The Adorably Morbid Children of the Classics

As many stuck-at-home audiences have been over the past year of pure, all-encompassing Hell, I’ve recently found myself seeking out cinematic comfort food in the form of Classic Movies, the kind of Old Hollywood fare best enjoyed under a blanket with a hot toddy & a bar of chocolate. That impulse overwhelmed my viewing habits around this past Christmas especially, when the annual stress of the holiday and the burnout from Best of 2020 catchups had me seeking shelter in the feel-good Movie Magic of the Studio Era. I wasn’t watching these films with any specific critical purpose in mind, but I did notice a glaring, unexpected common thread between them that delighted me, if not only because it was a subversive contrast to the warm-blanket nostalgia feeling I was looking for. I started to detect an archetype of 1930s & 40s media that I hadn’t really considered being a hallmark of the era before: the adorably morbid child. I’m not referencing the vicious little monsters of later cinema like the pint-sized villains of The Bad Seed, The Children’s Hour, or Village of the Damned. It’s an earlier, sweeter archetype of the cutie-pie tyke who happens to be obsessed with death, decay, and general amoral debauchery despite their cheery appearance. In an era where studio-sanctioned art was cranked out to seek wide commercial appeal, creators had thoughtfully included proto-goth youngsters in their casts of characters for the real Weirdos in the audience — something I still greatly appreciated from the warmth of my couch & blanket nearly a century later.

By far the purest, most adorably vicious specimen of this archetype is Tootie from the 1944 movie musical Meet Me in St Louis. Based on its reputation as The One Where Judy Garland Sings “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, I didn’t expect much in the way of subversion out of this Old Hollywood Movie Musical. Maybe that’s why I absolutely fell in love with Tootie The Pint-Sized Sociopath, whose interjections of feral bloodlust into this otherwise cheery Studio picture got huge, consistent laughs out of me. It’s like Louise Belcher was cast as one of the March sisters in a musical production of Little Women, a delightful element of pure, out-of-nowhere chaos. Child actor Margaret O’Brien even earned second-bill for the role beneath Garland on the posters, despite being more of an occasional source of comic relief than a main-cast participant. While her older sisters & parents navigate romances, courtships, and harsh financial decisions of the adult world, Tootie lives out a mostly carefree childhood in turn-of-the-century Missouri where she staves off boredom by focusing on the more ghoulish aspects of life. Tootie frequently interrupts the plot to interject about all her dolls she’s buried in the cemetery, the minor acts of domestic terrorism she’s committed against the city’s streetcar tracks, or how “The iceman saw a drunkard get shot yesterday; the blood squirted out three feet!” Each time she pipes up in sugary sweet squeaks you know you’re about to hear about the gnarliest shit that’s ever happened in St. Louis, which is a hilarious contrast to the warmer, more nostalgic comforts of Judy Garland singing Christmas carols.

I might’ve assumed Tootie was a total cinematic anomaly had I not also revisited one of my personal favorite Christmas classics this year, 1934’s Hays Code defiant comedy-noir The Thin Man. Usually when praising The Thin Man, it’s unavoidable to focus on the playful, often violent sexual innuendo shared between married, martini-swilling detectives Nick & Nora Charles. On this rewatch, though, I found myself drawn to the morbid fixations of the teenage side character Gilbert, the son of the murder victim Nick & Nora are hired to avenge. Gilbert is much older than Tootie, and so his adorable morbidity as a teenage boy is a lot less striking at first glance. What’s hilarious about its effect on the film, however, is how freaked out the other characters are by his obsession with death & sexual perversion. Police are squicked when he gleefully asks, of his own father’s corpse, “Could I come down and see the body? I’ve never seen a dead body.” It doesn’t help at all when he plainly explains, “Well, I’ve been studying psychopathic criminology and I have a theory. Perhaps this was the work of a sadist or a paranoiac. If I saw it I might be able to tell.” Unlike Tootie’s family in Meet Me in St. Louis, Gilbert’s mother & sister aren’t at all amused by his faux-Freudian obsession with sex & death, best typified by his sister’s repulsed reaction to his confession that, “Now, I know I have a mother fixation, but it’s slight. It hasn’t yet reached the point of where I …” The censorship of the era would not have allowed that train of thought to go much further, but it’s almost worse that the audience’s imagination is allowed to fill in the blank. Gilbert is not nearly as funny nor as alarming as Tootie, if not only because death & perverse sexual urges don’t seem as wildly out of place coming from a teenage boy in a drunken noir as they do coming from a 7-year-old girl in a cheery movie musical. Still, he’s a hilarious intrusion on the plot & tone of the work, especially since every other character is so thoroughly freaked out by his enthusiasm for ghoulish subjects.

While I couldn’t think of another movie character from the 30s & 40s that fit the mold of a Tootie or a Gilbert, I do believe they share a sensibility with a newspaper comics icon from that same era: Wednesday Addams. While The Addams Family wouldn’t be adapted to television & silver screen until decades later, the wholesomely morbid characters originated in a single-panel newspaper comic that was substantially popular in the 1930s. Wednesday Addams isn’t as bubbly nor as sugar-addled as Tootie, but she mostly fills the same role: a subversively morbid child who’s just as adorable as she is fixated on death & mayhem. It might just be because I’m a child of the 1990s, but Christina Ricci defines the character in my mind, thanks to her dual performances in Barry Sonnenfeld’s The Addams Family (1991) & Addams Family Values (1993). While her performance (along with a career-high turn from Joan Cusack) is more deliciously over-the-top in the sequel, the often-neglected original film of the duo showcases her as occasional, adorable interjections to the plot the same way Tootie & Gilbert function in their respective films. The ’91 Addams Family movie feels spiritually in-sync with the source material’s origins as a single-panel newspaper comic, mostly entertaining as a never-ending flood of individual sight gags; it’s essentially ZAZ for goths. Wednesday mostly operates outside the main plot (which largely concerns her parents’ relationship with her prodigal uncle), occasionally interjecting as a hyper-specific type of sight gag: a young, adorable little girl with a hyperactive sense of bloodlust. Wednesday is mostly silent in the ’91 film, but the way she repeatedly murders her brother, leads a spooky familial séance, and sprays her school play audience in gallons of stage blood leads to some of the film’s most outrageously funny moments; it’s no wonder Addams Family Values gave her more to do in the spotlight, straying further from both the comic panel source material & the usual role of the adorably morbid child side-character trope.

