There is a scene in Henry King’s State Fair (1933) that ranks among the most poetic moments in all of 1930s American cinema. There is not much to it, just a family driving through the dusk in their rattling pickup truck. What could have been a forgettable bit of connective tissue becomes the heart of the movie, evoking a nameless mood of anticipation mingled with regret, a kind of nostalgia for the here and now.
Up to this point, the film has been an ambling, sharp-witted rural comedy. It has introduced a family in the midst of their bustling preparations for an annual trip to the Iowa State Fair: farmer Abel Frake (Will Rogers) fussing over his prize pig, his wife Melissa (Louise Dresser) furtively spiking her competition mincemeat with apple brandy, their grown children Wayne and Margy (Norman Foster and Janet Gaynor) restless on the farm. But the mood shifts as they drive through the summer twilight: the four seem spellbound, alone together. Dark countryside skims by, the sun sunk behind a tangle of trees. Gaynor’s face in the dim, lingering afterglow is suffused with a muted yearning that no dialogue could articulate. There is a lovely ache about this scene, which in its simplicity captures an elusive awareness you sometimes get of the present becoming the past before your eyes, even though—as with the light dissolving into darkness—you can never quite see the line between them.
State Fair was the first film I saw at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna this year, as part of a retrospective devoted to the director Henry King. It is a perfect introduction to his overlooked talents. King suffers from having made too many films—116 in a career lasting from 1915 to 1962—and most of them for a single studio, 20th Century Fox, suggesting a workhorse if not a studio hack. His name conjures unfashionable genres and themes: Americana, “Great Man” historical dramas, westerns, and religious piety. But the best of his films are uncommonly delicate, unsentimental, ambiguous, deeply shadowed treatments of these forms. State Fair, based on the same source as the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, seems like it should be the purest corn on the cob. King’s version preserves a tenderness toward this world at its most innocent and comical—Melissa’s hilarious pantomime of suspense, astonishment, and ecstasy as her pickles and mincemeat are judged, her sweet ride on a carousel with Abel, and the slyly edited porcine romance between the Frakes’ boar Blue Boy and a champion sow—but also has a healthy appreciation for the limits of innocence. The fair, with its sideshow banners and barkers and shimmying cooch dancers, is pleasantly seedy, and the treatment of Wayne’s affair with a worldly trapeze artist (Sally Eilers) is distinctly pre-Code, down to a subversive flipping of expectations in their attitudes toward sex and marriage.
What gives the story its deeper shading is the brevity of the fair. It is not the aging parents who are keenly conscious of time slipping away, but the children, for whom fairground flings become dangerously deep attachments. When city reporter Pat (Lew Ayres) tells Margy that they can celebrate their last night together by going on all the rides and doing all the things they did the first night they met, she replies wisely, “No, there can only be one first time.” Afraid to trust his overnight conversion from casual flirt to faithful lover, she turns down his marriage proposal. As she prepares to leave his apartment, he switches out the lamp so she is suddenly framed in a shaft of light from the door against a black background. The melancholy infusing moments like this goes to the heart of King’s vision of failure and disappointment as a shadow cast by American confidence and optimism.
“It is entirely possible to yearn for past times—in our own lives or long before we were born—without viewing them through rose-tinted glasses.”
Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie (1952) is the film that best illustrates King’s “poetically multidimensional” quality (as Peter von Bagh described it in an essay on the director, recently translated into English by Antti Alanen for MUBI). A Technicolor pageant of nostalgic Americana; a subtle and ambivalent account of the passage of time and the inevitability of loss; and a bleak near-tragedy of a man unable to change, looking back on a life marred by mistakes that he is still unable to fully recognize, much less rectify—Nellie exists simultaneously on all these dimensions.
The film opens in 1945, with the Midwest town of Sevillinois celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. Amid parades and flags and cheering children, a reporter interviews one of the town’s oldest residents, barber Ben Halper (David Wayne), who recalls arriving in 1895 with his new bride, Nellie (Jean Peters, at once vibrant and poignant). From the start there is something unsettling in their relationship, however incessantly they talk about how much they love each other. Having vowed to take her to Chicago on their honeymoon, he presents her with an unwelcome surprise, bringing her instead to his new barbershop in Sevillinois, leaving her no choice but to swallow her crushed hopes for a larger life.
King’s dark irony turns the title song, with its Tin Pan Alley cheer, into the story of a woman cheated by endlessly delayed promises. The years pass and the “surprises” continue, as Ben buys a house and puts down roots in the town, persistently ignoring Nellie’s frustration and her thwarted yearning to see the world—or at least Chicago. He is perfectly at home in the small-town life of brass bands and barber shop quartets, porcelain shaving mugs and pinochle games, but for Nellie it is a kind of prison. Unlike Beyond the Forest (1949), with its similar premise, the film never condemns Nellie’s longing for bright lights and excitement, even when she scandalizes the town by wearing lip rouge to a dance, inflaming the adulterous desires of a neighbor, Ed Jordan (Hugh Marlowe). Instead, the blame clearly falls on Ben, with his stubborn selfishness and refusal to treat his adored wife as an equal. When she learns that he has lied to her—they own the house, store, and land he told her they were renting—her anger drives her to recklessly run off to Chicago with Ed Jordan.
