Forgive my diversion into TV for a moment, but like a lot of you, I’ve gotten hooked on the new season of TWIN PEAKS. I coveted the silk robe Agent Cooper‘s former secretary Diane Evans wore in Part 7. Its colors and floral pattern look like something I’d wear because of my vintage sensibilities. When I went hunting for a good image of it, I stumbled across the photo of Cooper in his bathrobe in an earlier season. Again another red robe, but his looks like a Pendleton with abstract snow-capped mountains. Two red robes reflecting their wearer’s tastes and gender, but seemingly calling out to each other between seasons, symbolically marking each for the other half of the pair they once were. The more concrete print of her robe is a stronger image for a woman who wears bold clothes, maybe once simply for fashion, but perhaps now they buck her up and distract her from the bitterness and pain of her broken heart.
By msbethg in Blogathons, Fairy Tale, Fairy Tales, Genres, Silent Film 12 Comments Tags: 1920s, accompanist, accompanists, Allen Jeffrey Rein, Anna May Hirsch, Anne Richardson, Appalachia, Appalachian, Blancanieves, blogathon, Blogathons, CA, Cali, California, camera, Charles Rosher, cinema, Claire, Claude Debussy, contemporary, Copland, corn, corn stalk, couple, D.W. Griffith, director, directors, equipment, exposures, F.W. Murnau, fairy tale, fairy tales, farm, farmer, farmers, farming, farms, father, fatherhood, fathers, folktale, folktales, gay, Georges Méliès, handcrank, Herbst Theatre, homosexual, intertitles, James Ferguson, Japan, Japanese, Josh, Kaguya, Kaguya-hime, luna, lunar, lune, Mary Pickford, Michel Hazanavicius, Milford Thomas, Mish P. DeLight, Miss Earwood, Mitchell Standard, Mitchell Standard handcrank camera, moon, Mutability, orchestra, Orchestra de Lune, orchestras, Pablo Berger, Percy Bysshe Shelley, poem, poetry, princess, Princess Kaguya, queer, Ravel, Richard, San Francisco, San Francisco Silent Film Festival, SF, SF Silent Film, SF Silent Film Fest, SF Silent Film Festival, SFSFF, Shelley, silent, silent era, Silent Film, silent films, silents, south, southern, Tess of the Storm Country, The Artist, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, Toniet Gallego, vintage, Walt
Contemporary silent film Claire frames a story of longings once impossible inside a loose adaptation of a Japanese fairy tale. The movie quietly champions the themes of acceptance, fatherhood, and families of choice. The methods used to depict this tale are strictly early twentieth century, and the images they make are a dream-like mix of the quotidian and the mystical. All create a sense of the magic of love.
Claire was inspired by Princess Kaguya, also known as The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. In the fairy tale, Princess Kaguya is a changeling child. She’s discovered inside a shining stalk of bamboo by an elderly bamboo cutter wandering the forest. She’s no bigger than his thumb. He brings her home, and since he and his wife are childless, they raise the girl. They begin receiving compensation for the care they’d gladly give for free. Every time he cuts down a bamboo stock, he finds a nugget of gold.
Kaguya grows into a great beauty of normal human size. Despite her parents sheltering her, word of her beauty spreads, and she’s wooed by royalty, who want to marry her and take her away. She refuses by assigning them impossible tasks. She only feels the moon’s pull. While she loves her earthly parents, she cries to be separated from the moon. The tension comes from not knowing how and when she will leave her parents. Changeling children never stay. Will romance or the moon finally take her away from the couple?
Filmmaker Milford Thomas sets his version of this story on an Appalachian farm in the 1920s south. The movie starts with a child’s birthday party. A little girl is surrounded by friends and presents while her proud poppa, Josh (Mish P. DeLight) looks on. Suddenly the party is interrupted by a woman and man glaring reprobation. They take the girl away. Josh wakes up from his nightmare, arms flailing about, in bed. His partner lying next to him, Walt (James Ferguson), takes Josh’s hand, which calms him. We’re next shown scenes of their domesticity as they work their corn farm and live the settled, peaceful life of two elderly people who have been together a very long time.