One thing that stuck out to me when revisiting the Addams Family movie so soon after falling in love with Tootie is that it starts with a Christmas carol, and ends at Halloween. Similarly, Meet Me in St. Louis is often cited as one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time, but one of its major set-pieces involves Tootie participating in an escalating series of Halloween pranks while dressed as the ghost of a town drunk. Meanwhile, Addams Family Values includes an iconic Thanksgiving-themed stage play (despite being set at a sleepaway summer camp), and The Thin Man is set between Christmas Eve & New Year’s. It makes sense that these comfort-watch classics would be likely to be set around The Holidays, since that time of year is so prone to warmly comforting (and easily marketable) nostalgia. The uniformity of these three characters—Tootie, Gilbert, and Wednesday—across those similar settings is amusing as a codified trio, though, and I can’t help but want to seek out more adorably morbid children in classic films just like them. Surely, there must be more violence-obsessed tykes running havoc around otherwise even-keel studio pictures of the Old Hollywood era. If nothing else, I suspect the continued popularity of Wednesday Addams over the decades must have been an influence over classic movie characters I just haven’t met yet. I doubt any will be as delightfully fucked up as our beloved little Tootie, but I’ll be seeking them out anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

Grand Hotel (1932)

After years of watching homages to the genre it helped name & pioneer, I thought I knew what to expect from the ensemble-cast Old Hollywood spectacle Grand Hotel. Grand hotel-set screwball throwbacks to its interweaving-characters story structure (such as What’s Up Doc?, Big Business, and The Grand Budapest Hotel) set me up to expect a straight-up farcical comedy. I gasped, then, when Grand Hotel took a shocking tragic turn seemingly out of nowhere in its third act, a tonal shift that only caught me off-guard because of the expectations set by its much goofier spiritual descendants. I guess I should have been tipped off by the film’s Best Picture Oscar, given the Academy’s long-running aversion to recognizing comedies as a legitimate artform, but I was shocked all the same. Grand Hotel acts like a standard star-packed Old Hollywood screwball comedy for most of its runtime, then floods the screen with last-minute melodrama to pump itself up with an air of prestige. I don’t know that I preferred the dramatic conclusion to the comedic build-up, but it is kinda cool that a studio picture from nine decades ago managed to surprise me in its basic story structure.

Set at “the most expensive hotel in Berlin”, Grand Hotel chronicles the overlapping lives of unlikely acquaintances who could only cross paths because they’re staying at the same hotel: a prima donna ballerina, a down-on-his-luck factory worker, a blustering business executive, a suave cat burglar, etc. It’s the kind of early Hollywood production that feels more like a filmed stage play than it does cinematic poetry, but it’s packed with enough big-name stars from the era (dressed in exquisite gowns by the always-on-point couturier Adrian) that the limited creativity in its editing & camerawork doesn’t especially detract from its prestige. The most notable starpower is a generational changing of the guard, miraculously featuring both Greta Garbo & Joan Crawford in one movie even though they feel like they belong to entirely different eras. That crossover isn’t especially highlighted onscreen; the two actors somehow never share a scene even though they’re fighting for the romantic attentions of the same man. Still, Garbo’s depressive diva ballerina & Crawford’s hot-to-trot nude model/”stenographess” offer a fascinating contrast in morals & class, echoed in the social divides of the various characters that drift through each other’s lives.

Grand Hotel is purposefully, subversively funny when it wants to be. There are a lot jaunty class-divide jabs at capitalist pigs and Hays Code-era sex jokes like (to Crawford’s sultry stenographess) “Why don’t you take a little dictation from me sometime?” that keep the mood light & celebratory for most of the runtime. As a result, when the tragedy that concludes this interwoven, ensemble-cast story stops that line of humor dead, I reflexively shouted “Oh shit!” at the screen, totally unprepared for the last-minute tonal shift. I guess that’s the kind of genre-skewing shenanigans necessary to land a Best Picture Oscar for a Comedy (which this movie won despite being nominated in no other category), but it is a little jarring if you’re more familiar with the film’s descendants than you are with its own original reputation. I expected to enjoy a light yuck-em-up with my old pals Crawford & Garbo while they modeled pretty dresses & ran around a massive studio lot set. It turns out Grand Hotel‘s teeth are a little sharper than that.

-Brandon Ledet

Inserts (1975)

When the New Hollywood movement made movies dangerous & vulgar again in the 1970s, there was a kind of nostalgia in the air for pre-Code filmmaking of the 1920s & 30s. It’s the same way that punk dialed the clock back from mid-70s stadium rock to straight-forward 60s garage. Counterculture touchstones of the era like The Cockettes, Cabaret, and Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle all pulled influence from an idealized vision of Old Hollywood hedonism in the industry’s pre-Code era. The forgotten X-rated drama Inserts is no exception to this indulgence in pre-Code nostalgia, but it takes a more direct, literal approach to mourning the loss of the Hollywood that could have been if it weren’t for the moralistic censorship of The Hays Code and it’s fiercest enforcer, Joseph Breen. While most 1970s artists were romanticizing the first couple decades of amoral Hollywood excess at its heights, Inserts instead visits the era at its death bed to have one final swig of liquor with its corpse before it’s hauled off to the morgue. It’s more of a grim memorial than a celebration, which likely contributed to the film being forgotten by critics & audiences over time.

A pre-Jaws Richard Dreyfuss stars opposite a pre-Suspiria Jessica Harper as a 1930s director/actress duo scrounging at the outskirts of the Old Hollywood system. Dreyfuss is the lead: a once reputable Silent Film director who floundered when the industry shifted into making Talkies. Bitter about his fall from fame and, subsequently, blind-drunk, he wastes his directorial talents by shooting stag pornos in his decrepit Los Angeles mansion. Harper enters his life as a wannabe actress who volunteers to shoot anonymous “inserts” for an incomplete porno that goes off the rails when its original star overdoses on heroin. In exchange, she pushes Dreyfuss to return to his former glory as a fully engaged, passionate filmmaker and to teach her the ropes of her desired profession as a Hollywood starlet. Their miserable struggle to complete the picture is sequenced as if in real-time, while other doomed characters drift in and out of the shoot (most significantly Bob Hoskins as a blustering porno financier and Veronica Cartright as a more, um, experienced performer). The whole thing feels like a well-written & performed but incurably misanthropic one-act stage play.

