Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Virtue, White Women and a Tale of Two Charlies

Double features don't happen outside of specialty houses anymore unless it's an experiment by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez and then it just confuses people. But at places like the Film Forum in New York and the AFI in Silver Spring the Double Bill is alive and well. Recently my wife and I took in two Carole Lombard movies back to back on a double bill at the AFI. From 1932 and 1933 respectively we were treated to Virtue and White Woman. Once again the audience at the AFI was perfectly suited for the two films, no one laughing at the wrong place, no one making snarky remarks because the films are culturally from another place and time. Nope, just rapt attention and great reactions. And in what is becoming a welcome habit, I thrilled at seeing a film, two in this case, from the thirties on the big screen. I love TCM, but there really is no substitute for seeing these things in a theatre.

Neither movie stands out as an example of superb writing, thrilling camerawork or daring editing. No, they're both pretty standard fare but both were still very entertaining. Especially that Tale of Two Charlies I'll get to in just a minute. First, a brief look at the first movie on the program, Virtue.

Virtue stars Lombard with Pat O'Brien and it's the first time I've ever seen O'Brien in a role in which he elicited my sympathy. I didn't know he had it in him but he plays humiliation in a couple of scenes perfectly a with downturned look and a slight quiver of the lip as we realize he just wants to cry but being a big, tough talking guy, can't. The story is soap opera fare all the way. Lombard's a prostitute whose been ordered in court to leave town or go to jail. She pretends to leave town, gets off the train and runs into O'Brien, a taxi driver, who picks her up at the station. I'd go further but this is one of those massively over-plotted movies involving deception, mistaken identity, broken hearts and murder. I think drugs are in there somewhere too but I can't remember.

Edward Buzzell directs with an impressive economy of speed. While containing enough plot for a season's worth of episodes on HBO, Buzzell pulls the whole story in at just under 70 minutes and especially impressive for 1932, as the industry was just getting around to noiseless cameras that could come out of the sound booth, he keeps the camera moving. The opening scene of roommates Pat O'Brien and Ward Bond discussing Bond's girl troubles races by despite the banality of their conversation because Buzzell follows them through the apartment while they're in constant movement like he's got a hand held camera and he's working the red carpet.

The performances by all are good, not great, and the end result is an entertaining and fast paced soap opera with a happy ending. Seeing it on the big screen definitely upped it a notch or two in my book. Now, for that second movie.

White Woman was the second part of the program and it's one I wasn't sure I was going to get through. It too comes in at just under 70 minutes but the first thirty are just this side of dreadful. The pacing for the first half is lethargic, filled with odd pauses between lines, lingering shots that amount to nothing and a static lifeless camera. It tells the story of a widow, Judith Denning, played by Carole Lombard, who is stuck singing at a cafe in ... uh, I don't know, Malaysia I think. At least that's what IMDB says but they get every other detail of the plot wrong so I probably shouldn't trust them. Anyway, she is going to be deported because, best I could gather, she's white and a white woman singing in a cafe disturbs the locals. No, I'm actually serious, that seemed to be the reason. So along comes Charles Laughton as Horace Prin, King of the River. Yes, he runs a rubber plantation along the river and will marry her so she won't be deported. They marry and Judith and Prin return to his houseboat where she discovers he blackmails all of his employees and if they try and leave he orders the natives to kill them.

Now, Laughton, the first Charlie, is terrific with his way, way, waaaaay over the top delivery and a moustache that seems almost supernatural in design, or at the very least, gravity-defying. And yet the first half-hour still drags. Judith starts having an affair with the Overseer, David von Elst, played by Kent Taylor, and the two decide to leave the jungle. Prin of course tells them they're welcome to leave, but they won't get a boat so they'll have to go through the jungle and face the natives. They decide to stay and Prin puts von Elst in charge of the outpost up the river where he will be miles from Judith. And that's when the second Charlie shows up, Charles Bickford.

Most cinephiles know Bickford as Oliver Niles, producer, in the 1954 remake of A Star is Born. Here he is a revelation. The second he shows up as the new Overseer, Ballister, he starts insulting Prin with a gruff deadpan delivery that's just hilarious. Up to this point everyone tiptoes around Prin but Ballister immediately lays into him. Everyone calls Laughton's character "Prin" or "Mister Prin" or "Sir" but not Ballister. No, he calls him "Tubby", "Potbelly" and my favorite, "Squashface" as in "Yeah, whatever you say Squashface" or "Well look who's here - Tubby" or "Ah shut up Potbelly." Prin looks bemused every time Ballister insults him. Then as von Elst heads up river Ballister walks right up to Judith and says (and remember it's pre-code) "Hey baby how 'bout a tumble?" She recoils to which he replies, "Ah come on sister, you could do a lot worse around here than a tumble with me." This doesn't convince her. No tumble occurs.

Meanwhile Prin has insulted some Tribe up the river and they're on their way to kill him and everyone there. Prin has been warned by von Elst who has put his life in danger to come back to tell them. Prin is going to stay and fight with his machine guns but tells von Elst and Judith they can have a boat to go down river. He then snickers to Ballister that it only has enough gas to get them to the worst part of the river, where the most violent and murderous tribe lives. Ballister gives a deadpan, "How about that Squashface. Guess you gotta get up pretty early in the morning to fool you huh Potbelly?" Then Ballister goes out to the boat, fills it up and tells Prin they'll make it all the way now. Prin is furious and Ballister just says something along the lines of, "Ah shut up Tubby." And that takes us to the finale, and what a finale it is!

Prin goes to get his machine guns only to discover that they have been thrown in the river by Jakey, another blackmailed servant who hated Prin for killing his chimpanzee (and may I just say that scene is fairly disturbing). Ballister laughs when Prin discovers this, calls him a few names, insults his manhood and then says, "Hey let's play some poker." And there they are, in the middle of the night on a boat docked in the jungle as the war drums grow louder playing poker. They trade barbs. Prin - "You're face would look handsome stuck on a spike." Ballister - "Ha! Well your's wouldn't, that's a cinch!" This goes on for a few minutes until Ballister is hit with a poison dart. His body stays upright in the chair smiling as Prin starts yelling at him for ... well... everything. His life, his shattered dreams, his wife leaving, the tribes at war, hell, even his poker hand. He's furious because for the first time in his life he got a Royal Flush and his opponent in the game is now dead. The shots of Prin yelling at Ballister's lifeless grinning face, lit from beneath like a horrorshow routine, are as memorable as anything I've seen in some time. Then Prin runs out to the deck of the boat screaming wildly and is killed. The end.

What a movie! Or at least, what a last half of a movie! Because still, I can't recommend anything here until Ballister arrives. Before that it's a chore. The first thirty minutes easily feel like ninety. But once Ballister shows up, the game's on.

As the lights went up a mere two hours and twenty minutes after going down my wife and I agreed, we had gotten our money's worth. Virtue and White Woman may not go down in cinema history as anything other than a couple of larks on Carole Lombard's resume but seeing them back to back on the big screen in a glorious theatre made for one of my best nights out at the movies in a long, long time.