Josh’s dream shows us the one thing he wants is a child, and his wish is fulfilled one night. He and Walt are startled awake by their animals making noise. When they look out their window to find out what the hullabaloo is about, they see their barn is filled with light. They find a glowing ear of corn inside. While they watch, the husk parts to reveal a glowing miniature, but perfectly proportioned girl (Toniet Gallego). She looks up at them with curiosity and hopefulness. They swaddle her like a baby and bring her into their home. They’re startled awake a third time when furniture gets knocked about. The tiny girl grew into a full-sized one overnight! The couple name her Claire.
Josh and Walt finally have a child to raise and spoil. They throw her a birthday party. They make a cake out of cornmeal. They wrap her present in dried corn husks. Her gift is revealed to be a miniature of their home made out of matchsticks and corn kernels. Inside the house are figurines of each family member. The scene is touching and foreshadowing. Even non-magical girls don’t stay home forever. The local school teacher, Miss Earwood (Anna May Hirsch), wants to send bright Claire away to France to study. Her pupil Richard (Allen Jeffrey Rein) attempts to court Claire, who’s confused about what she wants. She wants to stay with her fathers, but she can’t fight the pull of the moon. She climbs up onto the window sill at night to stare at the moon and cry longingly.
Thomas sets his movie in the past, but the subject of gay fatherhood and adoption remains topical, even though it is more common and acceptable today, yet his film isn’t polemical. In depicting one couple raising one girl, he shows us the love and wonder any father would feel doubled by two. Within the film’s more conservative time period, it’s only the nightmare child snatchers that show disapproval. Whether the townspeople understand Walt and Josh are a couple isn’t made clear, but their neighbors don’t question the men’s ability or motives in raising a girl. That’s not a plot point. Their daughter Claire accepts and loves them for who they are.
Her fathers must accept her for who she is. Every parent reaches the point when he or she must let a child grow up into her own person. Claire has feelings that she doesn’t understand. She doesn’t know what makes her want to leave her earthly home for the moon. It’s painful and confusing for any child to individuate. The story of the changeling who stays a short time with her foster parents mimics the cycle of the adolescent becoming an adult. Within Claire’s magical story is a second universal one.
Thomas’s visuals aren’t as slick as the ones of The Artist or Blancanieves. He employs no expensive digital arts, and his sets are modest. He did not have the same resources as Michel Hazanavicius or Pablo Berger. He gave himself two challenges to make Claire. He had to do it on a limited budget, and he had to do it using vintage equipment.
What’s shown onscreen looks like early vintage filmmaking, and I mean that in the best possible way. He used a Mitchell Standard handcrank camera, the “same type of camera used by cinematographer Charles Rosher to film Mary Pickford in the 1922 Tess of the Storm Country.” Milford overexposed modern monochrome film stocks to get contemporary film to look vintage. He used multiple, in camera exposures to make his special effects. Only an underwater scene was shot on a modern camera. His stylistic influences include Georges Méliès, F.W. Murnau, and D. W. Griffith. Few intertitles are employed, save for a scene where Claire reads a poem by Shelley.
The movie’s soundtrack was recorded live in 2002 at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. It was performed by the Orchestra de Lune, directed by composer Anne Richardson. Her score was influenced by “Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Aaron Copland.” In writing the score, Richardson said, “The images on the screen often spoke to me, as if the music were already there, waiting to be put down on paper.” Her score is dreamy, emotional, and intimate. The audience’s audible responses are affecting. Their laughs, hisses, and applause gave this home viewer the sensation of watching Claire in a theatre with an audience. How long the hearty applause at film’s end goes on will give anyone the impression of how much some fairy tales are needed.
1. “Groundbreaking Film ‘Claire’ Celebrates a Radical Fairy-tale.” GAVoice. GAVoice, 2 Nov. 2011. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.
2. “Moving Picture Claire.” Moving Picture Claire. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.
3. Hildreth, Richard. “Claire, 2001.” Home. San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 2003. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.
4. Phillips Jordan, Julie. “Atlanta Filmmaker’s ‘Claire’ Pays Homage to Silent Cinema.” Athens Banner-Herald. Athens Banner-Herald, 18 Apr. 2002. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.
