Hollywood on the Hudson
Film Forum, Tuesdays July 13-August 10
Film Forum's "Hollywood on the Hudson" series—tied in to a new paperback edition of Richard Koszarski's history of the same name—isn't really much more than a grab-bag of early-30s fare, united solely by provenance. Koszarki's book makes clear that making early sound films in New York was not a task for the foolhardy; the city had to prove its technical facility and capabilities time and time again. (The New York Times noted that local filmmakers, "in escaping from the stifling influence of the California joss houses, is also likely to lose the lacquered brilliance that distinguishes the work of the Hollywood technician.") That difficulty doesn't come through in all the programmed films, which cover the full early-sound gamut from the surprisingly slick to the patchy. Nonetheless, it's a far-from-unwelcome grab-bag of films, mostly anomalous but fascinating novelties.
The most historically vital but strangely tedious is The Emperor Jones, a 1933 Eugene O'Neill adaption pretty much name only; it retains a mere 45 minutes of the play, runs 80, and is too poorly made to make a dent no matter how frantic it gets. It's worth seeing for Paul Robeson, a sweaty core of intensity in the middle of a film that uses the word "nigger" more freely than pretty much any pre-blaxploitation movie. Still, the movie's a slog despite all the racism and shouting, notable mostly for the record; paired with St. Louis Blues (Bessie Smith's only screen appearance), it's important but demands patience.
Along with the Marx Brothers chestnut Animal Crackers and the rarely screened silent W.C. Fields comedy So's Your Old Man, comedy is also provided by The Smiling Lieutenant, a depressingly pragmatic Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedy more openly despairing than much of his work. The finale goes where most still won't, and, though the unctuous Maurice Chevalier doesn't really help matters, attention should be paid: the usual continental farce of affections leaves a strong but sour aftertaste. Whether that makes it a small failure or a double success is hard to tell.
The centerpiece of the series, though, may well be the first double-feature: Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's Crime Without Passion and The Scoundrel, the rarely screened double bill of failed ambitions and acerbic one-liners. Given carte blanche within their budgetary limits, Hecht and MacArthur—the closest thing 30s film had to H.L. Mencken—wrote their screenplays, brought in ace cameraman Lee Garmes and barely "directed" their own work (they spent most of the shoots playing pranks on visitors and playing backgammon). It shows: Crime Without Passion in particular seems barely aware of the concept of continuity editing, and both films have zero sense of pacing.
Crime is, as it happens, a straight Crime And Punishment rip, with all the overwrought weaknesses and compelling rancidness that entails. At the center is corrupt attorney Claude Rains, whose simultaneous sense of self-loathing and ubermensch superiority lead him to very dangerous places. The rhythm's off, the plot doesn't really add up and the whole thing is so sloppily assembled it's nearly avant-garde, but there's a very real core of anguished rage at the center. It's the work of two people who themselves clearly think they're above it all (their films stemmed in part from a sense of frustration with what they perceived as Hollywood idiocy, but the corrective just isn't there); Rains serves both as a mouthpiece and for the purposes of self-flagellation.
If Crime is compellingly pissed-off, The Scoundrel is much closer to being a real movie; the cynical mouthpiece this time is Noel Coward at his most Coward-esque. (After one particularly bright bon mot, he laughs "Ha! An epigram.") He's a debonair, heartless publisher who speaks in terms Oscar Wilde would have applauded; Rains is seething with evident tension and isn't much fun, but Coward is, inescapably, a blast. His understated performance means that even when the allegory enters the absolutely insane metaphysical redemption part (best not to spoil it), he keeps the film grounded. At bottom, though, is real hurt: "I don't particularly like myself," he says quietly at one point. Remarkably for its time, then, it's an unblinking portrait of male pathology and self-loathing years before that would be acceptable Hollywood terrain. That alone justifies the grand experiment of '30s filmmaking in New York; it literally couldn't happen in LA.