While Inserts is effectively about the death of Hollywood’s hedonistic first wave, visions of that fallen empire are mostly left to play in your imagination off-screen. Names like Strondheim, DeMille, and Gish are shamelessly dropped in non-sequitur anecdotes. Meanwhile, the much-buzzed-about new kid in town Clark Gable periodically knocks on the door of the mansion the movie rots in, but he’s never invited inside. Hollywood is changing outside, but it’s not deliberately leaving Dreyfuss’s drunken misanthrope behind; that’s a decision he’s made himself. We’re mostly left to rot with him in the choices he’s made: his choice of cheap booze, his choice of self-destructive associates, his choice of violent, vulgar “art.” The core of the film’s overwhelming sense of boozy, sweaty desperation is in his budding relationship with his newest starlet, Harper. The volatile pair turn shooting inserts for a throwaway stag porno into a game of dominance & mutual self-destruction. It’s a sick S&M game where he tries to scare her away from the industry by referring to her naked flesh as “meat” and acting as the domineering auteur. In turn, she playfully tops him from the bottom – mocking the sexual & creative impotence caused by his alcoholism in a humiliating display. Their collaboration is the act of filmmaking at its ugliest and most corrosive, an extreme exaggeration of the industry’s worst tendencies.

Inserts isn’t all smut & gloom. The film is viciously miserable, but it’s also shockingly amusing when it wants to be. It’s darkly funny the way a lot of stage plays are, often interrupting its cruelest offenses with a withering quip or a burst of slapstick humor. It constantly tempers its 1920s filmmaking nostalgia with Hollywood Babylon-style shock value in heroin addiction, necrophilia, and casting-couch abuses. Still, that nostalgia manages to shine through the grime, and the film mostly feels like a belated funeral for a well-loved era that was cut short by Breen & Hays. It might not be as fun to watch as a Richard Dreyfuss porno-drama sounds on paper, but it’s a rattling, captivating experience that deserves to be dusted off & re-evaluated now that we’ve all had enough time & distance to properly sober up.

-Brandon Ledet

The Bigamist (1953)

One of the ways Ida Lupino was able to make the leap from actress to director in the Old Hollywood system was by framing her work as morality tales. That way, she could get away with making the first woman-directed noir The Hitch-Hiker—a throat-hold thriller from start to end—by passing it off as a lesson on the dangers of adultery with just a few throwaway lines of dialogue. Her directorial follow-up to that chilling cult classic is much more enthusiastically committed to exploring adultery as a moralistic theme, as you can tell by its attention-grabbing title: The Bigamist. Oddly, though, The Bigamist takes a much more wishy-washy stance on the dangers of adultery than The Hitch-Hiker, even though it dwells on the act for the entirety of its runtime instead of merely evoking it in a mood-setting prologue. The Bigamist is a morality tale about adultery (through its furthest extreme in polygamy) without ever outright condemning the act as a sin. It’s an engagingly ambiguous film in terms of reading its moral compass even now—more than a half-century after its initial release—but especially so for its time.

Edmond O’Brien stars as a traveling salesman who is racked with guilt because he’s hopelessly in love with both of his wives, who live in two distant cities. Joan Fontaine co-stars as his wife of 8 years, who has settled into a business partner role as the initial romantic spark of their marriage has dulled. Ida Lupino rounds out the cast as the salesman’s wife of 8 months, a fiercely independent West Coast waitress who reignites the salesman’s lust for life. The movie is set up like a murder-mystery noir where the salesman’s discomfort around anyone digging into his personal life is meant to spark the imagination of the audience. What nefarious acts could he possibly be up to on these business trips? The answer, of course, is right there on the poster and in the title: “Edmond O’Brien is The Bigamist.” Once the full details of his double-marriage lifestyle are divulged, the movie mostly dwells on the melodrama of his predicament, focusing especially on the unbearable stress of balancing a double life. The women both get their own moments of spotlight to convey their internal anguish, but this is largely the bigamist’s story, and it’s in daring to sympathize with the lout where the movie finds its moral ambiguity.

In a lot of ways, The Bigamist feels like an inverse of (and a precursor to) Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur, in that it takes the husband’s love for both women seriously without poking too harshly at how the women might be working overtime domestically to make his traveling Lothario lifestyle possible. If anything, the film comes across as surprisingly pro-polyamory, since it entirely builds its melodrama on the guilt & harm of the salesman’s dishonesty rather than the usual fallacy that he can’t love both women equally at once. He initially cheats out of loneliness and confesses the transgression to his first wife in plain terms, who takes the admission as a playfully sarcastic joke since he’s just not the type to do such a thing. While most of his colleagues would just hire a sex worker to satisfy that urge, this lout can’t help but fall in love with his mistress, who initially asks that he reveal nothing about his personal life outside their relationship so as not to spoilt the mood. Both of his marriages are relatively functional in their own insular realms; what eats the bigamist up on the inside are the lies necessary to maintain his cross-country rouse. That’s a bold moralistic stance to take in a Hays Code era film where the leads have to sleep in separate beds for the sake of onscreen propriety.

Of the three leads, Ida Lupino is the most electric in her role as the salesman’s second wife. According to Wikipedia, this film has been cited as the first time the female star of a Hollywood film directed her own performance, which is pretty neat but also difficult to verify without several qualifiers. What’s much easier to verify is the strange real-life melodrama that played out behind the scenes between the director and her collaborators. Lupino had recently split with her ex-husband and creative partner Collier Young, who wrote & produced The Bigamist while at the start of a new marriage with Lupino’s co-star, Joan Fontaine. In that way, the film works just as well as a relic of Hollywood gossip as it does as a morally ambiguous noir. It even accentuates that Hollywood rumor mill DNA by setting the first scene of emotional infidelity on a bus tour of famous Los Angeles movie stars’ homes – including the homes of women like Barbara Stanwyck & Jane Wyman, who could have been cast in this just as easily as Fontaine (as well as the home of Miracle on 42nd Street‘s Edmund Gwenn, who does feature heavily in the movie as the nosy adoption agency bureaucrat who initially exposes the salesman’s bigamy). It’s a nice little meta touch for a movie so unavoidably steeped in Studio Era scandal.

