Friday, June 11, 2021

Motivation, Purpose and Resolution Are Important to Storytelling

I love old films.  Do you know what's great about an old film?  It's not a new film.  A new film has one fatal flaw: it's made by people who have disdain for their audience.  In the very least, the old filmmakers made an earnest and sincere effort to entertain.  Not shock.  Not insult.  Not brainwash.  Entertain.  

Don't get me wrong, I do at times dislike an old film.  It happens rarely, but it does happen.  One film that I greatly dislike is Richard Brooks' romantic melodrama The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954).  The film starts badly.  A reporter, Charles Wills (Van Johnson), meets a pretty woman, Marion Ellsworth (Donna Reed), in a Paris café during VE Day celebrations.  We are expected to believe that Charles and Marion form an intimate bond from a mere glance across the room.  

But then Marion takes Charles to her home, where he is instantly drawn to Marion's lovely sister Helen (Elizabeth Taylor).  Another glance, another love.  

Let me allow the always eloquent Hal Erickson of AllMovie to take over from here: 

Charles and Helen are married.  Charles supports his wife with a low-paying wire service job, devoting his evenings to writing a novel.  After numerous rejections, Charles is more than willing to give up writing and live off the revenue of a Texas oil well in which he'd invested.  As he squanders his newfound riches on creature comforts, he loses his literary ambitions and, slowly but surely, the love and devotion of his wife.

In the early scenes, we are lead to believe that Helen is flighty and impulsive and that these qualities will causes problems in the couple's marriage.  But, strangely, this is not something bore out as the story continues.  Oh, wait, Helen does act flighty and impulsive in one instance.  We learn that she was arrested for jumping into a public fountain naked, but we aren't shown the incident and we aren't given details.  What prompted her to do this?  Was she sober?  Who was around to see it other than the arresting officer?  We can hardly be expected to understand what happened.  With the little information we have, the incident can barely leave an impression.  From what we see of the couple, Charles is the flighty and impulsive one.  His erratic behavior makes it impossible to understand him or to care about him in the least.

And then we have Marion.  Marion, who comes to play a crucial role in the story, is a poorly developed character.  She is more a plot device than a character.  Though years pass, Marion remains resentful that the man with whom she once exchanged a loving glance so cruelly abandoned her for her sister.  Reed is not given much to do other than to glare at Johnson whenever he walks into a room. 

Bombshell (1933) is a disappointing film despite the great charm of its star, Jean Harlow.  The problem is the script, which was adapted by Norman Krasna from an unproduced play.  The protagonist, film star Lola Burns (Harlow), lives in the eye of a hurricane, with dozens of household staff, family and studio personnel swirling around her.  She is in conflict with everyone except for her maid and her goldfish.  

In the opening scene, she hasn't even gotten out of bed when a hair stylist and makeup man barge into her bedroom and clamber into her bed with her.  The hair stylist is brutish as she brushes stubborn tangles out of her hair.  As Lola cries out in pain, the hair stylist rebukes her for not wearing a hair net to bed.  

The film remains like this from scene to scene to scene.  If she isn't being bothered by studio people, the actress is being bothered by family members who tirelessly wheedle money out of her.  

Plenty of people run in and out of rooms.  Plenty of people talk nonstop and talk at the loudest volume.  It is meant to be funny, but it is merely annoying.  

The noisiest character is Space Hanlon, a glib publicity agent played by Lee Tracy.  Antonius B, a Super Reviewer for Rotten Tomato, wrote: "[Tracy's] actions in keeping Harlow in line, his voice, and his smugness all made me want to reach back in time 83 years and punch him in the face. . ."

A story cannot be developed amid chaos.  So, what exactly is the story?  What are the main character's goals?  Lola wants to shed the sensational "bombshell" image that the studio has fabricated for her.  She wants to find herself a good man.  She wants to adopt a baby.  Hanlon says, "The house with your family is about as a fine a place to bring up a baby as an alligator farm."  He's right.  

In the end, the film offers no character development.  Lola finally musters the courage to tell off the people leeching off her fame and fortune, but then she softens again and never does get rid of the leeches.  She never finds a good man.  She never adopts a baby.  In the end, she winds up in the same place that she was in when the film started.

Reference source

Hal Erickson, "The Last Time I Saw Paris," AllMovie. 

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