They Don’t Make 40′s Films Like They Used To

Woody Allen’s The

Curse of the Jade Scorpion made many people laugh during the screening I

attended, mostly from the ferocity of the insults exchanged between Mr. Allen’s

C.W. Briggs, an insurance investigator circa 1940, and Helen Hunt’s Betty Ann

Fitzgerald, the firm’s bossy efficiency expert. As it happens, I didn’t even

smile once, but I made a mental note that The

Curse marked a huge improvement over Mr. Allen’s previous parody of old

movies, Small Time Crooks (2000).

Mr. Allen has chosen to

exploit some of the eccentricities of a 1940 movie-and of life in general in

1940-that might make today’s young people titter: the Veronica Lake hairdo over

one eye, the overstuffed sweaters with outsized bras, the men sporting fedoras

even indoors, and the alleged craze for hypnotism acts on-screen and off.

Just out of curiosity, I

decided to look up the better movies of 1940. At the top of my list were three

comedies: Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner , Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday . Also that year, Preston

Sturges made his directorial debut with the hilarious The Great McGinty and followed that with the poignantly comic high

jinks of Christmas in July . On the

more serious side were Frank Borzage’s anti-Nazi The Mortal Storm , Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Foreign

Correspondent , John Ford’s The Grapes

of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home

and William Wyler’s The Letter .

And I haven’t even begun

to dip into the fun pictures and the sleepers. Still, I don’t remember a single

movie in 1940 with hypnotism as a subject, and 1940 was a bit early for Ms.

Lake as a femme fatale. She didn’t hit her stride until 1942 with Preston

Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels , René

Clair’s I Married a Witch , Frank

Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire and Stuart

Heisler’s The Glass Key . (Hollywood people really believed in the work ethic back

then.) Mr. Allen was not quite 5 years old, and I was not quite 12, but I never had the slightest idea that 1940 was such a banner

year for movies. Of course, nowadays, with videocassettes, Mr. Allen and the

rest of us can go back even beyond our childhoods for movie “memories.”

But what Mr. Allen

provides in Curse is a deformed image

of the 40′s, with only the popular music of the period restored in all its

glory, with an emphasis on the jazz greats-and it is, for the most part, not

even movie music. Yet this has been Mr. Allen’s strong point all through the

years. This is to say that his ears are more perceptive than his eyes.

A more grievous omission from The Curse vis-à-vis the Hollywood comedies of 1940 and the years

before and after is the army of character actors who generated most of the

laughter despite the occasional virtuoso turns of a Cary Grant, a Charlie

Chaplin, a W.C. Fields or the Marx Brothers. I laugh today just remembering

Akim Tamiroff in The Great McGinty ,

Franklin Pangborn in Christmas in July ,

Felix Bressart in The Shop Around the

Corner , and William Demarest in Sullivan’s

Travels -and let us not forget the marvelous comic foils Ralph Bellamy

supplied to Cary Grant in His Girl Friday

and Margaret Dumont to Groucho Marx in just about everything.

This raises the question

of when Mr. Allen has ever written a funny line for anyone except himself and,

on a few occasions, Diane Keaton. In The

Curse , Dan Aykroyd and Wallace Shawn are accomplished farceurs who can read a funny line with the best of them, but Mr.

Aykroyd’s Chris Magruder is a humorless adulterer, and Mr. Shawn’s George Bond

is a cheery, but not particularly witty, nice guy. Charlize Theron’s society

dame Laura Kensington has a few snappy comebacks, but her part literally goes

nowhere, while Elizabeth Berkley’s office babe Jill barely registers on the

radar screen.

The villainous magician

Voltan of David Ogden Stiers is little more than a mellifluous voice enacting

his criminal activities with two suggestive, comically multisyllabic place-name

passwords. Mr. Allen’s glazed expression under hypnosis is good for a few

chuckles, but Ms. Hunt is a bit too tense, both under hypnosis and out of it.

Perhaps she’s aware of

the suspension of disbelief required to imagine a screen romance between a

65-year-old nebbish type and a thirtysomething looker, particularly in the

Darwinian atmosphere of movies in 1940. Mr. Allen was never a matinee idol,

even in his younger days, and yet for many years he was reportedly considered a

sex symbol, at least in Manhattan and its environs, where wit, talent-both directorial and musical-and a

sense of humor could compensate for his nerdy appearance. But this was in the

glory days of Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979), when his canvas was completely

contemporary and there was a feeling-right or wrong-that the characters he

played were very close to his off-screen persona.