By msbethg in Actors, Blogathons, Comedies, Genres, Myrna Loy, Romantic, Romantic Comedy 2014, Screwball, William Powell 2 Comments Tags: adultery, affair, anniversary, anniversary celebration, architect, Asta, Charley's Aunt, classic, classic fillms, classic film, comedies, comedies of remarriage, comedy, comedy of remarriage, couple, crazy, disharmony, divorce, Donald MacBride, elevator, elevators, ex, exes, Gail Patrick, grudge holding, husband, insane, Isobel Grayson, Jack Carson, Jealousy, lies, love, Love Crazy, lovers, lunacy, marriage, meddlers, mother, mother-in-law, mothers, mothers-in-law, Mrs. Copper, Myrna Loy, Pinky Grayson, remarriage, reunion, reunite, romantic, sanatorium, screwball, separation, spouse, spouses, Steve Ireland, Susan Ireland, temptation, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Thin Man, undermining, unwanted gifts, Ward Willoughby, wife, William Powell
Love Crazy opens with Steve Ireland (William Powell) singing along with It’s Delightful to be Married. The film reunites him with frequent co-star Myrna Loy, playing his wife Susan. Together in the Thin Man series, they showed screengoers how delightful it was to be married. Their chemistry combined with their characters’ mature relationship with each other stood out in an industry often selling new love. Love Crazy takes that wonderfully familiar chemistry and slightly alters the actors’ Thin Man personas and inserts them into a romantic, screw ball comedy. The film even borrows a plot point from the original source material of its theme song. It came from Anna Held‘s Broadway hit The Parisian Model. In it, her character pretends to be something she is not. Steve has to pretend he is legally crazy to save his marriage!
How did Steve get to that point? When the film starts, he’s revealed to be a devoted, romantic husband. He and Susan are about to celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary. He has music and flowers ready. Combined with a nice dinner, that comprise the average man’s effort. Steve, being an architect, has grander plans. The couple’s anniversary ritual is to recreate their wedding night. It includes a four hour walk and canoe rowing. He’s just the sort of man that thought incorporating an “Eskimo” wedding ritual into his own would be great fun and make them legally married among the Eskimos. Because of his quirks and past partying, he’s the sort of man that will have difficulty convincing those familiar with him that he’s crazy. They’ll merely think he is tight. The man who likes to play has a harder time convincing others he has not reverted to his playboy ways when an ex-girlfriend moves into his apartment building.
Susan, “Honey Face,” seems like the perfect wife. Since Myrna portrays her, she’s beautiful in face, voice, and fashion. Her close-ups featuring that face framed by set curls don’t need to be shot using a haze lens to be dreamy. Her lilting voice charms, and her accent shows her character’s upper-class status. Her glamorous outfits enhance her stream-lined, yet womanly shape, and some of her gowns feature plunging necklines that might only be tasteful on her. Physically and in her character’s interactions with Powell’s (the “man who knew exactly what I wanted”), she embodies a healthy sexuality, made non-threatening by cinematic marriage. All these attributes alone would make female filmgoers want to be Myrna and thus Susan, even before Powell or Steve is taken into consideration. Her character is game for whatever fun her husband thinks up, even if it means celebrating their anniversary backwards.
Susan’s downfall is being too influenced by her mother, Florence Bates‘s Mrs. Cooper, and that woman does not like Steve. Susan has a temper, so when hurt, she’s not above seeking revenge, a trait that is exploited by her mother. It’s no accident she chooses to interrupt their wedding anniversary. She pops by bearing a gift wanted by neither spouse, a circular carpet that not only does not go with their hallway floor, but also it’s actually dangerous. The floor is so polished that to walk on the carpet is to risk injury from falling. It’s almost as though she has left a trap to dispatch her son-in-law. She should be awarded a gold medal in undermining. She observes and waits to ask prying questions to find fault and aggravate any situation. Her being an interfering busybody leads to a misunderstanding that almost results in her daughter’s divorce!
The movie follows the screwball convention of adding complication upon complication. Besides the meddling mother-in-law, there’s the previously mentioned ex-girlfriend, Isobel Grayson (Gail Patrick). She dated Steve immediately prior to him proposing to Susan, who has a very low opinion of Isobel. Susan doesn’t trust her. Susan shouldn’t. Steve has an elevator accident that provides one of film’s top visual gags. It even incorporates a dog for those missing Asta. Isobel happens to be present and takes him back to her apartment to recuperate, where she plies him alcohol and talks nostalgically about the “old times” and the “same old Stevie.” He resists her words and tickles(!) by saying “I’m married now,” and she quickly responds with “Well, so am I! What’s that got to do with it?” He answers, “You don’t stick to the rules.” Isobel and he have two different views of what marriage entails. His view matches her husband’s.