Even speaking in general, Ida Lupino’s life & career are inextricably tied to Old Hollywood mystique. It’s incredible that she was able to manage as interesting & high-profile of a directorial career as she did in a system designed to lock women out of that creative process entirely. The Bigamist is not quite as immediately thrilling of example of her getting away with something within that misogynist paradigm as The Hitch-Hiker, but the longer you dwell in its moral ambiguity the more it feels like a one-of-a-kind anomaly. Like all of Lupino’s films (and even the filmmaker herself), it’s a wonder that The Bigamist was allowed to exist in its time at all.

-Brandon Ledet

What a Way to Go! (1964)

Like many movie nerds, I frequently find myself wanting to champion oddball films that slipped through the cracks critically & financially in their time. Apparently, that urge to champion cinematic underdogs extends all the way up to major studio releases with enormous budgets and casts stacked to the ceiling with famous movie stars. The 1964 commercial & critical flop What a Way to Go! shouldn’t need any defenders. Its Old Hollywood brand of glitz, glam, and irreverent mayhem is staged on such an epic scale that its greatness is almost undeniable. Yet, it was met with a shrug in its own time and willfully forgotten in the half-century since, except maybe by the dorks who were raised on TCM & PBS re-broadcasts of studio classics. That lukewarm reception might have made sense in the cultural context of the mid-1960s, when audiences were hungry for the hipper, more stripped-down pleasures of The French New Wave and the still-percolating New Hollywood takeover. Watching it now, it’s difficult to fathom why it isn’t as fawned over as other titles from creative team Betty Comden & Adolph Green, who also penned The Band Wagon & Singin’ in the Rain. It has all the makings of a widely beloved classic, but none of the fanfare.

What a Way to Go! stars a young Shirley MacLaine as a frantic woman who’s desperate to rid herself of $200 million of inherited wealth. We learn in rigidly structured flashbacks (through a pointless therapy session framing device, the film’s one flagrant misstep) that she accidentally inherited these millions by becoming the widow of several absurdly wealthy men, each played by ultra-famous Old Hollywood studs: Gene Kelley, Dean Martin, Robert Mitchum, Paul Newman, and Dick Van Dyke. MacLaine’s cursed widow only desires these men for their love & companionship, but each die in greedy pursuit of wealth after only brief bursts of marital bliss. Thanks to the subjectivity of filtering these tales through MacLaine’s memories, the film illustrates these comically tragic vignettes with zany proto-ZAZ visual gags more befitting of a Looney Tunes short or a Mel Brooks farce than a Studio Era comedy. Runaway caskets, avant-garde chimpanzee painters, and straight-up vaudevillian clowning flood the screen with manic-comic energy from start to finish, never allowing the film to drag the way these bloated-budget Hollywood showcases often do. Its Looney Tunes goofballery also clashes spectacularly with its lush, Oscar-nominated costume & production design – most wonderfully in a sequence where everything in MacLaine’s Hollywood mansion is painted an eye-searing hot pink except her. Everything.

The most easily identifiable confluence of the film’s unashamed silliness and willingness to hurl mountains of money at the screen is a recurring gag in which MacLaine’s relationships with her departed husbands are represented in minutes-long genre spoofs. When married to a podunk fisherman in a one-room shack, the film spoofs silent-era comedies from Charlie “The Tramp” Chaplin, complete with a squared-off aspect ratio & dialogue intertitles. When married to an ex-pat beatnik painter in Paris, it spoofs the black & white arthouse pretension of The French New Wave. The commitment to this recurring bit is so thorough that the film even spoofs its own time & genre in a self-labeled “Lush Budgett” production with hundreds of unnecessary set & costume changes that amounts to the equivalent of burning piles of money onscreen. What a beautiful fire, at least. My favorite image from What a Way to Go! is a promo still where MacLaine poses on the all-pink mansion set with a small selection of the beautiful, outrageous dresses she wears through the film. The brilliance of the Lush Budgett segment is that the film is fully aware of how ridiculous & unnecessary all this pageantry is to tell an amusing story. The tragedy of the film is that not enough people saw it to realize that it had that playful sense of humor about itself.

The circumstances of What a Way to Go!‘s release were all wrong. The film was tailor-written for consistent hitmaker Marilyn Monroe, who died before production. It was released in a time where its old-fashioned lush-budget pageantry was gradually being replaced with more experimental, barebones art cinema – a racket even the major studios were soon to enter. Looking back, though, I think audiences failed the film instead of the other way around. Its zany physics-ignoring sense of humor and eagerness to spoof every era of mainstream filmmaking (including its own) point to the film being way hipper & more up to date than it was initially credited to be. Meanwhile, it also functions just as well as a straight-forward specimen of Old Hollywood glamour, a self-justifying indulgence that proves the inherent artistic & entertainment value of big-budget spectacle. Watching charming movie stars perform in fabulous costumes on lavish sets is its own kind of valuable cinematic pleasure, just as worthwhile of preservation as its barebones arthouse nemeses. And this is a picture where you get to enjoy both! Its greatest sin was arriving on the cusp between those two worlds’ dominance, which also turns out to be its greatest strength.

– Brandon Ledet

Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood (2019)

Once upon a time in the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino was a badboy troublemaker on the movie scene, heralding in a new era of post-modern indie filmmaking that could commercially compete with the major studios in a way that shook up the status quo. Then, over time, Tarantino became the status quo. The dream of the 90s indie scene faded away, but he remained largely unscathed as a Blank Check auteur who could make just about anything he wanted – no matter how self-indulgent, esoteric, or #problematic – merely because he was established at the right time and grandfathered in. That protected status cannot last forever. With Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood, the rebel-turned-Establishment director directly grapples with his inevitable obsolescence as an artist who’s no longer “needed” by the industry and whose time is approaching the rearview mirror. If Tarantino is still a movie industry troublemaker, it’s because his Gen-X sensibilities are now an outdated taboo among the youths, no longer a revolutionary paradigm shift. To pretend that he’s still cinema’s troublemaking badboy at this stage of his career would be embarrassing. Instead, he leans into his newfound status as cinema’s grumpy old man, and it’s oddly invigorating.

