Thursday, December 2, 2010

Next Stop- Movies!

Wise: Hi Werth!

Werth: Hi Wise! How was your Thanksgiving?  

Wise: Oh, you know how all family holidays are.  Kind of like a turkey, stuffed with a lot of crazy, but still delicious.  How about you? 

Werth: It was great.  I went to the country for a big dinner with friends, and aside from the weight gain, it was pretty fantastic.  For the first time I took a train back into the city, and it really inspired me.   Trains have a romance, a mystery, and they make a great setting for all kinds of events.  

Wise: Do I hear a transition coming down the tracks?  

Werth: All aboard!  

Wise: I ride the train any chance I get.  Both my parents worked for the railroad, both my grandfathers did, and so did one of my great-grandfathers.  I was bred to believe it’s the greatest way to travel.  

Werth: But more than that, trains are full of strangers and stories, coincidences and chance encounters, and there’s this sense of movement- but also of being trapped.  Lots of great film makers have used trains as a setting for their movies, taking advantage of all the possibilities offered by traveling by rail.  One of the most famous being—

Wise: Murder on the Orient Express?  

Werth: Yes, but- 

Wise: Strangers on a Train?  

Werth: Well, yes, but -  

Wise: Silver Streak?  

Werth: The movie I had in mind was Shanghai Express.

Wise: Not Shanghai Surprise?

Werth: If you wanted to talk about Shanghai Surprise, you should have done it in your Madonna post last week. Shanghai Express is the 1932 Marlene Dietrich/Josef von Sternberg thriller-romance classic.

Wise: Thrills AND romance! Tell me more!

Werth: The film takes place in 1930’s China by way of the Paramount lot. Dietrich is Shanghai Lily, a glorified lady of the night-

Wise: You mean a hooker.

Werth: As Lily says, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.” Stiff Clive Brook plays a doctor who boards the train to Shanghai and realizes that this much buzzed about Jezebel is his old girlfriend.

Wise: He didn’t know how good he had it.

Werth: Exactly. And like every dumb guy, he wants her to go back to being sweet and demure. Big laugh. So the train takes off across China and before you know it, poor Shanghai’s being accosted by the moral brigade and Chinese rebels led by the nefarious Henry Chang, played by everybody’s favorite white actor who made a living playing Asians, Warner Oland.

Wise: Ah so.

Werth: What really makes this movie unique is the sheer beauty of the filming. Von Sternberg was at the peak of his abilities in shading and light diffusion. The shots are stunning constructions of shadow and light. And nobody ever photographed Dietrich as well. Every shot of her in this film could be hung on the wall as a work of art. This movie is evidence of the beauty and power Dietrich’s face had on the big screen. There is no doubt after looking at her, that she is a great star, even if her acting could sometimes come off as insincere and a little hammy.

Wise: Mmmmm…. German ham.

Werth: Shanghai Express also features the sadly forgotten Asian film star Anna Mae Wong. In her day, she was one of the most beautiful women in film, but because she was Asian, she was never allowed to play starring roles of much consequence.

Wise: Another victim of Hollywood racism?

Werth: And anti-miscegenation laws. She lost the lead in 1937’s The Good Earth because uber-Caucasian Paul Muni was cast as the male lead, and an Asian (even if she was born in Los Angeles) couldn’t kiss a white man on screen… even if he was made-up to look like Charlie Chan.

Wise: Terrible.

Werth: She couldn’t work here in the States (especially after Pearl Harbor), and the Chinese disliked her cause they didn’t approve of the Asian stereotype she portrayed in Hollywood films, so she couldn’t work there. She died of a heart attack and cirrhosis of the liver at age 56 after a long battle with the bottle.

Wise: Way to end on an up note.

Werth: But watching Dietrich and Wong in Shanghai Express IS an up note. They are utterly mesmerizing. This movie proves how black and white film was the perfect medium for exotic, more-captivating-than-life beauty. I’d take Amtrak more often if I could sit in a smoky car with gals like that. So how about you, Wise?  What’s your train movie? 

Wise: I’m thinking of The Clock, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Judy Garland.  

Werth: Does it take place on a train?  

Wise: No, but they ride the subway and they meet cute in the old Pennsylvania Station where Judy as a harried secretary trips over Robert Walker’s duffel bag and breaks the heel of her shoe.  Walker, playing a good natured mid-westerner on 48-hour leave from the army, offers to help, and after a series of misadventures in New York City, they are separated only to realize that they have fallen in love.  After a desperate search, they reunite in the same spot they met in Penn Station, and from there, it’s a series of frantic adventures though the convolutions of New York red tape until they finally get married at City Hall.  

Werth: And none of it takes place on a train?  

Wise: But the central location is Penn Station.  

Werth: A station is not a train.  

Wise: True, but what’s so great about this movie is how well it uses the same kinds of themes that train movies do.  People in transition, the pleasures of serendipity, even the idea of traveling inexorably to your destination.  Plus all the foamers—

Werth: Foamers?  

Wise: It’s what the rail fans call themselves.  They tend to foam at the mouth whenever they see a train or tracks or trestle bridges or tunnels or dining car silver or ticket stubs or timetables.  

Werth: I’m foaming right now.  
Wise: Central to train fandom is the devastating loss of the original Penn Station which is supposed to have put the magnificence of Grand Central to shame.  The scenic artists at MGM did an amazing job re-creating it. The whole movie was filmed on sound stages, but even so, The Clock captures the energy and feel of New York City better than many movies that are actually filmed here.  Minnelli had a great sense of the rhythms of the city, and the movie reflects that.  It’s full of quirky characters, the overwhelming bustle of rush hour, even the lazy, lonely quality the city takes on when the crowd starts to recede.  
Plus Judy is fantastic in her first non-signing role, full of tenderness, gumption, smarts.  It makes me wish she had the chance to make more dramas and maybe fewer of the more cockamamie musicals on her resume.  

Werth: I guess someone doesn’t love The Harvey Girls even though part of it takes place on an actual train.  

Wise: I could find out if Shanghai Surprise has a train in it… 

Werth: Alright, I’ll leave you alone. 

Wise: Tune in next week when Film Gab with Werth and Wise will punch your ticket for more classic films.  

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