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Tuesday, May 02, 2017

14 Must-tapes in May on TCM


May, a magical month on TCM, rich with Clark Gable pre-codes, surreal anti-war parables (all the rage before Pearl Harbor) and war celebrations (for Memorial Day). As Richard Dix says in ACE OF ACES, it's a wonderful war and I'm having a grand time!

And if war and Gable didn't send you, TCM has stacked the month with giant monster movies (the perfect summer afternoon haze-inducers).

 May 3rd
4:30 PM
 (1933) Dir. Clarence Brown

Long unseen due to a rights dispute with author Antoine de Saint Exupéry's estate, Night Flight (1933) turns out to be quite the dreamy-poetic and modern meditation, full of little captivating midnight moments in the lives of a few pilots, wives, and airport officials as they begin the dangerous operation of night flying over the Andes. After nearly dying in the downwind between two lonely peaks, pilot Robert Montgomery shares a smoke and discusses the feeling of some unseen but palpable enigmatic intelligence and watching the breathtaking footage, we can feel it. If you crashed down in these nowhere lands it might be weeks until you see another living soul, but you'd never feel alone. This film is kind of best seen while half asleep in pajamas, if you will, capturing a vibe of what it's like to be awake when everyone else around you is sound asleep. Clark Gable--isolated in his pilot seat--a radio operator down below him passing up notes up on weather and direction--clears the fog and emerges into a clear night sky. A full moon above, he loosens up on the wheel, leans back in his seat, tunes in a radio station of tango orchestra music on his operator's headphones, and looks up at the moon and stars like they're a girl he's about to kiss for the first time. His smile is so wide and the moment is precious and so pure you understand the appeal of risking one's life in a rickety biplane just to deliver mail. But that's no guarantee he or any other pilot in this film is going to survive the night. Just our luck if anyone dies it won't be dopey William Gargan. All I can do when I hear him is remember how he goes on and on about how great "Babs" is (Mary Astor) while she's off shagging Clark Gable in Red Dust (also on this month) . Here he's got the divine Myrna Loy, and he leaves her for a week to ten days without so much as a radio. Meanwhile Helen Hayes is talking to Clark Gable over a late supper, but he's not there, is he? Her maudlin insanity is worrying to the maid and any viewer averse to overly theatrical acting.  Don't let her stop you, though. Night Flying MUST go on. (Full Review)

Weds May 10
11:45 AM 
IDIOT'S DELIGHT 
(1939) Dir. Clarence Brown

A ne plus ultra-Brechtian howl against the machinery of both peace and war, this adaptation of Robert Sherwood's play starts out rough and cliche'd -- a big string of jobs-jobs-jobs from hungry song-and-dance man Harry Van (Gable) after the first war--but at last comes to roost in a Swiss frontier hotel on the eve of some great new global conflict, and reserves the bulk of its preachiness for one little guy mouthpiece (Burgess Meredith) who's whisked away by der soldaten almost at once (and there was  much rejoicing). Like The Lady Vanishes if the train never left, Delight is set in around Alpine hotel with great views overlooking the peaks, but this time also near the airfield where bombers begin to take off to bomb some remote village, only to come back and be surprised by a retaliation. Stranded there during the escalation of events: entertainment tour manager Clark Gable and his gaggle of singing/dancing beauties, who quickly attract the lions' share of stationed and/or visiting officers. In grand American tradition, Harry Van wants to stay neutral, but then who should walk in but Edward Arnold as a stout capon-lined arms merchant tycoon and Norma Shearer rocking an awful blonde wig and worse Greta Garbo impression as his arm candy. She won't even profess to be the same dame Gable "knew" in America, where and when she talked all normal and tried to help him in the fortune telling racket. They eventually try and come together as the bombs begin to fall even as their masks finally do too. Together they sing a song that would make Solomon Guggenheim proud to share a last drink with him at the Titanic bar. If existential gloom ain't enough for you, it's worth seeing just to witness Clark Gable's goofy Groucho Marx face while singin' "Puttin' on the Ritz" and to rejoice in watching the realities of war finally smack up against his obnoxious American "see no evil" bluster and fellow traveler's asinine self-importance (it's as satisfying as watching the line of self-important business types trying to puff and huff their way out of jury duty in you've ever been). Makes a great double bill with DUCK SOUP. (Full)

