Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Lola Montès (1955) & Dr. No (1962)

Lola Montès is a biopic about the titular 19th century Courtesan, a living prop in a circus show about her life. Throughout the show, during the Ring Master's (the always dynamic Peter Ustinov) exposition, Lola (Martine Carol) flashbacks to her past life and loves, when things where easier, the cigars plentiful, and her lovers rich, famous, and easy to break up with.

This movie is crazy colorful, with vivid reds, blues, and yellows that you just don't seen any more on film, and expensively elaborate, with puffy costumes fringed with sequins and a carriage big enough to hold a piano. I don't see why critics are so disdainful towards Ms. Carol; I thought she was fine, not great, mind you, but perfectly fine; she didn't stand out as being particularly dull or flagrantly artificial, like the worst actresses I've seen. The other actors were admittedly superior, especially Anton Walbrook--always nice to see him play a nice guy, in this case King Leopold I of Bavaria. Jules (Oskar Werner) from Jules and Jim (1962) also shows up as a smitten student.

I really need to see more Ophüls movies; thus far, the only things I've seen by him are Letter From an Unknown Women (1948), Caught (1949), and La Ronde (1950). All of those are great, highly enjoyable and aesthetically jaw-dropping (well, Caught was a bit underwhelming, but it did have its moments), so this needs to be corrected. Eventually. Can't understand why this movie was originally reedited to make it more "chronological"; did the studio really think that audiences wouldn't be able to follow the plot? Then again, the similarly timeline jumping Intolerance (1916) didn't do that well financially either, and it's a hands down classic!

Now for Dr. No, where the world first saw Bond, James Bond, on screen, the big screen, that is. Technically, his debut came on TV, in an hour-long adaptation of Casino Royale (1954) on the anthology show Climax!; he was dubbed Jimmy Bond, and was American. I wonder if one can see it.

But to the point; Dr. No already sets up much of what we know and love about Bond: his fancy suits, his "shaken not stirred" dry martinis, his bedding (or boating, at one point) of multiple beautiful women, and his usage of his license to kill. Unfortunately, his fear of tarantulas were not further elaborated on. And there are no nifty gadgets here: a gun is traded in for another gun, and that's it. Good to see that the movie already offered eye candy for all the folks in the audience, with bikini babes, in addition to Bond being shirtless a lot.

It's also surprisingly brutal, for a Bond film: James bosses around women and grabs them forcefully, and when people get shot, it looks like they got dabbed with some fake blood swiped from Hammer Studios. There's also an unfortunate black stereotype (John Kitzmiller) who's afraid of dragons and ends up getting fried by the baddies.

And there's yellowface, which is unfortunately and awkwardly, a very common element in older movies. The though process must have been: "Hey, why hire an Asian when we can just hire a white dude to play one? Genius!" A quick scan of the "Examples of Yellowface" article on Wikipedia show that this tendency has continued. I know it was the early 60s, and Joseph Wiseman's subtle Dr. No is less wincing than Alec Guinness having difficulty saying "lollypop" as a Japanese widower in A Majority of One (1962).  But it's weird, and slightly disconcerting, that he Bond franchise, long may it live, has prospered because of the success of a film that has metal-handed Fu Manchu whom threatens the world with nuclear yellow terror?

And yet, I still like this movie. Because, damn it, I'm only human, and Sean Connery's Bond is so cool; even when he sang, and I got Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959) flashbacks (which isn't necessarily a bad thing, because Darby O'Gill is among Disney's best live action films). Plus, Jamaica locations, that gun-barrel opening, and that goddamn awesome theme song, the latter which ISN'T written by John Barry, to my disillusionment that John Barry.

Lola Montès and Dr. No are very much preoccupied with gazing: men looking at women, and women, in turn, looking at men. Because of gender dynamics, and in the tradition of fictional "loose women," Lola ends up punished for her indiscretions though, to the movie's credit, she isn't condemned for her actions; the most unsympathetic characters are those that use her for their own ends: the mother who tries to marry her off to an old rich nobleman, her cheating drunk of a husband, the Bulvarian revolutionaries who make her a scapegoat, and, ultimately, the coin-counting circus owner who exploits her fame for his financial gain. On the other hand, Bond, because he's all manly, never gets any sort of punishment or comeuppance for his numerous sexcapades. But isn't that just the way of movies in a patriarchal society?

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