Friday 9 December 2022

Dilys Powell

 One of my favourite quotes from a film critic is the following: 

To explain to a sophisticated taste why The Sun Shines Bright is so good a film strikes me as nearly impossible. A sophisticated literary taste, that is. In the cinema sophistication wears strange colours, and the most austere judge will admire a piece which to a reading man may appear tearful tosh. Nothing sadder than to watch some devoted film critic trying to explain to a dramatic or a literary critic - or even an art critic, for artists outside their own field are ruled more than they think by literary ideas - that to appreciate a film you have to look at it, not just listen to it. Human desperation can go no further.

That was Dilys Powell in her review of John Ford's The Sun Shines Bright (1953) in the Sunday Times. Powell, whose writing has been collected in, for example, The Golden Screen - Fifty Years of Film (1989) and The Dilys Powell Film Reader (1991), is someone I always enjoy reading, and often have reason to return to. I share with her a love of westerns for example ("There are no bad Westerns. There are superb Westerns; there are good Westerns. And there are Westerns." she wrote in 1964), and of Vincente Minnelli.

She did not only love Minnelli's famous musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, which it is common to love, but his more challenging and lesser-known films too, which often only Minnelli auteurists like. An example is her review of Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). An excerpt: "Return to form by a brilliant director: something to celebrate. The director is Vincente Minnelli/.../The story deals with extravagances which in the hands of another director might be merely absurd. Not in Minnelli's hands./.../This time the frenzies of the film studio and the desperate dolce vita of Americans working abroad are rightly set in their period; the result may be a fantasy world, but it is a fantasy which this director understands and makes his own and into which he can breathe an intense, feverish life."

Something that often shines through in her writing is a defensive position vis-à-vis a certain kind of people, of which she most certainly had had many encounters, who take a belittling view of her chosen artform; literary types for whom film is mere entertainment. As part of her efforts to emphasise the artistic value of cinema she early on highlighted the director. In 1946, for example, she gave a talk about the role of the director in relation to the national, industrial and cooperative aspects of cinema. She asked the rhetorical question: “How can one man leave the mark of his personality and his talent on this hugger-mugger?” and answered, “But he does.” She also wrote that the visual language of a great filmmaker is the equivalent of the written language of a novelist. In her reviews of Antonioni's films of the 1960s, which she loved, she writes as much about the buildings and architecture as she does about the actors. Speaking of Antonioni, I love this sentence from her review of Bullitt (1968): "And outside the work of Antonioni I haven't seen such effective narrative and emotional use of an urban background."

One of the joys of reading collections like these is that you can see how her views evolve, as from the opening paragraph of her review of Nashville (1975), "Robert Altman has never been among my idols." to the last paragraph of her review of Quintet (1979), "And once again you are reminded of the astonishing range of Altman's work. M.A.S.H. and Images, Brewster McCloud and Three Women, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Nashville, and Quintet - one never knows what this extraordinary director will do next. And thank heaven for that."

Another treat is when there are several reviews in a row of exuberant excitement, as from 1955, where she shares her joyful pleasure of experiencing the greatness of Seven Samurai (1954), A Star is Born (1954), and, slightly less great, Buñuel's The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955). She also liked the first Bond film, Dr. No (1962), and she was an eager fan of Miklos Jancsó. She called Henry Hathaway an "old-time spellbinder" and referred to Fritz Lang's "cold, savage skill." This is another thing I like about her, the range of what she likes. She is open to almost anything, except a certain kind of violence, like Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971) which she hated even though she liked many of his other films. At times she wrestles with a film, where the reviews move back and forth between what she likes and what she dislikes in the film under consideration, weighing the good and the bad against each other as she writes.

Powell was born in 1901 and after studying at Oxford she began working at the Sunday Times in 1928. She became their film critic in 1939, and in 1946 she was elected president of Fipresci, The International Federation of Film Critics. She stayed at Sunday Times until 1979 after which she spent 13 years writing criticism for Punch. She also returned to Sunday Times, writing about films on television up until the day she died, in 1995. That shows how committed she was to both films and film criticism. 

Beside films, her great love was Greece, a country where she spent a lot of time during her life. First as part of her first husband's archaeology expeditions in the 1920s and 1930s, then doing war service during World War 2, and then as a friend and lover of the country. She also wrote several books about Greece, which I have not read but am curious about, in particular An Affair of the Heart (1957).


The London Film Critics' Circle has (or at least had until 2019?) an annual award called the Dilys Powell Award for Excellence in Film, and its first winner was Dirk Bogarde. He wrote a beautiful introduction to The Golden Screen, about his friendship with Powell. Here is a sample from it: "Playing a small part in a not very remarkable French film she said of me tartly, but not unkindly, 'Given too little to do Mr Bogarde does far too much.' Which was precisely what I did. And how I learned from that phrase." They became friends and remained so for life it seems.

Another connection between Bogarde, Powell, and Greece too, is that she was a friend of fellow philhellenist Patrick Leigh Fermor, whom Bogarde played in Powell/Pressburger's lovely Ill Met by Moonlight (1957). It is set on Crete, although due to lingering fighting there after the Greek civil war, filming took place in southern France. I do not know how she felt about that film, but she did love the films of Powell and Pressburger in general. The one exception was Peeping Tom (1960), which she, like many other British critics, eviscerated in her review. But she regretted this later and wrote an apology, in Sunday Times of course. I can quote it in full I think, and notice that this second review is prefiguring the contemporary idea of the "elevated horror film":

Michael Powell has long been known as one of this country's most distinguished film-makers. But when, in 1960, he made a horror film, I hated the piece and, together with a great many other British critics, said so. Today, I find I am convinced that it is a masterpiece. If in some afterlife conversation is permitted, I shall think it my duty to seek out Michael Powell and apologise. Something more than a change of taste must exist. The original story and screenplay come from Leo Marks; at their centre is a cameraman (played by Carl Boehm) whose scientist father used him in childhood in a study of fear. The boy grows up obsessed by images of the human face frozen in extremes of terror. He multiplies them by himself photographing death, and, in fact, becoming a multiple killer.

