Sunday, September 25, 2016


There is a pargraph in Glenn Kenny’s essay in the booklet accompanying Criterion’s release of Valley of the Dolls where he posits that simple adjectives, either good or bad, don’t quite fit when talking about the 1967 phenomenon. An enduring cult classic, it embodies many things, and takes on its own image well before many in its continually renewing audience even get a chance to see it. It’s infamous, it’s campy, it’s scandalous--all things that are true, all things that don’t quite hit on what a strange little creature this film really is.

Adapted from a best-selling novel by Jacqueline Susann, whose name became synonymous with outrageous stories about ambitious, liberated women, Valley of the Dolls is a culmination of many story traditions and the evolution of the same. It updates the 1950s concept of the “women’s picture,” as well as the career girl movie. It’s essentially a showbiz version of The Best of Everything, but with an added frankness about the sex, booze, and drugs that previously only went on way behind the screen. And then there is that showbiz thing itself--Valley of the Dolls is also an update of the Tinsel Town and Broadway dramas, a bit A Star is Born, a bit All AboutEve. There is a touch of the musical, especially with Dory Previn’s off-kilter songs (written with her philandering husband Andre, and more than hinting at Dory’s own personal drama), as well as a smidgen of horror films (the asylum, the nightmarish empty streets in the final New York scenes). Director Mark Robson, who also helmed Peyton Place and edited the original Cat People, and screenwriters Helen Deutsch (Lili [review]) and Dorothy Kingsley (Kiss MeKate) combine their knowledge of all these genres and subjects with Susann’s narrative to create a fresh 1960s perspective. Thus we get former child star Patty Duke popping pills, and Sharon Tate seemingly commenting on her own blonde bombshell image, and pop-art redoes of the fashion shoots from Funny Face [review].

The plot of Valley of the Dolls is nothing new. Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins, a star on the PeytonPlace TV series), a privileged college girl from New England, travels to the big city in hopes of escaping the conventional married life laid out for her. She gets a job as a secretary for an entertainment lawyer, and on her first day, gets a quick lesson in backstage politics, when her own innocent comment to an aging theatre star (Susan Hayward, I Married a Witch [review]) gets the new ingénue in the show fired. Duke plays the young starlet, Neely O’Hara, and Tate plays chorus girl Jennifer North, who is on hand at the rehearsal to witness the injustice (and suffer her own, given that her body is a topic of discussion). The lives of these three women quickly become entwined, both socially and professionally, as each sees different career paths open for them.

In these criss-crossing stories, Dolls explores different notions of hard work and fate. Jennifer is lucky enough to be born blonde and bosomy, and so easily snags a husband (a nightclub singer played by Tony Scotti). She knows she has little talent, and the work she’ll eventually turn to in order to help pay the bills relies on her assets. (As is the nature of these kinds of stories, someone must have a fatal illness, and that ends up being her man.) In one of the more comical scenes--and also for the time, more progressively honest--the young Jennifer, chastised and shamed by her forever-unseen mother, starts her nightly breast exercises to keep them perky before saying forget it, let them droop.

I note that it’s the “young Jennifer” because Valley of the Dolls follows all of its characters over a course of a couple of years, so these women do age--though not necessarily physically, there is no notable old-age makeup, which only sharpens the biting commentary that comes ¾ of the way through. When her addiction to sleeping pills (nicknamed “dolls”) gets the better of her, Neely is told she’s been replaced by a new, younger actress, she’s looking too old. “I’m only 26!” she declares. It seems ageism is imprinted in Hollywood’s DNA. Neely’s on-set tantrums are modeled after Judy Garland, but they also have echoes of Marilyn Monroe, who was cut from her final, unfinished picture because she couldn’t make it to set in performance condition. Duke makes the most of her meaty role, easily the best in the movie, playing the lush life to the hilt. She also gets the movie’s most memorable and campiest scene, a final bathroom showdown with Susan Hayward’s Helen Lawson, the diva who would have ruined her. (As in George Cukor’s TheWomen, much happens in the bathroom.)

That climactic clash between Duke and Hayward is actually indicative of the light touch Robson took to most of this. Sure, heavy things happen, but the movie itself rarely feels heavy in its telling, even when the women have to make tough choices. It’s also telling how little backstabbing the core trio does to one another. Outside of a third act boyfriend grab when Neely is heading for her ultimate downfall, these ladies aren’t vying for the same slices of pie. At the same time, the kindness they attempt to show one another is often rebuffed. Friendship buckles under selfishness.

