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November 30, 2010

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Asher

I'm an enormous McCarey fan (of the great McCareys - including MY SON JOHN - anyway, I find arguments for the likes of RALLY ROUND THE FLAG, BOYS, ONCE UPON A NAZI HONEYMOON or even GOING MY WAY a little baffling), but, while he's a lot better, visually, than he's made out to be - in particular I always find his cutting fascinating - I don't feel he's someone who benefits enormously from HD, or at least, not to the extent that I'm inclined to go out and get a multi-region Bluray player. To begin with, everything in McCarey always seems a little out of focus. And he's not someone who uses many objects or insert shots, or places much emphasis on his sets, so there aren't many little details you're missing in a lower resolution, other than the details of the actors' clothes.

Hollis Lime

One of the saddest films I've ever seen, but it's also very funny at times, I think. This is from the guy that made Duck Soup and The Awful Truth after all.

Tom Russell

My wife is the same way with regards to the ill treatment of the elderly-- she had trouble even with BUBBA HO-TEP and certain sequences of HAPPY GILMORE-- and also animals-- when I watch Bresson's BALTHAZAR, I have to do it when she has jury duty or something, and we recently had to pause THE FALL to mourn the loss of a certain character-- which is one reason why we haven't tackled the McCarey despite having borrowed it from the library several times.

Marshlands

Bill Fay, Glenn? Awesome.

bill

When it comes to Bresson-related animal violence (a broad topic, actually) everyone brings up AU HASARD BALTHAZAR, but man, THE DEVIL, PROBABLY is the real nightmare. That stock footage of a seal clubbing simply will NOT leave my brain, and I tremble at the thought of my wife putting in the DVD while I'm not around, out of curiosity. That probably won't happen, but the aftermath would be devestating. As it was with me.

Ryan Kelly

Before I actually saw this movie, I figured that it was impossible for it to be as sad as everyone said it was.

I was wrong. I was very very wrong.

Stuart

I echo Asher's love of MY SON JOHN, which i saw for the first time a few weeks ago. Because of its rarity, I thought it would be of interest to other McCarey fans that the film has, for some reason, made its way to Netflix Instant Watch.

michaelgsmith

Asher, anything shot on 35mm benefits enormously from an HD upgrade. I don't understand this line of thinking that only movies that are somehow "visually breathtaking" will benefit from the 1080p blu-ray treatment. Masters of Cinema's blu-ray is far superior to Criterion's standard def DVD.

david hare

Yes, butg perhpas the staggering improvements in detail and textural film grain and light/grayscale become more aparrent the bigger the screen. I had my doubts before triple dipping for the MoC but it was worth every cent. But hell it's one of the greatest pictures of all time.

If anything B&W films particularly seem to me to be so much more beautiful in HD than older SD incarnations There are three (no less)early B&W Godards - Breathless, Vivre sa Vie(both Criterion) and Femme Mariee (MoC) which now actually look to me like original first run pristine 35mm. Exactly as shot by Raoul Coutard.

FYI McCarey's An Affair to remember is coming to Fox Blu in February next year, along with All About Eve. It keeps getting better!

The Siren

Maybe My Son John got some more attention from being screened on TCM in January. :D :D :D

jbryant

Stuart: Good news about the criminally underrated and dismissed MY SON JOHN showing up on Instant Watch. Takes the sting out of losing it from my DVR queue when I moved and had to switch cable providers.

Siren: So grateful to you and Lumenick getting that on the TCM schedule, but I was sure disappointed by Robert Osborne's dismissive intro, which boiled down to something like "Even terrible movies can be of historical interest. So watch this, even though you won't enjoy it."

McCarey was frequently awesome. GOOD SAM is his other overlooked gem. Asher, I'll refrain from making any baffling arguments for the three films you mention, but I did enjoy them all to one degree or another. Someone on Dave Kehr's blog just mentioned that TCM will be showing episodes of "Screen Director's Playhouse" in January, including McCarey's TOM AND JERRY and efforts by John Ford, Ida Lupino and Allan Dwan. Can't wait.