The movie blindsides us with a series of shocks, just like life itself. Ben’s barbershop burns down; his son is crippled in the First World War, and later gets mixed up with gangsters. A major character is killed, off-screen, halfway through; it would be almost ten years before Hitchcock would play a similar trick on his audience in Psycho. The town grows up, but Ben Halper never changes. He is not a bad man but a small one, limited and intransigent. The casting of David Wayne, with his rodent-like face and chilly presence, is daring and pitch-perfect. Ben has only one gift, his “velvet touch” with a razor. King’s touch is no less velvety: he can slice American ideals apart from the illusions that support them, so gently that, as with the finest of razors, you don’t feel the cut at first.
The sharpest cut in Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie jumps from a scene of violent death—a young man crumpling with blood welling in his mouth—to a little girl playing in a meadow. The way the film elides the worst horrors has the paradoxical effect of emphasizing a pain so great that the mind has to draw back from it immediately. In the end, when the movie returns to the present and Ben’s granddaughter appears, also played by Jean Peters, it might seem that this man whose stubbornness brought disaster to those he loved most is being rewarded with the return of what he lost. But another possibility is that, as with the triple casting of Deborah Kerr in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), the women’s apparent resemblance is actually a function of a man’s inability to grow, his need to cling to what he had once and delude himself that he can get it back.
Both State Fair and Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie illustrate King’s sophisticated understanding of nostalgia. This is a word often used with scorn, and aimed dismissively at people who love old movies. It is taken to mean a cowardly retreat into a fuzzy and complacent vision of the past. But nostalgia is rooted in the Greek words for “homecoming” and “pain.” It can mean a longing for a vanished time or place that throbs as sharply as a toothache or an inflamed nerve. It is not a comforting emotion; its pleasure is tinged with irredeemable sadness, and often with deeply mixed feelings.
On the other hand: one can still wallow in the romantic futility of Jacques Tourneur’s Way of a Gaucho (1952), a western transposed to the Argentine pampas, about men fighting a doomed rebellion against progress. Their macho ideas of freedom and honor are old-fashioned and reductive, but aesthetically the gauchos are clear winners. The vintage Technicolor print in Bologna (courtesy of the British Film Institute) was so luminous it was almost hallucinatory, all piercing turquoise skies and flaming sunsets. Men stand on the backs of horses to gaze over the plain, and skirmishing soldiers dissolve into the clouds of dust they raise. The only thing more purple than the sunsets is the dialogue, full of lines like “Our knives are thirsty,” and (when the hero mounts a daring escape from military captivity), “He is foolish, but very gaucho.” This is a long way from the complicated, somber view of conservatism in Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie, made the same year, but amid the sweeping landscapes and swashbuckling action lies a painful conflict between the love of tradition, of a place as it used to be, and the realization that fighting to preserve it is in the end vainly destructive.
Nostalgia is often yoked to good-old-days fantasies and imaginary histories of golden ages that can be so dangerous and corrupting. But it is entirely possible to yearn for past times—in our own lives or long before we were born—without viewing them through rose-tinted glasses. We do not love things less because they hurt us; often it is just the contrary. Take another pair of films made in the same year, 1931, which both screened in Bologna and shared a crackling inventiveness and pitilessly tough outlook. No one is guiltier than I am of swooning over the way things looked and sounded in the early 1930s, but what I love about these movies, just as much as the art deco interiors, the jazz, the cars and frocks, is their comprehensive disillusionment and the way they face up to betrayal, tasting its wormwood bitterness yet taking almost for granted its inevitability.
Rowland Brown’s Quick Millions, one of a series of Fox Film Corporation titles restored by 20th Century Fox and the Museum of Modern Art, rewrites the history of the classic gangster movie with its cerebral amorality, flippant humor, and offbeat style. The protagonist here is no tragic hero bombastically dying in the gutter; his end is chillingly casual, like a cigarette flicked out a car window. Spencer Tracy plays “Bugs” Raymond as an affable but ruthless opportunist convinced that “the brain is just a big muscle.” He leverages a trucking business and protection racket into control of the city through schemes and organization rather than bombs or tommy-guns. The film’s pacing is at once leisurely and staccato; writer-director Brown indulges in plotless scenes where hoodlums get their shoes shined or sit around smoking cigarettes and singing the blues, but he also cuts scenes off abruptly, as though dismissing them with a snap of his fingers.