Even so, they are more emotionally mature than their male counterparts. The men in Valley of the Dolls are childish philanderers with fragile egos. Both of Neely’s husbands resent her success and her inability (unwillingness) to cater to their needs, while Jennifer’s spouse is the opposite, resenting having to be the breadwinner. Though, not even he is in control of his own destiny: besides his illness, his sister (Lee Grant, Mulholland Dr.) manages his floundering career, holding the purse strings and telling him what to do. The one guy doing for himself, Barbara’s on-again/off-again paramour (Paul Burke, TV’s Naked City), is no picnic either: he has commitment issues. Gone is the Sirkian man of the land, there is no Rock Hudson to swoop in and make things better. So absent is this figure in this newly liberated lifestyle, actually, that the end of Valley of the Dolls takes the back-to-nature element of Sirk’s All thatHeaven Allows and gives it to Barbara, who gets out of the rat race single, free, and whole.

Amongst the extras on the new Valley of the Dolls Blu-ray, for those who can’t quite get at why they like the movie, or what its strange machinations add up to, the wonderful film critic Kim Morgan provides a video essay in which she digs into the progressive subtext and the subversive genre tropes, embracing the criticism of the source material as “trash” and balancing it against the more “serious” but comparable literature of the day. Interesting to hear that Harlan Ellison removed himself from scripting duties when he felt the ending of Susann’s novel had been compromised. That Harlan, always with his shoulder against the grain.

Jacqueline Susann at a book signing.

Morgan tackles and makes a case for the more aspirational aspects of the story, and how the women take over the traditionally male roles and suffer for it, which also leads us to an interesting question to ponder: just why do we enjoy such tragic movie-star movies? Is there a self-loathing that runs through Hollywood, where they indulge in these cautionary tales about the price of stardom, or are they merely tapping into a mean streak that connects all moviegoers? We won’t ever be the next big crooner or the face of a national ad campaign, and so we like to watch our idols fail. If not us, then not them either, and none of it is what it’s cracked up to be anyway.

Comics fans also take note, the exclusive cover here is by Phil Noto. Those unfamiliar with Noto should check out his website. Or maybe his amazing run on Black Widow for Marvel Comics.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Monday, September 19, 2016


The most straightforward, and yet most complex, entry in the Silent Ozu - Three Crime Dramas set from Criterion’s Eclipse imprint is 1933’s Dragnet Girl, a dual drama about families and relationships and the effect the criminal lifestyle has on the ties that bind.

Joji Oka (No Blood Relation [review]) heads the cast as the charismatic gangster Joji. Formerly a boxer, Joji stepped out of the ring when he fell in love with Tokiko (Mizoguchi and Kinoshita mainstay Kinuya Tanaka, who also appeared in Ozu’s Equinox Flower [review]). Tokiko is a tough cookie in her own right, but she prefers a more domestic crime partnership that doesn’t involve her man getting pummeled on a regular basis. Though Joji has many would-be suitors, Tokiko chasea them all off, thus making it all the more surprising when a nice, quiet girl sneaks in and legit steals Joji’s heart.

Misako (Sumiko Mizukubo, Apart from You [review]) summons the thug to a corner rendezvous to ask him to encourage her little brother, Lefty (Hideo Mitsui), to return to school and give up trying to be a boxer and a crook. He looks up to Joji and would listen. Joji is taken with Misako’s purity and selflessness, and he starts spending his days in the music store where she works, listening to classical records. It’s a far more refined musical excursion than the rowdy nightclubs he usually attends with his gang. To many, Joji is becoming soft. Never mind he’s the guy we saw beat up three bruisers all on his own just a few days before. All it takes is one dame wanting you to settle down...

As the drama ramps up, Dragnet Girl crosses similar territory as Walk Cheerfully [review]. Misako’s positive presence inspires Joji to consider getting clean, and though she initially goes to the record shop with a gun to confront Misako, Tokiko is quickly smitten with her, as well. She thinks about ditching the bad-girl lifestyle modeling herself after her rival. The only one who can’t seem to get Misako’s message of peace is the one she wants to go straight, her little brother, who resists even after his hero threatens him.