Thurs. May 11
2:45 Am
EMPIRE OF THE ANTS
(1977) Dir. Bert I. Gordon 

Shore-swept toxic sludge down in Florida mutates the local ants. They get big of course, but a prologue makes sure we know their queen's pheromones are "a mind-bending substance that forces obedience." What do mind-controlling sexual pheromones have to do with a slumming Joan Collins trying not to break a nail while rooking time share commitments out of a boatload of retired and/or attractive freeloaders? With her endless berating and bitching at all her underlings and potential customers, it's clear she doesn't know either.  I'll defend the Joan Collins oversexed bitch in the boardroom capitalist icon to the end--she's one of the sexiest decade's most sexually uninhibited yet always powerful/on-top icons--and I'm glad, for example, old Bert didn't try to suss out the subtextual links between her and the queen ant.  In omitting all subtlety and nuance he creates a grand framework for our own projections. Not a single subtext can leak through such air-tight porousness. Still, this movie has gone all the places most giant bug movies go in its first half, and then comes a series of WTF moments that will leave you guessing (how many giant bug movies can say the same?) And the ants--with their little silver eyes and grass-covered heads (closer to the ground and scarier for being relatively smaller) and jagged mandibles--have a real grim dirty angry menace about them that's far more convincing than the big mechanical googly-eyed monsters of the more widely-praised big bug masterpiece, Them!  (Full review)

4:30 AM THE GIANT CLAW
(1957) Dir. Sam Katzman

The perfect movie for 4:30 in the morning because if you're up to see it you're either an insomniac, bombed out of your mind, or a child getting up early to enjoy the weird 'dregs' offered in between late night movies and early morning cartoons. This one's really bad, but I remember how my love of bad movies forming around it's 5 AM showings while I waited for Saturday morning cartoons to start, quiet to not wake the parents. The bird materializing into being as if magically lifted out of the dumpster behind some deranged, evicted puppeteer's workshop. As a kid regularly lost trying to follow adult conversation, a kid who would pretend to read, would hold up a book of Mark Twain or something and flip the pages to impress some foxy babysitter, here was a chance to laugh at the adults for a change.

To enjoy the film without that inherited lack of good judgment you would need to have a special yen to see Mara Corday in a red-eye passenger (propellor-driven) plane delivering an uncalled-for and condescending rant against Jeff Morrow. Under a shared blanket of comfy twin engine roar and everyone else on the plane dead asleep--she starts shouting at him for showing her his giant space bird orbiting patten spiral drawing. If you ask why Corday is shouting and picking a fight with our Morrow in the dead of night on a red-eye, when her own non-intergalactic bird theories don't add up at all, then you're probably not ready for this level of high concept science. Sherlock Holmes said that when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however implausible, is the truth. Corday would shout into your ear that Holmes is a fictional character and therefore his theories are worthless.

But smart women scientists know they too are fictional characters because animus-dominated women 'scientists' lack self-awareness, and Katzman should know. He's cribbing from the best, relatively speaking. (more)
Sat May 13
(1962) Dir. Tim Carey

If you don't know about it, imagine Kazan's A FACE IN THE CROWD if it was edited with a sling blade by the cross-eyed stepchild of John Cassavetes and Ed Wood, with a soundtrack by a pre-famous Frank Zappa and narration by Paul Frees (as the devil). It was the great Carey's labor of love. He plays an insurance salesman who has an off-camera spiritual awakening and becomes convinced he's God and everyone is immortal or will be if they follow him. He shoots up the ladder of success by becoming a rock star and the blasphemy escalates until his ultimate cosmic comeuppance, or doesn't it? Either way, Carey is hilarious and even touching as a sort of a slovenly Brooklyn-accented mumbler gone messianic. The method beatnik lummox-ishness of the great Carey fits the slovenly picture so that he seems like some big dumb Fredo/Lenny-style brother to the young Brando/James Deans of better-made films. You can imagine him trailing behind them, screaming look Mikey, I made me a pitcha too, right? Not as pretty and fancy as yours Mikey, but Mikey! Mikey, it's fa ME! FAH ME!

