Saturday, June 18, 2016

TITANIC (1943)

Call me a sensitive old fool, but I've never understood why, for over 100 years, people have happily lined up to watch movies about the Titanic, whose whole raison d'etre is the drowning death of 1,503 people. 

You'd think something like that would be appealing to, say, a ruthless propagandist who wants to stoke an audience's basest instincts. You know, like James Cameron. 

But the wartime German version of Titanic was produced by a guy who took agitprop a million nasty steps further: Josef Goebbels. Believing that an epic about the most famous maritime disaster in history would be ripe for anti-British propaganda (he could've made propaganda from a driving manual), Goebbels hired director Herbert Selpin to shout "Aktion!", and rubbed his bony hands in anticipation. 


Ismay looks like a real nice guy.
Unlike other movie versions of the Titanic, the bad guys here aren't the icebergs, but the British and American aristocrats onboard. The construction of the Titanic has fallen behind schedule, driving the price of shares of the White Star Line to new lows. White Star president Bruce Ismay wants money saved and corners cut as the ship comes down the assembly line. Tell me if you see trouble ahead.

Ismay and other fatcats then start gobbling up White Star stock at a low price, hoping to make a killing (no pun intended) when the Titanic reaches New York on time -- or, even better, ahead of schedule. As he gets onboard the ship for its maiden voyage, Ismay orders Captain Edward Smith to sail full steam ahead, no matter the danger.

Meanwhile, John Jacob Astor, also on the Titanic, wants the ship to slow down -- not to protect the passengers, but so they arrive late. He, too, is buying White Star shares, and it's in his interest if the ship doesn't live up to its hype. His aim to is to buy enough shares from nervous investors in order to own 51% of the Titanic -- and the company itself -- when they finally dock. Where are those Magic 8 balls when you need them?


As the Titanic sinks, Petersen (right) tries to 
figure out how to tell Captain Smith and Bruce Ismay
"Toldja so!" in German.
The one person who sees through the despicable Brits and Yanks is 1st Officer Hans Petersen, who is -- well, whaddaya know? -- the only German on the crew. Petersen (who never really existed) spends the entire movie warning of the inevitable disaster. Goebbels' message seems to be, Hey, we tried! 

However, Titanic's self-righteous epilogue -- "The deaths of 1,500 people remain unatoned, forever a testament of Britain's endless quest for profit" -- is more than a little rich in light of history.

As with other Titanic movies, fictional characters come and go faster than you can say, "Achtung!". A Cuban jewel thief. Young lovers who meet hours before the sinking. A Russian heiress who's lost her fortune. Friends in steerage fighting over the same woman. And because many of the extras were commandeered from the Nazi military, it might be the only Titanic movie where you're happy to see the passengers die.


Panic inside a very large bathtub.
There's nothing really bad about Titanic. But there's nothing particularly special about it either, despite its extravagant budget ($180,000,000 in today's money) and shooting time (over a year). Only one, brief exterior shot appears to have been filmed on a real ship. The Titanic miniature itself is unconvincing. "Drowning" extras stand upright in roughly four feet of water. Warm water at that. 


The producer (right) and his boss drop by the
set with some useful notes.

A movie about the making of Titanic would be more interesting. (A good summary can be found here.) But suffice it to say that Herbert Selpin wound up being a little too big for his lederhosen. In fact, it was likely the only time a producer fired his director by ordering him hanged in a jail cell. And they said Harry Cohn was tough!

So what did Josef Goebbels get in return for those four million Reichmarks lavished on Titanic? A movie about a preening, egomaniacal sociopath deliberately leading people to certain death. Say, where have I heard that before?... 

Realizing the obvious irony, Goebbels kept Titanic out of German theatres, but released it to Nazi-occupied countries and fellow Axis powers. A complete, uncensored video version wasn't made available until 2005. Whether it was worth the wait depends on your tolerance for underdeveloped supporting characters, overheated enemy propaganda, and a climax you've seen coming all your life. 

On the plus side: it's almost two hours shorter than James Cameron's Titanic, and lacks that version's horrible theme song by Celine Dion. 

OK, Goebbels, you win --this time.