Moreso than Walk Cheerfully Ozu toys with the notion of fate in Dragnet Girl. In the psychology of the script, which was written by Tadao Ikeda, the scribe behind Walk Cheerfully and The Only Son [review], working from a story by Ozu himself (hiding behind the pseudonym James Maki), we move closer to the inescapable doom of film noir. Neither Joji nor Tokiko find it easy to make a clean break, and in part because they don’t think they deserve it. Tokiko is offered an ideal marriage by her boss, but can’t see herself stepping into a housewife’s shoes; likewise, Joji must reject Misako in order to “get over her.” When it comes down to it, the only thing that this Japanese Bonnie and Clyde can count on is each other. Whatever their path to get to true love, at least they found it together, and they can get out of it together, too. Embracing a crime trope, Ozu positions them to pull one last heist with the intention of snatching some seed money and getting out of town. It’s a pretty ballsy robbery, with Tokiko leading the charge, and an even more hairy escape when the cops come knocking. Yet, Ozu avoids the expected final shootout, seeking a different solution for his lovers. Punishment offers redemption.

Dragnet Girl actually makes a pretty convincing case for sucking it up and taking your lumps. It doesn’t hurt that the impassioned argument for toughing it out is made by Tokiko. Kinuyo Tanaka has a solid screen presence, and her confident delivery, and the complex emotional swings that get her there, makes for the most convincing acting in the movie. As perfect and angelic as Sumiko Mizukubo is as Kazuko, Tanaka brings her character down to earth, so that she is both sympathetic and relatable. She’s really the only choice for the confused Joji, who frankly comes off as kind of weak-willed and not nearly as tough as he’s intended to be.

But then, Ozu’s women generally have been the ones who have had to carry the heaviest burdens, and who do so with a quiet strength unique to them. In that, Dragnet Girl is part of a long tradition of the filmmaker, even as he would soon leave its genre trappings behind.

Other selections from the Eclipse boxed set Silent Ozu - Three Crime Dramas are reviewed here: That Night's Wife.

Sunday, September 18, 2016


I may be a bad man, but I can still be sincere. I really do love you.”

Made well into the first phase of his career, Yasujiro Ozu’s Walk Cheerfully is a facile drama, of both the crime and melo- variety, proving the Japanese director could have easily plowed his way through the Hollywood studio system, but that his true calling was always the family stories that later became his raison d’être.

Released in 1930, this silent film follows a crook named Kenji (Minoru Takada), a dual personality, both a loyal friend and a deadly opponent, hence his nickname Ken the Knife. Walk Cheerfully opens with a fake-out, as Ken steps in to help when a pickpocket is being chased down by an angry mob. Seemingly an average citizen doing his civic duty, the truth is that the fleeing thief is Ken’s buddy Senko (Hisao Yoshitani). But appearances are important in Walk Cheerfully, be it the projection of a straight image or the trappings of a tough guy. In a nod to the American gangster movies he was emulating, Ozu casts the crooks in his movie as performers, complete with choreographed dance routines and Hollywood memorabilia. A carefully placed poster of Clara Bow with boxing gloves decorates their training area--an image to aspire to and also an object of desire.

Interestingly, this distinction of bad guys as poseurs serves to erase the lines distinguishing hoodlum and common man. Later in the film, Ken’s innocent love interest, Yasue (Hiroko Kawasaki, Ornamental Hairpin [review]), laments that all of her office co-workers, regardless of gender, operate no differently than the criminals that roam the streets. Ironic, then, that she fails to see the truth about Ken, and refuses to believe it until she sees his gangster tattoo. Yet, if being good or bad is matter of behavior and class, than even “the Knife” can turn things around. Ken has enough affection for Yasue that he goes legit, and gets a job washing windows--symbolically erasing the dirt and exposing the view to the clear skies beyond. It’s a task easier said than done when former associates come calling, looking to lure him into one last score, but then, what separates Ken from the rest is his ability to live as who he desires to be, and not just pretend. He can use performance for good, too, hence his comedic pantomime for Yasue and her little sister on their Sunday picnic.

Ozu uses other visual cues--beyond dance and tattoos and clean windows--to bring his criminal underworld to life. When plotting and scheming, his characters are prone to nervous foot tapping. Gesture and slang are things you learn in your role as a tough guy. And when Kenji busts in on Yasue in a hotel room with her licentious boss (Takeshi Sakamoto, There Was a Father [review]; Every-night Dreams [review]), the appearance of impropriety is represented by the booze and smoking cigarette left on the table--and the discarded garment beneath it. Just moments before, Kenji shows anger at being  a potential cuckold by mashing a cigarette between his fingers, at once a gesture of his own impotence and the castration of his rival. Though known best for the emotion he keeps in reserve, the things not said, Ozu manages to find potent ways to express these more scandalous feelings without going overboard.