To address the approaching obsolescence of his Gen-X shock humor & political apathy, Tarantino dials the clock back to another inter-generational dust-up between institutional dinosaurs & idols-smashing youths: the fall of Old Hollywood. Leonardo DiCaprio & Brad Pitt star, respectively, as a has-been Old Hollywood television actor and his personal assistant/stunt double – a pair of aging knucklehead brutes who sense their days of usefulness in Los Angeles are nearly at an end. In real life, the death of the Flower Power hippie movement and the birth of the New Hollywood movie industry upheaval are often marked by the brutal murder of Sharon Tate & friends at the hands of the Charles Manson cult – the gruesome epilogue to the Summer of Love. In this film, Tarantino daydreams an alternate history where Manson’s brainwashed devotees were disastrously unsuccessful in their mission the night of Tate’s murder, and the New Hollywood takeover never took off as a result. Margot Robbie puts in a supportive, periphery performance as Sharon Tate, who thrives blissfully unaware of the dark forces surrounding her. Tate lives a carefree life as a rising star just next door to DiCaprio’s fictional Old Hollywood hangover, whose stubborn refusal to fade away gracefully and amorous exploitation of his personal assistant eat up most of the (sprawling, near three-hour) runtime. This is largely a plotless hangout picture between a childlike employer and his dangerously quick-tempered employee, two men who cover up the uncomfortable power imbalance of their relationship by disguising it as a friendship. The Manson Family murder of Sharon Tate is treated as an unfortunate distraction from enjoying the final days of these men’s relationship & industry as they near extinction; it’s an incident Tarantino would prefer to delay for all eternity so that Old Hollywood itself would never die.

I appreciate this movie most as a passionate argument for a sentiment I could not agree with less. I have no love for the traditional machismo & endless parade of cheap-o Westerns that clogged up Los Angeles in these twilight hours of the Studio Era. Still, it was entertaining to watch an idiosyncratic filmmaker with niche interests wax nostalgic about the slimy, uncool bullshit only he cares about. Even when Tarantino arrived on the scene as a prankish youngster in the 90s, his work was already mired in nostalgia for the dead genres & traditionalist sensibilities of the Studio System that died with the 1960s; he just updated them with cussing & gore. These early Gen-X remixes of old-fashioned crime pictures were at least stylized to be cool, though. Here, he extends that nostalgia for The Way Things Were to Old Hollywood relics that are hopelessly uncool, square even: radio ads, paint-by-numbers Westerns, network television, chain-smoking, toxically corny Dean Martin comedies, etc. The encroaching forces that threaten to break up this (largely alcoholic & abusive) boys’ club traditionalism are much easier to defend as hip & worthwhile (the looming presences of Roman Polanski & Charles Manson excluded): casual drug use, Anti-War counterculture youths, hardcore pornography’s intrusion on the mainstream, New Hollywood brats like Dennis Hopper (whose name is tossed off as an insult) & William Friedkin (whose early-career title The Night They Raided Minsky’s appears on one of many onscreen marquees), and so on. Positing that the stale machismo of Old Hollywood’s late-60s decline is preferable to the youthful auteurism that soon supplanted it is borderline delusional (and maybe even irresponsible), but it’s at least a distinct & interesting perspective, and it’s perversely fun to watch an increasingly bitter Tarantino defend it.

There isn’t much that’s new to the Tarantino formula here. The stylized dialogue, apathetic slacker humor, gruesomely over-the-top violence, post-modern restaging of ancient film genres, and pop culture name-dropping typical to his work all persist here in a stubborn, unapologetic continuation of what he’s always done. If anything, the director goes out of his way to accentuate his most commonly cited tropes, even rubbing our faces in his notorious foot fetish with a newly defiant fervor. Tarantino has not changed, and neither will your opinion on his merits as a filmmaker or a cultural commentator. What has changed is that he’s now fully transitioned from bratty upstart to outdated Establishment. Aware of his newfound status as an old fogie, he goes full ”Get off my lawn!” here by positing that it’s the children who are wrong, that Hollywood traditionalism deserves to live on infinitely unchallenged & unimpeded. He may not be able to prevent his own approaching obsolescence (nor the end of days for when the Star Power of household names like Pitt & DiCaprio actually translated to box office receipts), but he can at least express that frustration in his fiction by undoing a previous death of Traditionalism in Hollywood’s past. He doesn’t even pretty up the surface details of the era he’s defending to strengthen the argument. The actor & stuntman duo in the film are childlike, destructive bullies who treat life like a hedonistic playground. The films & TV shows they’re making are dreadfully boring. The brainwashed Mansonite children they stomp out to rewrite history are deserving of pity the film is stubbornly unwilling to afford them. It’s an embarrassingly uncool, conservative worldview to defend, but Tarantino is maybe the most amusing messenger to deliver it possible, considering his trajectory as a cinematic badboy turned (as the film’s hippie youngsters would label him) Fascist Pig.

-Brandon Ledet

Under the Silver Lake (2019)

The very first line of spoken dialogue in Under the Silver Lake is a verbal reference to Turner Classic Movies. Every character’s shithole Los Angeles apartment in the film is lined with Old Hollywood movie posters. The score (from the director’s return collaborator Disasterpeice) is an oppressive Studio Era composition that swells & overwhelms the soundtrack in playful nostalgia. A pivotal scene in the protagonist’s amateur investigation of Hollywood’s seedy underbelly is staged at the foot of Hitchcock’s grave. This is a movie that very much wants to be understood as a prankish, tongue-in-cheek throwback to noir thrillers of ancient Old Hollywood past. The problem is that all that influence signaling is a flagrant misdirect. Under the Silver Lake plays much more like an echo of 1980s Brian De Palma oddities like Body Double & Blow Out than it does any Hitchcockian thriller it pretends to riff on. Since De Palma himself was already prankishly subverting Old Hollywood tropes, this continuation of that tradition is essentially a copy of a copy, twice removed from any detectable sense of purpose. It also suffers the misfortune of continuing De Palma’s leering heterosexual perversions into an era when they’re decades out of date, removed form any possible “It was a different time” excuses. Worse yet, it suffers the worst fate any film could ever stumble into: it’s a comedy that isn’t funny. Still, I found myself on the verge of enjoying it in nearly every scene, frustrated that I could never quite get there.