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Monday, June 13, 2016

ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1931)

Just in case you caught the Tony Awards the other night, prepare yourself for a shock: Alexander Hamilton wasn't a rapper, nor was he Latino. In truth, he spoke with the upperest of upper crust British accents, and resembled the Phantom of the Opera following plastic surgery. 

In other words, 34 year-old Alexander Hamilton looked exactly like 65 year-old George Arliss. I know people aged faster back in the day, but wow.

An example of Arliss' seemingly endless parade of portraying historical figures, Alexander Hamilton is unique in that it seems to be the only one where his character doesn't play foxy ol' matchmaker for his daughter and a shy, handsome young man. Instead, he has to focus his energy on convincing Thomas Jefferson that it's necessary for America to create a national bank. Where's the romance in that?



The only time it'll take a man longer to
undress than a woman.
You'd be surprised. While his wife Betsy is away in London caring for her ill sister, Hamilton does the 18th-century dirty with Mariah Reynolds, the wife of his enemy James Reynolds -- who has arranged the affair. (Hamilton had fired Reynolds from his Treasury job for being drunk and lazy. I thought that was a requirement for a government job.)

Faster than Hamilton can say, "I did not have sex with that woman, Mariah Reynolds," another of his political enemies, Sen. Timothy Roberts, gives him the lowdown: withdraw your bill regarding the national bank, or your illicit sleepovers will be front page news. Man, I bet Hamilton was sorry he ever created the New York Post.


Betsy Hamilton realizes that one cheating
husband is worth 13 united states.
But Hamilton cares nothing for his reputation, only for the the survival of the United States, further proof that we're watching a period piece. Betsy is ready to take the first coach out of Philadelphia, but stays when her husband assures her that his dalliance meant nothing. (Wives, take note!) 

Suddenly, Thomas Jefferson and most of Congress show up to let Hamilton know that they rewarded his honesty for admitting his affair by approving the national bank by an overwhelming majority. Moral of the story: cheating on your spouse is good for the country. (Wives, take note!) And for good measure, President George Washington shows up to offer his heartiest congratulations. (Wives -- ahh, you know the score by now).


Hamilton thanks Washington for defeating the British
by offering to put his face on a coin worth 25 cents. 
Having acted onstage since 1887, George Arliss' acting style was literally theatrical. But by the time of Alexander Hamilton, (which he originally played on Broadway in 1917), he was starting to tone things down -- even if he delivers a line like "No good news is good news" as if it were straight from the Bible.

Too, the movie offers some interesting historical highlights. Thomas Jefferson will agree to the national bank only if Hamilton agrees to put the U.S. capital in the South. In a slyly amusing moment, Hamilton, who has already decided that the capital should be built from scratch on the Potomac River, compliments Jefferson for thinking of it himself. This was the last time any politician allowed somebody else to take credit for a good idea.


"Thank you for your service... And that's a wrap!"
And speaking of history, I had no idea until Alexander Hamilton that General George Washington bade farewell to his troops on a Warner Brothers soundstage with a painted backdrop. History classes are worthless. (Just to prove the versatility of Alan Mowbray, the actor who portrays Washington, he later played Satan in The Devil with Hitler. I'd like to see de Niro try that.)

If you're unfamiliar with George Arliss, Alexander Hamilton isn't necessarily the place to start. I'd suggest his wonderfully witty performances in A Successful Calamity and The Last Gentleman (what a perfect title for him!), followed by the dramas The Man Who Played God and The Green Goddess. 


Now you know where Prince got the idea
for his stage outfits.
But you're not going to search them out, so why do I bother? Because, if nothing else, George Arliss gives you the rare chance to see a 19th-century stage actor walking and talking on your TV. It's like a damn episode of The Twilight Zone.

So if you don't know anyone in the cast of the current Hamilton musical in order to score a ticket, consider George Arliss' take on the great man. Remember, the play is just under 3 hours long, while the movie is a zippy 70 minutes -- and without all that darn hippity-hop music.

                   ********************        






The original 1931 trailer for Alexander Hamilton. Imagine George Arliss on an Imax screen in 3-D.