The Phantom of the Opera (1943)

There have been countless adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s Turn of the Century novel Le Fantome de l’Opera on stage and screen, but it’s hard to argue that any have been as influential as the 1920s silent film starring Lon Chaney. Along with Chaney’s turn in the silent horror adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the 1925 Phantom of the Opera was a massive hit for Universal Pictures, launching a decades-long moneymaker in the studio’s Famous Monster’s brand. Before Lugosi & Karloff would come to define the Universal Monsters look, Chaney was the (hideously disfigured) face of the production company’s horror division. The ripple effect of the silent Phantom of the Opera’s success achieved a far-ranging influence (from Lugosi & Karloff to, disastrously, Dario Argento), not even matched by the name-recognition commanding stage musical from Andrew Lloyd Weber. Not to shatter any illusions to the contrary, but shameless remakes & reissues of lucrative intellectual properties are far from new to Hollywood, so the Lon Chaney Phantom’s success meant it would be a well Universal returned to often – first in a 1933 reissue of the original film with a (since lost) soundtrack that mutated into a talkie, then as this 1943 Technicolor remake. Graduating to sound & color wasn’t the only cinematic adjustments Fantame de l’Opera had to make in those first couple of decades either. As much as the 1940s remake is obviously indebted to the Lon Chaney original, its aesthetic is so current to its time that it rarely shows its silent horror roots – or even resembles horror at all.

The basic plot of a standard Phantom of the Opera adaptation remains intact in this Technicolor remake, with Claude Rains taking over from Chaney as the titular Phantom. Here, the distantly admiring, disfigured creep who haunts the Paris Opera house and promotes the career of his favorite singer under threat of violence to those who might block her way to success starts the film as a violinist in the orchestra before being burned with acid & retreating to the shadows. Most of his subsequent kills in the periphery are lightly handled: off-screen stranglings, attempted poisonings, a recreation of the falling chandelier stunt from the previous version, etc. Even the reveal of the Phantom’s purplish acid burn scars feels delicately handled in comparison to Long Chaney’s genuinely horrific makeup in the original film. Some of the stark silent era horror influences of the original echo in this remake, especially evident in shots where the Phantom appears only as a menacing shadow on the wall. For the most part, however, this remake plays much more like a dramatic “women’s picture” of its era, focusing more on the opera singer’s choice between pursuing operatic career opportunities or a “normal” life as a housewife. It’s like The Red Shoes by way of Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor melodramas in that way, with the Phantom’s role being relegated to a side character in the female lead’s A-plot. This is more of a comedic drama about a woman at a professional crossroads than it is a shock-a-minute monster movie about a crazed, disfigured violinist.

In a 2010s update to this version of the Phantom tale, it’s likely the opera singer herself who would have been driven mad to the point of monstrous transformation, but actor Susanna Foster is never afforded her own proper freak-out in the style of a Red Shoes or a Black Swan or a Perfect Blue (so many colors!). That’s not to say that Claude Rains’s secret, murderous admirer of her work is entirely detached from the themes of her professional/romantic dilemma either. His menacing, pushy presence just out of eyesight in the opera singer’s professional life is in some ways a pitch-perfect representation of how all the men around her apply too plentiful & too intense romantic pressure she doesn’t ask for or need in the early days of her professional career. The Phantom is only one of three men in the singer’s life, joining the ranks of a police officer & a fellow musical performer, both of whom wish to court her into marriage. Just as the Phantom pressures the singer into making bold leaps in her still-early career at the opera house by threatening & murdering higher-ups on her behalf, the two suitors pressure her to choose romance over fame & art, giving up the stage for “a normal life.” The general mood of the film is light & flavored with comedy, especially as the suitors trip over each other in dual proclamations of love, but there’s also an underlying tragedy throughout in this poor woman being pressured to make choices between art & romance instead of being allowed to live as she pleases. It’s a very Sirkian conflict, one that’s handled with appropriate visual beauty & emotional melodrama.

Like with Sirk or The Red Shoes to follow, the Technicolor Phantom remake is at the very least worth seeing for its staging, especially for the intense use of rich, bold color in its costuming & lighting. Even if the trading in of silent era horrors for love triangle humor & one woman’s professional indecision is not what you’re looking for in a Phantom of the Opera adaptation, the film is still worthwhile for the visual pleasures & emotional payoffs therein. Even though it chooses to conclude on a comedic note, its adaption of the Phantom’s lingering, unwanted threats & pressures to its central narrative of a woman stuck between competing men’s designs on her life’s plan is also a new angle on the material that justifies the impulse for a remake in the first place, no matter how light on horror. There would be plenty of pointless Phantom of the Opera remakes to come in the decades following this big studio Technicolor melodrama as filmmakers grappled with the original film’s influence on horror at large. It’s doubtful there are many that are this purposeful in their modernity-minded updates to the source material, however. 1943’s Phantom of the Opera seamlessly incorporates the basic elements & structure of the original silent work into a genuine participation in the “women’s pictures” of its own day, to great artistic & thematic payoff. A brief glance at the disparity in terror between Lon Chaney & Claude Rains’s makeup as the unmasked Phantom is alone enough to indicate the differences in those film’s basic intent, but what the Rains version loses in horror it more than makes up for in another, unexpected genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 38: Young at Heart (1954)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Young at Heart(1954) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “I don’t care much for movies that get all serious about their love affairs, because I think the actors tend to take it too solemnly and end up silly. I like it better when love simply makes the characters very happy, as when Doris Day first falls for Frank Sinatra in Young at Heart.