I was majorly disappointed by this film. It’s difficult to imagine there will be a bigger disappointment all year. The drop-off in quality between David Robert Mitchell’s debut feature It Follows (Swampflix’s favorite film of 2015) to this straight-to-VOD follow-up is about as steep as any I can remember from any director. And yet, if someone told me they saw a Southland Tales-level messterpeice in it I’d almost believe them. I don’t at all blame A24 for quietly dumping it into home-streaming distribution after purchasing it at the height of its festival-circuit buzz, but I can almost understand what its apologists see in it if I squint from the right angle. This is a twisty, farcical fantasy piece about a hipster LA loser (Andrew Garfield) who follows his own vanilla tits-and-ass prurience into a vast, impossible conspiracy network that secretly runs the entertainment industry (and, by extension, the world). Pop music cults, hobo royalty, serial dog murderers, and an ancient succubus assassin are major players in a vast, mysterious organization that the movie deliberately sets up to provide no possible satisfying answers. It’s a horned-up, surrealist, Madlibs-style approach to storytelling that I’d normally find majorly exciting, but in this case fails to entertain in two significant ways: its jokes are not funny, and it’s impossible to care about its fuckboy protagonist. Many people had issues with the logical & tonal inconsistencies of It Follows, but that film at last has a strong grasp on its sense of atmosphere & a main character whose wellbeing we’re actually invested in, whether positively or negatively (with the added bonus of using that POV for an identifiable thematic purpose). By contrast, Under the Silver Lake is just a sunshine-noir moodboard where things just kinda happen, until they don’t. It eats up two and a half hours of your time and then it’s over. You just move along with your day, case closed.

As with De Palma’s seedier works, the major question at the center of this titties-obsessed Madlibs mystery is how much its depiction of a mediocre man’s lurid, vanilla sexuality is a shameless participation and how much is open mockery. We spend the entire film looking through the eyes of a listless, cigarette-smoking slob who’s absolutely dogshit at having sex. He’s the kind of just-rolled-out-of-bed, low-effort hipster that makes you want to shout “Take a bath!” at the screen, yet when he actually does take a bath the result is entirely unsatisfying. That disgust is intentional, as everyone he encounters on his amateur sleuth trail makes a point to comment on his stench. This is a man who punches children, slags the homeless, and peeps on his undressed neighbors through his Hitchcock Brand™ binoculars. It’s doubtful that we’re supposed to think of him as an upstanding citizen. Still, the default-misogyny of his POV works its way into the film’s DNA. No woman’s breasts or buttcheeks will grace the screen without a proper close-up. Bikini-clad hotties bark like rabid dogs in go-nowhere nightmare sequences. Sex workers & actresses are both coveted & mocked for the supposed degradation of their trades. This is a movie that gets its kicks by indulging in the male gaze, then has a character verbalize the phrase “the male gaze” just so you know the exercise is self-aware. At least when De Palma indulged in the same self-aware prurience his own sexuality was mildly kinky & risqué. Under the Silver Lake’s sex drive is the microwaved leftovers of a mid-afternoon trip to Hooters; it’s the faux intellectual titties-fetish of a Playboy Magazine collector; it’s the inner sexual life of someone who still wears cargo shorts in the 2010s. It’s boring, it’s scared of women, and yet any commentary on the sexuality of American pop culture you can derive from what’s onscreen would be meeting this shapeless mess more than halfway.

For every pointless scene throughout this journey into Juggs Magazine mystique, I found myself genuinely straining to enjoy myself. There’s almost a Greasy Strangler quality to its repetition, awkwardness, and ham-fisted interpretation of genre where noir = window blinds & missing dames. I just wasn’t amused, or aroused, or intrigued in the ways the film wanted me to be, which ultimately made this feel like a lot of effort for zero payoff. Kudos to anyone who managed to have Southland Tales-style Messterpeice Theatre fun with it, because I’m truly jealous. The only line in the film that resonated with me in any significant way was “It’s silly to waste your time on something that doesn’t matter.” This move does not matter, and I feel very silly indeed.

-Brandon Ledet

The Ape Man (1943)

When looking back to the heights of Old Hollywood, what we’re really getting nostalgic for is the glut & extravagance of the old studio system. The high production values & workman sense of craft that went into each studio production in that era are missing from modern cinema’s more routine, mundane releases. For a brief, glorious time, even horror had its day in the sun during that studio era, particularly thanks to Universal’s Famous Monsters brand. This, of course, birthed the iconic career if Bela Lugosi, who starred in prestigious horror productions like The Black Cat & Todd Browning’s Dracula early in his career. Horror was treated as a flash-in-the-pan trend by the Hollywood studio system, however, and Lugosi’s leading man work eventually dried up. Shortly after putting in his final top-bill performance for a major studio in Columbia Pictures’ Return of the Vampire (which is widely considered to be an unofficial sequel to Dracula), Lugosi was nudged out of the major studio system and into B-picture work in the less nostalgia-worthy territory of Old Hollywood’s so-called “poverty row” studios, purveyors of schlock. The step down from Universal horror to poverty row B-pictures was exactly as drastic as it sounds and Lugosi’s first work for Monogram Pictures, The Ape Man, was clearly the actor’s first major “Oh, how the mighty have fallen” moment.

