MoMA Mia: Blood and Ribbons

In which we continue to sift through Hollywood history through the good graces of the Museum of Modern Art…

Friday, July 3, 1:30pm: “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945), John M. Stahl

I barely squeeze into a sold-out matinee screening for Stahl’s oxymoronic Technicolor noir. One wouldn’t expect so many people to be interested in a fairly obscure Gene Tierney vehicle, even on July 4 weekend, but never underestimate the collective doddering whimsy of the MoMA membership.

In any case, I’m lucky to have made a spot, because “Leave Her to Heaven” is one of those gems of the studio era, the kind of sumptuous, melodramatic production that likely made quite a stir at the time but has been lost to the mainstream since (outside the occasional Scorsese shout-out of course). It’s one of those films that is difficult to talk about with simply listing the silly things that happen. Novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde, a poor man’s Farley Granger) falls in with a somewhat mysterious rich woman, Ellen, and her family, immediately falling for the socialite because how can you not fall for Gene Tierney? Ellen seems all too ready to ditch her fiancé (Vincent Price) in favor of Harland – does it have something to do with Richard’s, um, uncanny resemblance to her recently deceased father?

That’s not my speculation. Ellen’s massive Elektra complex is just one absurd half-baked plot point among many, which also includes Richard’s disabled (and disturbingly clingy) younger brother Danny, an intentional miscarriage, a love triangle with Ellen’s adopted sister, and a flight to Mexico. The shadows creep in as Tierney descends further into femme fatale territory, but the Technicolor palette just make Tierney’s lipstick pop even brighter. Perhaps it’s because I had “Magnificent Obsession” on the brain (see previous installment), but it was hard not to see some echoes (errr, pre-echoes?) of Sirk in Stahl’s film. Strip away the black-and-white aesthetic that we consider so critical to film noir, and what makes the genre, anyway? Sensational and homicidal explosions of emotion are equally welcome whether you’re watching Robert Siodmak or Frank Borzage. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that John M. Stahl, the director of noir-ish “Leave Her to Heaven,” also helmed the original 1935 adaptation of “Magnificent Obsession.”

Sunday, July 5, 6pm: “Blood and Sand” (1941), Rouben Mamoulian

Who else could hold down a melodramatic epic on the perils and pitfalls of fame but a guy named Power? That wasn’t even one of those fake, hand-crafted Hollywood names like “Marilyn Monroe” or “Cary Grant,” either – Tyrone Edmund Power, Jr. was one of the leading swashbucklers of his day after his roles in films like “The Mark of Zorro” and “The Black Swan,” up there with Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks.

“Blood and Sand” doesn’t have the derring-do action/adventure spirit of an “Adventures of Robin Hood,” but it makes good use of Power’s ability to exude confidence and fire as the brash young bullfighter Juan Gallardo. A headstrong boy (bull-headed, you might even say) determined to live up to his father’s reputation, Juan manages to win loyalty from his friends and respect from his critics on sheer force of personality – but what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable Rita Hayworth? This was just as Hayworth’s star was going supernova, and her entire role in the film is basically to ground everything to a halt while Power (and the audience, presumably) gaze at her longingly. As a plot device, Hayworth’s socialite is shallow stuff – it’s obvious from her first appearance that Juan will abandon his wife in order to chase Hayworth, and thereby his own doom – which might be more excusable if Linda Darnell (as Juan’s spurned wife) wasn’t also on hand to also provide shimmering, doe-eyed close-ups.

The romantic triangle of “Blood and Sand” is muted by familiarity, but thankfully the rest of the film cranks it up to 11 to compensate. This is probably the most flamboyant use of Technicolor I’ve seen yet in this series, and MoMA has a gorgeous print to show off the ravishing costumes and capes of Juan and his fellow toreadors. The Goya- and El Greco-inspired set backgrounds are also beautifully rendered and skirt unusually close to expressionism for a Hollywood production. Power, Darnell and Hayworth all more or less coast on their natural radiance, but the side players are all in: an unsettlingly young Anthony Quinn, as a rival bullfighter, glowers as only a man with such eyebrows can; Laird Cregar (best known as the charming Devil from Lubitsch’s “Heaven Can Wait”) literally devours every second of his screen time as a pompous newspaper critic; and John Carradine has a messianic deathbed scene that doubles as the greatest PSA for literacy that I’ve ever seen. As bloated morality tale, “Blood and Sand” is more ridiculous than credulous, but as showpiece for the lofty delights of Golden Age Hollywood, you can’t get much better.

Monday, July 6, 7pm: “The Battle of Midway” (1942) and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949), John Ford

The pairing of John Ford’s groundbreaking documentary/propaganda piece and the middle entry in his so-called “Cavalry Trilogy” seems more a convenience of time (20 min. short plus 100 min. feature equals nifty 2-hour program) than any particular aesthetic resonance. There is the combined rapturous glorification of the armed services (whether the “flying fortress” pilots of Midway or the bugling boys in blue of the Plains Cavalry) to unite the two films, but the violent, you-are-there realism in “The Battle of Midway” (Ford and his crew captured handheld, impromptu footage with 16mm cameras on Midway Island while bombs and planes fell around them; the director himself was wounded with a minor shrapnel injury) makes for a jarring transition into the neutered, manufactured danger of “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.”

Indeed, while “Midway” is a sloppy piece of filmmaking (abrupt transitions in narration and tone plague the footage before and after the battle), the all-too-real stakes make it easy to see why, even today, it remains a startling and surprising work. Almost the exact opposite is true for “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” a handsomely-photographed, technically flawless production that manages to conjure less drama than my average trip to the corner bodega. The film follows John Wayne’s Captain Nathan Brittles in the last week before his more-or-less forced retirement from the cavalry – nominally, he’s been tasked with delivering his commanding officer’s wife and niece to an eastbound stagecoach and curbing a Native American uprising in the wake of Little Big Horn, but the most concern Wayne manages to muster for these threats is a barely-perceivable frown. His plan to quell the rebellion, once put into motion, is hilariously abrupt, more worthy of the climax to a Marx Brothers parody than a classic Ford thriller. Brittles dedicates far more time to chastising his leading officers, who are stuck in a dull-as-dirt competition for the heart of the CO’s niece, Joanne Dru. There should be some hay to make here in the uneasy jealousy of two men fighting both for Dru’s affection and command of the troop, but neither character provides much of any reason to care for their fate – which might explain the film’s just-kidding last-minute turn to bring Wayne back.

There’s glimmers of excitement – Ben Johnson’s chief scout has a few flashes of heroism, including a daring horseback leap, that would suggest he could’ve made that love triangle far more interesting. And the cinematography certainly earned the Academy Award it won – Technicolor is extremely flattering to those eye-popping yellow and blue uniforms. But a curious lack of suspense (and an unnecessarily dragged-out “comedic” fight sequence involving Wayne’s drunkard First Sergeant) put this one pretty low on the John Ford Western totem pole.

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