Walk Cheerfully offers a satisfying mix of typical cinematic moralizing and a more genuine third act, with both Kenji and Senko putting the effort into their rehabilitation. They aren’t transformed into saints over night, and even do their bid in jail. The movie also offers us a credible heroine in Yasue. She is not just a doting girlfriend, but a responsible and productive sister and daughter, working to earn for her family, and loyal to a fault. This saves Ozu from the sort of tacked-on messaging that his American contemporaries would suffer under the Production Code, even while still maintaining his usual optimism. Like the film noir to come, crime in Walk Cheerfully does not pay, but neither does it doom the criminal to an inescapable fate. On the contrary, we have here a movie that suggests once you’ve actually settled the bill, it’s quite possible to move on to a whole other kind of payoff.

Other selections from the Eclipse boxed set Silent Ozu - Three Crime Dramas are reviewed here: That Night's Wife and Dragnet Girl.

Sunday, September 11, 2016


If there are two types of stories that tend to be full of big emotion and drama, it’s the coming-of-age tale and the backstage tell-all. Put the two together--adolescent angst and performer’s ego--and all bets are off.

Unless, of course, you’re watching Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1939 film The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. Though the script is full of melodramatic situations, including a Shakespearean split between father and son and a woman who sacrifices her health to see her husband achieve his greatest dream, Mizoguchi is determined to present it without histrionics, adopting a film style that is more observant than intimate, mimicking the experience of seeing the kabuki plays his characters perform in, shooting the entire story as if sitting in the middle seat inside the theater. No close-ups, no shouting, but heartbreaking all the same.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum follows Kikunosuke (Shotaro Hanayagi), the adopted son of one of the greatest kabuki performers of their age (played by Gonjuro Kawarazaki). Young Kiku is not a very good actor, and he finds himself torn between false flattery and bitter sniping. When the family’s nanny, Otoku (Kakuko Mori), tells him the truth, the unselfishness of her feeling for him makes Kiku take notice. He becomes determined to improve his art and make his own name in the world. Such a declaration makes him look insubordinate, however, and when the family forbids his romance with Otoku, Kiku has had enough. He leaves to strut the boards in another town.

Otoku eventually joins him and they marry, but good fortune is not yet theirs. Kiku is still mediocre, and when his protective mentor dies, he is forced to trade his position at the theater for a spot in a traveling show--a much less respectable gig, but a gig nonetheless. It provides Kiku with the right experience, but little notice and little money. It will take an act of fate to reverse Kiku’s trajectory--fate engineered by Otoku, even though it may be too late for her to enjoy it.

The idea of needing to suffer for one’s art is not novel to Mizoguchi, but he certainly makes it seem the least romantic. Kiku isn’t a brooding Byron engineering his own disasters; rather, he is earnest and well meaning, and he doesn’t actually see that the misery he is enduring is informing his art. In fact, this may be exactly why he’s not so great on the stage: his inability to delve into his emotional life. The drive to be better is his only focus, and it only allows for selfishness, not self-reflection. Kiku’s perception is based on the public and critical reactions to each night’s play; luckily, he also has Otoku there to keep him motivated. She redirects his energies as necessary.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is equal parts A Story of Floating Weeds and Sawdust & Tinsel [review]. It is about family as much as theatre life, with the family of performers forming a secondary clan. In a way, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is unique in how the family rallies around the lesser amongst them, pooling their efforts to fix Kiku’s life. No man is left behind, as it were. Only in the final act does Kiku become the star of his own story. We finally see him on stage--something that Mizoguchi has mostly kept from us so far, perhaps assuming Kiku might lose our sympathy were we to see how bad he really was--showing us his comeback night, when he proves to his father’s contemporaries that he’s worthy of returning to Tokyo. For the first time, Mizoguchi really takes us onto the stage, and we get to see the man at work.

Mizoguchi fans will be drawn to The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum for Otoku as much as they are Kiku’s fall and ascendance. Perhaps moreso. Her devotion and sacrifice illustrates one of the central themes of his work, as also shown in the films in the Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women boxed set [review], where they get to take center stage themselves. As Otoku, Kakuko Mori gives an appropriately quiet, often unassuming, but deeply felt performance. How much of the others’ willingness to try to elevate her husband is based on their sympathy for her more than their liking of Kiku? Probably most of it.

She is the best example of humanity amongst people whose job it is to reflect our own humanity back at us. Not that there is any lack of it amongst the other characters in The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. What Mizoguchi has avoided is making the performers and stagehands seem alien; they aren’t grifters or fakes or exaggerated. Instead, they are warm and relatable, and as Kiku rises to his apex at film’s end, the filmmaker reminds us that regardless of this success, regardless of what we project on these performers, a star can also experience genuine pain.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.