Friday, May 19, 2006


Tarzan's Lament

By Josh R
My name is Josh R, and I am a cineholic. My drug of choice is classic films of the 1930s and 1940s. I’ve made several unsuccessful attempts to kick the habit...I do manage to limit myself to contemporary films while Oscar season is in full swing. But as soon as those little golden goodies are handed out, I inevitably fall off the wagon. Don’t judge me.

During my formative years, my parents were too naïve to recognize the telltale signs of addiction — or perhaps they made the deliberate decision to turn a blind eye to something they couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge. By the time I was 5, I would spend every Sunday morning watching the kiddie matinee on a local cable channel — usually a Shirley Temple or Tarzan film — in the case of the latter, it was more often the cheapo B-movie sequels featuring a paunchy, middle-age Johnny Weismuller made long after Maureen O’Sullivan had jumped ship (sometimes it wasn't even Weismuller, but Lex Barker or Gordon Scott). These films generally sported titles like Tarzan and the Cobra Woman, Tarzan and the Amazons, and Tarzan and the Mermaids. I grew up believing that the darkest jungles of Africa were populated almost entirely by secret tribes of pretty white women with ample cleavage who existed solely for the purpose of getting nailed by Tarzan (apparently Jane rivaled even Hillary Clinton in the forbearance department).

Even at the tender of age of 5, I probably instinctively recognized that these films were crap — even so, I loved them. I occasionally wonder what it would be like to revisit them today. Sadly, they almost never air on television, all but a scant few are available on DVD, and most have never even received a video release. Perhaps this is excusable given the nature of the material — these are, after all, films with little discernible artistic merit beyond what pleasures can be derived by watching scantily clad contract players in loincloths and bikinis delivering risible dialogue in the service of a ludicrous storyline. More troubling is the fact that many good or great films from this era, including those helmed by acclaimed filmmakers and featuring major stars of the period, are similarly missing in action. Several have a certain degree of standing within the annals of film history, even if they remain relatively unknown to anyone beyond the most ardent cinema enthusiast.

Why some of these films have languished in the land of lost movies remains anyone’s guess. Some of it may be cold, hard economics — the studios simply don’t feel that’s worth their while to shell out for the DVD release of a film for which there’s a limited market. Several critics, in recapping the career of the great Billy Wilder after his death in 2002, lamented the fact that his cynical masterpiece, Ace in the Hole, remained unavailable for viewing in any form to the general public. Featuring Kirk Douglas as an unscrupulous reporter who turns a tragic mine cave-in into a three-ring media circus, the film has become something of a Holy Grail for film buffs. Presumably, prints still exist in archives or private collections, although it’s never been released on video and is nowhere in evidence on the TV schedule. I bought a copy on eBay — junkies like me can spend hours trolling eBay searching for rare and out-of-print films, usually with a certain degree of success.

Unfortunately, the items themselves are usually homemade videotapes of inferior quality auctioned off at ridiculously exorbitant prices. Such was also the case with another purchase I made, a video copy of The Constant Nymph, a romantic weepie for which Joan Fontaine received an Oscar nomination in 1943. I cried, alright — the picture was so grainy and distorted I could barely make out facial features (I’m reasonably sure the leading man was either Charles Boyer or Robert Montgomery, but you can’t tell from looking at it). This particular film will never be available on video, or be allowed television airings, because of an ongoing legal dispute over who owns the rights. For Oscar buffs such as Mr. Copeland and myself, who consider it a matter of principle to see as many nominated performances as we can get our grubby little hands on, it’s been particularly rough going — you’d be surprised how many films with major nominations are missing in action. For me, 1951 is the most frustrating year — Death of a Salesman and The Blue Veil, which received a total of five acting nominations between them, are both hard commodities to come by. Five nominations — that’s a whole freakin’ category. I need my fix, man.

In spite of the obvious problems with picture quality, which can be variable, eBay has proved an invaluable resource in terms of locating and obtaining rare films. My wallet’s a little lighter, but there are several wonderful films I never would have been able to see otherwise. My favorite to date is Frank Borzage’s 1933 tragic drama Man’s Castle, with Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young giving sensitive performances as vagrants who fall in love in a depression-era shantytown; the film is as striking visually and thematically in its own right as Sunrise, the director’s most celebrated film.

The best recent acquisition I’ve made is The Macomber Affair, a fascinating Zoltan Korda film from 1947. The picture quality is actually pretty good — it looks as though it was taped sometime in the '80s (the logo for KETA 13 in Oklahoma City is emblazoned across the bottom of the screen during the opening credits — shout-out to the Okies!), but it doesn’t show too much evidence of decay. I wanna talk about it a bit, because it’s fresh in memory and I want to provide y’all with an idea of what kinds of treasures are out there that you’re not being allowed to see.

Based on “The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” a short story by Ernest Hemingway, the film concerns a typically Hemingway-esque great white hunter/rugged individualist who is hired to lead a Kenyan safari by a wealthy American couple — whose relationship isn’t what it initially appears to be. In the isolation of the African wild, the guide finds himself drawn into an elaborate game of recrimination and cruelty worthy of an Albee play — and one with deadly consequences. An unsettling examination of passion and betrayal, Korda’s film noir benefits from gorgeous location photography and some unconventional casting choices which pay great dividends. Gregory Peck is surprisingly effective in the kind of hard-bitten, rough-hewn man’s man kind of role one would usually associate with Clark Gable. It’s an unusual triumph for him, considering how lackluster I find most of the performances from this early stage of his career. Not that Peck himself was entirely to blame for this — no one in Hollywood seemed to know exactly what to do with this lean, handsome actor in the 1940s, before he’d attained the kind of gravitas one associates with his most famous performances. The contrast of delicate, almost feminine features and a gruff, preternaturally deep voice undoubtedly made him a bit of a casting paradox — he usually got stuck playing the dull embodiment of decency (his Oscar-nominated turns in Keys to the Kingdom, The Yearling and Gentlemen’s Agreement) or as eye-candy opposite a female superstar (squiring Greer Garson in Valley of Decision and Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound). When he tried to play badass, as in the lurid Duel in the Sun (a debacle that’s really kind of fascinating in its awfulness), the results could be embarrassing — although considering that this is the same film that cast little Jennifer Jones as an oversexed halfbreed temptress, he does his best to rise above the sheer lunacy of it all. But with the right part, good material and the guidance of a skilled director working together in happy complicity, he had the ability to shine — his undeniable star quality is evident in every film that he made during this period, but The Macomber Affair is probably the only film he made in the 1940s, other than 12 O’Clock High, where his talent was put to full use.