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Ebert never properly reviewed the film, but when reminiscing about Frank Sinatra’s legendary career onscreen, he wrote, “The image that lingers is from Young at Heart, when he pushed back his hat, lit a cigarette, sat down at a piano and sang to Doris Day and broke her heart. He never had the looks to be a matinee idol, but he had a voice – the Voice – and he had a screen presence, and for a time in the 1950s, Frank Sinatra was one of the most interesting and successful actors in American movies.”

The Hays Code had a peculiar way of obscuring intent in older Hollywood fare. Films that superficially appear to be wholesome & chaste can sometimes be subversively disguising much darker, less moralistic themes than what that infamous production code permitted. It’s also tempting to read too much into that subversion in attempting to parse out artists’ intent vs. what Major Studios of the one era would allow. The musical romance Young at Heart operates within this historical grey area, concluding a schmaltzy musical reverie with an absurdly handed tragic conclusion that’s incongruous with the film’s overall tone, then immediately reversed. The film either doesn’t have the heart to follow through on its own devastating implications or was obstructed by Studio heads’ demands for a happy conclusion to a generally happy story. Its ending can be read either way, both literally blissful or figuratively tragic, making it only increasingly, frustratingly bizarre the longer you sit with it.

A remake of a popular 1930s musical titled Four Daughters, Young at Heart functions on the surface as a well-behaved Technicolor romance. Doris Day stars as an eligible bachelorette at the center of a musical family mostly made up of daughters desperate to be married off. With an alarming focus on anxieties of weight loss & living single, the desperately lonely girls (adult women, really) are all awestruck by the arrival of a handsome, overconfident songwriter played by Gig Young. As he’s employed to write songs for the family, the girls all separately pine for his affection, something that’s awarded to Doris Day’s lead, to her sisters’ jealousy. Much of this early stretch of the film is dependent on the simple joy of watching Doris Day sing, a talent that’s dedicated to culturally toxic, marriage-obsessed diddies like “Til My Love Comes for Me,” “Ready, Willing, and Able,” “Hold Me in Your Arms,” and “Make it Soon.” Thankfully this nauseous love fest is disrupted by the arrival of Frank Sinatra as a troubled, dangerous piano player and friend to the songwriter beau. For her sisters’ sake and because she’s genuinely turned on by his talent, Doris Day’s protagonist leaves her dream man for this sad puppy dog of a romantic rival. This much-needed interjection of danger & sexuality opens the film up to an increasingly tense conflict of hurt feelings, romantic betrayals, and declining mental health. This all culminates in a climactic suicide that feels miles & miles away from the sunny, romantic (even if unhealthily marriage & weight obsessed) disposition of the film’s opening stretch.

Or does it? In an incredibly bizarre denouement, the tragic suicide that tears this family apart is undone with an idyllic Easter morning get-together, the attempted death being retconned as a failure. The 1930s version, Four Daughters, stuck to the implications of the suicide while Young at Heart tacks on a happy ending so artificially saccharine it can almost be read as dream of Heaven. As Four Daughter was also produced under the Hays Code, it’s unclear whether the suicide was not allowed by the studio for moral reasons, its actor‘s vanity, or a general preference for romantic musicals to end on a happy note. What’s even more unclear is what director Gordon Douglas (who helmed the horror classic Them! this same year) intended to convey in its ending. Is the final scene supposed to be taken as a literal happy conclusion to a dark chapter in these sisters’ lives or is it a subversive workaround that concludes the story on a more logical beat, subtly indicating that its image of peace & romantic calm is actually a vision of Heaven? I honestly have no idea what to make of it, thanks to more notorious Hays Code & Studio System shenanigans, which almost makes for a more intriguing conclusion than the straightforward approach of Four Daughters.

If you read Young at Heart as a straight, well-behaved Technicolor romance, it’s a kind of unremarkable, modest pleasure. Doris Day & Frank Sinatra are compelling performers, but most of the material is a cookie cutter approach to movie magic. The in-the-moment intensity & absurdly incongruous fallout of the film’s climactic suicide scene is what really makes it interesting as a Studio System relic. It’s impossible to know what Studio Notes or Hays Code adherence might have steered Young at Heart to such a bizarrely artificial conclusion., but it created an interesting tension in the process. Just as Sinatra’s arrival earlier in the film disrupted its chaste, serene romance, Gordon’s return to that chastity after such a tensely bleak suicide sequence feels like just as much of an intrusion, so much so that the scene can be comfortably read as a supernatural broadcast from Heaven above. The censorship of the Hays Code era encourages that kind of skeptical, overreaching reading of what movies are doing on the surface vs. what they’re getting away with beneath it, whether or not that kind of interpretation is warranted here specifically.

Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating (3/5, 60%)

Next Lesson: Dogfight (1991)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 34: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Wizard of Oz (1939) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.”  One of his examples includes “when Judy Garland follows the yellow brick road.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “The elements in The Wizard of Oz powerfully fill a void that exists inside many children. For kids of a certain age, home is everything, the center of the world. But over the rainbow, dimly guessed at, is the wide earth, fascinating and terrifying. There is a deep fundamental fear that events might conspire to transport the child from the safety of home and strand him far away in a strange land. And what would he hope to find there? Why, new friends, to advise and protect him. And Toto, of course, because children have such a strong symbiotic relationship with their pets that they assume they would get lost together.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series

As I spent my high school and college years mostly tracking down transgressive films from the 70s, 80s, and beyond that broke away from the Old Hollywood studio system tradition, I lost touch with the merits of what that mammoth system could produce. My entry back into the strange (and often problematic) majesty of Old Hollywood triumphs has been the miracle of Technicolor, a discontinued color film treatment that produced the most intense, intoxicating hues to ever touch celluloid. My interest in Technicolor was initially piqued by giallo pictures like Suspiria and Blood & Black Lace, but as I’ve gotten further down the rabbit hole more mainstream titles like The Red Shoes & To Catch a Thief have been even more rewarding in their use of the medium. It was wonderful, then, to return to the Technicolor mecca of The Wizard of Oz by watching it on the big screen at the storied Prytania Theatre at this point in my life. Narratively, I know every beat in the Hollywood Classic by heart thanks to its omnipresence on television in my youth, but returning to its Technicolor delights after this decades-long break was a downright magical experience for me, one of my all-time most affecting trips to the cinema.

Although there are plenty of behind the scenes stories about the technical feats & real world evils that had to be pulled off to make The Wizard of Oz possible, the film still feels like a magical object that was conjured into the world instead of being made by human hands. 80s years have passed since its initial release, but the film’s bizarre energy & Technicolor beauty feel just as potent as ever, as if they were broadcast directly from a teen girl’s dream instead of being staged by a crew of hundreds on a movie studio sound stage. A production design triumph & featuring lavish costumes by Adrian (who also designed the fashion for fellow 1939 Technicolor wonder The Women), The Wizard of Oz is blatant in its artificiality at every turn, yet through some kind of dark movie magic fools you into seeing beyond its closed sets into an endless, beautifully hellish realm. I’m sure there were plenty musicals released in 1939 that have been forgotten by time, but it’s no mystery why this is the one that has endured as an esteemed classic. Even when staring directly at the seams where the 3D set design meets the painted backdrop of an endless landscape, I see another world, not a mural on the wall. It’s the closest thing I can recall to lucid dreaming, an experience that can be accessed by the push of the play button.

When recalling the visual delights of its Technicolor fantasy, it’s easy to forget that the reverie depicted in The Wizard of Oz is a stress dream, essentially a nightmare. Young Kansan teen Dorothy Gale has an especially awful day on the hell hole farm where she lives with her aunt & uncle, thanks to an evil neighbor who vows to have her dog Toto “destroyed,” as well as a tornado that threatens her home & knocks her unconscious. This early sequence is shot in the grim sepiatone of a German Expressionist film, which harshly contrasts with the intense Technicolor submersion of the dreamworld the tornado transports her to, Oz. Dorothy’s subconscious processes the terror of her day through a dream quest that reinterprets the  people in her life, good & bad, as fantasy characters: talking lions, animated scarecrows, wizards, witches, etc. Along with her newfound fantasy friends, Dorothy journeys to find qualities within herself she didn’t know she was missing: wisdom, compassion, bravery. As with other films I watched on loop as a child (especially Burton titles like Beetlejuice & Pee-wee’s Big Adventure), her journey feels much longer & more enduring in memory. Returning to it as an adult, the whole ordeal flies by and Dorothy is clicking her ruby slippers home in no time. There’s an intense energy to The Wizard of Oz that adapts the L. Frank Baum books of its 1900s source material into a kind of narrative whirlwind that tears across the screen like Kansas flatland.