The Siren

Jbryant, I get the impression that Osborne writes almost all of the intros himself; he's a old-movie hound of astonishing breadth and knowledge. So i guess he didn't dig it much, although I don't remember what he said. My DVR copy of My Son John was fatally injured in a head-on collision with a 7 year old hellbent on recording Scooby Doo, so I feel your pain. But I too would have given the movie a great deal of love. It's near-great in my view, or rather about three-quarters great, marred by what McCarey had to go through after Walker's death to piece the movie together. The scenes between Jagger and Walker are brilliant, as are the ones with Helen Hayes. I also liked her interplay with Van Heflin a lot.

jbryant

Siren: Those meddling kids! :)

Agree with everything you said about MY SON JOHN, although I do think the way McCarey dealt with the compromises forced upon him by Walker's death is a pretty amazing feat of filmmaking, even if the results are unavoidably choppy. Sometimes I can even convince myself that John's final speech, heard only on tape, is more effective than if Walker had been alive to deliver it onscreen.

I like and appreciate Osborne a lot, and I can forgive him for taking "the party line" on the film. Some will never see the rich, human forest for the red-baiting trees.

Asher

MY SON JOHN is a masterpiece with a flawed ending; it's like THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS of 50s domestic dramas. One thing that doesn't get mentioned a lot, in conversations about MY SON JOHN, are the parallels between it and other McCareys. For example, MY SON JOHN shares quite a lot with RUGGLES OF RED GAP. Both are films about people who question, broadly speaking, American democracy. For much of both films, Ruggles and John seem right; Americans and their values are made out to be rather absurd, crude, ignorant, classless and tasteless. But at the end, Ruggles and John renounce their anti-egalitarian objections to the American way - John even renounces education as perversive - and do so by giving speeches - John, his bizarre commencement address, Ruggles, the Gettysburg Address. There's also much of MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW in MY SON JOHN - the embarrassment of one's parents, the impossibility of any intergenerational meeting of the minds, and yet, for all McCarey's understanding of the child's impossible position, an ultimate normative bias in favor of the parents and "honor[ing] thy father and mother," as the titles of MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW exhort us to do and as Dean Jagger exhorts his son to do. (This theme also gets taken up in subplots in GOING MY WAY and THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S.) MY SON JOHN, though, is vastly darker than any of those earlier films, vastly less convincing in its ultimate endorsement of McCarey's values, and genuinely disturbing in its depictions of FBI agents who lie and spy via camera on aging mothers, doctors who drug aging mothers into complacency, mothers who infantilize their children and equate football with patriotism and patriotism with heterosexuality, and fathers driven so mad by Red Scare propaganda that they're ready to turn their sons in at the slightest hint of abnormal behavior. The sky in MY SON JOHN is sunless, the trees are leafless, the house is barely lit, the church is a dismal gray building that we only see the outside of, the only neighbor we ever see tells the family to shut up, and our nation's capitol becomes a spectral ghost town, peopled only by unseen Russian assassins who gun John down in front of a tourist-less Lincoln Memorial. And the great power of the film is that its critique is entirely unconscious.

Oliver_C

Funny old world. Two threads ago we condemned the fascism of 'Robocop 2'; now we're lining up to praise a film made in the service of a crypto-fascist ideology that unConstitutionally ruined the careers of a whole studio backlot's worth of filmmakers.

Glenn Kenny

Hey, who's CONDEMNING fascism? I merely pointed it out. As a "lefty," I whole-heartedly endorse and enjoy fascism; just ask Jonah Goldberg!

bill

Oh good. It really makes me happy any time a film blog comment thread starts throwing around the word "fascism". Which means I'm ALWAYS happy.

