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February 16, 2009


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John M

Caught GABRIEL, as well. What a loony movie. How many times did I ask myself, "Was that a joke?" Many times. WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND was equally weird.

Glenn Kenny

I think of all Hollywood's White House movies, "Gabriel" is the most hilarious/terrifying/exhilarating. It's a totalitarian fantasy par excellence—"Sure, he's subverting the rule of law, but look, only the bad guys are suffering! Now THAT'S a dictatorship!" Particularly wacky are the gangsters getting it from the firing squad while the Statue of Liberty looms on the horizon. "Merry Go Round" is bizarre, too, but it never quite reaches that high/low.

John M

Oh no, for sure, GABRIEL takes the cake for cuckoo--the overall awkward tone and pacing and lighting tricks kind of seal it. I ask this in all seriousness: is it considered a comedy? Must be, but lord is it bone-dry.

The gangsters getting assassinated was the moment when I felt they would push back a little--something getting in our new president's way--surely a mass firing range wouldn't be put in a positive light. But oh no, pan right to the shooters and boom, they're dead.

And MERRY-GO-ROUND, with the first ending I've seen utilizing both an embrace and the sound of a self-inflicted gun shot. (Oh, spoiler, I guess.) Hard edges all around.

I see that James Cruze directed the original GANGS OF NEW YORK in 1938, with a screenplay by Samuel Fuller. That I'd like to see.


I'm very sorry I missed it. La Cava was such a talent, and I'm told this movie really shows his virtues, albeit while taking the cake for cuckoo (great phrase). I am deeply fond of Stage Door, My Man Godfrey and Fifth Avenue Girl.

How was Walter Huston? Marilyn Ferdinand over at my place was joking about him and these love-my-dictator roles. I wonder if The Devil and Daniel Webster could be said to form a trilogy of lovable-autocrats, together with Gabriel and Mission to Moscow ... Like most cinephiles I have a revival house in my mind where I am always coming up with double and triple bills.

Tom Carson

Don't forget W. Huston's role in Capra's (right-wing? left-wing? who knows?) American Madness, the first draft of It's A Wonderful Life. That's either two double bills, or one all-day marathon.

I'm not crazy about Walter, but as with Bush 41, his awful son makes me think better of him. And yes, I expect that'll start arguments.


TC, LOL! I am a fan of John Huston -- is it his movies, or his real-life ability to be nasty that bothers you more? I expect the former. I do notice that Huston fils is out of fashion these days. Which is not to say that your opinion is based on trends, but that I see there are a lot more "meh" responses around to his works, when he used to be well ensconced in the pantheon. I have no idea where our host stands on Huston the director, but Molly Haskell, for example, was quite down on Treasure of the Sierra Madre when she was on TCM. It was most amusing because Robert Osborne had no idea how to react to someone dissing a film on The Essentials.

I haven't seen American Madness, but now I will have to. And Dodsworth is an awesome performance from Walter. I like the whole family. Though I wouldn't necessarily want to attend a reunion, in this world or the next.

Glenn Kenny

What, no love for "The Kremlin Letter"?

John M

AMERICAN MADNESS is certainly worth seeing. One can quibble with the possibly bogus message of the film--as with IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, financial systems are somehow saved by ecstatic goodness--but Capra had a pretty masterful control of camera and staging in 1932. GABRIEL's fairly bumpy, by comparison--it's a must-see mostly for its, er, crackpotness.

With MADNESS, I was impressed by the very modern-feeling casualness of the ensemble acting, and the precision of the frame. Also a few great whip-pans...and not the graphic transition type, but honest to goodness dramatically coherent whip pans. For such an early sound film, a remarkable amount of visual control. (It helped, sure, that the print was pristine.)

For some reason, I really love Walter Huston--he's certainly the kind of actor (or person), all mid-Atlantic butter-churning horse-sense, that doesn't really exist anymore.

Tom Carson

Campaspe, you honor me with that LOL. I'm also honestly surprised you haven't seen Am. Madness, since it's one of those movies I dream of reading you on someday.

Since you ask, I couldn't care less that by most reports JH was a godawful human being, even though his self-aggrandizing act invites me to do just that. What bugs me is how few of his movies we'd give two hoots about if we didn't know who'd directed them. He went on playing the Hollywood game in the worst way even after he was famous -- I remember "The Bible," even though I don't want to -- but with such force of personality that it came off rakish, not whory. Call him the debut of auteur-theory decadence, since he directed a lot of worthless, fraudulent movies with just enough idiosyncrasy and pointless vanity that we'd never forget which celebrated auteur was behind the camera. I think Scorsese learned a lot from him. I do like Angelica, though, so maybe he did something right.



Criterion actually seems to be pretty high on Houston; they released "Under the Volcano" and "Wise Blood" is coming this May.