The Wizard of Oz is just as terrifying as it is gorgeous. The special effects of its opening, reality-distorting twister still feels like a technical marvel, much more tactile in its impact than any modern CG disaster film. The indoor, hand-constructed sets of Oz feel like a kind of amusement park (and Oz was, indeed, made into a North Carolina amusement park that has since mostly been abandoned), but the sweeping camera movements & impossibly rich color suggest a majesty far beyond any knowable reality. The army of flying monkeys & bright red hellfire commanded by the main villain, the Wicked Witch of the West, are appropriately nightmarish, but also impressive in their construction. The massive cast of little people who populate the film’s Munchkinland sequence bear a real world horror in the actors’ mistreatment & exploitation, but the visual effect they amount to as they swarm across the screen is undeniably impressive. Even the film’s songs, which could afford to be shoddy given the visual majesty that surrounds them, are beautiful in their emotional tragedy. It’s difficult to imagine a world without Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as Dorothy, but the ubiquitousness of that performance’s cultural footprint has done little to undercut its emotional gutpunch or its gorgeous tones. There’s an amoral evil lurking behind The Wizard of Oz‘s ancient production history that makes both the terror & the majesty of its Technicolor allure feel eternally relevant & almost crippling.

I’d have to write an entire book (and I doubt I’d be the first) to cover the entirety of The Wizard of Oz’s merits & impact, from cultural echoes like Wicked to queer adoption of Dorothy’s travel companions to the sordid backstage rumors that taint its onscreen magic with an undercurrent of real world terror. As many people already see the film annually thanks to television broadcast cycles, I can’t even do much in the way of recommending the world give it another look. It’s always getting another look. All I can really report for now is that in terms of constructing a Technicolor dreamscape, there’s still nothing quite like it. It was one of the first and it’s still one of the best, a legacy I understand even more clearly now that I better grasp the merits of Hollywood’s studio system past and have had the chance to see it projected it big & loud with an appreciative crowd.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (5/5, 100%)

Next Lesson: Royal Wedding (1951)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 33: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Signin’ in the Rain (1952) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.”  One of his examples includes “when Gene Kelly splashes through Singin’ in the Rain.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Singin’ in the Rain has been voted one of the greatest films of all time in international critics’ polls, and is routinely called the greatest of all the Hollywood musicals. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. There are other contenders–Top Hat, Swing Time, An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, Oklahoma, West Side Story–but Singin’ in the Rain comes first because it is not only from Hollywood, it is about Hollywood. It is set at the moment in the late 1920s when the movies first started to talk, and many of its best gags involve technical details.” -from his 1998 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“There is no movie musical more fun than Singin’ in the Rain, and few that remain as fresh over the years. Its originality is all the more startling if you reflect that only one of its songs was written new for the film, that the producers plundered MGM’s storage vaults for sets and props, and that the movie was originally ranked below An American in Paris, which won a best picture Oscar. The verdict of the years knows better than Oscar: Singin’ in the Rain is a transcendent experience, and no one who loves movies can afford to miss it.” -from his 1999 review for his Great Movies series

I’ve become so used to seeing Gene Kelly function as a talisman of big budget musicals of cinema past in throwbacks like Xanadu & The Young Girls of Rochefort that it was exciting for me to finally see him star in an example of The Real Deal, a musical he co-directed himself in his prime. It was strange, then, to see that picture participate in the exact Old Hollywood nostalgia I’d already come to associate him with. Recalling recent films like The Artist & Hail, Caesar!, Singin’ in the Rain is a movie about the storied past of movies as an artform. A comedy about a fictional movie studio’s struggles to transition from the Silent Era to talkies, Singin’ in the Rain takes great pleasure in staging Technicolor recreations of old forms of entertainment like black & white silent romance pictures & traditional vaudeville acts. Hollywood’s favorite subject in general has always been itself, echoing an even more ancient tradition of art about art, and Gene Kelly’s career seems to be an essential part of that introspective self-indulgence.

The biggest hurdle Singin’ in the Rain had to clear in its path to greatness is that its first act is so immaculate that it’s difficult not to feel a little let down once the dust settles. Gene Kelly stars as a Gene Kelly-type star from the 1920s. We meet him on the red carpet at the premiere of his latest silent picture, where he addresses the pandemonious crowd cheering for his presence with an oral history of his life on the big screen. As he gloats about his past as a trained thespian of great prestige, we’re visually treated to his real past in bars, pool halls, vaudeville stages, and dangerous stunt work in a humorous montage. After the screening of what’s sure to be another smash hit (in an old-fashioned theater very similar to The Orpheum, where we watched this picture), Kelly’s handsome hero escapes the roar of his fans by crawling on top of a speeding streetcar and leaping into the passenger seat of a complete stranger’s car in a real life application of his on-screen swashbuckling skills. This passing stranger, played by (the recently deceased) Debbie Reynolds, is an aspiring actress herself, but pokes fun at Kelly’s leading man with verbal jabs like, “Movies are entertaining enough for the masses,” and “Once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.” Their flirtatious sparring as they trade cruel embarrassments at each other’s expense is one of the film’s great pleasures, so much so that it’s somewhat of a letdown once they wholly join forces to save a movie studio from the unavoidable disaster of adapting to talkies.