The Siren

Asher, I think McCarey was entirely too great an artist to throw around much of anything unconsciously. He knew exactly what he was doing in My Son John; in his interview with Bogdanovich McCarey said it was his intention to make Dean Jagger sound ridiculous, to show a man who had slaved to put his kid through college and then have the child feel ashamed of him. We were supposed to see the son as "callous," as PB put it. Walker scores all kinds of rhetorical points off his father and the priest, and even mocks his mother's reminiscences about his babyhood, but it's done in a way that shows the cruelty of his wit as well. If we're still on Walker's side, that is partly the historical hindsight that might make one want to label the whole scenario "fascist"--although I'd argue it's sincere anti-Communism, McCarey's fear of what he saw as an existential threat to the country he loved. But it's also the way the movie has to trail off rather than end, with Walker a spectral presence on a recording, rather than the living son McCarey had envisioned when he wrote the script. A living son might have had a believable final interaction with his parents, or might have been one final dose of ambivalence.

I also don't think that Americans are being lampooned in the first parts of Ruggles of Red Gap. The allegedly crude and tasteless folks taking out a butler to get drunk and bantering with one another are vastly more appealing from the get-go than the stiff, uncaring British toff who loses Ruggles in a card game like he's a horse. Ruggles's attitude doesn't seem right, it seems deluded. And it's also the English lord who learns the joys of egalitarianism, so in McCarey's vision America has something for everybody.

Glenn Kenny

Do not give birth to a cow, Bill. No one's "throwing around" the word. I brought it up with respect to "Robocop 2" because the film can be seen as objectively endorsing a police state as a remedy for certain societal ills, a position that, according to certain textbook definitions, is consistent with a fascist ideology. I thought this was interesting in that Kershner himself didn't seem a person to agree with this position. Hence, the idea of a disconnect from the content of his work. As for "crypto-fascist ideology," well, yes, that's more problematic. I'm with the Siren, who makes a correct distinction between fascism and anti-communism--the two things are not the same. It's historical hindsight pertaining to certain aspect of tactics related to anti-communism, that McCarthy fellow's in particular, that lead to such characterizations.

If there's a more movingly "pro America" piece of filmmaking than the reading of the Gettysburg Address in "Ruggles," I've yet to see it. And Robin Wood's reading of McCarey's unfairly dismissed "Rally 'Round The Flag, Boys" suggests, among other things, that McCarey's sense of comic anarchy could subsume pretty much any coherent or straight ideology it came into contact with.

Semi-amusing anecdote: I was at one of these cute little holiday-season studio "toasts" last night in Chelsea and I hadda bail early to get to BAM for a screening of Alexei German's criminally underseen "Khroustaliov, My Car!" I was explaining my departure to a couple of friends and a female journalist of a certain age asked me what the film was "about," and I floundered, as one will with trying to describe the picture, and mumbled something about Stalin, and she said, "I'm sick of people picking on Stalin!" And I just said, because it was all I could think of, "Well, it's a RUSSIAN film," and she said, "I know, you said that, but I'm still sick of it..." and then started in with the whole "wasn't as bad as Hitler" line, and all my friend and I could do was look at this person with a "Lady, are you kidding me?" expression. And fortunately I had to leave. It was just one of those bizarre disconnect moments of a certain kind. I'm sure The Siren remembers the guy in the audience at our "Mission To Moscow" panel who was all "Robert Conquest is not respected in the academic community," and we're "Whatchoo talkin' bout?"

Anyway. "Khroustaliov," a harrowing, hilarious, indescribable film (to call it a Soviet-era "Life With Father" as conceived by David Lynch hardly even begins to cover it), played to a nearly packed house of mostly 20-something cinephiles. I felt like David Huddleston in "Blazing Saddles," after Gabby Johnson's speech: "I'm especially glad the young people were here to hear this..."

The Siren

@Glenn: The anti-Robert Conquest guy at the MtM screening is a cherished memory, as is the man sitting *directly* next to him, who immediately began denouncing Stalin and praising Conquest. This prompted my personal all-time favorite Glenn Kenny Riposte, out of a crowded field: "Hey, did you two come here together?"

bill

I didn't think I was delivering a cow -- more than anything I was making a joke (and as I type this I realize this part of the joke didn't come through AT ALL) about the fact that "fascism" seems to be a comfort word for a lot of people. If you can call something fascist, then you've won. It's sort of like a loophole to Godwin's Law.

