Monday, February 1, 2010

Swapping vices

Of all the perishable items in the refrigerator of film history, the most perishable has to be the Important Drama. We all know that genre films, such as westerns and gangster films, dismissed as throwaway entertainment in their day bring enduring pleasures to the patient student or buff. Action films and comedies are variable--some hold up, some don't. But the ones that do hold up, such as Gunga Din on the action side or Duck Soup on the comedy side, become more indispensable with each passing day.

Important Drama seems to have the quickest "sell by" date. In many cases, that's because the Drama focuses around an Important Issue of Our Time, an issue which may have grown as stale as yesterday's newspaper. The Best Years Of Our Lives, a drama of re-integration of American men into post WWII society was the most highly-honored film of its time; whatever interest it has today is probably limited to historians and antiquarians. Gentlemen's Agreement was the Best Picture winner which taught that you shouldn't discriminate against Jews, because they might really be Gregory Peck. And in our own time, does anybody still get excited about dreary bores like The English Patient, Cold Mountain and Brokeback Mountain? You have to see them at the time because everybody is talking about them, but after a few years have passed, you'd just as soon watch Jackie Chan and have a good time.

A Free Soul (1931) was clearly one of those coffee-table-book-movies in its own day. There is a sort-of intriguing notion at its center, namely, adult daughter promises she will not sleep with her gangster boyfriend if her alcoholic father will stay on the wagon. This is all developed and repeated in an extremely tedious bouts of fustian. Then Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) gets so frustrated about not having sex with Norma Shearer that he strangles Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). (And I swear, they are giving exactly the same performances as they would eight years later.) Norma Shearer is arrested for this crime, and father-lawyer's defense is that it's not her fault that Rhett strangled Ashley (as if we all hadn't wanted to do that at some time), because he, Lionel Barrymore, was a bad father. Then he has an attack and falls down and the film ends. Subsequently Barrymore was given an Academy Award for running his hand through his thinning hair and falling down unassisted. Later, he developed crippling arthritis and was confined to a wheelchair, which left both hands free to run through his hair.

I wonder what this picture would have been like with Anthony Hopkins and Meryl Streep instead?

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