Truly disjointed and cacophonous, SINNER has no connecting tissue between the studio set-bound "sound-engineered" scenes and the MOS hand-held outdoors (with the Frees' narration) and badly-miked crowd shots, making it herk and jerk around like so much indie drive in cinema of the age (i.e. H.G. Lewis). Whatever, we're here not for connective narrative tissue but to see Carey shake and rattle like a Santeria serpent god swallowing an electrocuted Elvis, and that's what he does. He's also sweet and fatherly at times, nervously maniacal at others. His truck with deviltry has the same desperate ring as it does for Harvey Keitel in BAD LIEUTENANT or Captain Cutshaw in THE NINTH CONFIGURATION, men who rant and rage against God because they desperately need a sign. For that to work, you need an actor of titanic scope, who can be the whole show, an evangelist still ranting even as the tent catches on fire and collapses atop him.

That said, carrying the whole tent on his shoulders is clearly a strain. A weird-talking method maniac in general, Carey in SINNER has the weary look of someone who's running himself ragged. Directing and staring in a low budget film at the same time is much more difficult than you would think. He appears exhausted in some scenes and exhausted to the point of manic elation in others; but the rest of the time-- gamboling into brilliant oration ala Willie Stark in ALL THE KINGS MEN--he's sublime. Joy aboundeth in these scenes, as does surprise bits of tenderness: he loves his horse and regards all humans with a sleepy naturalistic affection. I especially like how he calls everybody "deah"--as in "No, my deah, you don't need insurance"--and there's plenty of time for him to nuzzle with his wife, a snake, and a big Marmaduke of a dog, in between 'talking points' which helps the whole thing drift towards family album status, as if to make it to feature length, Carey had to use every scrap of film in his attic.

Doesn't matter - it's all priceless. Why it is, maybe, illuminates the difference between the real nuts and those who just pursue nuttiness the way a man with no mouth pursues a glass of water. It all boils down to love. It's the difference between those who love you and those who want you to love them. Tim Carey loves you. If he had his way he'd pull you into the celluloid and start making out with you, no matter who or what you are. I think he French kisses just about everyone and everything in this movie, but he does it out of love not sex, not desire or conquest but just love, and so it's pure. Do you hear me, Kevins?? PURE!!!!! Those who want to live forever must do so through othehs. As Carey puts it in the film "you are all Gods, and ya gonna live foreva..."

I can't watch the whole mess in one sitting, but I believe he means it. (Full Review)

Monday May 15
8:45 AM 
1931 - dir. Alfred E. Green
***1/2
Deep in the sweltering tropics, a small colony of overdressed Brit prudes gossip about homewrecker Hugh Daltrey (William Powell), the bounder who ran off with one of the colonist wives a year earlier and has just returned... alone. Phillipa (Doris Kenyon), the newly imported wife of a different colonist (Louis Calhern)--a doctor who isn't a man and a lover but "a machine of cold steel, as cold as the instruments you use to probe the bodies of unconscious patients on operating tables... "--is next on the menu. And now that her cold husband has her more or less marooned down in the tropics, old Hugh doesn't need to waste time with superfluous woo. Needless to say, this is NOT the Hope-Crosby picture of the same name. Instead this is pre-code scandalizing in the vein of the then-hugely popular W. Somerset Maugham style commonwealth scandal dramas (ala RAIN, THE PAINTED VEIL, THE LETTER), wherein a cold British husband, jungle heat, monsoons, and native drums combine to leave a bored colonist's wife ripe for infidelity, and the racist censors are so relieved the lover she takes is white they're willing to tolerate just about anything. With nothing to do but play bridge and gossip while their men treat cholera patients and tap rubber plants, it's no wonder, as Calhern notes, that a fever that overtakes women down there, the heat activates their sexual hormones. A real surprise as the cold fish husband, rather than a stereotype Calhern plays him as a man too intelligent to really buy into his own inflexible moral prudishness, trying to mask his sexual terror by bashing on Daltrey. We have to smile when Calhern gets all excited about some new tumor he finds (his excuse for missing the dance). We smile too, when Phillipa's sullen agitation clears like a fever during a scene dissolve (we know what that means) during her lengthy night together with Hugh after Calhern has supposedly left for the interior. 

