Four nights at the movies: The Crowd, Preston Sturges, a Teenage Girl, & 2 Noirs

I managed to see four feature films theatrically in the last four nights–plus another on television.

Sunday: The Crowd

My wife and I, along with another couple, went to the Castro to see one of the greatest silent films ever made, and arguably the most difficult American masterpiece to see, King Vidor’s The Crowd. I’ve already written about the movie, so I’ll stick to the presentation.

This was something of a special event–the last silent film to be accompanied by the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ that has graced both silent films and before-the-movie concerts at the Castro for over 30 years. The Castro never owned the organ, and the owners are finding it more and more difficult to maintain. The Silent Film Festival hasn’t used it in years because of technical problems. The theater is raising money to replace it with what is being claimed as “the largest hybrid (pipe/digital) organ in the world.”

Unfortunately, this last hurrah for the old organ was disappointing–despite the great cinema up on the screen. Bruce Loeb’s improvised score felt off, often ignoring the actions and emotions on screen. Even obvious music cues, such as a close-up of a phonograph about to be put on the turntable, didn’t affect what Loeb was playing.

Monday: Christmas in July

My wife and I stayed home Monday night, and we watched the one movie I always wanted to screen on a double bill with The Crowd: Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July.

What does a talk-heavy comedy have to do with a silent drama? A lot. They’re both set in New York. Both protagonists have lower-level white-collar jobs adding numbers in a large office filled with similar employees. And each dreams of breakthrough success via advertising slogan contests.

Of course the big difference is that Christmas in July is funny. The hapless hero of a loser (Dick Powell) thinks he’s won a slogan contest with a “funny” catchphrase that other people just find bewildering. So he goes on a generous spending spree that’s headed to disaster. The ending is utterly and completely absurd–and hilarious. I give it a B+.

Just remember: If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee. It’s the bunk.

Tuesday: Diary of a Teenage Girl

The next night, we went to the Shattuck to catch Diary of a Teenage Girl–the only new film we’ve seen this week. In fact, it’s the only film we saw this week that was made before after 1950.

We both loved it.

Minnie (Bel Powley in an amazing breakthrough performance) isn’t just any teenage girl. She’s the daughter of a irresponsible hippie mother in 1977 San Francisco–and when we first meet her, she’s just lost her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend. She’s also an inspiring cartoonist (the film is based on a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, and the images often burst into underground-comic-style animation). The movie follows her early sexual experimentations, mostly with the morally weak, age-inappropriate man who should be loyal to her mother. The film captures San Francisco in the late 70s flawlessly (I was there). But even better, it captures the rocky emotions of a young woman bursting with hormones and not sure what to do with them.

I give it an A.

At least when we saw it, the Shattuck was running Diary of a Teenage Girl in one of their tiny, hole-in-the-wall auditoriums. I hate these. The tiny screens are bad enough, but the very wide aisle down the middle of the theater makes it worse. There’s nowhere you can sit that isn’t very far off to the side.

Wednesday: I Wake Up Dreaming

The I Wake Up Dreaming film noir series moves to Berkeley this month. Every Wednesday in September, The California Theater will screen two classic or obscure noirs–mostly obscure.

That’s the good news. The bad: The $15 ticket price is high, and there are no discount prices. The other bad news: The films are being screened digitally, and I don’t think any of them will be off DCP. Some of the films will be projected off of Blu-ray, which is reasonably acceptable. Most, I suspect–including the two I saw Wednesday night–will be off of DVDs.

If you’re curious, there’s an easy way to tell if a film will be screened off a Blu-ray. Google the title, the year or star, and the word blu-ray. You’ll soon find out if a Blu-ray is available. If it is, chances are very high that California will screen it in the better format.

I attended the first double bill last night (my wife wasn’t able to join me that night). It was in the California’s large and lovely downstairs auditorium. Okay. Now onto the movies:

Phantom Lady: Enjoyable and fun, this 1944 murder mystery is awful light for a noir. The good guys are just too good. And thus, dull. But the bad guys are a lot of fun–especially Franchot Tone as a totally psychotic killer (don’t worry; I’m not giving anything away) and Elisha Cook Jr. as a horny drummer. But then, any noir with Elisha Cook Jr. is better than the same movie without him. By the way, the plot involves a man convicted of murdering his wife, and the loving secretary (Ella Raines) out to prove him innocent. Enjoyable but unexceptional. I give it a B-.

Criss Cross: This one is considered a minor classic. I wouldn’t go that far, but I liked it enough to give it a B+. Burt Lancaster plays an armored car driver who finds himself in a love triangle with his ex-wife and a gangster. And not just a love triangle. They also join forces to pull off the heist of the century. But as the name suggests, everyone is planning to double cross everyone else. Director Robert Siodmak keeps the story moving fast and tight. Look fast, and you’ll catch a not-yet-famous Tony Curtis in a non-speaking role that’s little more than an extra.

[[Thanks to my wife, Madeline, for catching that before/after error.]]

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