Saturday, June 22, 2013

The March of Time (News on the March)

Babes in Toyland (aka March of the Wooden Soldiers): written by Frank Butler, Nick Grinde, Anna Alice Chapin, and Stan Laurel; directed by Gus Meins and Charles Rogers; starring Stan Laurel (Stannie Dum) and Oliver Hardy (Ollie Dee) (1934):

Enjoyable Christmas musical from Laurel and Hardy, set in the world of Mother Goose. The slapstick is fun, the romantic leads forgettable, and the musical numbers occasionally puzzling: why doesn't Hardy, who showcased a nice singing voice in other movies, get a number here?

A monkey dressed up to look like Mickey Mouse is really quite disturbing, especially when it's flying around in a toy zeppelin throwing bombs at the Bogeymen who have invaded Toyland. Recommended.


The Magnificent Ambersons: adapted by Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, and Jack Moss from the novel by Booth Tarkington; directed by Orson Welles with Fred Fleck and Robert Wise; starring Joseph Cotten (Eugene), Dolores Costello (Isabel), Anne Baxter (Lucy), Tim Holt (George), Agnes Moorehead (Fanny) and Orson Welles (Narrator) (1942): The follow-up to Citizen Kane is revered both for what it is -- a broody slab of American Gothic -- and what it isn't -- 50 minutes longer.

Yes, the studio re-edited the film without the input of Welles, chopping it down to 88 minutes and filming a newer, happier ending. Legend has it that the lost footage was quickly destroyed by RKO Pictures to prevent Welles from editing it back in.

While Welles was already notorious for going over budget, the fault really lay with RKO. They knew that The Magnificent Ambersons, a Booth Tarkington novel Welles and his Mercury Theatre had previously adapted for radio, was a tragic downer when they greenlighted it with an unheard-of-for-RKO million-dollar budget. But Welles would get the blame, and never really have full control over a decently budgeted studio film again.

What's left here is a magnicent, truncated Gothic tale with more than a hint of Great Expectations about it, though it's Great Expectations as seen in a funhouse mirror. Welles' brilliant use of shadows and textures, and his uncommonly fine understanding of how to achieve depth of field with the camera technology of the early 1940's, is on display here. The movie looks great as the camera flows through the chiarascuro rooms of the Amberson mansion.

The other fascinating intertext for this film would be The Great Gatsby, again in a funhouse mirror as the pseudo-Gatsby character, played by Joseph Cotten, becomes a true (and benevolent) success while the old-money family of the woman who rejected his love in a fit of pique, played by Dolores Costello, disintegrates under the onslaught of Time and the 20th Century. Tim Holt is suitably un-formed and callow as the spoiled rich kid, and Anne Baxter is radiant as Cotten's daughter Lucy. Highly recommended.

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