With so gifted a director this can hardly be anything but a frightening movie, but its object is the examination of emotion and not titillation. Interesting that it should be revived now when there has been much concern about the influence of cinema. All the more reason to distinguish between the serious and the merely sensational horror. Reading now what I wrote in 1960 I find that, despite my efforts to express revulsion, nearly everything I said conceals the extraordinary quality of Peeping Tom. See it, and spare a moment to respect the camerawork of Otto Heller.

Link to my Substack

Friday 11 November 2022

Little Vera (1988)

Not that long ago, the Ukrainian city of Mariupol had approximately 430 000 inhabitants. That was before Russia began its invasion and initiated its genocidal campaign against Ukraine. (Is it genocide? Some links to discussions below.) Now nobody knows how many people are still left in that city, but because of the Russian method of war, the wholesale destruction of civilian areas and infrastructure and mass killings of young and old left behind, it is a fact that many, maybe most people, have either fled or been killed; some estimate that up to 30 000 might have been killed in the city, which is now occupied by the Russians, but it could be more and in any event it is not over and people continues to be killed.

Mariupol has a special place within film history as it is where Little Vera (1988) was shot, and where it is set, although the city was called Zhdanov then. It was directed by Vasili Pichul, who was born in Mariupol, and written by his wife Mariya Khmelik. I do not expect many of you to have heard of this film, but while I was too young to watch it when it came out, I remember that occasion well because it was a sensation. Little Vera was a hip, topical film from the Soviet Union about young people giving the finger to the system, to the older generation, to communism. Such films were rare in Soviet at the time, although there had been a few earlier examples such as Courier/Messenger Boy (1986) or Assa (1987). There was a new trend with a type of films, dark and even nihilistic films sometimes referred to as chernukha, about family breakdowns and societal malaise, and Little Vera can be included in this tradition. It broke box office records in the Soviet Union, over 50 million saw Little Vera during its first release, and was popular in Sweden as well. I remember the trailer, and the excitement around the film, even though I never saw it then. It also has nudity and sex scenes, unheard of in Soviet cinema, and no doubt that was also helpful at the box office.

Vera, wonderfully played by Natalya Negoda, is a teenage girl who lives with her brother and their parents. The father is an alcoholic who can get nasty and violent when he is drunk. Vera has her friend Chistyakova, and she is dating Andrei. Then he is called up and she meets Sergei. They decide to get married, on rather flimsy grounds. It is not much fun. Life is hard, the apartments are small, and the neighbourhood is worn down and ugly. Her family consists of four people who can barely stand each other but they are forced to live together because they depend on the money the father earns. But Vera has a fierce personality and an explosive laughter. In one scene, when an outdoor party is broken up by the police, she kicks one of the policemen in the crotch, several times, in order to get away. Escaping the police is one thing though, the dreariness of a life under a communist state on its last leg can break the spirit of anyone, even a fighter like Vera. 

The narrative is a bit awkward and clumsy, it lacks a good rhythm, but the film is powerful just the same. The story is interspersed by shots of the Azovstal steelworks, that the current war made famous in March and April of 2022, and these shots have an eerie poetry to them, which is quite striking. 

The film's relation to sex and nudity is interesting. Here for example is a poster that was used in the marketing campaign:

As Vera is a sad, struggling teenager and not an avenging action hero, and the film resembles Ken Loach and not Paul Verhoeven, the poster has nothing to do with the style and content of the actual film. It does however say a lot about distributors' focus, and their, probably accurate, idea of what would sell. But most people seeing that poster, and expecting something like it, would be certain to be disappointed. Natalya Negoda was however able to trade on that sexual angle, as she got to appear on the cover of Playboy magazine. And the Soviet women did take notice, and appreciate, the fact that in the sex scenes, Vera was on top of her boyfriend, showing yet again that she was a new kind of woman. She became emblematic of the rapid changes in the Soviet Union during the years of reformist chairman Mikhail Gorbachev. 

Little Vera was made little over a year after Gorbachev had announced the new policy of openness, glasnost and perestroika (these are terms that are synonymous with my childhood), which also affected Soviet cinema culture. It meant that older films that had been censored and banned could now be shown, sometimes for the first time, and dark and rebellious films like Little Vera could be made. It has its flaws but it is a powerful film; you should definitely search for it. 


Today the film has a certain urgency to it, as most of what is seen in it has been destroyed by Russian artillery and missiles. The whole city has become a crime scene, a crime against humanity. 

Pichul never got to experience the demolition of his hometown; he died from lung cancer in 2015. Now the whole city is dying. Although knowing about Ukrainian resilience and resourcefulness, I do not doubt that as soon as the Russians are defeated, the locals will make the city flourish again. The human spirit lives on, even if it sometimes must do battle with the dark forces of fascism and vicious drunken madness.


On the question of genocide:

Friday 14 October 2022

Swedish Film Recommendations - Part 1 (1913-1959)

Sometimes I get emails from readers asking about recommendations of Swedish films I think they should watch, sometimes I am asked in person. Hence, I thought I could write down some recommendations here on the blog. I will ignore availability for now and just mention films I think should be watched if you can find them. To make it manageable I start now with the period 1913 to 1959, i.e. from the earliest feature-length masterpiece until the arrival of TV and the disruptions that followed. During the years in question, over one thousand Swedish feature films were released so the ones mentioned here are only a fragment of all films released. These are not the only good ones, or the only ones of interest from those years, but they make for a good start. Neither are all the films I mention below great works of art, a few are more of historic interest than anything else. But I like all of them. I will not mention any films by Ingmar Bergman or Hasse Ekman. There are too many of them. All Bergman's films of the 1950s are recommended viewing, and some of the 1940s too, and besides they are well-known already. Most of Ekman's films are recommended as well, and especially the ones he made from 1945 to 1954. 