Powell is great in a complex role where, a real rarity in his filmography, he's not entirely sympathetic. We find him charming but we're made aware of the damage charm like his can wreak, and--for the first time maybe--so is he. And, man, he's a drunk. As Calhern's younger sister, the lovely Marian Marsh does wonders even with very unflattering riding breeches, but holy shit she's so fuckin' luminous  in her negligee the whole film gets weak in the knees. The intricate shadows of the fronds, the panama hats glowing in the blazing light, the age of the celluloid and the slow, measured speech pattern (needed--they thought--for the crude early sound microphones) creates the uncanny familiarity of a kind of abstract dream, and she's everything worth sleeping for. (MORE)



11:30 AM
UNION DEPOT
(1932) Dir Alfred E. Green

The best thing about the early First National-Warner's stuff is, you just never know--up to a point--what's going to happen next, especially when the focus is on an array of things going on in a train station, a scene so crowded with extras, all of them so good at seeming like they're hustling for trains we can't tell if it's not a documentary. We're treated to an array of comings and goings and bag checks, all centered around two genial vagrants on the make, one of whom (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) magically winds up with a drunken Frank McHugh's bag, which happens to have a suit in it that fits Fairbanks perfectly, and a wad of bills in the pocket, and the only reason he got that was because he had lifted a train conductor's coat, literally, via a stick through the men's room window. So a chain of events is underway and neither he nor we know where it's leading.

So now Fairbanks Jr. and his pal Guy Kibbee are doing pretty well, to the point Doug attracts a chippie, then shines her off while eating a nice steak dinner, which we really feel since he's been so hungry a few beats ago. Anyway, circumstance all coheres around a counterfeiting plot and a nice violin case MacGuffin, and there's a white knuckle finale train yard brawl, Fairbanks leaping down on his quarry from atop train cars, and men being continually judged on their clothes and wallet instead of what's in their heart and fist. There's also some pre-code slams, especially when Blondell goes with Fairbanks to a private room, ready to sleep with him for train fare even though it's her first such transaction. Her fluttering mix of fear, desperation, and feigned élan is like nothing you've ever seen before or since. She also has a pretend-blind stalker pawing his way along after her, and that plus the counterfeiter getting his wallet lifted make it nail-baiting enough I shouted curtly at my girl when she tried to talk about bacon preparation right at a key moment. And I love bacon. (source)

12:45 PM
(1933) Dir. by Alfred E. Green

The story of a wan Brit who has to take it on the lam to the South Seas after he kills... ahem... the lady's husband, fits its star, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to a double-crossed tee. We can see in him the natural actor who's absorbed everything he saw and heard as a spoiled child in the thick of his famed father's silent era decadence and brought it to bear on his caustic character. As a peevish spoiled bounder who hates the women who fight over him because then he has to kill their jealous husbands and fiancees--which here include Ralph Bellamy as a naive Dutch plantation owner--Fairbanks reflects his own perspective as a man who more or less had fame and women handed to him on a platter because of his name and--rather than become utterly spoiled--has lost faith in the inescapably shallow world that fawns over him, no matter how surly he behaves. Meanwhile a debauched doctor (Dudley Digges) also aboard ship tells his trusting Chinese servant how many (opium) pipefuls he'll have that night, to 'ahem' unwind, "seven pipes tonight... no more, no less," rendering him useless at critical junctures but leaving him always self-effacing, droll and unblinking as he stares into the void, his opiated brain alight with the zonked poetry of a Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams drunkard mixed with Lewis Stone in Grand Hotel: "Regret nothing. Life is short, nature is hostile, and man... is ridiculous." He's the type of character who no longer exists outside of classic modern plays, one borne of the WWI trenches and dogfight skies, the 'drink a prayer for the dead all ready, hurrah for the next who dies' mentality. It's a mentality we've lost in today's climate, and frankly I blame nanny state morals and the turn away from manly gravitas that is the result. 

