TCM Classic Film Festival 2020: Special Home Edition: Part Three, by David Bax
Bette Davis doesn’t technically play the title role in William Wyler’s Jezebel (1938) because that’s not actually her character’s name (it’s Julie) but, come on, it’s totally the title role. We can tell she’s trouble from her hall of fame star entrance, galloping up on a wild horse, downing whiskey and looking absolutely fantastic doing it. Julie, an unmarried socialite in mid-19th century New Orleans, has her eyes set on a gentleman named Preston (Henry Fonda) but her aggressive individuality drives a wedge between them, one that’s only widened by the arrival of the city’s 1853 yellow fever outbreak. That’s right, Jezebel is a movie that takes place in the middle of an epidemic, with canceled parties, closed theaters, handkerchiefs held over faces and, of course, the pressing question, “Are any gentlefolk afflicted?” So yeah, it was weird to be watching it under the coronavirus lockdown. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good time. With dialogue that jumps forward like sparks along a power line, the whole thing moves like greased lightning, growing in scope from a minor scandal over a red dress to a citywide plague before you know it, pausing along the way only for fun touches like a split diopter shot or kinky ones like a confrontation between Julie and Preston where her eyes (and the camera) keep drifting toward his cane. It’s not all fun and horniness, though. The antebellum setting means that every one of the many black characters on screen is a slave and polite dinner conversations have a way of drifting toward talk of abolitionism, William Lloyd Garrison and the possibility of war between the states. Jezebel dances down a thorny path, having fun with a way of life while acknowledging that it is already rightly on the path to self-destruction.
For such a short movie (only 73 minutes), Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949) packs in a lot of individual character story lines. We check in on everyone from the gangster who fixed the fight to the trainer who took the gangster’s money but didn’t bother telling the fighter to lay down to the worried wife to the other boxers on the bill all the way down to the big fella in the stands who makes a four course meal out of concessions over the run of the night. But at the center of it all is Robert Ryan as Stoker Thompson, a worse-for-the-wear pugilist whom no one told he was supposed to throw a fight because everyone expected him to lose anyway. It’s a great performance; lived in, knocked around and just as physical as it is cerebral. Many of his best moments are simple reactions in the locker room before the fight, feeding off the hopes of the younger boxers on the undercard. The Set-Up is based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March and, while the movie version sadly changes the protagonist from black to white, the rhythms of poetry are there in the way the athletes talk. One young man says he believes in God against the odds because the payoff of heaven is too big to pass up; for this, he gets accused of “makin’ book on the hereafter.” But the poetry is also there in the sweet science in the ring and the shifting allegiances of the raucous and unforgiving crowd.
Morton DaCosta’s Auntie Mame (1958) kicks off with a dark gag about a rich man dying suddenly (the first but not the last such joke in the movie) before immediately launching into a first act into which the legendary Betty Comden and Adolph Green cram as many jokes as they can. On the suggestion that a famed psychiatrist should get a prim governess “on his couch”: “I’m not that kind of woman!” Of the work of a great sculptor: “Such talented fingers. What he did to my bust!” To a vain friend who urges Mame to “keep her hair natural, the way I do”: “If I kept my hair natural the way you do, I’d be bald!” Nearly two decades after His Girl Friday, Rosalind Russell has still got the goods when it comes to firing off witty banter at a breathless pace. With fades to black between scenes and extras including women in men’s clothing, DaCosta’s deft hand at theatrical farce and willingness to mercilessly mock conservative values makes Auntie Mame a clear antecedent to La Cage aux Folles, complete with a spoiled and kinda shitty young man at the center.
TCM’s Special Home Edition ended with the airing of some films that were meant to have played this year’s festival, including The Hustler, Baby Face, Victor/Victoria and the relatively recently rediscovered Bardelys the Magnificent (1926). Directed by King Vidor and starring John Gilbert (coincidentally also the male lead of A Woman of Affairs, the final film I saw at the 2019 fest), this silent comic romance was thought lost for about 70 years, before a mostly intact print was located in 2006. The third reel is missing but has been filled in with production stills and trailer footage. In what’s essentially a precursor to the popular subcategory of dare-based rom-coms, Gilbert plays a delightfully caddish 17th century French nobleman who discovers both humility and love when he wagers his lands and title that he can convince a chaste young woman (Eleanor Boardman) to marry him. The usual amount of mistaken identity high jinks and an unusual amount of swordplay ensue. All in all, a joyous end to this year’s festival.