The industry-specific nostalgia about The Rise of the Talkies has its charm, even if it struggles to stack up next to Kelly & Reynolds’s first act attraction/animosity. Singin’ in the Rain is a much cleaner version of 1920s Hollywood than you’ll find in a harsh, gossipy exposé like Hollywood Babylon, but it does have its critiques. Spineless studio executives, closeted queer performers, and actresses whose shrill voices were never meant to interrupt the reverie of Silent Era pantomime color the changing world around Kelly & Reynolds. As much obvious affection as the picture has for the past, it also no qualms with poking fun at the medium’s early limitations, as well as drawing direct comparisons to 1950s studio musicals’ own reliance on blatant pantomime & vaudeville style entertainment. In the end, a return to simple vaudeville pleasures like singing, dancing, and rigidly structured one-liners is what saves the fictional not-ready-for-talkies movie studio from going under. It’s also the exact formula Singin’ in the Rain relies on for its basic entertainment value. The movie is both a critique of and a nostalgic participation in an artform that never really died, but more or less mutated instead.

Within that sense of vaudeville tradition, the song & dance numbers of Singin’ in the Rain more or less float independent from the plot in a vacuum. I can’t honestly say the songs themselves were my favorite aspect of the film. They’re mostly fine. What’s stunning is the spectacle of the production design that supports them: intensely artificial dream spaces packed with high fashion, glitter, an army of extras, and intensely colored lights. A few straightforward numbers were entertaining for their own sake. Watching Gene Kelly joyously splash about in puddles during the titular song (despite an intense fever he was suffering from during the shoot) has an infectious self-amusement to it. The Jim Carrey-esque best friend character played by Donald O’Connor (who was as undeniably queer as any best friend character I’ve ever seen onscreen) perform a “Make Em Laugh” number that’s initially funny in its basic indulgences in pratfalls, but then crosses into chillingly creepy as the pratfalls become an endless purgatorial loop of eternal punishment and the routine involves a headless female doll as a dance partner (*shudder*). It’s the larger than life Busby Berkeley throwbacks that overwhelm in their sheer enormity, though, allowing for surreal, glamorous imagery to elevate the film from movie industry comedy to fine art. Disembodied gams float in a florescent green void of Technicolor glitter. The high fashion runway walks of The Women are extended into an ultimate reality dreamscape of superb set design. Singin’ in the Rain is just as gorgeous as it is silly & self-indulgent.

It doesn’t seem as if Singin’ in the Rain was especially fun to make. Gene Kelly was reportedly cruel to Debbie Reynolds on-set for her perceived shortcomings as a dancer and the movie was only a modest financial success upon its initial release. You can feel a strain to convey joy despite the technical demand of the production seeping in from the corners of the frame, which might explain why its early adversarial flirtations are its most rewarding exchanges. Still, the film’s love & criticism of Hollywood as an industry & a tradition are powerful opioids even for a modern viewer. In an early scene where Kelly is strolling across a studio lot in conversation with his gay bestie, the pair pass several genre-variant film shoots in a ridiculous display later echoed in one of my all-time favorite films, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. That kind of gleeful enthusiasm for movie magic far outweighs any energy lost after the pleasure burst of the glorious first act and the movie overall feels timeless despite its obsession with the present & the past of its own medium. That seems to be a recurring theme within Gene Kelly’s overall career, not to mention an obsession of Hollywood at large.

Roger’s Rating  (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

-Brandon Ledet

The Women (1939)

The tagline for the 1939 comedy The Women is “It’s all about men!” This is a blatant lie. The Women was initially written as a stage play based on gossip overheard in a nightclub powder room. Including the playwright and the film’s two credited screenwriters (Clare Boothe Luce, Anita Loos, and Jane Murfin), that makes three women behind its script, which is a remarkable feat for a Studio Era feature. What makes The Women even more remarkable is its enormous all-female cast. Men are never seen nor heard in the picture, a casting choice that even applies to the women’s yipping lapdogs. The joke in that “It’s all about men!” tagline, then, is that when these (uniformly white, wealthy) women are alone together, all they discuss is the men in their lives. I suppose that’s technically true in a broad sense. It is odd that it could be questioned if this all woman-starring feature would pass the Bechdel Test. That doesn’t meant the film is about men at all, though. The off-screen men referenced constantly in The Women‘s dialogue as husbands, ex-husbands, and secret lovers aren’t functioning in their corresponding women’s lives as conquests of romance, but rather as bargaining chips. They’re pawns, foot soldiers, personality-free tokens that represent wealth & power, but not much more. The Women is better understood not as a romantic comedy, but as a social circle war film where its female cast of characters gun each other down with rapid-fire barbs & insults. Divorces & marriages are like battles temporarily won; the men are territories claimed. Nothing matters as much as the women calling the shots in the war room, though, which in this case happens to be an upscale health salon.

