A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Gunga Din (George Stevens, 1939)

It's imperialist and racist, and its title character is an example of the Magical Negro trope, the person of color who saves the white folks' asses. It's embarrassing to see actors like Sam Jaffe (in the title role), Eduardo Ciannelli, and Abner Biberman in brownface. So I have to swallow a lot that I object to when I admit that I still enjoy Gunga Din. We typically evade the issue of a film's content and message by emphasizing style and technique, and Gunga Din is loaded with style and technique, from the comic performances of Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to the crisp cinematography of Joseph H. August, convincingly turning the Sierra Nevada into the Khyber Pass. The movie was originally supposed to be directed by Howard Hawks, who brought on Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur to develop a story out of Rudyard Kipling's poem, which they did by plagiarizing their own play The Front Page, which hinges on a man (in this case two men) trying to prevent his friend and co-worker from going off and getting married. Hawks might have made a better movie: He would almost certainly have given Joan Fontaine more to do in her role as the woman who is trying to take Fairbanks away from Grant and McLaglen. But he was fired from the film and replaced with Stevens. The real star of the movie is Grant, playing at peak clown and loving it, while still pulling off the dashing hero. It's interesting to compare Grant's performance in this movie with the one he gave for Hawks in Only Angels Have Wings, which was released the same year, in which Grant is more serious as the troubled boss of a group of pilots flying the mail across the Andes -- people who think Grant was only a movie star and not a "real" actor should make the effort.

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