So what’s the catalyst for the disharmony ahead? The unwanted carpet! The Mrs. Cooper finally decides to do the right thing and leave the lovebirds to celebrate alone. Shades of The Man Who Came to Dinner as she goes to exit, she walks across her gift, slips, and twists her ankle. Susan has to take over her mother’s errand of picking up her aunt from the train station, which will take all night. Steve gets stuck with his mother-in-law that whole time. That makes for some anniversary! He can’t be blamed for escaping out for the evening, but he makes a poor decision of accepting Isobel’s invitation to go out. Susan doesn’t like that one bit when her mother tattles. She decides to pull her own prank and sets up a scene for Steve to walk into. She will make him and Isobel jealous by getting caught in a set-up scene with Mr. “Pinky” Grayson (Donald MacBride).
Of course, things don’t go as planned. This is a screwball comedy. She walks into the wrong man’s apartment. Ward Willoughby’s (Jack Carson) a world champion archer complete with athletic physique, and he thinks she’s pursuing him after seeing him in the elevator. What is it with that apartment building’s elevator inspiring possible romantic escapades? She thinks he’s Mr. Grayson. She’s surprised to find him in his undershirt practicing archery. When she confesses she’s waiting for her husband when he kisses her too enthusiastically, he suddenly fears a shakedown by blackmailers. He turns menacing, and her calling him Mr. Grayson makes him realize she’s in the wrong apartment. That’s his neighbor. He can’t help but be intrigued by this strange, beautiful woman.
When she leaves his apartment, she sees Steve and Isobel in front of the Grayson apartment. Pinky returns home, realizes who Susan is, and wants to know why she kept him waiting at his studio upstairs. He was not home. Is Steve leaving the Grayson apartment, or are Steve and Isobel returning from a walk? The implication being that if he was in his married ex-girlfriend’s apartment with her and without her husband present some monkey business must have been going on. Will Susan trust Steve or jump to conclusions her mother would encourage? Susan’s jealousy ploy works, and Steve wants to know what she’s been up to with those two men.
Later in Susan and Steve’s bedroom, they discuss the evening. Steve wants to be believed that he was on a walk with Isobel. She doesn’t want to be the “jealous type.” She asks for reassurance that her husband would never lie to her, and he responds, “Not on our anniversary.” Susan is amused by Steve wondering about her and Ward, and he wants to know why the other man was half-dressed. She tells him, “He has to have his torso free when he shoots his bow and arrow” “What kind of answer is that?” asks Steve. “He’s the world champion bow and arrower.” To that extraordinary sounding explanation, Steve can only respond, “You believe me, I’ll believe you.” A phone call soon shatters Susan’s belief in him. She no longer trusts him. Her mother has won.
We spend the rest of the movie watching Steve try to win back Susan. First he has only two months to change her mind before their court hearing. When she hides away that whole time, he’s forced to take desperate measures. The only way to postpone their divorce is to appear to be crazy. His gags get crazier and funnier, and while they fool no one who knows him, they will be a little too convincing for the authorities. Can Steve get out of a sanatorium? Can he prevent Ward from stealing away his wife? Can he convince her that nothing happened between him and Isobel? Can he win back Susan after all he’s done? Are you prepared to see Powell dressed as if he’s auditioning for Charley’s Aunt? Since the leads are played by Myrna Loy and William Powell, you likely will be able to answer before seeing the film!
The fun is watching how two film favorites play these love crazy fools and all the antics they get into. Because their characters are married and because of who plays them, the script can be a little franker about their sexuality and the possibility of adultery. The dialogue zingers reflect this, like when Susan and Steve talk about Isobel. Steve says, “She’s married now–got a husband.” Susan retorts, “Yeah? Whose husband has she got?” The film through comedy shows in an exaggerated way the pitfalls that could befall a modern marriage—lies, jealousy, meddlers, grudge holding, and outside interested parties. In providing us laughs and in reuniting the leads, we’re entertained and reassured. We’re reassured that despite the wacky situations they get themselves into they make it, so maybe our relationships can weather their more everyday ups and downs, too. The best romantic comedies always sell romance back to us.
This has been a very belated entry in the Romantic Comedy Blogathon, hosted by Lara from Backlots and Vince from Carole & Co. To read entries from day one go here, day two here, day three here, and day four here. I’m sure you’ll find many of your favorite classic film romantic comedies being celebrated!