I’m telling myself it’s normal to feel some doubt along the path of any big project and I’ll confess to feeling it now, seventy movies into the List, because even though the movies themselves offer enough to talk about in each essay, especially if I wanna take the more straightforward critical approach, a big part of what keeps me engaged with the Project – misguided and regrettable as this motive may be – is the idea that, on top of learning a lot about movies, I might be able to use those movies as a platform for introspection. Now, though, I feel like I’m running out of things to say.
I think that this fear of having nothing interesting to say is potentially a good thing. I’ve been reading more widely than usual, hoping it’ll give me something interesting to say here. This year’s collection of Best American Essays, the Autobiography of Malcolm X, and also The Dying Grass (which I mentioned in that essay about Age of Gold), William T. Vollmann’s 1300-page novel about the Nez Perce war, which is totally beyond my ken, not the sort of thing I’d normally read about, but I’ve gotten through 200 pages now and I’m digging it.
But I realize, too, that this feeling of needing to broaden my horizons, so that I can render my journey through the Project more interesting for a reader, is kind of ironic since the whole purpose of the Project is to do that for me. I’m stressing myself out by trying to be interesting in chronicling my effort at trying to be interesting. And I felt it happening while I watched She Done Him Wrong – which, like 42nd Street, I thought I was going to hate (the synopsis making it sound like a romantic period piece) but, instead, I really liked it. The first ten minutes, wherein several men at a bar (a setting that bears striking resemblance to Docks of New York [editor here, talking from the future: it’s also probably the same saloon as the one in Destry Rides Again]) speak rapturously of a woman named Lou (Mae West, yet to be seen) are pretty boring. Felt, also, like the writer was setting an impossibly high bar for the actor and that Mae West wouldn’t be able to meet it. But she does. Goes above and beyond.
I guess the movie itself isn’t all that interesting, although the last act is pretty satisfying once all the different storylines begin to converge, but Mae West keeps it great. She’s a fucking celestial presence, around which all other elements are held in comfortable orbit. She’s as seductive and hypnotic as those guys at the bar were saying in the beginning and while she’s also pretty dislikable at times (modern audiences will definitely cringe at her treatment – at the general depiction – of her black maid, Pearl (Louise Beavers)) but, when a violent confrontation goes awry at the end, and in a few subtler encounters here and there, West affords her character an extra dimension, some real compassion, that’s unique to her talents as an actor, and – I’m convinced – couldn’t possibly have existed with such nuance in the screenplay.
She reminds me of Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar. Whereas Cagney, who plays a similar sort of bloodthirsty gangster in Public Enemy (just as Paul Muni plays it in Scarface a couple years later), comes across as parasitic in his pursuit of power, Robinson’s Rico “Caesar” Bandello is a steamroller who moves slowly, in a straight and well-focused line, toward the glory he’s always wanted. He has a code, a goal, discipline. He doesn’t drink and he looks down on those who do. He rewards loyalty, he shows mercy on occasion, keeps his ego in check.
Lou, as West plays her, is a gold digger, yes, but she sleeps and marries around with focus, with a plan, so that she can accumulate enough power that, for example, she can afford to pay the rent for people facing eviction, or secure work and care for a young suicidal girl. West, like Robinson in Little Caesar, puts a level of talent into the character that eclipses (and makes up for) anything else in the movie.
But yeah, in regard to that comparison between Caesar and Lou: I’m reaching an interesting point in the Project where it’s beginning to feel like the movies, their strengths and weaknesses, are talking to and informing one another.