The opening credits are silent, mirroring the acquiescence of those who stood by in shame, fear and sheer cowardice as millions of victims were hauled off to concentration camps by the Nazis. Jews, yes, but also political prisoners and gay men, those accused by The Third Reich of being denizens of society. Watching this scene, I was reminded of the saying, “What scream can ever be louder than silence?”
Author: Leo Racicot
Say what you will about the great movie moguls of Hollywood’s Golden Age (and sure, they were horrible men—cruel, ruthless taskmasters), they were also visionaries with a deep and a real passion for moviemaking. There was a lot of money to be made, true, but they didn’t need it; long after they had made their fortunes, they continued to crank out, with amazing speed and dexterity, picture after picture, a few of them clinkers but most of them wondrous entertainments, and a lot of them pure gems, classic tales of lovers and dreamers, gangsters and pirates, heroes and louts and schemers. Their creations continue to shine, now 60, 70, even 80 years later. In the 1940s, MGM Studios, helmed by the powerful Louis B. Mayer, delivered, time and time again, to the American culture glorious Technicolor dream fantasies to combat the drab, pedestrian, provincial struggles and tediums of a country weary of war, nearly brought to its knees by conflict and loss and by a megalomaniacal dictator hell-bent on eating the world alive.
Camp in film is deliberate, exaggerated, often irreverent send-up of popular beliefs, opinions, entertainments, and sacred cows. There is intentional camp (the movies of Mae West come immediately to mind, as do those of Marlene Dietrich. Her BLONDE VENUS, THE BLUE ANGEL, SEVEN SINNERS, MOROCCO are film textbook lessons in how to cannonball gender, sex, music up into the stratosphere. Bette Midler’s stage shows fairly drip with it (Midler’s schtick is the epitome of campy, nasty fun). This brand of entertainment suggests there are alternatives to the staid ways in which we view our daily lives, our culture, and our habits. It forces us out of our comfort zones. Masters of camp (John Waters is a another brilliant example) have their finger on the pulse of what people don’t want to see or know to then show them exactly that, the result being that people end up loving and embracing what they thought of as taboo.
Bette Midler is tiny; so tiny (5’1″) that surprise is what you feel seeing her in person. I have been blessed to watch her do her thing live many times in many different places and always come away on Cloud Nine thinking, “How does that great, big voice and all that tremendous energy come out of that little sprite?” But Midler’s stature belies the power of her spirit. Oftentimes I have witnessed that spirit fireball out of a theater or arena to where it ascends and covers the place in a protective bubble of vitality and verve. In other words, no stadium, no opera house, no hall, however cavernous, can contain her infectious energy. I watched in awe one time when she was first staring out in her career, appear before what had to be, for her, a disappointing Symphony Hall crowd (the place was maybe a third full). That girl worked her tail off like you would not believe, strutting and camping, doing cartwheels, belting songs to the rafters, sending her now-trademark Hawaiian bolo balls into orbit, carrying on an absolute storm. You’d swear she was performing for a crowd of 18,000 at Madison Square Garden. Her energy and work ethic, her drive and desire to please are unearthly. No tiny, little sprite!
Off-screen wolf calls and eerie silhouetted palm trees assault us right-off-the-bat, usher us into a cemetery bathed in spookhouse shadow. A hideous, dead doll-faced monster comes to life and so do we, sit straight up in our seats until, presto, change-o, the great Brian De Palma fools us by revealing it’s only a horror movie set. Indeed! Then again, De Palma is known for throwing ice cold water in our unsuspecting faces. In movies like CARRIE, THE FURY, BLOW OUT, SCARFACE, the first MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and (my personal favorite), DRESSED TO KILL, his key signature—rapturous violence—hypnotizes with its ability to lure us down a sunlit street before hitting us over the head with the dark unknown waiting around every corner. Light aside dark, this is De Palma’s stock-in-trade for he, more than probably any other director I can think of, except maybe his hero, Alfred Hitchcock, poses the question, “How can we recognize the light unless there is something dark beside which it can shine”?
Filmmakers have been drawn to writer, Patricia Highsmith’s stories ever since the publication of Strangers on a Train in 1950. Wielding a poison pen, Highsmith brought murder, violence and murderous minds out into icy daylight elevating the pulpy potboiler genre to levels of literary excellence. Her books, with their crisp, taut dialogue and cinematic descriptions lend themselves handily to film treatment.
Films like SHANGHAI EXPRESS now filed under the subject heading of Pre-Code Hollywood, were nevertheless simple stories that were more honest, open about morals and sex, about language and approach, about almost everything. They did not know they were “illicit” until they were labeled as such by puritanical lawmakers, who put the kibosh on freedom of expression and the spotlight on censorship. This very honesty, when viewed today, washes over us like refreshing water over our watching eyes. For me, Pre-Code movies carry an added luster of truth and realism with them. They don’t disguise the truth of the human condition—they expose it.
The case can be made that 1975’s GREY GARDENS (1975) pioneered the current spate of reality shows invading our airwaves. Many, too, cite the film as the very first cinema-verite “hit”, popular with audiences and critics alike when it was made, popular to this day. Famed documentarians David and Albert Maysles capture a story that is purely camp, as they lovingly capture the grandiose ambitions, dreams and philosophies of the two women at the film’s core. Camp is that special brand of humorous theatricality, a style popular with the gay community (the movie is referred to by many as Gay Gardens and was adapted into a Tony award-winning musical). The Maysles get the comedy of their subjects, yet, they never make the Beales look ridiculous; they see in these failed women, as do the women themselves, a dignity, a hope that is palpable. The Maysles capture perfectly the Beales’ eccentricities, making Big Edie and Little Edie seem neither precious nor twee. This is an intimate story, told with gentle sensitivity. When there are broad strokes to be made, the Beales make them. Underneath what might have become derisiveness toward these ladies, the Maysles instead unearth symbols of a collapsed and resurrected America. Know that what you are seeing is not the sleazy Kardashians lolling around in sweats fretting over brother, Rob’s latest weight gain — GREY GARDENS takes on a depth and a pathos seldom found in today’s schlocky t.v. reality circuses. This is documentary exalted to a level of art. Both this film and PBS’ series, An American Family, are the best dissections of family life the 1970s ever produced.
No movie Alfred Hitchcock made prior to Psycho (1960) had prepared audiences for the shock and stunning surprises of his Gothic thriller. Many moviegoers, critics and film scholars consider it not only the “Master of Suspense’s” best film but also one of the best films ever committed to celluloid. While Hitchcock made some of Hollywood’s most romantic thrillers (Rebecca, Suspicion, Notorious, Spellbound), Psycho is his anti-romantic bid: characters look for love, redemption, connection, honor, but in the end they are thwarted by their identities and personal histories. As a wise friend of mine used to say, “We can never outrun our backgrounds, our childhoods, our past. They catch up with us eventually”.
1939 was the most momentous year in moviemaking. Absolutely astonishing in its high quality and high quantity of output. Off the top of my head, I think of GONE WITH THE WIND, THE WIZARD OF OZ, STAGECOACH, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, GUNGA DIN – everlasting classics all. A quick dip into the Wiki pond tells me that no less than 145 movies were made that year – a staggering number – among them, DARK VICTORY, THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, GOLDEN BOY and BABES IN ARMS.