“We’re Going to Win this Thing, Right?” The Art of Propaganda

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To view The Lion Has Wings click here.

Propaganda can be as benign as simply biasing information to promote one particular point of view, usually at the expense of another. In its more naked form, it can be used to convince one set people that another group will be their destruction if they’re not dealt with swiftly and decisively. And in its most dangerous form, it can be used to convince the masses that an entire population of people don’t deserve to live. Radio and the movies gave propaganda a reach it never had before the 20th century. During the 1930s, both became a strikingly strong means of getting the message across and once World War II got started, radio broadcasters like Lord Haw Haw and Axis Sally did their best to demoralize the enemy: the Allied Powers in general, Britain in particular. At a certain point, you’ve got to hit back and all sides did. During World War I and II, the Allies dehumanized their enemies in posters,  from the “Mad Brute” ape depiction of German soldiers in World War I to the buck-toothed, thick glasses of the Japanese in World War II. The Nazis, of course, took things to an entirely different level with their rampant dehumanization of the Jews leading to eventual systemic genocide. And when the Nazis went into western Poland on September 1, 1939, joined by the Soviet Union in the east a couple of weeks later, Britain found itself in a tense situation. They weren’t nearly as prepared as they could have been but needed to convince the British people they were. Enter Alexander Korda and his three contract directors Michael Powell, Adrian Brunel and Brian Desmond Hurst, to quickly make a propaganda film that could be released to audiences within weeks. The result was The Lion Has Wings, one of the most important, and groundbreaking, propaganda films of the period.

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A Modern Screwball Comedy: The In-Laws (’79)

THE IN-LAWS, Peter Falk, Alan Arkin, 1979, (c) Warner Brothers / Courtesy: Everett Collection

To view The In-Laws click here.

Weddings can be stressful. The planning of the actual event, along with facing the responsibilities surrounding a life-long commitment to another person, creates both an exciting and terrifying experience for the couple involved. But all of the wedding nonsense can’t compare to the stress of the couple’s parents meeting for the first time. In Arthur Hiller’s 1979 comedy The In-Laws, we witness this first meeting, over an awkward dinner filled with tall tales and bizarre behavior. Alan Arkin is Sheldon “Shelly” Kornpett, a successful dentist whose daughter is a day or two away from tying the knot. Shelly is supportive of his daughter and her fiancée, but has doubts about his daughter’s future father-in-law, Vince Ricardo, played by Peter Falk; an enigmatic character who has yet to set aside the time to meet the Kornpett family. Shelly has concerns about Vince, specifically in relation to his career as a so-called international consultant. After receiving a bit of unsolicited advice from one of his dental patients, Shelly is convinced that Vince is a shady character and is seriously considering calling the wedding off altogether.

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Let’s Go Slumming with Ugly, Dirty and Bad (1976)

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To view Ugly, Dirty and Bad click here.

Of the major names in the film world who passed away in 2016, one that got overlooked a bit, at least among Americans, was Ettore Scola. A tricky guy to pin down over the course of his career, Scola was largely regarded as a comedy director but also showed a strong proficiency with everything from period dramas to surreal fantasies. FilmStruck is exposing audiences to more of his work with a collection of his key works, many of which have been hard to see in English-friendly editions for quite some time. Among these is Ugly, Dirty and Bad (1976), originally titled Brutti, sporchi e cattivi (a play of sorts on the Italian title of Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly [1966]). This earthy, hilarious and often disturbing portrait of life in the shantytowns along the outskirts of Rome is the type of stuff you never see in travelogues or glossy films about the Eternal City.

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The Postman: Jour de Fête (1949)

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To view Jour de fête click here.

After a decade-long career as a music-hall performer, Jacques Tati transitioned to feature filmmaking witha comedy about a remarkably gullible postman. Before Tati invented the iconic bumbling bourgeois Hulot (in M. Hulot’s Holiday, 1953), he experimented with a clumsy working class letter carrier, prone to insecure bouts of drinking and falling flat on his face. Jour de fête (1949) exhibits Tati’s elastic expertise at mime, including a tour-de-force drunk bike ride, as well as displaying his immediate talents as a director, constructing brilliantly funny gags through choreography and sound design. All of the gags generate from a small town’s resistance to and obsession with technological advancement, especially as trumpeted by the Americans. Tati eyes all this talk of modernization with a gimlet eye, preferring instead to linger on the absurdities of small town life before they disappear forever.

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Otto’s Life in the Sausage Factory

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To view FilmStruck’s “Early Otto” theme, click here.

The Golden Age of Hollywood seems so all-American, so homogeneous in its style and so uniform in its production practices. Yet, many of its directors were Europeans who both contributed and conformed to the industry. One of those directors was Otto Preminger, and his Golden Age films are spotlighted by FilmStruck in their “Early Otto” theme. Five pictures are featured, including the film noirs Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945), the melodrama Daisy Kenyon (1947), and the historical dramas A Royal Scandal (1945) and Forever Amber (1947).