There's also William Mong as a mean old Swedish sea captain, boasting to fellow salty dog Arthur Hohl that he used to pilot slavers, and that he wants to gut his son-in-law (Reginald Owen as a professor, idling for years with a translation of some obscure Portuguese poem), Sidney Toler as the steamer captain; and Patricia Ellis as the lovely daughter engaged to lunkhead Ralph Bellamy, who's such a good soul that Fairbanks decides to go decent, and that just makes things worse! Still, you can't argue with the beautiful Hollywood scenery and sense that once upon a time it really was possible to buy illicit passage away from the long arm of the law, even if you immediately found the same old troubles when you got outside its reach. There are very few movies that really sympathize with what it's like to be irresistible to women, how you wind up like a battered chewy toy fought over in the dog run more than a swanky playa, and discarded by the pack as soon as you've been passed around and broken. There's Night of the Iguana, and this. Come to think of it, with the old man taking forever on a poem, supported by daughter, etc. winding up outside on tropical nights with wind and fronts, it's all very much like a dry run for Iguana. Eight pipes tonight, no more, no less! (More)

Weds May 17
9:30 AM 
(1931) Dir. George W. Hill

Wallace Beery gets top billing in this protean MGM gangster drama set in gritty downtown Chicago (there's some chilling stockyard tracking shots). Hard to believe Beery was once a huge box office draw, playing burly ruffians opposite Jackie Cooper or Marie Dressler; he had a certain gruff charm sure, but when he left, he took the hopes of big ugly lugs to make A-list money with him. Here he plays a ruffian stockyard worker nicknamed "Slaughterhouse" who leaves off hog killing to become a gangster (prohibition made it a sound career move), eventually running for mayor on the "pig-sticker" ticket, with the stockyards howling and mooing away behind his podium.

Andre Bazin would approve of this film since it operates on a loose semi-documentary style: lots of interiors packed with extras and activity and a sense of real time via long uninterrupted takes in medium frame. Everyone speaks slowly and carefully for the early sound equipment. If nothing else it makes for an invaluable record of Chicago in the actual prohibition era: press rooms, stockyards, nightclubs, bottling plants, breweries, various ways to stash and distribute (putting bottles inside other things for delivery, etc.) money changing hands, receipt tallying, shakedowns, political rallies, checks being written, highjacking, and blackmail. Lewis Stone is his bitter Irish rival, Jean Harlow a sexy nightclub hatcheck girl whose real job is to hook reporters so they glorify the gangsters in the press, and Clark Gable a two-timing no good rat finkwhyIoughtta.... who tips off her latest patsy. (more)

Thurs May 18th
12:15 PM
TREASURE ISLAND 
(1934) Dir. Victor Fleming

A stock of top shelf eccentric character actors, a real ship on real seas, Beery hobbling masterfully about like he's seldom been t'land, Nigel Bruce huffing hither and yon, and cabins so thick with gunpowder you have to take the fight outside--- it all combines with lovingly-salted pirate talk ("this molasses is sweeter than serpent sedative!") to make TREASURE a personal favorite. When old scalawag Long John rows away at the end, there's a strange elegiac tone almost akin to the end of THE MISFITS or WILD BUNCH. We're saying goodbye to charming rogues who could advise and guide wide eyed innocents in the ways of social scheming, all the things the code was worried that kids would learn. After this, no Long Johns, certainly, could plunder happily ever after, and certainly not be around as a sage to children. Too damn bad. Certain it is..