"The anti-Robert Conquest guy at the MtM screening is a cherished memory, as is the man sitting *directly* next to him, who immediately began denouncing Stalin and praising Conquest. This prompted my personal all-time favorite Glenn Kenny Riposte, out of a crowded field: 'Hey, did you two come here together?'"

Okay, that's funny.

Tom Russell

Speaking of MISSION TO MOSCOW, which I wouldn't have seen if not for the TCM series you co-programmed, Siren-- I am still in awe of the verve with which Curtiz and his cinematographer handled that big diplomatic party scene. Very fluid, lots of narrative threads and intrigues and character bits, and it seemed at the time that every camera placement and movement was designed to focus our attention here and then there (though, only seeing it the once, I can't pin down specific moments or shots).

Kent Jones

Glenn, don't you think Stalin was handsomer than Hitler? I've seen pictures of him and he looks like a very nice man. And in KHROUSTALIOV, life under Stalin seems kind of fun, filled with crazy hijinks. If you don't count the abductions and the rapes.

I admire Leo McCarey, I marvel at what he managed to pull off in 1937, but I am uneasy with the rehabilitation of MY SON JOHN as a flawed masterpiece. Of McCarey's sincerity I have no doubt. The parent-child relationship really is impressive. Affecting, emotionally raw, its portrait of home and hearth strangely menacing, its conflicting impulses on full display, it is a striking film. But a great one? On a very basic level, there's the problem of Helen Hayes' acting. This was her grand return to the silver screen and she floods the movie with her behavioral and vocal busy work. I can hear the argument now - that her character is supposed to be overbearing, that she overwhelms he movie just as she overwhelms her family, etc., etc. - when mental operations like that are required, we've crossed into wish-fulfillment territory. I think McCarey loses control of her performance and upends the tone of the whole movie, and that doesn't happen in any of his other work.

But there's another issue, brought up by Robert Warshow at the end of his essay on the film. "...one essential element is lacking: the subterranean fire of fanaticism. Without that, one cannot wholeheartedly believe in John Jefferson as an adequate representation of the Communist; it is as if he had picked up his Communism as another man might pick up a love of chamber music, simply as part of his cultural furniture (there are such Communists, of course, but they do not become spies)." Granted, it would have been impossible during that period to make a film with a character who could offer a clear, cogent reason for being a Communist (you have to look to movies from the 30s and 40s for rhetoric that points in such a direction - I'm thinking of the discussion among the wounded vets in PRIDE OF THE MARINES - but even there, the word "Communism" is never uttered), particularly in a movie that announces itself as anti-Communist. So, one is left with a film that, from a perspective available to us in 2010, is about the tragedy of sophisticated children and proudly unsophisticated parents, in which "Communism" is equivalent to Hitchcock's Macguffin (appropriately, since Hitchcock gave McCarey the footage for the ending). But in order for the movie to fully function in that manner, alot of truly uncomfortable rhetoric and FBI investigative work has to be re-classified as "incidental," or, in Asher's case, re-formulated as elements in an "unconscious" critique. I think the film contains scenes of great power, and that its array of wildly clashing energies is fascinating. But I can't accept it as a flawed masterpiece, let alone one worthy of comparison with THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS.

The Siren

@Kent, I'm afraid my enthusiasm for what I like about My Son John has made me sound blind to its flaws. Certainly for me to put it anywhere near Magnificent Ambersons would require a pole-vault. To the Helen Hayes question: I find her "great actress" rep puzzling, and always thought she must have been a whole 'nother story on stage, because in movies she's usually a nuisance. However, I completely bought her in My Son John and found her quite moving. I think there's overt evidence in the script for the way she's behaving, with all the references to her "goofy pills" and surprisingly frank talk about her menopause. (Although her face and makeup suggest a woman who would have passed that stage some time ago.) Also--and here we get into something wholly personal, but I'm offering it in the interests of full disclosure--her fluttery mannerisms, line deliveries and even her accent reminded me powerfully of my own grandmother. So I admit to that bias.