Every great film noir needs a femme fatale, and The Macomber Affair features a specialist in the field — in fact, one of the best who ever vamped her way across the screen. Joan Bennett began her career as an innocuous, rather circumspect blonde, raising her naturally husky voice several octaves to a strained helium-induced squeak so as not to seem abrasive, and was more or less overshadowed by her sister Constance (who was briefly a top female box office attraction in the early 1930s). It wasn’t till the '40s that little sister got wise, dispensed with the peroxide, let her whisky-soaked alto rip, and bared her fangs for Fritz Lang in a succession of deliciously nasty roles (anyone who hasn’t seen her lolling about in slovenly splendor as ‘Lazy Legs’ in Scarlet Street, get ye to a rental store). The Macomber Affair makes generous use of her peculiar gifts, but allows the actress more emotional complexity than the Lang films did — she’s a cool, patrician beauty in a white hat and gloves whose prim exterior masks deep-seated resentments and an aching awareness what living a lie has cost her. Bennett allows the audience to feel sympathy for her character, who doesn’t fully understand how she allowed herself to be trapped in a dysfunctional marriage based in accommodation and denial, and whose efforts to avoid being poisoned by the contempt she feels for both and her husband and herself have ended in futility. Even as the film moves to its inevitable conclusion, her motives remain ambiguous — we’re never really sure how many of her actions are intentional, and to what extent she’s simply at the mercy of her own subconscious. Bennett convinces us that she doesn’t know either. The third member of the triangle is Robert Preston (yes, that Robert Preston), who has the trickiest role, and delivers the film’s most stunningly executed performance. For those who know him only from his galvanizing, personality-driven turns in The Music Man and Victor/Victoria, this early performance reveals a wrinkle to his talent heretofore completely unsuspected. At first glance, and for much of the film, Preston seems little more than an ingratiating, slightly dull-witted milquetoast. His bland affability catches you completely off guard, as the actor gradually reveals the dark undercurrents of depravity and despair that lurk beneath the surface geniality. Cowardice isn’t a benign attribute when coupled with self-knowledge; shame and self-loathing create an emotional disturbance which, in turn, manifests itself as physical violence. It’s pretty obvious that Preston’s "problems" are meant to be symbolic of male impotency — it’s his own blistering awareness of his shortcomings as a man which drive his need to victimize the weak.

So this is basically an example of a movie that has not been deemed worthy of any kind of release for home viewing, because apparently none of you could possibly be interested in seeing a film which is in black and white and doesn't have any explosions (United Artists, welcome to my shit list). Of course, if there’s a specific crappy, mindless action flop from the '80s or '90s — let’s call it, oh, Daylight — you can go to and find listings for a widescreen DVD, a fullscreen DVD, a collector’s edition with special features, a two-disc special deluxe commemorative issue with special features on the special features (The Making of the Making of Daylight, anyone?), and so on and so on until we arrive at a limited-edition, five-disc, velvet-lined, jewel-encrusted box set of platinum discs with complimentary t-shirt and tote bag that no one with a modicum of taste would ever f**king want. Studios, shape up. There will always be an audience for great classic films, so stop underestimating your clientele. Thus ends my tirade.

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What an article to start with!

Many issues there. I have a similar complaint about hard-to-locate films. I got a rough time to find a very, very faded copy from "The Blue Veil"(third generation copy from a TV broadcast recording... well, at least the ads were edited!). I believe it's a rather nice melodrama (script by Norman Corwin) and should be reasonably marketable with the five-star cast it has... The trouble in that case is that there is a rights conflict, so until it is solved, it's unlikely that we'll ever be able to see it legally (and in a decent copy).

A film I'd personally like to see again, as it is one of my earliest film-watching experiences (and one that seems to be forgotten by TV channels and Video or DVD merchants) is "A Touch of Larceny" a spy comedy with a twist and James Mason (I've got a crush on him ever since)

Well done Josh. Thanks for helping to keep the light on here while I'm preoccupied with other things.
Great post, Josh, but I can't resist pointing out an understandable error; I love both Man's Castle and Sunrise but only the former was made by Borzage. F.W. Murnau was the director of Sunrise. Both directors worked for Fox at that time though, and Janet Gaynor was nominated for (did she win? I don't recall) a Best Actress Oscar for three films in a single year: Sunrise, Borzage's Street Angel and Borzage's Seventh Heaven. Because of this, the two directors occupy neighboring space in my mind too, and I find the error completely understandable. Of the three, I have yet to see Seventh Heaven but that will be rectified this July when a print comes to the S.F. Silent Film Festival.

The Macomber Affair sounds well worth a look! I hope it crosses my path at some point.
Brian - you are correct - I'm embarrassed that I goofed on that, since it's something I know (d'oh!). I'm not sure how I got scrambled up....I probably shouldn't drink and post at the same time.
The 1951 Death of a Salesman is available from It's probably a bootleg, but it might be decent quality.
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