Most of the films below have official English titles but when they have not, I have included a direct translation of the Swedish title within []. At a later date I will continue with films made from 1960 and onwards.


Swedish cinema reached spectacular heights early on, such as Ingeborg Holm (1913), directed by Victor Sjöström and with Hilda Borgström in the title role. This powerful melodrama, of a mother and two children who fall into destitution and despair after the sudden death of the father, is a contender to the title of being cinema's first feature-length masterpiece. Whatever you feel about such a classification, the film is still required viewing for anyone interested in the development of, not just Swedish cinema, but cinema overall. The acting, the storytelling, and Sjöström's use of space and compositions in great depth are part of the reasons why it is so remarkable. It is my oldest recommendation, and here are the rest:

Vingarne (Mauritz Stiller 1916) Erotic affairs, gay and straight, among artists in this meta-film. Based on Herman Bang's novel Mikaël, which was later adapted by Carl Theodor Dreyer as Michael (1924).

Kärleken segrar/Victory of Love (Georg af Klercker 1916) Melodrama with all kinds of complicated love affairs, misunderstandings, blackmail attempts, and suicide attempts, with impeccable mise-en-scéne.

Thomas Graals bästa film /Thomas Graal's Best Film (Mauritz Stiller 1917) Victor Sjöström stars in this witty meta-comedy about the making of a film. 

Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru/The Outlaw and His Wife (Victor Sjöström 1918) Melodrama in the far north of Sweden, shot on location, with great scenery, and nerve-wracking mountain climbing stunts. Sjöström wrote, directed, and plays the lead.

Nattliga toner/Night Music (Georg af Klercker 1918) Not as ambitious as Sjöström or Stiller, this tells the tale of a rich man with artistic ambitions but no talent discovering that a dirt-poor tenant of his has written a play that is a masterpiece. He steals it and kills its author, but eventually he gets his comeuppance. A morality tale in four acts.

Herr Arnes pengar/The Treasure of Arne (Mauritz Stiller 1919) Scottish mercenaries wreak havoc on unsuspecting Swedes and are haunted thereafter. One of Stiller's most majestic films.

Erotikon (Mauritz Stiller 1920) A sophisticated comedy of romantic shenanigans and illicit interludes that inspired Lubitsch. As is so often the case with such films, it is based on an Hungarian play. Can profitably be watched together with Cecil B. DeMille's great films of a similar style from the late 1910s/early 1920s. 

Prästänkan/The Parson's Widow (Carl Theodor Dreyer 1920) One of Dreyer's Swedish films, a sad tale of an old widow who marries a young parson, to fulfil a local tradition.

Körkarlen/The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström 1921) Sjöström's most famous film, and one of the most famous of silent films, a Dickensian ghost story about sin, redemption, and death. Incredible cinematography by Julius Jaenzon.

Häxan (Benjamin Christensen 1922) A weird and unique film, about the medieval legends of witches and the devil. Is it an essay film? 

Flickan i frack/The Girl in Tails (Karin Swanström 1926) A rebellious student refuses to accept that her brother gets nice clothes when she does not, so she borrows his tuxedo and wears it at a student ball. An instant scandal. She proceeds to demand a life of independence and moves in with a community of female intellectuals. Visually plain but amusing story, and lots to enjoy from a queer perspective.

En natt/One Night (Gustaf Molander 1931) Molander, with the help of cinematographer Åke Dahlqvist, tries to bring a touch of Soviet cinema to Sweden, and is partly successful.

Röda dagen/The Red Day (Gustaf Edgren 1931) Light-hearted political drama about a day of demonstrations between communists and Nazis in Stockholm. Written and directed by Edgren who at the time specialised in this kind of film.

Karl Fredrik regerar/Karl Fredrik Reigns (Gustaf Edgren 1934) Another of Edgren's political dramas. Karl Fredrik is a union man who becomes a minister for the Social Democratic Party, trying to build the welfare state.

Flickorna från Gamla Sta'n/[The girls from the Old Town] (Schamyl Bauman 1934) The lives of two young women in Gamla Stan, the Old Town in Stockholm. Troubles with both work and men in one of Bauman's more delightful films.

Intermezzo (Gustaf Molander 1936) One of the highlights of Swedish 1930's cinema, a fine melodrama and possibly the biggest international success since the silent era. Gösta Ekman and Ingrid Bergman are lovers, but he is married elsewhere, and she has a career she needs to focus on. Molander and Dahlqvist are not trying to be Russians this time, and the film is the better for it. Exquisite.

Karriär/Career (Schamyl Bauman 1938) One of Ingmar Bergman's favourite Swedish films, about a small touring theatre company and their constant struggles to keep going despite financial hardship. Beautifully acted and sensitively directed.

En kvinnas ansikte/A Woman's Face (Gustaf Molander 1938) Ingrid Bergman as a leader of a band of blackmailers, traumatised from having her face badly scarred, is given a new chance to happiness. Uneven but many good scenes and a Hitchcockian sleigh-ride. Remade in Hollywood by George Cukor and Joan Crawford

Vi två/The Two of Us (Schamyl Bauman 1939) Yet another delightful film by Bauman, this time about a young couple trying to get ahead in the early days of the Swedish welfare state. More neorealistic than De Sica.

Juninatt/June Night (Per Lindberg 1940) Ingrid Bergman's last Swedish film before going to Hollywood is a tense melodrama. Surprisingly not remade in Hollywood.

Stål/[Steel] (Per Lindberg 1940) An unusual film in that it is about a steel mill and the people who work there. A narrative experience in a way. The mill itself, captured by Åke Dahlqvist's cinematography, is the real star, overshadowing the plot and the characters.

