In his overly-passionate defense of the Auteur Theory, Andrew Sarris opened with the dubious assertion that the weakest film by a great director is, by definition, better than the greatest film by a lesser director. (“Am I implying that the weakest [John] Ford is superior to the strongest [Henry] King? Yes!” from “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962”.) A close reading finds this less a manifesto than a purposeful overstatement of the case from which to begin the debate, but it’s still a statement that launched many a spirited argument. But he does get at one of the joys of auteurism that I am constantly reminded of while digging through the lesser works of favorite directors: even minor films can offer major pleasures—in a particularly wily characterization, a sensibility adding richness to an otherwise conventional story, a shrewdly directed scene. They may not elevate a film to greatness (or even necessarily goodness) but they can provide a certain charge to a viewer ready to take it in and, as these pieces bounce off our experience absorbing other films by said director, they accumulate a kind of resonance. Which is not to say that it makes the film any better so much as it enriches our experience with it. Sometimes that is enough to make my evening’s viewing a real pleasure.
I’m not trying to make a case for the following films, recently made available through VCI and Warner Archive, as undiscovered classics, merely putting the pleasures I had watching them into perspective.
Fifth Avenue Girl (Warner Archive), Gregory La Cava’s slight but deftly executed 1939 comedy depression-era comedy, is born of the same cloth as his earlier My Man Godfrey: eccentric and idle rich, straight-talking poor, witty lines and an underlying economic anxiety threatening everybody. Walter Connolly plays an industrialist whose money has simply brought him loneliness and isolation and Ginger Rogers is the level-headed but unemployed working girl he hires to stir things up in his distracted family. This is more low key and less snappy than Godfrey, in part due to a second string cast of supporting performers (Tim Holt as the playboy son, Kathryn Adams as the dizzy socialite daughter, James Ellison as a rabble-rousing chauffeur who speaks in Bolshevik slogans). But Rogers is cheerfully sardonic as the spunky woman who poses as a mistress and Connolly a pleasant and down-to-earth patriarch in a family lost to their meaningless diversions, and La Cava creates a unique chemistry between these two folks: unlikely friendship and an appreciation for one another’s company. And watch for Jack Carson as a ukulele-playing sailor on the park bench.
Sea Devils (VCI), a 1953 high seas adventure of smugglers on the British coast during the Napoleonic wars, is ostensibly based on a Victor Hugo but it is pure Hollywood fluff and only the muscular direction of action veteran Raoul Walsh keeps it afloat. Rock Hudson, early in his grooming as a leading man, is all boyish energy and smiling enthusiasm but fails to suggest any grit or experience, while Yvonne De Carlo gets top billing as a beautiful spy whose primary qualifications appear to be her décolletage, which is constantly on display in generously low-cut gowns. The supporting cast is much more convincing and the rocky bluffs and cliffs and the sandy beach coves of the location footage gives the film some visual grandeur. The print is fine (if not quite perfect), the color vivid and the DVD nicely mastered. No supplements.
As much as I appreciate the films of Phil Karlson, there is no argument to be made for his 1963 adventure Rampage (Warner Archive). Robert Mitchum is a famous trapper who is asked to team up with big game hunter Jack Hawkins to capture a couple of tigers and a rare breed of panther known to the jungles of Malaya as The Enchantress (she’s identified by the purple coat of pain on her back). Mitchum is a man with nothing to prove to anyone or himself. Hawkins is a trophy hunter constantly trying to prove that he is the master: to himself, to his younger girlfriend (Elsa Martinelli) and to everyone else. Just to show he’s still in charge, Hawkins challenges Mitchum to try to seduce Martinelli, knowing she’ll rebuff him. It’s “Great White Hunter” claptrap, with lots of macho posturing and arrogant superiority from Hawkins, who begins his slide into self-pity and aggressive confrontation when he misses a shot. “How could a trapper understand?” Stunning location photography is marred by awful back projection work and studio doubles and the creaky twists and testosterone-fueled melodrama is embarrassing: there’s a leopard on the streets of Munich! Yet Mitchum can make this kind of thing work (at least in parts) with his sleepy strength and his at-ease presence, a man so comfortable with who he is that he never has to prove anything, and I love watching Elsa Martinelli on screen: beautiful, elegant, poised yet relaxed, a long, tall drink of champagne. Their presence lends a dignity to a film that doesn’t really deserve it.