What you’re left with are indelible moments and bits of business: the thick haze of cigar smoke that hangs over a table from which a crowd of bigwigs have just risen, surprised by a stickup; the way a guy cooking spaghetti during a gangsters’ shindig casually pulls twelve grand out of his pocket so his boss can buy a hot engagement ring. The ornamental George Raft, with his patent leather hair, smudgy eyes, and dapper suits, plays Jimmy, Bugs’s right-hand man. He dances a sinuous, loose-limbed soft-shoe at a party, then goes to pick up a few extra bucks by carrying out a hit for his boss’s rival. Bugs is disappointed by this betrayal, but he doesn’t make a fuss about it; he just has Jimmy put on the spot, in a silent scene at a gas station in the rain. It is not surprising that the man behind this insolent, almost nihilistic movie did not last long in Hollywood; Quick Millions was the first of only three films Brown directed alone, though whether his career ended because he punched a producer or because of his habit of walking off films is unclear. He trailed rumors of an underworld background and ties to gangsters, which may have been clever branding. The film’s speeches about the corruption and cowardice of society and the similarities between capitalism and crime seem less radical now than its improvisatory freshness and dry-ice heart.
Anatole Litvak’s Coeur de lilas (1931) is a murder mystery and a romance, but above all it is an atmospheric tour of the city Brassaï immortalized in his 1933 book Paris by Night. All of the subjects of Brassaï’s cinematic, often staged photographs are here: streetwalkers, bals musettes, the market at Les Halles, raffish lovers in cafes and bars, cobblestone streets glistening with damp, chic ruffians, and cheeky urchins. All this and Jean Gabin too, in one of his earliest surviving films. He is already fully formed, taking over the room and the screen with his simplicity, his signature blend of proletarian bluntness and tender clarity. As a lovelorn hoodlum, he wears his hat cocked at a rakish angle and his scarf dashingly crossed over his chest (a style he would make famous in Pépé le Moko). In one scene, he leans over the bar brooding, and you watch his anger mount steadily like the water in a kettle coming to a boil. Then, rather than exploding with rage, he bursts into a risqué music hall song.
Gabin was the featured star of this year’s Ritrovato festival, represented by a sampling of films stretching from 1931 to 1971’s incomparably bleak Le chat, a portrait of an old married couple’s terminal war of attrition. Early in his career, Gabin admired and was often compared to Spencer Tracy, another actor known for his unadorned naturalism. In Coeur de lilas Gabin has a supporting role; the stars are André Luguet as a police detective and Marcelle Romée as the title character, a weary prostitute who has a delicate soul—but perhaps not, after all, a heart of gold. In a key scene, they ride the bus together all night in the rain, and she tells him about her deep and abiding hatred of the police—not knowing he is an undercover cop pursuing her as a murder suspect—then falls trustingly asleep on his shoulder.
The film’s real star is the director. In his introduction in Bologna, Bertrand Tavernier cited Coeur de lilas as one of the films that made him reconsider the dismissive view of Anatole Litvak that he had previously shared with the New Wave critics. Here, Litvak combines the visual freedom and expressiveness of a silent film with a sophisticated soundscape that blends a busker’s accordion, children’s shouts, police and train whistles, and mournful chansons. With naturalism unusual for the early talkie period, he adds a subtle fill of offscreen street noise to a scene in a hotel room. His camera glides restlessly, catching rushes of movement when crowds swoop like flocks of birds, for instance in the brilliant opening scene where kids playing cops and robbers stumble on a body in the weeds. He films a bar brawl by panning around at the spectators, picking up noise and rattling bottles and flying chairs but never looking at the fight itself. In a climactic tour de force, a rowdy wedding party keeps bursting in on Lilas and the detective as they exchange shattering confessions, and these revelers morph into a phantasmagoric parade of grotesque faces haunting her as she flees.
Before this, the lovers enjoy one of those fleeting idylls on a pastoral riverbank that are a specialty of French cinema (A Day in the Country, Casque d’Or), where happiness shimmers like light on the water and then the current carries it away. The weeklong festival in Bologna can seem like a fleeting idyll by a river of images, or like a cinephile state fair, an annual binge long-awaited and over too soon. But Il Cinema Ritrovato celebrates the staying power of film. The survival of this most fragile medium can never be taken for granted, but there is still a vast wealth of forgotten, overlooked, and under-seen movies to be rediscovered. There are also familiar and beloved films to be discovered afresh. Watching the new restoration of Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928) was like seeing the years fall away from a ninety-year-old: the movie appeared before us clear-eyed, taut-skinned, full of vim and vigor. Some seven thousand people packed into Piazza Maggiore on a warm summer night to witness this miracle, with the projector beaming through the dusk like the evening star. Somewhere behind me a child laughed uproariously, having the time of her very young life.