Although far from the worst, The Ape Man may be the first major embarrassment of Bela Lugosi’s career. It was also one of the few instances of his earlier works where he wasn’t asked to play a vampire. Instead, the Hungarian-born icon plays the titular ape man, the monstrous result of a failed experiment by the other horror movie staple he was often typecast as: a mad scientist. Weirdly enough, the film begins after the scientist has already transformed to his hideous ape man visage (which just looks like an especially hairy member of The Monkees). In later works like Alligator People or The Fly, that kind of introduction would mean that his failed experiment downfall would then be portrayed in a longform flashback. Instead, we’re simply told that he was once fully human and are asked to watch in horror as he hunts down innocent victims for their spinal fluid, which he shoots directly into his arm like heroin as a makeshift, temporary cure for his ape-ificiation (an image that would be just as shocking in the 40s as it is now, given heroin addiction’s prominence at the time). The ape man scientist dresses like a typical gangster when venturing out for these kills, equipped with a fedora and a cape. The difference is that instead of using a gun to slay his spinal fluid-providing victims, he uses his accomplice, an actual ape. The film’s main conflict is in following two news reporters as they get to the bottom of these mysterious killings, increasingly getting hot on the ape & ape man’s metaphorical tails. (Apes don’t have tails.)

The basic plot of The Ape Man has promise to it as a Bela Lugosi cheapie, but the film itself is a total embarrassment. The score is punishingly repetitive; Lugosi’s given nothing interesting to do outside donning the ape make-up; his primate accomplice is clearly just a dude in a costume shop gorilla suit; and the two reporters who chase them down cynically poke fun at the frivolity of the film’s premise, since horror had become something of a derided fad by the time of the film’s production. It probably doesn’t help that Monogram Pictures allowed The Ape Man to fall into public domain status, so the only commercially available prints are horrifically shoddy DVD transfers with nearly incomprehensible visual & aural clarity. I might’ve been better off streaming the film from YouTube than watching my bargain bin physical copy (purchased from a yard sale), but at least I got to exercise my rudimentary lip-reading skills?

The worst part about all of this is knowing that things only got worse for Bela Lugosi’s career. He might’ve had a couple decent Universal productions left in him as second fiddle to rival Boris Karloff (1945’s The Body Snatcher is especially great), but the rest of his career as a leading man would be relegated to works exactly like this slice of poverty row dreck. Even though The Ape Man was a nothing of a film, that wouldn’t stop Lugosi & Monogram from teaming up again for its sequel, Return of the Ape Man. Lugosi would even work again with The Ape Man director William Beaudine, whose prestigious credits include titles like Billy the Kid Versus Dracula & Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, on the infamously terrible Martin & Lewis knockoff Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. At least that poorly-remembered gem is notably terrible, though. It’s possibly the most shrill & aggressively unfunny film I’ve ever seen, but The Ape Man is an even worse kind of awful: the unforgivably bland kind. It’s the first truly sour note in a career that had outworn its welcome in the Old Hollywood studio system, even if that career persisted endearingly in horror fans’ hearts in the more forgiving decades since. Yet, its worst offense is in being an entirely forgettable bore.

-Brandon Ledet

La La Land (2016)

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fourstar

“Why do you say ‘romantic’ like it’s a dirty word?”

La La Land was a rare cinematic experience for me. In its first 20min stretch, I was outright hostile towards the film. I felt even more alienated in the two big production musical numbers that open La La Land than I did watching Moana, a movie that’s appeal I didn’t understand to the point where I had to abstain out of fairness from directly reviewing it. The emotional impact & entertainment value of a traffic jam erupting into a big budget musical number about Los Angeles sunshine reminded me of the lofty gravitas of a car commercial, specifically that one where the hamsters gather all of New York for a Central Park jam session. This adverse reaction to the material wasn’t necessarily a fault of the movie’s, but more a personal shortcoming  when it comes to appreciating musical theater, especially when a chorus sings in unison, drowning out raw emotion with the shared mediocrity of a massive collective. Something changed for me during La La Land, though. Somewhere in the first act, when the narrative got smaller and the songs became more intimate, I finally got lost in the film’s love letter to Old Hollywood musicals, particularly of the Fred & Ginger variety. La La Land manipulates its audience from both ends. It opens with a big This Is For Musical Theater Die-Hards Only spectacle to appease people already on board with its genre and then slowly works in modern modes of the medium’s potential to win over stragglers & push strict traditionalists into new, unfamiliar territory. The ultimate destination is an exciting middle ground between nostalgia & innovation and by the film’s final moments I was eating out of its hand, despite starting the journey as a hostile skeptic.

The content matches the form nicely here, continuing Damien Chazelle’s hot streak as a gifted, bare bones storyteller after his exciting one-two punch of the jazzy thriller Whiplash and the gleeful pulp of Grand Piano. Just as the modern-minded crowd and musical theater traditionalists must find a common ground to appreciate where Chazelle is pushing the movie musical as a medium, the film’s protagonists also begin their story at odds with each other. Playing an actor and a jazz pianist who suffer several hostile meet cutes before they begin to reconcile their mutual attraction, Emma Stone & Ryan Gosling are perfectly convincing as our modern equivalent of Classic Hollywood charmers. Their Adam’s Rib-style hostility at an awkward pool party is where the film started to lure me into its web. By the time their romance flourished in movie theaters, jazz clubs, and planetariums only to flounder & fizzle once realism disrupted their romantic ideal, I was already humming “City of Stars” to myself and preparing to buy a poster to hang on my imaginary dorm room wall. The couple pushes each other out of their comfort zones in order to survive an ever-changing world; the jazz musician must learn to innovate to stay relevant, the actor must risk embarrassment to achieve success. In addition to their good looks, ease with comic timing, and gorgeous costuming, the couple at the center of La La Land appeal to the audience as a useful window into what the film was trying to accomplish. When their realistically cyclical, impermanent romance clashes with a surreal movie musical reverie in the film’s final act, the full scope of Chazelle’s ambition becomes crystal clear and any complaints about taste or expectation going in feel silly & irrelevant. This is a work that graciously rewards after its initial discomfort, whether you’re a musical theater traditionalist who needs to be pushed into exploring new ideas or a cold-hearted modernist cynic who needs to be warmed up to what the medium can accomplish even in its purist form.