Norma Shearer stars as a wealthy mother whose husband is becoming increasingly absent as he spirals further into an extramarital affair. She had previously held illusions that their marriage was a modernist arrangement of equal partnership. Her mother suggests, coldly, that she remain married and keep her feelings about the affair to herself, suggesting an age old tradition in their social sect. It turns out many wives treat their husbands this way, allowing for secretive betrayal as long as they can publicly keep the wealth & social status. Others march through a long line of divorces & affairs to match their needs as they shift through time. Our protagonist has two enemies in her fight to retain her dignity in her decision to remain in a loveless, compromised marriage. The obvious enemy is the husband’s mistress, played by a devilishly callous Joan Crawford, who is nakedly exploiting the man’s lust to improve her drab life as a futureless counter girl at the social circle’s central meeting place: the salon. The less obvious enemy is one of her closest friends, played by the deliciously wicked Rosalind Russel, who deliberately stirs shit among her peers out of pure, idle boredom. She specifically sends Shearer’s character to the salon to hear the gossip of the affair from a chatty manicurist instead of telling her directly or letting her be. She herself also gossips behind her friend’s back for sport and, worse yet, joins forces with the mistress against her as soon as it’s personally beneficial. This picture is soaked to the bone in gossip, so it likely won’t win over anyone disinterested in overtly catty power plays, but watching Shearer’s dignified defiance openly clash with Crawford & Russell’s gleeful cruelty is intoxicating fun for those onboard. The film is frank & darkly humorous in its discussions of adultery & marriage, an impressive honesty for its 1930s cultural climate.

The pacing & dialogue saturation in this film is immediately overwhelming, opening with some of the most rapid-fire wordplay this side of a cattle auction. What’s truly impressive amidst that dialogue, though, is how much Rosalind Russel is able to outshine Joan Crawford as the film’s central heel, despite not playing the romantic rival. Drag queens looking for tips on how to construct #iconiclooks & #classicreads are advised to bring a notebook and keep their eyes locked on Russell, who eats up the screen no matter how many hundreds of women she’s asked to share it with. Crawford’s part is relatively small by comparison, especially given its impact on the plot. You could easily cut yourself on her eyebrows or put out an eye on her shoulder pads, but most of the damage laid in her warpath is dwarfed by Russell’s larger than life Gossip Queen persona. I will say, however, that Crawford is afforded the single best line in the film, when she complains to her coworkers at the salon, “Can you believe him? He almost stood me up for his wife!” Her coldly calculating efforts to gain power as a rich man’s mistress is an early sign of the shockingly modern-feeling territory the film eventually explores for laughs. There’s a 1950s musical remake of The Women titled The Opposite Sex that I gather isn’t nearly as daring or as subversive as the version that came before it. in the remake, men share the screen and generate in-the-moment romantic conflict with the women at the helm. In The Women, any argument held between a married couple isn’t heard directly by the audience, but rather filtered through gossip in later retellings & traded like currency. There’s a real subversion to that kind of one-sided perspective, especially for its time. As a great as Norma Shearer is as the film’s lead, it’s Russell & Crawford’s gleeful indulgence in that subversion as a deliberate tactic of social war that really makes it feel special. I imagine that’s all lost in the neutered-looking musical.

It’s worth noting that not all of The Women‘s strengths begin & end with its deviously witty dialogue. The film also impresses as a grand visual spectacle, an expensive-looking feat of Studio Era craft. The salon setting that stages most of the film’s social battles is a cavernous compound complete with mud baths, gyms, ballet studios, perfume counters, and a central foyer decked out with massive landscape murals & a modern art fountain in the shape of a woman’s hand. It’s staggering. The camerawork often matches the majesty of the production design. In one pivotal scene, Norma Shearer is confronted with a shocking detail of the gossip surrounding the affair in front of a mirror that reflects three images of Rosalind Russll (a dream, that); stunned, she walks away in a daze directly towards the audience in a momentum-heavy tracking shot while the world around her slips away. I’d also be foolish not to highlight the film’s The Red Shoes style centerpiece that breaks up its black & white cinematography for a single sequence filmed in Technicolor. Described in-film as “an adventurous voyage into Fashionland,” the Technicolor sequence is a narrative-free fashion show that pushes the film just over the edge from sharply-written comedy to aggressively feminine high art. There are plenty of other visual achievements to drool over. I’m especially in love with the set design of a scene where Joan Crawford smokes & chats on the phone in a see-through bathtub, complete with its own set of drapes. There’s just something about the Technicolor fashion show fantasy that elevates every scene around it by proxy. My only complaint about the entire movie, really, is that I had to leave the fantasy of that sequence. My reality felt comparatively drab after that.