I'll be the first to agree Houston made a lot of crappy movies, but look at most auteurs and their actual batting average is well below 100%, especially if they worked in the studio system, especially if they're ego cases like Houston. On the other hand, three classics with Bogie and "Fat City" will forgive a lot, as far as I'm concerned. Even if he did make a Nazi soccer movie with Sylvester Stallone.


John M, thanks for the great dissection of American Madness. It sounds like a must. I generally prefer wipes to whip-pans as I really am an old fogey, I don't just play one on the Internet. But as you say, in 1932? That I gotta see.

TC, thanks so much for the kind words. Care to specify which (if any) JH films you do find worthwhile? I would definitely continue to give two hoots about Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon, In This Our Life, Across the Pacific, The Unforgiven, Key Largo (although I do see its faults), The African Queen and The Man Who Would Be King, as well as the amazing opening of Moulin Rouge which I vastly prefer to the whole of Luhrman's opus. I have yet to track down Freud which has a number of admirers. Aside--in Huston's generally quite unreliable, but interesting autobiography, he talks about how they worked on the color for Moulin Rouge, trying to make it look like Gate of Hell, which had recently won a foreign-film Oscar. Later I watched Gate of Hell and was impressed; don't know why it isn't discussed more. Anyway once Moulin Rouge's brilliant opening was over, the color was pretty much all that kept me watching.


Okay, was I just saying that Huston's memoirs were unreliable? Because I now see that Moulin Rouge was 1952, and Gate of Hell was shown nowhere until 1953. Did I get things garbled, or was Huston lying again? I do know he mentioned it in connection with the look of Moulin Rouge, that's why I tracked down Gate of Hell in the first place. I don't have his memoirs anymore--you'd appreciate its fate TC, the cat vomited a hairball on it--so I can't check.


All righty, part of his account of filming Moulin Rouge is online, and he just says the Japanese film was the only other one that "tried to render film color in something other than the garish hues of bad billboards." So it WAS me.

that whole thing was a digression anyway, apologies.

John M

Campaspe, I'm sure AMERICAN MADNESS has a few wipes, as well...I just can't remember them! Technically, it's a remarkably assured film.

Tom Carson

Campaspe, sorry to answer you so belatedly. I tried to post something earlier but it didn't go through, so apologies if this ends up duplicating or triplicating the original. I still remember what happened to that poor bastard whose comment got printed seven times in a row.

Anyhow, I don't disagree with most of your list, since I'm pretty much on board with Huston up through around 1951. And feel free to point out to me that that's a fairly impressive clutch of movies all by itself, making the man's later charlatanry an artistic footnote even if he did keep it up for 35 years. Shades of the Rolling Stones.

All the same, I think you can see symptoms of his later deterioration even that early: the flip cynicism of his sow's-ear job on Key Largo (which I enjoy anyway), the reliance on heavyweight literary adaptations as shortcuts to greatness that The Red Badge of Courage inaugurated. Even The African Queen is a pretty vexed question in my book, since I'm honestly not sure it would be much of a movie without the great charm of the Bogart-Hepburn relationship and it's impossible to tell how much of that was them and how much was him. It's got wonderful sequences early on -- the village burning, Robert Morley's delirium -- but a lot of what comes later is pretty much Higher Sitcom, redeemed and then some only by the players' charisma. Which I'll gladly give Huston full credit for realizing was the key ingredient and letting them get to it.

From then on, though, don't things get pretty dire, the occasional showpiece sequence aside? With too-rare exceptions, he alternated between ostentatious "big" projects that made him look big just for tackling them and meretricious movies that made him look lazy and greedy. I do have a soft spot for Reflections in a Golden Eye, though, despite knowing a lot of it doesn't work at all.

I also don't mind The Man Who Would Be King a bit, but something complacent and slack in how pleased it was with itself has kept me uninterested in a second look. As for The Unforgiven, to my shame, the truth is it's one of his I never got around to checking out. But I'll take your word for it that I should remedy that, at the remote risk of turning into Winston Smith discovering that he loves Big John.

Erin Donovan

Hah, I first saw this and thought it was Skins.


Huge LaCava fan, but I haven't seen Gabriel in ages. I should check it out again. In the last couple of years I've seen a few of his lesser-known films, such as Smart Woman, She Married Her Boss and Living in a Big Way. The latter in particular impressed me, though it's generally considered a failure. One of the best nights I had in a theatre was a few years ago when LACMA showed a double feature of Bed of Roses and Affairs of Cellini, with Fay Wray in person to talk about the latter.

The Half-Naked Truth is another fun LaCava (with Lee Tracy, Lupe Velez and Eugene Pallette, how could it not be?).

Big Capra fan, too. Discovering his early work has been quite a revelation (Dirigible, Ladies of Leisure, Forbidden, Platinum Blonde, The Miracle Woman, The Bitter Tea of General Yen). American Madness, like many of his films, was shot by the great Joseph Walker, who certainly deserves co-kudos for their visual impressiveness.

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