Another plus: its ingeniousness in shucking all romance (it sticks to the book and doesn’t tack on any pointless love interests, a rarity for MGM) and total absence of morality. After all, the plot involves young Jim Hawkins going after loot stolen by pirates from murdered Spanish men and women who fell victim to the marauders of the high seas. Talk about gray areas! It aint like they’re gonna return it to the rightful owners…which I guess would be the Aztecs if you want to get all provenance-y. No sir. You root for Hawkins and his bewigged parent figures because–to quote from the scriptures of the Holy Grail--“they ‘aven’t got shit all over ‘em." The sight of this young boy shooting a pirate he knows by name and killing him dead with no moral hand-wringing, it resonates in me old heart, it does. There's also Chic Sale, crazy as castaway loon Ben Gunn, Charles McNaughton as Black Dog ("and God bless King George!") proving the blind can be terrifying as well as hilarious, and Lionel Barrymore as Billy Bones, staving off the horrors with his near-end alcoholism, and drunkenly bullying all the folks at the Admiral Benbow into singing “Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum.” My favorite movie to convulse to back in my drinking days. Lots of great wind effects make it great to watch with the AC blasting, to soothe a becalmed dipsomaniacal bloodstream.

5:45 AM
(1932) Dir. William A. Wellman

Shown as part of a special day of films with the great Frances Dee (needless to say you should also tape I Walked with a Zombie at 11:30 PM if you don't already have it), this has Douglas Fairbanks Jr. fares well in Clark Gable hair and soul as Jimmy the gossip hound in this ultra-typical (in the best of ways) WB film of the era. As a columnist who tangles over Francis Dee with generic gangster Lyle Talbot, Fairbanks races around and seeks counsel from fellow reporters Lee Tracy and Ann Dvorak who are hep enough to know their boy's getting taken to the cleaners by slumming Dee, but keep their yaps shut like a true pal.

There's nothing quite like this film's ambitiously cynical ending, the sort of loose-ended defiance of the crime-must-pay adage only possible in pre-code conditions. Dialogue is pitched at such a darkly cynical height that censors ears weren't young enough to hear it: "Looks like you been up at Sing Sing looking at a burning!" Sex is everywhere, as when Tracy and Dvorak are out at a nightclub eating dinner and she says "if you loved me half as much as you love that steak I'd break down out of self-pity" (meaning throw him a sympathy fuck, yo!) Fairbanks describes Dee--to her face!--as having "a beautiful can." and that she's "as pretty as a little red wagon." Lots of phone calls are made and received. The TCM print looks real nice. Can't go wrong with a mug on a rooftop in the rain, witnessing a murder he was about to commit himself. That's pre-code ethical quandary gold, cold and sold!

 Thus, May 25

4 AM 
THE KILLER SHREWS
(1957) Dir. Ray Kellogg

Casual fans may wonder, but for those of us of a certain age, the SHREWS was one of the better afternoon creature feature offerings on local TV-- we weren't particularly scared by the monsters - easy enough to tell they were shaggy dogs with wigs and false teeth, but they're terrifying because--as the doctor explained--their digestive juices are so corrosive that even a tiny prick from their fangs is fatal. It's fun to see Gunsmoke regular Ken Curtis as a drunken owl-hoot pining for research assistant Ingrid Goude and trying to off his chief rival, laconic charter captain James Best, especially since we've seen him tangle with so many John Ford characters in similar circumstances (i.e. The Searchers). And the big climactic use of overturned oil drums lashed together and used as protection for the survivors' escape to the coast was something no kid who saw it in the 70s ever forgot. It was the kind of thing we would do and imagine ourselves doing, and it wasn't until Tremors with its savvy incorporation of the 'carpet is lava' furniture-hopping game we'd see our exact type of imaginative invention so vividly expressed.

Friday May 26
4:30 AM
WAR NURSE 
(1930) Dir. Edgar Selwyn


Coming from MGM at the dinny-dawn of the sound era, War Nurse is of a piece with--in case you can't tell by the image above--All Quiet on the Western Front, Hell's Angels, and The Dawn Patrol, all from the same year, 1930, when America and Europe were still just beginning to unpack the trauma of the First World War, even as the Depression was hitting in full and the New Deal still three years away. Hemingway's Farewell to Arms was the 'front line army nurses locked into triangles with older officers and young handsome privates' boilerplate (seen also in Hawks' Road to Glory). The pacifist message under the romantic triangle angst and the 'hurrah for the next man who dies' grim drunken bravery was almost inescapable until around 1934 when unease about Hitler began to make further olive branch-rattling seem unwise.