To me the movie's problems are twofold; first on my list would be the jolting inserts from Strangers on a Train. Some people argue that they work, either wholly or in part, and I can't agree at all. Bruno is a conscienceless psychopath, John is (ultimately) not, and Walker is too good an actor for the difference not to show plain as day even when the dialogue is blotted out. Second would be the point that you're raising, which I glossed over--the lack of real engagement with Communism. After Shadows of Russia I can attest that almost no movie of the period presents Communism as much more than the Thing That Wants to Eat Our Country, but still, yes, point very much taken, especially the taste for chamber music analogy. It does indeed seem to be something that John picked up as part of the whole process of demasculinization that we're to believe is intrinsic to becoming an intellectual. In fact, because of that, the movie plays as anti-intellectual as much as anything. As well a possible closet-case-son drama, which is another line to take on it.

The movie is flawed, it's hugely flawed, and yet it's so goddamn rich to me. If I don't call it near-great, I don't know what to call it.

Asher

"The allegedly crude and tasteless folks taking out a butler to get drunk and bantering with one another are vastly more appealing from the get-go than the stiff, uncaring British toff who loses Ruggles in a card game like he's a horse."

Perhaps my personal tastes in comportment coming out here; I can't help but wince every time poor Ruggles is at the cafe and his new master starts hee-hawing at his friend from across the street. The earl's behavior is a little callous, but he immediately regrets it. Certainly McCarey is on the American "side," but I think he sees that with our freedom comes, necessarily, a certain amount of gaucheness, just as he sees that with old age comes a great deal of embarrassing behavior towards one's children, particularly when the children are teaching bridge.

As to whether Communism is a MacGuffin, it is to an extent - but I don't see why that makes the very powerful stuff with the FBI agent incidental. You can make a film about the debasing domestic consequences of a cold war without seriously engaging with the other side. Nor do I see why Communism and fanaticism must go hand in hand, even in the minds of 50s McCarthyites. John's character seems modeled after Alger Hiss, probably the most famous exposed Communist spy at that time after the Rosenbergs, and Hiss never seemed fanatical. To the public at least he appeared effete, intellectual, and attracted to Communism simply because, in his nefariously Ivy League educated way, he thought it was the superior intellectual position.

Kent Jones

Siren, I get your point - it's a rich experience, and it's hard to know what to call it, so why not near-great? For my own part, I'd prefer to call it many things as opposed to one - powerful, crazy, confused, sad, perceptive, stunted, and - here's a big one - redolent of its era on multiple levels, some of which were probably surprising even to the people who made the film (I don't buy much of what Asher wrote, but I kind of see what he means when he employs the word "unconscious").

Who are these people who argue that the STRANGERS ON A TRAIN inserts "work?" If so, that's about all they do. Let's just say that they get the movie to an end point. Your observation about the differences in the two Walker performances is very interesting.

Chris O.

Glenn, your wife may also steer clear of John Prine's "Hello In There" and maybe Elvis Costello's "Veronica," just in case.

Asher

I mean, the film isn't unconscious in the sense that, say, McCarey wasn't aware that he was making the film's mise en scene so grim. But it's not self-aware either. Sirk, for example, is very consciously and sometimes a little tendentiously a critic of 50s America, as when he starts THERE'S ALWAYS TOMORROW with a title that goes "one day in sunny California" and then cuts to a rainy street scene in sunny California. Or when he shoots the toy in scenes when no one's even looking at the toy. That kind of knowing near-snarkiness detracts enormously from the film for me at least, and isn't at all present in MY SON JOHN, because McCarey, I think, would locate the source of the chill in his film in the Communist threat - the threat that's sent Hayes's sons to go fight in Korea. But to the contemporary viewer, it feels like McCarey's unknowingly recording qualities of 50s America that had nothing to do with Communism. So if you take the FBI agent, surely McCarey wasn't unaware that there was something at the least a little creepy about his methods. But I don't think that McCarey is consciously launching an attack on McCarthyism or the intelligence community; rather, he probably thought he was showing, as the agent tells Hayes, what the Russians were driving us to do, that the severity of the threat was so great that we were forced to spy on our own people.

The Siren

Glenn and anyone who has seen Make Way for Tomorrow will appreciate this: It's being screened this month on TCM, in prime time, for...

Christmas Eve.

Break out the eggnog!

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