The opening credits of The Women pairs each of its main players with their animal kingdom equivalent, suggesting a world of predators & prey: a deer, a lamb, a leopard, a fox, etc. I didn’t see the film’s conflicts as an extension of animalistic nature, however. Rather, the carefully planned, deceptively complex attacks of gossip & romantic maneuvering in The Women feel more like strategic war games & game theory to me. To say this film is “all about men!” was drastic misunderstanding of its basic rhythms by the film’s marketing. I’m honestly not sure I’ve seen many films less about men in my entire life (although Sofia Coppola’s recent The Beguiled remake does come to mind). I’d love to see any other film on that same intensely feminine wavelength, whether from the 1930s or just last month. There’s certainly enough immersive dives into masculinity out there to require a counterbalance.

-Brandon Ledet

To Catch a Thief (1955)

I recently caught To Catch a Thief at The Prytania, New Orleans’s oldest operating cinema. It was an early morning matinee where the theater’s ancient, adorable operator introduced the Hitchcock thriller with half-remembered stories about cameos & eggs and promises of complimentary coffee & cake after the screening. I knew nothing of the picture before I arrived to the theater except its stars, Cary Grant & Grace Kelly, as advertised on the poster. Before Rene Brunet’s introductory story about Hitchcock’s hatred of eggs, I didn’t even know who directed it. What followed was a Technicolor dream of gorgeous visual indulgences in simple pleasures like flowers & fireworks, beautiful people exploring even more beautiful locales, and a nonstop assault of witty, but juvenile sex jokes. I’ve certainly been more impressed with Hitchcock as a visual craftsman & a generator of suspense in more prestigious pictures like Psycho or Rear Window, but I’ve had never had more fun watching one of his films as an all-around entertainment experience. It was the exact exhilarating feeling of seeing high art visual craft married with the genre film pleasures of a trashy heist plot people have been gushing over Baby Driver for (even though I didn’t quite enjoy that Edgar Wright work myself). That’s why it deeply saddened me after the screening to learn that To Catch a Thief is widely considered to be a “lesser Hitchcock” and a dismissible, frivolous picture.

Cary Grant starts as a retired jewel thief known in the papers as The Cat, thanks to the gymnastic stealth needed to pull off his heists. Hanging up his cat burglar’s costume in the years since World War II, The Cat is attempting to live a quiet life outside of crime. He’s not quite a Robin Hood figure; he kept all the money he stole before the war. He did make a point only to steal from “those who wouldn’t go hungry,” though, which does have a sort of nobility to it. His peaceful retirement is interrupted when a copycat thief begins to stage crimes that fit his exact M.O., raising police suspicion that The Cat is back on the prowl. Grant’s handsome, ex-criminal protagonist decides to catch the new burglar himself (recalling OJ Simpson’s mission to “find the real killer”) with the help of an insurance agent who might be able to predict the next victim based on his clients’ claimed jewelry. This leads him to a Cannes Beach Club where he’s shamelessly flirted with by a young debutante played by Grace Kelly, whose mother’s jewels are in imminent danger of being stolen. The mystery of who the copycat jewel thief is doesn’t feel as complex or as suspenseful as the central mystery of most Hitchcock films, as the answer is fairly obvious earlier than it likely should be. This doesn’t matter in the slightest. The lush colors, playful mood, and overly stylized production value of To Catch a Thief make for a film so fun it feels like an outright comedy while still holding claim to some of the most striking imagery Hitchcock ever produced.

To Catch a Thief plays with the same lush production design & Technicolor lighting that made Douglas Sirk’s 1950s “women’s pictures” like All That Heaven Allows feel like high art despite their shameless indulgence in melodrama. A foot chase through a flower market, a swim on a French beach, or a picnic on the edge of a cliff, all in proudly-boasted “VistaVision”: you can tell this was an expensive production, made with Major Studio pride. What makes it such a delight, however, is that Hitchcock perverted those Sirk sensibilities with the tawdry jokes about boobs & Grace Kelly’s virginity. This clash is most glorious in a hotel room scene where Kelly’s young flirt is seducing Grant’s retired criminal, only for their attraction to be consummated with a Technicolor fireworks display. It’s scene that encapsulates everything To Catch a Thief is in its best moments: funny, sexy, gorgeous, and crude. A more sophisticated palette might better appreciate the tightly controlled tension of a Rear Window, but give my raccoonish taste buds the pretty colors and cheeky sex jokes of To Catch a Thief any day. Hitchcock’s perverted humor usually lurks in the corners of his best respected thrillers, but here it runs wild, swimming in its skivvies on gorgeous French beaches and sneaking across rooftops looking for hearts & jewels to steal through bedroom windows. It breaks my heart to hear that kind of immediate pleasure isn’t better respected.

