BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Feb 6th, 2012 •

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Like Wow, Bam, Boffo and Hotsy-Totsy! Please excuse me if my prose style is a little giddy but I’ve just seen BOMBSHELL, Victor Fleming’s exercise in pure zany pleasure expressed through a camera style that makes the dialectical montage of Sergei Eisenstein look shy and retiring, not to mention trumping by almost a decade the speed-crazed, overlapping dialogue of Howard Hawks’ HIS GIRL FRIDAY. A luscious valentine to Jean Harlow’s peroxide-tinged All-American womanhood as well as a send-up of movie-making in a manner that would seem positively avant-garde if the film wasn’t produced at MGM, that bastion of Hollywood political and aesthetic conservatism, BOMBSHELL may be 78 years old but is nonetheless up to the minute in sensibility.

The movie zings and wings its way through the chaotic but nonetheless joyous life of Hollywood star Lola Burns (Jean Harlow), her extended, leech-like family (Frank Morgan plays her bumbling con-man of a father, Ted Healy her drunken brother, Una Merkel her two-faced secretary) and Lola’s love-hate relationship with Monarch Studios’ cutthroat press agent “Space” Hanlon (Lee Tracy), whose behavior might best be described as a cross between Count Dracula’s and an amorous bunny on amphetamines. Mr. Fleming’s exploration of the thin line between egotism and what one might call life’s banana peels imbues Ms. Harlow’s and Mr. Tracy’s haphazard dance of attraction/repulsion with a laugh-out loud hilarity.

Mr. Fleming also pulls the rug out from under the audience both visually and narratively, adding immensely to the film’s humor as well as to its visual zest. Lola spends her life pretending to be someone else, which causes her to search for authenticity, except everyone she meets is a fake. In an ironic turnaround, the film suggests that this talent for phoniness is in fact the most authentic thing about both Lola and the people that surround her. The air becomes thick with aphorisms delivered by character actors at the top of their game, playing simultaneously fictional archetypes but also themselves. (For instance, at one point the very proper C. Aubrey Smith, dressed as a British aristocrat, turns towards the camera and asks, “How come Lewis Stone always gets these parts?”) Actual behind-the-scenes production footage from Mr. Fleming and Ms. Harlow’s previous film together, RED DUST, is inserted into the mix. Various production people at MGM have walk-on cameos, as well as real-life Hollywood celebrities, such as Coconut Grove bandleader Gus Arnheim and champion boxer Primo Carnera. The film expresses a confusion of fictional and everyday states of being sixty years before French philosophers brought this contemporary phenomena to our attention. Where do the movies end and life begin, the film seems to ask. Is this reality, performance, or something in between? Then again, does it really matter?

One is most impressed by the seeming effortlessness of it all. The editing sweeps us into the thick of things, as well as sweeping us off our feet, with an extraordinary sense of precision. If BOMBSHELL doesn’t resemble life as we know it, the film certainly maintains the informality, not to mention humor, of a wild weekend with old friends. For instance, Lola says to her maid: “Your day off is sure brutal on your lingerie,” or there’s Lola’s exchange with the new butler over a glass of orange juice: “His name was Summers and your name is Winters. Are butlers always in season?” Characters come and go in a swirl of invective and manic movement, speaking in a hyper-exaggerated style that mixes advertising slogans with street poetry. “Your hair is like a field of silver daises,” a passerby tells Lola. “I’d like to run barefoot through it.”

In addition to the spontaneity of Mr. Fleming’s direction is the anchoring of the story in a very specific Hollywood reality, fixed by the silvery light captured by Harold Rosson’s luminous cinematography. What one remembers most are the myriad details: the manicured tangle of rose bushes adjoining Lola Burns’ insanely white mansion, the absurd number of staircases that people run up and down with continually raised voices, and when Lola attempts to escape to a resort in the desert, the shimmering sands underfoot, so clean and reflective it appears one can see for miles.

At the center of this self-referential parade of confusion, avarice and mixed motives is Ms. Harlow, who simply shines through the film grain in a surfeit of authentic niceness. The more shrill Lola Burns becomes, the more she entangles what she desires with how she feels her public expects her to behave, the more charming is Ms. Harlow’s screen presence. How this was achieved I have no idea, but it creates yet another immensely entertaining level to the film’s interplay between acting and being, fiction and self-delusion, authenticity and subterfuge.

Yes, I know I’m making BOMBSHELL seem decidedly post-modern, but why not? Pre-code is often more advanced, both stylistically as well as philosophically, not to mention more fun, than the films being made today. Just look at Ernst Lubitsch’s DESIGN FOR LIVING (1934), which was released by Criterion a few weeks ago, a romantic comedy that deals with an open, loving relationship between two men and a woman, as a shining example of that very principle.

Of course, Victor Fleming is known today, if at all, as the director of GONE WITH THE WIND and THE WIZARD OF OZ, two lumbering, over-produced films from 1939 that, in spite of their occasional felicities, are the antithesis of personal cinema. Warner Archive is to be commended for releasing this dazzling, inebriating, deliciously directed bonbon of a movie, so deadpan and deceptively bright that its cinematic brilliance takes one by surprise. While BOMBSHELL may be Victor Fleming’s greatest work (and arguably the most personal and idiosyncratic film ever made at MGM in the 1930’s) it’s by no means an anomaly. There’s the previously mentioned RED DUST, TREASURE ISLAND, CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS and A GUY NAMED JOE, as well as a number of deceptively effortless and deliriously subversive silent comedies, especially WHEN THE CLOUDS ROLL BY starring Douglas Fairbanks.

The Warner Archive’s remastered transfer of Mr. Fleming and Ms. Harlow’s magnum opus, while far from perfect and exhibiting occasional bouts of medium grain and hairline scratches, is still quite beautiful. The white silk dresses and flesh tones gleam, as they would in a fine grain nitrate print. Black levels are generous, and the detail, especially in the long shots of Lola’s mansion filled with shouting studio hacks, assistant make-up artists and hanger-ons, as well as the leaves of palm trees on the streets of Beverly Hills, is stupendous. The sound is extremely clean and natural sounding for a film of this vintage with no hiss that I could discern, allowing one to hear the zingers that pepper the dialogue very clearly. As is usual with a Warner Archive release, there are no subtitles, and the only extra is a trailer with Spanish titles, though the dialogue is in English.


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