Det sägs på stan/The Talk of the Town (Per Lindberg 1941) Lindberg had a short and fascinating film career, experimenting with structure, images, and narrative. This is yet another example, about a small town torn apart by anonymous letters.

Hets/Torment (Alf Sjöberg 1944) Famous for being the first film with a script by Ingmar Bergman but Martin Bodin's cinematography is the real star here, and Stig Järrel as the horrible Latin teacher.

Stopp! Tänk på något annat/[Stop! Think of something else] (1944) Romantic drama by Åke Ohberg which happens to be the first film in which Hasse Ekman and Eva Henning acted together. That is reason enough to watch it.

Rallare/Navvies (Arne Mattsson 1947) Victor Sjöström plays the lead in Mattsson's gritty film about the building of the railway in the far north of Sweden, from Luleå to Narvik. Could be watched together with Jan Troell's Här har du ditt liv/This is Your Life (1966).

Eva (Gustaf Molander 1948) Childhood traumas, repressed sexuality, death, dream sequences, and anxieties aplenty in this narratively complex adaptation of an idea by Bergman.

Främmande hamn/Strange Harbor (Erik 'Hampe' Faustman 1948) A Swedish ship trapped in a Polish harbour on the cusp of World War 2. The crew is wondering what to do, play it safe or rebel against the fascists.

Vi flyger på Rio/[We're flying to Rio] (Åke Ohberg 1949) An early example of the travelling soap opera, of a group of passengers and crew on a long-distance flight experiencing love, bad weather, and emergency landings. It is all there long before it became a 1970s convention.

Bara en mor/Only a Mother (Alf Sjöberg 1949) Eva Dahlbeck exceptional as a hard-working mother in a poor rural area. Beautiful cinematography by Martin Bodin.

Farlig vår/[Dangerous spring] (Arne Mattsson 1949) Today Swedish crime thrillers have become a global phenomenon, (and now also Danish ones, under the Nordic Noir umbrella). In Sweden that tradition began in the immediate post-war years, and this is the best of the early ones, where a killer threatens the students in Uppsala.

Leva på "Hoppet"/Living on "Hope" (Göran Gentele 1951) Hoppet is a boat, and the people who live on it are a group of young actors waiting for their breakthroughs in this very endearing film. It won the Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival.

Frånskild/Divorced (Gustaf Molander 1951) Inga Tidblad plays a middle-aged woman whose husband suddenly leaves her for another woman, and she goes through several stages of shock, grief, and anger.

Hon dansade en sommar/One Summer of Happiness (Arne Mattsson 1951) One of Sweden's biggest international box office hits, no doubt because of the generous amount of nudity. A powerful tragedy about two young lovers surrounded by conservatism, hatred, and gossip.

Fröken Julie/Miss Julie (Alf Sjöberg 1951) Beautifully photographed and beautifully acted version of Strindberg's play. The cinematographer, Göran Strindberg, is related to August.

Kärlekens bröd/The Bread of Love (Arne Mattsson 1953) The success of One Summer of Happiness meant that Mattsson got carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. He wanted to do a sombre, haunting, visually expressive war film from the Eastern front, with Swedish soldiers fighting in Finland against Russia. A remarkable film

Det stora äventyret/The Great Adventure (Arne Sucksdorff 1953) A documentary, partly staged, about life on a Swedish farm. Moving and thrilling, and very atmospheric cinematography.

Anaconda (Torgny Anderberg 1954) Anderberg alternated between documentaries, primarily from South America, and trivial family films. It is the documentaries that matter, and this is a fine one about life in the Amazonas.

Expedition Röda havet (Bengt Börjesson 1956) A documentary about a group of Swedish divers who explore the Red Sea. Magnificent Eastman Color cinematography by Börjesson.

Det är aldrig för sent/It is Never Too Late (Barbro Boman 1956) A marriage falls apart and the wife remembers her relationship with her mother, while trying to reconcile with her husband. It is a bit bland, but as one of only two films in 1950s Swedish cinema, it deserves to be known. And the acting is fine.

Nattens ljus/Night Light (Lars-Erik Kjellgren 1957) A Felliniesque tale of a night in Stockholm, based on an idea by Kjellgren and his good friend Ingmar Bergman.

Fröken April/Miss April (Göran Gentele 1958) The main reason to mention this one is its spectacular Eastman Color cinematography. All interiors and exteriors look remarkably good, and few (if any) films have shown a more beautiful Stockholm. Shot by Karl-Erik Alberts. Otherwise, a comedy that is more annoying than charming.

Mannekäng i rött/Mannequin in Red (Arne Mattsson 1958) A Swedish giallo. Murder and mayhem in Stockholm's fashion industry, and the best of Mattsson's five films about the detective John Hillman, played by Karl-Arne Holmsten.


I wish I knew which Swedish films are available for streaming in various countries, so I could tailor the recommendations somewhat. Should you happen to know which of these, and other Swedish films, which are available in Chile or Japan or Kenya or Morocco or the Philippines or New Zealand, or any other country, feel free to write to me and let me know. Maybe I can post that information here too.

Here are links to articles I have written about Georg af Klercker and Arne Mattsson and Torgny Anderberg and Arne Sucksdorff.

Link to my Substack.

Friday 16 September 2022

The mysteries of Howard Hawks

The headline is probably promising more than this post will deliver because the mysteries are not about Hawks but about two of his films: Bringing Up Baby (1938) and The Big Sleep (1946). The mysteries are whether the first one was a box office failure and the other is the question of who killed Sternwood's chauffeur, Owen Taylor.

Let me take the second one first. Any writings on The Big Sleep are likely to say that the plot is hard to follow, and that the death of Owen Taylor is unexplained. You can also easily find online discussions about "Who killed Taylor?" on Reddit, Twitter, and other places. The plot is said to be so difficult to follow that at one point Hawks sent a telegram to Raymond Chandler, who wrote the source novel, asking him who killed Taylor. Chandler is supposed to have answered that he did not know. (Some question whether this actually happened but in a letter Chandler wrote to Jamie Hamilton in 1949 he mentions getting that telegram so it probably happened.)

