24 May 2010

Warner Gangsters Collection, Vol. 3.

When I say I love a good romantic comedy, and I do, I don't mean I love your generic Hollywood romcom, I mean I love a good movie with some romance and comedy. And when I say I hate crime cinema, I don't mean I hate any movie with crime, because I don't at all: but I hate a lot of them. A lot. Just to elaborate, I'd rather watch a bad romcom, of the variety I've just lambasted, than a bad crime movie.

So that's why I don't own volume one and two of Warner Bros.' gangster collections* (volume two was once titled Tough Guys Collection…..), and that's why I did recently purchase volume three, because I heard that the gangster films weren't very gangstery, and that made me listen. I began with Lloyd Bacon's Picture Perfect (Bacon of 42nd Street and Footlight Parade), and there were things I appreciated, but as it continued it felt fragmented, in a way that ultimately projected studio assemblage. It felt like movie making. It really amounts to the true-life story of some vanguard journalist told as a crappy screwball comedy, with working-class depression-era sentiment sprinkled over the whole. Then I watched Smart Money. Smart Money is the only filmic collaboration between Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, which gives it a cocktail party trivia appeal. It's just a lame genre film. Edward G. as Nick the Barber is a local celebrity poker player who travels into the big city and gets conned by the big boys (with help from a double-crossing woman). His male ego enraged, he storms around his hometown in fits of virile chest pounds until they give him more money to go back and con the conners. This time he pulls it off, and it begins his ascent into law enforcement evasion and more gambling, with Cagney as his best friend sidekick whom he ultimately betrays for one of his beloved blondes, who is of course betraying him to the police. I thought: well shit.

Then I watched Brother Orchid (another Bacon film). Brother Orchid (with Edward G. and Humphrey Bogart) is a partial parody of gangster films, and it kind of plays out like if a writer blocked Preston Sturges wrote a gangster film. Edward G. is set-up and left for dead by crime-boss Humphrey B. Crawling through the woods, with twin bullet holes in his back, he happens upon a monastery of gardening monks. Right? From there he learns lessons and the movie isn't so bad.

Brother Orchid justified the purchase of the set. What if I had stopped, though, what if I hadn't continued on to Lady Killer. Lady Killer was directed by Roy del Ruth, whose pre-Huston Maltese Falcon was recently named one of the most overlooked films by Leonard Maltin (although pretty shitty companions on that mostly contemporary list - but he included Animal Factory too!). Lady Killer at its worst has the same inflamed male ego of other gangster films, and it famously features a hair-pulling body-dragging scene with Cagney and Clarke: a scene still brutal today, fucking years and years later, just like the famous The Public Enemy grapefruit scene (referenced in Lady Killer), with the same two actors. Watching early Hollywood films you see a lot of barbarism, a lot of sexism and racism and reverse elitism. Hollywood loves to induce and romance self-hatred (it still does). The shit is, if you love movies, at certain points you find yourself completely overlooking this bullshit. Why does it happen? Because you love cinema so much. But sometimes it's like loving an abusive parent.

Anyway, it's backwards in a few ways (it also has a few tired, tired elements of machoism and gangsterism), but it's not backwards in narrative terms. I'd call its narrative ecstatic and inventive. Cagney begins as a dopey theater usher, becomes a shady club owner, moves to LA, is arrested by the police and loses his thug gf, is set out into the world w/o a dollar, stumbles into an acting career (scenes of hilarious Hollywood satire), happens into a popular actress' trailer, cons his way into stardom and the heart of the starlet, is then blackmailed by his old crime buddies, has a HILARIOUS feuding actors scene with his semi-gf starlet, is arrested while vindicating blackmail, is bailed out by double-crossing blackmailers whom he triple-crosses, and ends up on a plane with the starlet. I didn't even mention the monkey birthday scene. It's the kind of imaginative and nimble narrative that dominates interesting cinema of today, but the juxtaposition of commonplace motifs of the 1930s and formal inventiveness and originality make the film insanely enjoyable and easy to watch. It twists and pops like any of Shane Black's films. It's the kind of gem I watch so many movies hoping to find.

I should have stopped before Black Legion, but how could I have known. In Black Legion the gang is a group of for-profit white supremacists. Bogart joins them in a series of scenes that feel like industrial workplace videos "What to do when the white supremacist asks you to enter the hidden room at the back of the general store." Bogart becomes consumed by hate and confusion, and his destructive path of hate is so destructive and hateful and confusing (is it WRONG to practice hate crimes?) that he loses his job and his wife and kills a man. And because he kills a man, I have to be punished with boring court scenes.

This spot saved for Mayor of Hell, the last film in the volume for me to watch.

* Though I own numerous film noir collections and dvds, because to reference a recent Film Comment quote I found hilarious, saying (good) film noir is about crime is like saying Psycho is about bad hotel management. And saying a martial arts film is about crime is saying you don't understand fuckall about martial arts films.

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