It’s a pity that André Malraux’s only film, a pre-neorealist feature about the struggle of his own Republican squadron in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, with a stirring original Darius Milhaud score—started in Barcelona in July 1938 (a few months after publishing his novel of the same title in France), suspended in January 1939 after the Franco Nationalists seized Barcelona, completed in the French Joinville studios just ahead of the German occupation, and finally released only after the Liberation, in 1945—is virtually unknown today in the English-speaking world, even though a DVD of the restoration with English subtitles is available in France. James Agee compared its poetry to that of Homer, but it seems to have become a forgotten film in the U.S. since then.
I showed a couple of clips from the film in my World Cinema of the 1930s course last night, as a kind of irreverent and dialectical contrast to Howard Hawks’ dark and beautiful Only Angels Have Wings, shot almost simultaneously in Hollywood. Much as I love the Hawks film, which I would describe as profound hokum, I don’t think its ideological and colonialist trappings should be entirely ignored. The fact that the mail-carrying American pilots working in an imaginary South American banana-boat port carry guns is never explained, but it should be at least pondered.
This detail figures in the plot only at a semicomical climatic juncture when Bonnie (Jean Arthur) snatches the gun of Jeff (Cary Grant) from its holster in an effort to keep him from flying off and risking his life in impossible weather; she quickly abandons the effort, but then the gun accidentally goes off and lodges a bullet in Jeff’s shoulder—which still doesn’t prevent him from flying off with another wounded pilot at the movie’s end. It’s also worth noting that Jeff—a hero who runs the small airlines like a benign dictator, at the same time that several less-benign dictators (Mussolini, Hitler, Salazar, Franco) were on the ascendancy in Europe—has never bothered to learn Spanish, a language that Bonnie compares to Pig Latin in the opening sequence, and presumably the gun he carries is supposed to protect him from the quaint locals whose mail he is determined to deliver.
Malraux’s masterpiece, which reveals another kind of collective solidarity and also specializes in horrific plane crashes, is no less striking in the poetic ways it handles death, especially in the way in which irrelevant objects suddenly take over the foreground of shots at moments when death is either present or imminent. (I’m thinking in particular of an enormous beaker dripping water in a storage room, or the sunflowers evoking Dovzhenko that take over the frame when a partisan is suddenly shot.) [11/27/08]
It’s great to see D.W. Griffith’s scandalously underrated and neglected last feature (1931)–already available on VHS, finally just out on DVD–recognized, and for the right reasons, by Dave Kehr in his DVD column in the New York Times today. And on Dave’s web site, he’s thoughtfully featured the above lobby card. [11/18/08]
I devoted almost an entire page in my first book, a memoir, to this unsung obscurity, a low-budget comedy western that I saw in Florence, Alabama with my brother Alvin on November 14 or 15, 1951, when I was eight and he was six, on a double bill with Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Man from Planet X. I can very nearly classify this viewing as my first cinematic encounter with the avant-garde, by which I mean something akin to what J. Hoberman calls Vulgar Modernism—eight months after what might have been my first non-cinematic encounter with the avant-garde when I attended a Spike Jones concert one Sunday afternoon at the Sheffield Community Center. Bear in mind that I saw Skipalong Rosenbloom a full year before the first issue of Mad (the comic book) appeared and almost two years before I bought my first issue (no. 6, August-September 1953); this was also a full year before I saw Frank Tashlin’s Son of Paleface. It’s quite possible, of course, that I’d already seen one of Tex Avery’s cartoons by then, but if I had, this fact couldn’t be traced by the same methods of research that I employed in my memoir, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, which mainly involved combing back issues of the local Florence newspaper on microfilm for movie ads.
The movie presents itself frankly as a western seen on TV, complete with mock commercial breaks, and is full of deconstructive gags and details. The title hero, played by former (1930-34) World Light Heavyweight Champion Maxie Rosenbloom, is overweight, has trouble climbing on or getting off his horse, can’t carry a tune or read or even recite the alphabet, but like Avery’s Droopy he can usually outsmart and outshoot everyone in sight. When one villain tries to steal his stash of alleged riches (which later proves to be a collection of bottle-tops) while he’s sleeping, Skipalong manages to shoot the bag from his hands in his sleep, and then, while the varmint hurriedly rides off, calls out, “Don’t stop to pick up no daisies,” though a quick cutaway shows the thief stopping long enough to do precisely that. In my favorite surreal touch, occurring much later, a map to a lost gold mine that will enable Skipalong to pay off his grandpappy’s mortgage turns out to be a mail-order square dance lesson from Sears and Roebuck.
This movie was and is so scarce that the only illustration I can dredge up, quite unrepresentative, is the measly poster. But I managed to recall many more details in this movie after coming across the script, quite by chance, in the Information Department of the British Film Institute while researching Moving Places in December 1977. Reseeing the movie was a lot harder to accomplish and took me roughly three decades. I finally managed to track down a VHS copy a year or so ago, under its rerelease title Square Shooter, from Movies Unlimited, which has subsequently removed it from its hefty catalog, and I finally watched it all the way through this afternoon.
I’m sorry to say that the movie’s precredits prologue, recounted in Moving Places, is missing from Square Shooter (so named because Skipalong carries guns with square barrels and bullets). But Junior—the little boy in a cowboy suit in this prologue who orders his father at gunpoint to switch channels from either Round Table for Square Heads (Father’s favorite show) or Nellie Nylon’s Latest Creations (Mother’s favorite) to Skipalong Rosenbloom—does appear to turn up in the movie itself much later, shortly after a commercial for a breakfast cereal called Crummy, as The Pecos Kid (Whitey Haupt), who identifies himself as the son of the show’s sponsor. If I’m right about this hunch, this close association of spectator with advertiser may have been the most avant-garde gesture of all. [11/16/08]
Okay, this 1952 Leo McCarey melodrama is flawed, even deranged in its second half, when the combined difficulties of Robert Walker’s sudden death during the film’s production and McCarey’s crazed view of the Communist Menace yield a creepy form of paranoid hysteria and delirium. But this is also one of the most moving and complexly felt movies McCarey ever made — also one of the best acted, especially for Walker, Helen Hayes, and Dean Jagger. Writing about Robert Warshow many years ago, Donald Phelps wrongly accused him of overrating Monsieur Verdoux but rightly accused him of underrating this film. Its continuing unavailability on DVD is a disservice both to McCarey’s memory and to his audience. [11/16/08]
We’ve finally elected a grownup.
John McCain’s concession speech was his finest moment.
The major triumph, at least potentially, isn’t left over right but unity over disunity. Which means that President Obama is bound to do some things that will distress his more progressive supporters as well as other things that will upset his detractors. His Lincolnesque brief—to end another Civil War, or at least to call a cease-fire—virtually guarantees this. But assuming that it’s still possible to think and act and feel together, it’s a hopeful start. [11/5/08]