Yet in the novel it is not a mystery. Taylor was driving away from Geiger's house when he was stopped by Joe Brody, who hit Taylor, still in the car, on the head. Somehow Taylor managed to drive off, but he did not get very far before he drove into the river and drowned. In the book, the police, the D.A., and Marlowe, think that Taylor probably was disoriented, or became unconscious, due to the head injury and that the death was accidental, or maybe, although that is less likely, it was suicide. There is nothing in the film to suggest any other explanation. There is no mystery, and there is no forgotten or unknown killer. It is rather straightforward, including a confirmation from Brody that he did hit Taylor on the head before Taylor managed to drive off.

The case of Bringing Up Baby is less straightforward. It has become conventional wisdom that it was a flop and that it led to Katherine Hepburn being called "box office poison." I have dealt with the issue of box office poison in an earlier post so suffice to say here that it is a dubious and unfair accusation from an organisation for cinema theatres and not something that should be taken seriously.

If you read about Bringing Up Baby you will usually see the figure of $365,000 mentioned, the amount it allegedly lost. That is the figure mentioned in Scott Eyman's book about Cary Grant, in Barbara Leaming's book about Hepburn, and in Todd McCarthy's book about Hawks. William J. Mann, in his book about Hepburn, mentions the figure of $300 000. In neither of these four books is there a source for that figure, but the $365,000 seems to come from Richard B. Jewell's article "How Howard Hawks Brought Baby Up: An Apologia for the Studio System" published in Journal of Popular Film and Television in the autumn of 1984. (An un-sourced sentence reads " The final RKO loss on Baby amounted to $365,000.") He repeats that figure in an article ten years later in Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television.

But what does this figure mean? The first thing to consider is that the film was not a flop in terms of expected audience attendance. Since it cost so much to make (primarily due to Hawks's expensive contract and slow filming process), in order for it to turn a profit it would have to be seen by a lot more people than the production company RKO considered possible for such a film, yet it exceeded that estimate. If you read the box office reports in the trade papers at the time there was no cause for concern. It was for example doing good business in Los Angeles, Detroit, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Boston, Seattle, Washington, Denver, Pittsburgh, and had a strong opening in San Francisco. When Boxoffice magazine evaluated its performance about a year after its premiere they said it was doing above average. When The Hollywood Reporter in December 1938 summarised Hollywood's achievements of that year, it included Bringing Up Baby among RKO's "top grossers." The only noticeable upset was that it failed at Radio City Music Hall in New York where it closed after one week only, replaced by Jezebel (1938) which opened one week earlier than planned.

When Gerald Mast in 1988 investigated the box office figures for Bringing Up Baby, his findings suggested it made a "modest profit" on its initial run: $12,000. It made $1,096,796 against a budget cost of $1,109,000. Then it made an additional $150,000 when it was re-released in 1940, so in total a profit of $162,000. (Peter Swaab in his book on Bringing Up Baby from 2010 uses Mast's figures.) But are these figures accurate? Do they include the cost of marketing and such? I do not know.

As I have written before, historic box office figures are both unpredictable and unreliable. I do not feel confident in calling Bringing Up Baby either a success or a flop. There are too many parameters and too much uncertainty concerning the figures that any film historian would be wise to be cautious. I think we should put to rest though the widespread belief that it was a confirmed flop. That Hawks complained about it in interviews is proof of nothing, and might only mean that it did not make enough of a profit for him to get a bonus on top of his already high fee.


Referenced books:

Chandler, Raymond (1939) The Big Sleep

Eyman, Scott (2020) Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise

Glancy, Mark (2020) Cary Grant - The Making of a Hollywood Career

Leaming, Barbara (1995) Katharine Hepburn

McCarthy, Todd (1997) Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood

Mann, William J. (2006) Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn

Mast, Gerald (1988) Bringing Up Baby: Howard Hawks, Director

Swaab, Peter (2011) Bringing Up Baby

The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction, 1909-1959 (2000)


Boxoffice Feb 1, 1939.

Jewell, Richard B. "How Howard Hawks Brought Baby Up: An Apologia for the Studio System" in Journal of Popular Film and Television Volume 11, 198, Issue 4.

Jewell, Richard B. "RKO Film Grosses, 1929-1951: The C.F. Tevlin Ledger" in Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television March 1994, Vol. 14.

The Hollywood Reporter March 8, 1938.

The Hollywood Reporter Dec 31, 1938.

Variety March 9, 1938.

My previous related blog posts:

Friday 19 August 2022

The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)

In 1999, when The Wind Will Carry Us came out, I was writing for an online film journal and I reviewed it for them. I was particularly pleased with that review so it is a great shame that the journal abruptly went out of business and everything on the website was removed, never to be seen again. It was not just my review I felt was good, it seemed to me at the time that there were a lot of unusually good reviews of this film. I wondered if it was perhaps the case that the film had special qualities that brought something new and different from us reviewers and critics. I wonder if that is true in general, that the quality of a review or critical essay is to some extent contingent upon the film(s) being written about. Probably not, but it is an idea.

I loved The Wind Will Carry Us then, and I still do. I have just rewatched it and thought I should write about it again, some 22 years later. What has stayed with me all those years is above all else the beauty of the landscape of the area where the film takes place, in and around a Kurdish village in a mountainous area, far from anything else, somewhere between Baghdad, Iraq, and Tehran. The census of 2006 showed that it has 48 inhabitants. I wonder how many live there today, and how many of them were appearing in the film. The older ones might have died by now, and the children might have moved elsewhere.

The main character is Behzad, a man from Tehran who has come to this remote village with a small crew to film a burial ceremony. Unfortunately for him, the old woman who is to be buried refuses to die, and he has to spend day after day, week after week, in the tiny village. His travails and struggles give the film a comic, absurd, quality, but this is tempered by the fact that the man is not particularly pleasant. He is demanding, insensitive, even rude. But his prolonged stay in the village does seem to change him, maybe making him a better man.

