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Monthly Archives: April 2013

Louisiana Story (Sept. 28, 1948)

Louisiana StoryThe term “visually arresting” gets thrown around a lot, but I can’t think of any other way to describe Robert J. Flaherty’s Louisiana Story, which was shot by cinematographer Richard Leacock.

I rented Louisiana Story and wasn’t expecting to watch all of it when I first put on the DVD. But from the very first shot of the film, I was unable to move, and watched the film from beginning to end.

I think a lot of people have the sense that black and white is just a low-budget necessity, and that viewers would be able to go even deeper into the world of a film if only it were in beautiful, lifelike color. But Louisiana Story is beautiful precisely because it is gorgeously unreal.

The entire film looks like a photograph by Ansel Adams come to life. Louisiana Story is filmed like a documentary — with all nonprofessional actors — and it’s a shimmering, luminescent, and uncanny view of reality.

It follows a Cajun boy named Alexander Napolean Ulysses Latour (Joseph Boudreaux), who is about 13 years old and spend his days in the idyll of the swamp, rowing his canoe, fishing, shooting, and imagining he sees werewolves behind the trees and mermaids below the water. His father is played by Lionel Le Blanc and his mother is played by Mrs. E. Bienvenu.

Mermaids

Early in Louisiana Story, the quiet of the swamp is rocked by an explosion from a wildcat oil well. The film follows the boy as he rows around the oil derrick, makes friends with the men who work on it, and whiles away his days with his pet raccoon, occasionally running afoul of alligators.

Robert J. Flaherty is best known as the documentary film pioneer who made Nanook of the North (1922) and Man of Aran (1934).

Louisiana Story was Flaherty’s last film. It was commissioned by the Standard Oil Company, which is ironic. The oil workers are all friendly with the young protagonist, and the way Flaherty and Leacock shoot the oil rig is just as beautiful in its own way as the way they shoot the boy’s languorous days in the swamp. But with the constant contrasting between nature and the disruption of nature that the oil well represents, Louisiana Story doesn’t ever feel like a promotion for the petroleum industry.

Joseph Boudreaux

Robert J. Flaherty and his wife Frances H. Flaherty were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story for Louisiana Story.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the brilliant score for the film by American composer Virgil Thomson. In 1949, Thomson won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his score for Louisiana Story. His score was inspired by a field tape of Cajun musicians and was performed by the Philadelphia Symphony under the direction of Eugene Ormandy. It’s unlike any other film score I’ve heard from the 1940s and is the perfect accompaniment to the poetic visuals.

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Road House (Sept. 22, 1948)

Road HouseThe second feature in our Jean Negulesco double bill is a tad less serious than the first.

Negulesco’s film Johnny Belinda (1948) is the story of a poor, uneducated deaf-mute girl played by Jane Wyman. It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, and won one — Wyman took home the Oscar for Best Actress.

Road House, on the other hand, was nominated for zero Academy Awards.

But they’re both very good films, and watched back to back, they really show Negulesco’s facility with both A-quality material and B-quality material.

A truly good potboiler is as hard to pull off as a truly good drama is, and Road House is a truly good potboiler.

In an interview he gave in 1969, Negulesco recalled being given the assignment to direct Road House by 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. Negulesco said that Zanuck told him, “This is a bad script. Three directors have refused it. They don’t know what they’re doing, because basically it’s quite good. Remember those pictures we used to make at Warner Bros., with Pat O’Brien and Jimmy Cagney, in which every time the action flagged we staged a fight and every time a man passed a girl she’d adjust her stocking or something, trying to be sexy? That’s the kind of picture we have to have with ‘Road House.'”

Negulesco knew exactly what kind of picture he was directing, and he directed the hell out of it. The first shot of Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino) shows her with her bare leg up on a desk. She’s dealing cards alone, and there’s a smoldering cigarette next to her bare foot.

Lupino was smart, sexy, and talented, and she’s a joy to watch in Road House. When she played a singer in The Man I Love (1947), all of her performances were dubbed by Peg La Centra, but this film finally gave moviegoers an opportunity to hear her real singing voice. As Susie Smith (Celeste Holm) says in the film, “She does more without a voice than anybody I’ve ever heard.”

Lupino may not have been the most impressive chanteuse working in Hollywood, but when she sings “One for My Baby and One More for the Road” in Road House, it’s an emotional scene that tells us more about her character than pages of expository dialogue ever could.

Besides the lovely Lupino and the talented Holm, Road House also features chiseled hunk Cornel Wilde. My favorite scene is the one in which he gives Lupino the angriest, most sexually charged bowling lesson I’ve ever seen in a film.

And last but not least, Road House was the third time Richard Widmark appeared on film, and it was the third time he played a memorable villain. He plays Jefferson T. “Jefty” Robbins, the owner of the juke joint that gives the film its name, and his character is a scheming chump who just can’t take no for an answer.