Saturday, July 04, 2009

Men of the Thirties: 1935

The Nominees Were:

Clark Gable - Mutiny on the Bounty
Charles Laughton - Mutiny on the Bounty
Victor McLaglen - The Informer
Paul Muni - Black Fury
Franchot Tone - Mutiny on the Bounty

And the Winner Was:

Victor McLaglen - The Informer

The Mutiny on the Bounty guys fairly obviously split votes here, since none of them really stand out as the obvious pick. Paul Muni's write-in nomination for Black Fury meant that he had a lot of fans but was battling against a massive resurgence for John Ford's film. The Informer was a financial failure but virtually everybody with any influence in LA was raving about it. Victor McLaglen's win is partly a product of this and surely because his role is much more of a one-man show than the others.

My Ratings (in order of preference):-

**** Franchot Tone in Mutiny on the Bounty

While caught at the centre of a struggle between a tyrannical Captain and his increasingly concerned first mate, Tone's eager midshipman features a lot less than he ought to and is often left in the shade in favour of the more obvious 'characters' of the piece. Nevertheless, his presence is a valuable one, and as the most grounded character within a very fervently political environment, the honest, loyal remonstrations against mutiny feel integral to the film's ideas about what 'serving' your country really means. Tone charts the arc of his surefire, adaptable Byam in moving from a position of anti-idealism to a much more sceptical outlook on institutional hierarchy, and learns his lesson the hard way.

*** Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty

Laughton's silliness reached its peak with royalty in 1933 and, while Captain Bligh aboard the Bounty would never purport to be anything other than a stern nobleman, his monstrous actions are a flimsy way of setting up the ethical dilemnas that plague the film's second half. Parts of Laughton's Bligh are successful: he's predictable, emotionally-disposable, only harmful through position, and kind of reminded me of Captain Manwairing in Dad's Army (i.e. laughably hypocritical). Is this enough? Mutiny is let down a tad by its own narrow-minded views about villainry and Laughton does nothing to suggest that Bligh is battling with ethics himself, or indeed considering anything outside of his power-trip duty. In the end he plays up to Lloyd's emphasis on accessibility, the easier option but possibly also a wise one.

*** Victor McLaglen in The Informer

The protestations of innocence by Victor McLaglen's guilty Gypo are far too easily-read for a higher rating here, and honestly the film is less about his character than an examination of culture and community politics. The gentle giant is not quite on the level of Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile, whose character required him to be meek and little else. McLaglen has to process the guilt of Gypo and does so with the kind of bumbling brashness that makes The Informer seem all the more harsher and imposing. Detrimentally, this makes him stick out like a sore thumb and takes away some of the ambiguity that might have richened the production had a patient, introspective Actor took this role on.

** Clark Gable in Mutiny on the Bounty

There's not much wisdom to be seen in Clark Gable, and the plucky humanitarianism of Fletcher Christian strikes up a much different, wholesome Clark to the one that we're accustomed to. It's difficult to believe that Christian's sudden and rather drastic overhaul of the Bounty was borne out of pure empathy, and one considers that the first mate may be impatient in aspiration, deluded even. Gable doesn't really allude to any unknown motivation, and his fatal flaw is toning down his renowned dastardly charisma in favour of a more dull, reluctant 'hero'. Certainly acceptable as an unwilling moral crusader yet strangely vapid when interacting with Laughton, his best work emerging in the quiet moments with Tone.

Nominees Unseen:

Paul Muni - Black Fury

The Snubbed

**** Robert Donat in The 39 Steps

It's incredibly impressive that guys are still using the techniques of Donat as Richard Hannay, one of the original innocents on the run. The 39 Steps is one of Hitchcock's most watchable films and like The Lady Vanishes seems anti-try hard, easy to follow and digest, charming in the most ballsy, unexpected ways. Its caper style often put me off a little but Donat is inspired in these moments, bang-on tonally, effortlessly funny, the perfect 'wrong man'. And yet as a hero he is thoroughly dynamic, sexy in spontanaeity, and one of Hitch's most appealing screen protagonists he alternates from being a 'man's man' and a 'ladies man' with such ease that it's hardly surprising he was a big box-office draw in this period.

1 comment:

Alex in Movieland said...

I've only seen the Mutiny boys and I thought Laughton kicked ass!!