Described in such a way it sounds somewhat conventional, even cliched. There are countless films in which city slickers find themselves trapped in some rural area and either change for the better, or, if it is a horror film, get killed or at best traumatised for life. But Abbas Kiarostami is neither conventional nor cliched. He is, or sadly was, one of the greatest artists the modern world has known. And among other things he wanted to teach us to see the world in all its splendour.

The landscape, and how Kiarostami and his cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari films it, is astonishing, and when I watch the film at home I ache because it deserves the biggest of screens. IMAX at the very least. But in this breathtaking scenery is a story of drinking tea, milking a cow, shaving (there is in particular one long scene where Behzad is shaving, facing the camera as if it was the mirror), digging, going to school, eating an apple, reciting poetry. It is a profound study of/in humanity, where all these things are simultaneously mundane and exquisitely essential and moving. Kiarostami focuses on them, instead of spelling out exactly what is going on, including basic things such as how long Behzad is actually there. We have to guess, infer, and imagine. Kiarostami is also having a lot of fun it seems. Whenever Behzad leaves town in his car to get up on a peak to get a mobile phone signal, the camera stays behind in the village and watches him drive off, and then some sheep and cows walk past the camera, as if mocking him. The first time there is even some reproductive behaviour between two of the animals, and this I find very amusing. Another amusing thing is that the crew that Behzad has brought is never seen. They seem to be asleep most of the time, although we hear their voices at times.

Many of these scenes are not just funny but also examples of the breakdown of the distinction between documentary and fiction. Much of what we see could be from any documentary about rural Iran. The animals are of course not acting, but what about the human inhabitants of the village? Are they all playing, or just being themselves? There is for example an older woman who has a cafe in the village, or at least serves tea. Is this what she does in real life? Are the words she speaks written by Kiarostami or is she being herself, saying what she has on her mind? In any event, she is one of those to whom Behzad tries to be superior and he is told off for it.

There are many such scenes, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that almost the entire film, as is so often the case with Kiarostami, is like that, raising the question of how we as viewers should position ourselves in relation to it. I find this a key part of what makes it exhilarating, this ambiguity about the real world and the deliberately written and staged world. In some other Iranian films this is taken to even greater lengths, and it can make the viewing experience uncomfortable, as in scenes where children are in emotional distress. (I defy anyone to watch the sequence in Jafar Panahi's The Circle (2000) where a mother is trying to abandon her small child outside a restaurant without experiencing an avalanche of conflicting emotions.) Kiarostami is not that extreme, and in The Wind Will Carry Us he is in a more playful mood despite the depths he is trying to reach.

Part of the depth comes from his use of poetry, and not any poetry but from the female modernist poet Forough Farrokhzad, which also serves as an unacknowledged connection with Iranian film history as she in 1963 made the famous film The House is Black, a poetic meditation about a visit to a leper colony in northern Iran. It is from a poem by her that the title of this film comes, although different translations of the poem phrase it differently. In another version it is for example The Wind Will Take Us Away. Her poetry is referenced several times in the film, and she has a sort of a non-visible presence in it. (You can read more about her here.) It is not just her poetry though. The equally famous Omar Khayyam is also quoted. But the spoken poetry is more than matched by the poetry of Kiarostami's vision and images. 

What has always puzzled me about this film is not just how it always stays with me, a constant presence in my life after I first saw it, but how it makes me feel. It makes me feel like a better person, it elevates my mood and my view of the world. It has enriched my life like few other films have.

Friday 22 July 2022


It has been a hectic year for me but now I am on my vacation, and I refuse to work. According to the schedule of the blog today there would be a new post, but this is all you are going to get. I see you again in August. Watch some good films until then.

Friday 24 June 2022

The Guest Writer #3: Barry Putterman returns - One Has My Name

Some years ago I invited guest writers to the blog, and published two pieces, one by Sofia Åkerberg and one by Barry Putterman. Now Barry is back with a new piece, about music, music videos, cartoons, and childhood memories, mixing it all together. Barry, who lives in New York, has previously written the book On Television and Comedy: Essays on Style, Theme, Performer, and Writer (1995), essays about Peter Bogdanovich and George Roy Hill to be found in American Directors (1983, edited by the late Jean-Pierre Coursodon), and earlier this year he published Pack Up Your Troubles: Some American Films from 1932, a massive three-volume project about Hollywood cinema in the year of 1932. His piece for me is less massive, and more autobiographical, so let's get on with it. I have decided to leave it as he wrote it so you will get the full Putterman experience, not conformed to my own style guide, such as it is.

One Has My Name – Scopitone

Recently, after finally getting a respectable computer, I decided to take the plunge and begin exploring the haphazard encyclopedia of movies and music known as YouTube. And the experience soon turned into a stream of consciousness exercise where one stray thought search led to the computer suggesting similar variations that in turn triggered related thoughts that ultimately expanded into the kind of endless parade of free associational connections that illustrates the way that the sights and sounds of movies and music become poetically attached in the psyche to two other m words, memory and mystery. There is no telling where the links in these chains will lead you since, as Bernstein tells Thompson in CITIZEN KANE just before recounting the image of a mystery woman he saw for one second on a ferry boat, a fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he wound, and they tend to reach the surface of your mind through unpredictable stimuli.