Lately, however, Mr.

Allen has assumed a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward the old movie genres and

yet has tried to remain a lead player in fictions that traditionally demanded

much younger participants. For example, Woody, in the Keaton-Farrow periods,

was never made to feel that he was physically inadequate. As a certified

analysand and hypochondriac, he made enough jokes about his cowardly nature to

deflect any embarrassment that was not self-imposed. By contrast, in Curse Ms. Hunt’s character itemizes Mr.

Allen’s physical deficiencies with inventive analogies to the most odious

creatures in nature. The audience may laugh out of lazy sadism, but Mr. Allen

discovers ultimately that he can’t put Humpty-Dumpty together again, and the kiss-kiss

ending falls flat.

Still, there is

something heroic about a comic artist who strains to make people laugh at

essentially the same persona with the same shtick for 35 years and 26 films,

while resisting the lure of Hollywood and the low-cost temptations of Toronto

and Montreal to remain the cosmopolitan Manhattanite par excellence-New York

Knicks and all. Indeed, to find the way to keep making movies year after year

without conspicuous compromises and concessions is a feat few filmmakers have

achieved in any country at any time. With all that is wrong and inadequate with

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion , it

demands our respect and admiration for having been made at all. Woody remains

our civic treasure, as he always has been.

Romance in Reverse

Brad Anderson’s Happy Accidents , from his own

screenplay, unfolds as a cleverly resourceful mixture of romantic comedy and

sci-fi time travel, and until the end we are not sure which genre will prevail,

and on which genre’s terms. Mr. Anderson has already made his mark in offbeat

independent filmmaking with The Darien

Gap (1995), Next Stop Wonderland

(1998) and Session 9 , which is also

currently playing.

Happy Accidents begins with intimations of backward movement in time and space before

introducing the two romantic leads, Marisa Tomei’s Ruby Weaver and Vincent

D’Onofrio’s Sam Deed. Cut to the midst of a breakup argument full of convulsive

close-ups that hammer home the faces of Ruby and Sam in extremis before we know their names or the stage of their

relationship.

Mr. Anderson then pulls

back to show Ruby with her circle of woman friends, each with well-preserved

memories of disasters with various men from Mars. Ruby regales her friends with

an account of her first strange meeting with Sam, and this strategy of indirect

storytelling is developed with many variations of overlapping sounds and

images. But it is always Ruby who is talking about the mysterious Sam, and

never, until the very end, Sam talking about Ruby.

The many jokes about the

dating game at first make Happy Accidents

look and sound like a clone of HBO’s Sex

and the City . But gradually, Sam’s apparently deranged fantasy of being a

time traveler from Dubuque, Iowa, in the year 2470, when global warming has

brought the Atlantic

Ocean to the shores of

the Mississippi, takes over. Ruby’s psychotherapist (Holland

Taylor) warns her about the dangerous pathological symptoms Sam is exhibiting

and urges her to leave him. But Ruby has fallen in love, and the issue

eventually becomes one of life and death for both Ruby and Sam.

Mr. Anderson succeeds in

making his potentially far-fetched narrative plausible by the connections he

establishes between Ruby’s ultra-sophisticated and self-innovative friends and Sam’s seeming improvisations on his fanciful identity. The

adventurous performances of Ms. Tomei, Mr. D’Onofrio, Ms. Taylor and the rest

of the cast are persuasive enough to fill in the pieces of Mr. Anderson’s

puzzle. Happy Accidents is just the

latest example of independent filmmaking filling in the vacuum left by the

mainstream bean counters in supplying intelligent adult entertainment.

Good Godard

Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964) is being

revived locally, and I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it before. The

film, in which Anna Karina, Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur engage in a

half-hearted caper plot that ends with tragic grotesqueness, celebrates the

Nouvelle Vague’s joint love affair with Paris and Hollywood melodramas, particularly from the

black-and-white period. Mr. Godard himself was once considered an axiom of the

cinema by his most fervent admirers, because he took it upon himself to

proclaim where the cinema was going. The most magical moment in the film

involves his three leads in a stirring formation dance that was very au courant at the time. Such relaxed

filmmaking combined with artistic rigor is no longer feasible. But from advance

reports, Mr. Goddard is still in the hunt with his latest film. I can’t wait to

see it.