on the album is enjoyable, "High Hopes" would have to be my favorite. All at once it feels like both an overture and an encapsulation for the album as a whole. It is also the most personal song on the album, written by Gilmour from an autobiographical perspective. The song feels very epic -- not merely because it is long, but because it carries with it so much weight. More than any other song  on the album, "High Hopes" is highly evocative of images. It's difficult to explain, but give it a listen and I'm sure you'll get what I'm on about.

The Division Bell was the last studio album ever released by Pink Floyd. It may not be as critically acclaimed as earlier entries in the Pink Floyd catalog, but it is nevertheless a great album in its own right, and a worthy concluding chapter to the history of one the most influential bands of the last century.

04 January 2011

Musical Interlude: Солдатушки

You know what we haven't had around here in a long time (besides much of anything)? Why, a musical interlude. Let us rectify this situation in style, with a Russian marching tune that dates back to the days of the Napoleonic Wars.