As a child I was devoted to the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” television cartoon series and faithfully watched the episodes in rerun for as long as they remained on the air to the result that even now I can recite long passages of dialogue from the stories using the same inflections that were used by the voice actors. Through the years, experience has given me a deeper understanding of the cultural allusions embedded in the jokes and the storylines but there were always a few free-floating tidbits that while continuing to be funny remained inexplicable. For instance, there was the singing competition for the affections of the 6-foot Metal Munching Moon Mice between Bullwinkle and Boris Badenov that had Boris singing excruciatingly awful parodies of rock and roll while Bullwinkle answered with what sounded like ridiculously antiquated lyrics from actual songs. He only sang two-line snatches of the lyrics, but they were strange and they stuck in my memory even though I had no context in which to understand them on a broader level. But on YouTube it only took a short stroll through connecting sites to reveal original 1915 recordings of “Auntie Skinner’s Chicken Dinner” and “There Must Be Little Cupids in the Briny.” Still, while the mystery within the memory is inevitable when connected to history that precedes your birth, it can also be retained from events you experienced in real time.

In 1965 a record called “One Has My Name (the Other Has My Heart)” by Barry Young hit the Top 40 radio station I listened to. Young was a completely unknown singer who had one distinguishing characteristic, he sounded almost exactly like Dean Martin. The song was a country and western tune that had been a big hit for Jimmy Wakely in 1948 and told a typical C&W tale of a person tragically trapped in an emotional cul-de-sac, this time a man who is married to one woman but in love with another. The Wakely record had a straightforward vocal set to the traditional fiddle and steel guitar backing of its genre. But Dot Records, a company that specialized in mainstream cover versions, accompanied Young’s vocal with a strings and chorus backing in an arrangement that imitated Martin’s then current run of hits resulting in a record that sounded as if it was Dino’s most recent release.

The ploy worked. “One Has My Name” became a big hit. But the suspicion that this was a Dean Martin record in disguise never quite left the popular imagination. There were pictures of Barry Young on record covers so the theory that this was a hoax along the lines of The Four Seasons releasing a version of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” as The Wonder Who was discarded. But Young never appeared on any of the major popular music television shows to perform and, sadly, he died of a brain abscess in December of 1966 and so never established an identity beyond somebody whose voice sounded like Dean Martin’s.

The mystery of Barry Young remained with me until I stumbled over a YouTube site called Vintage Video Clips that advertised a performance by Young of the song, so I quickly clicked on it in eager anticipation. But I was entirely unprepared for what I was about to see.

As the opening strains of the record fill the soundtrack, we immediately understand that this isn’t going to be a visual document of a live performance but rather a narrative film dramatization as we see what amounts to an establishing shot of the song’s story. In the foreground Young is seated on a park bench between two women. The woman to his right is chicly dressed, exudes the sophisticated hauteur of a fashion model, and has a small dog on her lap. The woman to his right is more primly attired, is scrunching up her face in concentration on her knitting and is indicated as Young’s wife by a literal ball and chain to which they are both attached at the ankle. Indeed, the elaborated insistence on this metaphor is sledgehammered home by the additional layer of irony of having the words “Ball and Chain” printed on the ball.

The comic overdetermination of the plot in the foreground is then set against a painted backdrop in the rear and the clashing spaces of foreground clutter and background artifice shot with such flat compression that it all but shouts to the viewer that there is nothing in the off-screen space besides empty sound stage.

As Young begins lip-synching to the record he faces directly into the camera performing for the viewing audience, pausing only once to flirtatiously glance at the other woman during the first two lines of the lyrics. Then, in a close shot of him, Young’s face takes on a look of childish disgust as he turns toward his wife while telling us that she has brown eyes, which leads to two intense closeups almost worthy of Sergio Leone as the wife’s eyes are contrasted with the blue eyes of the other woman. A return to the master shot has Young and the wife both glancing down at the ball and chain as he sings that he is tied to her which is followed by a repetition of his flirtatious glance with accompanying tie straightening gesture as he sings that he is true to the other woman.

Without transition, the scene shift’s to Young’s home. He is still seated and singing directly into the camera but is now at his kitchen table and is dressed in a casual sweater rather than a jacket and tie. The wife is standing, indeed dancing behind him in a bright housecoat and with a few curlers attached to her short hair in a half-hearted attempt to denote drabness as she angrily slams a coffee cup, a coffee pot and a box of Wheaties down on the table and Young winces as they land although the only sound that the audience hears continues to be that of the record that he is lip-synching for us. As the wife sits down at the table with an expression of mopey resignation, Young finally rises and the camera follows him as he moves from his seat at the center of the table to the left-hand corner of the kitchen setting. He is finishing up the first verse of the song by reiterating his dilemma in reverse order, now saying that one has his heart while the other has his name. And as his voice mentions the other woman, we suddenly see her dancing around in an unestablished location only to have it succeeded by a return to the wife in the kitchen with Young no longer present as she whirls about, setting the table for a different meal. These two shots at first seem only to correspond to the mentioning of the women in the lyrics but it then turns out that they are flash forwards into the next sequence.

As the chorus takes up the opening lines of the second, and almost identical verse, we see that the other woman had been dancing in her plush apartment, a stage setting once again accompanied by a painted backdrop, this time of a city at night. Young is also in the apartment, seated on the couch next to the small dog, now in formal attire but still facing forward toward the camera waiting for the chorus to end the first two lines of lyrics where he will pick up the singing of the story. The wife is not in the apartment but remains in the shot as the apartment setting takes up only about two thirds of the frame where it is cut off by a wall on the other side of which is the wife in the kitchen, thus artificially creating the illusion of a split screen.


The wife is wearing a different dress and as she sets the table, checks her non-existent wristwatch and mimes distress regarding the non-appearance of her husband as Young resumes singing while stealing glances at his alluring companion as she abets her mating dance by spraying the couch with perfume from an atomizer while in the kitchen the wife is spraying the table with air freshener. The apartment then takes up the entire screen in a tighter shot as the woman approaches Young, picks up and hands him the dog, suggestively parts the long slit in her dress exposing her undergarment and then slinks down next to him where the dog had been, revealing her bare leg which the camera slowly pans in response to Young’s gaze.