I don’t mean to imply that there’s no tact or taste to To Catch a Thief’s humor. An early montage of a black cat sneaking across roofs to steal jewels, a literal cat burglar, feels a lot like the director’s peak form as a humorous craftsman. There’s also an early chase scene involving several fake-outs that’s almost Friedkin-esque in its clear staging of cat & mouse police pressure. Going in expecting the typical meticulous hand the director brings to his work might be a mistake, however. To Catch a Thief seems to be entirely a result of Hitchcock letting loose, having fun with the romantic & mysterious set-ups of his easygoing narrative. Even the double meaning of the film’s title (as both Kelly & Grant are attempting to catch a thief of their own) suggests that the whole thing is a kind of off-hand joke. Watching a world-class craftsman afford that joke the visual care & lusty passion that should likely be reserved for a more refined work makes it feel like jokey genre fodder elevated to the heights of fine art. If the world has room in its heart to praise the much lesser Baby Driver for achieving that exact kind of heist film elevation, I’d hope there’d also be room for an undervalued Hitchcock title to retroactively receive that same treatment.

-Brandon Ledet

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

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German filmmaker Douglas Sirk has dozens of titles to his name as a director, but the influence of his career is often condensed down to his handful of Technicolor melodramas produced by Universal-International Pictures in the 1950s. I had never seen a Sirk film in my life until recently, but the cultural impact of those Technicolor pictures was so significant that I could easily recognize their echoes in works as disparate as Far from Heaven, The Fly (1958), Polyester, and Gods & Monsters. Perhaps the most iconic title among Sirk’s most well-known American works is the Rock Hudson/Jane Wyman melodrama All That Heaven Allows. Dismissively categorized at its time of release as a “woman’s picture,” All That Heaven Allows may not have been fully appreciated in its initial run the way Sirk’s Imitation of Life eventually was just a few years later, but its reputation as an intricately constructed art piece has only grown in the decades since. I can only report that even after having seen its visual aesthetic assimilated & absorbed in a countless number of films throughout my life, All That Heaven Allows still makes for an intense, powerful first-time watch as a modern viewer. I’m in awe of its craft & its efficiency and still a little tipsy as I’m writing this from drinking in its lush, color-soaked artistry. I think I’m an instant Sirk fan, an immediate convert.

The story told here isn’t necessarily what’s important to the film’s appeal. Despite being 38 years old at the time of production, Jane Wyman plays a middle aged widow worried that her life is heading towards a lonely end. Her social circle of sycophantic elbow-rubbers & town gossips can only offer her calculated cocktail parties & polite company. Her bratty children, a Freudian scholar daughter & a brutish meathead son, selfishly plot for her to live a life alone in front of the television, described in-film as “the last refuge of a lonely woman.” Everyone seems to have concrete ideas about what the widow should do with the rest of her life and they circle around her, ready to pounce on any misstep she makes in choosing her path. Imagine their shock, then, when the woman allows herself to be seduced across class lines by her much younger gardener, played by the movie star handsome (and famously closeted) Rock Hudson. Will she leave behind her life of stuffy cocktails in the parlor for the raucous lobster boils her young beau shares with his equally money-ambivalent friends? She wants to value romance over social status, but the town’s prying eyes & her selfish kids’ disapproval make the decision difficult. The hot young landscaper offers her a more natural, fulfilling life than the self-conscious one she leads and the film’s central conflict lies in whether she’ll have the courage to accept the offer before it’s too late.

Keeping the story a thinly structured narrative frame is a smart choice, as it allows plenty of room to focus on the film’s real draw: a nonstop visual feast. Sirk lights his interiors with only the harshest, deep cold blues clashed against the most breathtaking yellow warmth. It’s like watching giallo, except with romance instead of murder driving its central mystery. Just watching a character transition from a candlelit parlor to ice cold moonlight, the lighting swapping roles between those spaces to match their movements, is enough to make you gasp. Sirk’s eye for exterior settings & Nature is just as hyper-real. Studio lot suburbia (sets that were later reused for episodes of Leave It to Beaver) looks like impressionistic paintings. Rock Hudson serves as our gateway to this Natural dreamworld, hand-feeding deer in his own backyard and drawing the audience’s attention to the trees that populate his impossible, artificial landscape. I haven’t seen colors this breathtakingly deep and sets this cinematically dreamlike since I first witnessed the Criterion restoration of The Red Shoes. It’s truly a marvel and Sirk’s camera knows how to frame & capture its most savory pleasures. By the time All That Heaven Allows was over, I felt as if I were drunk. Not too bad for “a woman’s picture,” huh?

It’s so easy to get swept up in this film’s beautiful homes, costuming, and interior lighting that time begins to take on a different pace altogether. All That Heaven Allows flew by for me. It worked like a quickly-paced seduction montage set to a sweeping orchestral score, as if Rock Hard Hudson were sweeping the entire audience off its feet, not just the hot to trot widow he takes a fancy to. It’s tempting to attribute a lot of the film’s entertainment value to its production design & its intense Technicolor dreaminess, but Sirk shows a masterful hand in matching that cinematic artifice to a concisely told, rapidly paced, delicately tragic seduction story. All That Heaven Allows is a perfect object, the ideal version of what it sets out to achieve. I doubt that’s the last time I’ll say that about a Douglas Sirk film, but it’s still an inarguable fact.

-Brandon Ledet