The five films represent his first period of success when he was a studio director at Twentieth Century Fox. Though not entirely ungrateful for his opportunities, Preminger referred to his time as a studio director as “life in the sausage factory.”

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Random Thoughts on The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

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To view The Testament of Dr. Mabuse click here.

Watching The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) again recently, I was struck by many things. So many, in fact, that coming up with just one angle from which to approach the subject seemed like a cheat as there were numerous angles available. Sometimes you watch a movie and a rush of thoughts, memories and ideas keep crashing into you from the screen, never letting you focus in on just one element of the film at any given time. That’s not a bad thing either and I think it’s one of the primary reasons that the best movies reward multiple viewings. A great and complex movie makes you think of different things while it’s going on, so you can’t possibly take it all in with only a single viewing. You must watch it again, and again, and again. And even then, you might not know exactly how to put it all together. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is one such movie and I have no single theme to tackle here. Rather, I’d like to take a kind of epistolary approach, a cataloging of mental diary entries and newspaper clippings that swirled around my head as I watched.

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More Than a Two-Word Review: This is Spinal Tap (’84)

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To view This is Spinal Tap click here.

I can’t quite remember exactly when I first saw This is Spinal Tap (1984), but I do know it was sometime in the late 80’s. It was in fairly heavy rotation on cable in various edited forms, and the first few times I only saw bits and pieces—usually the concert scenes. And I have to admit I thought I was watching a legitimate documentary about a real rock and roll band. Yes, I was a kid. But I knew my music, and I just couldn’t figure out how this band slipped under my radar. Of course, it wasn’t long after those first few brief viewings that I realized Spinal Tap was merely parody, and it quickly became a personal favorite, only to get better as I’ve gotten older. With each viewing, which is at least a couple times a year, I discover something new and hilarious. But what I’ve also found with those repeat viewings is that my initial impression of the film when I was kid really wasn’t that far off. This is Spinal Tap is ridiculous, yes, but it is more faithful in its portrayal of the bizarre culture surrounding rock and roll than it’s given credit.

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History and the Movies: The Last Emperor (1987)

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To view The Last Emperor click here.

In 1987, Bernardo Bertolucci directed The Last Emperor, a movie about the life of Puyi, sometimes spelled as Pu Yi, who was the last emperor of China before it became a republic in 1911. The film was notable for having obtained permission from the Chinese government to film inside the Forbidden City, the storied site of the Imperial Palace. And possibly starting there, the movie began its clash with history, not so much by altering historical outcomes in the life of Puyi, but by leaving out information that might make the viewer less empathetic to those outcomes. Was this because Bertolucci was trying to placate the Chinese government and make sure he retained their permission to film? Possibly. Judging by how much of the real history is left in, though, it’s more likely that Bertolucci was trying to make a film about a child put into an impossible situation and leaving out disturbing facts that might make the audience a little less inclined to feel sorry for the small boy. For instance…

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Die Laughing: Carry On Screaming! (1966)

CARRY ON SCREAMING, Joan Sims, Tom Clegg, 1966

To view Carry On Screaming! click here.

“The usual charge to make against the Carry On films is to say that they could be much better done. This is true enough. They look dreadful, they seem to be edited with a bacon slicer and the comic rhythm jerks along like a cat on a cold morning. But if all these things were more elegant, I don’t really think the films would be more enjoyable: the badness is part of the funniness.”
– Critic Penelope Gilliatt, “In praise of Carrying On” from a 1964 issue of The Observer

FilmStruck has made a batch of the Carry On films available for streaming and if you’re unfamiliar with these British comedies it’s a great opportunity to become acquainted with one of the U.K.’s most popular film franchises. Beginning with Carry On Sergeant in 1958, director Gerald Thomas and producer Peter Rogers teamed up with a rotating cast of regulars to make an impressive 31 films before the series ended in 1992 with Carry On Columbus. During their 34-year run, the Carry On films never won any awards and were typically dismissed by critics but they were beloved by audiences who appreciated how these funny farces satirized respected British institutions such as the military, law enforcement and the medical establishment. The Carry On franchise also regularly lampooned popular films such as the James Bond series with Carry On Spying (1964) and 20th Century-Fox’s big-budget Cleopatra epic in Carry On Cleo (1965).

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Bathe Your Eyes in Forever Amber (1947)

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To view Forever Amber click here.

Now here’s a film with three of my favorite things from 1940s movies: Linda Darnell, Otto Preminger and blazing Technicolor. Seen today it’s hard to believe Forever Amber (1947) was a major scandal in the Hollywood press when the opulent 20th Century Fox period piece ran into trouble with the Catholic Legion of Decency, as they took exception to Kathleen Winsor’s novel and a cinematic adaptation of the story dealing with a woman whose social climbing and bed-hopping may hinder a romance with her true love. (The original book, which was flat-out banned by the Catholic Church, is almost a thousand pages long, so as you can imagine, they had to do a lot of compression and cutting to get it down to a 138-minute movie!) Nothing in this narrative would be out of place in a contemporary Harlequin romance novel (don’t worry, the quality’s several notches above), but at the time this was considered fairly hot stuff.

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Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.