this week’s download, part uno

Yea, some lessons abideth, not the least of which is this: Tyrone Power and Gary Cooper usually bore me unto tears. So naturally this week’s lines of inquiry flew me into a cloudbank of both men’s movies. I was only following up on some directors that interest me–Cromwell, Mamoulian, Aldrich–leading me to, respectively, Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake, The Mark of Zorro, and Vera Cruz. All of ’em are duds, though Vera Cruz is probably the best of them. Like Sweet Smell of Success it’s a Hecht-Lancaster production, and again Lancaster gave himself the charismatic villain’s role, but it’s one of those Lancaster performances where he won’t stop grinning, and set against those pearly white choppers his deep Mexican tan makes you want to rush the man to a dermatologist. Son of Fury‘s supporting cast includes George Sanders lifting his nose at everyone, Roddy McDowall (still called “Master” in the credits), John Carradine, and Frances Farmer (in her last film before her mental problems took over her career) and a story which–on paper anyway–should’ve been thrilling in the hands of the studio system: a lad who’s been robbed of his inheritance by a scurrilous uncle seeks revenge after growing to manhood. But Power is at the movie’s center, and escaping Sanders’ clutches he sails to an island paradise where he falls in love with Gene Tierney–his perfect mate since she’s another beautiful cipher. (Their early scene together, when Tierney’s character can’t yet speak English and Power is cheerfully spelling out S-K-Y in the sand for her, is the kind of dramatic black hole that makes me yearn for a can of Colt .45 and Rush Limbaugh’s show.)

Mamoulian’s The Mark of Zorro‘s bland look and lack of crackle make it hard to believe it came from the same hand as Applause or Love Me Tonight, and its sense of character is none too strong either. Power’s transformation from colonial lounge-lizard to closet revolutionary takes place entirely between his ears: one moment he’s a social gadfly who looks down on the peon class, and in the next he’s a Mexican Abbie Hoffman who’s doing some serious fucking around with Basil Rathbone’s action. Perhaps living in an age when every other feature that’s released seems to be a superhero movie has made a masked hero’s origin story the most interesting thing about him, so it’s a drag when we don’t even get to see Don Diego putting together Zorro’s costume or  nom de guerre–suddenly he’s just out there poking Mexican lancers through the heart. The Mark of Zorro does offer a view of Eugene Pallette in tonsure and monk’s robes, though; with movies like this one, one has to take one pleasures where one can.

That’s also the situation with The Snake Pit, Anatole Litvak’s 1948 muckraking picture about insane asylums. The picture opens with Olivia de Havilland having already cracked up and now committed to a “state home,” one of those gloomy, Gothic institutions, built anywhere between 1880 and 1950, that were designed to warehouse ghastly heartbreaks. 90% of the movie is standard issue Freudian drama, grounded mostly by Olivia’s therapy sessions with the asylum’s one sensitive doctor, a man who encourages her to relive the crucial traumatic episodes of her life. To the movie’s credit no one flashback is allowed to stand in as  “the cause” of her madness; sadly, much of the story is delivered in a routine way, and the nurses and doctors are painted–over-painted–as insensitive, manipulative louts and near-monsters. (When de Havilland falls apart in a staff interview, no one seems to think it might have something to do with the doctor who’s been yelling questions at her and shaking his finger an inch from her nose.)

But the picture has a couple of things that got snagged in my memory. In two or three places de Havilland is surrounded by her fellow inmates, and the group of actresses recruited for these scenes simply act the shit out of their parts: it’s a dazzling collection of eccentric-to-utterly-insane miens and behavior. And very late in the picture, when the inmates are gathered in a long, narrow hall for a music assembly, one of the patients, a straw-haired woman with a Depression-era gauntness to her face, begins to sing “Goin’ Home,” the lyrics that William Arms Fisher wrote for the second movement of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony”. The gorgeous, melancholy music, and the plaintive words–“Mother’s there expectin’ me/Father’s waitin’, too/Lots o’ folk gathered there/All the friends I knew”–that blend homecoming and peace of mind with thoughts of Death and Heaven, are juxtaposed against the inmates’ faces, now momentarily uplifted by song. In that moment, the whole idea of “mental health” becomes something more than a theme or social issue; it becomes something like a metaphysical metaphor for everyone’s struggle against the slings of fortune, outrageous and otherwise.

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