War Nurse doesn't have the reckless trench war tracking shots, arial dogfights, or hotties like Jean Hawlow. Nurse co-stars Anita Page and June Walker are the stars instead and well, one wonders what the hell the casting people were thinking. Walker--who somehow winds up with Robert Montgomery---resembles a half-inflated Shelly Winters. These girls have that pale look like they've been eating too much bad food and not making their rounds in a timely manner. Co-star Robert Ames was dead from DTs the following year, and let me tell you, a good nurse could have really helped with that. Lord knows the ones I had this past Feb. were angels. Shout out to NY Presbyterian!

What I really do love about this film though, is the way it captures the terrible suddenness of obliteration that soldiers talk about from major battles but the cinema seldom adequately captures, the way you can be talking to someone as you walk along down the road and then BANG all that's left of them is a boot or bloody helmet, they're just there and then not there and you didn't even finish your sentence. How do you ever unpack shit like that? And what happens to the poor saps who die that way? Are their ghosts still wandering around Europe and Okinawa, wondering where their regiment went? When the nurses get blasted like this--unarmed and female and benevolent to both sides as the Red Cross was (the German hospitals too, let's not forget)--it's especially sudden, painful and utterly void of heroism. There's not even a corpse to mourn, nor a moment to grieve, we just see them walking along and then BAM, they're gone in a puff of smoke, and in conveying that so powerfully, War Nurse earns its wings, even if what it really needs is an air pump.

Sunday May 28
4: 15 AM ACE OF ACES
(1933) Dir J. Walter Ruben

Sculptor Rocky (Richard Dix) and his wealthy fiancee, Nancy (Elizabeth Allan) begin the film in an idyllic upper class garden guarded by a strangely disagreeable ceramic gnome. Someone runs over with alarming news. It's war! Rocky immediately declares that signing up to go fight is for chumps, and in a subsequent scene up in Rocky's second floor sculpture studio, he and Nancy have an argument of principles while parade footage unfurls outside the window below his work in progress, a winged angel. She dumps him for his 'cowardice.' Which leads to the next scene, Dix entering his new barracks to meet his fellow fliers, while a guitarist sings "Ten thousand dollars for the folks back home / ten thousand dollars / for the family," while they roll up the possessions of the latest killed flier, whose bunk Rocky's taking. We get the message, your family gets ten grand if you die in the air.

It's a startlingly modern scene, these pilots seem like they stepped out of a 50s Corman film. They're far too beat for 1933. They jive like they should be swindling Tony Curtis out of his sax or chasing James Dean around an abandoned swimming pool. Each of the pilots has a mascot and a nickname: "This is Tombstone Terry, the Tennessee Terror, otherwise known as Dracula!" The man leans forward to eye Rocky's neck, "Welcome to the ranks of the undead!" The next day in battle, Rocky realizes his artistic understanding of perception and natural light benefits him in dogfights. The boys celebrate his kill and Dix realizes that he may never make the grade as a sculptor, but this new bloody brand of performance art has a nice adrenalin kicker.

But what is the 'meaning' behind this art? When Dix smacks a kid in the face with an ammo belt because he loaded it wrong, we know we're not supposed to be buying war bonds in the lobby. This shit is personal and wants every bit of glamorous combat offset  by guilt and abashed horror.

When, upon his initial coward-branding by nurse Nancy, Rocky decries war as a chance to duck out on your wife, and work, and responsibility, you know he's right, and he gets to say I told you so after she's become a nurse and personally dealt with being shelled and overrun. When they meet in Paris on a furlough she says she regrets goading him into enlisting, but he'll have none of it: "This is a great war and I'm having a grand time; every minute is grand!" He's high on the cleanness of the war up where he is, the feeling of life and death so close and all that separates them the movements of his plane and firing of his guns: "Yes, it's a great war. I hope the next one is half as good!" Don't worry Rocky, it will be.  (see: Full Review at John Monk Saunders' Flying Death Drive Circus)


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