But as quickly as that movement finishes, the scene returns to the kitchen and Young is back sitting at the table while still singing to us, this time wearing a different colored sweater (all three characters seem to alternate bright reds and blues in their apparel). The wife is now standing in front of the table ironing a shirt at an ironing board while wearing an embroidered dress that accents her perky rather than sensual personality. Alarmed at the results of her ironing, she dances over to Young who again rises as she places the shirt against his chest and looks to the audience with an expression of comic chagrin.

Finally, as he reaches the final two lines of the lyrics, the only revision from the first verse, where he states that if he could do it over again he would also be married to the woman he loves, Young is now seen on the balcony of the other woman’s apartment. They are facing each other and he is still in the same formal attire but she is in a less suggestive dress as they return inside to a candlelit dinner, blowing out the candles to simulate a fade to black as the music on the soundtrack ends.

While retrieving my jaw from underneath the desk I ventured to reassemble my wits and make sense of what I had just witnessed. Watching a narrative version of a popular song made in the mid-1960s was astonishing enough, but a film that illustrated emotional conditions with such strenuously literalized metaphors was practically unheard of outside of animated cartoons. But ultimately, the most radical departure was that within a culture that insists on advertising aspirational ambitions as visionary dreams and an aesthetic that comfortingly telegraphs representations of dreams via distorted focus, oblique camera angles and slow motion, ONE HAS MY NAME bluntly documents with slam-bang compression the continuously disorienting shifts in time and space and the disquieting sense of simultaneously existing inside and outside of narrative events that characterize an actual dream state. (You can watch it here.)

So now the mystery changed from the nature of the performer to the conditions of the performance. Who made this film, under what circumstances and for what audience? Vintage Video Clips provided no context but there was evidence of a title card at the front of the film that, despite an attempt at erasure, still flashed for a fraction of a second. And a search for an alternative posting of the film on YouTube provided the one-word answer, Scopitone.

Scopitone, it turns out, was the 1960s iteration of the 1940s Soundies. That is, visual presentations of popular recordings made to be seen on video jukeboxes. There were individual gems among the Soundies but they generally suffered from not only World War II material shortages but also a paucity of filmic heritage on which to build. Beyond localized stage performance, musical acts were primarily known to the general public through the exclusively aural mediums of recordings and radio, and while the then most popular dance bands and singers were shoehorned into both short films and features, they were primarily looked upon by the film industry as annoying intrusions into the narrative structure and presented without much attention to discovering the visual dynamics suggested within the music.

By the early 1960s however, Scopitone had the benefit of more than a decade of interior staging of musical acts for television cameras, the spatial expansion of narrative film location shooting for musical numbers first popularized by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s ON THE TOWN and the more recent experimentations in discontinuous editing techniques.

The 1960s version of the jukeboxes were invented in France and the entertainment industry there seems to have gotten behind the project with full cultural force. As listed in Bob Orlowsky’s Scopitone Archive, well over four hundred French films were made for the jukeboxes with the participation of many of the leading figures in the country’s popular music industry. And, based on the tiny fraction of those films that I have been able to see, they appear to have taken full advantage of the stylistic advances, ranging from the embryonic use of dynamic pools of space and light that would soon become the signature look of the American rock and roll TV show SHINDIG in Sylvie Vartan’s version of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?” to Francoise Hardy’s singing of a song whose title translates into English as “All the Boys and Girls” set amid outdoor amusement park rides.

When the machines came to the U.S. the commitment seemed to become more ambivalent. Fewer than two hundred films were made and the producers seemed to be trying to straddle the generation gap whereby some of them featuring firmly established pre-rock television and nightclub singers like Vic Damone and Jane Morgan while others starred artists who had multiple Top 40 hits but never quite reached the front rank of pop music stardom such as Dick & Dee Dee and Bobby Vee. The indecision regarding the target audience may have had something to do with the venues since most of the jukeboxes were placed in bars and nightclubs which led to what appears to be a very conscious decision that a visual strategy of aggressive audacity was the only means of holding a viewer’s attention in such an environment.

According to Orlowsky, the creative force behind many of the American films was Harold Belfer, a choreographer with a string of undistinguished credits at Universal-International in the 1950s but for whom the particular limitations and opportunities of the Scopitone films seemed to have stimulated heretofore unexplored contours within his id. Most often this led to a vaguely unsettling sense of witnessing a well-oiled machine that has slipped a few gears, sort of like viewing the results of Russ Meyer’s day as substitute director on a beach party movie. But when the outlandish imagery was more directly tethered to the song lyric’s narrative, the wackiness could spin off in more dangerous directions.

The borderline berserk rendering of Jody Miller’s “Queen of the House” comes immediately to mind in that regard but the closest approximation to the dream state condition of “One Has My Name” that I’ve seen is the film of singer/songwriter Gale Garnett’s “Where Do You Go to Go Away?” The imagery here is more overtly abstract to harmonize with the more internalized mindset of the protagonist and Garnett, who was also an experienced actress, adds facial expressions and body gestures to her performance that projects a sense of consciously creating her dream in contrast to the more passive stasis that seems to carry Young through his. But the film ends on the same kind of literalized metaphor that opens “One Has My Name” adding the extra layer of ironic detachment that serves as mitigating deflection from the somber mood embedded in both lyrics.

The most comprehensive introduction to Scopitone on the web is “Scopitone A Go Go,” a seventy-five-minute compilation of French and American films that includes all the artists and titles mentioned above. Those still standing can then move on to the other clusters and individual examples available on the internet with the Scopitone Archive serving as your search engine.

One of the bonus features of watching Scopitones on YouTube is that many of the films offer viewer comments underneath the screening box. You get the expected run of gushy fan mail and self-satisfied stabs at snark but also the slightly befuddled responses of people who are objectively trying to reconcile their experience with their expectations, such as Stephen Smith who wrote in reaction to the Nino Tempo & April Stevens version of “Land of 1,000 Dances,” “kind of weird at different levels.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.