Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Mr. Soft Touch, The Desperadoes, Avatar

This is one of those blogs where one thought leads to another. I’ll start with a recent viewing of “Mr. Soft Touch” and end with a discussion of “Avatar.” With a big budget Technicolor western in the middle.

By sheer coincidence I happened to recently catch two movies starring Glenn Ford and Evelyn Keyes: “The Desperadoes” (1943) and “Mr. Soft Touch” (1949). Doing a little research, I was surprised to see they had co-starred together in three additional films, “Adventures of Martin Eden” (1942), “Flight Lieutenant” (1942) and “The Mating of Millie” (1948).

Not one of the great screen teams, but there must have been something in box office returns that Columbia Pictures kept pairing them. Ford has always struck me as a likeable enough actor, but sometimes so low key he’s almost catatonic. However, he does exhibit strong signs of life when playing opposite Rita Hayworth, and can you blame him?

TCM ran “Mr. Soft Touch” this month, and I wondered why they didn’t run it in December as so much of it is set during the Christmas season. In the film, Ford robs a casino and hides from the law in a downtown settlement house, run by Keyes. Of course you know Ford is going to reform thanks to Keyes and the poor but honest kindness of the house’s residents. Also, since his character’s name is Joe Miracle, it’s a foregone conclusion he’ll change his ways.

It’s pleasant enough, though hardly memorable. The huge Christmas tree that decorates the house’s gym is a real beauty however, and there’s an amusing scene where Ford escapes from the law by masquerading in a Santa Claus suit. All that’s missing is a giant stogie, like Edward G. Robinson had sticking out of his mouth while wearing his Santa Claus suit in the very funny Warner Bros. crime comedy “Larceny, Inc.” (1942).

For such a light hearted effort, the film does open with a bang – a pretty good car chase with Ford, in a desperate attempt to escape from a pursuing cop car, driving through a crossing gate and over a bridge just as its going up to make way for a passing boat below. Promise of a crime thriller is offset by the more gentle activities that follow.

“The Desperadoes” was Columbia’s first Technicolor film and it’s a real beauty to watch. There was a special quality to Technicolor photography under the Columbia banner that other studios could not match (though 20th Century Fox, I feel, rules as the pre-eminent studio with their Technicolor offerings. Some of that photography practically melts the eye balls, it’s so vivid).

Based on a novel by Max Brand, “The Desperadoes” is standard though enjoyable fare about two friends, one a sheriff (Randolph Scott) and his outlaw friend (Ford) who reunite to tame a wild frontier town. Keyes is the woman they’re both in love with. Good support from pros like the always welcome Claire Trevor, Guinn Williams, Edgar Buchanan and Porter Hall, as a seemingly respectable banker. Gee, didn’t any one in that town ever see “The Plainsman” (1936)? I wouldn’t trust Hall with the milk money, but that’s the fun of old movies.

Scott is one of my favorite actors, and it’s a pleasure to be witness to his quiet confidence. Sitting back on a cold winter’s evening watching a Randolph Scott western means all is right with the world.

I was thinking about “The Desperaodes” while watching “Avatar” Sunday afternoon. It was pretty spectacular, and the world director James Cameron was very impressive. Many are talking about the visual splendor of “Avatar” and rightfully so, but I feel that a three-strip Technicolor production from Hollywood’s Golden Age is every bit the visual wonder.

Look at what “The Desperadoes” gives us. Vivid blue skies, beautiful horses at full gallop (is there anything more thrilling to watch than racing horses in front of some of the more gorgeous scenery in the world), elaborate costumes – for me, westerns like “The Desperadoes” offer just as much visual pleasure as “Avatar” and its Technicolor photography is just as eye popping as the computer-generated imagery of “Avatar.”

Something else that occurred to me while watching “Avatar.” So much of the visuals are reminiscent of the John Carter of Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Cameron has admitted in interviews that Burroughs was a huge inspiration in “Avatar’s” creation. (I’m assuming he means Edgar Rice and not William).

The first John Carter novel, “A Princess of Mars”, is about to begin production as the first live action offering from Pixar Studios. Release date is 2012. When it comes out, I’m sure there will be lots of complaints that it’s a rip off of “Avatar.” I’m hoping Pixar rolls out the publicity machine early on this, and let all the fanboys out there know that Burroughs was there first, all the way back in the 1912.

Which leads to another thought and that is watching 3D movies. It’s likely middle age (I’m 47), but halfway through “Avatar” during a lengthy dialogue sequence I had to take those glasses off and give my eyes a rest.

For me, 3D doesn’t add a whole lot to the experience. It could be my irritation at paying an extra $3 for a pair of glasses that likely cost all of 50 cents to produce. No wonder the studios are jumping on the 3D bandwagon. Good writing and characters can draw us into the story every bit as much as 3D images. The trailers for Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” (or the new Christopher Lee movie, as I like to think of it) look extremely promising and I can’t wait to see it, but I think I’ll forego the $3 extortion and just see it flat.

But…but…but…that beggars the question if seeing it flat is really what the director intended and shouldn’t I support the film in the process the director filmed it? I refuse to watch full-screen versions of widescreen films because I feel I’m missing too much of the visual information the director wishes to impart. So using the same standards, if a director films a movie in 3D shouldn’t I see it in that format?

On the other hand, I’m still seeing all the information as the director intended, just not in 3D. I don’t need to see the floating head of the Cheshire Cat in the foreground when I can still see it floating in the flat version.

So I’ll likely see “Alice in Wonderland” flat and see if I feel cheated. If I do, I’ll just have to pop a couple of aspirin before I don those glasses again.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Kevin, I loved Avatar. The 3D is not the best I have seen. I honestly loved My Bloody Valentine in 3D. The story was silly, but I like silly movies sometimes, and the 3D was great. Avatar was visually beautiful with the colors. I really liked the story and loved the music.