latinos at the golden gate
they shoot pictures, don't they 2014

what i watched last week

A Woman Is a Woman (Jean-Luc Godard, 1961). I am a big fan of Godard’s early work, from Breathless through Weekend. There are classics (I named Breathless my 13th-favorite film of all time, and Vivre Sa Vie is just as good), near-classics (Masculin Féminin), near-classics that I might call true classics if you caught me in the right mood (Pierrot le fou and especially Band of Outsiders), even some interesting almost-normal movies (Contempt, Alphaville). A Woman Is a Woman is, to my mind, lesser 60s Godard. It resembles one of his movies … the long scenes of chopped-up dialogue, the playful deconstruction of genre, the love for those same genres. It’s his first movie with his great muse of those days, Anna Karina, and his infatuation with her is crystal clear. Yet everything is a bit off. The rule-breaking doesn’t seem nearly as revolutionary a year after Breathless, and the inside jokes feel more self-indulgent than usual. I’d rate this higher if I didn’t have such powerful expectations for his work in that era. I think it’s not as good as the movies I mention above, but I’d still rather watch it than Captain Phillips. #881 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. For a companion piece, choose any of the other Godards from that period. Vivre Sa Vie is especially good if you love Anna Karina, and all of them are cultural touchstones, from Masculin Féminin’s “The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola” to Band of Outsidersdance scene.

Little Miss Marker (Alexander Hall, 1934). Here’s an example of the power of Shirley Temple: this film has been remade at least three times. There was Sorrowful Jones in 1949, starring Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. Next was 40 Pounds of Trouble in 1962, which had Tony Curtis and Suzanne Pleshette. Finally, in 1980, came another Little Miss Marker, which had Walter Matthau, Julie Andrews, and (again) Tony Curtis. The interesting point in all of this is that in none of these cases is it necessary to list the actress who played the Shirley Temple role. Because that role wasn’t important. In 1949, the part was played by Mary Jane Saunders, famous mostly for being married to long-time baseball player Jay Johnstone. In 1962 it was Claire Wilcox, in 1980, Sara Stimson. None of these three even have their own Wikipedia pages; Stimson only made one movie. Three movies featuring adults, based on a movie whose star was 6-year-old Shirley Temple. No one thinks of the original Little Miss Marker as an Adolphe Menjou movie, even though he is the male lead. No, it’s a Shirley Temple movie, one of her earliest hits. The movie barely had a reason to exist other than to showcase its child star. And indeed, Temple dominates the film. What she does is remarkable … for all her mugging, she comes across as a natural, and you never get the feeling she’s just reading her lines. There is no use denying Temple’s talents. But Pauline Kael came closest to describing Temple in Little Miss Marker when she noted, “People hadn't seen anything like it; that doesn't mean they needed to.” As for the movie itself, it’s a Damon Runyon trifle, and your enjoyment will be affected by your taste for character names like Sorrowful, Bangles, Regret, Sore Toe, Canvas Back, and Benny the Gouge. It’s hard to get yourself noticed when Shirley Temple is on the screen, but Dorothy Dell offers an appealing performance. Sadly, Dell died in a car crash just a week after the movie opened; she was 19. A good double-bill can be made by just adding another Shirley Temple movie.

The Tingler (William Castle, 1959). Entertaining piece of junk that is a marker for Baby Boomers who saw it a dozen times on Creature Features in their youth. It revels in its own idiocy … the title “character” is this thing that looks kinda like a lobster, which grows on people’s spines when they are scared. Of course, one of the tinglers gets loose, and terror results. One of Castle’s most creative stunts is featured here: “Percepto”, wherein a few seats in selected theaters were wired to set off a slight buzz at just the right moment. Then, the tingler escapes into a movie theater, the screen goes blank, and Vincent Price shouts out that a tingler is loose in the theater, and tells everyone to scream. This might have worked in the theater, especially ones rigged with the electric buzzers, but it’s such a goofy effect that it works in some odd way even when you watch on TV. I wouldn’t go so far as to say there is a subtext, but the two primary marriages in the film are depressingly awful. If you didn’t grow up on this movie, you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about. Me, I’m a Boomer, so I'm always up for a re-watch. (Trivia note: this was the first “major” picture to show the use of LSD. Vincent Price shoots up with it, and almost scares himself to death.) For another Castle film starring Vincent Price, try House on Haunted Hill. For a loving sendup of Castle, check out Joe Dante’s Matinee, which focuses on a movie called Mant (half-man, half-ant).


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