I think it’s worth noting that while La La Land is sometimes uncomfortable to reconcile with personal sensibilities, it’s always gorgeous to look at. The film’s intense colors, beautiful dresses, and attention to symmetry & movement amount to a carefully constructed spectacle that, like Hail Caesar!, is a welcome reminder of the scale & fantasy that only Old Hollywood productions could muster. Whether Chazelle is overlaying shots of neon signs with poured champagne as a direct nod to Hollywood musical past or he’s using that hyper real abstraction for entirely new, surreal purpose, La La Land is consistently a wonder to behold. Even when I wasn’t enjoying the film’s content in its earliest stretch, I was never turned off by its form or energeric execution. All I needed to be won over by La La Land was for that manicured spectacle to be put to a more intimate & modern use, an emotional heft that could be whispered instead of belted for the back rows to hear. I get the feeling that the film intended to not only teach me a little appreciation for the value of its medium, but also to push those on the other side of the divide over to my own modernist, heretical sensibilities. And just when those two audiences meet for a brief moment of shared appreciation, the film then disrupts & explodes its own rules, breaking down the walls of that divide for a brief glimpse of how both audiences were always of the same mind without ever being aware of it. Innovation & tradition are equally important in La La Land and when they’re done right, they’re practically the same thing. There’s a long, discomforting path to that realization, one that’s made more difficult for some than others, but once you reach its epiphanic destination, it’s a real game-changer, an eye opener, one that’s well worth the initial unease.

-Brandon Ledet

Café Society (2016)

twostar

“Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.”

Y’all, I think I just watched my last Woody Allen movie. I’m done. In fact, I applaud the two women who walked out of Café Society after seeing Allen’s name appear in the opening credits. At the time I was annoyed that two fellow theater patrons would argue audibly over the first scene of a movie before storming to the exits (presumably over the director’s decades-old rape allegations & sordid familial history), but no less than ten minutes later I totally sympathized, maybe even to the point of envy. I had been over fifteen years since my latest Woody Allen film, Small Time Crooks, just enough time for me to forget that even the writer-director’s most lauded work was never really  my thing. I like my Woody Allen movies like I like my Beatles: young & goofy. The zany comedy of titles like Take the Money & Run and Sleeper were always more interesting to me than Allen’s headier work, so I really had no business watching Café Society in the theater in the first place. If it weren’t for the wealth of Kristen Stewart goodness promised in the trailer I probably never would’ve been there to begin with. I should’ve known better & followed those two miffed strangers to the exits.

By all means, Café Society‘s tour through Old Hollywood romance & glamor should be cinephile catnip. Actually, I’m sure there are plenty of movie nerds out there who’ll love it, not just Woody Allen diehards. The cinematography is breathtaking, stunning, gorgeous. Kristen Stewart is, as always, a rare treasure, this time afforded the proper temporal context for her natural Lauren Bacall smokiness. The costume & production design very nearly touch the heights of the similarly-set nostalgia dream Hail, Caesar! from earlier this year. Yet, the film is a thoroughly grating, slow moving torture and the problem is Woody Allen himself. Although he does not appear onscreen, you cannot escape Woody Allen in a single frame of Café Society, a forgotten recurring intimacy with the director I just remembered is always more than a little suffocating. Not only does the filmmaker narrate the story himself, he also seemingly directs Jessie Eisenberg’s protagonists to act exactly like him, a caricature that’s somehow even less likeable than Eisenberg’s unofficial Max Landis impersonation as Lex Luthor in Dawn of Justice. The major difference, of course, is that Luthor is a villain while this Allen surrogate is likely supposed to play as sympathetic, a gamble that simply doesn’t work. And since the late-period Allen humor of Café Society falls consistently flat, there’s not much else onscreen to distract you from the problem. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Dune, Ladyhawke) & Kristen Stewart simply aren’t enough to save this film on their own, try as they might. It was doomed with or without them.

Eisenberg’s protagonist is a fish-out-of-water Jewish twentysomething who leaves his beloved Manhattan behind in an attempt to make it as an industry type in Hollywood. The film constantly insists that he’s adorably naive or goofily nervous, but all I see is a self-absorbed monster that would make Barton Fink look like a humble mensch. Once he finds his feet at his first job in Hollywood, he immediately falls for Kristen Stewart’s cool kid office girl and constantly hounds her like an workplace creep in a weird MRA-type “friend zone” wooing ritual that sort of works, for a while, despite Stewart’s character’s passionate love for an older, wealthier, married man. Their relationship is doomed to impermanence, but what’s strange about Café Society is the way it asks you to root for their success. I never get the sense that Eisenberg’s protagonist or, hell, even the film itself are deserving of Stewart’s master class in effortless cool, despite the two actors’ dynamic working for me just fine before in the films Adventureland & American Ultra. Instead, I found myself trying to ignore their romance for as long as I could by focusing on the film’s gorgeous visuals until, by the end, I was mostly just desperate for it to be over.

The last time I remember feeling this severe of a disconnect between find a film achingly beautiful & loathing every second of its content was with Terrence Malick’s love-it-or-hate-it Tree of Life. I’m sure Café Society, along with a lot of late-period Allen, will prove to be similarly divisive, with the director’s more dedicated fans finding plenty of nervous humor & old world sensibility to delight in, but this film simply wasn’t for me. Especially missing was the majesty of Old Hollywood brought to vivid life in the far superior Hail, Caesar! & reduced here to endless namedropping at cocktail parties (something the film pretends to despise, but does so unconvincingly). Worse yet is a central romance it’s difficult to root for and a protagonist who’s far less interesting than literally any other character the story could’ve followed: Stewart’s (obviously), his adorable parents, his Boardwalk Empire-era gangster bother, Steve Carell’s Eddie Mannix archetype, Parker Posey’s eternally buzzed socialite, a still-tired-from-fighting-a-shark Blake Lively who’s given frustratingly little to do, a sex worker he meets for all of five minutes, a plate of spaghetti, a spilled martini, wet concrete, again, literally anything.

Woody Allen makes himself (or at least a younger version of himself) the center of the show and the results are consistently obnoxious, much like the film’s never-ending dixieland jazz soundtrack that constantly reminding you to have a cheesy good time until you hit the last minute melancholy. If Café Society isn’t my last Woody Allen picture it’s because he’s going to cast Kristen Stewart in a future project or I’m going to again forget, with time, that his films are not really my thing (or, most likely, I’ll get sucked into it by my ongoing Roger Ebert Film School project). In the mean time I hope I don’t find myself getting as far as walking out of one of his movies when I’m surprised by his name in the opening credits. That seems like an awful waste of time and money (though, maybe not as awful as actually staying).

-Brandon Ledet