Five films from the London Film Festival, Part 1

24 October 2010

Earlier this week I took an annual trip with friends to the 54th BFI London Film Festival to catch a very small sample of films on show. Two factors governed our selection process: finances and practicality went some way – films screen across 16 venues and transport between them can be expensive and difficult – but most importantly, exposure: what films seemed engaging enough to be worth seeing, but would also seem unlikely to come back to screens in the near future? With one exception – saved here till last – these five films may or may not receive wide theatrical releases, each for their own particular reasons.
The Mayor of Hell and Turnabout: two restored gems

Archie Mayo directed
The Mayor of Hell for Warner Bros in 1933, which has been preserved and restored from original camera negatives by the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Virginia, and continues the BFI's tradition to screen forgotten and neglected films in conditions not experienced since their original release.

Scripted by Edward Chodorov, who would later be blacklisted by Hollywood in 1953 for being a Communist Party member, the film is a finely written and remarkably acted star vehicle for James Cagney, who plays former gangster and newly appointed Deputy Commissioner Patsy Gargan, brought in to oversee a troublesome boys' state reformatory.

Gargan shares a disadvantaged upbringing with the boys, particularly with their head, Jimmy Smith, played by Warner Bros' then resident juvenile delinquent Frankie Darro. Seeing a younger version of himself in Jimmy, Gargan goes to some lengths to instil self-confidence and -respect into the youngster, and encourages the boys to elect their own mayor and chief-of-police to form a self-governing collective. Gargan seeks the help of activist nurse Dorothy Griffith (Madge Evans) and falls for her in the process, and clashes with the reactionary Mr. Thompson (Dudley Digges), a vile authority figure who looks down at the kids in his charge as lost causes.

When Gargan's plans for the reformatory are threatened by his own past coming back to haunt him, he is forced away from the boys and into hiding; in his absence, Thompson does his best to destroy Patsy and Dorothy's efforts. Using his power to coerce one of the young boys into becoming his spy, Thompson sets into motion a course of events that leads one of the boys to their death. Horrified, the rest of the reformatory, under the leadership of young Jimmy, rally together and fight back against the gross injustices they are forced to live with.

The film has its share of sentimental scenes – the romance between Patsy and Dorothy is idealist and wishy-washy, if certainly well performed – but is nonetheless fast and witty, with a burning energy throughout. Cagney makes his usual simultaneous ferocity and understanding seem involuntary, and the young performers – particularly Darro – have a naturalism, at once tough and frail, that is rarely seen in mainstream cinema today.

Like other pre-Code films such as
I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Mayo's film brought much attention at the time to social and political injustice experienced by many of the underclasses. Recycled by the studio in 1938 as Crime School, starring Bogart and the Dead End Kids, it remains especially notable to enthusiasts of the period for being the only film in which tough guys Cagney and Darro starred together, and as a film depicting the strength and potential of youths under leadership and organisation, its restoration is timely indeed.
Hal Roach's 1940 gender-bending comedy adaptation of Thorne Smith's Turnabout, preserved and restored by Bob Gitt at the UCLA Film & TV Archive with funding from Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation, is in stark contrast to the social realism of the Cagney film.

Starring Carole Landis and John Hubbard as a bickering husband and wife whose mutual dare cum wish to switch everything but their physical bodies, it strikes one immediately as a risqué work made during and despite Hollywood's Production Code.

Produced and directed by Roach, there is a strong sense of timing for both the visual and physical gags, even if several are repeated as if part of a less narratively demanding two-reeler, such as the Laurel & Hardy shorts Roach oversaw as producer. More unusually, though, is the decision not to avoid technical difficulties of having, once the couple have swapped personalities and mannerisms, Landis and Hubbard lip-synch each other's words: much of the film's second half is dedicated to the what-if scenario of this gender-swap and the confusions it creates in the business partners and friends of the couple.

Turnabout by now seems somewhat conservative in its presuppositions regarding social attitudes to gender roles and sexuality, it is in its historical context actually provocative in making an accessible comedy whilst also challenging the core material of its own subject matter, and divided many critics at the time.

The film boasts some fine acting from an impressive cast of character actors, including Adolphe Menjou, William Gargan, Franklin Pangborn and Mary Astor, as well as its leading stars (Landis is beautiful, stunning). As Henry the valet and Nora the cook respectively, however, Donald Meek and Marjorie Main steal the film. Main has an unmatched deadpan ferocity when it comes to one-line delivery, and pulls it off with a no-nonsense hint of vulnerability underneath, like she also does in
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and other similar roles. Meek, meanwhile, has a fumbling clumsiness to him made all the more hapless by the running gag of having his name misremembered by the employer he serves; in the film's funniest scene, he has to wrestle a baby bear, and pulls the scene off with a quick succession of panic, frustration and finally a more violent rage, before fainting in a colleague's arms.

Following last year's screening of the Cary Grant comedy
Topper – also adapted from a Thorne Smith novel and preserved by the UCLA Film & TV Archive – Turnabout was in 1951 one of the earliest films of its kind and stature to be shown on American network television, and included with this screening was the 35mm print of the original introduction and Schlitz beer commercials that accompanied it.

The second part of this article can be read here.