Berlin Diary: Red, white and blue

Posted on February 11, 2015


Thoughts on the festival’s tribute to Technicolor films, mainly from Hollywood.

It’s strange in this internet-booking era to find oneself queuing up for a film. It’s stranger still when the film isn’t new, or when it’s the kind that hardly anyone sees, save for committed (and, yes, should-be-committed) cinephiles. But long lines are a regular feature at the Berlinale. There are long lines for press screenings, because you want to make sure you get a seat. (They’re first-come-first-served, so there are no guarantees, despite your flashy press badge.) And there are long lines for the movies for which you have to buy a ticket, because you want a good seat. The line for Terrence Malick’s new movie Knight of Cups was as long as the one for Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which was made over six decades ago, in glorious Technicolor.

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Glorious. The word is so often used to prefix Technicolor that’s it’s practically a cliché, like “voracious” reading – but no other word quite evokes the feeling you get from watching an old Hollywood movie made with this technology. This edition of the Berlinale features a retrospective titled, well, “Glorious Technicolor, celebrating “the 100th anniversary of a film process that became a legend far beyond Hollywood.” And there are films from beyond Hollywood, like David Lean’s This Happy Breed. But the biggest draws appear to be the films from Hollywood, some famous (The Wizard of Oz, Snow White and the Seven, er, Little People… hey, I don’t want to start any controversies here, okay?) and some that deserve to be more famous, like the extraordinary Vincente Minnelli musical Yolanda and the Thief, which is a master class in using colour to deepen the drama.

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At a film festival, where you keep watching one arty, austere movie after another, you cannot overestimate the need for a restorative –and the Marilyn Monroe double feature (Henry Hathaway’s Niagara, along with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) was just that. “Can’t think of a better way to spend a Monday afternoon,” joked the person who’d worked on restoring these films. There were appreciative laughs from the packed hall. “If you’ve seen Niagara on DVD or on Netflix,” he continued, “you’ll see it today on 35mm film, which I hope never goes away.” He spoke of the “texture” and “grain” that gave print its special quality. I wondered how many modern audiences, whose primary concern is the “sharpness” of the image, would agree with him. But at least this audience did. The applause was heartening.

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Niagara hasn’t dated well – or maybe it wasn’t all that great to begin with. It’s a nasty little noir thriller with Monroe as the femme fatale, but the plot offers no surprises. But as a model of Technicolor filmmaking, and as a showcase for the leading lady’s allure, the film offers excellent value. (The New York Times review, while dismissing the plot, nonetheless noted, “The producers are making full use of both the grandeur of the Falls and its adjacent areas as well as the grandeur that is Marilyn Monroe. The scenic effects in both cases are superb.”) The film is really about the blue dress that envelops Monroe like a second skin. It’s about the yellow raincoats the vacationers wear on tours of the Niagara. It’s about the blacks of the long shadows during a murder. It’s about the lurid redness of the wall against which the victim cowers.

Red, in the latter scene, is clearly the colour of danger, and it’s also present in the apparently imperishable lipstick on the women, especially Monroe – even after a shower. These lips, the movie says, are most dangerous. Red is all over the opening credits of Niagara, and it announces the beginning of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as well – in the scarlet gowns on showgirls Monroe and Jane Russell, as they begin to sing and dance. In Lolita, Nabokov described the musical genre as “a grief-proof sphere of existence wherefrom death and truth were banned.” He could be talking about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which was just what the doctor ordered after five days of, well, death and truth. The film was a spectacular entertainment.

Monroe is in great comic form as a breathy gold-digger. Her scene while squeezing out of a cabin window on a ship is a classic, and this physical comedy is matched by the wit in the lines and the lyrics. (Ogling man, talking about Monroe and Russell: “Say, suppose the ship hits an iceberg and sinks… Which one of them do you save from drowning?” Ogling man’s ogling companion: “Those girls couldn’t drown.”) Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend is, of course, the film’s most famous number, but even the less-remembered ones, like Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love, sung by Russell, are crammed with stunning wordplay. I’m not in condition to wrestle / I’ve never trained in a gym / Show me a man who can nestle / And I’ll pin a medal on him.

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This is the zenith of a type of craftsmanship, and in the context of a film festival, it’s sobering to note how this sort of thing gets classified as “light entertainment” and, thus, not as worthy of serious, award-worthy consideration as other “festival-type” films. In 1953, the year Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was released, France gave the world The Earrings of Madame de… by Max Ophüls and The Wages of Fear by Henri-Georges Clouzot, Italy pitched in with Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni, and in Sweden, a young filmmaker named Ingmar Bergman was making a splash with Summer with Monika. In the face of all this “art,” a big, splashy Hollywood musical probably comes off looking too frivolous, too… easy. But at least one internationally acclaimed art-filmmaker – from Germany, no less, and a one-time fixture at the Berlinale – thought otherwise. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was on his top-ten list of films made by other filmmakers. His name: Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

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